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Dave Black

BOP 2017 - Spring jitters

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For our first apiary visit of the year the weather was reasonably kind to us, the temperature somewhere in the 15-17C range, a gentle breeze rising on a sunny but increasingly overcast afternoon. Our host had one hive to look at, the biggest problem so far being wasps, responsible for the loss of two others in the past and worrying at this one.


The hive had three full depth boxes, and had an entrance screen doing a passable job of defending against the constant presence of wasps, although they were elsewhere today. The top box was full of unused combs, pretty well devoid of bees, so we put that to one side. The next box was clearly being used so we took that off too and stood it off on the up-turned lid. Going through that box on the hive is unwise; it just drives bees down into the other box. Far better to stand it off, check the undisturbed lower box first, and then return to our box. It helps that flying bees are leaving this to return to the hive-stand, making it easier to check. If you intend to inspect the whole hive starting at the bottom makes life a lot easier.


The bottom box, with the entrance to the hive, was empty, the comb old and, in many areas, damp and mouldy. This is not at all unusual. The bees tend to work up through the winter into their stored honey and when colonies are small the bottom box gets abandoned. If the comb was in better condition one option is to simply ‘reverse’ the position of the two boxes putting the empty one on top to be used, but it is also an opportunity to get rid of old comb, melt it down and give the bees new. The only combs that will be kept in good condition are the ones that can be covered by bees. Now is the best time to check and replace or repair the equipment you will be working with for the rest of the year.


In this case we removed the box, emptied out the frames, scraped the floor clear and put it back. Then we transferred all the combs from the second box, a pair at a time, into our empty bottom box. That was just because of the physical condition of the equipment; usually we’d just swap the whole box. For my spring inspections I keep a spare floor (or floors) with me, rather than clean up a floor in-situ. Spring inspections are best done briskly, minimising brood chill and robbers. By putting all the bees back on the floor we also improve the defence of the nest considerably; the empty box with an entrance was an open invitation to robbers.


So our hive is now a single box and we turned to assessing the condition of the colony. For me there are two important things at this time of year, I want to know what food stores are like, and I want to check the brood. Here we had sealed brood in small patches over (I think) five frame-sides, and a high proportion of open brood (eggs and larvae) compared to sealed brood. We shook the bees off every brood frame so that the condition of the brood could be examined very carefully. Call it a foul brood (AFB) check if you like, looking for signs trouble especially with the sealed cells. While the pattern of sealed cells was very sporadic there was nothing actually wrong and it’s quite likely that was a reflection of the awful season so far; a reflection of the equally sporadic foraging conditions. The high proportion of open brood (without getting too clever) just tells you that the queen hasn’t been laying long, and that the laying rate is increasing. If we had more sealed brood than open, we’d assume the opposite, laying would be decreasing or may have ceased. If the brood pattern continued to be erratic we’d have to think about the condition of the queen.


The hive was collecting a lot of pollen, many of the foragers we could see were laden with a good assortment pollen loads and there was some stored. In this location the pollen supply can be brilliant. Nectar too was present, but actually, by imagining it all collated, it probably amounted to one frame. Let’s think about that ‘nectar’. Whether it came from a sugar feed or direct from flowers it’s likely that it’s less than 30% sugars – it’s not honey. We can say honey is at least 80% sugars. In very rough numbers, finger in the air style, we know an average colony (20,000 – 30,000 bees) in the absence of foraging would use 2kgs of honey a week doing very little, and that’s about a frame’s worth. So if bees can’t successfully  forage for some reason you will want more than twice that volume if the sugar concentration is less than half, so shall we say three frames of ‘nectar’? Minimum. And the space to put it in. Every week.


Envisaging all the brood gathered together, sealed and open, we’d probably occupy the equivalent of two full frames. We can also estimate how many bees we have. Maybe I’ll explain it another time, but in a full-depth hive every seam of bees (by ‘seam’ we mean the space between frames) will contain 2,500-3000 bees IF it’s full from the bottom bar to the top bar. Here my guess was that at most only three frames could have been fully covered (by counting four full ‘seams’).


As a complete unit then, we have about 10,000 bees or less occupying four frames, with two frames of brood and limited pollen and nectar stores. While it appears to be perfectly healthy the limited food supply is a cause for concern, particularly when the foraging conditions are so poor and considering that most of the bees are likely to be quite old. What we have is a nuc. in a big box.


In practice we had condensed the hive down to one box that could be defended, conserved heat, and improved sisterly love. The next thing to do was to supplement its food supply. Without going through all the possibilities the best solution for this hive was to start giving it some pollen supplement – a flat patty over the brood, and feed it sugar syrup in a contact feeder just above the nest. The bees will use these as they need to, but my guess is we have another month of tricky conditions, so we’ll just keep them always on hand. With only half the frames being used there would be plenty of room to grow and store food between now and the next visit.


Before tea we had a look and chat about some varroa management equipment – a professional and a DIY vapouriser, and the famous ‘Crowley cup’ for monitoring mite levels (presented by the ‘inventor’). I considered checking mites on the hive we opened but decided against it. First, I think it was a mistake having too many things to focus on – better to look another time, specifically at mites. Second; with such a small amount of brood the mites were hardly going to expand their number much before a second visit. Third; with a high proportion of open brood, and with young bees so important at this time, in my opinion it's pretty silly to use oxalic and risk the open brood without good reason. There is a time and a place for everything.


Now I wonder if @Judy K took any pictures?

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