Weather window!

Just like SpaceX needs the right weather window to launch a rocket, I need the right weather window to open the hive. Having treated myself/the bees to a polycarbonate crown board and foam insulation strip, I’ve been waiting for the rain to stop and the sun to shine!

Today, a short weather window opened and I managed to get both in place. The bees were calm and, once the polycarbonate crown board was in place, it was lovely to be able to view them while they kept warm.

I’ve got one more piece of winter insulation to put in place, a Snuggle Board!  This goes above the stand but below the hive so I will need Stuart to lift while I put in place – another weather window to watch out for in the future!

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Original crown board and new polycarbonate crown board.

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Foam insulation and with blanket added.

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And winter begins….

With the weather turning colder, we haven’t opened the hive since the beginning of October. The bees are now entering a near brood-less period so, other than disease treatments and any emergency feeding that may be required, the bees just want to be left alone to keep warm.

There are, however, a few housekeeping jobs that need to be done before the winter. Last Saturday afternoon turned out to be the perfect day, sunny and about 14 degrees, so we headed down to the hive.

Our first job was to attach the mouse guard. The stores in a IMG_2723
hive are very attractive to predators, as is the warmth and safety of the hive itself. If a mouse entered a hive in the summer, when the bees were active, it would be stung and killed. The bees would try to remove it, and if that wasn’t possible, they would wrap it in propolis and effectively mummify it to protect the hive from disease. However, in the winter, the bees will be in a cluster trying to keep warm. They will not be able to defend their stores or hive and a mouse could therefore cause much damage, leaving the bees vulnerable and at risk. By attaching a metal guard over the entrance, it allows the bees to pass through but not anything bigger.

Next we opened the hive to remove the medicated stripes placed in there 6 weeks  ago to tackle the Varroa mite infestation. We did this quickly and didn’t inspect any frames IMG_2727as it was too cold and we didn’t want to risk chilling any brood or reducing the temperature of the hive. The top brood box still felt heavy so there are still plenty of stores. After closing the hive, we removed the sheet from the bottom of the hive used to catch any mites dropped for counting purposes. By removing this sheet, any mites that naturally fall off the bees will fall through the open mesh floor onto the ground and away from the hive. After the initial high mite drop, the drop has been reducing over the 6 week period so I’m optimistic that the treatment has had an effect. There is a highly effective winter treatment that I am hoping to do in December or January when the weather is really cold. This should see off any remaining Varroa mites and the colony will hopefully enter the spring virtually mite free.

It’s important to keep the hive free of long grass and weeds so it’s not in a moist environment. The nexIMG_2734t job was therefore to strimmer the area and remove any long grass from under the hive. The bees do not like the noise or vibration of the strimmer which is why this job was done towards the end of our visit and why we’re still wearing our bee suits.

Finally, it was time to put on the woodpecker protection unit! I believe it is the Green Woodpecker IMG_2756that’s the main problem as it’s insectivorous. When the frost has made the ground impenetrable, the Green Woodpecker looks for other food options! The Greater Spotted Woodpecker eats insects too but, in winter, it can also feed on nuts and berries so is not quite so much of a threat. I have no idea what type of Woodpeckers there are in the Estate but, I know there are some so, it’s better to be safe than sorry!  Stuart and I are not gifted in the D.I.Y. department, but it looks ok and should do the job. We placed it over the hive and pinned it down with tent pegs. It should also deter any attacks from badgers who, like mice, may also be attracted to the stores.

Just before wIMG_2742e left, I took 10 minutes to watch the bees negotiate their new fencing. It IMG_2755was quite amazing how they flew towards it, flew back and then negotiated a flight path through the wire spaces. They also investigated it by clinging to it and, what looked like, rubbed against it, presumably to familiarise themselves with it. It was also great to see they were still bringing in pollen. They are incredible insects.

So that’s it! No more opening of the hive and no more inspections until next year. I’ll miss them and I wish them well over the winter. Of course, I’ll still pass by on a sunny day and hopefully see them flying, and I will, of course, be checking on them after any storms. Feel free to do the same and report anything interesting or amiss.

Neonicotinoid insecticides and the impact on bees.

There as been much coverage of late about the harmful effects of neonicotinoid insecticide on bees. As with all these controversial topics, I’m always a little bit skeptical of the medias’ sensationalist approach to reporting the issue, the government’s honesty, the bias of the industry-sponsored impact reports and the environmental groups ‘no compromise’ approach.

However, it is a fact that the European Commission did restrict the use of 3 neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) for seed treatment, soil application (granules) and foliar treatment on bee attractive plants and cereals. These restrictions came into force on 1 December 2013 for a period of 2 years.

15 Member States supported the restriction, 8 Member States voted against (of which the UK was one) and 4 Member States abstained.

The background to this restriction is that in 2012, the European Commission asked the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to study the safety of three neonicotinoids, in response to growing concerns about the impact of neonicotinoids on honey bees. The study was published in January 2013, stating that neonicotinoids pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, and that the industry-sponsored science upon which regulatory agencies’ claims of safety have relied may be flawed. The review concluded, “A high acute risk to honey bees was identified from exposure via dust drift for the seed treatment uses in maize, oilseed rape and cereals. A high acute risk was also identified from exposure via residues in nectar and/or pollen.”

When first introduced, neonicotinoids were thought to have low toxicity to many insects but, as the research from EFSA and others suggests, there is a potential toxicity to honey bees and other beneficial insects even with low levels of contact.

Neonicotinoids may impact bees’ ability to forage and learn and remember navigation routes to and from food sources. Bees can fail to return to the hive without immediately dying from toxicity.

Bumble bee colony growth and queen production may be affected. Exposure to Neonicotinoids may significantly reduce the ability to produce bumble bee queens. As they are the only bumble bee to survive the winter, no queens means no new colonies the following year.

A 2012 study by Purdue University scientists showed the presence of thiamethoxam and clothianidin in bees found dead in and around hives situated near agricultural fields. Other bees at the hives exhibited tremors, uncoordinated movement and convulsions, all signs of insecticide poisoning. The insecticides were also consistently found at low levels in soil up to two years after treated seed were planted, on nearby dandelion flowers and in corn pollen gathered by the bees.

Two studies published in 2015 in Nature provided further evidence of the harmful effect of neonicotinoids on bees, although further research is needed to corroborate the findings: Oilseed rape seed coated with a combination of clothianidin and a pyrethroid “reduced wild bee density, solitary bee nesting, and bumblebee colony growth and reproduction under field conditions”.

Interestingly in January 2013, (just before the Member States voting) the Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture (HFFA), concluded that the restrictions would cost billions of Euros to the agricultural industry and significant job losses. The greatest losses would be in wheat, maize and rapeseed in the UK, Germany, Romania and France. The lowered production would induce more imports of agricultural commodities into the EU.

There is a wealth of independent scientific research suggesting neonicotinoids are dangerous. There is government and industry-sponsored research suggesting neonicotinoids are safe. The government has a report suggesting a restriction on neonicotinoids would be economically damaging.

My personal opinion is that neonicotinoids are dangerous to bees! It was with great disappointment that in July I learned of the UK Government’s decision to lift the restriction on two neonicotinoid pesticides for 120 days on about 5% of England’s oil seed rape crop. These products will be supplied by Bayer and Syngenta and will be deployed to ward off the cabbage stem flea beetle.

According to a report in The Guardian in July, Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) minister, said the Europe-wide ban on neonicotinoids was an essential element of the protection of pollinating insects. “By lifting the ban government is giving in to short term commercial pressures at the expense of the future of British of farming.”

A Defra spokeswoman said: “We make decisions on pesticides based on the science only once the regulators are satisfied they are safe to people and the environment. Based on the evidence, we have followed the advice of the ECP and our chief scientist that a limited emergency authorisation of two pesticides should be granted in areas where oil rape crops are at greatest risk of pest damage.”

David Cameron, said: “The EU put in place the ban on neonics, but if scientists start telling us that these things are safer than they thought then perhaps we can licence them.”  Fair enough, but where is this scientific evidence?  Defra apparently told its expert committee on pesticides (ECP) to halt its normal practice of publishing the minutes of meetings at which the neonicotinoid applications were discussed, in order to avoid “provoking representations from different interest groups”.

Disappointing as it was, the lifting of the restriction in the UK was an emergency authorisation, for limited products, over a limited time period, with limited application. However, is this a sign of things come? The European Commission is set to review the restriction at the end of 2015. That’s imminent! Let’s hope they make the right decision. Lets hope the UK Government respects it!  If you’re asked to sign a petition banning neonicotinoids – have a think about it! Let’s hope we can keep the honey bee, bumble bee, solitary bee and all other pollinators safe for their and our own sake.