Winter inspection and memories of the past year

Having just returned from another lovely Christmas break staying with my Mother and sisters in wonderful Cumbria I decided on the 5 hour journey back to my little boat my first job back and the last one of the year will be to check the hives and wish the bees happy new year.

So far as it’s been so mild the bees have been very active and this has placed a strain on the winter stores and a bit of a worry although I was reasonably happy that I bedded the bees down with a good amount of stores, and a couple of the hives had plenty of stores. With this worry of some of the hives running short, I grabbed my bags of fondant and set off into the rain.

My first apiary. I have the two hives at this site my top bar hive and a double brood national. I now share this site with two other beekeepers, as it’s an apiary in a large allotment site and it’s only right to share. It sits on a plot in a far corner that the local authority said we could use rent free and is very generous especially to me as I no longer have an allotment at this site. Just to the right of the hives the picadilly line and I often think one day we just may have trains stopped as to swarm on the tracks.

Sutten lane hives

The national hive was a good weight and despite the cold about three bees were having a short cleansing flight. It’s not surprising the national was heavy as it’s a double brood hive and the bees throughout the season always have good honey reserves in the two brood boxes and come the autumn they require minimum feeding if any. This hive has been a good strong hive for me over the last two seasons and combined has produced in the region of 180lb’s of honey. Its headed by a Buckfast queen from a breeder and my only hive with a bought in queen. They are a good temperament bee when things are in their favour but as they are a big colony and at times with no work for them to do, they can get frustrated and slightly grumpy.

The top bar hive is a special hive to me I like the simplicity of design, although this one looks rather grand. The inspections are always a pleasure, as the pace of the inspections steady and slow with careful handling of the combs seem to work well with the bees. I made it for a customer and supplied it with bees in 2011. After one season, the customer decided that she wanted to go with nationals and offered me the hive back and something I was delighted to do. The customer was happy to give me the TBH and bees for free as I had kept in touch with her and offered some advice  but I decided it would only be fair to give her one of my national hives as exchange. The hive was strong despite swarming and been looked after well but I think it was the swarming that may have put my customer off the hive. Although the concept of the TBH is a simple one handling a strong TBH for the novice could be a difficult thing and swarm control is possible but it is also more difficult and when surrounded by suburban gardens a big worry, out in the country not so much of a worry.

It came through the winter of 2012 strong and was well on its way to filling the hive early 2013 and thankfully it started to show signs of swarming so I was able to AS it into a novice beekeepers TBH who wanted to start with TBH and who had been visiting me on my inspections to gain experience. After the AS I then split the remaining combs to create two splits and after the new queen’s had mated and proved themselves, one of the splits was destined for a 2nd novice beekeeper and the remainder to continue as my colony. All three built up strong and my hive was strong going into the winter and very heavy with stores. The interesting thing with this hive is it’s never been treated for varroa and should be riddled with mites or at least showing signs of heavy infestation but I don’t see them, they are there but it seems no great numbers. It is often said that untreated hives will last no more than three years and if this is right I should expect the hive to collapse, and this winter may be the one but if it continues to be as strong next year, I will be very surprised. I may be wrong but some of my observations in my framed foundationless hives may be reflected in this TBH and the bees ore somehow managing or maintaining a level of varroa?? or I am just lucky and one day the luck will run out.

Swarming by some is considered a sort of varroa control as the old queen leaves with the majority of the flying bees she leaves behind 80% of the varroa within the sealed brood, so the swarm perhaps has less than 20% of the varroa population and a reasonably clean start. So in my TBH hive the first beekeeper to get my old queen and the AS should have had a reasonable start and I expected the two splits to be starting with high varroa loads and was expecting signs to point towards this but as yet it’s not materialised. It is an interesting experiment and one that time will sort out.

This is my 2nd apiary and currently overwintering five hives. Two are on double brood and the remainder single with a part filled super under. All five are a good weight and three already have fondant so a quick lift of the roof and a lovely sight of the bees licking the fondant thumbs up happy days.

Fags road          Fags Road hives

I struggled with this apiary this past year and I over wintered it with four hives and one went queen less. Despite no queen, the hive was reasonably strong but the now old bees were dying fast. I had on site an overwintered nuc and as a result a spare queen but I decided to tip the remaining bees out in front of the other three hives. This was perhaps not my best beekeeping decision that year as the three other hives that were in good shape started to go backwards. They were all filling their first super and suddenly they started to empty them. At first I put it down to other things but I eventually got around to testing for nosema and on two of the hives I had an OMG moment with the third not so bad but still not great. What I had done was to shake out in front of my three good hives a load of old sick possibly full of nosema bees that infected the hives. Although it is possible’ a contaminated water source is close by but somehow I think it’s down to me.

HCFA2           HCFA2 cropped

The way I test for nosema is the simple 30 bee sample and a few drops of water and a microscope test. For now I won’t go into great detail on how to prepare the bees and do the test as that is perhaps best left to a post all of its own but just to say the method I use will give you a positive or negative result. If I was to only see a couple of spores then I could consider that a negative test. More than say 5-10 spores I would consider that positive but would not consider treatment but monitor and test regularly to see if the bees can sort it out but OMG that’s bad and without intervention and treatment defiantly two of the hives are going to fail.

Again the treatment needs its own post as it’s not new but not conventional but it worked. The treatment was given to me over the phone by a beefarmer and past competitor when I made beehives as he also makes beehives and now that I am out of the picture perhaps the best in the country. It’s basically a thymol solution added to a weak 1:1 syrup put inside a fine hand spray and you lightly spray each comb and the bees just enough to dampen the wings of the bees four times with 4-5 days interval. The spraying of the mix over the bees forces them to clean themselves and as a result they take down the thymol. It is more common to feed the bees some syrup with thymol in the autumn to help prevent nosema and to stop sugar syrup fermenting. They don’t exactly know how the thymol works but it is thought to block the nosema spores from developing into nosema and as a result gives the bees time to recover. It’s not possible to feed the bees syrup with thymol during the foraging season for obvious reasons as you stand a good chance thymol will taint honey and it is only possible to spray the bees once all supers are removed and only returned some time after treatments are over. It was clear to me that after the 2nd spray the bees has started to improve, there was more activity on the combs and also at the entrance also my 2nd test showed a considerable reduction in nosema spores.

HCFA2 2nd test             HCFA2 2nd test cropped

Despite the improvement in the bees with the treatment the rest of the year was all about getting them back to strength and I pretty much gave up on any honey from this apiary although they did in the end manage a few supers between them. I did one final test late in the year and the two most infected hives still had some spores so they are not out of the woods yet and I am relying on the autumn syrup I fed to them with thymol added to prevent the spores developing into nosema. Again thymol added into syrup is not new but proven to work against nosema.

The two extra hives that arrived in the apiary this year one was from a collected swarm and the other was a cast swarm that found one of my bait hives that I set each year. Both colonies look like great bees and very much looking forward to working with them next year.

This hive is in the back rather wild corner of a vicarage garden in Hanwell and I share this site with two other beekeeping friends. Both have excellent blogs and the influence for me to start my blog. This was the first year on this site following a few winter sessions clearing and preparing the site.

Hanwell hive

The bees did well at this site and it looks as though they have a very good early nectar and pollen available to them. The hive is a good weight and again overwintered with a part filled super under the brood box. The only problem with this small site is we access the side gate through a nice public garden linked to the church and frequented by a number of drunks who use the gate as their public toilet and holding your breath is required at times when unlocking the gate. We also have a new vicar starting at the church this year and don’t know if he or she is happy to have a couple of hives at the bottom their garden.

Finally this is my hive at my association and one intended to help train the new beekeepers by watching inspections. The chicken wire is a defence against woodpeckers as last year the apiary had a bit of damage from them and its a case of better safe than sorry.

Ealing hive

It is headed by a New Zealand Italian queen and the colony was part of a number of nuc’s introduced into the apiary in 2012 to boost the hive numbers in the apiary. It was passed onto me during 2012 winter so that I could run it and look after it. When I was able to inspect in the spring it had not fared well during the winter and was down to a small cluster of bees and queen that would have sat in the palm of your hand, but had a tiny patch of brood. So it was placed into an insulated nuc given a light syrup and over the next few weeks given a couple of frames of emerging bees donated from another strong hive in the apiary and started to build up and was soon back in the full hive and even got to the position of needing a super. The super I gave them was my foundationless frames and they managed some comb and honey stores so I gave them this under the brood box for winter. The hive was a good weight and already had a block of fondant so I had no great worries over this hive but know as they are Italian bees they can be hungry bees.

One thing you may have noticed with this post is I am not treating with oxalic acid and I have always found that I have not needed to treat and prefer not to disturb the bees if possible over winter. Last year I did treat a few hives with oxalic for the first time as I had started to use homemade thymol treatments and was worried over their effectiveness but was not necessary as the drop after oxalic was minimal and the bees were obviously not happy with the treatment and I was not happy applying it. I recognise oxalic is a good effective treatment and with all treatments used if necessary but I find that if you apply thymol correctly this reduces the varroa significantly and the bees providing they are good strong colonies they can manage with an acceptable loading of varroa. It is all about trying to create the right balance but correct application of thymol and extra treatments if thought necessary is the key to me. I will have one exception to oxalic this year and that will be the association hive as its compulsory to treat all hives in the association with oxalic and will give me a good comparison with my other hives.

Hears wishing all beekeepers colonies come through the winter and the bees are healthy happy bees for 2014.

ps the boat is lovely and warm 🙂

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7 Responses to Winter inspection and memories of the past year

  1. Andy says:

    brilliant! looking forward to 2014!

  2. Emily Heath says:

    Lots to learn from this post Tom. What’s the name of the bee farmer who makes bee hives? Also where do you buy your thymol from and what quantities do you use for the mix?

    • thomas73640 says:

      Hi Emily
      The name of the beefarmer is Pete Little and his website is he is also the source of the homemade thymol treatment and one of the sponsors of last years National Honey Show. The reatment perhaps needs a bit more time and its own post to fully explain but will give to the general idea. Basically each treatment is 8g of thymol crystals dissolved into 12g of any vegetable oil and then soaked into something absorbent, I use a folded kitchen towel. This is then placed inside the hive. As its only 8g of thymol and Appiguard is 12g per application it is recommended three applications of the homemade ideally every ten to 12 days. I get the thymol crystals in 1kg bags and I make up enough to make 100 applications but not all for me as I make some for Ken and Liam at the association. Each application works out at approx 30p.
      Ps I need a lesson on how to link people in the blog so don’t be surprised if I corner you and Emma next time I see you.

      • thomas73640 says:

        Just want to add Emily the thymol recipe above is for the varroa autumn treatment and not the syrup / nosema additive that’s a bit more complicated and for another day.

      • Emily Heath says:

        Thanks Tom, I’ll make a note of this for autumn. I won’t be down at the apiary next week as I’m going to a friend’s party, but should be down on the 25th.

        What are you trying to do with the links? To do a link in WordPress highlight the word/s you want to link and then click on the slanted icon that looks a bit like a paperclip (under the ‘Add contact form’ button. A box will then pop up where you can put the url in to create the link. Hope this helps. Glad you’re getting into your blogging as I enjoy your posts.

  3. Great post, thanks for sharing.

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