What a season it has been! With the cold, wet spring resulting in poor forage and many virgin queens being lost or failing to get properly mated, it came as a bit of a surprise to have such a wonderful summer with strong colonies bringing in bumper harvests. The Rural Life Centre Apiary produced its biggest crop for years albeit about a third heather honey, which is thixotropic and had to be pressed out rather than spun – a sticky business! Apparently, according to ‘Plants for Bees’ (W. Kirk & F. Howes) the conditions for heather honey are only right about once every seven years and heather stores can cause bee dysentery if the bees are confined to their hive for long periods, unable to leave to defecate, so be on the lookout for this..
Autumn is upon us with a definite chill in the air, so hopefully you have made sure each bee hive is weatherproof and well stocked for winter. Another cause of bee dysentery is feeding sugar syrup too late in the season, as the bees still need time to process this before the frosts arrive. If underweight colonies still need stores, it is best to buy sugar candy from a bee supplier or put a block of Bakers’ fondant (in a plastic bag to stop it drying out) directly over the slot in the crown board making slits in the bag where the crown board hole will be. (Check Bakers’ fondant is pure icing sugar, with no additives like cream of tartare as this can cause real problems for bees.) With the good forage this summer a strong colony will probably not have needed additional feeding, but it is a good idea to heft each hive regularly to get a feel for the required weight, about 25kg (40-60lbs). Try lifting each side and if it feels stuck down or impossible, your bees should be okay for now. Although it is important not to open hives from October onwards, there are some reasons why you may still need to, on a warm day, at the beginning of the month. Firstly, if you haven’t yet removed the queen excluder for winter, this needs to be done now. The bees will begin to cluster when temperatures drop below 18°C and will form a tight cluster below 13°C, moving upwards as they consume their stores. If the queen excluder is still in place your queen could become trapped below and left behind. Also, as I mentioned last month, if you are leaving supers for the bees, it is now thought best to place these on the bottom of the stack so that they are empty when you need to remove them early next season. If you have been treating with Apiguard or similar products, you may still need to remove the second treatment plus eke, before shutting your bees up for winter. Additionally, to have any real chance of survival, a colony needs to be covering more than 4 frames, so it is still probably better to try and unite smaller colonies than leave them to their fate. If this is not an option, you could try a polynuc in a sheltered spot. However, if you do need to carry out any of these operations, plan ahead and complete them as efficiently and quickly as possible to avoid the colony losing its precious heat.
Hive entrances should be reduced but a tip is to turn entrance blocks upside down (not WBC hives) so that any dead bees dropping off the cluster, do not block the entrance. Check stands are strong and able to support the hive through whatever the weather throws at them. It is a good idea to strap the stack to the stand or place a heavy weight on top against strong winds, also check any nearby trees for dead or dangerous branches that might fall off and topple hives or any nearby equipment that could be blown into them. A colony that is a good size will deal with the cold but bees cannot tolerate damp conditions so keep grass short and placing a paving slab directly under the hive also helps prevent the damp rising up from the ground.
Certain creatures present a real hazard in winter so put mouse guards in front of the hive entrance as shrews and field mice, with their flat skulls, can squeeze through the smallest of gaps to nest and wreak havo to the combs not to mention the smell of urine and their droppings! Although the colony will not break its cluster while cold, in a warmer spell the bees will try to deal with the intruder(s) wasting valuable stores and energy to proplise the remains – some colonies do not survive. When the ground is frozen, another real pest that cannot get its usual diet of insects is the green woodpecker (Picus Viridis). The thinner section on the sides of brood boxes present no problem and they say that once woodpeckers have found their way into a hive, they will return year after year. Perhaps they should be called ‘Bee Eaters’! Although fiddly, the best protection against this is to put a cage of wire mesh around each hive with enough distance to make a barrier rather than provide a foothold! Bigger animals such as badgers, deer and livestock can also cause hives to topple so you may need to check stock fences and block badger runs.
Now is the time to thoroughly clean and carefully store all bee equipment. It is not good practice to overwinter anything soiled as this leads to poor hygiene and disease. Also you can guarantee that spring will come early, you will need your equipment in an emergency and not have time to clean it! Scrape the wax and propolis off and wash in a solution of 1 part washing soda to 5 parts hot water. Wooden and metal hive parts can be lightly scorched with a blow torch paying particular attention to crevices. Polystyrene hives should be washed in hot washing soda to remove the propolis but should also be washed with a bleach solution to kill diseases, before being rinsed thoroughly and dried. Old frames (after 2 seasons) should be burnt and make good fire lighters. Frames of clean drawn comb are a precious resource for next season; however, wax moth can be a problem but all stages of its life cycle are killed by extreme cold. Therefore, drawn comb can be stored in an old chest freezer, placed carefully as the wax goes brittle and flakes if knocked; or stacked outside in spare hive boxes with roofs, for the frost to do the job. Ensure that stacks are off the ground and have queen excluders top and bottom to prevent vermin taking up residence. Alternatively, you can purchase B401 (Certan) to spray on to clean used comb now, as it only kills young wax moth larvae, working as a preventative before good storage. If however, colonies have shown signs of disease, all frames should be destroyed by burning although if Nosema has been diagnosed you could treat newer frames with 80% acetic acid fumigation but this is a hazardous chemical to store and use so if considering this, research the procedure on the NBU website or Beebase and follow instructions to the letter. Other cleaning tasks include soaking hive tools and queen cages in a solution of hot washing soda as it makes it easier to clean thoroughly, cleaning out the solar extractor and using a wire brush to scrape out smokers then burn out the residue. Oh – and don’t forget to deal with all those plastic tubs and boxes with the odd bits of brace comb in them! Remember after washing your bee suit, store it in a clean, dry place until needed – left hanging in the bee shed might lead to mildew. Also while things are still fresh in your mind, make a list of any damage as well as new equipment needed to take advantage of sales or to put on your Christmas list.
Wax that did not make the solar extractor can be reclaimed by slowly melting down in rain water or a bain- marie but do not use gas/naked flames as wax is highly flammable. I wrote a whole article on this last year so will not go into great detail but remember to melt the wax slowly over a low heat, then leave to cool, as wax that is overheated will turn grey and is not suitable for reuse. Once the debris has been scraped away, clean wax can be exchanged for new foundation from the RLC Apiary next spring.
October is the month when all your good beekeeping can come to fruition – not only by having honey to sell or enjoy with your family and friends but by exhibiting it, along with other hive products, in our own FBKA Honey Show. As the days draw in and more time is spent indoors, you could venture into making mead, using honey recipes or filtering wax to make candles, soap or lip balm and if you are feeling really brave try entering the National Honey Show at Sandown Park. Whatever the results it will give you something to talk about! Finally, we owe it to our bees to keep our beekeeping knowledge and practice up to date and we have so much on offer in this area. Attending the FBKA AGM, our own Winter Talks, the Surrey Training Days and the National Honey Show Beekeeping Lectures and Workshops are all to be recommended as great social gatherings as well as informative and inspiring events. Hope to see you there!
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