August's apiary meeting

Local beekeepers' association meetings can be an essential source of advice, being full of very experienced beekeepeers. I went to yesterday's apiary meeting of Burnham Beekeepers with a bunch of questions, mostly from Thursday's inspection.

Firstly, some cool backstory about the second colony. They were found in an old sofa, covered in wax, on a farm near Berrow. Thomas said they refused to go in the hive at first for an hour but the next day they'd set up home. The second colony were the last swarm he collected of the season, so we have been very lucky.

On the other hand, after talking about some of the things we'd seen, it became clear that we're dealing with two possibly weak and definitely small colonies. They are going to need special care if we're going to have them around in the spring. This means doing a few things. Firstly, as the foraging sources deplete from September onwards — or maybe earlier depending on the weather — they'll need to start being fed more sugar syrup. Not just every week, but checks every other day to make sure they are topped up. Without enough food they would begin to go robbing other hives. The availability or otherwise of winter stores is the colonies' biggest threat at the moment. Secondly, we may need to be more assertive with Varroa management, even if we don't see much evidence of it. An icing sugar shaker isn't going to cut it, and some people said that method can damage grubs. A dose of Apiguard in September was recommended, irrespective of the low varroa levels now, with a midwinter oxalic acid treatment. I've done this before during my time at Walworth Garden, where we treated with sublimation. Some people consider sublimation a more effective method, and you don't need to open up the hive and disturb the bees in the middle of December. Treatments are usually done in winter so that they don't affect the honey taken the next year, but we have the particularly important need to keep our colonies as strong as possible. Finally, over winter, it's said that not the cold that kills bees, it's the damp, and we'll just need to keep an eye on that, not that I think we have a big issue with that at the moment.

What about the things we saw on Thursday? The few cells of chalkbrood is likely a sign of stress rather than damp, and doesn't demand much action. The raised, cratered cell is likely to be drone brood hatching in its own time. My pessimistic diagnosis of bald brood turned out to be wrong — it's just be new bees hatching and nature doing its thing. Most interesting of all, the extruded cell in the centre of the central frame is indeed likely to be a supersedure cell, and there may be more. It seems that the queen is about to be replaced, drone brood is around to help with that, and we can only hope the attempt is successful.

All this useful advice and the lines of questioning that led to it goes to show something about experience in general — that people who really know their stuff work not by ticking off a checklist, but by being able to tell when something is different or unusual. At the moment our inspections feel a bit overwhelming to do within the ten minutes the bees give us, as we try to remember all there is to do. Hopefully as we get into beekeeping, we'll be able to just scan the frames, see what's out of place, and gain a deeper understanding of the colony. It's been fun so far.