Editorial – Winter colony losses lets discuss

We are approaching the time when we hear the sad accounts of how colonies were lost during the winter.

If you are unfortunate to have this happen to you, do try to think of some reason why it happened. For example, at your final inspection last autumn (September or October), did you see a queen? Were there any eggs or signs of brood? If not, there is the probable answer. Or were the varroa levels high? This is another strong possible reason for colony failure during winter. There are, of course, many other reasons why a colony can fail, but I do think that it is important to try to think of the reason for the loss rather than simply accept it as ‘one of those things’. I remember some years ago hearing a supposedly experienced beekeeper on a National TV programme being asked if he had lost colonies during the last winter. His very casual reply was, “Only four.” (of about 20). Maybe they had deficient or unmated queens, but I would have thought that he would have expressed a view on why it had happened, for his own self-respect if nothing else. So, particularly new beekeepers, if you have lost a colony, have a look through last season’s records, and see if you can work out why it may have failed and seek other beekeepers’ ideas on the reasons for the loss.

I would welcome more thoughts on this. I have really been very puzzled for some time at what seems to me to be a significant increase in the number of winter colony losses in recent years.

Important reminder to all members for this time of year

The most likely time for colonies to starve out is during March (not midwinter), as the bees may well start their serious foraging by then, (especially if the weather is warm), and at the same time be starting to raise brood. For these reasons their stores will be very quickly depleted. The position could deteriorate rapidly if a warm dry day or two is followed by a sudden wet cold period. Now is the most important time to start keeping a careful check on every colony’s stores. This can be done by ‘hefting’ the hive, but only if the beekeeper is familiar, from past experience, with what a ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ hive feels like. The most reliable check of all is to lift frames to see if there are sufficient stores in the hive, but this must be done very quickly and paying attention to the air temperature. Feed at once if necessary but do not overfeed. This feeding may have to be done several times in small amounts at judged intervals. In the event of a sudden nectar flow, it is most important not to finish up with stored honey diluted with sugar (if sugar was used for this emergency feed), especially if you sell your honey. The local food inspector will not be pleased (and worse) if he/she finds this. This is a pretty fine balance to manage at this time of year.

Geoff Cooper

Compliance with recommended Varroa destructor treatment regimens improves the survival of honey bee colonies over winter

  1. The following was taken from the Abstract of the above ten-page paper published in Research in Veterinary Science, Volume 144, May 2022, Pages 1-10. Three formic acid treatments were recommended, and the beekeepers were permitted to use the one of their choice.

    For full details of the treatments used refer to Paragraph 2.3. V in the paper which can be accessed here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0034528821003696

    Thirty beekeepers were enrolled in a longitudinal study in three cantons in Switzerland and they monitored the management and health of their colonies for two years. Compliance was assessed with mite control recommendations and measured V. destructor infestation rates, colony productivity (brood size and honey harvest), and colony mortality in 300 colonies. An observed 10-fold increased risk of colony death occurred when beekeepers deviated slightly from the recommended treatment regimen compared to compliant beekeepers. The risk of colony death increased 25- fold in apiaries with substantial deviations from the recommendations.

    Thanks to David Parker and Claire Balla for drawing our attention to this paper in which there are grave warnings for not treating varroa properly.

    This is a long paper and does not make particularly easy reading. However, the core of the materials and treatments can be found in sections 2.1 and 2.3, and the results in section 3 and its sub-sections. It has been suggested that as this work was carried out in Switzerland, the formic acid treatments described may not have the approval of our authorities in the UK, but the general principle of compliance with recommendations is relevant.

A new enemy of our bees? The Robin

Last spring and also in autumn/winter I have been finding many killed bees on the roofs of some of our hives. The parts of the bees that were left on the roof were the abdomens, the front half with thorax removed; every single dead bee was the same. A distressing find and at first I wondered whether it was the handiwork of hornets as I have seen them catch bees and remove the thorax that they flew off with in the past. However, there were hardly any hornets in our apiary last year and I certainly did not see any hornet activity. During July and August I did not see any evidence of dead bees on the roofs but then from October onwards it has been happening again. I’m showing some photos of my findings with this article. I was wondering who the culprits were to cause this massacre of dead bees on quite a few of our hives (15+). I made some enquiries with other beekeepers around the country and a number of them had witnessed robins and sparrows catching their bees and doing exactly that, removing the thorax and leaving the abdomen behind. I now know why I am being followed by various robins whilst hefting the hives on a weekly basis during the winter months. On 9th January I was being followed by 3 robins keen to get their little beaks on our bees. I saw the robins dive down from hive roof to ground level and fly straight back up onto the roof again. I expect it is a combination of taking bees off the landing board, from damp ground when they are taking moisture, and bees in flight. They are following me from roof to roof probably hoping for a little bee snack. I am not happy to see such a large number of bees taken by the birds but at least I know we don’t have a hornet problem and the mystery has been resolved as to who the culprits are. What does puzzle me is why I have not seen this ever before? Is it because of a shortage of a natural food source for the robins following the terrible weather we had last year? I wonder whether anyone else in the Association has witnessed this?

Astrid Bowers-Veenman

Thank you Astrid for this unwelcome news. l am sure that most of us do welcome and are delighted to see a robin in our garden, so this is an unexpected piece of news. Has anyone else seen this? Please let me know

Talk by Matthew Ingram via Zoom – A Year in the Life of a Young Bee Farmer

We were delighted that Matthew had agreed to give us a second talk after last year’s fascinating account of his experiences in Australia, and the start of his Bee Farming operation in Staffordshire only a very few years ago.

He took us through his beekeeping diary month by month, starting with an aerial shot of 100 of his hives in one apiary under the snow. His winter plan includes building his boxes from timber, wax recovery, and a lot of packing of honey for his own label and for other businesses. He said his Mum deserved a mention as she helped a lot! He trickle treats his colonies with oxalic acid which, he said, may have been less effective in the mild winter.

In March he moved his hives to several non-permanent apiaries to allow them better pollen forage – but maybe too close to an oilseed rape crop. Spring also saw him grafting queen cells and checking overwintered nucs to ensure a ready supply of new queens (Carniolan). It has been a learning curve understanding how many bees and how much time this takes, and he said his focus was still on honey rather than selling bees.

Over summer he went to farmers’ markets and shows, along with harvesting honey. This year he also took on the renovation of an old milking parlour for an extraction room, so he was very busy. Then he took bees to the Peak District, where they produced some beautiful frames of heather honey for cut comb and chunk honey. He loves the flavour and colour of heather honey.

Then in autumn he brought his colonies back to the home apiary, to save travelling around with a lot of syrup, and to reduce time spent checking the bees. In October he took a holiday with his girlfriend – to the bee farmers’ AGM in Devon. This was also a season for developing new products such as flavoured honeys and a chocolate honey spread.
November was a time for Christmas markets, which are a valuable part of the business. They also allow him to talk to the public and gather feedback. Packing and product development continued too.

And in December it was time for frame making – about 3,000 – and box building, ready for the coming season.

I came away feeling I had had a very enjoyable evening and learned quite a bit about life as a young bee farmer. This was a very good talk, and our thanks go to Matthew for being such an engaging speaker.

Thank you, Marion, for arranging it.

After his talk Matthew very competently answered a number of questions from the Weybridge Members. The video of the Zoom talk is available on a restricted YouTube programme accessible to WBK members only. If you were unable to attend the ‘live’ presentation, we heartily recomend that you find the time to listen to this recording. Here is the link: https://youtu.be/jqrenS0di70

Jane Hunter

Many thanks for this report Jane.
What an unusual and impressive young man is Matthew! His beekeeping skills can only be matched by his business ones in building up his beekeeping operation so quickly.