The 2011 beekeeping year

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Making a beehive, Nucs, Requeening re-queening | Posted on 12-12-2011

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Homemade beehive: 14x12 brood box and floor

My first homemade 14x12 beehive - best viewed from a distance

Well, it’s been an… engaging year. Not all bad, and certainly not run-of-the-mill, but definitely full-on. While I churned out reams of copy on topics as diverse as door access systems, 360 degree photography and male waxing (for completely separate clients, I hasten to add) I confess I struggled to find time to jot down musings on life within the colony. Not that interesting things weren’t happening. No sirree. This year the queen stopped laying, was replaced by her offspring, continued to live alongside the new queen for a while, was joined next door by a new colony (my first swarm collection) with, it turned out, an equally unproductive queen (this time of the drone laying variety) before having the neighbours move in when I united both colonies using the newspaper method. Meanwhile, I also built a hive and two nuc boxes, and began to experiment with the idea of setting up a beehive web cam.

Lessons learned: dozens. Jars of honey harvested: nil.

So, rather like those American sitcoms that condense the last six episodes into a breathless fifteen second monologue, that was my beekeeping year. If you want to read the glorious details, sign up to receive the next installment.

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I lose a(nother) colony, and treating with oxalic acid

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Nucs, Varroa destructor | Posted on 23-01-2011

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Frozen nuc bee colony

Old nuc + -13C = disaster

There was no more putting it off. The snow had been and gone. The temperature had risen from “Good grief it’s cold” to “I’d probably better put a sweater on”. It was time to open up the hives and take a quick peek.

Deryck had followed up on his promise and offered me some leftover oxalic acid. I collected about 100ml in a rinsed out pint milk carton and promised to pass on whatever was left to two other novices. It felt a bit alien suiting up and lighting the smoker again, but as it was I needn’t have bothered on either count.

I started with the nuc because in my heart of hearts I knew what to expect. Sure enough, there they all were, pathetically huddled together, unmoving. Looked at at arm’s length it was like viewing a snapshot – as if someone had snapped their fingers and made the world stand still – their queen right at the center of the mob, for once really easy to spot. There was something even sadder about the single stragglers clinging frozen to the outlying frames. It’s ridiculous how attached you become to an indistinguishable group of insects, but you do.

Mouldy nuc

The inside of the nuc

I knew before I saw it where it had all gone wrong. At the height of the cold spell I’d hung a greenhouse thermometer on a post beside the nuc. Apart from reading the temperature it also records the highs and the lows. The low measured -13.2 degrees Celsius. So much for the mild micro climate. I also noticed when it was snowing that the melted water wasn’t draining from the crown board. I’d stuck a roof on top of it but it was obviously too late. All of the frames had sprouted mould, as had the walls and floor.

To be honest I didn’t really feel much like opening the main colony after that. I did though, and was immediately greeted by the gentle fizzing sound I’d heard weeks earlier when I’d bent down and placed my ear near to the entrance. When I removed the roof and crown board they too were huddled in one corner, but very much alive, though displaying a reluctance to move that put me in mind of my daughter on school days.

Following Deryck’s advice I plunged my syringe (free with every bottle of Nurofen) into the milk carton and drew 5ml of oxalic acid. I then played ‘dodge the dozy bee’ for a while as I repeatedly attempted to empty its contents down the gaps between occupied frames. In the end I used 50ml between five frames (seven gaps). I’m sure several bees got absolutely drenched, but I did my best to get it in to the spaces.

Now I need to clean out the nuc and recycle the frames. The new beekeeping year has begun.

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Bees in the freezing cold

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Nucs | Posted on 13-12-2010

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Unusually, our part of North Essex has been spared the worst ravages of the recent cold snap. Since moving “t’ country” we’ve quickly grown used to annual snowfall and the realisation that in some places 4x4s really are used to get out of muddy fields. But this year, strangely, we’ve seen barely a light covering of snow where near neighbours have had at least a foot. And while it’s certainly been cold, the temperature hasn’t yet dipped into the minus double-digits (touch wood), as it has in so many other parts.

Nevertheless, it’s been cold enough for me to worry about the bees. This being my first winter with them I’ve been heavily dependent on text books and outside advice – which has generally been to leave them alone. So I have… sort of.

Initially, I just poked my head round the corner of the summer house, behind and to one side of both hives and well out of their field of vision. The total absence of activity however, lead me to become bolder, and just recently I haven’t stopped short of squatting down and almost peering in through the entrance.

On each of these occasions a sort of fizzing sound from within has reassured me that the main colony is alive. The absence of any sound from the nuc has been less encouraging, though.

On Sunday I trotted round the corner to discover quite a distressing sight: dozens of dead insect bodies strewn across the ground outside the main colony. Having recently written about the threat of Asian hornets I confess that my first reaction (quite illogically, given the weather) was that the hive had come under attack. But of course it hadn’t. As my friend and fellow (though vastly more experienced) beekeeper Deryck explained to me later that evening, Saturday had been sunny and comparatively warm. So the bees flew out. Then it turned cold and many couldn’t make it back inside in time. Deryck explained that it was an almost common sight in winter, and in many respects a healthy sign that the colony was alive and going about its business. But to me there was something pitiful about the sight of the few stragglers stuck to the side of the hive, their wings outstretched and frozen. It was also noticeable that there were no dead bodies outside the nuc.

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Preparing a nuc for winter: part 2

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping books, Nucs | Posted on 19-10-2010

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Bees nuc box

Five frame nuc - not a mini-nuc

It seems a few corrections are in order. For starters, what I’ve been referring to as a ‘mini-nuc’ for the last several weeks turns out to be simply a ‘nuc’. Also, Mrs S would like me to point out that that nice Mr Turnbull off the BBC wasn’t “hopeless” on Strictly Come Dancing (see ‘In the dark with Bill Turnbull’). He was actually rather good, apparently. So, sorry Bill.

This week I had a plan and I stuck to it. I was quick (see last entry), decisive… –ish, and meticulous in maintaining a written record – which is just as well, because at one point the voice recording of my inspection has me saying, “I’m removing the third frame, no, the fourth… hang on a minute, I’ve forgotten that one I took out earlier. So that’s the fifth frame… err, or is it?”

Turns out it was the fourth frame, which – packed with capped stores and brood – I transferred from the main colony to the nuc. The nuc already contained five frames so I had to take one out to accommodate it. The big question now was whether or not I should place the spare frame taken from the nuc back in the main colony, particularly as the latter was left with only seven drawn frames, plus one new frame with foundation, inserted the day before.

Damaged beehive honeycomb

Bad comb over: when it looks like this it's best to start again

To be honest, the spare looked a bit old and weather-beaten, and I wasn’t sure that there weren’t traces of mould in some of the cells (although it turned out later that what I was seeing was probably just white pollen). I remember Richard Ridler of the Essex Beekeepers Association delivering the ‘Beekeeping For Beginners’ class earlier this year, and recounting how when he and wife Jane started they almost performed their inspections with hive tool in one hand and copy of Ted Hooper’s Guide To Bees And Honey in the other. I now know exactly what he meant. Skip forward two hours and the magnificent Beekeeping Forum was able to tell me exactly what – and what not – to do, but that was after I’d sealed the hives up, having thoroughly messed both colonies around for 20 minutes.

So instead I elected to scrape away the affected cells with the ‘hook’ end of my hive tool. Fellow beekeeping novices, hear my advice: this is not a good thing to do. You will end up with a mess. See picture above left.

Other questions you may benefit from knowing the answers to are: is this beyond repair? Answer: yes, but only because the comb is past its sell-by date. What should one do with the sticky mess of uncapped stores and pollen left in the cells? Answer: throw it away and boil the frame before fitting new foundation. Is it a good idea to leave the main colony with effectively only seven frames? Answer: probably not. Now that I have however, I should keep feeding them and thank my lucky stars I’m located in the milder south of England.

I’m indebted to the members of the Beekeeping Forum for their advice.

Next week: Essex Beekeepers’ Annual Conference

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