I am hopeless at getting equipment cleaned and prepared over winter BUT this year I promised myself it would be different! No more panics or searching for substitutes! Now that the bees are flying more often and bringing in pollen, it’s time to get my act together . . .
Robbing screens are a very good thing to have ready at the end of summer so why not get ahead and make them now? I talked about them in our first podcast. I used them last year when a very aggressive episode of robbing started at my apiary. It was very stressful and alarming, and that was just for the beekeeper, never mind the poor bees! Full supers of honey disappeared, some colonies were badly weakened and members of the public upset. Not an experience I want to repeat.
Robbing screens helped to restore some order in this chaos. There are various designs out there but some of the more sophisticated seem to involve carpentry skills that I unfortunately don’t have. A simple but effective design is an easier and cheaper option for me.
Design for a basic robbing screen
This is the design that I use:
How does it work?
Its very simple: the screen is pinned over the hive entrance, long ways. The bees that live in the colony will enter through the V-shaped gaps at the sides. The robbers, who are chancers that zig-zag in front of the hive entrance, will be confused and won’t work out how to get in.
With the screen in place, you don’t have to reduce the hive entrance which is much better for ventilation and reducing heat in the colony.
You can use gaffer tape to close off one end of the entrance, leaving the bees with one side entrance that is easier for the colony to defend.
Remember though that this is just one tactic in the war against robbing and it won’t work in isolation: you still have to follow the usual rules to ensure that your apiary is a harmonious place! You still need to ensure that you don’t feed during the day, that you feed all colonies at the same time, that you don’t leave syrup or comb lying around and that you don’t open colonies at the end of summer without very good reason . . . ok, lecture over!
How to make a simple robbing screen
I bought the mesh from an independent local hardware store and assume it’s widely available:
It came in one large sheet, approx 70cm x 70 cm. It is important that it is thin enough to cut with scissors and fold into shape by hand. The gauge is small enough to stop bees passing through but large enough for ventilation.
Using kitchen scissors, I cut a piece long enough to cover the hive entrance and wide enough to fold three times. I tend to eyeball measurements but if I had to guess I would say the dimensions are roughly 25 cm x 15 cm (please measure against your own hives first!!).
Make the folds by turning and pressing the mesh under and over until it forms an approximate ‘W’ shape when you open it up:
Because the mesh is sharp, I line the entrance points (the V points at the sides) with some gaffer tape to protect the bees. The pen is pointing to the entrance that the bees use:
Here is another version that you can make which is a bit more fiddly but effective nonetheless. The flat sides are pinned to the hive. The bees enter through the top:
I hope that’s shown you how easy it is to make a robbing screen. And to show you a robbing screen in action, click on the link below to take a look at a video of the robbing frenzy in my apiary last September. The screen immediately stopped the robbers getting in and things settled down despite the severity. This year I’ll be fitting them earlier to prevent robbing in the first place!!
2016 was a rollercoaster for me and my beekeeping, thanks mainly to the unreliable weather, a shortage of queens, and general disorganisation on my part (when will I learn that winter should be used for cleaning equipment, making up frames etc.?!).
Lesson one: get my act together, plan properly and use winter to prepare equipment for the coming season!
My key goal for the year was to increase the number of colonies to produce more honey for the land owner I work for.
Things didn’t start well as I broke my ankle and by April it was still in plaster and I was on crutches. Instead of accepting the limitations of this I tried to carry on regardless, on one occasion causing complete mayhem in my apiary by dropping a full brood box. Luckily no damage was done (except to my nerves), and my beekeeping friends stepped in to help get things back on track by the end of April.
Lesson two: fellow beekeepers are always ready to lend a hand, so ask for help!
My apiary is colder than other areas in South London so my bees are always a couple of weeks behind. After a burst of late March sunshine and pollen, the bees were preparing to swarm. I have my swarm prevention and control process pretty much worked out thanks to years of trial and error. But last year’s spring had a sting in its tail with weeks of cool, wet, miserable weather meaning that the emerging queens mated poorly (some turning into drone layers all too quickly) and others simply went stale.
While I had some over-wintered nucs, I simply didn’t have enough mated and laying queens banked to replace all the failing/poorly mated queens. I had fall back on uniting some colonies. So my goal to expand my apiary wasn’t unfolding as planned!
Lesson three: rear enough queens to ensure that young, mated and laying queens are always to hand.
In an act of desperation, I decided to buy in some nucs with extensions. Now I am not saying that there is anything wrong with buying nucs from a reputable source. And I used a reputable source. But I failed to factor in that I had been selecting my bees for years and that they were mostly good tempered, productive, prolific colonies that I knew and (mostly!) loved. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the bees that I brought in and found that they weren’t exactly friendly and seemed to only produce bees. The new colonies got bigger and bigger but there was no honey to harvest, and their temperament got worse. In the end a passer-by was stung and I had to remove them. I should have simply taken my best colony and split it into six as advised by other beekeepers.
Lesson four: increase stocks by using your own well-tempered bees or bees whose traits are known to you.
All was not lost, I managed to make up some nucs from my best colonies. But I learned the hard way that I was not going to achieve an increase without an organised queen rearing programme to support it. One for 2017 – watch this space!
The main flow when it began wasn’t as strong as the previous year because local forage was affected by the long wet spring. However I did harvest almost as much honey as the previous year so at least that was something.
Varroa populations were high at the end of summer. I often do shook swarms in spring to help manage varroa but I couldn’t in 2016 as the weather was so rubbish and not ideal for drawing new comb. In September I treated some colonies with Apiguard and some with MAQS (depending on the nature of the colony – small ones that needed a lot of feeding got MAQS). In recent years I have been finding that varroa can then build up again going into December. I treated all colonies with Apibioxil trickle method (in 1:1 syrup) in late December. In 2017 I’ll use the vaporisation method as it has been found to have higher efficacy.
2016 had one final lesson for me in the form of robbing: it was unbelievable and on a frenzied scale that I’d not seen before. I had to put in some serious detective work to find out who the robbing bees were. Late one night I closed up all my hives and came back to my apiary the next morning to find it full of bees trying to rob the closed hives. So the robbers must have been someone else’s bees, from another apiary! I learned how to make robbing screens which helped a lot and everything calmed down, although damage had been done to a few smaller colonies.
Lesson five: prevent robbing before it happens – fit robbing screens before autumn feeding and carefully following guidelines around feeding e.g. feed all colonies at the same time, feed at night, don’t spill syrup etc.!
In the end I came out of 2016 with 10 strong colonies and four large nucs. While 2016 didn’t go according to plan, I learned a lot and became much more confident in handling and clipping queens.
And while it wasn’t the easiest of beekeeping years, I still enjoyed those magical moments when you are working with the bees and you think “How amazing are these creatures, and how lucky am I to be working with them.”
I hope your bees are overwintering well and that the season to come will be a good one for us all.