Even though it is now December and the nights are dark and there are few, if any, flowers around, it is still important to continue with our beekeeping.

The bees will be using their stores quite quickly so we need to check that they have enough food to get them through these last months of winter. I will be hefting my hives every week to ensure that the colonies still have enough to keep them going. If a hive feels light I will be feeding a block of fondant straight onto the top bars exactly over the cluster. I just slit the packet and leave the bees to it. It is far too cold for the bees to come up to a feeder and take liquid food so we must feed the cluster directly.

There shouldn’t really be a problem because the queen will probably have reduced her laying significantly and there will be little if any brood. Some eminent beekeepers think that the queen lays right through the winter, but I am not so sure. We can safely assume that the workers do not need to produce very much brood food.

However, the colony will still be using stores to maintain the temperature inside the cluster at about 20 °C and, if necessary, they will be moving around to keep in contact with the food. And this in itself uses energy.

High and Dry

It is important to check that the hives are still upright and fully weatherproof. If your hives are in an exposed area you might consider strapping them down to prevent them being blown over in high winds. Remember to check that the entrances are not blocked either by snow or dead bees. On mild days the bees will want to make cleansing flights so a clear entrance is vital. If you remember, I suggested last month that you turn the entrance block so the opening is near the top. Being able to make cleansing flights is the reason for this.

Mites Again

December is a good time to reduce the number of varroa mites significantly because, with little or no brood, all of the mites will be on the bees.

Researchers in America have made detailed examination of the mouthparts of varroa mites and have found that they are not adapted for sucking at all. They are designed for biting. Apparently, they bite through the softer tissue between the dorsal and ventral plates and bite into the fat body.

Imagine what it must be like to have mites clinging on to your skin and puncturing it. I suppose it must be the same as us having large crabs as big as a hand permanently attached and irritating.

Usually it is very difficult to kill those mites that are hidden, and reproducing, inside the brood cells. But these will be few and far between at the moment so, with luck, we should be able to kill most of the phoretic mites that are living on our bees.

Put the slider into the open-mesh floor and count the natural mite drop over seven days and divide the total number by seven. This will give the daily mite drop and at this time of year it should be no more than two. So, you should not be getting more than two mites dropping each day.

If you have a mite drop greater than this then the colony needs treating. On a warm dry day, in the warmest part of the day, treat with an approved miticide containing oxalic acid. We now have Api-Bioxal, which is a medicine approved by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate and available from all of the main suppliers. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully and dispose of any remaining chemicals safely. And, of course, all details of use must be recorded in your medicines’ records.

A Helping Hand

When treating it is important that we have the hives open for as short a time as possible because the cluster will lose heat very rapidly. So, if possible, work with a partner.

Get the treatment ready, then if one person removes the roof and crownboard the other can administer the treatment. The crownboard and roof can be replaced quickly and gently and, if all goes well, the bees need never know you have been in. It should take less than a minute per hive.

Replace the varroa slider and check the mite drop again one week later. Expect the count to be quite high because the oxalic acid should achieve over 90% knockdown. The number of mites in the colony should now be very low when the first brood is being reared in early spring.

This should give us plenty of healthy young bees for a rapid colony build-up at the beginning of the next season.

Read a Book

Varroa is still one of the major problems for honey bees. The other major problem is beekeepers – which is why it’s important to constantly improve our husbandry and knowledge. So, during these winter months, why not try to attend some lectures or seminars, dig out some bee books, revisit your back issues of Bee Craft and do your beekeeping by proxy?

This is the last article that I will be writing in this series, so I wish you a very Happy Christmas and enjoyable and productive beekeeping next year with healthy colonies of bees. 

Written by Margaret Murdin, NDB, BBKA President| Appears in the December 2018 Edition of Bee Craft Magazine

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