From our Scottish representative, Graham Torrie:

Up here in the north east of Scotland, January has been extraordinarily warm, with not a flake of snow.  Last week the temperature reached 14 degrees, bringing the bees out in force.  There's nothing much in the way of forage here yet, but it does give them an opportunity to take a cleansing flight.

These occasions are also an opportunity for us to cast an eye over our hives and to get some reassurance from the sight of the bees coming and going - an indication that the colony is getting through the winter successfully.  On the other hand, no activity at a hive entrance on a warm winter day can indicate trouble, and that's exactly what we found last week at our local association apiary.

If you are faced with this scenario, get your bee suit on and have a look under the crown board.  Perhaps, like us, you will find that the colony has died out.  In our case, we knew that this colony was healthy going into the winter, but we were also worried that it may have been on the small side to cope with freezing conditions, which we did see last month.  (Over-winter colony losses are common.  Search the Internet for 'COLOSS' and you'll find a report on losses over the winter of 2017/2018.)

I haven't seen much, if anything, in the popular beekeeping books about how to clear up after this happens, so here is a quick summary of one way to go about it, in this case, dealing with a wooden hive.

On dismantling the hive, knock the dead bees onto newspaper and roll this up for incinerating later.  Scrape the floor, then give it a good blast with a blow-torch.  A light rub with sandpaper will restore the metal mesh floor insert.  Treat the crownboard in the same way.  Remove any frames with old dark comb and those containing dead brood or dead bees with their heads in cells (if you have a lot of this, then it's likely that your colony has expired due to starvation).  These frames, along with the rolled up newspaper containing the dead bees, can be burned in a garden incinerator.  Any good frames with sealed stores can usefully be used once the new season starts, as long as they are properly fumigated with acetic acid.  You can do this with the frames in the original brood box, so sterilising it at the same time.

For a detailed account of how to safely use acetic acid, go to the National Bee Unit's 'Beebase' website to download their excellent factsheet on fumigating comb.  Read this in conjunction with a second factsheet entitled 'Hive Cleaning and Sterilisation', which also takes you through the process of dealing with a polystyrene hive.

One last thought.  If you haven't done it already, think about putting some fondant or candy on top of the frames as a food reserve over the critical months of February and March.  This is a time when a lot of losses due to starvation can occur.  If the cost of buying ready-made fondant makes you think twice, then have a look at January's BeeCraft magazine where you'll find Richard Rickitt's excellent description of how to make your own.
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