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This Month in Your Apiary

Lynn Cox’s thoughts and advice on what to think about in your apiary…

DECEMBER 2021 – January 2022

Now December is here with a change in weather conditions and colder temperatures, bees will be clustering tightly most of the time, relying on good stores for survival and only venturing out on the occasional warm, dry days for cleansing flights and water. Consequently, there is little active beekeeping to do except check that each colony has enough food, that the hives are secure from the weather (particularly after storms), protected against predators and hive entrances are clear of dead bees or snow. As abnormally high temperatures lasted well into November, I noticed pollen still being brought in to feed brood and patches of wax cappings on the ground under hives. This means the bees have already started consuming large amounts of stores to keep active. Regular hefting is now needed or if like me you struggle to lift effectively, add a block of fondant as a precaution and replenish when necessary.

For further information, please see the ‘Best Practice Guidance No. 7 – Feeding Bees Sugar’ on BeeBase.

With the exceptionally mild weather this autumn, it is likely that some colonies have produced more brood than usual well into November, which will have allowed an increase in mite reproduction. Please monitor mite levels and treat accordingly. For further information, please see the ‘Managing Varroa‘ Advisory leaflet on BeeBase.

Integrated Pest Management

Last month I advised a varroa drop count and mid December to early January is when there is likely to be little or no brood, thus an ideal time to knock varroa back to very low levels as part of your IPM and traditionally a time to administer oxalic acid treatment.

There are now several legal oxalic acid products licensed for use in the UK. They are all expensive but cheaper than the loss of a colony! All the following products can be very hazardous and cause irreparable damage if breathed in or ingested by humans but can be used safely if the manufacturers’ instructions are followed to the letter and extra precautions taken – and, since Covid, we are all used to taking extra precautions! The trickling method is safer, easier and quicker than sublimation. Trickle 5 ml of the solution down between each seam of bees to a maximum of 50 ml per full sized colony. If you haven’t administered it before, ask an experienced beekeeper if you could assist them to do their bees first, then help you do yours. Also, by working together in a group of two or three, means you can work quicker and minimize loss of hive heat by levering boxes apart to access the cluster, rather than have to lift boxes off.

Legal Oxalic Acid Treatments

The following information on legally available products, is to help you decide which would be the best treatment to buy for your apiary set-up.

Api-Bioxal comes in sachets in crystal form (looks like a powder) and can be used for trickling or fumigation. The smallest 35 g sachet is enough to treat 10 colonies. If trickling, you can calculate and make up a smaller amount, using precision digital scales, to weigh out then add the required amount of crystals to a 1:1 sugar solution, because any unused solution, should not be stored.

Oxuvar can be purchased as a concentrate in a bottle for trickling, or as a spray. (The spray is not appropriate for a mid-winter treatment as it requires each frame to be removed so the bees can be sprayed!) The smallest bottle of concentrate solution for trickling is enough to treat about 15 colonies and needs the container of concentrate to be warmed in a bowl of water and then have an equal amount of white, refined sugar added to it before replacing the lid and shaking vigorously. After administration, this also should not be stored.

VarroMed comes as a ready-made up solution in a dispensing bottle with a scale on the side so, no preparation is needed and it’s easy to apply by trickling. The active ingredients are oxalic acid and formic acid and it can be administered at any time when there are no supers on the colony, although additional applications will be needed if the colony is not broodless. The downside for a midwinter treatment, (unless you have lots of colonies) is that the smallest size is 555 ml and the maximum dose is 45 ml per large colony but once opened the contents must be used within 30 days, so only cost effective as a mid-winter treatment, if you have 12 colonies or can share with other beekeepers. We have used VarroMed and it seemed to do the job really well.

Oxybee: For the last few years, a group of us has got together to purchase Oxybee. Although expensive, its advantages are that it can be kept for two years unmade or once prepared, up to a year in the fridge and the glycerol provided to add to the solution for trickling, is said to increase the adherence of the oxalic acid to the bees, improving dissemination throughout the colony. It comes in a 1 litre bottle and is enough to treat at least 20 colonies depending on their size.

Whichever treatment you decide on, get help so you can work quickly, read instructions carefully and take the necessary safety precautions for yourself and your bees. Also, choose a still day with the temperature above 3 °C. If using the trickle method warm the oxalic acid solution in a water bath (about 30-35 °C) and keep the time you have the hive open to an absolute minimum. Remember it is a legal requirement to make an entry on your Medicines’ Record, which should be kept for 5 years.

NB. Some treatments offered for sale are not legal for use in this country so if you wish to check out the status of a product you can look it up on the Veterinary Medicines Directorate website under ‘check if an animal medicine is licensed’.

Apiary Alterations

While your bees are inactive, it’s a good time to make alterations to the apiary such as erecting windbreaks, laying slabs to deter moles and badgers, reorienting hive entrances or relocating hives a short distance to improve your apiary layout. However, this is not a good time to transport colonies over a long distance (unless in an emergency) as the inevitable jolting will disrupt the cluster causing stress and loss of valuable heat. Bees memorise their exact hive entrance location and the normal rule is if moved under 3 feet, they will be able to spot their hive but if moved further but less than 3 miles, they will recognise their territory, return to their old site and cluster there. However, after a long cold spell, this does not apply as, when the bees emerge, they will re-orientate.  Plan ahead, watch the weather forecasts and choose the beginning of a cold spell when the bees will not be emerging for a minimum of 4 days. When moving hives, get help and move them as smoothly and gently as possible to cause the least disturbance possible to the cluster. Remember any unnecessary excursion from the colony in winter incurs the loss of valuable heat and disoriented bees will quickly die of hunger and cold.

Asian Hornet

In this month’s BeeCraft, there is a good article about the AH nest found in Ascot but you may not have heard that later in November, there was a second nest discovered in Gosport in Hampshire. Now the leaves have fallen, the winter months are a good time to spot Asian Hornet nests, which are usually large and spherical with an open entrance at the bottom. Asian Hornets have spread across the continent, from where the original queen was imported into France, at the rate of 100 km per year so as we don’t yet know if either of these two nests released any founding queens before they were destroyed, we need to be vigilant. Secondary nests are usually up high in tall trees but can also be found on man-made structures. Although, the inhabitants of any nests are now likely to be dead, spotting nests will alert us to their arrival in our area and should still be reported to so that the DNA can be tested to make sure no new strains are entering the country from SE Asia. Nigel Semmence of the NBU says that the Asian Hornet shows a strong preference for urban environments, so any new queens are just as likely to be tucked up in sheds, garages and between plant pots in greenhouses as hibernating under the bark of trees. If like us you are intending to do some clearing out over winter, make sure you can recognise Asian Hornets – and be on the lookout! If you haven’t already done so, now would be a good time to download the free app: Asian Hornet Watch or get more information on the non-native species website.

January is on its way!

As the days get longer in January, the colony will raise the brood area temperature from about 20 °C back up and maintain it around 34.5 °C , so the queen can start laying. Bees convert stores into heat energy by vibrating their flight muscles, so food consumption will rise rapidly. Now it is even more important to monitor the hive weight and feed if in doubt.

New Beekeeping Resolutions

Make sure all your apiary sites are registered on Bee Base so that if EFB or AFB are discovered in colonies near your hives, you will receive an immediate alert along with good advice. Make a plan to act on the points raised in your review of this season. Think about extending your beekeeping knowledge. There are some excellent beekeeping books you could add to your Christmas list. Some years ago, I received a gift of ‘The Honey Bee Around and About’ by Celia F. Davis and I have found dipping into this book really useful; as it is readable and very informative. Also, several BKAs are continuing to run excellent Zoom lectures that they are happy for anyone to watch, many attracting a beekeeping audience from across the world, so take advantage of this great free resource.

Good luck with your bees in the 2022 season and let’s hope the weather is not as unpredictable as this year has been!

Check List for December and January:

  • Check hives regularly, especially after bad weather
  • Ensure colonies have good stores
  • Use cold spells to move hives short distances or carry out apiary changes
  • Lookout for Asian Hornet nests & hibernating queens
  • Prepare carefully when carrying out oxalic acid treatment
  • Records up-to-date & ready for 2022
  • Plans & New Beekeeping Resolutions in place for 2022
  • Increase your knowledge through webinars and study
  • Enjoy the festive season and make sure your bees do too!