[This is the first of a series of articles based on interviews by Lindsey Macaulay and Olya Kurasova with Murray McGregor.]
My season starts in September when all my colonies are at the heather moors of Scotland waiting for us to harvest the honey crop.
The first thing we do is remove the bees from the honey crop within the hive. We do this by using a New Zealand type clearing board which normally clears all the bees in a matter of hours and, in my opinion, offers several advantages over the alternatives. See Note 1.
Once the supers are cleared of the bees we remove them from the hive and go through the brood box and remove any old comb and replace it with fresh frames with wax foundation. The colonies are overwintered on a full complement of frames. In season, we typically replace 25,000 sheets of foundation over approximately 2,500 hives. See Note 2.
The bees are then transported from the heather moors to the lowlands where they are fed and overwintered. Each colony is fed 14 kg (10 litre) of invert syrup bee food with an Ashford-type polystyrene feeder. We try and have all the colonies fed by Guy Fawkes night. See Notes 3 & 4.
The colonies are overwintered in groups of between forty to fifty hives for ease of maintenance. Numbers are limited purely for disease management.
Each colony is treated for Varroa with an Amitraz-based strip. It is important to rotate the Varroa treatment used every few years.
The Varroa floor stays open throughout the winter; a Varroa tray is never used or inserted. Colonies that are in Smith or Langstroth-type wooden hives have a solid crown board directly above the brood box with no upper ventilation of any kind. See Note 5.
We utilise floors that have a 3/8” high bee entrance; mouse guards are never fitted. See Note 6.
Records are maintained on a spreadsheet that is sent to Beebase weekly. The spread- sheet is updated and given to each team leader with the tasks detailed.
Once each colony is fed all efforts should be made to disturb it as little as possible until March. See Note 7.
Note 1. The New Zealand type of clearing board has two holes on the opposite corners of the board where the bees go through and out of the underside. On the underside, there is a gap on an external corner which the bees can pass through. Bees look for holes on the inside of a corner but a hole on an outer corner is less easily found by the bees so once the bees are through they are unlikely to find their way back. The bees congregate on the centre of the board before they make their way down between the frames hence this design with two bee escapes on opposite corners is better than the design with central bee escapes.
Note 2. Removing old brood frames helps prevent the build-up of pathogens that can be harmful to the colony. Wax brood frames that are drawn by the bees in the autumn gives the best foundation because the bees do not create drone cells and they are active on the wax at a relatively quiet time of year for them. In the spring when they need space in the brood nest the wax is already prepared for them.
Note 3. Each colony is given about 14 kg (10 litres) of invert syrup. I have found that this is usually sufficient to see them through to spring. If they are given more food than this, then it creates congestion in the brood nest and limits the queen’s laying in the autumn.
Note 4. Bee fondant may be fed as a supplement to syrup but not instead of syrup.
If a colony has not taken enough syrup before winter sets in, the syrup is removed and replaced with blocks of fondant (see paragraph below*). We cut 15 kg boxes of fondant into quarters of about 3.5 to 4 kg. These quarter blocks are fed to colonies where necessary and can be replaced as often as required until spring.
*(Colonies in polystyrene hives that still have syrup left over by early November, may have the feeder left in place as the bees can still take syrup down to the brood nest over winter; colonies in wooden hives tend to stop taking syrup down in November.)
When feeding fondant, it should be fed from inside a plastic bag or, if the fondant is purchased in plastic bags, it should be left in the bag. To allow access for the bees a narrow strip about an inch wide should be cut from the plastic and the bag should be laid flat on the frames with the cut strip crossing the frames ensuring that all seams of bees are in contact with the fondant. If the fondant is removed from the plastic it can turn hard and unpalatable to the bees and the bees are unable to eat it.
Note 5. Ventilation above the bees, such as holes covered with metal gauze or holes through the crown board, is never employed. The bees themselves tell you that they do not like upper ventilation because they will propolise the gauze or any gap above the brood box. The floors are open all year round and the bees will never propolise the mesh floor.
Note 6. Mouse guards are never fitted. Instead, every hive has a permanent entrance block that is 3/8” high. As a rough guide, the entrance should be no higher than the tip of your pinkie; any higher and the head of a young mouse can pass through. Mice rarely eat polystyrene and woodpeckers do not like it either.
Note 7. One of the biggest killers of bees in the winter is the beekeeper. Inexperienced beekeepers, in particular, should resist the temptation to disturb the colony as much as possible.