Keeping Strong Colonies by John Martin

At this time, I think of the effect of Covid 19 as it has had an impact on all our lives. The loved ones, the friends, and acquaintances we have lost from our lives over the last 21/22 months. The way we lived before and what was normal in our lives, let’s hope it returns to us soon as we long for normality as we knew it. Zoom, Teams and WhatsApp calls are the norm now, and the personal interaction between people, sharing our experience and expertise is what I long for most to return to us in Beekeeping.

It seems an age since I had someone in the apiary to mentor, share and learn from, and I struggled to think of a practical subject that most beekeepers either use or will use, or come back and tell us how to improve.

So, we all keep bees for different reasons, and that’s important as no two beekeepers will tell you the same thing, and then ‘who’s right?’ I hear you ask.

But one thing all beekeepers have in common is that we strive for the best out of our colony of bees for whatever reason we keep them.

It’s best to have the colony strong all year round and this brings its own challenges as we know. I believe the four items that affect this are spring build up, disease, starvation, and swarming, and one item that we have no control over – the Irish climate which is so different in Cork County alone.

As an example, the blackberry flowers two weeks earlier in west Cork than it does in Mitchelstown, not to mention the difference between Cork and Donegal. The climate has a huge influence on the items mentioned but we have no control over it.

Now, I have no magic solution to any of the items mentioned (especially the weather) and as beekeepers we need to adapt and adjust our yearly plan to control the effects of them on a colony we are looking after.

Starvation is the item that this article will deal with and how I deal with it as the year progresses. The June gap is one that is easy to talk about but is the most problematic, as how big is the colony, and how long does the gap last when we need to feed the bees? Also, will they store the sugar syrup in the supers, and will it destroy the honey crop, and yes is the answer if you feed too much. Don’t forget that in June you can open the hive and check to see if they have stores and pollen in the brood box or in the first super.

If I need to feed, I use the measurements of little and often. Every evening I open the hive and look at how much they have used, by day two or three you will have a fair idea of how much the colony is taking. Then I’d give a bit less to them, enough to last two days, keeping an eye on the activity of the hive – especially as you notice that the gap is coming to an end.

When you remove the crop of honey in August check the brood box for stores and feed sugar syrup as needed. I use an English feeder for this which holds 4 litres of 1-1 syrup, feeding in the late evening to prevent robbing. It’s worth noting that this should be done a few days to a week before you treat, as the treatments upset the pheromones in the hive, and when the cohesion of the hive gets upset by the treatments, it can easily be robbed by neighbouring colonies. When treating your bees, if you are in an area where there are a few beekeepers in close proximity, you should all treat at the same time so colonies that aren’t being treated won’t rob those that are being treated. When the treatment is finished, continue to monitor, and feed as required to build strong colonies for the winter.

Spring feeding – when is the best time to start feeding the colonies? I asked this question one spring of a great beekeeper in Co. Cork when I first started, he paused and answered, “last August and September.” Of course, he was right, but don’t panic if you feel you didn’t feed your bees enough. Climate change has meant the winters aren’t as cold and bees spend fewer months in clusters. The temperature must be below 7 degrees Celsius before the colony will cluster.

Hefting the hive. I still have not mastered this but understand it, and why it is so important.

A simple method is to set up a hive to match the hive that has a colony in it. Allow 2 Kgs for the bees and brood and this gives you a good idea of the weight difference between the empty hive and the colony’s hive. A National brood frame holds up to 2.5 kg of honey and the colony needs between 20 and 25 kg for the winter, so there should be at least 20kg difference (a bag of coal).

I put a 2.5 kg bag of fondant on top of my deep crown board and strap down for the winter in November. I check this once a month over the winter months.

I start stimulative feeding 1:1 syrup from Saints Patricks’ Day using a small contact feeder, to encourage the queen to start laying and building up the colony. A tip here is to squeeze the air out of the container before inverting over the feed hole. I use inverted syrup at this time and on any weaker colonies I use a zip lock bag as the contact feeder directly over the cluster, and I turn the deep crown board upside down to allow space for the bag. Bees will not travel for syrup early in the season, especially if it is cold.

Myfanwy ask me for a piece for the magazine on a practical item in beekeeping. To find the time to sit and type out an article was my issue. So, Myfanwy suggested I record my article, or call her and tell her the story so she could type it out for me. Then I would only have to read over it and add or remove items.

As this worked well for me other people could consider this option to tell their stories for us all to enjoy.

Happy Beekeeping readers and friends and wishing you all a safe and happy Christmas and prosperous New Year.