The end of August is traditionally the finish of the beekeeper's year. The bees have gathered their honey, the new queens have settled down and there's a bit of a lull. Or so I'm told!
We've been busy extracting our summer harvest from the combs. We weren't sure if the long hot dry summer would reduce the crop, but if anything it's bigger as plants & trees have rushed to produce nectar. So far we've extracted about 130kg of honey (that's over 280lb if you use the traditional British beekeeping weights & measures). A good result from 6 productive hives and there's still more there. We may leave it for the bees though, they have certainly earned it.
We checked the varroa levels in our colonies and got a very strange result: 7 of them are almost free of the mites while the 8th needs immediate treatment. Other beekeepers are reporting much the same. We don't know why, especially after last year's huge infestations - maybe this summer's heat was a factor?
So it's nearly September and the start of the new year. The queens should start laying more eggs which the colony will raise as winter bees. They have a different metabolism from the summer workers with bodily reserves of fat to see them through the next six months. And what of the drones? Well boys, there's good news and bad news. Good news: you've made it this far, albeit without getting your chance to mate with a virgin queen and die in the act. Bad news: your sisters will throw you out of the hive to die when it turns cold. Disposable genes eh?
If the hives are low on winter stores we will feed them sugar syrup to replace the honey we stole. This sounds unkind, but it's only a food supplement; they still have plenty of honey and pollen stored in the brood box. And there's another good reason to give them syrup, because the ivy is just coming into flower and they are gathering its nectar. Unfortunately ivy honey sets like concrete when it cools, so it's useless as a winter food when they can't fly out and fetch water to dissolve it. Bees can starve in a hive surrounded by ivy honey. But if they mix it with syrup it stays soft and available throughout the winter.
There's a hint of coolth in the air now, and the robin in our garden is singing his wistful autumn song. So the year turns...
The long spell of hot weather has given way to cooler and fresher temperatures. That will improve the bees' temper and ours. The nectar flow has all but gone and the wasps have arrived, so we need to start removing the supers and extracting the honey.
We like wasps in the spring. They collect grubs and pests in the garden, carrying them off to their nest and feeding to their larvae. These in turn produce honeydew for the adults to consume. But now their annual lifecycle is nearing its end, with the nests producing one last batch of drone and queen wasps, and the workers start looking for an alternative source of food. Ooh look, a beehive! To quote Burglar Bill, "I'll have that!"
A big strong honeybee colony is well able to defend itself from these stripey attackers. The bees line up in rows outside the hive entrance and fight them off. But a small or weak colony can be ransacked and wiped out in a couple of days, so we have to reduce the hive entrance to a narrow slot which helps them repel the wasps one at a time.
What news of our Apidea queens? One is now in a nuc and hopefully doing well, two others have failed and we have to wait for another fortnight to see if the last box has produced a good queen.
Oh yes, and it's time to insert the varroa boards in our hives and monitor the levels of this nasty little mite. There were very few in June but we have to keep watch - they can build up rapidly as the population doubles every 3-4 weeks.
Never a dull moment, this beekeeping lark!