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Getting ready for the green peril

Winter is now here and there’s not much for a beekeeper to do other than worry endlessly about their beloved bees and whether they’ll survive to the spring. 

One of the precautions we can take is against unwelcome interest of the Yaffles or green wood peckers.

The UK has three types of woodpecker all of which I have seen in and around Milton Keynes and our garden.

The Greater Spotted Woodpecker is a lovely coloured bird that is a similar size to a Yaffle but doesn’t prey on bee hives.

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker is the smallest of our woodpeckers and again isn’t interested in our hives.

Yaffle

The Green Woodpecker, affectionately known as the Yaffle usually eats ants and has a tongue like an Anteater which it uses to scoop up lots of ants from ant hill nests. Its tongue is so long that it is actually curled up around the inside of its head as it won’t fit in its beak.

During the winter months, if it freezes, the Yaffles can’t get to the ants and so look for other food sources. One of these may be a bee hive. The Yaffles hard beak makes short work of wood or poly hives and once in can clear out a hive of bees in a very short time. This is learnt behavior so once a Yaffle has discovered the food source they will keep coming back year after year.

So how can we keep the Yaffles away without hurting these lovely birds?

We use thick builders type plastic wrapped around the hives. This won’t stop a Yaffles beak but will prevent it getting purchase on the side of the box and so hopefully put them off. Some beekeepers use chicken wire loosely surrounding the hive. Once a Yaffle has discovered that hives are food sources this is the only way, other than moving the hives of protecting them. The trouble is its a lot of work to unwrap the hives every time to do anything so we work with a half way measure. The plastic wrap also provides some extra protection from wind and ran and helps keep the bees snugger through the winter. Lastly its tough enough to be put in storage and used year after year.

Winter Readiness

Over the last month we’ve moved into winter preparation mode. As the weather turns the bees find less forage with Ivy being the biggest source in this area. As a consequence we have to check that each hive is strong enough in two areas.

Bees.

You might not know but the bees that live through the winter are very different from summer bees. They have to live longer for a start as the queen lays less eggs so less new bees are born. They also have to be able to survive the cold weather and to do this they have special fat bodies to store more food and generate more heat than usual.

Food.

As its too cold for the bees to fly they have to rely on the food they have collected. It takes a lot of food to keep warm so a hive needs approximately 20kgs of food to survive a winter.

As in everything beekeeping there are lots of different ideas on how best to prepare bees for winter. We follow the same process every year and have never lost more than a hive a year.

We start by weighing each side of the hive using luggage scales. This tells us the starting weight to allow us to track the weight loss through the winter and provide extra feed if required.

We weigh both sides and add the weight together to get the full weight. Its surprising how the way the bees position and store the honey can make one side of the hive a lot heavier than the other.

Our scales have a second needle that shows the max weight measured so we don’t have to look at the dial while weighing.

Hive weighing
Eke and fondant

After taking off the crown board we place an Eke on top of the brood box. An Eke is just a small frame that gives us space to fit a tub of icing fondant below the roof. We buy normal baking fondant, put it in a small plastic tub and wrap in cling film. The cling film stops the fondant melting out of the tub and covering the bees below which is bad news. You can see we score the film with our hive tool so the bees can get to the fondant.

We then put the tub directly above the bees. This is so it is as close as possible to the bees. When the weather gets really cold the bees can actually die of starvation even when surrounded by food as they cant move to where the food is. By putting it above them and across the frames they can always be in direct contact with the fondant and so are less likely to starve.

We’ve also removed the queen excluder. This is so that the queen can move with the rest of the bees and so stay in the warm cluster. If the excluder is left in she can get trapped below it and freeze to death while the rest of the bees are toasty above.

Fondant on frames
Clear cover board

The final step is to place a clear Perspex sheet above the Eke. This allows us to look at what’s happening in the hive during the cold winter days without opening them up. We can see if the fondant needs replacing and whether there are still lots of bees in a healthy condition.

Finally, on our Abelo hives, we have to put the solid cover board back on to allow the roof to fit properly. We think this will be a problem as it may stick to the clear Perspex and lift it as well when we take a peek in the coming months. Hopefully not but we shall see.

closing the hive

Start of season 2020

As a beekeeper, the beginning of the year starts with the decision of when to take your first peak into the hives. It may seem like a simple thing but it always ends up being an agonising choice.

Weather plays a big part. You have to think what weather is coming as well as what is happening on the day. A period of relatively mild weather will start the queen laying and filling the brood box but if the weather stays cold then the trees and flowers bloom late and nectar and pollen is delayed. If the queen timed it wrong the hive will starve as the increase in mouths to feed exhausts what little food is left in the hive after the long winter months.

So what does the beekeeper feed? Fondant or sugar syrup? Fondant just keeps them alive but can be fed at any temperature. Sugar syrup stimulates the queen to lay faster and so lots of bees are ready for when the true spring flow (lots of nectar) kicks in and so more honey is collected. The problem is that below 10 Celsius the bees don’t take it even if their starving.

Before feeding though the beekeeper needs to decide if they should. Feeding too much fills all the space in the hive and there’s no where left for the queen to lay and then the hive dwindles and dies out. Not feeding may lead to starvation as already said.

But before you go opening that hive remember that lets all the cold in and can chill (kill) the brood thats about to hatch and provide the new bees for the spring.

So the answer is to spend time checking the weather forecasts, hefting ( lifting) the hive to check its weight and watching the entrance to see whether the bees are flying and bringing back pollen for food. Then take the plunge and hope you chose the right moment.