President’s Report to AGM of Dunfermline & West Fife Beekeepers’ Association
7.00 pm Thursday 5th March 2015
Portmoak Village Hall
Photo (SD): winter is not over yet.
Late winter and early spring
While I write this report winter has extended its grip after a long mild spell lasting into the December. Some summer sown rape was even beginning to flower in November but the unseasonable growth was soon stopped by severe frosts in January and February. In late February there were heavy snowfalls on higher ground and periods of gales. One of my apiaries had stored equipment blown over and in another a large tree was split leaving a precarious top-heavy trunk leaning towards the hives. Rather than risk a disaster as happened at the Edinburgh & Midlothian Association apiary we moved the hives to a safer location. Usually with a long mild autumn we expect bees to consume their stores and need feeding or an early block of candy placed over the cluster but with many colonies this was not the case. There are several possible reasons for this. The colonies at the association apiary may be more thrifty and the mild autumn allowed collection of late stores which comfortably offset any brood rearing requirements. Despite this it is usually a safe bet to place a block of fondant over the cluster anytime after the New Year start. In February or March I also add some insulation above the cluster especially with smaller stocks so as to help conserve heat and maintain brood nest temperature.
Photo (JD): precarious remnant of trunk carrying a top heavy canopy and leaning towards the apiary.
Snowdrops and crocuses are already flowering but the recent cold winds have prevented much foraging unless hives are in sheltered positions. Hopefully things will have improved by the time the AGM comes along.
(left – right) Snow drops in sheltered locations then later crocuses are useful early pollen sources when the weather is milder. Coltsfoot flowers very early; by March the willow will be flowering and is plentiful in Fife where there is any unmanaged ground. The bees work this avidly and the pollen is a tremendous boost to early brood rearing.
This is a critical time for your colonies and food stores need to be assessed. The less disturbance to colonies the better. Simply ‘hefting’ the hive and gently lifting the crown board allows you see the size of the cluster and where it is.
If the cluster is close to the top of the frames then the colony may be short of stores and bags of soaked sugar or better, commercial fondant formulated for bees, can be placed directly over the cluster and then some insulation added to conserve heat. Bees can easily withstand the cold but a smaller colony when brood rearing benefits from a helping hand in controlling any heat loss.
Winter is always a stressful time for bees and they may be confined to the hives for long periods so it is not surprising that some colonies dwindle and die out in the early spring. The causes are complex but starvation is something that can be avoided. Good Varroa management is essential so we always have a mid-winter session doing an oxalic acid trickle treatment demonstration at the association apiary.
This picture from last spring shows debris from the cluster uncapping cells and extending their brood nest. It is useful indirect evidence of how active the bees are, the size of the brood nest and its position. What is interesting is that it also shows eggs which I think are from a young and vigorous queen which have dropped through the open mesh floor. Amongst this are only a few Varroa mites showing how difficult identification can be when there is much floor insert debris to sift through.
Colony losses in recent years for Fife have been high, around the 30% mark but for the winter of 2013-14 were much lower at 9.7%. (Recent survey results from Dundee University – SBA collaboration). So far we have at least 2 out of 10 colonies at the association apiary showing signs of dwindling as spring approaches.
2014 summer season
Overall this has been a better year for the bees but there was a pronounced ‘June gap’ where forage availability dried up. As the weather improved there was a gradual clearing up of chalkbrood in the association apiary and natural Varroa mite fall monitoring showed low levels. Work on apiary maintenance progressed well and an area was cleared for siting a further storage unit. The work party included myself, Tom Scott, Ian Lindsay and John Tout meeting regularly on Mondays throughout the active season. Additional members attended when able and John Morris and Billy Robertson (retired stonemason) continued with wall repair and building a bee bole. The incidence of swarming at the apiary was low and colonies were able to gather reasonable surpluses from oilseed rape and later willowherb. Available forage has improved at the association apiary due to forestry planting which has allowed willowherb to spread. Horses have also been brought into the area which has led to more clover. The local farmers continue to plant oilseed rape and more phacelia will be within flying range of the bees. So the future looks better for this apiary site.
Beginners’ practical classes
The 2014 season brought better weather which helped our practical classes. We ran these through the active season with a small group attending regularly and gaining the practical skills. This was supplemented by additional ‘intermediate classes’ run at other apiaries by Enid Brown and Margaret Thomas.
Apiary Varroa assessments
We have regularly checked Varroa natural mite falls at the apiary through the 2014 season and these have been low. Treatment was done in late August with a reduced dose of MAQS (biodegradable mite away quick strips) because of reports suggesting that the recommended dose was causing problems with the smaller hives used in the UK. This caused a substantial ‘knockdown’ of mites confirming the efficacy of the treatment and alarm at the undetected levels of Varroa present. This is a warning to all that our methods of monitoring are not entirely reliable and even ‘drone brood uncapping’ may not give a true picture. Using the reduced dose is said to prevent possible adverse queen effects and reduce chances of bees absconding but this has to be looked at critically. It looks like the recommended dose is what is required to target the male Varroa mites in the brood cells. Significant reduction in male mites is what is required for full efficacy. Perhaps we should be considering early summer treatment which will give queens time to recover and get into full lay again and should a problem arise there will be time enough in the summer to rectify these. Having said all this I have not had problems the past 2 years of use but must stress that adequate ventilation is required and do read the instructions that come with the product carefully.
This year the SBA conference clashed with the BIBBA – SICAMM conference in North Wales. For the benefit of newer beekeepers, BIBBA is the Bee Improvement and Bee Breeding Association and SICAMM is the International Society for the Conservation of Apis mellifera mellifera, the dark bee native to northern Europe. I attended this conference to renew contacts and keep up to date with all the new developments. It was most impressive with over 200 delegates, 40 lecturers with talks arranged in 3 streams over 3 days. A prodigious undertaking and despite the complexity it was a resounding success. The latest research confirms that bees do best where they are native and locally acclimatised to their environment. I firmly believe this is correct and with the recent concerns over small hive beetle (SHB) being found in Italy last year highlights the need to review our fragile biosecurity. Andrew Abrahams talked of his experiences on Colonsay with his native bees since he had successfully argued for a Native Black Bee Reserve. He is now considering plans for securing the reserve for future generations and how these bees can be conserved and improved. We had presentations from all over Europe and excellent lectures from the Irish beekeepers on both sides of the border.
Several members have been preparing nucs for beginners so that most beginners managed to get bees during the 2014 season. Jeff Baxter and myself have been working within a small group to establish a mating apiary in an isolated area so that we are able to ensure mating with suitable drone rearing stocks. The first queens have been overwintered in West Fife and will be assessed for productivity and behavioural characteristics during 2015. Preliminary morphological assessments have confirmed satisfactory mating of these queens. It is too early to be sure how successful this venture will be.
Photo (JD): 1 day old larvae are grafted into plastic cell cups and inserted into a prepared queenless stock which will start these as young queen cells. The colony is then reverted to a queenright state and the cells continue to be fed and developed and are usually better finished by this method. Ripe cells are then removed before hatching and placed in prepared mininucs and taken to the mating apiary.
Photo (JD): collecting box for young bees with a funnel and fitted excluder which ensures that no unwanted drones are taken to the mating apiary. These young bees are used for filling mininucs which will act as small colonies for new queens to be mated from.
Photo (JD): mininuc just established and ready for insertion of a ripe queen cell.
Bee Diseases in Fife
The incidence of confirmed foulbrood in Fife remains low compared with Perthshire and Angus. I have not been informed of any recent concerns about the disease status of Fifeshire bees. No exotic pests have been recorded. Varroa is endemic and Apistan resistance is widespread so that all beekeepers should be monitoring and considering treatment with proprietary formic acid or thymol preparations. There are other treatments but these seem to be favoured by Fife beekeepers.
Bee Bole in the Association Apiary
Photo (JD): flat topped large Pettigrew skep made by Martin Buckle. This is the base skep and further skeps can be added as honey supers as required. Photo (on right) shows the completed bee bole constructed on traditional lines by Billy Robertson (retired stonemason) assisted by John Morris.
Fife and Tayside historically had many bee boles some dating back to late medieval times and many still present in old walled gardens. Sadly they are steadily being lost and neglected and many could still be unrecorded. When we took over the association apiary site the ruinous state of the walls of the old farm demanded some attention. The offer of help from Billy Robertson was too good to be true and with his expertise the walls were stabilised and repaired. In one corner he constructed a bee bole and we hope to hive a swarm and establish a new colony and manage it along the lines of Pettigrew. He was a Lanarkshire beekeeper from the late 19th century who advocated the use of large skeps and a system of beekeeping which avoided the killing of some colonies in the autumn simply to get the honey. We do not advocate a return to beekeeping practices of a bygone era but I am sure that this will be an interesting exercise and we have some ideas as to how we may continue to monitor and treat for Varroa.
Theft of bees from Moray association apiary
There is a report of theft of hives with bees from the Moray Association apiary. The position of the apiary strongly suggests theft by persons with beekeeping knowledge and awareness of the set up. This is devastating news and should be a warning to all on the need for security and not divulging the position of our apiaries. Our committee will discuss further security measures for the association apiary.
Farewell as president of the association
It has been a long time but I must step down and make way eventually for new people and new ideas. When I became president more than 25 years ago we were a small association and beekeeping was a declining craft carried on by the dedicated few. We continue to benefit from media attention of the past few years and an increasing public concern and awareness of our environment and the problems faced by nature. This is reflected in yet another class full of beginners. I have to thank all who have supported me and our current committee. I will still be working to support the committee and to maintain our association apiary so I will be around in active beekeeping for a long time yet, I hope!