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Report of the January 2018 winter meeting

Dead Bees don’t Buzz – Surviving the Winter
Report of talk by Roger Patterson at the joint meeting of West Dorset and East Devon Beekeepers, January 2018

Roger started off by reminding us that bees are wild animals with a yearly cycle of nest expansion in the spring and contraction in autumn, and although they are very adaptable it is often the case that beekeepers work against the natural cycles leading to loss of bees through beekeeping errors.

Beekeeping advice is very variable, possibly based on human perceptions, and there is therefore a need to consider the situation from the bees’ point of view. Simply put they try to maintain population stability and prepare for the future.

In the wild it is definitely a question of survival of the fittest. Weak or diseased colonies are less adaptable and will die out, so wild colonies tend to be strong, healthy and adapted to their environment.

Roger went on to show how a wild colony behaves through the yearly cycle, with the cluster moving up to fresh stores in winter then the queen starting to lay in the empty cells below the nest as the weather warms up.

Other characteristics of successful wild colonies that we should take note of are:

  • the bees tend to be dark
  • nests are well above ground level and are therefore less prone to damp
  • the entrance is defendable
  • usually well insulated in a tree or building
  • the interior is 100% propolised
  • they always have their food stores above or behind the brood
  • they tend to have the brood nest near the entrance

How can we copy them and improve our beekeeping and winter survival?

Allow the bees plenty of time at the end of the summer to arrange their stores where they want them. Consider putting frames “cold way” over winter to reduce the risk of isolation starvation.

Isolation starvation diagram
Isolation starvation in the winter months

With frames ‘warm way’ the cluster near the entrance (green area) will not move to stores at the back of the hive (red) during cold weather.

Make sure there is adequate air circulation round the hive to reduce dampness.

Ensure colonies going into winter are strong, healthy and well populated with plenty of young bees. A small colony can be given surplus frames of brood to boost numbers.

Unite weak colonies, especially those colonies with poorly performing queens.

When feeding in the autumn feed little and often to allow the bees to keep up with pollen collection and storage in proportion to the quantity of syrup, otherwise they will not have sufficient protein to produce healthy brood during the winter months.

Conditions are something the beekeeper can do something about. Remember that cold doesn’t kill bees but damp conditions do. Roger advised to always leave the tray out of the mesh floor for this reason. The beekeeper can also ensure protection against pests such as wasps, mice and woodpeckers.

Monitoring during the winter months usually involves hefting the hives. A word of warning! This only works if the stores are still liquid. Any honey which has solidified, such as ivy, will be unavailable to the bees.

Photo of dead bees due to isolation starvation

The picture shows solidified stores next to the cluster preventing the bees from moving to liquid honey, just a few inches away, during cold weather. If in doubt feeding a small quantity of fondant will let you know whether the bees are ok or need help.

Finally, remember that Varroa has not gone away. You need to monitor throughout the year and do something about high counts BEFORE it gets out of control.



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