Friday, 18 October 2013

Getting the bees ready for winter

Winter is truly on its way now. I've not seen a swallow for over a week and their chattering has been replaced by the thin calls of flocks of redwings sounding lost as they come in off the North Sea. More harbingers of winter, a flock of 30 Pink-footed Geese honked noisily as they flew over late in the evening last Sunday. These won't settle in the fields here, but will remain closer to the coast. The fields do, however, hold small flocks of golden plovers and lapwings (peewits to some), occasionally panicked into the air by a prospecting peregrine. Skylarks chase each other overhead and winter flocks of goldfinches bounce around. Yes, the birds are telling me that winter approaches.

But potentially the best bird of the last week has, frustratingly, remained unidentified. For last night, on the way back from locking away the chickens, the silhouette of an owl broke the skyline. It was no barn owl, too large and too long-winged. It was certainly either a Short-eared or a Long-eared owl, both of which have been coming in over the North Sea in the past week. I'll be on the look out for the next few days. If it's a Short-eared, I'll probably see it hunting over the fields late one afternoon. But if it's a Long-eared, which would be a new bird for the farm, it will be much more strictly nocturnal.

All these signs of a change in the seasons mean that we need to start preparing. Winter won't wait for us.

Sue pretty much takes care of the bees these days, ably supported by Elaine, her bee buddy. I stand at a distance, taking the occasional photo and, once in a while, making a run for it when one of the guard bees finds me and starts battering me on the head.

We still have three colonies going, which is a great improvement on the one which came through last winter.
They withstood the wasp onslaught, helped by me finding the wasps nest - a tiny hole in the ground over in the goose paddock, but a hole through which a steady stream of striped assassins were emerging and flying straight over to the bee hives to battle and plunder.

Somehow, despite us taking very little honey from the bees this year, they managed to get very low on honey (maybe not helped by the wasps). To this end Sue has been feeding them with sugar syrup. The local shops must wonder what on earth is going on as Sue has been regularly emptying their shelves of sugar!


But they've been doing a grand job turning Sue's sweet offerings into winter stores, safely stowed away and enclosed in a myriad of hexagonal storage jars. Where they've stored it in the supers, Sue has been moving it down to the main brood box where they'll huddle together through the winter, so that it will be readily accessible during more difficult times ahead.

Last weekend our helpful expert, Elaine, visited to help Sue make a detailed inspection of the hives before they are closed down for the winter. What we had thought was the strongest hive, the original one in the middle, is in fact the weakest! Why? Because there is too much drone brood. Useless blokes!
The bees which are active and flying now are not those which will take the queen through the winter. No, it is the current brood which will have the job of keeping her warm and trying to survive the winter. So a hive full of drone brood is not much use.

Hopefully there'll be enough females born to carry the colony through. Bad news for the queen though, as in the spring she will need to be replaced.

For the meantime, Sue will move the frame feeders out of the brood section of the hives but continue to feed the bees using top feeders. This is so that she doesn't have to expose the bees to the cold when she tops up the food. It won't be long now until the bees huddle together, but with temperatures still remaining high for the time of year, we'll see the bees out and hunting at least this weekend and quite possibly for a while longer yet. Fortunately there's a lot of ivy climbing up the ash trees, which will be providing an important late season supply of forage for the bees.

So let's hope for a normal winter. Not too warm, not too wet, not too cold and not too long. Come to think of it, when's the last time we had a normal winter?

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