Monthly Ramblings – January 2024

President’s Ramblings

Here we are at the start of a new calendar year, but nor perhaps the start of the beekeeping year which I always like to think of as starting in September with the preparations for winter. Hopefully the hives didn’t get blown over in the storms.

What is there to do in January and February then? There is always the worry about whether the bees will survive the winter. Will they starve? Perhaps they won’t come through the winter successfully because of some other unknown factor.

Firstly don’t needlessly open up a hive to have a look. Having said that when I went for my interview to become a seasonal bee inspector back in 2005, I was asked to open up a hive and inspect it in the middle of February. They weren’t my bees, and if that’s what the NBU wanted me to do then you just do as you are told. My rule has always been that in normal circumstances one only opens up a hive of bees for the benefit of the bees, not for the enjoyment of the beekeeper. There exceptions to this rule when it comes to a teaching apiary, or inspections for disease for instance.

With this in mind what can we do in the apiary at this time of year, and how can we put our minds at rest as regards the situation inside our hives? Firstly we can just observe what is happening at the entrance. On a relatively warm day there should be bees flying and now that there are plenty of snowdrops open there should be pollen being brought it. If so you can breathe a sigh of relief. If there are signs of pollen then there must be some brood, so hence you know there is a laying queen. Look under the floor if you have open mesh floors, or insert the board for a few days. Look at the pattern of wax cappings below the floor. You should be able to clearly see how many seams of bees are active from the number of lines of cappings on the ground.

Secondly feel the weight of the hive by lifting one side and the other. This is called hefting, and will allow you to guess how much stores are still in the hive.

Thirdly on a warmish day, take off the roof and look down through the hole in the crownboard. With luck you will see bees moving in the hive and will be able to feel the heat from the bees. If it looks too quiet or cold carefully raise one side of the crownboard and look underneath. If all seams well close it up, if not lift the crownboard right off and have a good look down between the brood combs, If you want at this stage to prove they have died then take out a few end combs until you get to the cluster. If it looks dead then just close it up to deal with later. Close up the entrance to stop any potential robbing as the colony may have died due to disease.

If the colony was well fed in September then it shouldn’t need feeding now, but if you are in any doubt give them some fondant.

What else is there to do? Really quite a lot. Now is the time to do all the jobs that should have been done before. Queen excluders can be cleaned and sterilised ready to go back on the hives. Check through the supers that came off when you did the harvest last year. Change the spacing of the super frames from narrow to wide spacing and discard any frames that are past their best. If you are planning on collecting swarms, or just need more boxes to be able to do swarm prevention now is the time to do it. The seconds quality hive parts and frames are available in the spring sales and at the spring convention. By the time the swarming season comes all the cheap stuff will have gone and you will have to pay for premium quality. The same is true of foundation – buy it in spring whilst it’s still available. If we have a bumper year all the suppliers will run out of foundation.

Lastly we can plan. Get your record cards ready now, in whatever form you use. Check that your smoker is cleaned out ready for the season ahead (fit a new bellows if required, and make sure you have plenty of your chosen smoker fuel. If your bee suit needs some running repairs do it now. If your hive stands are getting a bit long in the tooth, now might be a good time to make new ones, or to change to a different type should you chose. You can move hives much easier when they are just a single brood box.

That’s it for now have a good beekeeping year, let’s hope it’s a bumper crop!

Geoff Critchley