In the Apiary: February

1. Remove top ventilation/mouseguards at end of month
2. Heft hives
3. Plan alternative varroa treatment – IPM

Writing these notes in mid-January, it is difficult to imagine what the weather has in store for us for the rest of January and February. During mild spells bees will be taking cleansing flights, voiding the accumulated waste in their guts whilst on the wing. Bees are able to retain large amounts of waste for up to 6 weeks, so will not normally defaecate within the hive.

During this month, the snowdrops, hazel catkins and small yellow aconites will make their appearance and give the bees their first source of pollen. Towards the end of the month, if it has been quite mild, pussy willows and crocuses will also come into flower. Seasons can vary wildly at this time of the year, and a long, cold spell during January/ February may well hold both the bees and flowers back for several weeks. Then, when the mild weather does arrive, all the early part of the season gets concertina’d together, with all the plants flowering at the same time, and very often with a much shorter flowering period. At the end of this month, if we get one or two warmer days, the first bumblebee queens may make an appearance, but they will quickly go back into hibernation if the weather turns cold again.

If you have given your bees top ventilation for the winter, the end of February/beginning of March is a good time to remove it. Condensation within the hive is not such a problem now as the bees’ need for water for brood rearing and diluting stores is now much greater than the need to get rid of it. Any netting placed over the hives to protect them from woodpecker damage can also be removed if the weather is mild. If you have wintered your bees over a ventilated floor, a sheet of insulating material can, with advantage, be placed above the crownboard to help the bees retain heat for the slowly-expanding broodnest. Towards the end of the month, I would remove mouse-guards and replace them with entrance blocks, as mouse-guards will remove pollen loads very efficiently at a time of year when each one is so precious.

From now on the bees will be consuming stores very rapidly, so do keep hefting your hives (tilting the hive from 2 opposing sides to see that it feels heavy) to be sure the bees have enough – feed candy (baker’s fondant) if you are unsure or they feel light, placing it directly above the cluster.

With the appearance of pyrethroid-resistant varroa, we all need to seriously consider alternative methods of reducing the mite population within the hives during the active season. Of course, during the spring and summer, time is at a premium, with the garden growing apace and the bees needing a lot of attention in the form of swarm control, extracting, etc. You need to have in place one or two easily applied methods that occupy not much more time than you would normally spend on the hives. Remember, all you are trying to achieve is a mite population that is below the threshold at which colony damage occurs; you are not trying to eradicate all the mites in the hive.

1. One of the easiest ways of slowing the build-up of a large population of mites is to keep all your colonies on open-mesh floors; colonies lose up to a quarter of their mites this way, especially if the hives are in a sunny location. Weak colonies will need the collecting trays installed below the mesh, but medium to strong colonies will manage quite well without.

2. Cutting out drone brood after around mid-June is another extremely good way of reducing the mite population, and this is the method I would recommend to all beekeepers (I would refrain from doing this earlier as a good population of drones is needed to ensure proper mating of virgin queens. Mite populations in drone brood early in the season are usually lower than later in the season, so removing drone brood in May, for instance, will deplete your drone population more than your mite population).

3. Use lactic acid (around 60ml of 15% solution per hive) to spray onto the bees, avoiding open brood. This treatment should not be used during a flow, but if you have to, you should leave any extracted honey a minimum of 8 weeks before bottling. By this time, any lactic acid present in the honey will have degraded.

4. Hive Clean (available from BeeVital) – around 15ml is dribbled between the combs directly into the seams of bees, again not during a flow if you can avoid it.

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