Lockdown winter projects

Have you ever wondered what beekeepers do in winter?

My own strategy is to try and eat my own weight in honey. Others are more industrious.

Here are a few examples our group has shared over lockdown.

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Book review: Treatment Free Beekeeping, by David Heaf

Rigorous metastudy marshals the evidence and pushes the debate forward

Published by Northern Bee Books and IBRA, 2021. £24.95 / US$30, 119 pages, ISBN 978-1-913811-00-6

This is a seminal work – the first comprehensive review of treatment free (TF) beekeeping around the world. The writing style is readable yet academically precise – no urban myths here, every statement is verified by reference to data and academic papers. The pattern that emerges is that you can easily help bees express a large repetoire of useful behaviour and abilities, which standard texts ignore, so there is something here for every level of reader.

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Horizontal hive types

Andrew Bax, OxNatBees member and developer of the Drayton hive, has had an article published in January’s Beecraft magazine comparing different types of horizontal hive: their advantages and tradeoffs. You can read his review here:

Andrew Bax article on horizontal hives

Andrew has 30 years’ experience of beekeeping and became interested in alternative styles a few years ago, culminating in his blending of conventional and natural designs in the Drayton, which we reviewed here.

Our thanks to Andrew, and Richard Ricketts (editor of BeeCraft) for allowing us to reproduce the article.

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Bees Without Borders: conference report

Wild nest built in window in France. With the shutter closed it may well survive winter. The householder was delighted with their “observation hive”!

What: 6 lectures, mainly on wild / unmanaged bees, by European researchers titled Bees Without Borders – I attended by Zoom and the recordings have been released here. Some of the lectures were very technical.

When: 21st November 2020

Who: organised by the Swiss organisation FreeTheBees in partnership with the Natural Beekeeping Trust and Honey Bee Wild (Luxembourg). The lecturers were academics, a bee farmer and a couple of specialists.

What I learned: some key points were

  • There is a lot of bleeding edge research going on in Europe we don’t hear much of in the Anglosphere.
  • For many years, foresters have worked to minimise tree cavities, as they reduce the value of lumber. Now however people are beginning to deliberately create them for biodiversity, not just for bees (Zeidler beekeeping) but other creatures like bats and birds.
  • No one has studied wild bees in Europe since at least 1800. They were just taken for granted, then it was assumed varroa killed them all. But combining data like “how many nests can we find in this area” and forestry information (tree types etc) across Europe, you can extrapolate that there are probably about 80,000 wild colonies in European forests.
  • Importing foreign bees measurably weakens local strains.

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Winter is coming

The Winter Cycle

Honey in top box, cluster below

It’s getting cold at night – time to fit mouse guards! You may see dark stains or frost on landing boards early in the morning – this is the humid breath of the hive condensing as it hits cold wood.

By the start of November, bees have prepared for winter. This picture shows a typical hive – click to enlarge any of these pictures for more detail – you can tell a lot about the health of a colony through windows. Here, the cluster is in the lower box, below a box full of honey. (This is without feeding the bees: they have regulated their numbers to match forage and finish the season with enough stores for winter.)

There’s a trick with windows – bees tend to pack the colder, outer cells last when laying brood and storing honey, so you need to examine the cells about 2-3 rows in, to know what’s really going on in a box. This needs a strong light – I sometimes use a powerful red torch as bees can’t see red. Some people orient the windows to view the flat side of the comb, but then you can only see one comb: it is a matter of preference.

By the way, I thought this colony was dwindling away this year. It went disturbingly quiet after swarming in May, and had long periods of not bringing in pollen. But it always fended off wasps, so obviously their morale was good (queen-right), and it was suddenly active and numerous again in September – the bees had simply been playing a long game, living mainly on stores and bringing up a couple of generations of new bees, building up numbers again. I’m glad I didn’t open the hive to find out what was going on: it would have been very disruptive and I don’t think they could have taken any losses from chilled brood etc. The principle is, of course, “what could you do to help if you DID open it up?” I don’t re-queen my colonies – supersedure and swarms are much healthier.

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Winter survival surveys show ‘treatment-free’ works

Each May OxNatBees surveys our members for information on winter losses. This graph shows losses year by year, compared with other surveys. The stand-out point is that our losses for untreated hives populated by local bees (blue “ONBG” line) are essentially the same as for heavily managed colonies (the red “BBKA” line).

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ONBG meeting, July 2020: a Bee Tea at Dee Cottage

This was the first ONBG gathering this year as our normal annual cycle of events was interrupted by lockdown. Our last meeting was in October last year! Precautions were taken: access to handwash, masks, social distancing, everyone took their own mug etc.

Examining a TBH – photo courtesy of Patrick

11 of us gathered for a lovely day with tea, cake and bees in the delightful Oxford garden setting of our hosts Jane and Patrick (thank you!)

Many of the group had done an orthodox beekeeping course but had gingerly stepped back from the process of serial housebreaking of their hives.

Everyone admired Patrick’s construction skills: his bait hive, Freedom-style hive, Top bar hives. We were allowed a peek into his Freedom-style hive and its colony indeed compared favourably with photos of Matt Somerville’s Freedom hive at Waterperry.

Jane demonstrating bee DIY (embedded pine needles) at the centre of the table and different coloured / scented wax of different ages. We had lovely day in a delightful Oxford garden setting.

We discussed the perennial problems of cross combing and Jane showed us some comb where the bees had somehow dragged up long pine needles/sticks she had packed deep in to the ecofloor of a TBH. They had incorporated these as reinforcement into one of the combs at its lowest part. Clearly this had been a team effort to drag the sticks up and embed them into the comb. We were enchanted by their ingenuity.

It was agreed that removing only a few frames from a Warré led the bees to create extraordinary comb, reminiscent of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona. The take home message (as Paul has already reiterated):

  • If harvesting a comb or two at a time: use the TBH.
  • But if taking a whole box: use the Warré.

We discussed the ancient practice of “tanging” i.e. banging loudly and rhythmically on a metal object (like clapping the NHS!) for swarms.

Several of us noted its use to (apparently) settle a swarm or even encourage them back into their hive, if caught early enough. This is not something we are likely to wish to do. The suggestions were made that it might be to claim ownership of the swarm or simply warn the neighbours.

This led to the discussion of drumming a swarm of bees up into a skep, etc. Gareth does this successfully but even the legendary Helen said it had failed for her.

Helen explained how her modifications to her TBH and its “Warrification” i.e. Warré cloths above plus an eke had made for a more tranquil life both for her bees and for her.

Zsolt regaled us with tall tales but true of his father’s and his grandfather’s industrial level beekeeping back in Hungary and their harvesting pollen using a screen, a little like a queen excluder allowing the pollen to fall into a small box below.

Enjoying the garden and each other (c) Patrick 2020

Bait hives including Patrick’s were discussed. Jane told us that theirs, placed just over two metres off the ground was often inspected by scout bees but never actually populated. We noted that the Great Beasts of Homeopathy had advised they should be five metres off the ground, as in nature. This was a ”hive too far” for the group to contemplate..

A lovely day and a great meeting.

Posted on behalf of the author, Eric

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