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This month sees the start of foraging in earnest and also the start of swarming.

Although the oil seed rape was only just down the road the bees only worked it for pollen. The bees foraging for nectar went in the opposite direction. I am now beginning to wonder if modern varieties of rape have significantly reduced amounts of nectar.

Whatever it was they preferred, half the hives worked it vigorously. One hive got up to four supers and the others to two or three.

The colonies which only just made it through the winter have struggled to reach supering size but as two of these have 2016 queens and will be requeened this season.

The first swarm I was called to remove was a poor little bedraggled specimen hanging from a tree near Thaxted Fire Station. It had been there several days and was trying to set up home out in the open.

Thaxted swarm

It was nearly dark when I arrived so it had to wait until the next morning; a night of torrential rain and it was still raining next day. Half of them had been washed down in the night and were comatose mixed in with the recent lawn mowings. It was a ladder job to reach the little swarm and I then swept up as many as I could from the ground hoping that once they were returned to the bosom of their family they would become resuscitated. This did in fact work and most of them recovered. They were a pathetic little bunch when they were eventually hived; just over one frame of 14 x12 in a nucleus hive.

The rape finished flowering two weeks ago and any resulting honey would normally have started crystallizing by now. It’s all still clear which again leads me to conclude that the nectar came from elsewhere. The eventual analysis will be interesting.

I’ve had to perform three Pagden artificial swarms so far with another one to do this week. At the same time as creating the artificial swarm I also take a two-frame nucleus with a queen cell so I have a second string to my bow in the event of a loss on mating flight. The apiary is getting rather crowded now with sixteen hives.

Everything is late this year due to the very long winter; November to March. Colonies have been late building up but fortunately the rape has also been about two weeks late in flowering. This has enabled four colonies to be just about big enough for supering.

All the hives were spring cleaned between 14th and 20th April. This involved giving each colony a clean floor, brood box and crown board. All frames were inspected for disease and age and yellow spacers added to frames which had become too dark brown and needed replacing. These frames will be gradually worked to the edge of the box at each hive inspection and then replaced with foundation once any brood has emerged.

The dirty hives were scraped down and then scorched out with a blow-torch before being used again.

Stuart Roweth has produced yet another new version of his beegym and I will be trialing this in one of the larger colonies. (www.beegym.co.uk)

I have returned to the training scene this year with just two young lady students keen to learn about this absorbing hobby. Having just two students, rather than the six or seven in the past, will I am sure produce a much more rewarding learning environment.

The Asian Hornet justifiably continues to feature high in the list of threats. I have two lure traps, based on the National Bee Unit water-bottle design, hanging in the garden and charged with some of our own home-pressed apple juice. One by the hives and the other by the bee shed. Fortunately nothing yet.

The big question on my mind is whether 2018 will be a repeat of 2017 when it comes to oil seed rape. As the month comes to a close the rape has been on flower for two weeks now and the real-feel down in the apiary is -3, it’s blowing a gale and raining hard. It’s been like this for a week now and is set to continue.

Three flying days in a row now which seemed to herald the glorious anticipation of yet another season but then things turned.  Three weeks of arctic winter has kept them all indoors..

All eight colonies have been flying well and vigorously foraging on the Winter Honeysuckle, the Hellebores and now the crocus. The latter have very deep nectaries so the bees have to stand on their heads and struggle to get their reward.

I have been hefting the hives since the new year just to ensure that their stores are lasting them and all seem to remain fairly heavy.

Unfortunately, the winter oxalic acid treatment was not as successful as I would have liked so I have had to give them another course of Apivar. Weekly counts continue and some hives are now down to two successive zeros whilst others are down to single figures.

The field of rape down the road, easily within flying distance, seemed to have resisted the ravages of the pigeons for a long time but eventually the vermin found it and are now tearing it to pieces.

Once the feeding is all done and the feeders removed, beekeeping becomes a more relaxed pastime. In effect, there is little to be done apart from the oxalic acid varroa treatment and repairs to equipment.

Oxalic acid will achieve an approximate 95% knock down of varroa. Not a complete cure but sufficient to seriously deplete their numbers before the brood rearing starts in earnest.

I mix a 50:50 solution of sugar water and add 18.75g of oxalic acid dihydrate to the mix. This is then dribbled 5ml into each between-frame seam of bees. Having the crown board up on matchsticks makes its removal almost vibration free.

The acid will only kill the mites which are outside the brood cells and cannot touch any beneath a wax capping. It is best therefore to do the treatment after a seriously cold spell which will have reduced the queen’s laying to almost nil. i.e. less sealed brood and hidden varroa.

Charging needle-less hypodermic
Trickling oxalic acid between the frames

 

 

 

 

Each colony can be done in less than a minute and the hive quickly closed up again before the cluster suffers heat loss.

The varroa trays go underneath just to give me an indication of efficacy.

This treatment can only be done once a year as the acid burns the carapace (the dorsal exoskeleton) of the bee and must also burn the bee’s mandibles.

In the workshop I have reinforced the bellows on the stainless-steel smoker, repainted the numbers on the hive roofs and made a new aluminium cover for roof 8.

Apple weekend at Audley End House was once again a terrific weekend. English Heritage say the foot-fall was 4500 over the two days. Talking bees, pollination and honey for two days solid was very tiring but greatly rewarding. One very interesting visitor who introduced herself to me was none other than Ted Hooper’s granddaughter Lauren who told me that sadly, they no longer have a beekeeper in the family.

Winter Feed 2017

The bees have all had their usual amount of winter feed; 8l of sugar solution and 3l of waste honey. Hive 1 had the container of Apikel which I was given. Interestingly not all of this had been taken down but it could have been a case of them not liking it. I removed the feeder, gingerly removed the middle frame to find brood in all stages so carefully replaced it knowing they were queen-right. Had there been a problem, some of the earliest brood would have had emergency queen cells. As it was, the reason was that apart from the brood in the centre, the brood box was chock-a-block with stores.

Three other hives have only taken some of their feed and I’m hoping they are in a similar state because they had ample nectar flowing from all the volunteer borage in the field behind. As Tom, the farmer, freely admitted to me, "Yes, we cocked up there."

Volunteer borage amongst the wheat

The Apivar is almost at the end of its recommended insertion time but the varroa are still dropping high weekly figures. Some are still up in the hundreds per week.  Hopefully they should fall to single figures any day now and the strips can be removed.

All the honey has now been extracted. This year was the first year I noticed such a strong floral smell as I lifted each crown-board. It was possibly the hawthorn which has a strong pungent aroma and is a most erratic yielder. All the honey this year is dark in colour, strong and loth to crystallize. I fear my creamed honey regulars are going to have to get used to clear honey .

One super was simply fitted with eleven starter strips rather than foundation. As the bees drew out this 100% fresh comb, one frame was removed and the remaining ten spaced a little more widely. This gave a slightly wider and heavier comb to cut into blocks. Much of it was also drone comb which, with its larger cells, meant less wax and more honey.

Having removed all the supers I can now complete my records of honey-yield per hive in order to make my decisions as to which queens to over-winter. Eleven colonies and one nucleus are going down to 8 hives. The queen in hive nine was culled and the colony moved around the apiary further than three feet each time placing it alongside other colonies whose number I wanted to boost. Each time it was moved, the flying bees returned to the hive nearest its old position. This way I gradually bled half the colony into other hives. The remainder was then united in its full-sized box with the nucleus colony. Each frame of bees was gently misted with a dilute sugar solution with a drop of oil of lavender to mask the colony aromas and the frames placed alternately into the 14 x 12 box and left for a few days to settle down. This box was then united with hive 1 using the newspaper method. The queen was removed from colony 1 and then later in the evening, this queenless colony was placed above the queen-right colony with a sheet of paper between them. By the time they had nibbled through, their aromas were sufficiently blended as to avoid any confrontation.

The varroa counts have reached scary levels so I decided to treat with Apivar before I feed. Having had Deformed Wing Virus and Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus during the year I thought it best not to just leave it to the beegyms. The hives fitted with beegyms have registered noticeably higher mite-falls but the beegym instructions do say ‘use as part of your integrated pest management’.

Next week we have the ‘Taster Session’ for prospective beekeepers followed by Audley End Apple Weekend. Lots of hard work to finish the season.

Getting an oil-seed-rape harvest gets harder as each year goes by. This year, what the bees were able to forage in the first week of flowering they ate themselves in the five terrible weeks that followed. Fortunately the field beans over the road played a part in bringing the harvest up to an acceptable level. No nice creamy white stuff with which to blend unfortunately.

I have now completed six extraction sessions. Clearer boards, of which I have quite a selection were put on first thing in the morning beneath the full supers. Put them on any later in the day and the bees have had an opportunity to gather more nectar and fill any unfilled or partly filled cells. This is all unripe so raising the average moisture content of the honey.

So, clearer boards on very early then supers gently off late in the day without disturbing them. Next morning can then be devoted entirely to uncapping and extracting with the wet supers going back on late in the evening. Put them on earlier and the sudden blast of honey aroma can cause great excitement with consequential robbing

As an afterthought; how pleasant it is to work with such well behaved bees. Queen selection and rearing means that usually, I can do a brood-box inspection with just one or two puffs of the smoker.

What had seemed an amazing start to the season rapidly turned sour. The marvellous weather we had in March enabled supers to go on eight of the hives earlier than ever before. April arrived, the oil-seed-rape came on flower, and the weather turned for the worst; next to no rain meant no nectar and the bitterly cold winds meant the foragers could not leave the hives. These conditions lasted for almost the whole of the rape’s flowering season. Some of the hives got up to two supers but I added the second just to ensure there was plenty of space to store any incoming nectar.

Varroa counts have continued on a weekly basis and Stuart Roweth (www.beegym.co.uk) has kindly supplied some more up-to-date beegym equipment. His floor-mounted model has been upgraded once again and these are installed in hives 7 & 8. Hive 9 has ten of the new production model minigyms.

Beegym 2017
The latest model Beegym

Varroa has unfortunately been the least of my worries. Last year I had a severe case of CBPV (Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus) in hive 8 which I managed to clear by hand-picking all the infected drones from the combs. This year the virus has swept through all the colonies killing thousands. Being confined to their hives has exacerbated the problem because it meant that infected bees were not dropping out of the sky away on foraging trips but were staying at home to share the infection with their brothers and sisters. To add to the misery I also had cases of DWV (Deformed Wing Virus). Each day the ground in front of the hives has been littered with dead bees, to the extent that I got ‘The man from the ministry’ to come and have a look. He confirmed not only my diagnosis but the fact that there is no known cure. He scooped up several handfuls of dead bees, put them in a carrier-bag to send off for analysis just in case there was something else we hadn’t noticed. All we can really hope for is more rain at night and more sunshine in the day.

Varroa drop record sheet 2017
Weekly varroa drop so far

Over the road is a crop of field beans just about to come on flower but whether they’ll yield a harvest for me as well as the grower remains to be seen.

On a less despondent note, the Saffron Walden beekeepers group had a trip out to Kew Gardens to see The Hive. A marvellous edifice in stainless steel complete with lights and music. Not a lot to do with bees unfortunately, apart from the interior shape, which resembled a skep.

The Hive, Kew
The Hive at London's Kew Gardens