January in Your Apiary

Happy Beekeeping in 2022

As we recover (as needed) from Christmas and New Year festivities, our thoughts now need to be turning to the approaching beekeeping season. The winter solstice has already passed, and despite not having seen much of the sun since then, the day lengths are starting to increase.

Do heed warnings issued by the NBU about high levels of Varroa.

Although we can’t see, preparations for the forthcoming season will be in progress, and with few really cold spells during the last weeks of 2021, patches of brood, in the centre of the colony, will already be underway.

So what tasks should we be contemplating?

  • Now is a good time to review the hive positions in your apiary and move any hives to improve their Winter sun and wind orientation.
  • Heft regularly (lifting a hive side) to assess the weight of stores present without disturbing the colony. If in doubt gently lift off the lid and check visually. Choose a milder day to do this so as not to chill the colony unnecessarily but do not delay if you suspect they need feeding. The colony will die very quickly if there is no food available. If the bees are at the top of the frames and clustered and not showing any activity they may already be starving.
  • Feed with solid food placed right on top of the frames where the bees are clustering. Keep checking every couple of weeks and estimate consumption to plan top ups. Remember, if it is very cold they will not move to where the feed is, even if it is just the next frame, and will starve to death. Ensure the feed is always easily available.
  • Don’t assume that strong colonies need less looking after, they need more food !
  • Remember any solid food that you give your bees has to be diluted and that means finding water from somewhere. Not easy in a hard frost.
  • Ensure your bees will have a water source throughout the Winter.
  • Check that your hives have adequate ventilation.
  • Monitor the now small entrance regularly for the build up of dead bees. Remember to look particularly behind any mouse guards.
  • Bees are dying all the time and cold temperatures dissuade the ‘undertakers’ from fulfilling their duties. Use a probe (stick) to gently remove the deceased and keep the entrance clear, but be careful not to disturb all the others.
  • Even if you have mouse guards fitted, check for signs of a mouse getting into the hive, such as large pieces of wax on the ground at the hive entrance. If necessary lift the cover board and smell; an ammonia type smell may indicate a mouse.
  • If we have snow later, it can easily block the entrance in a dramatic way. So keep a watchful eye.
  • The bright reflection of snow can fool bees into thinking it is warmer outside than it actually is. If they come out from the cosy cluster for cleansing flights they will perish as soon as they meet the freezing air. Prevent this by placing a board over, but not blocking, the entrance to keep the bright glare of sun on snow out.
  • Rake dead leaves away from under your hives.
  • If not done so alreay, consider treating for varroa with oxalic acid if necessary. See the article in the October 2016 BeeNews about the use of an oxalic acid vapouriser.
  • Check out the website links provided by Jamie Ellis during his 2021 December talk for up-to-the-minute options and guidance on Varroa treatment options.
  • Make up new frames, but leave the wax fitting until March, and clean old frames. Make other new equipment ready for the start of the season – a nucleus hive is always useful.

Regular checks on the hives are always recommended. Have you ensured they still have their lids on and haven’t blown over or been disturbed by winds? If your hives are in a new spot, is it a frost hole? Has the site flooded? Have the woodpeckers found it? Read on, for all the early season checks and what to look out for.

After Christmas and (as needed) we recover from New Year festivities, our thoughts now need to be turning to the approaching beekeeping season. The winter solstice has already passed, and despite not having seen much of the sun since then, the day lengths are starting to increase.

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Since this is now the fifth consecutive (relatively) mild winter since Adam Leitch first commented about the unusually warm weather. Much of his comments and advice then, still apply again this January …

It is day length, rather than temperature that is the key to reduction in laying of the queen. Thus even in a mild winter, a queen will reduce her lay rate, although she is unlikely to stop altogether, and even in more northerly parts of the country, it is not unexpected to find brood throughout the Winter even if it is colder location.

Warmer weather might mean the cluster breaks more frequently during the day, and isolation starvation can occur if it doesn’t reform as a single entity during the night. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do to help in this case.

If bees continue flying so late in the day, they may succumb to the cold whilst out flying and never return. Also late flying bees may not be able to provide warmth to the cluster and hence the remaining bees will have to work harder to maintain the temperature. Young bees, which would normally see the colony through the Winter might start to use up their reserves if they start foraging during the Winter, rather than more normally early in the Spring.

Due to the higher flying activity of the bees ensuring that they have sufficient food will be particularly import. Regularly heft your hives, and feed candy if required. Additionally, if the colony is found to be small in the Spring, a small boost of fresh syrup in late February or early March may be sensible, and even a pollen patty to reduce the burden on foragers.

If a larger amount of brood has been reared during the winter months, we can expect varroa loads to be high, even early in the year.  So treat your hives with oxalic acid in January, and continue checking mite drop in February and March, and then regularly through the season.

It is likely that the March/April period is going to be even more critical than usual as the number of house bees struggle to cope with the potentially high amount of brood. So be ready to supplement the colony with food – pollen patties for the brood and candy for the bees.

Assess the Remaining Stores for Each Colony

Feeding Fondant via the Feed Hole in the Crown Board
Feeding Fondant via Feed Hole in Crown Board

If we have mild weather, the bees will continue flying and deplete their winter stores more rapidly than usual…..there is no nectar to collect, only pollen from early flowers. The gorse and mahonia are both in flower providing useful early pollen. Consequently, it’s important to assess the level of honey stores at intervals through the 1st Q 2020. For more information on how to assess winter stores click HERE.

Some beekeepers give their colonies a pack of fondant (placed over the hole in the crown board). If the weather permits (pick a still, sunny day), quickly open the hive, add an eke on top of the brood box and insert a pack of fondant (opened face down) directly across the frames….or, simply place an open face of fondant directly over the feedhole in your crown board (remove the porter bee escape). Some beekeepers give their colonies a block of fondant regardless of the level of colony stores in early January. It can be seen as an insurance policy, to ensure your colony doesn’t go short of stores & it also has the potential to kick start the natural growth in colony size ahead of the Spring foraging season. NEVER feed your colonies sugar syrup in winter. It can ferment, and in doing so cause dysentery.

Check Your Hives are Secure Against Predators

Woodpecker Protection

Hopefully you protected your hives against woodpecker damage as part of your winter preparations. If there is damage to the hive wall, temporarily glue a piece of polystyrene foam over the hole/damage or, if it’s a small hole, fill it with something inert like plasticine, until the box can be taken out of service for full repairs in Spring. If we get another cold snap, and the woodpeckers has learnt that your hives provide a bountiful food source, do get some wire net – agricultural suppliers, or gardens centres sell rolls of wire netting that can be formed to provide a protective cover. It needs to be place a couple of inches from the side walls, so that the woodpecker beak can’t peck through it, but not so far away that they can get underneath it.

Check the Hive Entrance for  any Blockage

Dead Bees at Hive Entrance
Dead Bees at Hive Entrance

Sometimes mouse guards can make it difficult for the colony to clear out dead bees which can create an entrance blockage. An entrance blockage can stop bees leaving the hive on milder days for cleansing flights, creating unhygienic conditions within the hive. An entrance blockage can also substantially reduce natural air circulation through the hive, causing mould & mildew to form on the internal hive walls & on the brood frames.

Varroa Treatment

If you haven’t already administered an oxalic acid trickle, or ‘vaped’ your hives, early January is normally the last opportunity, before new brood begins to appear in the hive as the queen restarts laying.

Normally in early January, most colonies usually have little/no brood so, any varroa in the hive will be exposed, on the bees, rather than in the brood. This makes the whole population of varroa highly exposed to varroa treatment. (Note: It may already be too late for an oxalic acid trickle, if there is very early brood in your colony. If this is the case you may need to use MAQ strips or, dust brood frames with icing sugar …the latter on a mild day!). Sublimation (heating oxalic crystals from to a gas) is particularly effective at controlling varroa, see their website, and remember to take any recommendation precautions for personal health and safety.

Stored Brood Comb

If you have any stored brood comb, January is a good time to again check for wax moth (Note: wax moth usually only infests comb which has had brood in it. Consequently, stored super frames are not usually subject to infestation unless the queen managed to get inside the super, & lay eggs). Acetic acid fumigation can be applied but, this is a chemical which is hazardous to humans if not handled correctly. Sulphur strips can bee used to fumigate a stack of over wintered brood frames. The latter does not require the removal (or, greasing with vaseline) of metal parts to protect against corrosion. However, you will still need to perform this operation outdoors & evacuate the area to avoid breathing in sulphur fumes.

And finally …

… this time of the year usually produces some high winds, so, make sure your hive roofs are strapped or weighted down!

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