20 April 2015

Blackthorn Winter

The Blackthorn is flowering and with it has come the fairly typical-for-this-time-of-year icy cold east wind.
After an auspicious beginning - well, it didn't rain as much as last year or the year before - 2015 has turned out to be starting with a long, cold, spring, and it's caught a number of beekeepers out.

It's worth remembering that beekeepers in rural areas don't get the advantage of the urban heat effect, and nor do their bees. Last week there was snow in parts of Scotland, Yorkshire and Cumbria and, despite media pictures of folks sunning themselves on beaches (albeit wearing thick coats and scarves) it's been so cold in the balmy south that the central heating has turned itself on. There was another frost warning last night.

The bees aren't fortunate enough to have central heating, so when it's cold they do what they always do and cluster. It's fine when they do this in winter, even for days on end, because all they need to do is keep themselves, and perhaps a tiny area of developing brood, warm and have something to eat.

When it's cold in mid-April, when some colonies are only just starting to build up because until now winter bee mortality has outpaced new bee emergence, forming a cluster to keep warm can be disastrous for developing brood because adult bees will abandon eggs and larvae to keep themselves warm.

New beekeepers and 'too much information'
New beekeepers get information from a number of places - books, beekeeping association mentors and trainers, beekeeping friends, the old guy down the road, and a multitude of internet sources. It's easy to be confused by the sheer amount and variety of what is 'current' practice (i.e. what's happening now), especially when reading online updates from beekeepers in different parts of the country.

It's also easy to forget, or not even realise, that each beekeeper and each apiary is different. The most experienced will have developed their own management strategies over the years, knowing what suits them, their bees, and their location best, they'll take little notice of what any other beekeeper is doing but may, these days, add a note on Facebook, a blog, or a forum post which will alarm new beekeepers who think they're doing the wrong thing by their bees because they haven't yet done 'x' or 'y' ... so they rush out and do this 'x' or 'y' at the first opportunity.

Local conditions
Beekeeping lore says not to inspect unless it's warm enough to be outside without a jumper or a jacket. In numbers it should, ideally, be above 15C, not windy, not raining, and not due to freeze overnight because the bees need to be warm enough to tidy up the mess the beekeeper has made.

At the moment there is a massively wide range of beekeeping activity going on across UK.
  • Some colonies in some areas are, during warm spells, actively foraging on oil seed rape - they will have been fed pollen early in the season to encourage early brood rearing.
  • Some colonies, living in standard Nationals in warmer areas, have produced charged queen cells in preparation for swarming and the first swarms have been reported.
  • Some beekeepers are yet to carry out their first inspections of the year - for some this will be the 'Spring Inspection' mentioned during training and in almost all books when it's common to tidy up the frames and give the bees a clean floor - but only if it's warm enough; for others it will be just a quick look to check the queen is laying, that there is sealed worker brood, enough stores and enough space for the queen to lay.
So far this year, in the small apiary, it's been cold due to the continuous bitterly cold wind  either off the sea or from the east so I have yet to open my hives. I have, however, watched activity at the hive entrance and am satisfied that all my colonies are alive and foraging for pollen and nectar or water. A month ago I gave each colony a small bag of fondant to help them survive the forage gap caused by late opening of Pussy Willow.

Don't panic and be patient
If I can offer any advice to new beekeepers it's that they should not be panicked into doing something inappropriate to their bees, they should listen to their gut instinct and rely on one source of information - preferably a good book, a trusted mentor, BBKA website advice for new beekeepers, Beebase advice for new beekeepers, or an astonishingly useful blog.

In my own area a few new beekeepers have listened to their training mentors, but misunderstood the intent of what they heard during a revision and planning evening where they were reminded about Spring inspections, how to carry out a Bailey Comb Change, do a Shook Swarm, how to work out old brood frames, when to add supers and how to carry out Pagden swarm control. With so much information coming in all at once it's easy to take away the wrong message if concentration lapses for just a couple of minutes, or to get the impression that 'this' is what they should be doing 'now' - and that 'now' was at the end of February.

Phone calls started coming in only a fortnight later, mostly with concerns about a lot of dead bees on the hive floor, chilled and dead brood, dead larvae on the ground, bees not using supers, queens not laying etc. Similar calls continue. The pattern is the same in almost each case - too cold, too much, too soon.

Dead larvae on the ground at front of hive
Cause #1
Bailey Comb Change - a brood box containing only foundation above a small colony. Too much space to keep warm; chilled brood.
Cause #2
Parasitic mite syndrome and DWV - thymol treatment too late, when it was too cold to be effective. OA used in mid-January - too late, sealed brood for the mites to hide in.

Foundation not drawn
Cause #1
Shook swarm onto new foundation - colony lost all the developing brood too early in the season; too few house bees to make wax and draw comb.
Cause #2
New foundation added to either side of brood nest - too few bees, and too cold, to draw comb

Dead colony
Cause #1
Isolation starvation - new foundation added adjacent to each side of brood area in autumn, too late and too cold for it to be drawn. Bees unable to cross the gap to reach plentiful stores
Cause #2
Isolation starvation - plenty of stores, but cluster too small to cross the gap between where they were and where the food was. Would have been better overwintered in a nuc.

Undrawn frames in super(s)
Cause #1
Adding super(s) to a brood box that only contained three/four frames of brood. Too much space to keep warm, too cold to draw comb.
Cause #2
Adding two supers for OSR honey. Colony too small (4 fr brood) and too cold to draw comb

Queen not laying
Cause #1
No space to lay, frames full of syrup due to overzealous autumn and spring feeding
Cause #2
Colony too small, in full size brood box plus super.

Colony not making progress
Cause #1
Brood on only two frames in full size box. Too much space, too cold.
Cause #2
Not noticing, or recognising, signs of diarrhoea staining as a possible symptom of N. apis

Dead brood, in partly uncapped cells
Cause #1
Parasitic mite syndrome - trying to be treatment-free, but not realising this means that some colonies will fail
Cause #2
Parasitic mite syndrome due to failure of autumn thymol treatment, carried out too late, when it was too cold

Bits of comb outside hive.
Mouse or shrew damage - mouseguard removed too early

And finally ...
I've recently read online of a beekeeper who was so cold that they needed to wear not only a jumper but also two beekeeping overalls to dive into their hive and start a Bailey Comb Change.

Another online beekeeper has split their double brood hive to 'make an increase' and, a week or so later, is concerned that neither box of bees is progressing.

Did these beekeepers do the right thing for their bees?


No comments:

Post a Comment