Stonebridge Bees

Getting ready for Spring….Fri 7th February 2014

Hello and apologies for the delay in my blog, and I hope any of you with hives are doing well with your bees. So despite the wet the all the colonies I am looking after are looking strong and healthy. I peeped under the crownboards of two stocks today and the clusters were tight which is a good sign.  On Monday the sun came out and the temperature rose prompting the Farm’s bees to become very active. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABees do not defecate in the hive but take advantage of a warmer weather to relieve themselves outside.  Bee poo looks like drops of mustard and builds up in the bees gut during long spells of wintery weather ready to be deposited on lines of washing and cars. Bee poo under the microscope is interesting as it contains some undigested pollen which can be identified if you have the expertise. Some pollens such as rosebay willowherb are easy to identify.  Honey contains pollen and the source of the honey can be determined in this way. A magnification of x200- x400 is needed.  It’s a bit of a diversion from practical beekeeping but fascinating nevertheless.

I didn’t see any pollen being carried into the hives on Monday and was a bit surprised as the Hazel catkins nearby were full of pollen. Hazel is a good source of very early pollen together with snowdrops.  The bees do have stored pollen from the previous summer but also take advantage of fresh stuff when they can get out for it.  As I took a look around the apiaries this week I ran the back of my hand over the crown boards to feel the heat coming off the cluster of bees incubating brood. The size of the brood nest can be estimated using this simple technique.  All my colonies have started to raise brood already after a winter break. Brood rearing bees need pollen as a protein source hence the early pollen gathering activities often observed at this time of the year.   Later on the bees will be on the crocuses, pussy willow and lots of other early spring flowers. Once the bees can get out regularly brood rearing increases tremendously and the colonies rapidly increase in size. Honeybees have this capacity for rapid colony expansion because they can regulate the broodnest temperature maintaining it at around 34°C resulting in rapid development of young bees; from egg to adult worker bee in twenty four days.

Preparing our hives for Winter…Sun 1st December 2013

The Farm currently has seven stocks of bees. Five of them have young queens raised this year from our best stock. The other two have queens, which are more than one year old. Queens can live for three or four years but rarely get past their second year. It is our policy at the Farm to raise our own queens and keep everything as local as possible so that we can maintain a genetically stable population.


Bees don’t mind the winter chill

The honeybee is a species native to the UK and is well adapted to the British climate. We have found that local bees are the best suited and give us the best results in terms of behaviour and productivity.

Colonies of bees store honey as a food source to get them through the winter. A colony in this area needs about 16 kilos or 35lb of winter stores. It is the honey surplus of that which is harvested by the beekeeper.

Most beekeepers on the UK take their main honey crop at the end of July and any honey the bees collect after that is their own, for winter use. Sometimes the late summer weather is not good enough for the bees to get out and collect enough of this late nectar and the beekeepers need to help by topping them up with sugar syrup. Sugar is full of calories which the bees “burn” to produce heat, by vibrating their wing muscles in the tight winter cluster. They also eat a lot of stored pollen which they have collected from flowers and which constitutes their protein and mineral diet.

Honeybee colonies can cope with very low temperatures so hives do not need insulating and in fact need good ventilation. Damp is not good though, so sound equipment and in particular, a watertight roof is a real necessity.

The beekeeper also needs to look out for two pests, namely mice which can creep in to the hive and cause a mess and woodpeckers which smash hives to bits in order to get at the bees inside.

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Bees in winter,
Note the mouse guard
Woodpecker damage Preventing woodpecker damage in the winter

At one time brown bears roamed the forests of Britain. Bees still hate bears – try opening a hive whilst wearing a fur coat and you will find out. (Therefore, when seeing to your hive, please do not wear anything dark or furry.)

So far our colonies look good. The great summer has meant they have gone into winter with a lot of young bees and well ripened good quality honey. It’s just a matter of wait and see now.

Summer of Success! A story of our recovery… Fri 20th September 2013

It has been a glorious summer for the bees!

The colonies at the farm took a good hammering during the prolonged wintery spring and we ended up with only two surviving colonies. We bought a couple of colonies from a beekeeper who was giving up and from the resulting four colonies were able to replace all the losses.


The way we did this was by raising two frames of brood and two of stores from the brood boxes of each colony into a second brood box above a queen excluder. We started queen cells off artificially in plastic cell cups in a prepared cell raising colony and then took these one day old cells to the farm, wrapped in cotton wool. The cells were pushed into the comb of the raised brood frames, two per colony. Started cells treated in this way will always be finished off and the resultant queens are always large. Oddly, the bees treat the cells as supercedure cells rather than swarm cells so they don’t in fact swarm when the cells are sealed.

Once the cells were sealed the four frames in each top brood box were put into nucleus boxes and these small colonies were taken to an out apiary a few miles away for mating.

All of these new colonies managed to get their virgin queens mated and were taken back to the farm for building up and preparing for winter. We had swarm as well, so we increased our stocks from spring to nine colonies. Success! Our bees don’t normally behave in such an obliging manner, but they obviously decided not to confound their owners on this occasion.

We managed to get a surplus of 150lb off the farm’s nine colonies, which is 150lbs more than we thought we would get when we looked at the colonies in April, but it’s half of that expected in a normal year.

The honey is of excellent quality. It has a lot of lime in it, as expected and also some honeydew which has resulted in a honey of a rich dark mahogany colour. Our bees have been closed for varoa with the new formic acid based MAQ treatment and are heavy and ready for winter.

We have reduced the hive entrances because wasps promised to be a problem earlier on this month. They hasn’t been much evidence for the past week however.

There is still some nectar to come in from ivy which produces a late bonanza for bees, wasps and hoverflies. I will be looking at our equipment this autumn to see if we can become more efficient in the way we work. The new plastic frame feeders on sale at Thornes look good. I used a borrowed one this year and was impressed with the speed the bees cleared it.

Raising Queens and Artificial Swarming…    Tues 2nd July 2013

Things change rapidly in the apiary during spring and early summer.  The early spring gloom has lifted and the bees are forging ahead making up for lost time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The whole season is still a bit behind and swarm control was not such a pressing need this May and June as it was last year.  I have been busy raising queens from selected stocks and the bee breeding group I’m in has recently given out 24 ripe queen cells to local beekeepers and has orders for 18 more.  These are from good strong stocks which have overwintered well and, importantly for us, show the behavioural and physical characteristics of our native race of honey bee – Apis mellifera mellifera.  We should have a lot of decent drones flying next season if all these queens take.

Last winter’s losses have all but been made up through taking off 5 frames nucs. from large colonies and giving them a cultured queen cell.  I am now hoping that the new queens all mate and that this winter will allows these new colonies to survive.

When I find a queen cup with an egg I break it down as this does not necessarily mean the colony is wanting to swarm.  Larvae in queen cells though requires intervention and I always immediately make an artificial swarm as leaving them or breaking them down will almost always result in the loss of a swarm.

My method of artificial swarming is as follows:

The queen is found and caged or put in a nuc. on the frame she is found on.  The colony is then moved away at least two meters and a new floorboard is put on the parent stand. A queen excluder is put directly onto the floor board and a new brood box put on top so the bees have to go through the queen excluder to get in and out of the hive. The new brood box is filled with foundation or empty combs or combs with stores etc.

The queen is then put into the new box.  I don’t put any brood in but it’s a good idea to put a frame of stores with adhering bees in so the queen is in immediate contact with her workers.  Then on goes the second queen excluder and the supers with bees.  Flying bees will now be entering this new box and will continue to fly from the moved colony and go back to the parent stand making this artificial swarm very strong in bees and a good honey gathering colony.  The Queen will start to lay lots of eggs and the colony will work hard just as a natural swarm would.

Why the queen excluder on the floor board? Sometimes the queenright bees still have swarming ‘fever’ and will leave the next day.  The queen cannot leave so the bees go back.  This does happen!

The moved colony needs to be gone through and all sealed cells removed if unsealed cells are present.  One week later both stocks are inspected and one good cell is left in the moved stock.  Queen cells maybe found in the queenright stock and if these are broken down the bees usually stop making more cells.

The moved colony should have a new laying queen in about four weeks.  Be warned the queenright part can build up again very quickly and can reach swarming strength again in around six weeks.

That’s the buzz from Stonebridge.

Causes of Bee colony declines: Past and Present…Mon 13th May 2013

Apologies on my part for the delay in posting this blog, however there has been some interesting and noteworthy news reports in the bee world since my last blog. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs I have been watching these beekeeping stories unfold, as you know I have sadly lost over half of my colonies this winter.  Colonies dwindled to small clusters and eventually starved unable move to stored food in some cases only a few centimetres away.  Talking to other beekeepers this seems to be the norm this season.  Personally I have not witnessed anything like this before.  I do remember a lot of colonies dying out in March 1984 but this was associated with dysentery which describes the situation where the bees start to defecate in the hive instead of outside causing the spread of disease. In this year again about half the colonies died out and beekeepers were faced with having to clean up some very messy hives so that they could be repopulated later in the year.  The lesson from 1984 was that the colonies which did survive built up strongly and the bee population soon recovered.

I haven’t heard of any compelling explanation yet as to what has caused the losses this winter. There probably isn’t a single cause.  Going back even further in beekeeping history there was Isle of Wight disease which according to contemporary reports almost wiped out bees in this country during the early 1900s.  There is still debate over what was the real cause here but many people believe it was due to a parasitic mite which inhabits the trachea or air tubes of the bee.

Whatever the cause of the current malaise the worst is over, and on a positive note, I for one am ready, with cleaned out hives, to increase my colonies again. To do this, I will be making artificial swarms if my colonies build queen cells and raise queens and to split any colony which looks strong enough to take it.

More details on building new colonies in the next blog.

Negative Factors to look out for…       18th March 2013

Starting on a sad note this blog, I have lost a number of colonies over the last few weeks and it looks like I might lose a fifth of my colonies this winter. It is a disappointing figure and twice as many as can be expected in the average year. However this has not been an average year as far as bees are concerned. Rain was the major feature of the main honey flow from mid June until the end of July. In fact the sun came out and stayed out from the end of July when it was too late for a really good honey flow. There was some honey of course. It would have to be truly grim not to get a surplus from the Limes in June and July. The bees must have struggled to get themselves well prepared for winter and now we are having a very long period when they can’t get out to rid themselves of waste matter and to collect early pollen.Winters like this produce a natural cull of weak, unproductive colonies and probably do some good in the long run. It is often a waste of time nursing such colonies through to summer without much resulting honey only to start the cycle again next season.

One of the big killers in bad winters is Nosema, a gut parasite. The parasite shortens the life of adult bees and can result in the colony dwindling to nothing. This disease is found in most apiaries and can often be found in healthy looking colonies which are obviously coping with it. Some colonies show signs of a slow build up in spring and then recover others will struggle on and never seem to build up to a really big colony. Any colony which seems to be ok but which is not building up like the others will probably have Nosema. Such colonies can be cured by replacing all the combs in spring and summer. Bees pick up the parasite as spores from old brood combs as they clean these out ready for the queen to lay in spring. As the season progresses infected bees die outside the hive to be replaced by young healthy ones. Changing combs ensures that these uninfected bees do not pick up the parasite again from the old comb. I have changed combs like this in struggling hives and have had huge resulting colonies the following spring. Old comb can be fumigated with acetic acid available from beekeeping suppliers and probably from pharmacists. I tend to fumigate all brood combs taken from dead or weak colonies before reusing them, just in case. I will talk about how to replace old combs in the next blog.

In some really bad years beekeepers can lose over half their colonies. It is surprising though how quickly these losses can be made up the following summer by splitting colonies and collecting swarms.

 Starting the year…                    Mon 28th January 2013

I am hoping, in this Bee Blog, to give sound advice and also to generate debate so that we can all learn from each other.  My way of doing things comes from a long experience of beekeeping but this doesn’t always mean that it the best way so please take the opportunity to reply and give your opinions.

This time of the year I check my colonies for food stores by removing the roofs and gently lifting the hives to see if they are reasonably heavy. If hive feels light I lift the crown board and take a look inside to see if the colony is short of food.  I don’t feed them unless it is absolutely necessary and to be frank it shouldn’t be necessary if the bees were properly sorted the previous late summer and autumn.  I always consider the winter feeding of bees as a bit of a failure on my part.  The feed has got to be candy or fondant as sugar syrup will probably go sour or ferment at this time of the year and cause dysentery.  Candy can be made and fondant bought in. A jar of your own set honey inverted over the cluster is a good emergency measure but NEVER use bought in honey though as it may contain bee disease organisms.   The best feed of all of course is a frame honey from a colony with one to spare!

Most colonies are heavy and thriving and the queens will be starting to lay new eggs. As I write this I can see that the sun is shining and the snow is melting. The bees will be flying this week and will be collecting pollen from hazels and snowdrops and from shrubs such as Mahonia in preparation for the explosion of spring brood rearing.   Inevitably some colonies will dwindle however and may even die out. If this happens I always suspect that they have lost their queen or have the gut disease Nosema.   There is nothing that can be done with a struggling colony at this time of year, except to wait and see.  If it does die out, it is not a good idea to re-use the comb without fumigating it first.  Store it somewhere bee proof and deal with it later.  I will talk more about Nosema in my next blog but for now – happy beekeeping from Stonebridge.

Welcome to our new Bee Blog!

Here at the farm, we are proud to have our very own passionate beekeeping expert, Keith Cosgrove, who is also our head gardener.

All year round he will tend to the bees at the farm, and when the time is right, will harvest honey to sell in the farm shop.

He is excellent at advising anyone who is interested in having or already has their own beehive. You can visit the farm to speak to him directly, and we will also be developing this space to promote useful hints and tips for keeping your bee colony healthy, maximise your honey production and much more. For those of you that are interested in keeping bees, but haven’t started yet, we will be running a beekeeping course this year, the date is yet to be confirmed.

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