The weather was mild, the bees were riled, and the comb was wild

From Simon's beekeeping blog. Comments are welcome via email.


It seems like forever since I last wrote anything here. Mid-October turned out to be the last time that weather conditions reasonably allowed a full inspection. For the last month or so, this corner of Somerset has been cold and often wet. It's beautiful around here at this time of year, but looking back over the entries from the summer, I find myself missing those warm, long evenings.

Since the last update, I attended the AGM of the Burnham-on-Sea branch of the Somerset Beekeepers' Association. I learned that the Association are holding a lecture day on Saturday 15 February 2020 in Somerton. Speaking are Clive de Bruyn, Nikos Tsiougkos, Dinah Sweet and Lars Chittka, whose Bee Sensory and Behavioural Ecology Lab was only in the next building over when I worked in the OR lab at QMUL. Tickets are £5. I hope to go along.

At the AGM, I picked up a 1975 copy of Allan C Waine's textbook Background to Beekeeping. I haven't read much yet, but it has some nice, clear diagrams, a couple of which I've clumsily photographed on my phone and attached to this blog entry. If I can get to a scanner sometime, I'll add a few more.

We went to check on the hives today. Dave last went to the apiary to check that the bees were happy just over a month ago on the 24th October, so they haven't been visited for a long time. In bee terms, it's been bitterly cold and therefore not a good idea to open up the hive. However, today's forecast predicted temperatures of 13°C so we went for it. In the end, we got 14°C after a brief shower of rain at the very start. The plan was to replenish the food, remove the eke containing the Apiguard, and to fit mouse guards for winter.

The temptation to remove frames was much stronger than I expected, but I managed to resist. Taking off the crown board to remove the Apiguard tray, I noticed a few things. Firstly, the tray was about half-full. In retrospect, it had been applied far too late in the year and left there for too long. As I said, the plan was to remove the tray and the eke which enabled it to sit on top of the frames. The bees had built burr comb up past the top bar into the space that the eke provided. They were rather grumpy at this point at having their house invaded, and so rather than destroy the burr comb, I left the eke where it was. I now fully expect to come back to a total mess in the spring, with that space above filled. Maybe if that happens I can move some of the burr comb then — such remedial actions are possibly not advisable today, in cooler temperatures with a colony of moody bees. Yes, it's a mess, but as always, there's a bigger picture — Dave later mentioned that he saw larvae in that comb, and after all it's a sign of activity and therefore health. I'm happy I inserted those two frames earlier in the year now. Maybe I should have added a third.

Regarding feeding, we didn't get much interest in the Fondabee compared to the sugar syrup that September's temperatures allowed. Perhaps the bees are still foraging (good) or are preferring their winter stores (bad). A 1kg bag had been in the super for well over a month since we put it there, and only about 500g had been taken. The fondant was also rather runny and about a dozen bees were stuck in it, or had died trying to escape. Whether this was because of the relatively warm weather (highs of 11°C to 14°C) in the last few days, we don't know. We took the bag out of the hive and replaced it with a fresh 1kg bag, in a more solid state.

It's often said that inadequate ventilation is a bigger winter killer of bees than the cold. However, opinions seem to differ on whether the bottom board should be inserted into the hive over the winter for a little more warmth or kept out for ventilation. Our hives are fairly well-screened by the wind and my bottom board is made of loosely-fitting Correx, so perhaps there'd be a bit of both ventilation and warmth with one in. However, having chatted to Hackspace friends, and after noticing spots of grey mould on Dave's bottom board, I've decided to remove it for winter. Do any other beekeepers out there have any opinions on this?

An equipment update. After being stung during the last inspection, I decided I wasn't brave enough to wear only thin nitrile gloves. I opted for some washable latex gloves with sleeves. Despite looking like glorified Marigolds, these seem like they're of good quality. They work pretty well and fit me better than the leather gloves I used before. Though fine for general manipulation, like any thick glove they were rather clumsy for the intricate job of putting drawing pins through the mouseguards to fix them to the entrance. I gingerly removed one glove for this task, while Dave spoke calmly to the bees in order to pacify them. It worked. Something about him seems to make bees calm. When he fitted his mouseguard, there was barely a complaint from his colony.

Well, just like the activity in the hive, activity on this blog will slow down now until the spring. Dave and I will likely venture out into the cold on the shortest day with an old blanket, a vaporiser and a tractor battery, to give the bees a treatment of oxalic acid. It's also mandatory to wish the bees a merry Christmas a few days after.

Estimated mitesTemper / docilityFeed givenFeed taken awayTreatment removedWeather
C1L71kg Fondabee500g FondabeeApiguard14°C ☁