The bee research group in my country, bijen@wur, organized a symposium last month which I didn’t attend. One of the speakers there was bee researcher Dennis van Engelsdorp (weirdly dutch sounding last name, translates to “English village”). He presented statistical data from a beekeeper survey that suggested that annually replacing to much of the comb (50% or more) negatively influences colony health. Often the idea of replacing comb is to prevent buildup of pesticides and/or pathogens, but it also looks ugly blackish comb. But the data shows that beekeepers who replaced 50% or more of their comb compared to beekeepers who don’t replace any, lose more colonies over winter.
It is unclear what causes this, the survey was not comprehensive enough for any analysis like that but the data is clear. They suggest not to replace more than about 20% of your comb annually. I was aiming to replace about a third of the comb but according to this information I will have to amend that. Apparently reusing comb from old colonies is also not advised as it also caused more winter deaths. The only problem is the lack of additional information in the survey. For instance it is unclear what the origins where of the reused combs. Perhaps the old colony died of disease.
So much is unclear, it wasn’t a study but only a survey. What is clear is that you shouldn’t renew to much of your combs annually. See the accompanying video for yourself (there is also a link to the web page in its description):
Apparently I was too soon with my celebration that both my hives survived winter. As it would seem that my second colony, which was the weakest by far, didn’t make it after all. There were apparently too few bees to make it through the colder nights since the last time I checked. Beside that the frames on the outside of the hive were filed with mold, quite badly (the first picture above). My parents made the discovery of the passing of the colony today. They also made the pictures. If I have to make an artificial swarm this year I’ll make sure to keep it at my local apiary so I don’t have to make the thirty minute drive to check on my bees in my parents garden. I also wasn’t taught that you could keep an artificial swarm next to the original colony, but you can (when taking the right precautions).
Looking at the top-bars it doesn’t look good but reading this article (as well as this article from the same source) I gather that mold in a hive in/after winter is not so strange. This second colony had the old queen (from 2010) that I was going to replace this year anyway but loosing the entire colony was not part of the plan. I guess I’ll have to see it as a learning experience, that what I actually should have done is combine the colonies at the end of summer to create one strong one. But I reasoned that if I were to do that I would be left with one colony anyway because my first colony looked to be strong enough to survive winter I was in no real danger of losing that colony. So I gambled the second colony and I lost.
Now the time for questioning my decisions has arrived. What could I have done better? What could I have done to ensure the survival of the second colony. I think the answer to that is most likely that I shouldn’t have placed the hive in a food desert, which my parents home apparently is. There are some gardens in the vicinity, my mothers being one, but I guess they weren’t enough to support a viable colony, most is farmland. The smaller town at bout 3-4 kilometres (2-2,5 miles) apparently was slightly too far and/or didn’t have enough flowers for the bees.
To end on a more positive note; my wife took these pictures bellow in the city where we live. Crocuses are literally all over the place, especially in the parks but also by the roadside. I will visit my city bees in my first hive (to which I should simply refer to as “my hive”, as it now is my only hive) this weekend to do some housekeeping. Select which frames I will scrap this year and which will last for another year, reduce the size of the hive from two to one brood box and see if they need some additional feeding. Then I will leave them to their own devises for about two weeks?
I went to visit my bees today and both colonies have made it through the winter! As you may remember from this post, I was unsure about the chances of my secondary colony. As long as the end of the winter keeps on being as warm as the first part was all will be well. I expected my primary colony to survive but I actually was expecting the secondary colony to have died, but they didn’t. Admittedly the secondary colony at my parents house are a pity full lot, they seemed to be happy with the sugar syrup I made for them. I’ll take a picture of the simple syrup setup (unintentional alliteration there) if I remember to do so. It’s a very simple setup, just a jar with syrup (1:1, sugar:water) with small holes in the lid placed on top of the frames in a hole in the top cover (the holes are so small that the surface tension and the low pressure above the syrup keeps it from dripping out). I’m unsure as to what is the best method to provide the bees with extra food, at this time of year with this weather, the sugar syrup was my first inclination but perhaps bee candy/sugar candy/fondant would have been a better choice considering the possibility of fermenting, I’m not completely sure.
Winter has been extremely mild and so far. Last year the weather was lagging two weeks behind in spring now it seems that it will be two weeks early. This winter here in the Netherlands is going into the books as either the third or second warmest winter since they started recording the weather (for meteorologists the winter ends at the end of February). If it hadn’t been so warm I am quite sure my secondary colony would have perished.
I’d say there were between five hundred and a thousand bees, occupying just one space between the frames in my secondary hive. I can’t wait till the weather warms a little more so I can do some spring cleaning in both hives, they are a mess. The hive at my parents house, what I call my secondary hive, is full of mold and dead bees. From the primary hive I took a frame out, away from where the bees were, a frame almost directly against the outside of the hive. The outside of that frame had mold on it. So perhaps the honey/syrup inside wasn’t ready yet when the cold weather started or this is just something that can happen.
I didn’t want to bother the bees to much so I left the inspection at that. The bees were already going out to forage, so were bees from other hives in the apiary. I didn’t spend much time checking if the bees were returning with pollen, as the crocus is in bloom here as well as the snowdrop. In the short time I did look I couldn’t see any bees returning with pollen. Shortly after the winter solstice the queen will start laying eggs again. Pollen is the most important resource right now because it is needed to feed the new larva, it is the bees only real source of protein. The larva are fed a mix of pollen and nectar called beebread.
Another thing the bees are able to do in this weather, and have most likely already done a number of days ago, is relieve themselves the so called “cleansing flights”. The worker bees don’t defecate inside the hive, so all through the cold weather they will be storing faeces in there intestine waiting for a spot of mild weather, with mild I mean a temperature above 8 degrees (47 Fahrenheit ). When the weather is milder the colony will “en mass” go for a flight outside the hive to take a “cleansing flight”. Imagine how you would feel after not taking a shit for a month or two. As the queen only eats royal jelly which hardly contains any indigestible components she doesn’t have to relieve herself nearly as often and if she does she will do this inside the hive and the worker bees will clean up the mess. Obviously royalty doesn’t have to concern itself with excrement.