December branch meeting.
This month’s meeting had as its topic winter hive management and there were several areas that as always sparked lively debate amongst the virtual club community!
Some of the highlights were as follows:-
Keeping the bees well fed and spotting the signs of potential starvation.
The key to this is to start early, depending on how much honey you have taken, feeding may be needed from as early as August through to October to give the bees the reserves they need to see them through the winter. A hive will need at least 20 – 22 kilos of stores to last until the spring so if you take honey, make sure you take it early enough (ideally before the end of August) so that they can amass the stores they will need after that while it’s still warm enough for them to cap the stores.
Every year is different and this autumn was really very mild which kept the Queens laying more than usual and the bees flying. Don’t assume that because you can see them being active they are OK, all this activity uses resources and checking their store now / hefting the hive will let you know if they have been a little too active and need help. Indeed the NBU sent out a starvation warning recently saying that your bees reserves might be a lot lower than you think.
Monitoring their situation throughout the winter is key. Looking at the drop on the floor tray can tell you a lot about where the cluster is and how big it is. Hefting (lifting each side of the hive in turn) the hive (although far from an exact science) can, with a bit of practise, give you an idea of how much food they have in their larder. It’s all relative, so you need to do this in the autumn to give yourself a reference point and then regularly follow on through the winter. If the hive feels obviously light then they may well need some help (more about that later).
If you think they are in trouble, don’t be tempted to give them any liquid feed, it’s too cold for them to be able to use it, fondant or whole food products with synthetic pollen mixed in are really your only option until early March.
The size of the brood nest that goes into winter can have a big effect on how fast the reserves are consumed, a five frame cluster from a strong colony will probably need feeding, brood and a half may be a good plan for them.
When to apply any winter anti-varroa treatments.
This is best done once the queen has stopped laying and there is no capped brood in the hive. In the meeting it was discussed which of the two governing factors (day length and temperature) were most important in determining the best time to either trickle or sublimate oxalic acid. As always in beekeeping, opinions varied. The important thing is to watch the weather and be pro-active. After a 12-14 day spell of cold weather the queen will likely have stopped laying, and those capped larvae in the hive should be hatching so after that is a good time to apply treatment. Other treatments were also discussed with a regime of hops/lavender and regular twice yearly box changing being seen as potentially effective. Sacrificing drone brood as a “varroa magnet” was also discussed (although this is a summer option) and opinions varied as to it’s effectiveness and also whether it is an appropriate sacrifice to make.
The method of applying oxalic acid was also discussed and there were no shortage of sponsors for both trickle and sublimation as an effective method of treatment. The trickle method is possibly kinder to the bees (from a health perspective) and avoids noxious fumes. Sublimation is highly effective but health and safety is paramount and proper (human) protective equipment must be used – masks must protect against organic acid vapour. Delivery methods for vaping were also discussed, with some favouring the traditional electric heating element method and some in favour of the new gas-vap equipment.
With the recent cold snap, the bees have really hunkered down and it’s likely the queen will have stopped laying. It might be the ideal time (now) to apply anti-varroa treatments, be that trickling or sublimating, as the bees will all be in the hive and nicely clustered. Those pesky varroa won’t be able to hide in the brood and you can get a really high reduction in their levels (up to about 95%).
Preparing for the next season.
This depends to some extent on your strategy for the season. You may be trying for an early crop from (for example) oil seed rape, in which case you will need to build up the colony quickly, or you may just be wanting a slower start towards the usual end of July /early August main crop. Whatever you are trying to achieve, being pro-active is better than being reactive. For example, in order to harvest an early crop of oil seed rape honey, you will need lots of flying bees at the end of April /early May. As their first three weeks are spent in the hive nursing /cleaning etc., they need to be hatching at the start of April. Which means the eggs have to be laid in March, and to achieve that you will need to start stimulating the queen to lay in February with fondant or a wholefood.
It was also mentioned that having a young queen in the spring can be beneficial as they are vigorous.
It’s good to have a plan, even if it all gets messed up by mother nature having a different one!
One key point to remember here though is that if you do start to give them fondant, you’ll need to keep that up until you can switch to light syrup in the spring. That’s not to say you shouldn’t, if they need help, they need help!
A lively and well attended meeting that gave everyone plenty to think on. If only every question had only one answer!