The Value of Observation

In a bid to protect my smaller colonies from the cool, damp British winter, a couple of days ago I transferred them from their single-walled Nationals in to double-walled WBCs. I couldn’t do this with the National Trust oak tree bees as they had a lot of crossed comb and I can’t move the frames – hence the Heath-Robinson approach. I had a cedar WBC, into which I put the larger colony, and an old set of hand built hive parts I inherited from my neighbour, which were made out of old church pews. I had given both colonies a tub of cappings to top up their stores, but as it had been late in the day (for them) when we put the frames over, I wanted to check they were both ok today, and to put on entrance reducers. WBCs have a ‘porch’ into which you insert sliding entrance blocks, but as I only had lifts I would have to improvise a bit with a length of stick.

Here are the first lots of bees, before and after their new doorway, bringing in absolutely loads of yellow ivy pollen, and some pale thoraxes showing the Himalayan balsam is still worth visiting:

I crossed over to the other hive, and immediately noticed bees circling around the back of the hive, and going in under the roof. There was lots of activity at the entrance, but this was clearly some opportunistic robbing going on: I hadn’t checked the integrity of the handmade boxes, and there was a convenient gap between the roof and top box, allowing bees in.

There wasn’t any fighting going on, and as the tub is above the crownboard there was not really any danger to the bees in the colony at this early stage, but they have been deprived of some much-needed honey as this is the swarm I collected at the end of August and they are still small, covering only about 5 frames.

As you can see, no fighting and no dead bees – yet! Colonies are still in robbing mode as they endeavour to gather as much as they can for their stores, so it was good I caught this early (and even better if I’d checked the hive was bee-tight before I left!).

Here is classic footage of robbing bees deprived of their easy meal, and also shows that this lid fits snugly, as believe me, those foragers would find a way in if they could, so I watched them carefully for a few minutes to see if there were any security breaches. Note how I’ve blocked the wasp escape to stop any getting in that way:

I also reduced the front entrance with a bit of stick. This hive body is pretty rickety but is actually quite thick wood and the bees will propolise the block in place:

You can see the bees looking rather nonplussed at the wide entrance being reduced so dramatically. One worker started fanning Nasanov pheromone within seconds of the block being put in place, to show the others where to head for:

These bees are also bringing in lots of ivy pollen. This is such a good sign as bees need pollen to both keep the population going over the low season as the young grubs feed on this. Honey and nectar are also required, but really the bees are focussing on getting their stores of pollen up to provision them for next January/February when the colony shifts up a gear from winter tickover to get ready for spring. Again, I wonder the wisdom of giving bees sugar syrup in top feeders when really they should be out getting pollen rather than distracted by nectar substitute in the hive?

It is really important to get used to observing normal activity from your hive so that you can immediately pick up when things look amiss. As soon as I saw a few bees flying at the back of the roof I was concerned, and it proved to be something I needed to sort out. Grobbeneral observation is such a good skill to hone, and this time of year, when it is too cold to be going in to the hive and lifting out frames, is the perfect time to watch and listen and take in the smells and sounds and behaviours of the bee colony in autumn.

2 thoughts on “The Value of Observation

  1. I’ve been inspired by your methods to try not feeding syrup this autumn like I usually do. Instead I’ve left a super of honey. If this works it will be great as it saves me a bit of work in making up syrup. With a young family I’m always keen to find time saving tips for my beekeeping!

    1. Ha! Thank you – yes – saves on time and equipment and I do think it’s miles better for the bees to have their honey.

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