Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities (Timber Press, 2012) by Luke Dixon features everything an urbanite needs to know to start keeping bees: How to select the perfect hive, how to buy bees, how to care for a colony, how to harvest honey and what to do in the winter. Urban beekeeping has particular challenges, and this book highlights the difficulties and presents practices that are safe, legal and neighbor-friendly. Learn how to safeguard your hives from common winter beekeeping problems in this excerpt taken from the book.
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“The months will be long and cold, and it may seem that you will never see your bees again.”
As the days begin to draw in and the colony reduces in size, it is time to prepare for winter. Eventually the bees will huddle down in a cluster to keep themselves, and their queen, warm during the winter months. The temperature inside the hive will drop to about 20°C and the cluster will move around the hive to feed on its stores of honey. If you have taken it all from them, then you will have to give them something as a replacement—sugar in the form of fondant, the thick white paste that is spread on cakes and buns. A local baker will often supply it, or you can purchase it from beekeeping suppliers in plastic bags. Just cut a hole in the bag and place it over the hole in the hive’s crown board. The bees can come up and remove fondant from the bag and take it down to the cluster. Not nearly as good as honey, of course, but the bees will need it if there is not enough honey in the brood box to keep them going.
Common Winter Beekeeping Problems: Pests and Diseases
Now is the time to think about disease and pests, though an eye must be kept out for them throughout the year. The varroa mite is a tiny creature, the size of a pinhead, that invades a hive, multiplies in the brood, and lives on the thorax of the bee. The Asiatic honey bee evolved with this parasite and so is able to cope with the mite in its hive. But the varroa mite arrived in the homes of the European honey bee with devastating effect. Any beekeeper now has to be alert to keep varroa out of their hives.
Hives have been redesigned to help in this, with mesh floors through which the mite will drop if knocked off the bees. Unable to climb back into the hive, the mites can be collected on a tray under the mesh floor so that you can see how much of a problem you have. The little brown shiny creatures will glisten, like tiny pinhead-sized conkers, amongst all the other debris from the hive that has fallen through. There are various ways to kill them and to help the bees to remove them from the hive. There are chemical treatments, or you can dust the frames of bees with finely ground sugar and that will help dislodge them and make it easier for the bees to knock them off themselves.
There are diseases that the bee is prone to. Nosema is an illness whose dysentery-like symptoms can be seen outside the hives as the bees soil the hive and the landing board. There are horrible diseases of the brood, called European and American ‘foul brood’, though they know no national boundaries. These are so serious that in Britain you are obliged to notify your government bee inspector if you suspect them and, if necessary, they will destroy your colony.
With luck your hives will be healthy. Most are. Just as most beekeepers are. But once the honey harvest is off it is time to treat for any disease (so that no treatments end up in your honey) and ensure that your colonies are as strong as possible before the cold winter months.
Common Winter Beekeeping Problems: Predators
It is also time to protect your hives from bigger predators. There are wasps, woodpeckers, foxes, mice, and badgers—all ready to eat your bees and your honey as highly nutritious sources of winter food.
I can hear a woodpecker at the Natural History Museum and occasionally see him. He does not yet seem to have noticed the hives, and I have got through all my seasons without him picking off my bees as they fly in and out of the hives, or worse, drilling a hole in the hive to get the juicy food out. Woodpeckers are a winter pest. In January and February when the ground is frozen hard, a beehive is an easy source of nutritious insects. Urban foxes can be much more of a problem throughout the year, quite fearlessly nosing into a hive, knocking over unstable ones. I came one morning to find a hive at Coram’s Fields, a children’s playground, with its super and roof pushed aside and the brood box exposed. The cold and wet had killed the colony. It might have been a human who had disturbed the hive (maybe the one who had stolen my scooter helmet a few weeks before while I was working on the hives), but more likely it was the fox that was standing on the wall next to me as I looked at the destroyed hive. I have strapped up all my hives ever since.
Straps will not stop a human of course, and may even tempt a teenager. The hives at the Lillington Estate in Pimlico are protected against this particular pest. There are signs close to the hives warning of the bees and signs on the hives themselves saying DANGER BEWARE OF THE BEES in bold bright type. And the hives are strapped down within an inch of their lives. Despite all these precautions there are the occasional mornings when Jim the gardener arrives to find the straps removed. It is certainly not a fox who has done it. It must be a human, perhaps out of curiosity or maybe as a dare or a bet?
Smaller but no less of an urban pest is the house mouse, looking for a warm place to nest. They are as much a problem in a hive as in a house, and the best way to deal with them is to block up any hole they might get through. In the hive that means the entrance, which should be reduced to as small a space as possible during the winter, making it easier for the bees to defend and more difficult for the mice to squeeze through.
Worst of all are wasps. Like all bees except honey bees, colonies of wasps do not survive the winter. Once the queen has hibernated there is nothing for the rest of the colony to do and they hang around in gangs, scavenging on anything they can find to eat. The sweeter the better. So they will invade your picnics and if they get a scent of honey they will invade your hives. Wasps can destroy a hive in a couple of days. Just as you are relaxing at the end of the season and decide to go away for the weekend, the wasps will arrive and clean out your hive. They will eat anything. Not just the honey but the bees as well. The bees will do their best to defend against the predators. A small hive entrance will help, as will wasp traps easily made out of old fizzy pop bottles. You can watch the bees literally wrestling with wasps around the hive, grappling each other on the ground. Give them whatever help you can.
Common Winter Beekeeping Problems: Losing Your Bees
It is always sad to lose your bees. However careful you are with your husbandry and management, not all your colonies will survive. It has been the collapse of colonies that has led to the growth of interest in bees and beekeeping over recent years and brought many new beekeepers into the hobby. The causes of colony collapse are many and varied, but there are some that can be kept at bay. If you keep your bees fed over the winter, and protect them against disease, the chances are they will survive through to the spring.
After the regular weekly checks on the hives in the spring and summer, as the days get shorter and the temperature drops, reading the hives, strapped up and sealed against predators as they are, becomes much more difficult. But it is still possible to monitor the activity of the bees in the winter cluster. You can listen for them by pressing your ear on the side of the hive, you can feel the heat coming off the hive, and you can see the tiny fragments of wax that drop through the mesh floor of the hive as the colony uncaps stored honey. The pattern of wax pieces on the tray under the floor also gives you a sense of how large the colony is and where in the hive it is clustered. And you can heft for stores, carefully lifting the hive at one side to detect its weight and therefore how much honey the bees still have left to feed on. If you are feeding with fondant, a quick glimpse into the roof of the hive will show you whether the bees have eaten up into the bag of sugar. In the depths of winter it does not do to delve too far into the hive—and there is little to be done for the colony except to fend off woodpeckers and mice, to keep it dry, and to ensure it has adequate stores.
The season has finished. Time to clear up and plan for next year. There is mead to be made from any leftover honey, lotions and potions, soaps and salves, to be concocted from wax. The months will be long and cold, and it may seem that you will never see your bees again. But then one day the pussy willow will be in bloom and a foraging bee will be out bringing in the first pollen of the year. The new season will have begun.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities, published by Timber Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities.