Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The Love of Gloves - Part 1

Beekeeping hurts.  Obviously one of the first things people ask me when they find out I'm a beekeeper is: "do you get stung?"  And the follow-up question is quite often "does it hurt?"  Of course, the answer to both is "yes".  Nevertheless, it's quite nice not to get stung, so personal protective equipment is a must whenever one is near a hive.  And this season, Maria's bees have been particularly feisty - making sting-protection even more important.

When I started beekeeping, my first queens (Rosalind, and her daughters Ada and Jocelyn) were fairly gentle souls.  My standard kit for handling their hives was a pair of old trainers, jeans tucked into socks, bee jacket and thin (disposable) latex gloves.  I rarely got stung - if I did it was always on the hands or fingers, probably about once per fortnight.  And it was almost always my fault (a classic error was reaching a finger underneath the queen excluder when lifting it off, and accidentally squeezing a bee.  It took a few weeks for them to teach me that was inappropriate behaviour!)

This season, that all changed.  In the spring, before Caroline moved onto pastures new (OK, Ian's garden) she was queen of hive #2.  And, although her colony were not aggressive, they certainly could be moody if they thought things weren't going their way.  But Caroline's daughter, Maria - who took over the hive - was a different story.  Firstly, her bees had a knack for stinging me through my socks just below where the bottom of my jeans were tucked in.  So I had to switch to boots, and tuck my jeans into those.  Secondly, my hands became targets.  Wearing latex gloves was pointless - the bees would just sting straight through them, often without the slightest provocation.  Reluctantly, I had to swap to using my heavy leather gauntlets, which are cumbersome but at least provide adequate protection for me.  The bees still sting them anyway, and die as a result, which is sad.  But at least I could get through a hive inspection without feeling like giving up from the constant attacks.

I'm not sure what caused Maria's bees to be so troublesome.  It could be genetic - after all, her mother is a little feisty.  It may be because they collected a great haul of honey (51 jars!) and simply felt the need to protect it.  Or, it could be because the colony was sick - possibly they had been suffering from Sacbrood for a while, and I had only noticed when the number of workers fell after the harvest.  I can be moody when I'm sick, so I do understand.

That last point - the Sacbrood infection - got me thinking.  The leather gauntlets are fine in terms of protection for me, but I was using the same gloves, every week, in both the hives and the nucleus.  And, because they're leather, they're not really practical to wash.  So, if anything carrying the sacbrood virus (say, a bit of infected brood haemolymph) got onto my glove, I could accidentally transfer it to a frame on another hive, where a worker bee might eat it (bees basically clean up any unwanted liquid in the hive by eating it).  Then the worker is infected, starts to infect other bees and I've spread the infection from one colony to two.  Not good.

I decided I needed to change two things about my gloves, if I was going to continue needing something more protective from now on:
  • The gloves need to be washable - which realistically means rubber
  • I need to use a different pair for each hive

So, I have bought four pairs of gloves with different properties and thicknesses, and have been doing some comparisons to see which I prefer.  Look out for Part 2 (coming soon) - in which I will attempt a somewhat unbiased comparison of each pair, and choose my favourite beekeeper's glove ready for next season.

Oh, you came here to find out how the bees are doing...?  Well, they're fine.  Which is nice.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Hungry Bees

On Sunday, I did my final inspection of the year.  I've been feeding the bees syrup for the last 3 weeks, because it rained a lot in September and they had consumed most of their winter stores, so I had to help them replenish.  By the way, if you want to know more about feeding, I did a post about it last year which you can see here.

The inspection was mainly to see how well they'd stored the syrup I was feeding them.  What the bees tend to do is fill the middle frames first and then work outwards - this is because it's warmer near the middle of the hive, and it's easier for them to build wax where the temperature is higher.  So, the cooler outside frames were mostly still flat foundation.

I decided to intervene a little, so I pulled out an empty frame from each end and then re-inserted it nearer the middle, next to the edge of the brood.  There will always be bees where there is brood, partly because the nurse bees will feed the brood, and partly because the bees will always maintain the brood nest at a constant temperature.  What this means is that the frames next to the brood nest are relatively warm - which should mean they are warm enough to build wax comb, providing new storage for the syrup that I am feeding.  If the bees keep taking down the syrup, then that will be a good indicator that my plan is working!

So, here's the state of play for each of the colonies:

The Nucleus (Elena's Colony):  Queen still laying, 8 out of 10 brood frames drawn and filling with syrup.  Elena's feeder bowl is smaller than the others (it takes half a litre of syrup), but it's empty every time I go back to re-fill, so they are having no problem building the wax to store the new syrup.  I will keep feeding until they stop taking syrup, at which point the nucleus will be full.  The colony is a good size for a (double height) nucleus, and I think they are well prepared for winter.

Hive #1 (Laura's Hive):  Queen still laying.  Super full.  8 out of 11 brood frames drawn and filling.  The bowls on the hives have a capacity of 2.25 litres; at the moment, Laura's bees are taking down around 1½ litres a day.  Colony size is good, and I think they are well prepared for winter.

Hive #2 (Maria's Hive):  Regular readers will have seen my concerns in my previous post about the health of Maria's bees.  Because of the brood sickness, I wanted to take a little longer over the inspection this weekend just to get a sense of what the colony's chances are of surviving the winter.

It's important to note that they're not cured - and can't be, until the spring (assuming they survive the winter).  There are still sick brood in the hive, so the question is not about recovering from their infection, but rather it's their capacity to live with it for the next 6 months.  When I opened up, I could see that the older brood frames (there are 3 of them) now mostly have capped brood, and hardly any eggs or uncapped brood - in fact, once the adult bees have emerged, the workers seem to have started filling the cells with syrup rather than let the queen lay in the empty cell.  This is actually good, as it will prevent re-infection from the cells being recycled.

I had previously put an empty frame next to the brood nest, with the intention of encouraging the bees to build out the comb.  They'd done this, but hadn't then filled it with syrup as I had expected.  Actually, they'd gone one better - the queen had laid the new comb, which was now covered in eggs and un-capped larvae.  And the really promising thing I noticed: all the brood on the new frame looked completely healthy - no signs of infection at all.  This is very good news!

Last week, I wouldn't have put Maria's bees' chances of survival any better than 50/50.  Based on what I saw at the weekend, I think they've improved, so my revised estimate is that Maria's bees have at least a 51% chance of surviving the winter.  'Cause I'm a glass-half-full kind of beekeeper, y'know...?