SPRING AT LAST, OR IS IT ?

We are now into the last week in March and I have to say, the last couple of weeks have been as un-spring-like as I can remember. The temperature has seldom been above freezing and vast areas of the country have suffered more snow in March, than before in human memory. We, here in the West Country have been more fortunate than most, we have had snow but nowhere as bad as other parts of the country. It has been the icy winds coming down from Scandinavia that held the temperature below freezing for so long.

So, what of the bees. Returning from my break I went straight to the meadow. Easing off the roofs from the first two hives confirmed my concerns, the weather had been far too cold for the bees to access the syrup which I had administered before going away. So, first job today, contact Michael Jay, my local equipment supplier and arrange some fondant.This done I went straight to the meadow, feeling a little trepidatious it has to be said but thankfully I needn’t have worried. Closer examination showed that some if not all of the syrup had been taken down and the bees were happily clustered. I adjusted the crown boards so that the escape hole was as near as possible, above the cluster, having first removed the feeders and then placed a slab of fondant over the hole.

NOTICE SHALLOW EKE IN PLACE

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Because the escape holes were now obstructed by fondant and so there was no longer any means of ventilation of the brood, the crown boards of each hive were raised using some strategically placed match sticks, one at each corner.

MATCHSTICK PLACED BETWEEN CROWN BOARD AND BROOD CHAMBER

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The whole operation took less than two minutes per hive and I counted only two bees that had taken to the air. The one which I noticed climbing up my arm either didn’t have the energy or the inclination to sting me and looked positively grateful as I popped her back in the hive. So there we are, job done. Hopefully the weather will shortly become more Spring-like and we can all get on with the real business of beekeeping, I do hope so !

Well, the first week of April has come and gone, the weather has again been what can be best described as, pretty grim. The cold North-easterly wind has seldom left us and there hasn’t been much activity at the apiary. I took the decision a couple of weeks ago to replace the hive floors. We normally over winter without floors but we are in the middle of an exceptionally cold spell and with the Queens laying, which I believe the incoming pollen suggests, I decided they needed all the help I could give. They will be removed as soon as this cold spell is over. On the couple of mornings when the sun did put in an appearance, the bees did come out, all but from number three that is, with only one or two bees showing. For the reason mentioned previously, three has always been the last to surface but this day, the hive was receiving it’s fair share of sunshine and still only a few bees. Time to take a look. As I said earlier, when I gave them their fondant, there seemed to be no shortage of bees and as with the other hives, I positioned the crown board so as to have the fondant as close to the cluster as possible. Now for some reason known only to themselves, they had moved their cluster and were now some distance away from the fondant. It was immediately apparent that the numbers had reduced drastically since my last visit, so what to do. The first priority as I saw it was to get some food into the remaining bees as quickly as possible and hope that whatever I did would be enough to save them. I was lucky to have a brood frame partly filled with honey from last year and this I inserted next to what was left of the cluster. I then dribbled some thick syrup over an empty fame of comb and inserted it on the other side of the brood. Finally I sprinkled a little syrup over the cluster and closed up the hive. How quickly the situation changes in the bee world. Hive three had gone from a position of strength to one approaching desperation in a matter of three or four days. I walked away from my little apiary and up the meadow wondering if this would turn out to be another lesson cruelly taught and silently vowing to learn from it and not to make the same mistake again. The lesson, if one colony seems to be acting differently from the others, don’t assume the reason, find out why !

We are now well into April and still no let-up in the weather. The biting cold North-easterly winds and the snow that they brought with them seem, for the minute at least, to have subsided and in their place we now have rain. One good thing however, the temperature is rising, not by leaps and bounds it has to be said, but rising, and very welcome it is. The bees are responding, leaving the hives in numbers whenever there is a break in the rain showers. They are returning with copious amounts of pollen although where from goodness only knows. I’ve counted no more than six or seven dandilions and a handful of daisies in the meadow, the crocuses are long over and they don’t seem to favour the Forsythia. There seems to be two distinct colours of pollen, white and a very bright orange, so your guess is as good a mine.

I’ve had another quick look under the hive roofs and they all seem to be tucking into the fondant I provided, still to cold for a proper inspection but,with the exception of three, they all seem in good spirits. So, what to do now. I’ve checked through all my spare equipment and effected any minor repairs that were necessary. I’ve scorched and Cuprinol’d the empty hives, the feeders have been cleaned and I’ve made a list of new kit that I shall need, I’m talking here about foundation, frames etc. I don’t think I shall be buying any jars for a while though. Ah well, this year will be better, won’t it.

A couple of days on and I’m sitting at the top of the meadow, the sun has been shining all morning and it really is quite pleasant. Time for a little reflection, to look back over last year, what lessons to be learned. Time to think again about my Queen rearing program. In my mind I’ve already selected hive eight to supply my Queens, barring any unforseen catastrophies that is. They seem to portray all the qualities of a good colony, they are very industrious, always first out.They went into winter with an abundance of stores, they were the only colony I didn’t need to feed, so, although I haven’t taken any honey from them I have every reason believe that they will be a most productive colony. They are placid, I can’t recall having been stung once whilst handling them, they just seem content to go about their business quite oblivious to me and I like that in a colony. So, provided they are building their numbers well proving her fecundity, and all the outward signs are that they are, then, hive eight will supply my queens in 2013.

So what else is occupying my thoughts, sitting here, enjoying this all too brief spell of sunshine. Well, I’m always trying to think of ways to improve the lives of my bees, bearing in mind they’re living in an entirely artificial environment and only for a relatively short time at that. So how. Well here at Mendip we start by making sure all the hives are in good condition, dry and well ventilated. We replace as much old comb each year as we can and ever since we started beekeeping here, I have been planting bee friendly shrubbery in the vicinity of the apiary and scattering copious amounts of wild flower seeds about the meadow. I’m not too sure whether any of them have taken, I think the birds have been following closely behind me and helping themselves to my efforts, but time will tell.

I count myself most fortunate here at Mendip in that we are blessed with a very good, well run local society of which I am a member. In fact it was they who fuelled my interest in beekeeping in the first place and it has to be said, have been a source of help and advice ever since. Apart from monthly visits to member’s apiaries throughout the Summer, the society run courses and organise guest speakers from time to time. Last week was no exception. We attended a talk given by an eminent local beekeeper,( I’m sure he won’t mind me referring to him as eminent.)  Mr. David Maslen. The subject was keeping healthy honeybees and ailment recognition and as usual, very informative it was. If you get the opportunity to attend one of his talks do so, you won’t be disappointed. I have the feeling that David has forgotten more about beekeeping than most of us will ever learn. The reason for me mentioning this, except to encourage you to join your local society, is that David, in the course of his talk, touched on a subject which has long been close to my heart as a likely cause of colony failure or under performing and I’m talking here about STRESS.

There are doubtless many problems our bees face on a daily basis which we have little or no control over, I’m thinking here of pesticide use and loss of natural forage and I’m sure that you can think of many more. Surely it behoves us, now more than ever to help our bees however and whenever we can. Apart from the pests that we are aware of and hopefully coming to grips with, we are, it would seem, now imminently faced with the prospect of hive beetle and Asiatic hornet. As if the poor little creatures didn’t already have enough to contend with. Add to that the number of people who keep bees, often in quite appalling conditions, who proudly refer to themselves as beekeepers, but are in reality no more than just keepers of bees.People who just look upon their charges as little more than a box full of bugs, a commodity to be used and exploited and one could be excused for thinking the future of the honeybee is looking quite grim. I hope and pray not.

So what of stress, it was something I first began to consider after watching a documentary on the way bees are, in vast numbers, shipped by lorry halfway across America each year. I watched as hundreds of hives were often thrown onto flatbed lorries, stacked what looked like ten or more high, so tightly packed that nightly they had to be hosed down to keep them from cooking. Then after a few weeks amongst the almond groves, back on the lorries and off to the fruit orchards or pumpkin fields, often a thousand miles or more away. The presenter spoke of huge colony loss siting CCD. Colony Collapse Disorder as the probable cause of the colony losses. He spoke of seeing whole colonies just walking away from the hive leaving just the Queen and a few nurse bees behind. He mentioned Varroa as a possible cause of CCD. By the end of the program it was so obvious to me that the problem had very little to do with Varroa and CCD was something to pin the blame on rather than a cause. The cause was stress, these poor creatures had lost the will to live, they were totally demoralised, that was why they were seen walking from the hives, they couldn’t even be bothered to fly. My thoughts turned to pictures of thousands of lemmings throwing themselves from clifftops and of huge schools of whales which had beached themselves for no apparent reason, which even when towed off the beach and out to sea, returned to beach themselves once again. Could the reasons be the same.

So, what is stress and what can we do as beekeepers to provide our bees with a stress free environment ? Well, what is stress ! We can’t touch or see it unlike most other ailments that affect us. It is to my mind, a cause rather than a symptom, we may not be able to see it but we can certainly see the effects of it. People who are stressed are very often unable to work, they can become dysfunctional, irritable and even suicidal. So, if we can be affected like this, if stress can adversely affect animals and birds, then why not bees. I am sure that bees living in a stress free environment are less inclined to swarm, build up their numbers quicker and maintain them more readily. I think being happier, they are less inclined to sting and will reward your care with more honey. Now, if I’m correct in my assertions, it surely makes good sense to recognise this problem where it exists and do whatever we can to alleviate it.

So what can we do to minimise the effects of stress upon our bees, well, try putting yourself in their position for a moment. We all know the frustration of waiting in a lengthy Supermarket queue while the person at the front fumbles for their purse and then wants to discuss the weather with the girl on the checkout for twenty minutes. Well imagine your bees trying to squeeze past each other through a narrow hive entrance on a hot day. So, during spells of hot weather or when there is a heavy flow on, to ease their frustration, why not try removing the entrance block completely or at the very least, fitting one with a wide opening.                                                                                                                                                          Keep manipulations to a minimum, imagine a job interview or Doctor’s examination that went on for hours. Stressful, I should think so. Compare that then with over zealous and often unnecessary hive inspections. It’s easy to plough straight in with hive inspections. I’ve watched on numerous occasions while a well meaning beekeeper, having decided today was inspection day, jumps straight in with both feet pausing only long enough to rip each hive apart, sometimes going through the brood chamber more than once. When asked why, the answer more often than not is “I’m looking for the Queen”. and all the time the bees are becoming more and more stressed. This seems to be the trap most new beekeepers fall into and I’m sure I was the same until one day I took a step back and asked myself why. My advice to anyone and certainly the reasoning I try to follow here at Mendip is: before opening your hive ask yourself why am I doing this, what am I looking for and is it really necessary. If I’m checking on the stores situation a quick heft of the hive will usually tell me all I want to know, if not, the first two or three frames of the brood chamber will. If I’m looking for evidence of a healthy Queen then the presence of eggs and young brood will supply the answer. The brood pattern should confirm or allay your worst fears. It’s only if I have to find the Queen or if I’m searching for something specifically, for example, Queen cells that I prolong my examination, otherwise, if I’m happy with what I’ve seen I close the hive and move on. The operation thus far having taken just two or three minutes and involved a minimal amount of smoke. Over zealous use of the smoker is in my opinion, another cause of unnecessary stress.

There are so many factors which can contribute to stress which taken alone don’t seem much, but added together may present a different picture and the silly thing is, that most of them are entirely avoidable. I’m thinking here of hives sited under trees which after rain will provide a constant dripping of water on the roofs or the presence of over inquisitive livestock. I don’t usually have my floors fitted, unless I’m monitoring a Varroa drop,or administering Apiguard, preferring to have the hives well ventilated at all times. I have witnessed, during a very hot spell, colonies which have not had the floors removed, with more bees clambering over the outside of the hive than there were inside, which within minutes of the floor being removed, had returned to behaving naturally. Overheating is a very often overlooked cause of stress, my advice, if you do over winter with your floors in, remove them as soon as you feel the weather permits.  Like so many things in this life, just a little common sense is called for.

I mentioned at the beginning of this item the talk that David Maslen gave us and it was his referral to a particular source of stress that started me off on this subject. It was one which until then, I had never even considered but as I listened to David it began to make more and more sense. He was referring to bee space, the distance between brood frames. We all know that bees like to be able to move around the comb without their backs touching each other and I had always imagined the spacing of Hoffman frames had taken account of this. Not so said David, wild comb is formed at 38mm centres as opposed to the Hoffman spacing which is 35mm. Only three millimetres but as David said, to a bee that’s a lot. Imagine the effect on the bees bearing in mind, they spend most of their lives in the  brood chamber.                                                                                                                                                   I’ve tried to imagine having to push my way through a busy corridor which had suddenly been restricted by two or three feet and this is not just once but all day and night. Stressful, I can imagine nothing worse. So why are the frames spaced thus, well, seemingly it is to restrict the production of drones but we know that this in itself is stress inducing. Bees like plenty of drones in the hive, it is beekeepers who don’t, so this spacing issue is a double edged sword. So. what to do.

I mentioned earlier the plight of hive number three, well, sadly they didn’t make it. The bright side though is that now I have a spare hive to experiment with and I intend to put this increased spacing of the brood frames to the test. So how best to achieve the new spacing. Ideally I suppose, one would commission a number of frames made to the new specifications but I’m looking for a way which, A, I can afford and B, which can easily be reversed if required. I first experimented with pins driven into the edges of the frames to a depth of 3 mm but on reflection have decided against that thinking the bees would quickly propolise them and that they would be unduly restrictive. Instead, have gone with pins in the brood walls. Hopefully my pic’s will describe more aptly what I’m trying to do.

ILLUSTRATING THE NEW SPACING AND THE PINS

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ILLUSTRATING PREFERED METHOD OF SPACING

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So, this is how I’m going to configure the revised spacings in the new hive, I have no idea whether it will work or if indeed it will make any significant difference but I intend to give it a try. I am convinced that stress is a significant factor in the well being of our bees and I urge you to give it some thought.

It’s the middle of April now and I still haven’t had my first full hive inspection, everything seems to be running about a month late. Having an empty hive now did however give me the opportunity to change all the floors, although under normal circumstances, this would have been carried out in March. With the spare floor from the empty hive, this having been cleaned and scoured with a blow torch, it was a quick and simple task to perform. The spare floor was placed alongside hive 1 with the entrance facing the same way. The hive was then lifted onto the new floor and was then slid back to it’s original position. That floor then received the same treatment before being given to hive 2 and so on. The whole operation took less than half an hour and I don’t suppose the bees were even aware that it had taken place. Lifting the hives onto their new floors also gave me an indication as to their stores levels. 1 and 7 were a little light and were given syrup. I was pleased to have got the floors sorted out, as I said, this would normally have been done weeks earlier but, “better late than never” I suppose. I was also pleased to see that in the main, they were clean with no more corpses present than one would expect. With the weather still so unpredictable, I took the decision to put off a full inspection a little longer. The condition of the floors and the fact that the bees were flying on all but the worst of days suggested that things were moving along reasonably well inside the hives and this further re-enforced my decision to hold back my first full inspection.