The Beekeeper’s calendar
Strangely, the beekeeper's year start around September – this is when the honey crop comes off and we start to prepare the colony to survive the winter and be big and strong in readiness for the spring and summer honey crop.
So, I shall Start with September
Mid-September to November
As soon as the honey crop comes off then it is time to start autumn varroa treatment.
The bees made over the next month or so are your ‘winter bees’ the ones that last until the spring and are essential to begin the spring build up.
A heavy mite load can compromise your winter bees and jeopardise your whole colony, so now is the time to knock them right back.
Almost all varroa treatments only work on phoretic mites (mites that are clinging on to the bees) – it has no effect on mites in sealed brood, so all treatments at this time of year has to span the whole brood cycle to hit all the mites, The most common, effective and ‘natural’ mode of treatment is Apiguard – this takes four weeks and is temperature crucial - not working very well when the outside temperatures (not the brood or hive temperature) are below 15 degrees – it will work at temperatures lower than 15 but needs to stay in the hive longer and is not as effective.
Oxalic acid vaporisation needs only 10 to15 days to cover the whole cycle when mites are phoretic.
Varroa treatment is discussed elsewhere but it is important to get it done as soon as possible especially if you are using Apiguard as you also need to feed and it is not advisable (although possible) when you have Apiguard on.
Next is feeding, if you are using plain sugar syrup then you need this done and dusted by mid-October for as it gets colder, bees will struggle to invert it and reduce the water content to below 20% thus the stores may ferment and cause dysentery in the bees.
Invert syrup can be safely fed later (up until late November, weather depending) as it is part inverted anyway and also has a much lower water content.
At this time of year – as you are helping the bees store syrup, sugar syrup should be mixed at a 2:1 sugar/water ratio using imperial measures i.e. 2 pounds of sugar to one pint of water or 2kg of sugar to 1.3l of water.
There is not much point feeding the bees with little quantities of syrup at a time – if you cannot get to your hives every day then get a big one gallon feeder and fill it right up, you will be surprised at how quickly they take it down.
Bees need about 20kg of stores for the winter, so don’t be mean with your feeding – you can always take any unused frames of stores off in the spring and keep for emergency feeding.
If you are lucky enough to have a lot of ivy around – this is a fantastic late source of pollen and nectar for the bees, Ivy honey sets rock hard in the comb, but don’t listen to the ill-informed who say that bees cannot use it once it’s hard – they’ve been collecting the stuff for millions of years, do you think they’d still waste their time if they did could not use it? I’ve seen bees eat it when it’s been so hard it looks more like Plaster of Paris than honey. Anyway, if you are feeding plenty of syrup, this will help to stop it from crystalizing.
You may still have a super (or shallow to give it its proper name) on with unripe stores or intend to give them a super for storage space so you may consider moving it from above the brood box to below or Nadiring it. The bees will soon rearrange everything to have the stores above the brood and in the spring, as the queen will start laying at the top of the hive thus ensuring the shallow is free of brood so you can once again move it up again above the queen excluder as a super.
If you run your colonies as brood and a half, there is no need to do this.
Whilst you are feeding, it’s also a good idea to start ‘hefting’ the hives to get an idea of what a hive full of stores feels like – start doing this as soon as you take the honey off so you know what a hive with no stores feels like.
Just put your hand underneath the floor at the back of the hive and lift so the back is clear of the stand, you can then judge the weight.
As soon as feeding is complete, it is time to prepare the hive for winter – there isn’t much to do.
Nowadays hive entrance blocks have an opening about 8/9mm high and have two settings – a medium size entrance opening about a third or so of the front and a smaller entrance about an inch or so wide. Most people now use the medium entrance throughout the year, If you have this type of entrance then it will be fine with the medium entrance for the whole winter and you won’t need a mouse guard as they won’t be able to squeeze in through a 9mm high slot. The same goes for underfloor entrances.
If you need or want to use a mouse guard then remove the entrance block completely and pin the mouse guard in place with a few drawing pins instead.
If you have open mesh floors then the inspection boards should be removed as soon as mite treatment has finished, they will only act as a breeding ground for bacteria, wax moth and other nasties.
Now that the feeders are removed, the feeder holes should be covered up – there should be no holes in your crown boards unless you are feeding, A piece of slate, plastic or thin plywood is fine.
If you are keeping a super on over winter – MAKE SURE YOU REMOVE YOUR QUEEN EXCLUDER keeping one on may result in isolation starvation when a colony will not move towards the food as the queen cannot get past the excluder resulting in all the bees staying with the queen and dying within inches of supplies
It is also a good idea to consider a little insulation above the crown board. A piece of foam insulation board (Celotex, Kingspan, Reticel – the stuff you see covered in silver foil) rescued from a builder’s skip, cut to snugly fit the inside of the roof is ideal – it can be left on in the summer too, so glue it into the roof.
BEES DON’T NEED EXTRA VENTILATION they can sort themselves out using the entrance and the open mesh floor (if you haven’t solid floors.
It is also a good idea to strap your hive together with a spanset or ratchet strap, or at least weight your roof down with a brick or two – in case of high winds.
Oxalic acid trickling is done at this time of year as it the best chance to find your colonies broodless and, unlike Oxalic vaporisation, it is not advisable to trickle more than once a year so you need all the mites to be phoretic.
Traditionally it was done at Christmas time – at the time of the solstice, but scientific research has found there is a better chance of finding the colony broodless at the beginning of December.
Nothing much else to do now, just heft and enjoy Christmas.
Bees will start brooding in earnest now in preparation for the new season so will be using more stores, keep checking and hefting to avoid starvation, if you think they may need feeding, then the safest thing to feed the bees in winter is baker’s fondant, don’t be taken in by all the fancy fondant type bee feeds and pollen supplements on the market. Bog standard baker’s fondant is the cheapest and the best thing to feed them with.
Fondant can either be fed directly onto the top of the frames, in a thin patty resting on a piece of greaseproof paper or in a zip lock plastic bag with a few knife slashes on the side towards the frames, alternatively, you can fill a plastic takeaway container with fondant and invert it over the feeder hole – you can either cut a hole in the roof insulation to take it or, put another sheet of insulation to surround the container. With this method, it is only a matter of lifting the roof to see whether the bees have cleared the container and then sliding another container to replace it if its empty – you can use a plastic bag with a few knife slashes in again instead of the carton.
It is not advisable to feed syrup of any strength at this time of year.
It is now better to turn to the workshop for ideas – repairing stuff ready for the new season or preparing new equipment for use. Now is the time to make up new frames and foundation ready for making increase or dealing with swarming in the spring. Also, the time to stocktake and take advantage of the new year bee equipment sales or make lists for the spring conventions.
More hefting – this and March is the time when most colonies starve – not mid-season, make sure they have enough food, it is also safe to feed invert syrup again from the end of February on if needs be.
Now is the time the season begins in earnest – keep checking the food stores situation.
If you are still concerned about varroa levels – put the inspection boards in, there is still just about time for a supplementary treatment if it is necessary – any later and you will have too much brood, you are also in danger of contaminating the new season honey with any treatment you use.
There may even be an opportunity, if the weather is good for a quick (very quick) inspection just to see the status of the colony and judge its strength.
Stimulative feeding is an anachronism and totally unnecessary in our area, in some cases it can be counterproductive and even set the colony right back if weather conditions worsen.
It is only remotely necessary if you are planning to take your bees to an early crop such as Oilseed Rape.
If you start stimulative feeding now, you have to continue to do so until a good nectar flow starts and even start feeding pollen supplements if none are available naturally.
Soon you will have the pussy willows blooming giving plenty of natural pollen and stimulative nectar – no need to push your colonies unnecessarily.
Natural forage should now be coming in – My season properly starts when the willow and then the dandelions flower.
Inspections should start now, not necessarily weekly but you should have an idea by how strong your colony is and thus have an idea how quickly they will build up.
Still ensure they have enough stores – they should always have ample to last them until the next inspection, if not, you may need to consider a supplemental feed of 1:1 syrup.
Prepare queen excluders and supers.
Once your brood box has seven to eight frames of brood (not just bees) and is filling with bees, then it’s time to put your first super on.
In a normal year, the bees will now be in full swing, weekly inspections are a must both for space and swarm preparations.
If your super is full of bees not necessarily full of honey then it’s time for another super – you need to give them more space before they need it.
Have extra equipment readily available in case you find queen cells and need to conduct an artificial swarm.
The time of the dreaded ‘June gap’ which can actually happen any time in late May or June but is not as prevalent nowadays as in the past.
If you have full supers on, no great deal, just keep checking they always have stores. If the supers are empty, then take them off and feed them lightly until they start foraging again – this way you won’t get honey stores contaminated with sugar.
You may have taken a spring crop of honey off – nothing wrong with that, but be vigilant to ensure the bees have enough food to survive until they build up stores again.
This can also be a month of plenty, as, if the weather is right, the brambles will be blooming and giving copious nectar and the supers will be filling.
Bees will still be swarming, so weekly inspections are still needed, nectar should still be coming in but will probably be reducing towards the end of the month. Although Himalayan Balsam, in some years can continue to give a good yield.
Himalayan balsam can give good crops of amber, very sweet honey and in some areas can be the main source of honey, it’s a marshland plant so doesn’t yield much in a very dry summer, and the same if it is too wet, the nectar is pretty poor with a high water content so bees will ignore it as a main nectar source if there is anything better in reasonable quantities nearby. Although you will always see bees with the characteristic ‘balsam mark’ on their backs well into autumn
In reality, a lot will be looking at the season’s end by now. Those with no balsam, or looking at a heather crop should be preparing to clear their ripe supers of bees for extraction (you don’t want heather to be mixed with anything else if at all possible), If you are moving bees to the heather by mid-August, there is no point if you do not have strong colonies so now may be the time to look at the Artificial swarms you made earlier, or extra colonies you have acquired and decide which queens you want to keep and which colonies you want to unite to have strong hives for the heather.
Order your stocks of Apiguard ready for varroa treatment.
In a good year you should be more than halfway through the heather crop, likewise with balsam, you should be preparing again for your autumn varroa treatments and feeding.
Once supers have been extracted, there is no real point putting the supers back on the hives ‘for the bees to clean’ it is much better to store them ‘wet’ still with the residue of honey on them – it discourages wax moth and bees will go up into the supers in spring like a shot, even if the remaining honey has fermented a bit.
If you only have a few supers, once you have extracted, seal them in a strong plastic bag and store them outside, the cold weather will also deal with any remaining wax moth,
If you have many supers, just stack them up with a blank crown board size piece of plywood top and bottom, cinch them up tight with two ratchet straps, then again, store them outside with just a spare roof on top or under some kind of open shelter.
Once your honey is off – it’s time to start the treat, feed, prepare for winter cycle once again.