We spent 2 weeks in Scotland in late August/early Sept 2017. I wrote about the trip & a 1-day bee conference we attended for the NH Beekeepers’ Winter Newsletter. Here’s the first part of the story:
Beekeeping in Scotland
What could be better than a vacation in Scotland? A vacation in Scotland and getting to attend the Scotland Beekeepers Association Fall Conference while you are there! That is what happened this year when my husband and I planned our vacation. Once we had the dates for our trip, I looked to see if there were any bee club meetings I might attend so that I could meet some local beekeepers – and low and behold I found the SBA conference.
Scotland is a small country. Compared to NH, they have approximately 4.5 times as many people (6 million in Scotland vs 1.3 million in NH), and approximately 3 times as much land. The country is very rural – mostly made up of huge estates where they farm all sorts of things from livestock to barley to strawberries. To give you an idea of how big these estates are – approximately 500 people own more than ½ the land in Scotland.
We drove all over the country during our trip, and I was amazed at how similar the landscape was to NH (but with a lot more sheep and castles!). It is not as forested as NH is now – but I can imagine that NH looked very much the same during the “sheep boom” that we had in the early 1900s.
The weather in Scotland is generally wetter and colder than NH. We were there in late August/early September, and the temperature was in the high 50s/low 60s. They seldom have to water their crops or flowers (one B&B owner was telling me how dry it had been. She had to water her flowers once this summer!).
As I met beekeepers, I found it interesting how similar (varroa is their biggest challenge, they must deal with cold winters), yet different (hive types, honey crops, etc.) beekeeping is in Scotland.
Most beekeepers I talked to use “National” Hives which have 14”x12” hive bodies. They use “British standard” frames which have much longer “ears” so they can fit in the hive body either left-to-right or back-to-front. Poly-styrene hives instead of wooden ones seem to be much more common than here in NH.
Frame for a National Hive (note the long ears)
They do not use inner covers – even on Langstroth hives. Instead their outer covers are deeper (6”) and have ventilation built in.
Most folks I talked to seemed to use 1 brood box and only 1 or 2 supers. They were shocked to see a picture of my hives which are 5-7 medium boxes tall. Unfortunately, I did not get to ask how big their typical honey harvest is or how often they harvest. My guess is the fact that they have so much rain may limit how much their bees can forage; thereby limiting the harvest.
One of their biggest honey crops is heather – which blossoms in August/Sept. We timed our trip so I could see “heather” blossoming (for obvious reasons!). I figured we would have to go on certain roads or to particular towns to see the bloom (like going to Sugar Hill to see Lupine), but the heather was absolutely everywhere, covering entire mountain tops. It was in full-bloom in the Highlands (northern Scotland) and had just gone by in the “Borders” (southern Scotland).
I also learned that in Northern Ireland, a big honey crop is a combination of heather and fuchsia which blossom at the same time. Apparently, the combination of the two nectars has a wonderful taste. Unfortunately, I never saw any “heather honey” so I did not get to sample it.
In the winter, bees cluster together to keep the hive at ~50F while they are not raising brood (Nov–>Mid Feb), and then when they start raising new brood to prepare for the spring (starting in Mid-Feb), they keep the hive at closer to 95F. Generating this heat (by shivering) takes lots of energy so you need to make sure they have enough honey stores to make it through the winter. Generally, in our area of NH, this requires ~80-100 lbs of honey in each hive. The exact amount each year varies depending on how many bees are in a given hive & how warm the fall & winter are.
Unfortunately, some years (and it looks like this may be one of them), they will go through more honey than what you left for them so you need to provide emergency feed – in the form of raw sugar, fondant or winter patties (a sugar/pollen mix). In past years, I’ve made fondant and left some on the hive in case they run out of food. This has worked well for me, but this year I decided to try making “candy boards” to provide the emergency feed.
A candy board is essentially a frame of hardened sugar that you put on top of the hive so the bees can get to it if they need it. There are many DIY instructions for candy boards on line, but I used some very simple instructions provided in the Pawtuckaway Beekeepers monthly news letter. Here’s what I did:
For each hive, Mike made me a wooden frame that would fit on top of the hive and about 1″ deep
I stapled 1/2″ hardware cloth onto the bottom side (Hardware cloth is another name for metal mesh fencing – like chicken wire)
Lined the hardware cloth with wax paper & put in two pieces of wood to block of areas that I wanted to leave without sugar (the right area is to allow bees access to the outside, the middle is for adding a “pollen patty” (aka artificial pollen) in the late winter to given the bees protein for the new brood.
Mixed 8 lbs of sugar with ~1- 1/8 c of water & a few drops of honey-b-healthy to create a paste
Put the wet sugar in the frame on top of the wax paper and let it harden
Candy (aka sugar & water) added & hardening
Candy Board ready to put on the hive
I made 5 of these boards & put them on top of the hives in early Dec (the bees won’t eat them if they don’t need them). When I checked the hives after the early Jan cold snap:
one hive hadn’t touched the candy board (2016- overwintered hive)
one had eaten a very small amount (the 2017 package)
two had eaten about a 5″ square of the sugar (one of the 2 hives I started from a split in the summer & the other overwintered hive)
one had eaten almost the entire candy board! (the 2nd of the 2 hives I started from a split)
What this tells me is that even though every hive had at least 80 lbs of honey/sugar water, at least a few have gone through most of their stores during the warm fall. I need to stay on top of giving them additional feed – otherwise I’ll lose the bees to starvation over the winter. I have given that last hive some fondant and am making a new candy board (with twice the amount of suger ) to give it later this week. Fingers crossed spring comes early!
I started the winter with 2 NUCS (and 5 hives) – but the NUCs were dead by the end of December. Last week, I took the dead hives apart to clean them as well as to do some Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) to try to determine why the hives died.
When I opened up the NUC, I found plenty of capped stores (honey and sugar water) so I know they didn’t starve. What I also found on the bottom board was some chewed wax along with a bunch of black specs. The chewed wax was most likely from the wax cappings the bees chewed to access the stored honey. The black specs, while too small to ID with the naked eye (at least in my case). I suspected they might be Varroa Mites – one of the three biggest challenges to bee health (the other two being monoculture & pesticides/insecticides).
I collected samples, looked at them under my digital microscope, and confirmed my suspicions – both NUCs most likely died due to the weaknesses from varroa mite infestation. The sample I collected had ~20 mites in it:
As you can see from these pictures the mites are very small compared to the bee – or even a piece of mechanical pencil lead.
As I mentioned above, Varroa Mites are one of the three biggest threats to honeybee health. They are blamed for the major decline in our feral honeybee colonies. These parasites not only weaken the bee from sucking their blood, but they are also a “vector” for other diseases. The combination of the holes a mite creates in the bee’s exoskeleton along with being in a weakened state makes them susceptible to other viruses & diseases – especially ones carried by the mites such as deformed wing virus. These “other” virus & diseases is what most often kills the bees & colony.
Varroa mites are found in all hives through the US (and all countries in the world except Australia), It isn’t a question of IF you have mites, it is a question of what level of mite activity do you have. We cannot eradicate mites from the hive but must control them to a level where the colony can remain healthy. Many beekeepers use a combination of Integrated Pest Management methods and treatments to control the mites. Unfortunately, the mites have already developed resistance to some of the treatments.
Even if you do everything you can to control the mites, sometimes, events are out of your control – the latest buzz words for a mite infestation is “varroa bom”. One example is when you have a colony that is healthy, but they start robbing stores from one that has a heavy varroa load (a “varroa bom colony”). Your bees now bring home mites, causing a heavy infestation in your hive.
My guess is that my NUCs raided the hive of my “bees in the tree” after they died in early fall. (this swarm that took up residence in one of my maple trees, but died in the fall). I don’t know why the bee in the tree died but probably from Varroa since they couldn’t be treated.
Managing varroa mites in your colonies and developing varroa resistant bees is one of the biggest areas of honeybee research. I don’t think they’ll find a silver bullet to solve all of the issues, but I’m sure as we learn more, we’ll be able to manage the colonies so we have fewer losses.
One of the things I love about beekeeping is that I’m always learning something new! The latest is about “queen banking”, and while the first thing you may have pictured was me going into my local bank branch with a tiara on – nope that isn’t what it means!
I started the winter with 5 hives & 2 Nucs. I lost the two Nucs in late Dec & one of the hives in early February. In Mid-march the other 4 hives were still alive – 2 were very strong & 2 were alive – but weak. Unfortunately, the last 2 weeks of March were unseasonably cold & rainy… and the two weak hives perished – one the third week of March & the other a week or so later.
When the weather got a little nicer, I opened the cover of one of these recently deceased hives to see if I could figure out why it died.. I pulled a frame, and there was the queen bee + 4 other attendants with her. My first thought was – “oh that’s too bad, they must have froze because there weren’t many bees around”. I proceeded to nudge the queen with my finger & she started walking around!
Knowing that she wouldn’t survive in the hive by herself (queens required attendants to keep her warm & feed her), I scooped her up along with the other 4 or 5 bees and put them in a tupperware container with some sugar water in a dish, put a screen over it, and placed the container in a dark area. of the house Checking on her an hour or so later, she was starting to move around well & looked like she would survive! Next I had to figure out what I was going to do with her – if it were later in the year, I’d pull some frames of brood from the strong hive & start a new colony with her, but April is too early to do that since they are just starting to raise brood. I know I can’t add her to one of the existing colonies because the queen that is already in the colony will try to kill her. So the $10,000 question – how do I keep the queen alive until I can split one of the other colonies?
I called one of my beekeeping mentors, Allen Lindahl, and he said – “oh just bank her” to which I responded “what? I’ve never heard of that!” I learned that banking queens is a common practice among beekeepers who raise queens – it is a way to keep them alive & healthy while waiting to go into a hive. What you do is, first put a queen excluder into a strong hive ( A queen excluder is a metal grate with openings big enough to allow worker bees to pass through but not a queen). Next, put the queen you want to save & her attendants into a queen cage, and place it on top of the queen excluder. The “banked” queen will be protected from the other queen by the queen excluder & the cage, but the worker bees in the colony will feed the “banked” queen so she will survive.
I figured – what do I have to lose, she’ll die if I leave her in the tupperware container or put her in a hive to early – so I “banked” her in the stronger of the two surviving hives about 1.5 weeks ago. I checked on her just the other day & she looks great!.. She is running around her little queen cage wanting to get out, she is very fat – meaning she is ready to start laying eggs… so now all I need is to wait another couple weeks to be able to pull a frame or two of bees & brood so I can put her in a NUC to start a new hive!
Last year, there was a TED (Technology, Education & Design) talk by a person who raised honeybees in his backyard and figured out a way to video what happens in the cell from an egg to the birth of the bee. He also talks about varroa mites (one of the honey bee’s biggest challenge) and the current research on varroa resistant bees.