Winter Beekeeping Update With Dr Ken Baird

Jan 10 2020

By Dr Ken Baird - Beekeeper & INIB Secretary 

Since the previous update in June the bees have been busy, busy, busy! All the work carried out since last September resulted in 3 strong healthy colonies ready to take maximum advantage of the main summer flow of nectar in July (the 4th colony’s queen had failed early in the season and had to be replaced which set that colony back). At this time the colonies were at maximum strength of 50 -60,000 bees with lots of foragers from eggs laid in May*.

It’s vital at this time that they have adequate space in the hive to ripen and store the honey and space for the queen to lay the ~2000 eggs a day she is capable of producing. If not, they are likely to decide a new home is required and prepare to swarm. The extra space was provided as supers. The honey for harvesting is stored by the bees in comb in these supers which are separated from the comb in the brood chamber by a queen excluder (a barrier with holes that allow workers to pass but prevents the much larger queen to pass). This means there are no eggs, larvae or pupae in the frames from which honey is to be harvested. 

At the beginning of August the main honey crop was harvested. The worker bees were gently brushed off the frames of honey-filled comb which were placed in bee-proof boxes for removal and spinning. This year an attempt was made to produce section honey but with only moderate success. Section honey is the creme de la creme of honeys. Good sections command high prices and beekeepers will tell you the reason is that they are hard got. The bees hate to work all those corners and will often swarm instead. Let’s hope for better success next year!

Larchfield Estate Honeypots

Immediately after the honey was harvested, preparations for overwintering began. The chief enemy of our bees is the varroa mite Varroa destructor and the first task was to assess levels of this parasite and if necessary treat the colonies. Levels were found to be low but above the threshold for treatment. Oxalic acid sublimation treatment was used. This is a very effective ‘natural’ method and uses oxalic acid which is a human, plant, and algal metabolite (e.g. significant levels exist in rhubarb leaves). Its big disadvantage is that it doesn’t kill mites in sealed brood cells (where they breed), only those on bees, so a number of treatments had to be applied to kill mites that were protected in sealed cells, as they hatched.

Bees being born at this time of the year are winter bees which have a slightly different metabolism and morphology and can live for up to 6 months (over the winter) in contrast to the usual 6 weeks.

Full hives of bees need about 35 to 40lbs of honey to see them through the winter so they need to replenish their stores to this level before the cold autumn weather arrives. Not all of their honey is ‘stolen’ - only what the beekeeper estimates to be excess to winter requirements. Ivy is a major source of nectar at this time but it produces a very crystalline honey which is difficult for the bees to use. Feeding sugar syrup at this time serves two purposes – it helps the bees get to their target stores level more quickly and when mixed with the ivy nectar, produces a more easily accessed food. Stores levels were assessed by hefting (lifting one side of the hive a few centimetres) – all have enough stores to see them through the winter including a new 5th WBC hive which was purchased and populated with a new Buckfast queen and bees from a nucleus hive.

The final tasks of the year were performed in late October and included placing insulation on the top boards (to prevent condensation) and fixing mouse guards over the reduced entrances (mice can take up residence enjoying the ready food source and warmth of the hive but creating chaos in the process).

*Bees spend the first 3 weeks of their life as house bees going through a range of duties as they get older and their glands mature –

1 – 2 Days cleans cells and warm the brood nest

3 – 5 Days feeds older larvae with honey and pollen

6 – 11 Days feeds young larvae with royal jelly

12 – 17 Days produces wax and constructs comb, ripens honey

18 – 21 Days guard the hive entrance and ventilate the hive

From about 22 days till the end of their life (40-50 days) they become foragers collecting nectar, pollen, propolis and water.

    Guests staying at Larchfield Estate can enjoy beekeeping masterclasses with Dr Ken Baird, in addition to hands-on candle making workshops using wax from our very own bees! Click here to chat to our team about corporate or private stays & workshops at Larchfield Estate