Sunday, 2 October 2016

an afternoon with the bees

Now it's October I thought I really had better get the bees ready for the winter, fed, snugged down, not too much surplus space in their hives to waste valuable heat.  Some books and magazine articles would have had me start in August as soon as I'd finished taking the honey off, since the rate at which the queen lays eggs has peaked by then and colonies are decreasing rather than increasing in size.

I didn't, for all sorts of reasons.  It was jolly hot, for starters, and I thought the bees would be grateful for some surplus space.  If you try to cram them in too densely during hot weather they have to come out and sit all over the front of the beehive, and the thermometer hit thirty as recently as a couple of weeks ago, while we were on holiday.

Also they had half finished supers of honey they were still messing around with.  Last year I took these, using clearer boards to get the bees out, and the mixed bucket of odds and ends of honey fermented in storage and was wasted, no use to me and no good to the bees either.  I thought that this year I'd leave it on the beehives until it was well and truly ready, capped with wax and sealed, rather than following the hopeful rule that if the combs didn't drip when I shook them then the honey was ready to harvest.  I tried that last year, and it wasn't.

And then there was the rush to get ready to go away and I was frankly knackered, and then we got back and I was busy, and it was still warm and forecast to be warm and the bees I saw around and about in the garden seemed happy enough.  But the weather will turn, sooner or later, and I don't want to be still messing around with supers and buckets of sugar syrup when that happens.  So yesterday I dissolved a couple of big bags of granulated sugar in four and a half pints of water, and once it had warmed up today I suited up and set off for the beehives with some feeding buckets containing syrup,  an extra clearing board, and secateurs for the brambles.

The first hive I looked at still had two supers on, both with quite a lot of bees in, and one full of honey.  I wasn't really expecting that.  I have already taken more honey than I am likely to eat, give away or sell, so I didn't really want any more, and besides the bees have been on the ivy flowers by now and ivy honey tastes completely disgusting.  I decided to leave the full super on the hive for the winter and try overwintering them with their own stores.  I swapped the supers over so that the full one was next to the brood box with the empty one on top, separated by a clearer board.  Give it a day or two and that should be empty of bees so that I can put it away in the garage for the winter.

I never have tried leaving the bees with a full super of their own honey before.  There never seemed to be that much honey to spare, and I had an anxious feeling that the winter stores should be down in the brood box with the queen.  Which said, last autumn half the colonies were extremely dilatory about taking sugar syrup down into the brood nest.  Bees have evolved to live off their own stores, and this year I am going to trust them to know what they're doing and leave them to get on with doing it.

The next hive had only one super left, and again it was absolutely full of honey.  That was easy, I left it there.  Then came my star performers of 2016, and I found that while I had left them with two supers to make space for all the bees, they had moved what little honey was left in the supers down to the brood chamber, though again there were still lots of bees up top.  I thought about this for a while, the bees getting gradually buzzier.  A strong work ethic in bees often goes with a shorter temper, and so it has been with this lot, though where they got the work ethic from is a mystery because that same colony never did a thing in 2015.  I ended up putting an eke and a bucket of syrup directly over the brood chamber, which is unorthodox, then a clearer board above the eke, then the two supers with the bees in, and hoped that by tomorrow the bees would be out of the supers and I could tidy the whole thing up.

That was the end of my operations because I'd run out of clearer boards, so there was no point in disturbing the last two hives.  I took the two spare buckets of syrup back to the house and returned to scooping dead leaves out from under the eleagnus hedge, until the Systems Administrator came rushing up to tell me that the bees were coming into the house.  They had discovered the syrup in the kitchen.  I shut the front door, and rounded up the half dozen bees that were bouncing off the inside of the kitchen window, and the SA caught the ones in the sitting room and put them out. They all made off in the direction of my apiary so I can't even argue that they weren't mine.  We left the doors shut and thankfully we now have a cat flap so they couldn't come in again, and by tomorrow I expect they'll have forgotten all about it, though I put the spare syrup back in the stock pot which has a close fitting lid, just to be on the safe side.  It is very fortunate that the Systems Administrator does not get upset when I accidentally begin to fill the house up with bees.

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