7 Warré beekeepers met on a sunny Autumn afternoon in the village of Fringford, north Oxfordshire to examine local colonies, discuss feeding, forage, winter preparation and colony behaviour.
We began with a demonstration by David of his elegant hive lifting and securing system. This hive was knocked over by wind when empty last year, and he’s interested in eliminating the strain of lifting boxes: the pulley system can be seen in another picture below. Brian suggested paracord as suitable for this application – thin yet strong.
Margaret showed us her hornet sting, luckily the hornets were just after windfall apples rather than bees. After 4 days her hand was still a bit swollen and she was lucky the fingers didn’t swell so much it was necessary to cut her rings off. A good reminder to remove rings before handling bees.
Feeding: Margaret had prepared some syrup. In Autumn the intention is to feed the bees as quickly as possible, so we use as strong a syrup as possible, and it’s probably worth mentioning the recipe here-
2 kg white sugar in 1 litre of water, with lemon juice to adjust the pH, herbs for scent, nettles for micronutrients.
The lemon juice also inverts sugar which allows the bees to process it into honey faster. There are many variants on the recipe, e.g. adding vitamin C (ascorbic acid) to resemble nectar better, adding honey from the same apiary etc, but the key thing now is to get lots of sugar into weak colonies as fast as possible.
After demonstrating how to heft a Warré hive to gauge its weight, and thus stores, we installed mini Ashforth feeders in quilt boxes, being careful to place the route to the feeder over the main cluster of bees – otherwise, as Brian and Faith found, it can take the bees days to spot the feeder unless you dribble a little syrup along the path to it.
Both hives checked were very low on stores, which some found surprising in this rural area, but as Carolyn said once you keep bees you begin noticing what crops are in the area… and in this area it all seems to be OSR monocrop.
Winter preparation: at this time of year you need to –
– feed colonies which are low on stores, with strong syrup as quickly as possible, so they have fuel for winter. Once the temperature drops they can no longer evaporate it, which may happen any time in October. If the water content is too high it will ferment and kill the colony, so rapid feeding of weak colonies now is essential;
– fit mouse guards. Confirm drones have been ejected first, so their large bodies are not trapped inside the hive;
– and in deep winter, beware snow covering entrances.
During winter, do not be alarmed if bees are occasionally seen flying on still, sunny days near the hive (voiding flights). And unlike other, less well insulated hives, if you look through a Warré window, you sometimes see the cluster is loose, with bees wandering unconcernedly around the hive. And the Warré insulation also means they don’t need as many stores to survive winter.
The meeting also covered the subjects of biosecurity (cross contamination between hives and apiaries); how humans – and horses – react to stings; styles of wasp guards over entrances; and we examined a Warré box filled with comb and examined key features – wonky comb; new ideas for bars to avoid the “false floor” / “stuck box” effect; propolising; the differences between dark brood comb and white honeycomb.
Small Hive Beetle will inevitably arrive in the UK, so we talked about its life cycle and how strong colonies can corral it… as long as you don’t open the hive. It seems likely that mesh floors will fall out of favour, because SHB can hide behind them out of reach of bees.
Unusual behaviour of a colony at this apiary: Margaret originally had two colonies, both large casts from the same feral nest in a local farmhouse roof.
After 6 weeks of building comb, in August (after swarm season) the bees of one colony suddenly spent a day outside the hive in a state of agitation. The next morning the colony had absconded, leaving no dead bodies or larvae or stores (abandoned hive was investigated desultorily by wasps who then ignored it).
Margaret had kept the comb and showed it to us. There was plenty of comb, indicating they had had a successful 6 weeks and were not starving. There was no sign of damp – bees have been known to abscond from a leaky hive. There were some patches of capped brood and a little pollen. The brood in cells was partly decomposed but not completely melted or foul smelling, so seemed to have simply died from being chilled (unattended). There seemed to be an emergency queen cell.
Margaret had had the impression, that the sister colony next door had increased in numbers around this time.
We concluded later that the colony had suffered queen failure, had failed to raise a viable emergency queen, and had decided to move en masse to their queen-right sisters next door. This behaviour has been seen in failed colonies before, but that isn’t normally as a mass movement in a few hours, more as gradual individual defections over days or weeks. Here, there seems to have been an orderly, rapid relocation of all stores to the new hive, and perhaps even larvae. An amazing example of collective decision making by a superorganism.
Next meeting: TBA – probably a pub in Oxford