BEEKEEPERS are still looking after the welfare of their bees in spite of the fact that they may not see them for days in the middle of Winter, writes Ethel Irvine, of Fermanagh Beekeepers' Association, in her report for December.

She says:"Roofs still need to be checked for seepage of water onto the crown board since damp is one of the main enemies of the overwintering bees – not the cold, as many people think.

"Hives should be hefted to check that there are sufficient stores in the brood boxes

"If the beekeeper has being hefting at regular intervals, they will soon recognise when the hive is light.

"Fondant should be fed if there is a worry about stores, and it is recommended that a fondant specially made for bees should be used.

"Other fondants, such as those sold in supermarkets or bakers, may contain preservatives or other additives which may have a detrimental effect on honey bees.

"Mouse guards should be firmly in place, and there should be no build-up of detritus behind it to prevent free exit and entrance for those bees which will fly from the hive on cleansing flights, to collect water or, indeed, some of the pollen from wintering flowering shrubs surrounding the apiary.

"Bees do not hibernate, as such, but they do have mechanisms for keeping themselves, their queen and any small amount of brood which may be in the brood nest, not just warm, but at the temperature necessary for survival.

"They will form a cluster – that is, a ball of bees, which will be centred on the queen and brood.

"The surprising thing is that, once the ambient temperature is at 15C, even in mid-Summer nights, this process begins and as the temperature falls, the cluster becomes tighter and tighter.

"Bees are poikilothermic, meaning that they take on the temperature of their surroundings.

"Once a bee’s body temperature falls to about 7C, the bee is unable to move, and at around 4C it will die.

"Bees can generate heat by shivering their huge wing muscles, and will not allow the surface of the cluster to fall below 7C.

"The bees will constantly change positions in the cluster so that the bees on the outside do not die and fall off.

"The cluster is remarkably dense, as bees crawl into the empty cells in the frames, giving another reason for not over-feeding bees for the Winter, the first one being that the queen needs room to lay eggs early and then later in the Winter."

She continues: "There is a misconception that there is no brood in the hive in December, but with our moderate temperatures, there is nearly always some brood.

"This has implications for the temperature at the centre of the cluster, which must be around 35C for the brood, whereas without brood present, it may be anywhere between 20C and 30C.

"The stored nectar supplies the energy needed for the shivering of muscles, and the cluster will move as a whole, slowly, to keep it within reach.

"If the number of bees in a hive is too small, the cluster will not be capable of surviving.

"The hive should not be opened, or disturbed by moving, during Winter since the integrity of the cluster will be destroyed.

"Heat will be lost, and the bees on the outside will lose contact, will chill and not be able to return," she says.

Ethel adds: "Here, I am going to put forward a point for debate. Should we be treating for Varroa Jacobsoni with oxalic acid in a legal form, in mid-Winter, since it disturbs the cluster and, if those bees need the extra treatment, they are showing that they have not built up any resistance to the mite, and so our apiaries might be better without this breeding ground for it?

"Honey bees are just one of the wide range of pollinators who give us the natural abundance around us and assure us of flowers in our gardens and fruit on our trees.

"As we face into uncertain times regarding the protection of our natural heritage, those of us who keep bees and have an interest in the survivability of these wonderful creatures, would ask our policy makers and local people, including our farmers and landowners, to positively build diversity in our landscape.

"We can do this by protecting marginal lands, retaining our rich hedgerows, retaining our bogs and wooded areas – all of which can be done with advantage to the productivity of our agricultural industries.

"We can also minimise the use of pesticides and herbicides, both of which do a lot of damage to pollinators or the landscape they rely on."

Ethel also says: "At our last Zoom online meeting, our own Thomas McCaffrey gave us a fantastic presentation on queen rearing in lockdown.

"Thomas is the instructor on queen rearing in Fermanagh Beekeepers’ Association and, as such, usually works with a group who are eager to learn.

"He took the opportunity this Summer to iron out some of the problems with equipment such as the incubator for the maturation of sealed queen cells.

"Thomas showed us slides of grafting of eggs into artificial cells mounted onto bars in otherwise empty brood frames, or cell bars.

"He explained the use of the Cloake board, which he used very successfully, in conjunction with the method known in Ireland as the Ben Harden method, to obtain well-provisioned queen larvae, which were later sealed by the vast numbers of nurse bees in the cell-rearing part of the colony, before being placed in the incubator at the correct stage of development.

"He employed child labour – his own seven- and nine-year-olds – to mark the emerging queens before they were placed in apideas, ready for the mating stations.

"Seeing the queen marking being carried out showed those who were nervous of the procedure that it really is child’s play!

"It was interesting to hear that Thomas had experienced the ‘shrinking cluster’ effect, described above, in his cell bar where the bees had retreated from the edges as the temperature fell to freezing on a Summer night, and the larvae had been neglected and died.

"He also told of experiences with rearing queens from a wild and, hopefully, mite-resistant colony and placing them in a mating station close to long-existing wild colonies.

"We look forward to evaluating the resistance to the Varroa mite of the colonies headed by these mated queens," she says.

Ethel continues: "In spite of the uncertainties caused by the Covid-19 virus, planning for the 2021 preliminary class in beekeeping is going ahead for commencement in February.

"Those interested should enrol via the Cafre website, or contact Andrew Elliott at 079 683 86422.

"The next meeting of Fermanagh Beekeepers Association will be its AGM, which will be held via Zoom on January 28.

"Our Secretary will be in touch with details of how to join. We would urge all those members who have iPhones, laptops, iPads or any other suitable platform to install the app and to have a go at working through the tutorial which can be accessed.

"Lorraine has expressed a willingness to help if you get stuck!

"It would be of great pleasure to see as many as possible signing in and to be able to see each other on screen.

"Unfortunately, we cannot offer you our usual annual dinner, but we can offer the hand of friendship and companionship virtually."