Now the clocks have gone back, November is here with shorter daylight hours, heralding in the winter ahead. Hopefully your colonies are strong with young, fertile queens that will be well able to withstand the coming months, so do not open hives now unless it’s an emergency. However, that does not mean forget about your bees until spring, as regular visits to the apiary will still be needed at least once or twice a month, as well as to check all is well after high winds and storms.
Are there Enough Stores?
Although there have been heavy bouts of rain lately, temperatures have remained mild so our bees have continued flying most days during dry spells and even in light rain. We’ve been surprised by how much pollen they were still bringing in; a sure sign that queens were still laying – which is not necessarily good news. Although colonies may have been well stocked with stores at their final inspection, it is unlikely that the incoming forage in October was as great as the amount of stores consumed to get it. Also, the continued brood rearing requires the bees to maintain the brood nest at 34-35°C over a longer time and larger area; whereas when inactive and clustered without brood, the bees can shrink the cluster and allow the core temperature to drop to around 20°C. Even on bright, sunny days, from now on night temperatures will be plunging down. The bees will not maintain a tight cluster during the day, constantly using their stores, before they reform at night. Hence there is a real danger that some colonies could run out of stores and starve in the months ahead. If in doubt, feed your colonies with fondant – if they don’t need it, they just won’t use it and a block of fondant is a lot cheaper than a new colony!
Also, remember to ensure each colony is keeping up to weight by hefting hives regularly, either by feel or by using luggage scales to lift each side, then adding the measurements together before recording them. This will give you a comparison each time you heft so you will know how each colony is faring.
Varroa and Winter Bees
Another problem with the mild weather lingering, is that continuing brood means continuing varroa and an increase in mite numbers since your previous check or treatment. It would be wise to do another varroa drop count this month or early December, in order to plan and carryout an approved oxalic acid treatment (if needed) when the colony enters a broodless phase during the coldest period; usually mid-December to early January.
Some experts suggest using a legal oxalic acid product (if needed) and the NBU promote the use of a mix of biotechnical methods plus miticides, throughout the year, as part of an Integrated Pest Management Programme. There are a few different, legal oxalic acid treatments available now. We are intending to use Oxybee, which is purported to adhere to the bees better, be easier to mix up and once mixed, will last for a year in the fridge or two years unmixed. It is expensive but cheaper than a failing colony affected by varroosis and viruses. A 1kg bottle is enough for 20 good-size colonies so if you only have a few colonies, it would be best to share with other beekeepers – socially distanced of course!
Other Apiary Checks
If you haven’t yet done it, now is the time to wrap chicken wire or builders’ plastic membrane around your hives as protection against possible damage by the green woodpecker once they can’t get their usual diet of ants out of the ground – beware, I know of a member who found three woodpecker holes in the side of a brood box long before the first real frost arrived last year! Also, make sure your wire surrounds each hive loosely so it is not just providing a good foothold for Picus viridis.
If we continue to get heavy rain, the ground can become soft, so look carefully at stands to make sure legs are not sinking, which could cause the hive to topple in strong winds. By now, entrances need to be reduced, mouse guards put in place and hives protected against high winds by placing a heavy weight on the roof or strapping to the stand. As mentioned last month, strapping has the added advantage that if a hive were to topple, it should stay in one piece until the bees can be rescued.
Bees need to leave their cluster on the dry warmer days in winter in order to defecate and collect water to dilute and use their stores. Have a nearby source of shallow water placed in full sun, so flights can be kept short and the bees are not prevented from returning to the hive, by drinking chilled water. Also, when the bees are not flying, check regularly that any dead bees dropping off the cluster are not blocking the entrance internally, by poking something like a garden cane in through the gap. In addition, while the bees aren’t so active, this is a good time of year for erecting or repairing fences and for any maintenance needed around the apiary.
We seem to have been spared a large incursion of Asian hornets this year but it doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. Once the leaves have dropped, this is a good time of year to spot secondary nests that were high up in trees, and we will need to be very vigilant early next spring to spot AH queens when they emerge from hibernation. Traps can now be taken down and cleaned for the winter but need to go back up in February to early March to catch any emerging founding queens before they establish their primary nests.
Review Successes & Failures
Now the active season is over, take time to review this season while things are still fresh in your mind and plan for any future changes. If your apiary layout doesn’t work, you could adjust and move your hives during a cold spell in winter, as after a long confinement, the bees will reorientate when leaving the hive again. Many beekeepers have again reported queen problems this season which concurs with international research. Looking back through your records will help you decide how each colony is doing and whether you need to plan different IPM methods or requeen next season. Consider requeening consider if:
- your queens will be more than 2 years old
- in order to improve bad temper
- colonies that are prone to swarming
- failing to build up.
You could have a go at queen rearing in order to restock but if you need to buy in new queens, find a reputable breeder and ask to be put on their list now, for a locally bred queen, so you can requeen in late spring before colonies build up too much.
Now is also the time to consider whether you have enough equipment for all eventualities. It is a good idea to make a list of new equipment that will be needed, to take advantage of the sales or to put on your Christmas list, so you are well prepared if spring arrives early.
Reflect and Record
Does your method of hive record keeping work for you or does it need changing? It may need just a few tweaks to make the record useful rather than a chore. When you first start beekeeping, you may need lots of detail to act as prompts. This can later be reduced to enable only essential information, recorded speedily but enough to enable forward planning and actions for future visits, so you avoid opening hives unnecessarily. Furthermore, remember it is a legal requirement to keep records of any medication you administer to your bees and retain it for 5 years. However, not everyone realises that Medicine Administration Records should not only list the normal product details of its use but also note when and where the bee medicine was purchased plus its batch number, as well as how any out of date medication is disposed of. A blank record can be downloaded from the BBKA website.
Honey for Sale
Another legal consideration if you sell honey, is that each jar should be fully traceable back to you and the hives it came from. For this, honey jar labels have legal requirements and must show specific details and in case the Local Authority or Bee Inspector comes calling, it is also advisable to keep Hive Extraction Records.
If you are able to extract from each hive individually, you will know how productive each hive is and also be able to apply a separate lot number so that if there is a problem it can be traced to the exact hive. However, if this is not practical, try to keep honey from different apiaries separate. Whether you keep your records by hand or electronically, they should be a useful tool to help you plan, get organised, be reflective and increasingly more successful in your beekeeping. This month’s BeeCraft has some excellent articles to help you, I have learned a lot from reading ‘The Fat Body in the Honey bee’.
Check List for November:
- Hives sound, weatherproof, protected against intruders
- Check stands & strap hives
- Water source in a nearby sunny position
- Heft hives regularly to ensure sufficient stores
- Emergency feed fondant if needed
- Monitor varroa drop & plan treatment
- Remove & clean hornet traps
- Finish sterilising equipment & store securely
- Carryout apiary maintenance
- Check hive records to plan for next season
- List equipment or repairs needed.