Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Winter varroa treatment

The two websites/blogs I follow most closely to help with my beekeeping are written by the wonderful Rusty Burlew ( and the informative and entertaining David Evans ( Both are very much of the view that Varroa destructor is a serious and continuing problem for our bees, which makes a refreshing change from the views of these who don't count, don't treat, and say "Oh, I just keep strong colonies".  If you don't already read them, I encourage you to follow Rusty's and David's blogs.

Following their advice I decided for the first time to apply oxalic acid to my hives this winter to help control the varroa.  You can read what Rusty has to say about it here (she uses a slightly weaker solution than we do in the UK).  David has recently posted three articles on the rationale and technique of use of oxalic acid which you can find here, here, and here.  I bought Api-Bioxal, the form of oxalic acid now approved for treatment of varroa in the UK (generic oxalic acid was previously used as a "hive cleanser").  After discussion I decided to use the manufacturer's recommended dose of 4.2% w/v although David Evans argues in favour of the more traditional 3.2%.  The 35mg sachet is dissolved in 500ml of 1:1 sucrose syrup (made from 308g sugar in 308ml water). The dose is 5ml per seam of bees so this is enough to treat 100 seams, perhaps 12-20 hives.

I have four hives in the garden, all on double brood.  I waited until this week as the treatment is best applied in cold weather when the bees are not flying.  It is done in December when there should be little or no brood as oxalic acid can only kill phoretic mites, ie those living on bees rather than in brood cells.  I was a little bit apprehensive as I have never looked in a hive in the winter before but in the end it was all pretty straightforward. Having made up the solution I loaded five 5ml syringes before opening the first hive.  In two hives the cluster of bees was in the top box and the other two clusters were in the bottom so I had to split the boxes to get at them. There were 6, 7, 7 and 8 seams of bees in the four hives so I think they are all doing OK.  They seemed pretty active and were not as tightly clustered as I had expected, even though the outside temperature was only 1℃.  It probably took less than minute to trickle the oxalic acid solution along all the seams and close up so the bees didn't seem disturbed by the intrusion.  I was also able to judge that they all have plenty of stores.

Having treated all my hives I had used only 140ml or so of the solution so I had arranged to meet Sue, Ian and Jonathan at the association apiary where we treated another seven colonies.  They were a little smaller, perhaps 4 or 5 seams, but all seemed OK.  The advantage of the others being there was that I could take some photos, not really possible on my own hives as I was working quickly.  Here are the bees emerging from the hole in the crown board once the insulation has been removed

Here are two relatively small clusters of bees, each occupying around 4 seams.

Here are the bees in the seams between the frames.

We applied the oxalic acid with a 5ml syringe.

Here the bees are all discussing what has just happened to them.

All my own hives were treated last summer with formic acid (MAQS) as well so it will be interesting to see what the varroa counts are like next spring.  I am hoping they will be very low.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

December bees

We have had a lot of cold weather recently, with nighttime temperatures down to -5℃ and daytime barely above freezing so the bees have been confined to barracks.  This morning it was 12℃ and sunny so they came out in force to make the most of it.

The lazy ones were just sitting around in the sunshine, topping up their tans.

Others were hard at work and there was a surprising amount of pollen coming in.

All the pollen was this pale yellow colour.

There aren't many flowers for them to choose from at this time of year but the mahonia is out and they were busy visiting the flowers.  I expect this is where the pollen was coming from.

A few slackers had chosen the mahonia to soak up the sun.

Fresh pollen collection is said to be a sign that they are feeding brood but I doubt that that is the case at this time of year.  Still, at 55° North in mid December it was a very cheering sight.  By early afternoon it was cloudy and they were all already safely back inside.  Only two months and the snowdrops will be out.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Beehive

There are two pubs near me called the Beehive.  This is the Beehive Hotel in the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne.  You can see that the pub sign shows a bumblebee.  I decided against calling in the tell the landlord that bumblebees don't live in hives.

This one is The Beehive, between Hartley and Earsdon.  I had noticed that the sign shows a skep but it was only when I stopped to take a photo that I realised it also shows bumblebees and not honey bees.  Again I didn't call in to point out the error.

My impression is that most people - obviously including pub landlords and pub sign artists - have no idea what a honey bee looks like.  I kept track of calls I have had about "swarms" this year, my second year on the BBKA swarm collector list.  In all 12 of 14 calls I took were about bumblebees, presumably mostly tree bumblebees (Bombus hypnorum).  I don't always carry the phone so I have missed some calls as well but only two calls were about real swarms - I had more from my own hives.

I read that there are 67 pubs in the UK called The Beehive, making it the 70th most popular pub name (just ahead of Robin Hood).  It would be interesting to know how many of them accurately portray honey bees rather than bumblebees on their signs.  If I am still standing after I have checked them all I'll let you know.  (In case you are wondering, the three most popular pub names are The Red Lion, The Crown, and The Royal Oak.)

Friday, 27 October 2017

Still busy

It was a lovely sunny afternoon and pretty warm for the time of year so it was a good excuse to go and watch the bees.  They were making the most of it, perhaps having heard the forecast of the weather turning cold from tomorrow.  There was a lot of pollen coming in, all in the cream / yellow / orange spectrum, some of it in quite large loads.

I have had the hive entrances reduced for some time now and it looks quite congested in the photos but the bees have no difficulty getting in and out efficiently.

The next few days will be much colder so that might be their last busy day for some time.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Friday, 13 October 2017

Kniphofia caulescens

This imposing and unusual plant is Kniphofia caulescens, a very late-flowering red hot poker.

It flowers in October and I have noticed this week that it is very popular with the bees.  At first there were only one or two on the seven flower heads but word spread and the numbers have increased to a couple of dozen at a time.

The bees climb through a forest of stamens to get right inside the flowers and spend up to a minute in each flower, suggesting there is a lot of nectar to be had.  They also visit only a few flowers before returning to base.

This photo shows a bee with a drop of what I assume is nectar.

This is a bee's eye view of the flowers and appears to show large drops of nectar in several of the flowers.

Some of the bees also collect pollen.

Even those not collecting pollen spend a lot of time grooming, suggesting they are getting covered in pollen and/or nectar as they get right inside the flowers.

At this time of year there are fewer flowers for the bees to visit so I expect they welcome the appearance of this exotic South African plant.  I read that in its home country it is mainly pollinated by birds (Drakensberg siskins, yellow canaries and malachite sunbirds) and produces very large amounts of dilute hexose-rich nectar which the birds prefer.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Autumn propolis collectors

Several of my hives have very "sticky" bees, that is they collect and use a lot of propolis.  I imagine that propolis is both easier and more difficult for the bees to deal with in warm weather - easier because it is softer and more pliable but more difficult because it sticks to everything.  The opposite would be true as the weather gets colder. When I was watching the balsam bees the other day I saw several bees bringing in fresh supplies of propolis. Unlike in the summer, when each bee had a single large blob of soft propolis in her pollen baskets, these had several smaller propolis balls stuck together.

Sometimes the load was unwieldy and in danger of falling off.

The next day was very warm and sunny and the propolis looked softer.  Most bees were carrying their loads in a single drop.

I still haven't seen a convincing explanation of exactly how the bees collect propolis without getting plastered in it.  If it is in the same way that they collect pollen you'd think it would be stuck all over their hairs.  Many of the propolis carriers spend some time on the outside of the hive before going in.  This one shows she has propolis all over the pollen brushes on the insides of her basitarsi.  That makes me wonder if the bees scrape the propolis directly onto their back legs before squeezing it into the pollen baskets.

These two spent time grooming themselves before going in and yet they have no signs of propolis on their other legs or elsewhere.

This one shows well how the propolis is contained within the pollen basket and also shows propolis all over the pollen brush.

Most of the propolis coming in was deep red as in the photos above.  A few bees were carrying paler orange propolis, presumably from a different source.

Here are the two colours together.

Propolis carriers seem to be very aware of each other and often stand side by side or greet each other outside the hive.

I have never seen so many bees with propolis as I have this week.  I expect they are intent on draught-proofing the hives before the winter.  I wish I knew where they are getting it from.  One day I'll find a bee collecting propolis and take some photos of the process in action.