As the active beekeeping season starts to draw to a close at the end of this month it is important to make sure our bees are in good shape, healthy and with good stores (pollen and nectar) to prepare them to survive the long winter months ahead.
You may have noticed during an inspection that your bees are more defensive than usual. It is important to try, especially in an urban location, to ensure that the bees we keep are not overly defensive, but at certain times of the year and under certain circumstances all bees can become defensive. One of these times is when the nectar flow ceases, as it tends to do in August.
This comes at a time when the colonies are at their largest, so the bees are naturally wanting to preserve their hard won resources, but we beekeepers are also raiding those resources for our honey crop, so we can expect the bees not to take kindly to our interventions at this time of the year.
At the same time wasps are on the look-out for sugary substances. While wasps are useful carnivores, killing and eating a vast number of garden pests and insects, this useful ecological role is carried out in the Spring and Summer when they are rearing and feeding young. The adult worker wasps are not able to directly ingest the protein from the insects they collect, they chew it up and feed it to the young larvae which then produce a sugary substance for the workers to eat. In Autumn, when they are no longer rearing young, the adult workers need to find another source of sugar and beehive colonies have a wonderful pantry of sweetness waiting to be raided if they can get past the guard bees.
Those among you who like to sit and observe your colonies may like to try and identify the guard bees. These bees are generally between about 12 and 25 days old (when their sting has fully developed) and they are positioned at the front of the hive standing with their front legs raised and their antennae pointed forward, detecting foreign invaders. They will let in foreign bees if they bring gifts of pollen or nectar but others will be wrestled away from the entrance.
Another thing to look out for at this time of the year is propolis. You may notice that even hives that are not great users of propolis, start to be more difficult to crack open at this time of year. Propolis, while a nuisance to beekeepers, is a useful antibacterial and antifungal substance that is essential to the health and wellbeing of the honeybee. You can reduce the nuisance value of propolis by smearing petroleum jelly on surfaces, like the queen excluder edges, which make inspections easier, but does not reduce the seal on the hive which is what the bees at this time of year are keen to ensure to help to insulate their space over winter.
In preparing for winter you may need to feed your bees with sugar syrup. Many of you have ordered Ambrosia through Steve Brown who has kindly co-ordinated this. Do remember to feed at dusk when the bees have stopped flying, or you risk setting up a robbing situation. Bees, like wasps, are eager at this time of year to find any source of sugar to assist with building up winter stores, and scenting another colony being fed can mean they will clean out that colony, particularly if it is weak.
Do attend the Warwickshire Zoom meeting on 15th September on Himalayan Balsam if you can. This is an invasive foreign species which in some areas provides very good late season nectar and pollen for honey bees, so I am rather ambivalent about its presence along our waterways, thankful I had not seen it around Rugby, but recently I came across it on the canal above Elliot’s field so it will soon be everywhere and maybe we will be grateful for its presence.