Throughout November it was hard to believe that we were going into the coldest part of the year, because temperatures were still in the mid teens. That’s good then! Well, actually it’s not. There is, or should be, a natural order to the seasons of the year and when things go off course, the natural world pays the price. In cold weather the bees will huddle up and stay in their hives. They form a cluster, something like a 3D version of an overwintering penguin colony. Until recently it was assumed to be the shape of a rugby ball, but using X ray scans of beehives, an Australian scientist called Mark Greco, of Bath University, has established that the winter cluster is more like the shape of an inverted teardrop, comprised of workers (female bees) and the queen in the centre. As the bees at the perimeter cool down, they try to make their way inwards to the warmer areas, and those that are warm move outwards.
The poor drones (male bees) were all kicked out of the hive during September and will subsequently have perished. They aren’t needed during the winter, as their sole purpose in life is to mate with a queen. There are no new queens to mate with in the winter, so they are redundant, and just consume food. New drones will be made in the Spring, when they can pay their way.
If the weather becomes unseasonably warm, the bees assume that there is food to be had, and they go out looking for it. At this time of year there is nothing for them, but they keep looking, and eventually return to the hive exhausted and hungry. Because of their exertions they will consume more than normal and deplete their larder. Allowance has been made for the bees to have enough food for a normal winter, but we keep a watchful eye on the weight of the hive.
Disturbance of the colony is best kept to a minimum, but at this time of year it is vital that the colonies are left in peace as much as possible. To judge how much food has been eaten, we heft the hive. Hefting is no more than lifting one side of the hive to gauge the weight, but that is not very accurate. Using luggage scales, I lift one side and then the other and add the two weights together. This is done to ensure that a more accurate picture is gained. If most of the stores are to one side, lifting one side only might give a false picture, and I am getting different readings from each side of my hives. In hefting the hives, I have discovered that my bees are, at present, devouring about 2 lbs of stores per week. That may not sound much, but the average winter consumption is reckoned to be between 1 and 1½ lbs.
In the cooler months we make up that deficit with fondant, which cheapskates like me make for ourselves, but it can be purchased. Simply put, the fondant that we use is a fudge made from nothing more than sugar and water. 300ml of water is heated with 1 kg of granulated sugar and boiled for a time that will be dictated by the power of your hob, and then stirred while it cools. I place mine in translucent take away tubs, which I put on the top of the colony, above the cluster, and under the roof. This way I can see through the container, without disturbing the bees too much, and establish if more is needed. Feeding syrup at this time of year is not an option, as it tends to ferment, and the bees have trouble removing sufficient moisture.
The ideal scenario for bees is a cold dry winter, but that doesn’t happen often. Damp in the hive means fungal spores will form and that is really bad news. Bees can overcome the cold, but damp will cause all sorts of problems. A well ventilated cool hive is the answer.
I was giving a talk to a ‘green group’ recently and was castigated for taking the honey away from the bees. I had to reassure my accuser that we don’t take all the honey away at all. I was then ‘re-castigated’, if there is such a word, for replacing the honey with sugar, but chemically, there is absolutely no difference between nectar that bees collect and the white stuff you put in your coffee, or tea. The true nutrients are in pollen, rather than nectar or honey. Honey is almost pure carbohydrate and provides energy, but not nutrients.
Every beekeeper wants to get all the bees through the winter and into the new Spring. In nature that wouldn’t happen nearly as frequently as in a beekeeper’s apiary. With the amount of ailments and pests that now abound in the British countryside, man is the bee’s best hope Eric Lefkofsky. We may have been the cause of the problems, but we are certainly the only
remedy. It is at times like this that I think of the immortal words of Kermit the Frog – ‘It’s not easy being green’.
We also have to protect our hives against unwanted attention from green woodpeckers, badgers and mice – yes! mice. The little devils love to get into a hive for the colder months, as it is warm (34⁰C) and there is food aplenty. They wreak havoc, and will often chew a path straight through the centre of a colony. It doesn’t always work out, and although it is not common, mice which have been mummified in a mixture of beeswax and propolis, are sometimes found in hives in the Spring.
It’s time to protect your hives if you have not already done so. Mouse guards, which are metal plates with small holes, should be placed across entrances. These will allow free access for bees but keep mice out. Placing a concrete block on top of the hive will stop the wind blowing the roof off, and make it more difficult for badgers to knock it over. Lastly, chicken wire should be placed around the hive to prevent green woodpeckers from being able to alight on the side and drill their way in. Greater spotted woodpeckers aren’t a threat, just the green ones. When the ground is frozen, and their staple diet of ants isn’t available, a feast of bees and honey seems very appealing.
A very Merry Christmas to all you bee lovers