Unlike this time last year, the bees are still not yet in full cluster because the days are not really cold enough for that at the moment. Night times, maybe, but I am still feeding two of my hives with liquid feed – which is normally unheard of at this time of year because the bees normally can’t come out of the cluster to get at it! At the moment, though, when I look inside the hive through the clear glass or Perspex crown-board during the day, I can see the bees wandering around over the combs, perhaps redistributing some of their food or just patrolling for any lurking wax-moths that are still in the hive, wanting to destroy some combs, and turfing them out.
On the other hand, there is very little activity outside the hive now – there is virtually no nectar to gather (gorse, maybe, but hardly worth the effort yet) – but the bees do need to void their faeces, so a cleansing flight is quite a valid activity, rather than messing up the combs in the hive (which must then be cleaned by the house-bees). So much for the bees – but “what doth the busy little bee-keeper” at this time of year?
First of all, there are repairs to be made to hive bodies, frames, and other equipment. New items of woodwork can be made at this time – I have been busy making new floors for some of my hives – and there is always honey to bottle, or wax to melt down. I had a lady phone me last week asking for beeswax so she could make some candles for Christmas. What a delightful aroma they produce when lit, with no wax spillage from the burning candle and no black stains on ceilings like the old tallow candles used to produce. This is why beekeeping became so important from about the nineteenth century onwards, and also why so many ministers of the cloth took up the craft, because beeswax candles burn so cleanly – very important in the old religious buildings often built from a clean, white stone.
Mouse-guards are all on now, so the mice can’t get inside the hives and make a cosy winter nest for themselves. Even if they did get in at this point, the bees not being in cluster yet would sting them and force them out – during the daytime, at any rate. Wasps, in the main, are dead and gone, their nests devoid of any young brood. The queen wasps, however, are in hibernation until the spring – though some are coming out early with the sunny days we have from time to time. If seen by me they are squished, since wasps can decimate honeybee colonies, and for every queen wasp that survives the winter there is one colony of wasps waiting to predate on my hives and kill my bees. Sorry, but that’s not on!
Finally, to make sure my colonies have enough food (and the ivy flow did not yield terrifically well this year, so some colonies might be lower on stores than they should be), I am feeding fondant (just like soft cake icing, really), which allows the bees to attach their night-time cluster to the feed and be in constant contact with a food-source should they so wish. Most of those that I am feeding fondant to at the moment are nuclei or late swarms, which are by definition small colonies, with insufficient foragers to have been able to bring in any surplus ivy nectar. Those colonies can be seen feeding on the fondant during the day, so it is reassuring to know I am doing the right thing for them! How on earth did honeybees manage before mankind set foot on earth?!
Colin Rees 01872 501313 firstname.lastname@example.org