Slow bee colony build-up in May

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Apiguard Thymol, Bee diseases, Beekeeping advice, Varroa destructor | Posted on 04-05-2011

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Something’s wrong. I only have two frames of brood and the bees are very docile. Too docile. Just a couple of miles away Michelle’s colony has nearly filled its second super.

I have varroa. I have wax moth. I appear to have some small red mites, possibly balaustium, which I’m told are harmless to bees but feed on pollen. I may have nosema. It’s always hard to avoid a slight sense of one-upmanship with other second-year beekeepers, but this isn’t quite what I had in mind.

I’ve recently been to several presentations on honey bee diseases and poor colony hygiene, so am trying to remain objective and to not fall into the trap of transposing it all to my beehive. But I’ve seen the varroa, the wax moth and the balaustium (if that’s what they are). Granted, not in any great numbers: less than one varroa a day, and two wax moths and five balaustium in total. Hardly an epidemic. There’s no sign of dysentery to indicate nosema, and no melted larvae to point to European Foul Brood. The queen is present and laying. I have eggs, larvae, capped brood and newly hatched bees, as well as uncapped stores and pollen. But I have only two frames of brood. Four frames of brand new foundation remain untouched.

It might be the queen. Michelle’s colony swarmed on Friday. On Monday we opened her hive to take a look and found 6-8 queen cells the size of Cadbury’s Crème Eggs. Interestingly, we also found the old queen amid a small heap of writhing workers on the next door neighbour’s driveway. She looked absolutely knackered (the queen, not the next door neighbour), which you could forgive her as the colony itself had bees spilling out from every quarter. They were pinging off our veils. All frames were heaving under the weight of stores, eggs, larvae and capped brood, while drones the size of my thumb stomped about looking ready to pounce – which I guess they were.

So what’s with my bees? I even cut the hedge to give them more sunlight.

Last Tuesday I ran into Robert, my bee guru. He suggested I had nothing to lose by going for a little shock and awe. Apiguard for the varroa, Fumidil B for the nosema (as it will do no harm even if it isn’t present), and an uncapping tool and no mercy for the wax moth. The red mites will sort themselves out, he said.

I’m going in…

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25 really simple beekeeping tips

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee feeders, Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping books, Making a beehive, Varroa destructor | Posted on 22-04-2011

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Recently spent a delightful couple of hours at Deryck Johnson’s garden and apiary listening to him give a talk on beekeeping equipment.

Over the years I’ve been drawn to various hobbies, and in that time have found the following to be universally true: the advice you treasure most is always of the, “now here’s a trick that’ll save you half an hour / 50 quid / sore thumbs” variety.

Deryck basically spent an hour giving us the benefit of decades of experimentation. I wish I’d filmed it and put in on You Tube. Instead, here’s the novice beekeeper’s print-out-and-keep guide to “25 beekeeping tips you will otherwise probably take years to pick up”. All credit to Deryck Johnson.

Colour coded beehive

A national beehive (with eke to convert it to 14x12), placed on a milk crate stand, and showing coloured crown board, clearer board and queen excluder

Advice on beehives

Empty milk crates – of the type used by milkmen to store milk bottles – make ideal hive stands. Deryck gets a supply of old broken ones from his local dairy.

White catering trays (price £1) slide neatly between hive floor and crate to create a removable surface on which varroa will stand out for monitoring purposes.

Make it easy to ‘read the hive’. Paint the edges of crown boards, queen boards and clearer boards so that you can see at a glance from a distance how the hive is made up:

Crown boards = blue

Clearer boards = green, because workers can ‘go’ through them

Queen excluders = red, because they ‘stop’ the queen.

Use different coloured plastic frame spacers to quickly identify different age foundation (e.g. white new, yellow old).

Squares made out of Xtratherm building insulation make ideal winter beehive insulation if placed between crown board and roof.

In winter, prop open the corners of your crown board with matchsticks to improve ventilation and avoid mould.

Drape a net over the hive in winter to protect it from woodpeckers, being careful to peg the edges away from the sides of the beehive. The bees will still be able to get in and out, but the woodpeckers won’t get through the net.

Home-made bee frame feeder

Home-made bee frame feeder - holds around 3.5 pints of syrup

Car body filler works just as well as wood filler to repair beehives.

Advice on beekeeping smokers

Buy a stainless steel smoker.

Dry grass makes the best and cheapest smoker fuel. It’s cooler and less acrid than cardboard or egg boxes.

Attach a square hook to the back (bellows wide) of your smoker to hang it from your hive and because a square hook is easier to carry with one finger.

Useful things to have in your beekeeping toolkit

Apart from the obvious (hive tools, uncapping tool, marker pens etc) keep:

a laminated (photo)copy of brood timings (Ted Hooper’s Guide to bees and honey features a useful table);

a small tin of drawing pins for marking the top of frames (should they contain queen cells or anything unusual, for example);

hammer and nails (two nails hammered into the top bar of a frame makes a handy emergency lug if the wooden end breaks off);

an empty plastic container (to store any excess bits of wax);

DIY beehive mouse guard

Cheapest beehive mouse guard around:four nails

an empty matchbox (to keep bee samples);

matches (for testing for foul brood);

nail scissors (for wing clipping).

Miscellaneous beekeeping musings

Don’t bother buying propolis remover.

Fabi-Spray, on the other hand, is a good 5-10 second alternative to using a smoker, for quick manipulations.

Nails hammered vertically into a wooden entrance at short intervals make an ideal (and dirt cheap) mouse guard.

After every inspection stick your hive tool through the dishwasher.

Do you have any simple beekeeping tips that save money and hassle? Please share them by leaving a comment.

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How (not) to recycle beeswax foundation – a step-by-step guide

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beeswax foundation and frames | Posted on 15-04-2011

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  1. Leave frames with mouldy old foundation, stores and insect bodies festering in crate on garage floor.
  2. Trip over crate at regular intervals.
  3. Chop up wax foundation and put into black bin bag. Leave on garage floor.
  4. Trip over bag at regular intervals.
  5. Look up price of wax melters sold by beekeeping suppliers. Scoff.
  6. Ask wife for large old pan in which to melt foundation.
  7. Turn up nose at large old pan offered.
  8. Look up price of large new pans sold by Argos and Tescos. Scoff.
  9. Place wanted ad for large old pan on Freecycle. Wait.
  10. …And wait.
  11. Accept wife’s offer of large old pan.
  12. Remove handful of sticky, furry mess that was once foundation from black bin bags.

    Melting old beeswax foundation

    "...and when it looks like this it's about ready to throw away."

  13. Drip contents over garage floor.
  14. Drip contents over utility room floor.
  15. Drip contents over kitchen floor.
  16. Boil kettle. Pour hot water into pan. Tip waxy mess into pan. Stir.
  17. Close kitchen door. Open back door. Open windows. Switch on extractor fan. Turn up extractor fan.
  18. Tell curious offspring that you’re recycling wax.
  19. Tell curious offspring not to make a fuss about the smell.
  20. Tell curious offspring not to tell Mum.
  21. Bribe offspring with chocolate.
  22. Add more foundation to pan.
  23. Keep stirring.
  24. Turn up heat under pan. Turn down heat under pan. Re-examine contents of bin bag in garage.
  25. Place bin bag in boot of car to take to tip.
  26. Pour contents of pan into large hole in back garden.
  27. Buy brand new foundation.
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Feeding honey bees in late spring, and the position of the hive

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee feeders, Bee feeding, Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping courses for beginners | Posted on 13-04-2011

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At our second, second-year beekeepers class in March our instructors, Jane and Richard, had confidently predicted that our various colonies would soon kick-start into life. Nearby fields of oil seed rape would burst forth, their balletic ripples sounding a dinner bell for honey bees far and wide. Well, within a three mile radius anyway. Start preparing now, we were instructed. Make sure brood chambers have their full complement of frames to avoid the colony swarming. Have supers made up and ready in preparation for the first ‘flow’.

It sounded alarming, and not a little distasteful. Nevertheless, it had what I presumed was the desired effect. I stopped twiddling my thumbs and logged into Thorne’s online shop to order frames, foundation and (in a moment of reckless abandon) a tin of ‘bee-friendly beehive paint’. In no time at all, (well, plenty of time actually – nineteen days to deliver – nineteen days) I’d readied myself for the upcoming nectar-fest.

Except that to date there has been no ‘fest’. No great hum of activity, just a few bees casually flying in and out when the sun is at its highest. By the end of week two I could contain myself no longer and chose a warm day to lift off the roof and check on progress.

Honey bee frame showing depleted stores

The 'bonus' frame of stores I found and moved in February

To my relief they were still alive, and appeared to be so in reasonable numbers. But they were far from bursting at the seams. I pulled out a couple of frames and, probably for the first time since taking up beekeeping nine months ago, instinctively identified what the problem was: they were hungry. Nearly all the frames with stores had been licked clean. The ‘bonus’ frame I’d found mid-February had been uncapped and was left with crystallised leftovers. To my relief I saw larvae, but not much.

Thankfully, the arrival of Thorne’s supplies coincided with a spell of warm weather. I topped up the brood chamber (even though it didn’t really need it), replaced a frame with foundation that had gone mouldy, and added a rapid feeder in an empty super. The bees pounced on it within hours, but a week later had still taken barely a third. Perhaps it’s true that honey bees sometimes need a quick feed to kick-start them. After all, I like to go to work on a good breakfast. Then again, maybe there was more to it.

mouldy capped pollen and nectar

Mouldy capped pollen and nectar

Two days later I passed a local apiary and couldn’t help but notice that its hives were buzzing, literally. Clouds of bees hung round each entrance while, like the famous scene from Metropolis, a steady stream of bees zoomed in an out on invisible highways. Then Michelle from up the road told me that she’d only just managed to get a super on her colony in time. They’d already filled every frame of the brood chamber. Strange. And then Mark, who lives barely a few hundred yards from Michelle, asked me whether my colony was really active yet, because his bees were just casually flying in and out when the sun was up.

Interestingly, Michelle’s and the Metropolis’ hives have at least one side fully exposed to the sun. Both Mark’s colony and my own are flanked by trees or hedges. Our bees, it seems, wait for the sun to hit the hive before bothering to get up for work. Maybe they have more in common with my kids than I thought.

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Advice on building a beehive: plans, materials, wood paint and protection, and tools

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Making a beehive | Posted on 07-03-2011

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Tools for making a beehive

Beehive making toolkit (clockwise from top): saw, hammer, rebate plane, tape measure and wood plane. You can get away with just the hammer, saw and tape measure.

As anyone who’s dealt with builders will testify, sometimes the only way to get a straight answer is to know what question to ask. A bit like playing “Simon says”. Making my own beehive was like that.

What type of beehive did I need? Well, that depended on personal preference and how I wanted to use it, I was told. I didn’t have a personal preference, and how should I know how I wanted to use it? I was a complete novice, remember. I presumed they were all designed to keep bees?

Fortunately, any further confusion was made irrelevant when I was given a set of plans for a modified national beehive. For the benefit of any novices asking themselves the same question however, I’ll say now: get a national unless – like me – you live in a rural area near to crops beloved of bees, in which case get a 14×12 if you have a bad back or a commercial if you don’t. If you want it to look like something straight out of Winnie the Pooh get a WBC. If you’re ever likely to move abroad get a Langstroth. If you live in Scotland get a Smith (apparently), and if you enjoy weight-lifting or just standing out from the crowd get a Modified Dadant. Why no-one ever puts it into those simple terms beats me, but there it is.

Beehive plans can be obtained from the British Beekeepers’ Association (Update October 2013: BBKA no longer appears to sell plans online) for a couple of pounds, or from the Scottish Beekeepers Association or magnificently psychedelic David Cushman website for free. Incidentally, I was very sorry to hear that David passed away in February. I know that his website will have helped thousands of novice beekeepers such as myself.

Choice of building materials was another straightforward issue. Cedar is the ideal wood type to use. It’s stable, lightweight, has some natural resistance to decay and insect attack, and can cope with the eccentricities of the British climate. But I had a stack of plywood left over from some work we had done on the house. Plywood is heavier, doesn’t respond well to preservative treatments and is prone to splintering, but it’s cheap. Especially if you already have a few large sheets lying around the garage. Lots of beehives are made from plywood. True, I had a little scare when someone (a builder, bless them) pointed out that there are different grades of plywood …after I’d started work. There’s interior grade, waterproof bonded ply (WBP) and marine. The only one you shouldn’t try making beehives out of is interior grade. Of course it’s not marked on the ply itself (of course it’s not). Mine turned out to all be 18mm thick WBP.

Sadolin Classic Wood Protection Colourless Base

Sadolin Classic Wood Protection Colourless Base

Then, there’s the question of what paint or wood protection to use. A beehive generates honey, so that’s food production. Which means that you can’t slap on any old lead-based, insecticide-ridden paint you like. Well, you can. But you wouldn’t necessarily want to eat anything that came out of it.

Until recently the poor (lazy) beekeeper’s wood preservative of choice was Cuprinol Clear. Due to changes in EU legislation however, Cuprinol can no longer claim that it’s bee safe. (It might still be, Cuprinol just can’t claim it is). Beekeepers’ suppliers sell beehive-friendly paint at around £13.50 a litre. And I’m told it’s very good. The real enthusiasts (in the evangelical sense) though, advocate a combination of boiled linseed oil and beeswax. Beekeeping forums are full of sound, and often conflicting, advice on the subject.

For what it’s worth, I used Sadolin Classic Wood Protection Colourless Base because – you guessed it – I happened to have some. I’ll be happy to take on board any comments from horrified readers.

Finally, tools. You really don’t need many: a saw, a hammer (or screwdriver) and a tape measure about covers it, at a pinch. Once again, I relied heavily on tools I already had. Here, at least, my motives owed more to sentimentality than penny-pinching. Most of the tools belonged to my late father. To his impressive collection of planes, chisels and saws of every size and description I added a rebate plane to enable me to make the runners out of softwood. That, the frames, foundation, queen excluder and porter escapes were the only items that cost me anything.

By summer 2010 I’d completed my first beehive.

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Beekeeping for Beginners course – part 2

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping courses for beginners, Essex Beekeepers' Association, Making a beehive | Posted on 02-03-2011

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More thoughts, recorded at the time, from the novice beekeeping course I attended almost exactly twelve months ago. This year’s ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ course, run by Essex Beekeepers’ Association (EBKA), starts on Tuesday 8 March 2011 18:45-20:00hrs at Thaxted Guildhall, CM6 2LA. Contact Jane Ridler at the EBKA for further details.

Week 2: More of the same, except that we’re now all on ‘second day at school’ nodding terms with each other. Richard and Jane briskly finish off equipment and tools before moving on to the life cycle of the honey bee.

We’re joined by several new folk who, we’re advised, are experienced beekeepers and will be our ‘bee buddies’ in the practical sessions. When the tea and biscuits are finally wheeled out once more a wave of students rises as one from the centre of the room and surges outwards towards them. They soon each have their own little flotilla of novices, earnestly asking questions and bobbing between conversations, sheaths of notes clutched to their bosoms.

I get involved in a discussion about bee suits. I’ve found a guy in Poland selling them on eBay for around £36 – which is cheap – and ask whether anyone knows if they’re any good. A fellow novice has just bought her suit from ‘Polish man’ and reports that, as long as you follow the clear instructions and order one size larger than you’d expect, they’re fine*. I decide that that’s the bee suit sorted. Eastern European smokers and hive tools are also given a cautious thumbs up.

modified national beehive plans

Modified National beehive plans

(*Three months later she’ll tell me a quite alarming tale of how the zip broke while she was wearing it, causing her to get over a dozen bee stings. Sadly, she got a less than helpful response from the seller, so buyer beware).

Week 3: The third and final lesson covers the beekeeping year (what happens when) as well as pests and diseases, and where to site your beehive.

Before it starts I strike up a conversation with the couple sitting behind me. They already have several colonies, housed in national beehives. He bought them from a ‘retiring’ beekeeper friend, but only after a succession of wasted road trips chasing what turned out to be mangy old equipment offered at over-inflated prices. I sympathise, and mention the idea of building my own beehive. He says he has a set of plans and – true to his word – later gives them to me. They’re for a modified national beehive with bottom bee-space. In woodworking terms I suspect they’re barely one step up from book shelves but to me they’re like blueprints to the space shuttle.

beehive entrance block

My first attempt at a beehive entrance block. See if you can spot the obvious flaw...

Practical beekeeping sessions: My bee buddy is Robert Pickford. Robert is a vastly experienced beekeeper and, it turns out, a first class teacher. Later he’ll also prove to be a more than decent friend, but that’s skipping ahead a bit. For several weeks four of us present ourselves at his apiary on a Tuesday, self-consciously suited and booted in virgin white overalls and veil.

Robert has us making frames, lighting smokers and, of course, inspecting bees. He has hives spread around everywhere and appears to be perpetually playing host to at least three other beekeeper’s colonies at any one time. As a consequence we get to see beehives and nuc boxes of all shapes and sizes, and varying degrees of decrepitude. As I inspect them a mental image springs to mind of the beehive now slowly taking shape in my garage. Robert defends their state by pointing out that, “the bees don’t care what they live in.” We’ll see. They haven’t experienced the limits of my wood-working skills yet.

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Beekeeping for Beginners classes – Essex Beekeepers’ Association

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Beekeeping advice, Beekeeping books, Beekeeping courses for beginners, Essex Beekeepers' Association | Posted on 23-02-2011

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Almost exactly twelve months ago I signed up to attend a novice beekeeping class run by my local division of the Essex Beekeepers’ Association (EBKA). The course cost just £40 and included three classroom sessions and three or four practical sessions in an apiary. I had no experience of beekeeping and didn’t own a hive or colony. Here were my thoughts at the time.

Thaxted Guildhall

Thaxted Guildhall in Thaxted, Essex (photograph by Bev Aston)

Attend ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ class run by Essex Beekeepers’ Association at the 600 year-old Guildhall in Thaxted. Beautiful building, if surprisingly small inside. All low ceilings and uneven floors.

My fellow beginners cover all ages (including teens, surprisingly) and both sexes, but with an encouraging preponderance of yummy mummies. Excellent. Something to tell the wife. For six months now she’s been gently indulging my talk of taking up beekeeping, including arranging for me to be given a copy of Ted Hooper’s Guide to Bees and Honey at Christmas. At the start of the New Year however, she quietly pulls me to one side and asks me whether I’m serious. Only I’ve been telling rather a lot of people, it seems. I might want to tone it down if I’m not.

I react with indignation. Of course I’m serious. I signed up for a course.

And now here I am, three months later, with still only a copy of Guide to Bees and Honey as proof of my intent; £12.99 worth of commitment, and I didn’t even pay for it.

I look around. Lots of other copies of Guide to Bees and Honey in evidence. I’m clearly in good company. I can’t recall whether it comes out as a result of a show of hands or just in the course of conversation, but it turns out I’m not in the minority. Plenty of people talking about buying beehives, and quite a few brandishing pages printed from the Internet featuring hives for sale, but not many fellow pupils actually own a beehive, it seems.

You see my problem is the start-up costs. This was meant to be a cheap hobby. I’d been hooked in by the promise of being able to do my bit to save the bee population, of hives and equipment costing a couple of hundred pounds – literally – and of my being able to recoup even that (should I be so inclined) by selling a few jars of honey. And I’m sure there was a time, not so very long ago, when that was the case. It just isn’t any more. The same magazine articles, radio and TV programmes that drew my attention to the plight of the honey bee also caught the attention of thousands of others. Equipment prices shot up. Rustic old beekeepers couldn’t believe their luck when stuff they’d had laying around in a field or shed for years was suddenly worth more second-hand than they’d paid for it new. Ebay is now awash with chancers selling ‘beginner hives’ they’ve knocked up in their spare time.

If I’d wanted an expensive hobby I’d have bought a motorcycle. If I’d wanted to splash out more cash on house and garden the catalogue of things on our ‘to do’ list remains endless. This was meant to be a low-cost diversion, a bit of fun – relaxing.

‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ course – week 1

The problem is immediately acknowledged by Richard and Jane, who are delivering the course. I sense tacit resignation among all present that this is going to cost. Now it’s just a matter of establishing how much.

Richard and Jane put on a good show, neatly avoiding the perils of death by PowerPoint and deftly handling an uninhibited barrage of questions. Turns out Jane used to teach at secondary school. So we cover the bee colony, the bee’s anatomy, the inside of the beehive, and beekeeping equipment and tools – all at a rattling pace, for an hour and a half – before ending the evening with tea and biscuits.

It’s fascinating. What amazing little creatures they are. How industrious and devoted to the common good. About the only criticism you can level at them is that they produce more food than they need. What a preposterous notion…

As I leave I’m at once elated, exhausted and in more of a quandary than ever. This looks like fun. This looks like a worthwhile challenge. There has to be another way.

Essex Beekeepers’ Association’s ‘Beekeeping for Beginners’ classes start Tuesday 8 March 2011 18:45-20:00hrs at Thaxted Guildhall, CM6 2LA. More details from Jane Ridler at EBKA. Open to members of the EBKA, membership of which costs £30.

Photograph of Thaxted Guildhall reproduced by kind permission of Bev Aston. See more of Bev’s images, including some delightful shots of bees, on her Photostream page on Flikr.

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Feeding honey bees in winter and early spring

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Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Bee feeding, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 16-02-2011

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Ah, the tell-tale first signs of spring: the sound of novice beekeepers texting one another with questions about what to do next. In our case they revolved largely around whether “to feed or not to feed”. That, and the rather bizarre question as to just how many dead honey bees one should expect to find when conducting the first proper hive inspection of the year.

Honey bee frames in February (UK)

Anyone seen the queen? Honey bees spread across all frames

Most of us had quite naturally consulted text books, beekeeping forums and more experienced beekeepers… and quite naturally received completely conflicting advice. The common sense and more popular view favoured feeding them candy if there was any evidence of their running low on stores. (That ‘evidence’ presumably being the absence of any stores). I therefore duly presented myself to the colony last Saturday, with hive tool and smoker in hand, ready to have a damn good poke around.

Slight – and I’m sure new – evidence of mould inside the roof didn’t exactly get me off to a good start, but once I’d lifted the crown board I found my own spirits lifted by the hive of activity within. The bees had spread themselves across pretty much all nine frames. Peering down between them I could see plenty of dead bodies piled up on the mesh floor, and guessed that that might be part of the reason for the fresh signs of mould. They didn’t seem to bother the live bees however.

Dead honey bees at first hive inspection in February (UK)

The ones that didn't make it through winter

As I carefully lifted out each separate frame, most seemed to have at least some stores left on them. Frame 1, which I’d ill-advisedly separated from the others with a frame of new foundation before sealing the hive for winter, was virtually untouched save for a handful of adventurous bees that clearly couldn’t believe their luck at having stumbled across such bonanza. Almost its entire surface was a wonderful golden yellow-brown. Frame 3 meanwhile, showed clear evidence of uncapped stores and was already around a third full. I quickly performed a swap-around, placing the undrawn foundation on the outside, before turning my attention to the hive floor.

Separating it from the brood box I placed it on the ground to have a good look. There were certainly a lot of dead bodies – at least an inch thick in places. With a casualness that I immediately regretted I tossed them into an inaccessible space behind the summerhouse before brushing the mesh and replacing the floor beneath the brood chamber. It was only then that I reminded myself that I hadn’t yet seen the queen.

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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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