Spreading the Bee Buzz #4 – Early autumn

Here is the text of the latest article for our village magazine. Like the first, second and third articles, the word count limit imposed by the editor makes it quite challenging to pack in enough detail in a manner which is still engaging to the lay audience.

Bee Buzz

Early Autumn – predators and food stores

Late summer/early autumn is usually a key time for beekeepers to come to the active aid of their bee colonies – helping protect them from predators and assessing/boosting their stores for the oncoming winter.

Wasp season is upon us. These brightly-coloured omnivorous cousins of vegetarian bees will predate upon other insects, which is great for keeping aphids, caterpillars and flies under control, but if they discover a bee colony they will relentlessly raid it: to them it is a sumptuous larder of bees, larvae and honey – and if they get a hold, they’ll devour everything but the wax. So, from early August onwards, beekeepers are hanging up wasp traps, baited with things which wasps like but bees ignore. Wasps love rotting fruit so the smell of fruity alcohol, such as cider, is a great lure especially when combined with jam and a bit of odorous protein such as flakes of fish. In addition, beehive entrances are reduced in size by beekeepers, so the bees can guard them more effectively; and nearby wasp nests destroyed if found.

Wasps only travel 300 yards from home lest they intrude on other wasps’ territory (very different to bees’ range of 3 miles), so if wasps are currently bothering you in your garden, look around and you may spot their nest in, say, a roof space or airbrick. Unlike bees nests which are formed from wax produced by the bees themselves, wasps nests are ‘paper’ made from the wasps chewing up wood – so a wasps nest in a building’s infrastucture may be destructive to, say, the roof joists. Also, wasps starve and turn bad tempered in autumn, so always be wary of wasp nests – calling on a pest control company is the safest way to deal with them.

Another seasonal phenomenon is bees robbing other bees! With the summer flush over, as food becomes more scarce, a large, starving colony can mob, overpower and loot a small one. Starvation is a very real problem this year: the June nectar gap was very pronounced throughout the country, and many colonies are requiring feeding to ensure they have enough fuel to keep warm through winter, even where the beekeper has not harvested any honey. Beekeepers can usually judge whether the hive has enough food by “hefting the hive” to judge its weight. If it feels light, concentrated sugar syrup is cooked-up and fed, in sophisticated feeders such as… an old margarine tub with some straw or sticks in it to stop the bees drowning. Plain sugar lacks the micronutrients of nectar but the addition of a squirt of lemon juice, and boiling it up with nettles, etc. helps, and the bees can process sugar-syrup into a honey, which while not as good as that made from nectar, will tide them over winter.

Apart from protecting bees from wasps and other bees, we also need to take action against mice later in autumn. Mice will not bother an active hive – too dangerous! – but as the bees settle down for over-wintering, mice consider beehives as lovely warm winter houses complete with larders, eating bees and their honey – just one mouse will kill a colony by the Spring. To keep mice out we fit ‘mouse guards’ over entrances, metal strips with small holes allowing the bees to still pass in and out, but too small let hungry mice in.

So, while refilling wasp traps and cooking-up litres of sugar-syrup in my kitchen to help my bees survive the coming winter, I reflect philosophically on how there has not been much of a honey harvest this year – but that’s not why I personally keep bees, I keep them to try to increase their numbers to ensure we continue to have them and for the fascination that studying their lifecycle and habits can bring.

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9 Responses to Spreading the Bee Buzz #4 – Early autumn

  1. sunhivebees says:

    Dear Paul

    Always very keen to read your posts, but ….. https://oxnatbees.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/spreading-the-bee-buzz-4/ (page not found(:

    naturalbeekeepingtrust.org naturalbeekeepingtrust.wordpress.com Bee-centred beekeeping


  2. sunhivebees says:

    Paul, that’s a lovely post, I learnt a lot about wasps, too. Really appreciate such a vivid account of what we’re all up to at this point in the year ….


  3. Lindylou says:

    I too learnt from this Paul. I did not know that wasps stayed within 300 yards of their home base. We have had very very many in the garden and I have lost one hive to them at the nature terrein location where I ‘had’ two hives. I had placed some wasp traps but the wasps won this battle. One of my colleages reprimanded me for that…. The afterwards I read on an english blog about not being devastated if wasps do get your bees because if the bees were unable to defend their hive then they could not have been all that strong and would eventually have succumbed to another threat sooner rather than later.


  4. Paul says:

    Sorry to hear about your losses to wasps, Lindylou. Wasps don’t seem to be able to get into a strong hive, but small colonies don’t seem to have enough workers to mount an effective guard. Right now I have one strong colony and wasps which go near the entrance find there is a mob of 20-30 guard bees across a 5cm wide entrance, and they back off. Interestingly, the colony did not have more than one or two guards until wasps became a problem, then the colony adapted its behaviour. There are 5 wasp traps round the colony, they do little good.

    I do have one small colony which can hold off wasps. It is in a TBH, so the entrance holes are small, and right next to brood comb covered by bees. Wasps go up to the entrances, then get head-butted out by guard bees, backed up by other bees. So in this regard, TBH’s have an advantage over hive types which have a large entrance sited far away from comb.

    Keeping bees has taught me a lot about other areas of ecology. Knowing the wasp life cycle is useful, and also bumblebees; you learn things about farming; and I knew nothing about gardening until we wanted food plants for the honeybees, and this attracted butterflies, moths and solitary bees. All fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

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