October has sped past with a flurry of falling leaves (and Prime Ministers) and the promise of colder weather to come, while the beekeepers’ work has been that of cleaning, repairing and storing all equipment in preparation for next year, writes Ethel Irvine, of Fermanagh Beekeepers' Association.

In her report for October, she said supers – once full of golden honey – have been stacked so that they are safe from the attention of wax moth, and we have time to relax and read all those beekeeping articles we have set aside "to look at later"...

Our beekeeping has been reduced to visiting apiaries to make mostly visual checks to ensure that our hives are withstanding the winds and rain of autumn, and that mouse guards are still in place.

The alternative to using a mouse guard is to reduce the entrance size so that it is less than 8mm high.

I find this satisfactory, since the metal mouse guards can knock the pollen from late season foragers as they return to the hive.

The heavy lifting of late August and September has been replaced by occasional hefting of our hives to familiarise ourselves with what the weight of a properly provisioned hive feels like.

We can expect the weight to decrease little by little over the winter until brood rearing starts in the new year, when there will be serious demands on stores, and the change will be noticeable.

For those new to beekeeping, ‘hefting’ means that the beekeeper puts one hand under the middle of the full hive and lifts it a couple of centimetres, judging the effort needed.

Practice is necessary, but it does give a way of knowing, come early spring, whether extra stores – in the form of fondant – are needed.

Some beekeepers give their bees a Christmas present of fondant regardless of whether it is required or not.

I prefer to rely on what I learn from the heft, as in Fermanagh we are blessed with an abundance of ivy nectar and the brood nest is likely to be fairly well clogged up with the honey, even in February.

I would prefer that the bees use that honey and free up cells for the queen to lay in. If they are eating the fondant, they are not freeing up this necessary space.

A visit to the apiary is a pleasure at the moment when we are first greeted with the heavy aroma of ivy nectar being ripened.

One of our members, Andrew, who has moved to Cumbria, posted a video of his bees feasting on plums.

I have never before seen bees foraging on fruit.

One of our beekeepers has had his first experience of robbing in his apiary. He admits that it was entirely his own fault, and that it was an experience he does not want to see repeated.

When the beekeeper talks about 'robbing', he is generally referring to bees finding undefended honey, seeing it as an easy ‘meal’, and carrying it back to their own hive.

During the active periods of the year, we are very careful to take all precautions to prevent the start of robbing.

We gather up all brace comb containing any trace of honey, which we scrape from frames during routine examinations; the hives are checked for unauthorised access to supers; and we are careful not to spill any sugar syrup which we may have to feed to the bees.

Major feeding is done late in the evening when bees have stopped flying, and all colonies should be fed on the same day.

Bees will become very excited in their own hive at discovering that the sugar syrup is there, in the attic, for the taking – but by morning they will have settled, so that the excitement does not spread throughout the apiary.

We usually make the mistake of leaving accessible honey when we are taking off supers, or performing some other infrequent manipulation.

My one experience of large-scale robbing was a result of my carelessness.

Before putting my bees to bed in late August, I had united two colonies, put all the brood into one box, taken off the second brood chamber which still had a couple of frames of stores and some arcs of honey in it, and put it with the rest of my spare supers etc., intending to go back to make it secure – and I forgot!

Next day, I opened the door, and the bees poured out – they found their way in, but not out – and then returned with reinforcements!

The number of bees was incredible, and very frightening for the rest of the family.

I moved the box outside the door, and took all the honey except one frame and made it safe.

The bees very quickly cleared the remaining frame, but kept searching for more.

Very gradually, things calmed down – but it took a couple of days before the last of the searchers gave up!

Robbing is most likely to occur late in the foraging season when honeybees are gathering up as much stores as they can before winter, and can begin without any stimulus from the beekeeper.

Wild Bee Project

The Wild Bee Project is halfway through its initial planned time span. David Bolton reports that approximately half of the wild bee boxes are occupied at the moment.

One colony has moved into a box occupied by a pine martin last winter, and he waits with interest to see if it attempts to move back this winter.

In one box, the colony died out in spring, as indicated by the gradual temperature drop, but another moved in this summer.

The sensors in the boxes (which are not examined in the conventional way) give indications of what is happening in the boxes, and when all the data is analysed, should provide information on the success or otherwise of our wild bees.

Celebrating the 'Beginner of the Year'

Each year, a plaque is presented to the ‘Beginner of the Year’ in recognition of their dedication to completing the Introduction to Beekeeping course, and their continued interest in beekeeping as shown by their attendance at Association meetings and involvement in general.

This year, the plaque was awarded to Roisin Carey, and she was presented with it by her tutor, Jackie Barry, at the monthly meeting.

Monthly meetings

We have enjoyed being able to meet together on the last Thursday of each month in September and October.

September saw a lively meeting in which Mark Wallace, of Three Rivers Association, gave the second part of his presentation for those relatively new to beekeeping, but which, from the discussions, was just as relevant to those with more experience.

In October, Emma Irwin and Brian Dane demonstrated candle making of both moulded candles using their own recycled wax (Brian), and of candles made by rolling foundation (Emma).

Both have done research into the wicks which should be used, and how the wax is cleaned, and Emma spoke of making her own foundation for use in the hives and for the candles.

When it came to making creams and balms, they very generously shared all their knowledge on which wax should be used, what oils were suitable, which aromas should be used, and gave tips on how to make all their products attractive.

The November meeting will be on Thursday, November 24 at 8pm in Fermanagh House,and we will hear from some of our beginners in beekeeping about their experiences, as well as a report on the NIHBS queen rearing, its failures and its successes, and the lessons learned which we will take forward to next year’s queen rearing.