August is said to be the start of the beekeeping year because it’s when your winter preparations begin. The more care taken in Autumn, the more likely you are to still have bees the following Spring!
One thing’s for sure, the natural cycle of the honey bee colony and more particularly, the weather, dictates the precise schedule of work throughout the year. So let’s start at the very beginning…
Swarms in August are unlikely but not unknown. Fortnightly inspections of colonies should suffice at this time of year and swarms should completely cease by the middle of the month at the latest. Most hives should now have cast out their drones.
Honey removed after the main summer flow is harvested at the end of the month and processed. Wax collected throughout the active season can be rendered.
For those heading out to the forest for heather honey, strong colonies led by a young queen can be prepared (with some reserve stores) but with ample empty comb.
The heather flow is most often at its peak in the second week of August.
Each year, Meridian organises the ‘heather migration’ as an Association and siting hives in the forest must be pre-arranged and agreed. Bees are booked for the forest in April or May and the forest license begins at the end of July and expires 6 October.
As the queen’s laying starts to reduce, now is the moment to check for heavy late-summer varroa infestation by checking natural mite drop.
Measures taken under Integrated Pest Management should have prevented a large build-up, but once your check is complete and after your honey has been removed, this is the time for varroa treatment if needed.
Any chemicals used should be applied strictly in accordance with the instructions. Some treatments can be continued until October.
Assess your colonies and start to unite weaker ones in preparation for winter.
Hefting of hives should be conducted throughout the month to assess stores. This should continue periodically until the end of October as this will help you decide if fondant will be required.
Feed sugar syrup to those low in stores but Autumn feeding must be completed by the end of the month to allow the bees to ripen the feed and seal it before the cold weather begins. Non-ripened feed may ferment and lead to dysentery.
Watch colonies for signs of robbing by wasps and bees. Reduce entrances if they have been set wide and move heavily-affected colonies as necessary as a last resort. Wasp traps may be necessary.
Continue processing honey and wax.
By the end of the month, hives on the heather must be brought back and the honey removed and processed.
Fit mouse guards to all hives at the beginning of the month and make a final check for winter security. Are your boxes fitted tightly together? Are roofed well-fitted and dry?
Protect from woodpeckers by wrapping hives in chicken wire.
Strap hives down and insulate.
Chemical treatments for varroa should be completed by the end of the month.
Periodic checks should be carried out to ensure hives have not been disturbed by weather, critters or vandals.
Do not disturb the bees.
Winter provides a good opportunity to clean and repair equipment. The National Bee Unit’s fact sheet on apiary hygiene provides a useful checklist of things to do. The fumigation of comb for reuse is also best done in winter. Fumigating Comb with Acetic Acid.
If treatment for varroa with oxalic acid is selected, this is the month to apply it. If correctly applied it involves minimum disturbance.
Hefting of hives is recommended to monitor stores or a quick visual checks under the crown board can be made every three weeks or so. Feed fondant to bees short on stores.
Do not remove snow from hive entrances but clear it off roofs. Bees are best left lightly imprisoned in bright snowy weather because sometimes they come out and can be chilled on clear frosty days.
Continue checking food reserves by hefting or quick inspections under crown boards. Your bees should still have sufficient stores in January but if you’re not sure, place a fondant pack over the vent on the crownboard. If your hives are in an exposed location, it’s a good idea to strap them down and wrap them in a material that will help to keep them warm.
If you see a few dead bees on the ground, don’t worry too much, some bees die of old age naturally over winter. However, if dead bees are blocking the entrance, clear them away to allow bees to get out for cleansing flights on warmer days.
January is a good time to take stock. Plan how many colonies you hope to run this year and renew your membership subscriptions accordingly. Plan what learning you’ll undertake and work out what events and meetings you will attend. Attending events and meetings not only improves your beekeeping skills but benefits others as well.
Brood rearing will usually re-start this month. Again, check quickly for honey reserves and feed fondant as necessary. If your bees don’t touch the fondant, it means they still have plenty of honey. But, don’t get complacent, keep a close eye on the stores.
On warmer days, watch the entrance of the hive. If you see pollen going in, it’s a very good sign and means your queen is laying well. If you want to know what they’re bringing in, have a look at our bees’ favourite forage.
Check natural mite drop of varroa in case spring treatment is needed for heavily infested colonies.
February is a good time to plan and prepare. You may need to clean, repair or replace equipment. Do you have sufficient new frames? Does the apiary need tidying? If you need to cut back vegetation, do it in February when fewer bees will be flying.
When the weather warms up, remove mouse guards to allow unrestricted gathering of pollen. Check the entrance, there may be dead bees blocking it. If there are, clear them away with your hive tool.
This is where the weather comes in! In some years, when March is warm, you’ll be able to start your spring disease inspections. Remember, the tee shirt rule!
You may see plenty of pollen going in but that doesn’t mean there’s nectar around.
March can be a testing month for bees. In most colonies, the queen will have increased her laying and foragers will be going out to collect pollen but there may not be much nectar around yet. This means the colony will be using their stored honey (already depleted by winter) at an increased rate. Add to this an aging population of winter bees and the changeable British weather, the bees are possibly at their greatest risk of starvation. Continue to heft the hives regularly. Have a peak under the roof too (don’t remove the crown board if it’s cold) to see whether the bees are eating the fondant you put on earlier in the year. If they’re not eating it and the hive still feels relatively heavy, your bees have probably got sufficient stores.
If the weather’s still too cool for a full inspection but you think a colony is at risk of starvation, take a quick peak inside. Only do this if the temperature is above 12c. Don’t look for the queen or anything like that. The presence of brood and eggs should be enough to reassure you. If you take the crown board off, make sure you put it back exactly as it was before. This is so the propolis joints can be refitted. Bees may not be able to produce propolis in cooler conditions.
Are your bees flying? Are they bringing in pollen? Are the dandelions out yet and do you have willow trees (pictured) in bloom nearby? If yes to these questions, that’s great news for the bees.
You may be able to tell what pollen the bees are bringing in with the aid of a pollen chart or by clicking here.
If perhaps you haven’t been particularly diligent about it in the past, this is a good time to start keeping records. It’s easy to forget what you saw last time particularly if you have four or five hives. Record keeping may seem boring or onerous but it really does help you and improves your beekeeping.
A dead colony is always upsetting for a beekeeper. If the dead bees are clustered with their heads in the cells, they have starved. It may be that all their stores have been exhausted or, it may be there are still stores in another part of the hive but it’s been too cold for the bees to get to them. This is called isolation starvation. If there are signs of brood and eggs in a dead colony, disease may be the cause of their demise. Take photos if you can and contact Meridian. Remember, there’s always help on hand.
Although it’s always tempting to look into our hives to satisfy our curiosity, it really is best to postpone hive inspections until the weather’s warm enough. To raise brood, the temperature in the hive must be around 35c with humidity at around 50%. Opening a hive, even quickly, changes these conditions and the bees have to expend a lot of energy (i.e. honey) to restore them.
Bees need water to dilute the honey. This can be from a local source or from the humidity in the hive. Opening the hive dramatically reduces temperature and humidity. There’s a beekeeping saying ‘each inspection costs a jar of honey’ and it’s probably more than that at this time of year. Remember too, if temperatures are lower, bees may be more defensive so be prepared for that. If you do go in, look out for:
* healthy, pearly white larvae, curled neatly in a C shape at the bottom of the cell; their body segments clearly visible. If not, ask for help and research European foulbrood.
* are the sealed brood caps dry in appearance, biscuit coloured, flat or slightly raised? If they appear sunken, seek help and research American foulbrood.
* check the varroa count so that you can plan what actions you’ll take later in the season. Counting varroa
So in summary
If the weather remains poor, check food reserves in all hives. Syrup (1kg sugar to 1 litre of water) may be fed if the weather is milder but fondant may still be safer if it’s cold. Where hive reserves are adequate, do nothing.
April showers, strong winds and heavy rain, frost and even snow or bright, warm sunny days; all these are possible in April and that’s why it’s difficult to be precise about what to do with our bees.
If the weather is fine (15c or above, sunny and calm) conduct your Spring inspections. This is the most important inspection of the year and should be conducted as soon as possible. In favourable years, you might have been able to do these in March but in many years, April will at least provide some warm and calm days to allow your inspections to start.
The Spring inspection is a chance to assess stores and to organise feeding if necessary. It allows an opportunity to reconfigure your hive ready for the Spring nectar flow and a chance to assess the health of your bees and brood.
Our first Spring inspection page offers some suggestions about what to do. As well as assessing stores and confirming the presence of brood at all stages, there should be plenty of space in the brood box as the colony will quickly expand as the weather warms up. Even just a few warm, sunny days could trigger a nectar flow, so there should be at least one super on the hive.
If the weather was kind earlier in the season, Bailey comb changes can usually be completed by end of April. Shook swarms can also be undertaken if the weather is fine but may be delayed until May or June if not. Watch for wax building in your hive as a guide.
If bad weather persists, feed fondant or syrup. Starvation is still a serious risk in April so it’s good practice to continuously check stores from January until hive reserves have built-up.
If you are inspecting on a warm, calm day, your bees should be equally calm, giving you an opportunity to conduct your disease checks throughly and to clean up the hive by scraping off propolis and burr comb from frame tops, crown board and the edges of the box(es).
Willow should be yielding early nectar as well as plentiful pollen which will be seen in abundance on the hind legs of returning foragers. If so, feeding is unnecessary.
Spring inspections should be complete by now and regular swarm-control inspections begun. Swarming is of course weather-dependant and can be as early as March if conditions are right.
May is often the main swarming month but it could easily have been April or in June depending on the weather. This time of year is ideal for queen rearing.
Any chemical treatment for varroa should be brought to an end. If such a treatment is used, then spring honey should not be harvested for human consumption. Non-chemical methods can be used continuously if necessary.
A disease inspection of each hive should be completed this month.
As soon as the major honey flows from sycamore and oil seed rape begin, put honey supers over queen excluders on well-developed colonies. Do this too soon rather than too late.
Be prepared to taking swarm control measures this month, and if possible, take the opportunity to raise early young queens if the weather allows.
Keep adding supers, when the top one is about half full. You may remove full supers for extraction, but it is a good policy to leave at least one half full super on each hive throughout the summer to tide the bees over a spell of bad weather.
Check for June gap – what’s in flower? Has there been rain?
Sometimes there is a gap in the honey flow this month with adverse weather. If young mated and laying queens become available, some colonies preparing to swarm may be re-queened to dissuade them from it.
A good month to check drone brood for any unexpected build-up of varroa requiring urgent action. Wild drone comb and varroa check combs must be cut out when sealed or the drones will emerge and new young varroa mites will all emerge with them to give your hive a really heavy infestation!
Swarm control continues but there is a lower risk now. Late swarms this month will make little progress this year. The main honey flow should occur now, weather permitting. Keep adding supers as necessary, but if weather is bad you may even have to feed!
Then repeat, trying to avoid all the mistakes made the previous year!