Sandgate Community Garden: Update 20 December 2020

The Sandgate Community Garden bee hives at Christmas

Christmas Greetings from Ray and Chris, your friendly beekeepers. 

You may be thinking that this is the time of the year when we are sitting by the fire in our Christmas onesies with a box of chocolates and a glass of fine wine… Well that may be the case but we want to assure you that we are still working hard to ensure our bee colonies remain safe and healthy during the cold, damp winter months.  We now have an opportunity to scour bee books, magazines and catalogues to research ways to improve our techniques and equipment ready for the spring. 

The worker bees (all female) will now have foraged the last of the pollen, mainly Ivy, Rosebay Willowherb and Himalayan Balsam and this has been packed away in the hive to provide a source of protein.   All the male bees (drones) have been expelled from the hive to die, this is because the drones serve no purpose during the winter and are voracious eaters of the precious stores.

The queen has stopped laying eggs and her last brood will live for six months (rather than the usual six weeks) and take the colony through the winter.  In order to do this they have to be well-nourished and free from disease.  The colony should have garnered about 20 kilograms of honey during the late summer for the bees to live on.  All our colonies have been checked and supplemented with a sugar syrup to make doubly sure they have plenty of food.

It may surprise many of you to learn that honey bees do not go into hibernation but remain very busy within the hive.  They will have clustered into a ball around the queen, their duty being to keep her fed, warm and healthy.  Warmth is generated by the presence of the bees themselves but it can be increased by the bees shivering to produce heat.  The bees will each move around from the centre to the outside of the cluster and back again to keep each other warm and to regulate the temperature within the cluster so that the queen is neither too hot nor too cold.

Although it may seem strange, colonies of bees survive better and use less food if the winter temperature stays very cold, between +5 and -18 degrees Celsius.  At higher temperatures the cluster of bees breaks up and their increased activity means the consumption of more stores so the bees need to work harder outside the cluster to keep their temperature above +7 degrees Celsius.  Sometimes the bees will not have enough honey stores or perhaps during an unsettled winter they will become too cold and weak to access their nearby supplies and the colony will unfortunately perish.

It is very important at this time of year not to open the hive unnecessarily so a procedure known as ‘hefting’ is used to estimate the amount of stores inside.  Many beekeepers on Christmas Day quickly open the hive to add extra food, regardless of the hefting process, so that our bees share in our festival of goodwill and also enhance their chances of survival.  The food of choice is called fondant and Ray and I have made our own, not because we are tight fisted but because we can be assured of the purity and integrity of the ingredients.  The resulting fondant is pushed into an open container and placed either directly onto the frames or above the crown board.  The fondant is firmer than honey and is simpler and quicker for them to digest.

Ray and I are still visiting the hives on a more than weekly basis to identify any issues.  This involves checking for damage caused by wild animals (woodpeckers in particular) or damage caused by the weather.  We are also checking for any signs of activity, disease or distress.  On a warm winter’s day, we would expect to see some of the bees flying outside but near to the hive.  They will be busy removing any dead or diseased bees, collecting water or doing what is politely called a ‘cleansing flight.’

Wishing all the Sandgate Community Gardeners a Happy Christmas and a Healthy and Safe New Year.  With love from Ray and Chris xxx