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Here we are moving swiftly into the last part of the active beekeeping season in Nairnshire. It feels autumnal and forage availability is ramping up fortunately. The heather is blooming and there is still an abundance of Himalayan balsam down by the river Nairn despite the bashers’ valiant attempts to eradicate it. I saw the first tell-tale silver stripe on a thousand thoraces this week, seven days earlier than last year. The weather has been warm so far this month, though overcast most days, but there is hope for a build up of stores in the brood boxes and supers. I am not planning to harvest much more honey though 3 of my 8 colonies will likely have more than they need for winter.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly given what we know about brood breaks, only 2 colonies have needed varroa treatments (Formic Pro). These are in my out apiary (apiary sited a few miles from home on a friend’s land) and they didn’t have long brood breaks because I used the nucleus method of swarm control which is more convenient in a situation where I remove the old queen and some brood and bees to a new location leaving the out apiary uncluttered with hives and nuclei out of respect for the landowner. These colonies requeened quickly and didn’t swarm all season. I will be reviewing colony management for next season based on this observation though.
Luring Varroa into Deadly Traps.
I’ve been doing alcohol wash tests every month this season and basing treatments on the results. Back in the home apiary, 3 colonies had very long brood breaks because queens either didn’t get mated, or they got lost or died. When finally each colony got a mated queen, I placed a marked frame of open brood in each hive and removed them when all the cells were sealed. I froze the frames to kill the varroa then removed the brood to estimate the numbers. It was very satisfying finding lots of dead varroa, but what was most interesting was seeing their fresh faeces in the bottom of many cells. The significance of this is that you can keep a look out in empty cells for evidence of varroa.
I’ve seen hardened white varroa faeces on the sides of brood cells before when doing dedicated brood diseases inspections so I was interested to examine this comb more closely. I didn’t find any faecal deposits but what I have learned (thanks to Steve Riley) is that varroa use the side of the cell to defecate and a patch of white deposit gathers there. I couldn’t find any on this comb but work by John Harbo clearly shows this. See photos here: http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/1461081/28382514/1607875045023/measuring+vsh+rev+Dec2020.pdf Harbo also discovered that non-reproductive female mites deposit faeces on the pupa instead. Why this is remains a mystery but it is all useful information when testing for varroa sensitive hygiene.
My photos were difficult to take because I don’t have sophisticated equipment and I was placing my camera lens against one of the eyepieces of the dissecting microscope. This is why they are not top quality and clear but never the less may be helpful for your own hive inspections.
Spring went well for the bees and they made some lovely honey. Probably the best that was ever produced in my home apiary with not a field of oil seed rape/canola in sight or flying distance. I harvested sufficient to supply the regular customers who call at my door to buy from a basket on the step. I left enough to tide the bees over this poor summer without having to feed a colony. Nuclei housing spare queens were another matter and I fed them all fondant.
This July I could smell lime blossom on the air whenever I was out walking but the temperature was too low for nectar secretion and this was a lost crop for the bees. I noticed a lot of meadowsweet pollen coming into the hives and saw an expanding area full of these beautiful flowers in a boggy abandoned farm field less than half a mile away. I’ve never seen such large patches of single pollens on frames before. You can see that they are making bee bread on this frame and pickling the pollen to preserve it. It glistens and looks a bit watery and a lighter colour than the fresh pollen coming in on corbiculae.
As soon as the patches of goldenrod were flowering in my garden, the bees were on it like magnets and feeding alongside flies, bumble bees, solitary bees, beetles, and you name it were there too. This was a first having so many bees feeding in my garden and I pondered over a possible lack of forage in my area this summer. There are so many more beekeepers near me now. One beekeeper moves his semi-commercial apiary to less half a mile from me for most of the season.
Latest Research on Forage.
When I opened my August copy of BeeCraft magazine I was fascinated to read about the recent research at Sussex University by Professor Francis Ratnieks and Ciaran Harris1 on seasonal pollen and nectar collection. I’m now convinced that I need to reduce the number of colonies I keep in my garden apiary (currently 5).
The article explains how honey bees fly further in summer to find forage (2.2 km). In spring the distance is 0.5 km and autumn 1.3 km. Since they like to forage as close to home as possible this tells us that summer is a more challenging time for bees contrary to what we probably all instinctively believe. Spring has an abundance of nectar and pollen secreting plants but fewer insects competing for them compared with summertime. Because honey bees must fly farther in summer to get nectar most of the energy gained is used up traveling. Also, the flowers don’t have much time to secrete nectar and refill before the next insect comes along to empty them. Competition among insects is higher in summer than in spring or autumn. Ivy in autumn is one of the most abundant and useful forage plants for many insects and I have seen dripping nectar crystalising on the plant.
What Can We Do?
We can make changes to our own garden planting and what we advise others to do. We currently advise people to plant for bees so that there is something in flower all year even though very few insects are out and about collecting food in winter. Ratnieks and Harris suggest that we focus on planting for times when there might be a dearth such as in summer. I am certainly going to be planting more goldenrod around my garden for next season.