Gosh, I’ve been running around like a blue-arsed fly, a headless chicken, a striped ass ape…[insert favourite metaphor here]…which is not how your average walrus likes to be. We are sedentary creatures. We like to muse, and ponder, and pontificate; the occasional stretch is delicious, but all this frantic activity has unbalanced me. It has also slowed down my blog posting which just won’t do; I need the discipline of regular posts to keep the old writing muscles in shape. I have set out the steps that I must take to produce a book of wonder that will grab the beekeeping world by storm, and the first of these steps is regular blogging. I have slapped both flippers in admonishment and remade my vow to keep this ship sailing, keep this show on the road, keep the flag flying…you get the picture.
Sometimes life throws stuff at you and you just have to go with it, accept that the universe does not bend to your will, and keep the faith that better times are ahead. We walruses do not visit churches or mosques or synagogues, for obvious reasons; our place of worship is out on the high seas, where Nature herself rules unchallenged, sometimes gentle and still, other times raging and brutal.
There are cycles to life and to everything, just as there are cycles charging around the streets of Amsterdam at this very moment, ridden by people in a hurry to mow down the unwary tourist who dares to step out from the pedestrian area into the cycle lane. How dare they? I’ve often wondered why cyclists evolved from ordinary people peddling down the road to these lycra clad, multicoloured, shaven legged superheroes that shout at car drivers and pedestrians in equal measure…but I digress. Come to think of it, this whole piece so far is one big digression, because I haven’t mentioned bees yet. Hah! I have now.
Here in the UK we are just about prepared to admit that Spring might be here or will be along shortly, and beekeepers across the land are waking from their slumber, flexing the old hive tool muscles, and preparing to have a peek at their bees. The first question for novice beekeepers is, “Have I still got bees? Am I even still a beekeeper?” The Winter months are a test for the bees and their keepers, and sadly at this time of the year we discover that things don’t necessarily always go to plan, and some of our colonies will probably have perished.
Starvation is the usual way that colonies die over Winter and into Spring. When you visit the apiary and see bees flying from most of the hives, but one or two are quiet, the suspicion arises that all may not be well within. The thing about starvation is that it doesn’t just happen because the beekeeper failed to leave enough food for them (in frames of honey and pollen). That can happen and can be remedied by adding sugar to the bees in the form of fondant or “winter patties” which are placed directly above the clustering bees. There is also this thing called “isolation starvation” which happens because, in cold weather, the bees are tightly clustered and cannot move far, so even if there is food a few inches away they may not get to it and will die.
I have lost bees to both types of starvation, and it’s a horribly sad, guilty feeling finding them dead in the Spring. Sometimes I suppose it may be Nature’s way of removing poor bees from the genetic pool, but mostly I reckon it’s down to the beekeeper. When you have many colonies a few losses, sad though they are, become just another job to sort out, but for hobby beekeepers with a handful of hives, it can be a demoralising setback.
From my experience, I believe that isolation starvation is often caused by taking colonies into Winter that are just too small. Most beekeepers know about feeding bees in the Autumn, after taking their honey, although they may not be sure just how much stored food the bees will need. There are plenty of books explaining this, but I suspect few hobby beekeepers weigh their hives to be sure they have enough stores.
A large colony will form a large cluster when the weather gets cold so that it will be covering plenty of frames of honey. It will also be able to generate a lot of heat (see my post on heater bees) which will enable more movement of the cluster around the hive, and it will be less tightly clustered and more able to reach out to honey that is a few inches away. A small colony may just make it through a mild Winter, but bees continue to die off over time and eventually, if the weather turns icy, they will bunch up tightly and not be able to move. Even if they have plenty of honey in the hive, they won’t get to it. If there is brood in the colony, which is likely to be the case from February onwards in my area, the cluster of bees will not leave it to chill. It takes a certain number of bees to cover the brood to keep it warm, so if the number of bees is low, they may just sit there over the brood and not find food. This is why one of the tasks of Autumn is to combine weaker colonies because one strong colony will do much better at surviving Winter than two weak ones.
There is a difference in behaviour of clustering bees depending on the beehive they are living in and the way they are treated. Mike Palmer keeps bees in wooden boxes, as do most beekeepers across the world, but his nucleus colonies are huddled together for warmth and wrapped. He found that when two boxes of bees are brought together the cluster forms at the side walls where they touch. The heat of one colony is used by its neighbour and vice versa. They form one large cluster with half in one hive and a half in the other, so each side has a hemisphere of bees which together makes a ball. It was a discovery for him, but he later found out that it had been described in books from over a century ago. This undoubtedly helps with survival, but it also means that the frames with honey and pollen need to be on the side of the box nearest to where the two hives touch. Peter Little keeps his overwintering queens in a box split into four small colonies above a large production colony so that the warmth rising off the colony below keeps the smaller ones warm.
I have noticed something peculiar in polystyrene brood boxes. In a wooden brood box the bees cluster and form their brood nest in the centre, but in a poly hive the walls seem to be the warmest place, so there is a tendency for them to cluster against a hive wall, especially if it is a small colony in a big box. From what I have heard little colonies can be overwintered in small poly nucleus boxes far more successfully than in wooden boxes, but I don’t have any hard evidence for this. I have seen hundreds of Murray McGregor’s overwintering nucleus colonies, all lined up in their painted five or six frame poly boxes, and he assures me that they do measurably better in his climate in polystyrene than in wood. He should know. It is undoubtedly the case that the bees need to be cosy in their hive, so a smaller colony needs a smaller hive. They do not benefit from having acres of vacant space around them.
Right then, I have now fulfilled my duty by talking about bees. I think that the whole business of overwintering bees and getting a good start in the Spring is one of the essential parts of beekeeping, along with swarming, managing varroa mites, and identifying and dealing with diseases. It’s not an easy or a cheap hobby, but it is rewarding, not just in honey but in time spent as part of Natures ever changing cycles.