As the practical season draws to a close, autumn has definitely brought in a change, with the arrival of rain and cooler night temperatures. Members have reported bumper harvests but also issues with queen problems, varroa and super-sized colonies that have been difficult to handle. Many of these colonies are still very large for this time of year, with the added danger that they are still consuming large amounts of food that should be capped over as winter stores. However, the size of their brood is now reducing, providing the last ‘winter bees’, with all available comb space being used to process nectar. Also, there is still a fair amount of pollen coming in that will be used for brood food and is essential for the survival of those workers that will remain over winter.
Autumn and Winter Feeding
Hopefully you have already made sure each bee hive is weatherproof and well stocked. In September, we found our colonies took far greater amounts of sugar syrup than usual but I was surprised to find when making a final internal inspection, that although most colonies had good winter stores, some of the colonies were low on capped honey. However, one cause of bee dysentery, is feeding sugar syrup too late in the season as the bees still need time to process and cap this before the frosts arrive, so supplementary syrup feeding should now have stopped. For those colonies that are still underweight, it is best to give them sugar candy from a bee supplier or put a block of Bakers’ fondant in a plastic bag or container to stop it drying out. Place this 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 problems for bees.) Heft each hive regularly to get a feel for the required weight, about 20- 25kg (40-60lbs). Try lifting each side and if it feels stuck down or impossible, your bees should be okay for now.
Final Hive Tasks
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, you should have removed the queen excluder for winter. Bees will begin to cluster when temperatures drop below 17- 18°C, forming a tight cluster below 13-14°C and moving upwards in the hive, as they consume their stores. If the queen excluder is still in place your queen could become trapped below and die. Also, if you have not yet removed their own wet supers you gave back for the bees to clean out, do so as soon as possible.
If you have been treating varroa, you may still need to remove the second treatment plus eke, before closing 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 putting them in a polynuc in a sheltered spot. However, if you do need to carry out any of these operations, just be sure that colonies are healthy and not small due to disease; plan ahead and complete them as efficiently and quickly as possible, to avoid the colony losing too much precious heat.
Ready for All Eventualities!
A colony that is a good size will deal with the cold but bees cannot tolerate damp. Placing a paving slab directly under the hive helps prevent the damp rising up from the ground. Some beekeepers place a dummy board at each end of the frames and keep the varroa tray in place, to protect from drafts but do ensure each hive has sufficient ventilation. If you do this, you will also need to clean the varroa trays regularly to dispose of hive debris and check the top ventilation so that condensation and mould do not build up.
By now hive entrances should be reduced but it is also a good idea to turn entrance blocks upside down 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 winter storms. If your apiary site is exposed, 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. Have a good clear up in and around the apiary and remove any equipment or nearby objects that could be blown into hives during storms.
If you have traps up to catch hornets and mesh around stand legs, do not remove them yet. At this time of year, AH requires a nectar-rich diet and can be seen foraging on flowering ivy or even hunting other bees and insects feeding on it! October is the month when newly mated Asian Hornet queens will be appearing at the rate of 200-400 per nest. These queens will now be needing to feed up and search for somewhere to over-winter, which they do either singly or in groups. Any well insulated natural or man-made spot will do, such as a cavity under the bark of a tree, garden shed or in soil in a ceramic pot. This year luckily, reported sightings have remained low with only one nest destroyed in Hampshire but we must still remain very vigilant; if AH was to reach our area and over wintered, it might only be a matter of time before they get established. Nests are very large at this time of year and tend to be high up in trees so should become more visible as the leaves fall off – keeping looking! They may also be on high man-made structures. Take time this winter to learn about how to recognise Asian Hornets compared to our native species, learn about their life cycle and habits, also know what to do to protect your hives and how to report a sighting.
Certain creatures that are no problem to bees most of the year, present a real hazard in winter. From now on it is essential to have entrances no bigger than 9mm in diameter or place mouse guards across the front of the hive, as shrews and field mice, with their flat skulls, can squeeze through the smallest of gaps to overwinter and wreak havoc on the combs inside, as well as stressing the bees with 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.
Another real pest when the ground is frozen and it cannot get its usual diet of ants, is the green woodpecker (Picus Viridis). The thinner sections of brood boxes are easily penetrated and with their exceptionally long tongues, woodpeckers can reach inside hives to take the bees. Once found they will return to the apiary year after year. Apparently polystyrene hives are even easier to infiltrate. Although fiddly, one method of 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. Following the suggestion by the guest speaker at a previous Winter Talk, we trialled wrapping each hive in Builders’ Damp-proof Membrane – but as one of our out apiaries is low lying and tends to be damp, we found it caused more moisture to collect in the hive, leading to mildew but it seemed to work well on dry sites.
Bigger animals such as badgers, deer and livestock can push hives over so you may need to check stock fences, block up badger runs and strap hives to stands. Bees can often survive in a hive that has toppled but is strapped together and still intact.
If like us you still have recently removed hive equipment, now before it gets too cold, is a good time to clean thoroughly and store securely. It is not good practice to overwinter anything soiled as this can lead to wax moth infestation, poor hygiene and disease. There seems to have been an infestation of wax moth this summer, also you can guarantee that spring will come early and you will need your equipment in an emergency! First scrape the wax and propolis off, then 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 strong bleach solution to kill diseases (1-part bleach to 5 parts water), before being rinsed thoroughly and dried. Frames of clean drawn comb are a precious resource for next season. To avoid the problem of wax moth, as all stages of its life cycle are killed by extreme cold, drawn comb can be stored in an old chest freezer, placed carefully as the wax goes brittle and flakes if knocked. Alternatively, stack outside in spare hive boxes with roofs, for the frost to do the job; providing stacks are off the ground and have queen excluders top and bottom to prevent vermin taking up residence. Please note that B401 (Certan) used to kill wax moth larvae as a preventative before storage, has been temporarily withdrawn. Also don’t forget to clean all the smaller items of equipment, such as hive tools, tweezers and queen cages, which should be soaked in a solution of 1-part washing soda to 5 parts hot water to make cleaning much easier, before rinsing well.
If frames are old, damaged or disease has been prevalent, they should be destroyed by burning. However, if Nosema or Chalkbrood has been diagnosed you could treat boxes and newer frames with 80% acetic acid fumigation – remembering this is a hazardous chemical to store and use so if considering this, research the procedure on the NBU website Beebase and follow instructions to the letter. Other cleaning tasks include cleaning out solar extractors and using a wire brush to scrape out smokers then burn out the residue. Don’t forget to deal with the odd bits of wax and brace comb. Finally, after a last wash, store your bee suit, in a clean, dry place until needed, rather than leave it hanging in the bee shed to get mildew. Also, while things are still fresh in your mind, update and review your records making a list of any damaged as well as new equipment needed, in order to take advantage of sales.
With the shorter daylight hours and lack of sun, there is no point loading the solar extractor but wax can be reclaimed by slowly melting down in rain water with a drop of washing up liquid or in a Bain- Marie. Do not use gas/naked flames as wax is highly flammable – we use a small portable induction hob kept for wax only as, however careful, it tends to drip everywhere. 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.
Normally at this time in the year, I would be looking forward to the National Honey Show and deciding what hive products to enter into our own FBKA Honey Show or getting nervous about taking a module exam in November but with the current Covid-19 situation all these are suspended. However, the National Honey Show Lecture Programme is still going ahead online and is always well worth watching to develop beekeeping skills as well as keep up to date with the latest research. Details can be found by visiting www.honeyshow.co.uk.
checklist for october
- Be on the alert for Asian Hornet queens
- Remove varroa treatments & queen excluders
- Ensure colonies are up to winter weight, circa 20-25 kg
- Feed fondant if underweight
- Ensure hives are sound and waterproof
- Turn entrance reducers upside down
- Apply mouse guards
- Apply wire netting/builders’ membrane against woodpeckers
- Strap hives to stands or put weight on roofs
- Clean and store all spare kit
- Clear up around the apiary
- Review hive records & list equipment needed.