Overwintering Nucs and Small Colonies

by John Mumford

The long cold wet winters that I remember when I first started keeping bees seem to have gone, and the overwintering of Nucs and Small Colonies (less that 6 Frames), has, with a little TLC become quite easy.

"There is no problem in beekeeping that can't be solved, by either putting something into, or, taking something out of a Nuc, and, Nucs rarely give problems." Wedmore 'A Manual of Beekeeping' par 1057.

While a Four frame BS Brood Frame Nuc is OK for Summer use, and also Winter with extreme care, a Five frame BS. Brood Frame Nuc makes overwintering much safer.

It is important to have young, well mated Queens that will continue to lay well into the Autumn, and will start laying again early in the Spring. Queens producing rubbish bees are not worth keeping.

A small colony, is a small colony. When conditions are right, a small colony will expand at an incredible speed, and it will survive the coldest winter weather, providing that it has sufficient of the right stores, in the right place.

A weak colony will rarely survive, even in the mildest winter. The cause of weak colonies can be Queen related, Diploid Drone, Chalk Brood, or Sack Brood etc., or there may be other disease problems, EFB (god forbid), Nosema, or Varroa. Since using Thymol treatments Acarine, a major cause of a great many overwinter losses, is a thing of the past. The old beekeeping adage of taking Winter losses in the Autumn should be applied, and any weak colonies should be put down. Uniting up weak colonies should NOT be done unless both colonies are healthy, and reasonably free of Varroa and the Viruses that Varroa move around within the colony.

Nucs are best made up in late May, or early June, when most colonies can stand the loss of bees and brood, and Queen Cells are plentiful. Just two frames of bees and brood (not too much brood), a frame of stores containing fresh pollen, and a ripe Queen Cell. The Nuc will need to be moved away a mile or so for a couple of weeks so that the bees don't desert. Then it would be unwise to move it back until the Queen is mated and laying. However, if frames of brood (sealed and unsealed), are put over a Queen Excluder above the supers of a strong colony for a couple of days, then the bees on these frames will be young nurse and house bees. These frames can then be used to make up Nucs, and if the bees are pinned in and not released until the evening when other colonies have stopped flying, most of the bees will stay put. If any bees do desert before morning, then they are unlikely to bring back their friends and start robbing. Making up Nucs is an ideal opportunity to move tatty old drone filled combs from brood chambers.

Making up a Nuc with the old Queen from a colony that is making swarm preparations, and leaving two unsealed Queen cells, (one to be broken down before emergence), in the main colony is good beekeeping practice. And if a colony has swarmed, making up a Nuc with one of the surplus Queen cells, is a form of insurance, in case the Queen cell left in the main colony comes to nothing.

The queen emerging from a ripe Queen cell should be mated and laying in about 14 days after the Nuc was made up, weather permitting. And it will be another eight days before the new brood is ready for capping, by which time all of the original worker brood will have emerged. This is an ideal time to apply an effective Varroa Treatment since all the mites will now be on the bees!

The new Queens first brood will not begin to emerge until about 5/6 weeks after the Nuc was made up. The Nuc will now be at its weakest strength-wise and robbing (mid/end of July) must be prevented at all costs. In a normal August pollen and nectar is in short supply and any necessary feeding should be done with the utmost care. Feed only in the evenings using a 1lb honey jar with 5 or 6 gimp pin holes in the lid, but not more than twice a week. Use 50/50 wt./wt. syrup, ie. 1kg. of sugar to 1 litre of water, made with white granulated sugar. If any syrup is spilt then it must be washed away quickly with plenty of water.

At the beginning of August the Nuc should have a minimum of two HALF frames of brood, and two half frames of stores. (Feed if not). Half the stores should be open, and half of the stores sealed. Bees canít help themselves when it comes to feeding. But they will only store in combs that they can cover, and if over-fed, the bees will fill up the cells that should be used for brood rearing, and there will be less bees to go into Winter.

In September the Ivy yields an abundance of Pollen and some Nectar. This time is most critical! A young Queen will now show what she is worth! The Nuc should have a minimum of two well filled frames of brood, this brood represents approx. 5,000/6,000 bees, which together with the existing bees will be sufficient to take the colony through winter. The bees should be covering at least three frames, and providing that the bees are healthy and they have been given an effective Varroa treatment the Nuc is in an ideal condition to survive Winter.

The end of September is the time to prepare the Nuc for Winter. The heat loss from a Normal plywood crown-board is wasteful and a strain on the bees. Cut a piece of 25mm thick polystyrene insulation board to cover the whole of the crown-board. Cut a hole 135mm x 85mm in the polystyrene to coincide with the position of the feed hole ,and make up a cover to go over the top of the Candy Box. (500gr. margarine tub). see photos. From now on the block of Candy MUST be checked every week and replaced as necessary, regardless of weather conditions. It doesn't take long! The Candy soaks up surplus moisture in the Nuc and helps keeps it dry, and the bees donít have to forage for so much water to break the candy down.

In the Spring, Nucs expand very quickly, (bees do best when kept tight), and they will need to be transferred into a full brood chamber about mid April, before they get too tight and start swarm preparations. A decent 4/5 frame Nuc will fill a brood chamber by the end of May and in a reasonable year will get a super of honey by the middle of June.

Candy Recipe : - Put the water from a 'full to the brim' 1lb honey jar into an 8" saucepan. Heat the saucepan and slowly add 2kg of white granulated sugar stirring constantly. When the mixture has come to the boil - turn off the heat and leave for a few minutes. A crust will start to form on the top of the mixture. Start stirring until the mixture begins to thicken and turn a milky colour. Pour out into 3 No. 500gr. Margarine Tubs. Keep the candy in a cool dry place with a lid on.

I spoil my bees and add some honey to the mix. For every tablespoon of honey added, half a tablespoon less water is used. Old fermenting honey won't hurt since the heat drives off any alcohol and kills any yeast.

1 comment:

Emma said...

Hi, I found your post very interesting. I started beekeeping last March when I bought a hive from a beekeeper at a local apiary. This was my first winter. The colony seemed strong in autumn but when I did the shook swarm today there are only about 3 frames of bees and no brood. The colony appeared to have bad nosema over winter (I gave them fumidil in autumn). They are in a new brood box with the queen now and I am going to feed them liquid feed daily and give fumidil, and I have left them a pollen patty. I really love my bees and would not like to give up on them immediately – can you suggest anything else I can do to help this tiny little colony get bigger and healthy again? Is it too late to buy a nuke now? I could order one to arrive for the next weekend and transfer them to this? Many thanks.