Over the course of an occasionally rainy afternoon 18 people dropped by Paul’s house and apiary in the village of Steeple Aston to discuss Autumn tasks, winter stores assessment, feeding, harvesting, and observe various Warré and Top Bar hives and feral colonies.
Following a bring-and-share pot luck lunch, we shared our experiences of the year. Highlights included:
- Anna, a local conventional beekeeper who has adopted some low-intervention practices, mentioned her bees seem just as healthy and probably calmer than when she used to inspect fortnightly and treat with miticides.
- Keith, another local beek using framed hives, is another non-treater and mentioned he consistently gets decent honey yields from 2 of his 3 hives.
- Brian, who likes a woodwork challenge, is considering a new project inspired by the design of the Freedom Hive.
- Faith described how their bees had had a lot of varroa and deformed wings in Spring, but they stuck to no-treatment and by May the hive was flourishing, the deformed wings had vanished and it swarmed at least once.
- Eric started beekeeping this season and got two swarms, one very boisterous which he has christened St Trinian’s, and described a visit by a conventional beekeeper who was taken aback by Eric’s lack of protective clothing and simply monitoring the hive entrance and windows instead of “inspecting”.
- Santa’s first year is going well but she needs to move her hive because her neighbour is about to remove its screening hedge.
- Liz’s colony from Agnieszka is delightful but a bit small, and had to be moved to another location after being relentlessly robbed by a more aggressive colony and wasps.
- Jack had two swarms move in to the same hive and happily cohabit.
- My own colonies are from very varied sources (I am trying to bring together survivor genetics from around the area, collecting 12 swarms this year and keeping 5) and vary a lot in their behaviour – more on this below.
We then discussed the usual kind of items beeks review at this time of year –
- Assessing winter stores and establishing if feeding is necessary;
- Sometimes there is excess honey which can be harvested (though many natural beekeepers prioritise conservation and never take honey);
- Wasps often become a problem round now;
- Fixing mouse guards to hive entrances in October and other winter-hive prep.
Assessing winter stores
Assessment of honey stores should be conducted around now (early September). If the hives seem unusually light, then feeding should be considered immediately.
In Oxfordshire’s climate, the general advice is that a Warré hive should have around one box full of capped honey (9 to 12kg of honey or 7 to 8 Warré combs) by the end of October to guarantee getting through winter. Over the last few years I’ve never known them use more than half a box, because Warrés are so well insulated, but colonies and winter conditions vary so it is sensible to still keep to at least a minimum of one full box.
Top Bar Hives have larger combs but aren’t usually as well insulated, with these hives you should aim for a minimum of 15kg or 5 bars of honey. I have added quite a bit of extra insulation to my TBHs and must admit that up to now I’ve simply used the rule of thumb that if on hefting it the hive is really heavy at one end, that’s probably “enough”.
Hefting simply means to lift one side of a hive to gauge its weight. This is useful with TBHs because the bees tend to store honey at one end of a hive resulting in a very noticeable difference in weight when each end is hefted. You may want to practise with known weights like bags of sugar to get an idea of what 15kg at one end of a hive feels like.
You can weigh more precisely by using a luggage scale to weigh an entire hive, a single box or boxes.
For a Warré you can do this easily by weighing both sides of a hive, or box, by attaching the luggage scale to the handle on one side of a box and raising it up say 3 mm to take the weight (but not enough to allow bees to escape or become trapped), noting the reading on the scale, then repeating this procedure on the other side. Then add the weights together, and subtract the weight of an empty hive or box complete with bars and with an additional allowance of say 1kg for comb and bees. One of my windowed Warre boxes, full of (empty) comb and bees, weighs 5kg.
Honey is generally stored at the centre of combs first, so if you have observation windows a good indication that a Warré comb really is full of honey is seeing capped honey at the edges – i.e. right up to the windows as shown in the picture; if you have no windows, you can tip the box back and look for capped honey at the bottom of the comb.
Feeding in autumn
If the hive is light on stores, you need to make a decision about whether feeding is simply propping up a weak colony that will always need constant support. If you decide the colony is worth keeping and just needs a bit of help to get over winter, use strong syrup for winter feeding, so they can process it quickly. It’s about time to begin feeding as they will only be able to process syrup into “honey” for another month or so, while the temperatures are warm enough for evaporation.
I use a mini-Ashworth feeder in my Warré hives, and a vertical feeder in my TBHs. Other feeders are available – the key thing is they should be accessible without irritating the bees and that the bees should not be able to drown in them. A vertical feeder is deep and can drown bees, so should contain some straw to act as “liferafts”. A TBH with an angled roof can take some styles of shallow feeder above the bees, and other people place feeders inside the body of a TBH though they need to suit up to refill it.
If the bees do not have sufficient time, or suitable conditions, in which to process the honey completely so it can be capped, but instead are left with open syrup/uncapped stores this is dangerous as due to its higher water content than fully-processed honey it will ferment and cause the bees severe digestive problems, potentially even death, from dysentry. This is why feeding assessment should be done early September and should usually not be carried out beyond early October.
Note that if you overfeed, your Spring “honey” harvest will be pretty flavourless – it will simply be the sugar you fed them now. To minimise the chances of robbing by wasps or other bees, feeding should be done in the evening when hives have stopped flying, and entrances should be reduced.
Some people use fondant for feeding in winter. I’ve never had much success with that, my bees usually ignore it (perhaps because they have sufficient other stores), so I can’t give much useful advice on it. I can tell you that its ideal position is above the bees – tricky in a TBH – so it is accessible and warm, and it can turn into a sticky mass which traps bees like flypaper if it gets too humid.
My recipe for autumn syrup: bring water to the boil, then switch off the heat, add sugar in a 2:1 ratio (2 parts sugar for every 1 part water) and stir until all the sugar is completely dissolved. Be careful to not bring the syrup itself to a boil as the sugars will start to caramelize and this is harmful to the bees. I then add a teaspoon of lemon juice which inverts the sugars (from sucrose to glucose and fructose, easier for the bees to process), and some fresh nettle ‘tea’ and some lavender, and sometimes a small amount of vitamin C powder (vitamin found in nectar). The addition of the nettle and aromatic herbs adds micronutrients and also makes the syrup smell naturally attractive to the bees. Allow the syrup to cool before feeding it to the bees.
Some people at the meeting were new beekeepers so we covered this subject in some detail, although as some of us don’t harvest, and others only minimally, it’s not normally the focus of our discussions.
If the bees have significant excess honey stores by mid to late September you can take some honey-filled comb. Be careful to leave this harvesting assessment until late (separate from assessing for feeding earlier) so you are certain to leave more than enough stores for the bees – if you harvest too early, the bees may have used up some of the remaining stores by the time winter comes. Also if you harvest mid, rather than late September, check very carefully that the bees have moved all brood out of the box by examining the cells at the bottom of the middle combs. The bees lay their brood in the warmest part of the hive, forming a “chimney” of brood up through the middle of all the boxes, until mid September or later when they move the brood area down to consolidate the nest for winter and back-fill the upper boxes with honey stores. So it is important to check the bottom of the middle combs for brood before removing a box.
As it seems a poor year for honey in this area, I am going to leave them all their honey and reassess once the nectar flows restart in Spring. One reason to leave excess honey in a hive over winter is, it holds heat – they may not eat it but the big thermal mass of extra honey (and comb) helps stabilise the hive temperature.
It’s important to only take capped honey rather than uncapped (nectar) because if it is above 17 to 18% water, it will not store well but instead will ferment, and taste and smell “off”. If you find you’ve got a patch of uncapped cells in your comb it can be fed back to the bees, or kept separately and consumed by yourself within a few days. Capped honey is ‘safe’ to store. Being nerds, we demonstrated an optical tool called a refractometer used to measure the exact water content of honey – it is simple to use, you smear a drop of honey on the angled end and look through the eyepiece, reading the moisture content off on a scale; it was just less than 16%.
In a well managed TBH (i.e. straight comb on bars) it is straightforward to pull out individual bars, confirm there are more than 4-5 bars’ full of capped honey and, if so inclined, remove excess stores.
Warré hives are intended to be harvested by the box (like a super), though it is possible to extract individual combs with the right tool, an L-shaped knife. In general Warré beekeepers wait until the bees have at least two boxes of pure honey at the top of the hive, and then harvest one.
It’s generally considered good sensible practice not to take honey from a swarm within the first year it was hived.
Harvested combs can be put in a box with a one way bee escape for a day to clear them of bees (for Warrés this can be as simple as a flat board with the bee escapes on it, resting on top of the harvested box).
Once free of bees, comb is crushed and strained. The picture shows a honey strainer from Thornes which can take a large amount of comb in the top section – this is then mashed and uncapped with a fork and drips through the mesh over about a day. There is a tap (“honey gate”) at the bottom. There are other ways to filter honey with non specialist equipment.
You can also cut honeycomb out in blocks to give portions of edible comb, complete with wax. Sometimes the colour – honey flavour – varies across the comb but in general you want to only use new white wax combs with white waxy cappings, because if you use old, dark comb – particularly if it is old brood comb being backfilled with honey – the wax will be unpalatably crunchy rather than soft; the wax will be strongly flavoured with propolis; and may contain old cocoons, which are chewy. The picture shows another problem which is possible with old brood comb. You can, however extract the honey from brood comb by crushing and straining – it will contain much more pollen than honey from white honeycomb and have more taste.
Some people strain their honey several times using smaller mesh to remove pollen and ‘bits’ – but I find one crude strain sufficient and I prefer my honey with pollen and all!
Other Autumn jobs
Preparing hives to over-winter:
- Towards the end of October fit mouse guards to all hive types – mice would love to overwinter inside a nice warm hive but will completely destroy it.
- Warré hives sometimes have a box of empty comb below the filled combs – built optimistically by the bees in expectation of using it, or used previously then emptied. This will be unoccupied over winter and can go black and mouldy, so remove any boxes of empty comb.
- Warré hives should have one empty box below the comb for winter, so their comb is a little distance from the draughty entrance.
- horizontal top bar hives (TBHs) have follower boards which are used to block off an area of the hive. In summer these are moved away from the comb to give the bees room to build new comb, but now it is time to move them next to the comb so the bees do not have to heat the empty parts of the hive during winter.
- TBHs are not as well insulated as Warrés which can lead to cold walls and condensation. Consider adding insulation if the hive is in an exposed location or if the walls are less than 15mm thick. Mine are about 20 – 22mm of pine and there is extra insulation in the roof. Because of the condensation issue, which can lead to mould, old TBH books sometimes recommend that you leave the varroa mesh under the hive open, to allow airflow. This advice was inherited from thin walled National hives used by the conventional beekeeping community who stress “damp is worse than cold”. However modern TBH designs (since say 2012) are much better insulated and you are better off keeping the bottom / mesh closed to avoid chilling. There’s no condensation on warm walls! Apart from reducing the chance of the colony starving, insulation and a closed base gives the colony an edge against varroa, which require a cool hive to thrive.
Protecting against Wasps (and Ants):
Wasps will seek to enter hives and steal honey around late summer/early autumn. Reduce entrances to help the bees defend themselves better – down to just one or two bees widths if wasps are numerous. Also providing a small sheet of glass or perspex over the entrance,open at the sides, will further baffle the wasps. It is a good idea to reduce the size of hive entrances anyway at this time as bee numbers fall in Autumn and because even if you don’t see wasps, their raids become more likely as autumn progresses because they run out of easier food sources.
We talked about where to find wasp nests – I should have mentioned that one needs to pick up windfall apples which attract them. Wasp traps can also be used to reduce numbers.
Wasps benefit gardens by predating pests like aphids, so shouldn’t be indiscriminately killed; Rue told of an apple tree with both a wasp and bee nest which ignored each other. But if they decide to pick on a hive they won’t stop, and need to be dealt with – I use ant powder on wasp nests as they are usually a reasonable distance from the beehive and often built inside solid objects like a cavity wall (check ventilation bricks for traffic!). I would not ant powder (or any other insecticide!) anywhere near the hive as it is harmful to bees.
I’d like to stress that I would not use poison on an ant nest bothering a hive, because it is likely to be too near the hive! Instead, for ants, I would try to track down the ant nest and if the ants cannot be discouraged by, for example, smearing the hive legs with vaseline / sprinkling cinnamon under the hive (never in it, which would disrupt the hive smells) / laying tomato leaves / planting marigolds round the hive, or placing the hive legs in saucers of oil, I’d destroy it mechanically, with a spade or boiling water. But bees in the UK are only bothered by really large ant nests, so that’s a last resort. If you’re reading this outside the UK, your ants might be much more of a threat.
The Warré apiary
We then ventured out as it had stopped raining and viewed my back-garden hives. There are four Warrés and people were split into pairs to observe them for a few minutes, looking closely at the entrances and through the windows. Each has a different history. No one bothered with protective veils and no one was stung.
There are two large and two small hives, but plenty of flying bees from each despite the cool, wet day. Only one person saw pollen going in. It is instructive that the hives differ significantly, but are similar in some ways:
- There are two 4-box hives. One has been established a couple of years and the other is occupied by a vigorous feral prime swarm I picked up this year. Despite starting from scratch, the ferals have if anything overtaken the established colony, building more comb (though weighing the hives accurately a few days later I found the established colony to be slightly heavier). The established hive had a huge varroa load in Spring and I did a shook swarm on it, restarting the colony and leaving behind the infested brood, which seemed to sort out the varroa. Of course the ferals effectively did the same thing when they swarmed! I measured the varroa drop with sticky paper the day after the meeting, it was 14 / day from both colonies. They seem unbothered, no noticeable deformed wings (indicating DWV), and very healthy and happy.
There are a further two 2-box colonies populated by smaller (cast) swarms this year, which of course have taken longer to establish as they arrived with virgin queens. I reduced their entrances soon after they arrived, lest their more numerous neighbours get ideas about robbing. One has thrived, but the other has had continual problems – it never seems to have any stores. There’s no obvious robbing going on, though close observers on the day might have noticed the ground below it is covered in cinnamon dust to discourage the ants which I often spot on its baseboard (I later found tomato leaves seem to be more effective). But what’s most interesting about this hive is that it used to be in a different position, and like another colony we placed there, it built a propolis curtain to defend its entrance against… something.
So we suspect a problem with that location of the leftmost spot and moved the hive a few days ago. On being moved they started to reduce the propolis barrier. One of our latest theories is that a toad was lurking there and picking off returning foragers, which would explain why the hive never had decent stores. But it also has some wax moth problems so could that be locational? In any case, we will be watching the new leftmost hive very closely for signs that it is building a propolis curtain.
This photo shows one other feature of interest. The hives were originally aligned parallel to the fence, but not thriving. I turned them so their entrances picked up more morning sunlight and the bees became active 30-60 minutes earlier in the morning and the hives seemed to fare much better. Weight measurements shortly after the meeting indicate the two large hives have already stored almost enough honey to get them through winter, and one of the small ones is half way there. The struggling hive will need a lot of feeding if I decide to help it.
Local feral colonies
On the walk to the out-apiary, about a quarter of a mile, we noted no less than four feral colonies: one in a roof, two in unused chimneys, one in the church tower. They are easiest to spot by looking along the edge of roofs or walls. If your eyes are good enough you can see concentrations of flying bees silhouetted against the sky near the entrance. All the buildings with ferals in them were at least 170 years old. Three of the four have been present continuously for over a year (i.e. not died over winters), the other is regularly killed by the householder but keeps being repopulated – giving hope to all bait hive owners! We also discussed a now-absent colony which stored so much honey it collapsed the ceiling of one house, resulting in bees and honey all over their stairwell.
The Top Bar Hives out-apiary
- One has been established 3 years, and survives without maintenance with a low population, patchy brood and repeated brood breaks. I’m continually thinking it’s queenless and dying and it always bounces back – I think it is just characteristic of the brood-management-style and genetics of this particular colony. The brood breaks etc. of course makes it difficult for varroa to establish and it is a leave-alone hive.
- The other is a huge colony established just this year with a cast from Ann W. It’s very vigorous and built comb so fast that weekly checks weren’t often enough to stop it building crooked honeycomb, making further inspections problematic. I’ve found this one merits handling with respect. My plan this year is to leave it alone for now and remove the crooked comb in Spring, when there are fewer bees and I can discard empty comb before they refill it with nectar. Then give them fresh bars with sharp edges and they should build new comb along the bars, making the hive much easier to inspect.
I opened the smaller, normally calm hive to demonstrate that with TBHs, you can pull out a single comb at a time, and the bees aren’t very upset if you pull out honeycomb from the back of the hive, well away from the brood. However, it being a chilly, damp day the hive was full of sheltering bees and I took a comb out for too long while talking, whereupon they understandably got agitated and one observer got a sting. This is in contrast to the back garden hives (which we did not open) where people stood close enough to open windows and were not bothered.
Graham and Di, who work with trees, brought along a six foot hollow log, explaining it was typical of the cavities feral bees inhabit in British trees these days. This one is a fallen branch, and the cavity was formed by a mix of woodpeckers, fungus and nesting creatures over 50 years to its present size. Graham explained that most of Britain’s trees were felled during WWI and WWII, leaving very few large ones and so it is rare to find a 40 litre thick walled cavity as described by Seeley. In contrast, America and Europe still have plenty of large old trees. Later he told me that comparing notes with tree work colleagues, a total of 70 years’ experience between them, they had only come across one bee colony in English trees, in a 14 inch diameter branch of an Ash.
I had been lent some of OBKA’s microscopes in preparation for a course, and these were used by some present to look at detritus from a hive floor. OBKA members interested in using these should contact Heather Horner, OBKA’s microscopist, who can use them to diagnose suspected nosema and acarine mites. Microscopes can also be used to examine the pollen in honey, and some people build up a library of local pollen samples to accurately identify the provenance of their honey.
The meeting broke up with people commenting on how they would be going home and assessing stores directly and that it was most useful to know what’s normal to look for and to do for this time of year.
Next meeting: TBD. Any further meetings this year will not involve opening hives.