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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