Many people, myself included, find spring to be their favourite season. The arrival of snowdrops, then crocuses, blackthorn and early blossoms together with frantic pollen-collecting activity by the bees is a welcome antidote to lockdown. Sometimes beekeepers get a little too excited and forget that we can still have snow in April. As long as my bees are active and have adequate stores, I’m not in a mad rush to examine brood frames. I prefer to wait until a warm sunny day before carrying out full inspections.
The ‘S’ word
Springs can be warm or cold, and I like to keep track of some stats from a near(ish) weather station in Shropshire. The warmest springs recently have been, in order, 2020, 2019, 2017, then 2014. I have found that the warmer the spring, the earlier I find the first queen cells in my hives. Spring has been hot in both of the last two years, and this corresponded to the earliest I’ve seen queen cells in my hives – April. April! That’s ridiculous. Before then, it was mid to late May. Needless to say, I didn’t raise queens off those colonies. I realise that I’m basing this theory on the tiniest of sample sizes, and it could all be a barrel of walrus poo. It’s just a little fun. I can’t do anything about the weather except spend hours talking about it, which I do. I’m British, after all.
Unfortunately, a hot spring doesn’t often lead to a hot summer. The warmest recent summer was July 2018, which followed quite a cool spring. The next warmest was 2013, then in 2014. My preference would be for an average spring, followed by a gloriously hot and sunny summer. Where I live, this is a rare occurrence. Any sunny day at all, at any time, is a cause for celebration. A really cold or wet spring can cause significant problems for the bees because they cannot forage and fail to build up in the run-up to summer. In such times the beekeeper may need to feed both sugar and pollen or pollen substitute. I have spoken to many knowledgable people in the UK who say that we don’t need pollen subs here – there is plenty of pollen. The problem is they can’t collect it if you get a block of several weeks of rain, so I suppose it’s good to have some as a back up just in case.
So far, we seem to be having a reasonably cool March. I’m completely fine with that. Unless things radically change, I’m hoping that I won’t have to worry about swarming until late May or June. That feels like the right time for such things. I don’t usually have many hives within range of oilseed rape; my main crop seems to come from bramble and lime in the summer.
I have been painting some new mini-plus nucleus hives and putting wax foundation into the frames. These will be the homes of new queens made by me in June, which will, of course, be perfect mating weather; over 20 degrees Celsius, sunny with no wind. Dream on. I have Kieler mating nucs which I’m gradually getting the hang of, but mini-plus sized boxes seem more forgiving, and I can over-winter queens in them.
Another quite time-consuming activity of late has been putting together slide shows for some upcoming Zoom talks that I’m doing. I’ll be talking about my travels to interview excellent beekeepers, some near, some on the other side of the world. When I worked for GE (it was then still a colossus of the corporate world), I was known for my PowerPoint prowess. Hopefully, I can amaze viewers with the beauty of my slides. However, nowadays, they are on the equivalent Mac software, Keynote. I like Zoom talks but prefer the old school talks where people are physically present.
Sponge for knowledge
Recently I’ve seen some good updates by Randy Oliver on his recent work. It’s always great to hear what Randy has been up to. I am very interested in the results of his ‘extended-release oxalic acid’ treatment. Washing up sponges (the thin cellulose ones) soaked in a solution of glycerine and oxalic acid seem to be effective summer mite treatments in hives in California. He has a special research licence allowing him to legally do this. Randy uses 1g of OA to 1g of glycerine which means he has to heat it to get a supersaturated solution. It crystalises in the sponge as it cools. The moisture in the hives gradually releases oxalic acid from the sponges.
From what he has seen, it appears that the treatment does something to prevent varroa mites from entering brood cells to reproduce. This means that after a few weeks, the mite counts in alcohol washes don’t fall, so it can look like it’s not working. Once a couple of months have passed, the results are outstanding. Another fascinating part of this research was the impact of mites drifting into hives late in the season. In high hive density areas, a surprisingly large number of mites can invade colonies from other hives. When Randy did his tests on hives in isolated locations, most mite counts after treatment were zero.
In another piece of Randy Oliver news, he updated us on his breeding program to produce varroa resistant bees. Over several years by selective breeding, he has managed to get colonies that are great honey producers, gentle and don’t need any treatments to keep mite numbers very low. The problem is that these traits don’t get reliably passed on to daughter queens. It happens in maybe 8-10% of cases, but the rest cannot keep mites under control and need treating. The goal is to get this up to 95%, at which point mite treatments become obsolete. There’s a long way to go. He is selecting from 1,000 queens, and they carry out mite washes of ALL colonies to identify breeders. I don’t know if anyone else is doing that at that scale.
Oh, look – I’ve passed 1,000 words. The sweet spot has been reached, and now I shall catch up on the latest episode of American Idol.