With all the other disruptions going on in our lives at the moment, you may be tempted to think February is not the time to be thinking of beekeeping but this is your last chance to get ahead as changes will already be starting inside hives. If your bees are situated in out-apiaries, you are permitted to travel to attend to them as bees are treated as livestock under the law. Just abide by the rules of not mixing with other beekeepers from different households. It is also advisable to read the guidance ‘bbka.org.uk/tending-hives-during-covid-19’ and download so it can be shown if challenged.
This has been another difficult winter for colonies in our area. It seems a distant memory but before Christmas we had many unseasonably mild days when bees would not have been tightly clustered and thus would be consuming their winter stores at a high rate. Also, since the new year, conditions have been very wet and cold preventing the bees from being able to get out to defecate. Bees can regulate the hive temperature to cope with cold in winter but not damp. In addition, the heavy rain has probably destroyed much of the early pollen so badly needed on the odd foraging trip the bees could make.
If you needed to treat for varroa, hopefully you have made good use of a cold spell, while the colony was clustered and broodless, to check and treat your bees with one of the legal oxalic acid medications that will kill any varroa present on the adult bees. As it is likely the queen has started to lay, this window of opportunity has now passed as oxalic acid may damage brood but will not kill any varroa reproducing inside brood cells. If you have been unable to carry out a winter treatment, plan a medicinal treatment or biotechnical control for spring.
February and March are critical months when colonies can be lost through weather conditions, starvation, queen problems and the older winter bees dying off in large numbers, so careful planning and preparation for the season ahead is essential.
Heft and Feed
During cold spells, colonies will have been in a tight cluster, maintaining the core temperature at around 20°C but as the temperature warms up, the cluster will loosen and spread out, leading to a higher consumption of stores. The queens will come back into lay and the workers will raise the core to 34.5°C, the temperature needed to raise brood; thus the amount of food energy is vastly increased compared to that needed when clustering. As bees fly out to defecate, they will now be in search of pollen as well. We have already noticed hazel catkins, gorse and bulbs appearing!
Once the old winter bees become more active with brood rearing and foraging, they age more rapidly and die off. Some out foraging, unable to find pollen and nectar, will succumb to the cold and never return. Thus, there comes a point when the ever-increasing brood numbers outstrip the number of carers and unless we feed them, colonies could starve. Check carefully, as hives that were heavy with stores 2 or 3 weeks ago, might be surprisingly light now.
As it is still too early to open hives, make sure you heft, preferably weekly but at least every fortnight and if they feel light, feed fondant. In an emergency, a bag of white sugar can be used. Just dip the whole bag in warm water for 30 seconds, then slit the paper and place it over one hole of the crown board or directly on the frames over the colony, using an eke. Also, not all hives will be the same, if you quickly lift the roof and notice the bees right at the top, they will need feeding, which you must continue until there is plenty of forage, probably well into March or April but do not be tempted to feed syrup yet.
An added worry is that a colony can suffer from ‘isolation starvation’ even if the hive feels heavy on one side. While in their tight cluster, the colony naturally moves sideways then upwards, consuming its stores, and will not go back to where there might be plenty of stores on the other side. If this happens, you will need to have an eke and bag of fondant, with slits already cut. On opening the hive, emergency feeding must be performed really quickly: lift off the crown board, put the eke on, place the fondant directly on top of the frames immediately above the cluster, then replace the crown board and roof.
Should the worst happen!
Regular trips to the apiary can also ensure that hive stands are solid, hives still weather proof and secure from animal intruders; it’s not time to take the mouse guards and woodpecker protection off just yet. With the diminishing number of workers, it is now even more important to check and clear entrances to ensure the bees can exit quickly.
If the bees are flying, take a few minutes to watch the entrance to observe if pollen is coming in – a sure sign that brood rearing is underway and all is well. However, if most other hives are flying and one hive shows no movement, check it more closely. Do not rush to open it but put your ear against the side and give it a tap – you should hear a buzz. Also, if it’s a mild day, lift the roof and place your hand over the hole in the crown board – you should feel heat coming up or even see bees. If there are still no signs of life, take a quick look under the crown board and if the colony has not survived, seal it up completely to avoid it being robbed out and spreading disease. Remove and examine when possible to ascertain the cause, then sterilize all wooden parts and burn the comb plus dead bees.
With spring around the corner, make use of inclement days to get ahead of the game. Take time to plan what you want for the coming season; do you want to stay with the number of colonies you have, make increase or even lower the number you manage? Have you got enough equipment for your plans? Use last season’s records to check if there are any colonies with poor temperament or traits you wish to change, plan when you want to requeen and order queens now from a good local source. Alternatively, plan to raise your own spare queen(s) by taking a nuc out of a good colony.
Early this month, during a cold spell, is really your last chance to make any major apiary changes or reposition your colonies to allow more room and better siting of hives in order to avoid drifting or robbing. However, it is best not to move hives long distances to other apiary locations yet, which would disturb the cluster too much and could lead to colony demise. Check through stored equipment to make sure boxes are sound, wax moth has not taken over any frames, and all equipment is clean and ready. A strong colony and mild spring could lead to early swarming so it is essential to have spare kit ready to do an artificial swarm (more on how in coming months).
In addition, plan when you will do a spring varroa count and dedicated disease check. If intending to use chemical treatments as part of your IPM, keep up to date with which products are legally permitted – if in doubt, look on the Veterinary Medicines Directorate website. New miticides and other products are constantly being added and others removed. Some, which have previously been used to build healthy colonies and help colonies with Nosema, are no longer licensed for sale in the UK. If you see signs of faecal staining, as soon as the weather permits, plan to change this colony on to clean spare equipment through a Bailey Comb Change. Make sure you know the different methods for changing comb on a weak colony as opposed to a strong colony.
Alert – Asian Hornet
With the practical season imminent, check the BBKA website for the new information on Asian Hornets, to ensure you can recognise them. Also learn their life cycle to know the appropriate action to take to deal with this threat at different times during the season. Now is the time to put up Hornet Traps, with a sweet carbohydrate lure such as apple juice (not sugar syrup which will attract your bees.) This is a key time to trap new AH queens emerging from hibernation to establish primary nests, as the weather warms up. Set these traps close to where you can observe them easily and not in your apiary. Primary nests are often low down and close to habitation, so the photos on BeeBase should help you spot them, if they are in sheds, log piles, bushes etc. Also, before colonies get too busy, put fine mesh across the front legs or around your hive stands to prevent AH workers approaching from under your hives later on in the season. Remember to load the ‘Asian Hornet Watch’ app on to your smart phone if you haven’t already done so or be ready to email: email@example.com. Be prepared to deal with AH and keep an eye open when you are out and about for your daily exercise. One thing this pandemic should have taught us is how devastating an outbreak can be if allowed to develop unchecked.
Finally, have new records ready for the coming season, check all equipment is clean, sound and get making spare boxes and frames. Time to ramp up and get ready for the new practical season!
Check List for February:
- Routine check of hives for weather & pest damage
- Heft regularly and supplementary feed if necessary
- Make apiary changes/re-site hives in a cold spell
- Watch the hive entrance to assess activity inside
- Look out for signs of dysentery or possible colony demise
- Reread old & prepare new records,
- Plan for season ahead, order new queens if needed
- Put up traps to lure Asian Hornet Queens
- Fix fine mesh to hive stands against AH predation
- Plan varroa check & IPM methods
- Check spare equipment is clean & sound
- Have enough spare equipment ready to prevent swarming.