December 2010

Well, our bees are certainly not flying much in this current bout of freezing weather – though only last week, with a temperature of 3° or 4° C, one of my hives was flying almost as if it were a normal autumn day! Mind you, there was no wind and the sun was shining. During cold spells like this one though, bees will do what we do – stay at home and cuddle up for warmth! Hopefully, they will be so cold that they will be virtually torpid and only need to devour very little stores.

Frustratingly, there is nothing we can do to help them when these conditions prevail as it is too cold – it should all have been done in September or October. All we can do is ensure the roof of the hive is still on and the mouse guards are still in place (but again, I have had mice chew their way through wooden guards in the past when they are desperate to get inside). Such considerations relate purely to the honeybees – wasp and bumblebee colonies will have died out by now and their new season’s queens, hatched and mated during the late summer/early autumn, will have been forced into seeking a warm residence for their winter hibernation (honeybees don’t hibernate – they persist through the winter as a viable colony). Our lofts, garages, garden sheds, curtain linings, compost heaps, Cornish hedges and the like, are all contenders for this honour and the queens will remain ensconced until Spring arrives, at which point they will emerge and start to build their nests for the coming season.

The honeybees, on the other hand, maintain their colony throughout the winter in readiness for the spring and are keeping the queen alive by clustering around her. She might even still be laying eggs, albeit only 5 or 6 a day – nothing much, just enough to keep her hand in! – but this means there is little for the bees to do in terms of brood care. This allows them to concentrate on surviving. Even so, it is usual for some colonies to die during the winter months but invariably this is due to damp or starvation and very rarely pure cold.

However, it is a worrying time for beekeepers because we all feel so helpless. Another month and we can think about the coming season and the glorious summer we are going to get (not having had one for 4 years on the trot!). In the meantime, it’s a good opportunity to plan for the season ahead – are we going to increase the number of colonies (if so, how?), are we going to raise new queens from selected stock (an activity which should be part of every beekeeper’s programme), are we going to expand into out-apiaries or chase seasonal forage crops by migrating our bees to external sites? What about Honey Shows? Are we going to enter samples of our (of course!) first class honey in any of the various shows around the county? If so, which honey should we choose?

I always extract my honey into special 30lb honey buckets, as one super (box of honey on the hive) will contain up to that quantity and honey stores better that way. Then, when I come to bottle it, I will try to keep back a couple of jars from each bucket as there is quite frequently a marked difference between supers. That way, I can enter what I consider the honey with the best flavour.

Sweetness is a given with honey, but what separates the men from the boys (or the women from the girls!) is the flavour. Over the years, I have won many certificates for my honey (unfortunately, there are no money prizes, else I could be rich!) and since I enter honey for shows exactly as it is presented for sale, a 1st prize is confirmation to me that I am offering a quality product to the consumer. This is why Honey Shows became a part of the beekeeping tradition during the Victorian era – it was a demonstration of the saleable product.

My current activities include processing of ivy honey (remember? Ivy is one of the crops that sets in the comb so has to be melted down prior to bottling), reading a new book I recently acquired (there’s always something new to learn about beekeeping) and cleaning/repairing used frames ready for waxing in the spring. So never a dull moment – even when the bees are not flying!

Colin Rees 01872 501313 colinbeeman@aol.com

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