ANOTHER YEAR BEGINS HERE AT MENDIP

Allow me to begin by wishing you a Happy New Year and welcoming you back to my Mendip Apiary blog. I don’t know how your year has begun but here in the West Country. the weather has dominated the news. We have, in the space of the last three weeks, suffered almost continuous gale force winds and often torrential rain which in turn has lead to large areas of countryside being under water. With the brook behind my apiary being swollen and at times a torrent, I have been more than a little concerned that one morning I would visit the meadow to find it flooded and that my little apiary had sailed off into the sunset. Thankfully, at least thus far, my concerns have been unfounded in fact, on all but the wettest days, there have been bees flying, quite amazing. All with the exception of two and three, that is, I hadn’t seen any activity from them since before Christmas. It always sets the alarm bells ringing when for no apparent reason, a colony, or as in this case, two, start behaving differently than the rest but with the weather so unpredictable, no choice but to leave them to it for the moment.

It was last Wednesday, the ‘phone rang, it was my friend Liz. “Geoff, the forcast for tomorrow is good, I thought it’d be a good oportunity to give the bees their Oxalic acid treatment”. Liz buys the acid and mixes it and I am just one of several beekeepers in the area that she visits with her syringe. I’ll say this without fear of contradiction, if you decide to take up beekeeping, first find yourself a friend like Liz, you’ll have taken the first step towards success.

For once the forcasters had got it right, Thursday saw the sun beating down from a cloudless sky. We had arranged to meet at 2 o’clock but as it was such a lovely morning, and the first since Christmas, I couldn’t wait. I arrived at the meadow mid morning and could see from barely half way down, a real frenzy of activity around the hive entrances, but again, worryingly, nothing outside two or three. The wind of the last few weeks had dropped and the sun felt pleasantly warm on my back as I made my way across the meadow. I was more than pleased to see a great deal of activity outside hive one. It was, if you remember, they that had born the brunt of the wasps attention earlier, and I had more or less resigned myself to losing them. So, good news indeed.

Whilst seeing so many flying bees this early in the year is in a way very good news, confirming as it does, that this far at least, the bees have successfuly over wintered it does give rise to other concerns. Flying bees consume far more stores than do clustered  bees and from the point of today’s visit, oxalic acid treatment is most effective when administered to clustered bees. Not wishing Liz to have a wasted journey I thought best to give her a ring. “I’ll come over anyway” said Liz, “they’ll probably start going back in as the sun goes down”. As usual Liz was right, at this time of year the sun moves round quickly and by 2.30 we could see, as we made our way down across the meadow, the hives were now in the shadow of the trees and that the bulk of the bees had returned home.

Like so many tasks that we undertake, two pairs of hands make the job so much easier. With me lifting the lids and Liz on the syringe, the whole operation took less than twenty minutes. The bees in the main, were only losely clustered and with the exception of one or two, didn’t seem to mind our intrusion, (there are always one or two aren’t there)  and I only got stung a couple of times. I took the oportunity to heft the hives and was pleased to note that they all appeared to have an abundance of stores and also, they all had plenty of bees which was most gratifying. This included two and three who, unlike the others, were very tightly clustered. This then was why there had been no flying bees earlier, but why. Why when all the others were flying did they remain tightly clustered, the hive set-up is no different to all the others, the entrances all face different directions and they all over winter on mesh floors, so, for me at least, another mystery. I am constantly amazed at just how often these tiny creatures are able to confuse and confound me. It has to be one of the main things that keep my interest alive and I’m truly grateful for that.

Before leaving my little apiary I took the decision to give them all some fondant at the first oportunity. I reasoned, if this Spring follows last year’s pattern then who knows when the next chance to feed will be.I seem to recall feeding syrup last year during the first week in June. My thoughts on feeding, quite simple really, if you allow them to run out of stores, they starve, if you feed and they don’t use it all you’ve lost is a couple of pints of syrup. Better lose a couple of pints of syrup or a slab of fondant than a colony for the want of it. So, last Saturday saw me making the most of the Spring sunshine and back at the meadow with nine portions of fondant, honey bees for the use of. These I place on a tray of kitchen foil or used margerine lids and leave on the top bars of the hive. This means the bees don’t have to travel far to access the fondant, a consideration if the weather turns really cold when the bees are reluctant to travel far outside the cluster.

Now, I don’t know about you but there is a nuisance value accompanying anything which sits on the top bars, and it’s the need for an eke. Ekes are in my opinion, a nuisance in themselves, requiring to be taken to site when required and removed and stored when not. This was one of factors which prompted me to not only switch to Adams feeders for all my bulk feeding but to dispense with crown boards all together. Now I leave the feeders permanently on the hives.

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                         ADAMS FEEDER IN USE, BEES TAKING FULL ADVANTAGE

                                                                                                                                             Here, I’m going to extoll what I see as the virtues of the Adams feeder, but, please bear in mind, these are just my thoughts and only that.

Firstly, the Adams feeder is cheap and simple to make, especially compared with the

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                                   PRODUCTION LINE IN FULL SWING

Ashforth which, with it’s complicated tooling, is virtually impossible for the average DIY enthusiast, and, the Adams is multi-functional. I’ll explain. In feeder mode, it is simple to fill or top up with no disturbance to the bees. If the bees are reluctant to come up, a dribble of syrup down the feed hole usually does the trick. I mark a scale on the inside wall of mine so that I

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                                SCALE REVEALS AT A GLANCE, SYRUP LEVEL

can see at a glance how much syrup has been used or is required at any time. When the feeder is all but empty and I’ve finished feeding, the cup covering the feed hole is removed allowing the bees to come up and remove any residue syrup. The Ashforth, by comparison, has to be positioned so as to fall towards the feed slots otherwise valuable syrup will be left in the feeder and out of reach of the bees. also, the glass strip on the Ashforth is particularly vulnerable, especially when stuck in place with propolis. When I have finished feeding, I cover the feed hole with a piece of kitchen foil held in place with an elastic band.             

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         KITCHEN FOIL CONVERTS FEEDER BACK TO CROWN BOARD 

My feeder has now become a crown board. When I apply my varroa treatment, here I use Apiguard, or when they receive fondant, both of which I lay on the top bars, the feeder is simply inverted and becomes my eke. Following this, it is once again returned right way up and reverts painlessly back to a crown board. I was at first concerned that the absense of the ventilation which comes with a conventional crown board would lead to a build up of condensation but I needn’t have worried. The volume of still air held within the feeder seems to act as an insulative cushion, keeping the hive body away from the cold roof, the source of most of the condensation in my opinion. Bear in mind here that I over winter all my hives on mesh floors and my roofs have a thin polystyrene sheet affixed to their undersides. The results may not be quite the same were that not so but if condensation is a problem matchsticks could still be used as spacers placed at the corners to slightly raise the feeder. So, it is all as simple as that and that is why, here at Mendip, the Adams feeder is the choice for me. Looking at it, appreciating it’s simplicity and multiplicity of uses, it was obviously the brainchild of a Master Beekeeper and as we all know, Brother Adam was nothing if not that. 

So, that’s about it for now, I shall continue to visit my little apiary as often as the weather permits. Other than hefting the hives every couple of weeks and barring any unforseen catastrophy, I won’t touch the hives again before the middle of next month when I shall clean all the floors, these will be scraped prior to being scoured with a blow lamp before being replaced. To do this I first move hive one to one side complete with floor, I’m fortunate here that there is sufficient room on the hive stands to do this. I then put a new floor in it’s place. It is then a simple matter to unclip the hive floor from one and transfer the hive back to it’s original position on the new floor. The old floor is treated in the way already described and will now become the floor of hive two. This is repeated along the line and eventually ends up with the last floor returning to store. Doing it in this way, the whole operation takes less than an hour and the bees are barely aware that anything has happened. If I haven’t already done so, I will remove the mouse guards at this time. Towards the end of the month or as soon as I see pollen being taken in, sugesting to me, the queen has started laying, I shall replace the floor slides. I shall leave them on the hives until I’m happy the risk of frost has passed. I do this to raise the temperature slightly to assist the incubation of the emerging brood. Whether it does make a difference I have no way of knowing, but that’s what I do here, if for no reason other than, I feel happier knowing I’ve given them all the help I can. I just wish the little blighters would show their appreciation just for once and stop stinging me at every oportunity. Ah well.

We’re just entering the second week in February and as usual. it’s been raining for most of the week. I can’t remember the last day that we’ve had this year when it didn’t rain for at least half of it. So, not much to report. I’ve managed to get to the meadow most days and pleased to say, there have been a few bees making the most of any gaps in the showers. Nothing much to do other than to keep the entrances clear. With the entrances still restricted and the mouse guards still on, the bees do find it difficult to eject their dead sisters, so I do assist if I see the entrances getting clogged up. With the number of colonies somehow having increased since last season, I am again short of Adams   feeders. I could also make use a couple more frame feeders. I’ve high hopes that this year will see all my mating nuc’s occupied, unlike previous years it has to be said, and if this does come to pass, I shall definitely need more frame feeders. This feeder is my prefered method of feeding nuc’s.

There’s not a great deal one can do outside at this time of year so it’s an ideal oportunity to get any hive bits repaired or replaced. I’m fortunate that all the hives are in good order apart from needing a coat of Cuprinol which they all get once a year anyway. Sometime before the season gets underway I want to make another eke to convert another hive to extended brood, 12″ x 14″ but for the moment my task is to make some more feeders. Both the Adams and the frame feeder are fairly simple to make, put another way, if I can make them, I’m sure you can. In the event that you are tempted to have a go but are not sure how best to start, I’ll tell you how I go about it here at Mendip.

My first step is a trip to B & Q.where I make use of their excellent timber cutting service. 6mm. exterior grade ply forms the base of all my feeders and is also the base of my crown boards, Rhombus escapes and Cloake boards. As all these have the same dimensions it makes sense to me to have a whole sheet cut to the same size pieces,i.e. 460 mm.square, that way I’ve always some pieces in reserve. I get ten pieces from one sheet with enough left over to make a number of frame feeders and dummy boards, this at a cost of a little over twenty pounds, so good value I think. For the sides I’ve used 18 x 94 mm. finished softwood. ( I would have used sawn but on this occasion they didn’t have any.)  These come in 2.1 M. lengths so you will need one length for each feeder. From memory I think a pack of four cost around twelve pounds. These I have cut to 442 mm.lengths. I also buy a couple of metres of 12 mm. quadrant, this to re-enforce the corners of the feeders. The beauty of B & Q’s cutting service as I see it, is apart from the obvious savings in time and effort, is that all the cuts are perfectly square, an important consideration when you’re making something that needs to be water tight. So, the first step is to drill a 28mm. hole in the centre of the base board.

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                                28mm HOLE DRILLED IN BASE BOARD

Next, glue and pin the sides to the base and pin the quadrant to the corners.

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                 SIDES GLUED AND PINNED TO BASE, QUADRANT FITTED

The next job is the centre post. The dimensions aren’t too important other than it needs to be about 20mm.shorter than the height of the sides and small enough for your plastic cup to cover it. This will also need a 28mm. hole drilled through it. I find it easier to drill the holes before cutting the posts to size.

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                          HOLE DRILLED BEFORE POST CUT TO LENGTH

The post is then glued and pinned over the hole in the base board prior to all internal joints receiving a caulking of mastic.

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                          POST FITTED AND ALL INTERNAL JOINTS CAULKED

When the mastic has set I fit a 6mm.spacing bead around the underside of the feeder. All that remains then is to plane off any rough edges.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA                                6mm SPACING BEAD FITTED TO UNDERSIDE

Next and final step is to decorate. Mine get three coats of Cuprinol on the outside and a coat of primer followed by two coats of gloss on the inside.

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                            AWAITING FINAL COATS OF GLOSS AND CUPRINOL

When the gloss is dry, I give the post one more coat and onto this I sprinkle a handful of sand. This gives the bees a good foothold while they’re accessing the syrup. I shake the surplus sand off after the gloss has dried.

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                                               NEARING COMPLETION

I use transparent plastic cups to cover the feed posts. These can be purchased from most supermarkets or Poundshops. I like to use transparent cups as it enables me to see what the bees are doing without disturbing them.

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                                          CUP IN FINAL POSITION

Make sure the cups are big enough to cover the posts leaving enough space for the bees, but not so tall so as to stick up above the sides of the feeder. I cut four little slots in the edges of the cups, these to allow free passage of syrup to the posts.

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                                                      SLOTS IN BASE OF CUP

I use a soldering iron for this as it produces a neat opening but no doubt, the same could be achieved with a craft knife. I try to keep the slots small so as to prevent the bees getting into the feeder as it empties. I’ve found that although they will get through easily enough if you let them, they seem to find it difficult to find their way back resulting in a feeder full of sticky dead bees. It is a simple matter to remove the cup for a couple of days when you’ve finished feeding to allow the bees into the feeder to clean up. With the cup removed they seem to find their way home with little or no difficulty.

As is usual, yesterday morning saw me at the meadow. I’ve been trying to give the feeders a second coat of gloss but the damp weather has prevented the first coat from properly drying. Yesterday was no exception, the paint was touch dry but still too tacky to try a second coat. Nothing for it but wait another couple of days. I had decided in addition to the Adams feeders, to make a couple of frame feeders, so, not being in a position to finish the Adams, at least for the moment, I decided to push on with the frame feeders. There was enough off-cuts from the 6mm ply to make two feeders and I had a length of 32 x 6mm for the frames. I decided to have a quick look at the bees before starting on  the feeders and as expected, there was little or no activity at the hive entrances. It was another miserable day so I couldn’t blame them for their reluctance to emerge. By the time I had walked back up the meadow it had started to rain again, not torrential, but with the wind driving it towards the garage entrance, hard enough to convince me that maybe today wasn’t the day to be stood in the garage wielding my hammer.

I think I may have mentioned previously that my other hobby is Fly-fishing and that I am a member of my local fishing club. I am a club Bailiff and do try to visit the waters within my jurisdiction at least once a week. Why mention this, well, with frame building seemingly out of the question, and my nearest water being in the field behind my litle Apiary, it semed the next best thing to be doing and so, that’s how I spent the next couple of hours. It’s similar in a way to beekeeping in that, you meet like minded people, most of them good natured and pleasant company. All with their own ideas as to the best way to go about their hobby and not afraid to make their thoughts known. I don’t fish very often myself nowadays but I do enjoy meeting the other members and exchanging ideas, much the same as I do at our open Apiary meetings.

So, with my Bailiffing duties over and the sun now shining, I decided to give my feeder building another go. Ten minutes saw me back at the meadow which was by now, bathed in Spring sunshine. The Snowdrops and Crocus have been in flower for a couple of weeks now and I could see from where I was sitting in the car, that the latter were receiving quite a lot of attention from my bees, a very welcome sight. I decided another quick visit to the apiary was the order of the day and so down across the meadow went I. From barely half way down I was aware of a faint buzzing sound and a few more steps revealed the source. The bottom of the meadow was alive with flying bees, not as many as on a Summer’s day, but certainly many more than I had witnessed so far this year. They took absolutely no notice of me, so intent were they on going about their business. I suppose the sunshine has the same effect on all of us. Draw back the curtains and see the rain lashing against the windows accompanied by the wind outside approaching gale force and the first thought, do I really have to leave my warm duvet and face all this again. Part the curtains and see the sun cracking the pavements, open the window and feel a warm breeze against your cheek, it’s hard to believe you’re on the same planet, you can feel your spirits lifting, mine are now just at the thought of it. That’s how I felt as I approached the nearest hive, as I said, the bees were completely oblivious to me. For a moment I had left my world and had become a part of theirs and was loving every minute of it. I watched as they pushed past each other, so keen were the bees inside to get out and the bees outside, to get back in to deposit their tiny bales of pollen.

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                                            AS ACTIVE AS I’VE SEEN THIS YEAR

I’m sure they would have pushed me out of the way had they been able. I’m not sure how long I was with them, time does seem to stand still at times. Eventually I tore myself away and  made my way back up the meadow, back to my feeders, if you remember, the reason for my visit in the first place, but well pleased with what I’d seen.

So, to the frame feeders, they are simplicity itself to make. I’ll tell you how I go about it here at Mendip. The first step is to trace the outline of a brood frame onto two sheets of 6mm exterior grade ply. In my case, these were off cuts from the ply I had bought for the Adams feeders.

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                            TRACE THE BROOD FRAME OUTLINE ONTO THE PLY

The next job is to cut them out, a jig saw makes the job quick and easy but as all the cuts are straight, a rip or tenon saw will do. Cut a 6mm strip from the top edge, this to allow the bees access to the syrup.

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                                   6MM.ACCESS STRIP CUT FROM TOP EDGE

The frame is cut from 6 x 32mm planed strip. This gives the feeder a finished width of 44mm. The frame is glued and pinned together before being fixed in similar fashion to the ply side panels.

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                                        GLUED AND PINNED TOGETHER

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                                               THE FINISHED ARTICLE

All that is required now is to tidy up any rough edges and remove any surplus glue. Each feeder takes a couple of hours to make and costs less than three pounds. Well worth the effort.

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