The beekeeping year of continuous flow

The winter of 2017-18 was long with cold spells. In early March 2018 I was snowed in for the first time since 2010.. The snow drifted off the fields and into the sunken road that leads up to the small group of houses that include my home. Unperturbed I had plenty in store to last me a few weeks apart from milk; which I did without for a while but when the weekend came I decided to take a hike into the local village for a few things. My neighbour had just cleared my driveway with his Manitou, and had started to clear the lane as well. The sun was shining and it was a lovely winter’s day. It took about half an hour usually to get to the town of Talgarth, but on this occasion it was more like 50 minutes. Into the Co-op and the shelves were pretty bare; the assistant told me that the delivery lorry hadn’t been able to get in so had taken the delivery on to Hay on Wye…great! I bought a few bars of chocolate and some coconut milk and stood outside the Co-op. A friendly voice called from across the Square; J from the Mill Café asked me if I wanted a sourdough loaf from the freezer. Never one to miss an opportunity I gratefully accepted adding, ‘I’ll pay for it later in the week’.…it’s a lovely community that pulls together.

In this weather the bees don’t stray far from the hive, but they are slowly eating their way through their stores of honey, my role at this time of year is to check that they have enough to last them until the spring flowers and blossom are out. I do this by ‘hefting’ the hives to check for their weight. This weekend most were fine but a couple needed help and I put some fondant on top of the cover board covering the feed-hole so that bees can easily come up and take it. I wouldn’t dream of opening the hive in this cold spell, but I would expect there to be a small area of young brood being tended to by the workers as they patiently wait for spring to burst.

Spring arrived later than usual, but nice and warm when it did arrive; the trees blossomed one after the other as April rolled into May and the bees busily pollinated them whilst collecting nectar; willow, blackthorn, wild cherry, pear, apple, hawthorn to name a few, with the odd field of oil seed rape a few miles away and the ubiquitous dandelion. As the saying goes once the dandelion is flowering the bees shouldn’t starve.

From then on I was kept busy adding supers onto those supers that the bees had filled with honey, and by early June I could harvest the first of the year’s honey, mainly with the idea of extracting it to remove any oil seed rape honey that had been collected before it granulated in the comb. Very soon I had around 300 pounds of honey extracted and bottled into pound jars; the supers returned to their respective hives for the bees to clean up and hopefully refill.

As June progressed we (beekeepers) kept an eye on the state of the nectar flow as in June there can often be a dearth of nectar. The nectar kept on flowing in. The sun shone hard there was no rain for over two months and yet the nectar flow continued; the bramble and clover were flowering early and would continue to flower late into July when the Willowherb becomes a major contributor along with the many wild flowers. Many of these weeds are deep rooted perennials which must be how they survive without regular rainfall.

Observing the bees everyday, if possible, tells me a lot about what they are doing; if by the time the sun has warmed everything up, the foraging bees are leaving the hive in a hurry in large numbers there’s a good chance that they are getting nectar. In the evening if the hive is buzzing and there are bees outside the entrance fanning then this is a good indication of fresh nectar within. Experience soon brings an understanding of the different buzzing noises that the bees make, and this one is particular to the evaporation of water from the nectar; keeping a good flow of air across the combs.

By mid-July I removed half a dozen more supers from my main colonies; they were really heavy as I took them off and from these six boxes I had an average of 40 pounds a box, extracted and bottled ready for the Royal Welsh Show in the last week of July. These boxes went back onto the hives yet again; the honey that remains in the supers acts as strong motivation to the bees to go in search of more nectar.

Towards the end of August I took off the honey supers from all my hives at home, in total about 20 and extracted them for bottling.

I talked to several very experienced beekeepers at the RWAS this year and many of them told me it was the best year that they could remember. However, there was but one beekeeper who explained that it was the best year since 2004…and knowing how he keeps his bees I have a theory why he might say this as I explain below.

This was the year that I could get the bees to draw a lot of comb in the supers as well as fill them with honey, I also managed to get them to draw comb from strips such that I could make cut comb for the first time. At times during the summer it felt like the flow was never going to stop. I learnt from this experience that taking supers off at regular intervals throughout the season then replacing them again does encourage the bees to fill the supers up again. It may sound strange but if I don’t ensure that the bees have plenty of space in which to store honey then they may of course decide to swarm, but they may also stop bringing the nectar in even when there is still plenty to collect and hang around so to speak.

Bees will store nectar wherever they can when it is flowing in, and as such giving extra comb in which to temporarily store nectar as it goes through the water evaporation process is important.

This year more than any I have seen the bees filled the brood chamber combs with honey too. In one very strong colony at the teaching apiary we saw the brood chamber and five supers full to the brim with honey. In the brood chamber there were only two frames of brood.

In a strong continuous flow as we have seen this year I feel that it is important to have an empty super on the colony at all times to support the honey producing process, partly to give temporary nectar storage, but also for the bees to fill with honey. Of course this can be difficult as in such seasons we run out of boxes at just the time we need them. We are encouraged as we learn the craft of beekeeping that we shouldn’t give a new super too early and this is good advice early in the season when the weather is colder, but as the weather warms up and the nectar flow starts then in my opinion we should give more space in the form of an empty super if we can. One recourse is to continually remove, extract and return them to the hive. It is this process that the beekeeper who told me that this year was the best since 2004 uses…he harvests honey by the ton…

This summer as I mentioned was great for getting the bees to draw comb; I do this by putting 11 frames with wax foundation into a new super for the bees to draw and fill; this year I must have over 20 new supers drawn like this. A job for the winter is to fit supers with 9 slot castellations and then fit these newly drawn combs into the nine slots per super as next year the bees will draw these combs out further as they fill them. From the 20 original supers I have 220 drawn combs that when fitted into supers with 9 slot castellations will fill over 24 supers. Next season the bees won’t need to use up the honey in drawing wax….unless of course I continue to grow my colony numbers…

I have been kept busy this summer with many things, but more so than others by the extraction of honey. So far I had recruited several members of the family to help out with great success; it is after all a wonderful experience  to watch the honey fly out of the combs and then to flow into buckets and jars. I had reached the final super and extracted some thick heavy honey before emptying it into the honey bucket via two filters, one coarse and one fine. As I poured this last bucket into the filters at the top of the honey bucket, I noticed that it wasn’t going down, then ever so slowly honey started to bulge out of the edges of the filter…what could I do?? It started to run slowly down the outside of the bucket and onto the table, I tried to lift the top filter but in doing so released more honey, now resembling a mini tsunami. Luckily the filters tipped into the bucket at this stage, but I lost some honey onto the table and the floor. I picked up the plastic table cloth and took it out to the bees for them to clear up.

I realised a little later that the honey has passed through the course filter but was taking an age to go through the fine filter. As I topped up the coarse filter, the fine filter had become full and now created a vacuum so that no honey could flow…a lesson for the future…

In the past eight years there have been two seasons when the bees have got heather nectar from the Black Mountains usually around early to mid August, but none this year despite the hot weather all summer. On discussion with other beekeepers the general consensus is that this is because May was dry and heather likes May to be wet…So far this year there has been no Ivy nectar, but there is still time…

The season of continuous flow…

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