2013,WE START AGAIN

Looking back now to last year it seems to have gone by so quickly, must be an age thing. So let me start by thanking you for your company and your comments on what we got up to last year and wish you all  “A very Happy New Year”.

I shall try to update the site on a more regular basis this year, this in an effort to provide a more complete picture of what we do here and to enable me to take on board your comments in time to avoid hitting another iceberg should you have spotted one that I have missed.

We are going into 2013 with nine colonies although I am not too hopeful of the one in hive nine. It was formed quite late in the year and is housed in one of my mating nucs., not because I necessarily wanted another colony but I’d found a very nice queen cell and didn’t want to waste it, also, it’s a good thing to have a spare queen at one’s disposal. So, hive 9, one to keep my eye on.

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It occurred to me that I haven’t as yet told you how the hives are numbered. Over the last couple of years there have been a few changes to the hive set-up with new colonies being introduced and unitings etc. and it was becoming confusing even for me to remember the origins of each hive. I’ll begin by telling how each colony was originally named as that was how they were referred to in previous paragraphs and how they are now and will be for the foreseeable future.

The small hive immediately right of the shed, I always referred to as my Nuc.hive because it started life as half of one of my mating nucs. back in May, is now Hive 1. Hive 2 is next and next to that was hive 7. Why was it numbered 7, sorry, can’t remember, but it’s now hive 3. The next two were 3 and 4, now 4 and 5. Hive 6 was always referred to as The Garden Hive because it began it’s life, yes you guessed, in my back garden. Hive 7 I’ve always thought of as Nuc.hive 1 as it was born at the same time as the other Nuc. hive (now 1) but was superior in every way and the hive to it’s right, now 8 was 5/6 born as a result of uniting 5 and 6 the previous year. The hive to the left of the solar wax extractor is no.9. So there we have it, now even I know what we’re talking about. We have, from left to right. Queen mating nuc.,currently no.9, Solar extractor, Small shed, Hives 1, 2 and 3. Then I have a nuc.stand and my bait hive followed by hives 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. The hive on the far right is my other queen mating nuc.

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                                            Hive 9, solar extractor and shed

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                                      Hives 1,2 add 3, Nuc stand and Bait hive

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                                                              Hives 4,5 & 6

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                                              Hives 7 & 8. and empty mating Nuc.

So, there we have it, Mendip Apiary in all it’s glory.

As I stated previously, I do try to visit my little apiary as often as I can, usually dictated by the weather, especially at this time of year, and up until now there has been little to report, the weather in this neck of the woods has been at best appalling, until yesterday. Yesterday, 11th January, was a cold and frosty day but for the first time this year, the sun shone. Might see a few bees about I thought as I arrived at the meadow and I wasn’t to be disappointed. With the exception of 9, which didn’t really surprise me, there were bees flying from each hive. A really pleasing sight. One thing I noticed which at first set a few alarm bells ringing, was that quite a number of bees were leaving the hive and flying straight down onto the grass in front of them. I’ve seen them do this on occasions carrying their dead cousins but that was not the case on this occasion.So what was accounting for this behaviour. Well, I needn’t have worried, it soon became obvious that they were collecting water. There had been a heavy dew that morning and the grass was covered in small water droplets and it was these that were attracting the bees attention. I watched their comings and goings for a few minutes before leaving feeling quite reassured and happy with what I’d seen.

It’s Friday 18th January, although widely forecast, it was still something of a shock to find five inches of snow surrounding my little house when I peered through the curtains this morning.

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A week of contrasts, we’ve had drizzle, mist and fog and now snow. In amongst all of that, Wednesday had seen the sun shining down from a near cloudless sky on to a frost covered meadow. This was the day my friend Liz and I had arranged to administer my little colony’s Oxalic acid treatment. Couldn’t be better I thought. So, why Oxalic acid, well I’ll come to that in a moment but firstly maybe, I should share my thoughts on what is to my mind, certainly at this time of writing, the most deadly threat to our honey bees and how we here at Mendip, try to keep it under control. I’m, of course referring here to VARROA.

So, what is Varroa and why is it so important to at best, try to totally eradicate it or at the very least, keep it well under control. Well, because these creatures can move from bee to bee they are instrumental in the spread of disease and by feeding on the bee’s blood,(yes, I know they don’t have blood in the true sense of the word, but it helps me to think of it as such) they can if left un-checked so debilitate a colony as to render it useless a  honey production unit in the short term, and ultimately to lead to it’s complete collapse. We know also that colonies with a high Varroa infestation are, because of their weakened state, more succeptable to other deseases and it has also been sugested that Varroa might be the prime cause of CCD, (Colony collapse disorder), especially prevalent in the U.S. although, to my mind, the way they treat their bees, and by that I mean, humping them sometimes thousands of miles from one monoculture to another is probably more of a contributing factor, but maybe more of that later.

There are many specialist books and publications on the subject of beekeeping and all of them will in some shape or form, seek to deal with the subject of Varroa. It is not the aim of this blog to educate or compete with them in any way,so I’ll spare you words like Haemolymph and the like, rather to share with you what we do here at Mendip. I will however, just briefly describe the little blighter for the benefit of anyone who hasn’t yet come across it. It is about the size of a pin head, roughly 1.5mm in diameter,crab like with eight legs. It varies from yellow to bright orange in colour, probably dependant on whether it has just fed. It lays it’s eggs in the bee’s brood nest and it is on brood that the larvae feed. Drone brood is favoured probably due to it’s size. Adult Varroa will be found on flying bees but will be found in much greater numbers on nurse or clustering bees. The reason for this is, because Varroa are themselves unable to fly they are only able to migrate from bee to bee on bees which themselves are not flying.

So, what are the first signs of Varroa, what should we be looking for. When you examine your comb you should always be looking for any bees which are behaving out of the ordinary, look for bees which appear to be dragging themselves across the comb or are smaller than their sisters. Deformed wings are in my opinion, the most sure sign that you have a Varroa problem and you will more often than not, observe this at the hive entrance, so my advice, look out for it. As I’ve said in earlier paragraphs, take the time to look at your bees and learn from what you see.

So, how do we best deal with the problem. Well, as I said earlier, I can only describe what I do here and what seems to work for me, so here goes.

Firstly, because we know Varroa can be transferred between bees, it makes good sense to limit anything which brings bees from different hives into contact with one another so, do all you can to discourage robbing and drifting.

We know that drone brood is the preferred host so periodic drone brood removal and monitoring is advisable. A shallow frame placed in the brood chamber will encourage drone production. This frame can then be regularly removed with the help of a brood comb and examined. Contaminated comb can be scraped off and disposed of, don’t put it in your wax extractor.The occupants of your bird table will make very good use of it given the chance.

We give 4/5 dustings of icing sugar at weekly intervals as soon as the brood has started to build up.This is just a decent handful scattered on top of the open brood chamber and brushed backwards and forwards so that it falls down between the combs. You will know that you’ve used enough when the bees fly out looking like so many miniature snowmen. The thinking behind this is that the bees, will, in cleaning the sugar off themselves, dislodge any Varroa which have attached themselves.There is a school of thought which says floors should be left in so that the Varroa drop can be monitored. If you chose this path, only leave them in for an hour or so as any longer will allow the mites to climb back up into the hive.I find I can more accurately count my Varroa using the jar described in the section on kit.

After the supers have been removed we give all the colonies an application of “Apiguard”  (TM) which seems to work for us. There are other treatments available and all come with instructions.

The last treatment we give is one of Oxalic Acid. We do this when the bees have clustered, usually just before or shortly after Christmas, this is also an opportunity to quickly heft the hives.( Glad to say, all mine appear to still have plenty of stores so no worries there. Sadly, as I suspected, hive 9 had failed to make it ). So, pick a cold, dry day, preferably when no bees are flying and be quick, have everything you need to hand. The object is to disturb the bees as little as possible, bear in mind they are clustered and the last thing we want is to chill them. The Oxalic Acid crystals come with full instructions, we use tepid water not wishing to shock the bees more than necessary and add the sugar just before applying. With a syringe apply 5ml. per frame, no more than 50ml per hive in total. It takes about 20 seconds per hive.

             Loading the syringe                            Applying the acid. 5ml per frame

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Why Oxalic Acid, well it is said that it damages the legs of the mite and so no longer able to grip it’s host, it falls off. And I’m sure it does although I have to say, I’ve never seen a legless mite, this despite having been legless myself on more than one occasion, but enough of that. So, there we have it, our thoughts on Varroa here at Mendip, I hope you find them useful. I’d be very interested to receive your views on the subject.

Saturday 26th January, another week of contrasts weather wise. Three days of snow followed by a day of what is best described as sleety rain. Well, whatever it was, it was pretty unpleasant. I did manage to visit the apiary each day if only for a minute or two. I like to satisfy myself that there has been no unwanted attention, from woodpeckers, badgers and the like. I also like to make sure the entrances are clear, it’s surprising how much snow can build up over night. On more than one occasion several of the entrances have been completely blocked.But today, what a contrast, brilliant blue sky, hardly a cloud to be seen and a watery sun shining across the still snow covered meadow. I could see from quite some distance away that there was activity around the hives and so there was. Bees were issuing from all but 1, 2 and 3 which are in the shade until well past mid-day at this time of year and in quite some numbers. They seemed in the main to be flying down onto the snow, then, after about five minutes, returning to the hive. I am pretty sure they were collecting water.They appeared in good spirits, taking little or no notice of me. I’m always a little apprehensive following the Oxalic acid treatment as obviously the treatment does involve disturbing the brood nest however briefly so I’m always pleased and a little relieved when I next see them flying. I felt very happy that all was well when I left them today.

Monday 4th Febuary and as with most days, late morning saw me at the bottom of the meadow. A mixed day weather wise but 11.30 saw the meadow bathed in sunshine. I was surprised at how quickly the early morning mist had cleared. The sun felt pleasantly warm on my back, a feeling I’d almost forgotten. I had hoped to see activity from all the hives as they were all getting a share of the sun but not to be. At the time of leaving there were bees issuing from hives 4, 7 and 8, and this has been the pattern on the previous half dozen visits. I had also hoped that by now I’d be able to start proving my theory that colonies that had spent the Summer and overwintered on double brood chambers would be the first to build up in the Spring but as 4,7 and 8 are on brood and a half, single brood and double respectively all I’ve succeeded in proving so far is that I’ve proven nothing. Ah well, maybe I’m being a little premature, we’ll see what happens over the next few weeks. I did sneak a quick look under the roof of one of the other hives and there seemed to be plenty of activity so as I said, maybe I’m being a little premature. Plenty of Snowdrops on the banks of the brook, a pleasing sight and a sure sign that Spring is just around the corner.

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              Snowdrops in abundance, a sure sign that Spring is just around the corner.

I told earlier that hive 9 had failed to make it through the Winter. I was not that surprised as it was quite late in the year when I had started them off and I could see that there were not many drones flying. The chance of the Queen mating successfuly was pretty remote, but as I said, it was a lovely looking Queen cell and I thought it worth a try. So what now, well, whenever a hive becomes vacant we follow the same procedure. Firstly the hive is removed to the shed where it is dismantled and checked to see if any maintenance work is required. Glad to say, apart from a couple of locating plugs missing, all was well. If I was uncertain as to the reason for the colony’s demise a sample of dead bees would be sent for analysis. In this instance, I am satisfied that the reason was that the Queen had failed to mate, if in fact she had ever hatched, and they had failed through lack of numbers. This was further born out by the fact that there were only a handful of dead bees left in the hive.

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With the hive dismantled I next remove the frames and cut out the comb. I discard the comb not wishing to take a chance by re-cycling it. The frames will be boiled to remove any wax and will then be fitted with fresh foundation. All of the woodwork is then scoured with a gas blow lamp before receiving a liberal dose of preservative, paying particular attention to any seams.

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In this case and because it is one of my Queen mating nuc’s, the partition will be re-inserted along with fresh foundation.

And that’s it, ready to take it’s place back in the meadow and await the coming year.

Monday 18th February and what a day, a frosty start but by 10.30 the sun shone out of a clear blue sky, gone the chill east wind of the previous day. For the first time this year I was in shirt sleeves. A good day to finish off hive 9 in readiness for the coming season. So, a couple of minor repairs followed by a liberal coat of preservative and a job well done and I have to say, a real pleasure to be in the meadow on a day like this. The bees were in obvious agreement as they were issuing in good numbers from each hive, a pleasing and reassuring sight. There are a couple of patches of Crocuses in the lawn and these were in full bloom, an event which hadn’t escaped the bee’s attention  Knowing the price of saffron, I decided I must be breeding bees with expensive tastes without knowing it, ah well, I took a couple of pic’s anyway.

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We’re now nearing the end of the second week in March,another couple of weeks of contrast weather wise. It has for the most, been extremely cold with biting winds coming in from the North East bringing with them sleet and the occasional snow flurry but more importantly, keeping the temperature well below freezing for most of the time. Quite suprisingly, in amongst all that, there have been a couple of beautiful, mild sunny days. It’s as if one suddenly wakes up on a different planet. You go to bed with the roofs white with frost and a wind more suited to the Arctic and wake to the sun streaming in through the window from a cloudless sky. Last Wednesday was such a day. I arrived at the meadow just before mid-day and made my way down to the bees. From fully twenty or more yards away I could hear the sound of buzzing and as I got closer, could see activity outside every hive. A very pleasing sight it has to be said.

I decided one way to make the most of the day would be to give hive 9 a final coat of preservative, this would also give me an opportunity to see if any further repairs were required. Glad to say, all seemed well.

   Central partition plus a couple of frames fitted.

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                                                                             So there it is, all ready for the coming year. One better than the one just past I hope. There are so many things I want to try here at Mendip, not least of all, my Queen-rearing programme. Hopefully, a couple of months from now will see these Nuc’s fulfilling their intended purpose, I do hope so.

Before leaving, I decided to quickly heft a couple of the hives, just to get some idea of what stores they had left and I was suprised at how light they were compared with six weeks earlier. So, what to do ?

Although, as I said, Wednesday was, for the time of year, “a nice day”, it was still far to cold to disturb the brood chamber to ascertain for certain the stores situation. So, the situation as I saw it. Firstly, it is impossible to foresee the weather tomorrow let for alone the next few weeks, so, the first full inspection, could be weeks away.The amount of pollen I witnessed coming in that day told me the Queens had started laying so, soon more mouths to feed. Add to that the fact that bees were flying at every opportunity and therefore using more stores and I could see a possible disaster unfolding. I went straight home and made up a gallon of thick syrup which I applied the next day. Fortunately the rain held off for an hour so I gave each colony about a pint using surface feeders. Now, I’m fully aware that early feeding can stimulate Queens to start laying too soon and this in itself can lead to problems causing an imbalance in the amount of brood and the number of bees available to incubate them.I am also well aware that bees are unable to access syrup if the weather is too cold but I found myself ” between a rock and a hard place “. I had no fondant or candy to hand and was about to be out of town for a few days, however, I did have some sugar. Having witnessed a colony in the past which had perished through starvation and not wishing to see it repeated here, I took the decision that feeding syrup was the lesser evil. To my mind, there can be few things more pleasing to behold than a healthy brood frame, it’s occupants busily going about their chosen tasks. So preoccupied with what they’re doing that, unless handled carelessly, they will totally ignore their handler, but a frame from a colony which has starved, there can be few sights more pitiful. Just writing about it, I can recall the sight of brood frames being removed from a stricken colony, each cell housing the body of a dead bee, showing just it’s tail, where it had perished trying to glean the last drop of honey. Not a pretty sight and as I said earlier, not one I wished to see repeated here at Mendip,so feed them syrup I did.

Third week in March and almost a carbon copy of the last. Rain, sleet, fog and now Wednesday, as if by magic, sun beating down from a clear blue sky and lots of activity in the meadow. Bees issuing in good numbers from all but number three but I was not overly concerned as at this time of year, three is shaded by one and two and it’s occupants are usually the last to emerge. Always reminds me of teenage kids, some are up at the crack of dawn but for others, the crack of noon still is too early in the day to rise, ah well. Took a couple of pic’s, bees didn’t come out too well but take my word for it , they are there, honestly.

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