Winter is coming

The Winter Cycle

Honey in top box, cluster below

It’s getting cold at night – time to fit mouse guards! You may see dark stains or frost on landing boards early in the morning – this is the humid breath of the hive condensing as it hits cold wood.

By the start of November, bees have prepared for winter. This picture shows a typical hive – click to enlarge any of these pictures for more detail – you can tell a lot about the health of a colony through windows. Here, the cluster is in the lower box, below a box full of honey. (This is without feeding the bees: they have regulated their numbers to match forage and finish the season with enough stores for winter.)

There’s a trick with windows – bees tend to pack the colder, outer cells last when laying brood and storing honey, so you need to examine the cells about 2-3 rows in, to know what’s really going on in a box. This needs a strong light – I sometimes use a powerful red torch as bees can’t see red. Some people orient the windows to view the flat side of the comb, but then you can only see one comb: it is a matter of preference.

By the way, I thought this colony was dwindling away this year. It went disturbingly quiet after swarming in May, and had long periods of not bringing in pollen. But it always fended off wasps, so obviously their morale was good (queen-right), and it was suddenly active and numerous again in September – the bees had simply been playing a long game, living mainly on stores and bringing up a couple of generations of new bees, building up numbers again. I’m glad I didn’t open the hive to find out what was going on: it would have been very disruptive and I don’t think they could have taken any losses from chilled brood etc. The principle is, of course, “what could you do to help if you DID open it up?” I don’t re-queen my colonies – supersedure and swarms are much healthier.

Capped honey through window

If the bees have had a great year you’ll see golden honey right against the window. (This small image is a couple of years old.)

Click to enlarge

The annotated picture shows a couple more details in another hive: note also, how the bees eventually attach the comb to the sides (window) in the oldest, top box – this instinct reinforces comb from shocks like a hive falling over, and baffles draughts; removing these curtains of ‘brace’ comb means they need more stores to keep warm in winter. In places they have left gaps to act as short-cut tunnels between combs.

Most hives have booted out their drones, but Gilliane reported plenty flying to and from one of her TBHs on 2nd November: “The workers seemed quite happy for them to be there.  I suspect this means the colony feels well-stocked and can be tolerant of the drones – who may also help in maintaining the temperature of the hive when it gets colder outside.”

A simple tunnel helps deter wasps

Wasps have died off in most areas after periods of intense rain and reasonable cold starved them. If your hives are still being bothered by wasps, you need to find and destroy the nest now because the wasps are no longer a beneficial aphid-caterpillar-control predator, they will fixate on your hive as the last remaining food source around.

Meetings and training

Physical gatherings this year have been limited, of course, but people have been chatting online, pottering away at various projects, helping each other with hive moves (maintaining proper social distancing and decorum of course!) and many organisations have launched free Zoom lectures.

Of these, perhaps the most informative and influential have been BIBBA‘s, which have a wealth of information on what one could describe as a rational style of conventional beekeeping: honey focused, but using local bees and their inbuilt varroa control traits – hopefully this will displace some of the nonsense about ritualistic chemical treatments spouted by the green ink brigade. Talks from other organisations tend to focus on more of the same old ‘treat, feed and breed’ recipe that has been failing for decades.

It’s worth noting that online forums are swinging towards more balanced views, with extremists no longer able to control the narrative. Historically, for example, was dominated by loud voices with 10,000 posts who spoke with enormous certainty and strong opinions. Now, even people with a handful of posts are willing to pop their heads up and say “that is not what I observe”.

The only physically-present natural beekeeping training I’m aware of is the Sustainable Beekeeping weekend which Bees for Development have organised for 17-18 April 2021 in Wales, and a course by Phil Chandler on March 27-28 in Wiltshire.

Imminent online events

Aboreal Apiculture Salon – tonight, Saturday 7th November, 7:30PM (Britain)

Bees without borders – one day conference, 21st November, simultaneous translations to several languages

Warré clearer board

I had problems harvesting a box of honey from a Warré hive this year, because the bees wouldn’t leave it. It turned out there was a young queen in it, obviously unaware that “queens are not meant to be in honey areas”. It was tricky getting her out because the comb was welded to the sides. To avoid problems next year, I followed Gilliane’s advice and made a clearer board with Porter bee escapes. Here it is:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To use this I will place it between 2 boxes and then remove the “cleared” box a few hours later.

Wild colonies and new website!

There is a surge of interest among researchers around the world in the unmanaged colonies which survive despite varroa and without human ‘help’.

Jonathan Powell, known for his work in the Natural Beekeeping Trust and his e-book on Tree Beekeeping, has created a major new website which has just gone live:

to pool information on wild colonies around Britain, Europe and America. There are loads of pictures of wild colonies under the “nests” tab and viewers are encouraged to submit your own pictures.

The topic is trending among researchers; just last month BIBBA hosted a Zoom lecture on the hundreds of wild colonies found in Ireland by Professor McCormack (82 minutes, recording here). Serious bee researchers have known the value of wild colonies for years – back in 2014 I attended a talk by Giles Budge of the National Bee Unit where he mentioned “In fact, when we want to check some things, we need to cut one of these feral colonies open to confirm it” (i.e. these are the ‘control’ for some types of experiment).

It’s worth noting that obscures exact locations of colonies, because there are people who go around killing them as “resevoirs of disease”, even though pathogen flow is actually from intensively managed colonies to the robust wild ones. Be very wary about telling conventional beekeepers where wild colonies are.

Spot the cat

Click to expand

Not really bee related but a bit of fun – can you see the cat in this picture? Answer at end of article.

It did make me reflect, though, that I’ve often seen cats near hives or even sleeping on flat-roofed ones. But dogs tend to get stung. When you’re near a hive, remember to glide like a cat, not dart like a dog.

Meanwhile, down at the hives…

Pollen going into hive

Drones wander past unbothered workers

I just took these photos a few minutes ago. It’s November 7th, 10C, dry, no wind. In one, you can see blobs of yellow pollen on one bee at the centre. In the other there are 2 drones, just like Gilliane reported. Click on photos to expand.

Answer to ‘spot the cat’

Scroll down




See them now?


This entry was posted in Honey bee research, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Winter is coming

  1. Pingback: Lockdown winter projects | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

Leave a comment ...

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s