Winter wasps, and fondant feeding

A strong colony in late December

(Click to see larger image.) A strong colony in late December. A big cluster is visible towards the bottom left and there are loads of stores above and beside them (though you can never have too much stores).

Here in Oxfordshire we’ve had an extraordinarily mild winter so far. It’s December 27th and the bees are still flying a bit, on sunny days, because the temperature is up to 10C outside. There are also a few wasps raiding weak hives. This normally all stops in November!

All this activity eats up stores, so you may have to feed your bees. This post discusses how to feed a colony in a Warré hive.

The picture to the right shows what you want to see in a colony. For those unfamiliar with Warré hives, note the thick insulating walls – the window covers are visible resting on top of the hive: the white insulator attached to them is 20mm thick expanded polyurethane. You can also see how the cluster is connected across several combs by gaps the bees have made in the comb – this is how the cluster shuffles along without breaking up and freezing when the stores in one comb are exhausted.

Weak colony in late December. This is the only box it fills and the storage cells do not look full. The bees are agitated, burning up more fuel.

Weak colony in late December. This is the only box it fills and the storage cells do not look full. Wasps are raiding it and the bees are agitated, burning up more fuel.

I have a weak colony which never reached the critical mass to build up enough stores this summer. (I was interested in preserving its genetics, as it had proven tough the previous year, but it had a queen failure and by the time they raised a new queen, the main nectar flow was over and its numbers were way down. On the plus side, this reduced its varroa load to almost nil.)

Access slot in top bar cloth

View of the quilt box or the Warré hive. Peel back an access slot in the top bar cloth. (Incidentally, note the four screw heads visible at the corners. This ensures an air gap when the roof is placed above, so humidity does not build up in the quilt, which in this hive is formed from wool.)

So I dug out a mini Ashforth feeder described in this post and packed it with fondant. I have tried fondant in Top Bar Hives and it was ignored, because I couldn’t put it above the cluster. The bees can’t get to a feeder if they have to cross a gap below about 8 degrees C, so you have to put the fondant above the cluster to keep it warm, and give them a safe route to it.

(Why fondant rather than syrup? Because in winter, the temperature is too low for the bees to evaporate syrup to a strength where it can’t ferment. You can also use dry sugar, but fondant contains a bit of water which probably makes it easier to digest.)

Feeder in place

Feeder in place

Here’s the feeder, packed with fondant. I added a drop of Jasmine, Lemongrass and Bergamot essential oils towards the rear of the fondant to give the bees a cue that there was something up there worth breaking cluster to check out.

Finally, I packed more wool round the feeder and on top of it.

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2 Responses to Winter wasps, and fondant feeding

  1. phillipdove says:

    This is not a comment about about the recent Blog but a question which may also be of interest to others. We have a hive which superseded early in the summer and the new queen subsequently produced extremely aggressive bees (lots of stings [even through bee suits and gloves] and a lot of chasing of people in the vicinity). However there may be an up side! When the December copy of the BBKA News arrived with the results of the 2014 honey survey it showed that the average yield was about 35lbs per hive. This came as rather a shock as our aggressive hive produced in excess of 150lbs! My question is: Is this amount unusual and/or generally do aggressive bees produce more honey?
    Phillip Dove & Jane Carey
    PS. This is our second year of bee keeping

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  2. Paul says:

    It’s a general fact that “vigorous” (overly defensive) bees produce more honey. I have heard this several times and seen it once with a swarm we caught – it had a very fecund queen, the entrance was guarded by a solid plug of them (NOTHING robbed that colony!) and it had no varroa to speak of; but it was too defensive for our back garden, and we had to re-queen it. Whereupon it became docile, the honey yield fell, and varroa emerged.

    Vigorous colonies like this are great for out-apiaries, away from people. They look after themselves rather well!

    On a related note: I’ve heard various people state that “dark bees are more aggressive” – this is particularly believed in North America where they are paranoid about Africanised bees. My bees are very dark and they’re fine. However, I’ve heard some very experienced beekeepers state that the truth of the matter is, it’s first generation crosses which tend to have low irritation thresholds. They are OK for the second generation.

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