My best and worse colonies in 2020

I run between thirteen and twenty colonies, including Nucs, in five locations including my garden. Six locations if you count the New Forest where I take my largest and smallest colonies for heather honey (my favourite) or to fill the brood box with quality winter stores.

In most years this is more cost effective than making sugar syrup, though some years I have to both buy a Forest licence and sugar feed. One can’t win them all!

Taking bees to heather

The best

COVID 19 was a running theme this year, affecting my beekeeping in unexpected ways. Two of my biggest colonies are in a new location; a field next to a usually, reasonably quiet lane. With the exception of weekends, I can open the colonies with little likelihood of disturbing anyone. This year, from 07.30 to 21.00 there has been a constant flow of families walking, cycling, riding. All wanting the person in the bee suit to explain what’s going on!

January was the sixth warmest on record since 1884 – but like February and March, very wet making it difficult for me and the bees to get out for days at a time. The bees were flying well on 16 March with plenty of pollen going in. I got them on clean floors, brood boxes, queen excluders and crown boards on 1st April.

Early April was the hottest on record, and all my big colonies wanted to do was swarm! The constant flow of people in the Lane, albeit 50 yards away on the other side of a hedge, I found stressful when I was trying to manipulate such big colonies. They were on 10 frames of brood in mid April – with charged queen cells!

I divided the colony three ways. making two full colonies and one nuc but I still lost a swarm from one of the full colonies! I obviously missed a queen cell.

The original colony had four supers on by mid May and the queen was still laying well. The Nuc didn’t achieve a good laying queen, so I amalgamated with the split.

After May being the warmest and sunniest since 1929 the first two weeks of June were cold, with storm Christian coming in on 19 June. The lime yields in warm weather years the first two weeks of June for me- this is about 50% of my honey crop. By the end of June we had temperatures of 33 degrees. When I was spinning I found that the colony had managed a super of lime honey.

I added a super frame into the brood box on 20 June to do a drone cull, also adding a varroa board which I removed for counting 7 days later. The Beebase website advised that no action was required for nine months. On 13 July, I removed the drone frame – most of it capped- and did a full inspection.

On 2nd July, the colony went to the forest in unexpectedly cold and windy weather but still produced a full super of surplus heather honey for me. By early January, there was still so much heather honey in the brood box and in the super left on for the bees, that I could barely heft the hive.

By mid-January, they were bringing in a good amount of pollen, so fingers crossed. Large colonies will always produce more surplus honey than two small colonies. They achieved 80lbs of honey- very good for a colony which had been divided! And the split produced 35lbs.

The worst

I had a phone call from a member asking for a Nuc in late May. I took three frames and plenty of nurse bees from a colony that had produced well in 2018 and 2019 with a reliable calm queen.

The site is on the other side of Botley with afternoon sun and opposite an avenue of lime trees. By 11 July, they had produced a queen and drawn five frames of comb and there was eggs and larvae. ‘Good!’ I thought. ‘I’ll arrange to deliver them.’ I’ll just leave them another two weeks to ensure there is capped brood and a good amount of stores.

End of July arrives; there was a supercedure cell and the queen was laying poorly. I checked for varroa and carried on feeding.

By mid September, they were still only on 5 frames. Varroa didn’t seem to be a particular problem and the bees looked healthy. The new queen didn’t seem much better than the one they superceded. Certainly not good enough to pass on. In November, they hadn’t attempted to use the fondant. They were still flying on 16 January but I couldn’t see pollen going in. Still too early to open them up but I am itching to check!

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