At last we have had some consistently good weather and healthy colonies are at full strength frantically bringing in nectar and pollen from dawn till the last rays of light disappear. August is traditionally the beginning of the beekeeping year but this season everything seems delayed by about a month – Colin and I were in the garden at 9:30pm at the end of July, waiting for one colony to stop flying so we could move them to our out apiary and it was more like Mid-Summer’s Day than it had been in June! Thus the main flow may continue for longer this year and consequently August is likely to mark the end of this beekeeping year as well as heralding in the beginning of the next – so be prepared for a busy month!.
Despite the strange weather this season, there are signs that the flora and fauna are sensing the imminent change. Many summer plants are starting to die back and we have already seen an enormous hornet and wasps in our apiary. Time to put up the wasp traps and reduce hive entrances, not only against predators but also to reduce the risk of robbing by other bees. This month it is a good idea to limit full brood inspections now that swarming is just about over and spend more time watching the hive entrances, that is unless you have concerns and there is a specific reason to go into the brood. Keep adding supers early in the month and leave the bees to get on with ‘what they do best’, until the main flow begins to dry up. I have heard of colonies with 5 or 6 supers on top!
Watching the entrance will quickly alert you to a robbing situation which can clear out weaker colonies rapidly. However, most afternoons on warm days, it is normal to see and hear a mass of younger workers, circling in front of the hive doing their orientation flights. With robbing you might see bees fighting at the entrance and also, robbing bees will attack throughout the day, continuing after normal foraging has finished. Their flight can be distinguished by a sideways zig-zag pattern with the attackers darting into the hive while the guard bees are busy dealing with other intruders. Early prevention is essential, so reduce the hive entrance and if you see signs of robbing, try placing a sheet of plastic, glass or mesh at an angle in front of the hive; the resident bees will quickly adapt to exiting and entering at the sides while the robbers will want to go straight in the front and be blocked. In addition, when opening a hive for any reason, it is wise to keep exposed boxes covered with a board or cover cloths.
Hopefully at some point this month your supers will be full of capped honey and you will be able to remove the surplus for human consumption. A quick check if some frames remain partially capped, is to hold them horizontally and give them a sharp shake; if the liquid runs out, the water content is still too high and not ready for extraction. Honey should have a water content around 18% (20% or more and it will ferment.)
Naturally, honey bees are quite protective of their hard earned stores and your normally calm bees can be aggressive at this time of year. Shaking or brushing the bees off frames is not the best method for taking honey! In order to remove supers with the least disturbance to the colony and without attracting robbers, it is best to use a clearing board. Adding Porter Bee Escapes into the crown board can be rather fiddly to set up to an accurate bee space and slower for the bees to exit, while a Rhombus or Circular plastic clearer attached to a crown board or a Canadian Clearing Board are faster. Prepare for removal by adding a new super of foundation on top of the queen excluder, to create a replacement parking space for the bees you’re clearing out. Next place an eke or empty super, with the clearing board above. Replace the full supers, with a travel screen or closed cover board on top, then the roof. Now leave for between 24 and no longer than 48 hours. Mark each super so you know which hive to return it to after extraction.
Removal is best done when it is cool and few bees flying, either really early in the morning or late evening. Prepare for a quick ‘get away’ with your bounty, as one fully capped honey super can weigh around 14-19kg (30-40 lbs) and hopefully you will have several to remove. Think hygiene and a trolley or wheel barrow, covered with clean plastic, is advisable for transporting. Remember not to leave supers uncovered or place them on the ground – the large, square garden trays are useful for placing supers on, or as lids (as long as they are sterile and kept for bee purposes only.) Tip: It is best to check the supers are empty of bees away from the apiary - before taking into the house!
Aim to extract as soon as possible after removal, ensuring the room is bee-tight and warm, thus allowing the honey to flow freely. Sterilize all surfaces and as you extract, fill your food grade containers to the top and replace lids tightly. Honey is hygroscopic, which means it will absorb moisture from the air, leading to fermentation. Many books and online resources explain honey extraction in great detail with good illustrations, so I’ll leave it there but once your frames have been extracted, if you return them to the hive they have come from, above the crown board, the bees will happily clear out the remains, leaving you with clean drawn comb. Needless to say, this is best done late evening and can be removed again for storing after about 3 days.
Once the main honey flow is over, it is time to review the state of each colony and ensure they are strong going into winter. Good health, colony size and amount of stores are all prerequisites of survival until spring.
As soon as the main flow is over, do a thorough disease check. Find your queen and place her safely in a queen cage in your pocket and look at the adult bees for obvious signs of disease. Then as you shake the remaining bees off each frame, carefully examine it for brood disease. If not already carried out in previous weeks, a check for varroa is essential. Varroa levels peak this month so treatment now will help the ‘winter bees’ being raised over the next two months, to stay healthy. It is now widely accepted that one cause of colony collapse is down to varroa levels not being controlled effectively, allowing the transmission of viruses directly into the bees. For a good illustrated source of detailed information, log-in to the BeeBase site. You will need to create an account if you are not already registered. BeeBase site link is http://www.nationalbeeunit.com
Different miticides (as chemical-free methods of control need to be carried out earlier in the season) are temperature dependent, need differing amounts of hive ventilation and lengths of treatment. If too hot (above 29°C) it can upset the colony and take the queen out of lay or too cool and it won’t be effective. Lookback at your records to select a different product, then follow the treatment regime as per the information leaflet. Aim to complete treatment before commencing autumn feeding. Also by law, any medicines used on ‘food- producing animals’ must be recorded and kept for 5 years. You can download a record sheet that will cover the legal requirements.
Large colonies going into winter stand a far better chance of survival than small colonies so now is a good time to unite, also combining colonies can be a way of ridding yourself of a queen which does not produce desirable traits; providing both colonies are disease free. For a detailed description of this process, look back at the July issue of this newsletter.
Requeening now can also allow time for the new queen to establish and the colony to enter next spring with a vigorous young queen. In general, queens in their second year are at their most prolific. A queen in her first year lays well and better than in her third year; so although it is difficult to dispatch a queen which appears to be laying well beyond her first two years, the well-being of the colony must be paramount.
As a queen runs out of stored semen she will start to lay drone brood and this will be apparent all over the brood frame, rather than its normal position at the bottom. Also if the brood area is much reduced or has a pepper pot pattern with lots of vacant cells that appear disease free, this may mean the queen is failing.
A further sign of a failing queen is if the bees themselves produce supersedure queen cells. Although swarming in August and even September is not unheard of, you can distinguish the difference as supersedure cells are usually placed in the middle of the frame and will number only one or two (definitely less than six). Unless you are unhappy with the temperament of this colony and wish to change its traits, leave well alone and you should have a young, vigorous queen in the new season for free. If this happens, it is quite common to see the old queen and her daughter within the colony for a short while and the beekeeper’s intervention is not needed, as the old queen will just disappear.
At the end of the month, another task is to start making sure each colony has enough stores to survive through winter - on average a good colony will need about 27kg (60lbs). It is likely your bees will need feeding with heavy syrup in the ratio of 2kg of white refined sugar dissolved in 1L of hot water (not boiling). This can carry on into September but needs to be completed well before the temperature drops, giving the bees enough time to process and store it, in order to prevent fermentation and problems with dysentery.
So here’s to a bountiful harvest and healthy strong colonies going into winter!
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