The Life of a Breconshire Beekeeper Sept/Oct 2020

Its October 24th 2020 and as I walk along the lane to one of my apiaries there are several flowers still in bloom; Dandelion, Meadowsweet, Knapweed, Bramble, Ragged Robin, but of course the mainstay at this time of year is Ivy, Hedera.

Ivy can be a mixed blessing; although it is pretty much the only flowering plant offering both pollen and nectar and at relatively low temperatures and the bees can really stock up for winter.

Ivy nectar has a higher glucose than fructose content, glucose making up almost 70% compared with the 40-50% in other nectars which means it granulates almost immediately. See my post on nectar which explains in more detail the issues that can occur when there is mostly ivy honey in the hive. I try to make sure that the bees have a good mix of honey before the ivy flowers, this year leaving several with a super of honey as well as that in the brood chamber. With the nucs I feed syrup periodically ensuring that there is a mix in the hive, it also encourages the bees to forage such that they also bring in a lot of pollen for winter storage.

The ivy flow is a long one around here as there’s a lot of woodland. I’ll sit in my main apiary just to watch and take in the bees frantic activity. Recently on one such occasion in late October I was sitting here quietly and there was quite a lot of bird activity in the Hawthorn trees behind the hives. Looking up I could see many blackbirds eating the red berries. I have noticed that blackbirds will gorge on fruit and berries in quite large numbers. Something lets them know that these berries are ripe for eating and they will gather together quite noisily. Later I picked a few berries myself and they were nice and ripe.


Wasps are still pestering all colonies, mainly queens now as the worker wasps are dying off. The wasps are up and about earlier in the day than the bees and sneak into the hive seemingly tolerated, but every now and again the bees will kill one and throw it out. The wasps quickly find the weaker colonies and stream in and out without being accosted. I have two such nucs and when I took a look inside them the bee colonies are thriving, but relatively small and clustered so that the wasps can easily move around the outsides of the hive. There are wasp traps around the apiaries which attract the odd wasp and the hive entrances are as small as they can be without being closed. There’s not much I can do except wait for a frost to stop the wasps.

I did try blocking the entrance of a nuc for a day once, but the wasps that remained in the hive seemed to destroy most of the bees; so its best to leave the hive entrance open and let the bees decide to defend or not.

I do have a mating nuc which defends brilliantly. This year I made up some mating nucs using a queen I had taken from a colony that was pretty unpleasant. In other words it was overly defensive, so perfect for mating nucs; and thats exactly how it has turned out. Have a look again at this video of the bees defending the mating nuc

A small mating nuc defending the colony against wasps

Varroa can be an issue and I check for the numbers that have dropped to determine whether I treat or not. There are several ways that we can check for Varroa numbers and this is a simple and easy one, however, I find myself asking why the varroa mites have dropped? Are they that clumsy or are the bees allogrooming and biting them off each other? In the latter case the increased numbers that are dropping would indicate a healthy colony.

There was an article in the Autumn 2020 issue of the The Welsh Beekeeper; Bees and Varroa, Adaptation Through Adversity, by Dorian Pritchard about a beekeeper in north England who deliberately didn’t treat his bees once the varroa arrived in his colonies in the 1990s, letting the weaker colonies die off and breeding from the better colonies that survived. Dorian also mentions how he puts an empty super below the brood chamber for overwintering allowing the colony to cluster below and also increasing the ability to defend against wasps. I may try this next year.

There have been a couple of webinars arranged by BIBBA that concentrate on locally adapted bees and the non treatment of bees for Varroa. 1. Global pandemics, bee imports and native bees” Norman Carreck and 2. Resilient Honeybees” Grace McCormack.

The first talk by Norman Carreck covers a lot of what was discussed at the National Honey Show in 2019 by Ralph Buchler in a series of four excellent lectures on Varroa resistance characteristics and selection protocols:

The research by Ralph and the research team concluded among other things that locally adapted bees outperform imports in nearly all aspects, including survival and coping with varroa without chemical treatment.

In the second Bibba talk Grace talks about the research that is taking place on the Irish Black Bee concentrating on wild/feral colonies across the country.

In another BIBBA webinar Peter Jenkins in Cardiganshire talked about his experience of beekeeping over the past 50 years. Things of interest to me from his talk were that his colony inspections are brief at key times of the year, swarming season when he often has a quick look for QCs rather than looking at every frame. He is a keen advocate of ‘the local bee’ and has stories of how bee farmers in the area brought in Italian bees which were great in good years but died out in poor ones. Peter breeds from his best stocks.

He also talked about the use of the smoker and it is something that we learn from experience. When we look in a bee hive when and how we use smoke is critical. When we crack open that first box in the hive the timing is crucial; a couple of puffs over the frames as the bees pop their heads over the top is how to manage them. Too late and they’re out and bothering you. Of course experience is crucial and with as many colonies as you can.

I would add that I puff some smoke into the hive before opening up, wait a few minutes before cracking it open. Then as I open the first box I puff some more smoke across the tops of the frames. With the hive open I can then usually inspect the frames without too much difficulty.

I recently had a large Ash tree cut down near one of my apiaries and decided to get a friend to do it for me. The tree had some Ash dieback and I was worried it might come down in winter. It was also covered in Ivy. As he was using the chainsaw the bees became interested in us first of all flying close to out faces, then bumping into our head and finally a ‘touch’ sting, not leaving the sting in, but letting us know that they are angry with us.

Cutting an Ash tree down that has Ash dieback

We put on some veils and carried on, but Peter Jenkins also talked about the ‘five’ levels of aggressiveness of the bees, three of which I mention above.

I remember an older beekeeper sadly passed away now, but he would sometimes come down to the teaching apiary without a veil to watch us inspect the bees at a distance. The bees there are ‘locally adapted’ and can be aggressive. Often the bees would start to bother him and he would hold his hand up perpendicular to his face. It wasn’t clear at the time what effect this had, but I tried it myself later with a veil on and the bees do invariably stop pestering….

Finally, I caught the end of a talk by Mike Palmer of French Hill Apiaries in Vermont at the Virtual National Honey Show. It was a Q&A session and he was asked if he used queen excluders to which he replied that he didn’t as he didn’t want to restrict the queens from laying. He explained that by doing this the bees were less likely to swarm, a trait he marks down on his breeding program.

2 thoughts on “The Life of a Breconshire Beekeeper Sept/Oct 2020

  1. Hi Chris,

    I have just reread your latest excellent blog. I wonder if you would put it in the Nov. newsletter, which is due out anytime. I think our members need as much distraction as possible in these difficult times, and perhaps a reminder of how to get an automatic posting of your blogs from you?

    I have one comment about wasps. I saw a new queen wasp going into hibernation under a hive roof back in September, and I have never spotted one foraging in the autumn. The worker wasps are all killing time after abandoning their nests, and will perish with the first frosts. I have had negligible wasp worry with my bees this autumn, and I have not even reduced the normal hive entrances (10 – 15 square cms).

    Can you please attend to any relevant missive from WBKA about webinars that may affect our association? I have the gut feeling that our next committee and AGM will have to be virtual events.

    Finally, is it possible to delete the out of date notices on the home page of our website? I was looking through it last night, and found some stuff worth keeping interspersed with old news.

    Thanks, and keep safe.



    1. Hi David,
      Many thanks for your kind words about my monthly ramblings.
      I am happy for this post to be included in the newsletter as long as its clear that it comes from my blog.
      The blog really is the modern way to have a newsletter.
      We had a frost this morning and I had hoped that it would stop the wasps, but there they were outside the hives until the sun had warmed the hives for the bees to come out. Pollen going in again today.
      I’ll have a look at the website and tidy up
      With the WBKA I think you may be referring to the webinar software that they have subscribed to and that members can use.
      Let me know if there’s something else.
      Keep safe

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