ONBG meeting, 19th March 2016

Alison's hive faces a mass of heather

Alison’s hive faces a mass of heather

11 people met at Alison’s in Cumnor to discuss plans for the new beekeeping season, eat biscuits, examine her Top Bar Hive and discuss winter survival, including mouseguards, feeding and varroa.

We started by discussing feeding. This is the time of year that bees are most at risk of starvation, and it is important to check they have enough stores (for example by hefting your hive). If not, you need to feed them. Fondant is tricky to keep warm in a Top Bar Hive but weak syrup (1 kg sugar in 1 litre water, with lemon juice and e.g. nettle juice) is OK at this time of year.

Mouse guards

It is time to take these off as the bees are now active enough to defend themselves, and the mouse guards hinder carrying pollen into the hive, and carrying debris out (particularly dead bodies).


Varroa are likely to be a big problem this Spring. The warm winter meant the bees kept rearing young, and the lack of a brood break gave the mites a chance to build up numbers just when the bees are few in number and least able to deal with them. Paul has noticed an alarming build-up of mites in a previously untroubled treatment-free hive: any colony will have problems if enough mites are introduced to the point that, the mites reproduce faster than the bees can neutralise them. He may have to do a ‘shook swarm’ operation on them (dump all brood) to help them recover, but is waiting for suitable weather. Even though the mite count is high, it is not certain they are in trouble, there is no obvious evidence of deformed wings (the mites damage the colony mainly by spreading Deformed Wing Virus).

Varroa mite photographed by Gary with a microscope

Photomicrograph of a varroa mite by Gary

Gary commented that the varroa resistance of swarms varies a lot. He got two swarms last year and examined them for varroa. One, from long-term non-treater Linda, had none. The other, a random swarm he obtained in Cowley, was crawling with them.

Talking of Deformed Wing Virus, last year’s discovery of superinfection exclusion in this virus (where a harmless variant blocks the action of the harmful type) in Ron Hoskins’ treatment-free apiary in Swindon, is being explored further by at least two research projects (one is called ReViVe, another is being run by Andrew Shaw of Glasgow University). Researchers are contacting natural beekeepers around the country to get samples of 20 bees from their hives to see if this arises in all long-term untreated hives.

Hive inspection

As it was too cold to open a hive with bees, we used a mini hive (a nucleus TBH) in Alison’s warm house to demonstrate comb cutting and removal with a specialised comb knife, how bees build comb, feeding techniques for TBH’s, and the advantages of TBH’s such as, minimal back strain and easy inspection of individual combs compared to Warrés. As most of those present use Warré hives, some of this was new to them.

Alison's hive: waterproof metal roof; window on right; reduced entrance; slab below entrance to observe discarded bodies and debrisAlison showed us the Top Bar Hive in her garden. This is a well made and refined design, featuring a metal roof (no chance of leaks), an entrance which is not tall enough for a mouse to enter (she had reduced it further with stones for winter) and a side window. A slab below the entrance permits examination of discarded debris and bodies. A waterproof quilt (originally sold as a vegetable growing aid) fits neatly below the roof for extra insulation, which has been appreciated by at least one mouse.

We filled in a hive observation record, but there wasn’t much too see on such a cold day except the bees clustering through the window. Alison has begun feeding them syrup as stores are low – the hive is very light.

Bee drinking station - the bees can stand on the large marbles

Bee drinking station – the bees can stand on the large marbles

Alison’s bees have a nice water supply (pictured) – a birdbath full of large glass marbles. This gives the bees a safe, shallow surface to stand on and suck water from. Bees have also been seen to enjoy damp moss as a water source. At this time of year, although pollen is plentiful, there isn’t much nectar available and most of the foragers you see around are actually collecting water, to dilute the honey stores to a level they can digest.


Other items

After we shared out goose feathers, which make ideal bee brushes, Margaret asked when to move a hive across her garden, and we advised now was best, while the bees are still spending days indoors and before they built up in numbers, but remember to block the door first.

Ann Poulter described a sudden colony loss a couple of years ago as an example of how to do a post-mortem on a deadout. This was a very rapid death, over a weekend. Will’s son (aged 7) has helped his father with inspections and suggested that the queen had been alarmed by increasing numbers of dying workers and fled, but realised a flaw in his theory and withdrew it – we were all impressed by his reasoning skills and understanding of bee biology. It is likely the colony was poisoned by nearby agricultural pesticide use as the entire colony died, with hundreds of dead bees in the same state of decomposition just outside the entrance.

Gary shared a technique he used to rescue some comb that required attaching to a top bar. He used plastic tie wraps and a lady’s hair grip. Although there was no way for the bees to get rid of these once the comb had been secured by them, it was better than nothing.

Will has been given permission to put hives on a University building as discussed in the last meeting, and will keep us updated. He intends populating from wild swarms, but the department is looking for honey to sell for charity from the hives, so he is considering tradeoffs here as fully “natural” beekeeping tends to give low honey yields. He’s also got to consider the strong winds several floors up and how to safely secure the hives.

Many thanks to Alison for generously opening her house and garden to the group!

Next meeting will be a special one, the Hive Building Day on April 23rd. This is a closed meeting which is now fully subscribed.

The next regular open meeting will be in Fringford, in early May, at a Warré apiary.

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