Below is the latest in our series on beekeeping for the village magazine. Having covered the basics last year, with an article every 2 months, we’re now going into things in a bit more detail, but still writing in a style which is accessible to the broad range of ages and knowledge among the readers.
The magazine can’t publish high quality pictures, but these pictures may help international readers visualise the local climate. This picture shows what was going in in the top two boxes of one of the hives above, in mid winter. Bees are clustered round brood in the bottom left. They’ve created short-cuts (holes) through the comb so they can move laterally without having to go down into the cold. Above, honey stores can be seen in capped comb. By March, the cluster was less dense, some bees in the honeycombs above and many foraging outside. We had our first snow yesterday – it melted within a day.
“It is not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change” – Charles Darwin, 1809
And what changes in England more than the weather? Bee colonies always adapt to the localised weather and rhythms of nature; the bees around here generally stop rearing new brood in November and then restart in late January to replace themselves (as they die off) and raise a renewed and growing population ready for when the blossom comes in March. However, given the climate vagaries we have been experiencing lately, this could be shifting somewhat. But the essence of a break from the usual breeding cycle remains.
This winter “brood break” is controlled by the workers who simply feed the queen less, as she needs to be plump to lay. It serves several functions: culling the population of varroa mites, which parasitise bee larvae; and, most notably, reducing the honey consumption needed to keep the colony going (the adults can survive at 8-10C but once they begin rearing young, who need to be kept near our blood temperature, they begin eating through their honey rapidly). The risk of starvation is greatest when the spring young are raised with no significant forage, between January and March, and over this period beekeepers heft their hives to check they are still reassuringly heavy with stores, taking action to feed again if not.
It’s often said Britain has weather, where other countries have climate. The unusual late warm period has fooled many plants and animals into an early start, but to avoid starving our native bees have evolved to be cautious about when to restart laying. Many large scale ‘bee farmers’ import stocks of Italian bees to boost their hives, but those don’t have the same instinct to shut down egg laying over winter and wait for food to become available again. Italian bees are then likely to starve if the beekeeper doesn’t feed them, but this stimulates further laying. On the other hand, when the first nectar flows begin they then have the numbers to make lots of honey immediately. There is an ongoing debate about imported bees, the value of local genes for local microclimates, and the transmission of parasites such as with a recent outbreak of a nasty beetle in Italy.
Apart from checking on food stores periodically, over winter, there is little else for the beekeeper to do, other than clean and repair tools or unused hive sections, and build/buy any new hives for the coming year. I take this time to melt down any old comb in a water bath making it into wax ingots, filling the kitchen with a heavenly incense-like smell from the accumulated propolis (tree resins) in the comb. Whilst cleaning my tools and spare hive parts, I collect the fragrant propolis lining on used hive parts to act as a lure for swarms.
As you read this it is now March, and the brood break will be over, with the bees assessing the early Spring conditions to determine how quickly to increase the queen’s laying rate to expand the colony’s numbers again. The foragers will soon need to be out in numbers on early blossom whilst younger ‘house bees’ clear winter debris from the hive. Those removing dead bodies, the ‘undertaker bees’, fly off with their burdens and dump them well away from the hive entrance – watching their wavering flight and frequent stops, this task is obviously a struggle! Once it’s warm enough to open the hives, beekeepers will scrutinise comb for signs of disease and pests, check there are enough stores, confirm brood of all ages are present (i.e. that the queen is healthy) and begin moving combs within the hive – the bee colony now needs room to expand rather than a snug cavity to keep warm.
However, my own bees evidently have been somewhat confused by the mild winter we have all been experiencing, and have not shown a significant brood break this year, continuing to raise brood all winter – just at a low rate. Luckily they have plenty of stores and are not starving despite their higher than usual winter numbers, but without a significant brood break, their parasitic varroa mites are flourishing. Consequently later this month I will be transferring them to a new hive, a procedure known as a shook swarm, leaving the non-viable varroa-infested young behind and giving the colony a good start to their new Spring season.