January Notes from the Abbey Beekeeper

Over Christmas I was given an old bee manual, ‘The Bee Craftsman’ by H.J Wadey published by Bracken Dene in 1949.  I enjoyed the opening paragraph:

“The domestication of the honey-bee may be regarded as the building up of an elaborate technique for the exploitation of a wild creature. The bee is still in some ways as wild as it was in the Stone Age. It lives a highly complicated social life and all the efforts to control and manage the bee have to be kept in line with that social system. Co-operation with Nature is the keynote of successful bee culture which may be described as deflecting and guiding the bees’ activities rather than controlling and coercing them. Philosophers and scientists have speculated for many centuries concerning the mystery of the government of the hive. What controls, guides determines the varying policy of the bee colony? Not the queen or a dictator; not a committee of elders.

The bee colony has a collective mind and will. By its mysterious working, young, middle aged and old bees in harmonious communion become as it were a single entity. Unanimity and self-abnegation might well be the motto of the hive. The student of bee life must always remember that bee psychology must be studies as carefully as the physical and technical aspects of the craft.”

So we have to become bee psychologists in 2013- that is a challenge! Let me know how you get on!

At this time of the year it is very much a question of keeping one’s  ‘hands off’ the bees other than checking they are alright after a gale. When I do visit the apiary I check the food stores by gently ‘hefting’ the rear of the hive – gently so as not to disturb the cluster. I heft both sides of a single brood chamber hive as the stores can be on one side only.

If stores are running short, it means my autumn feeding was inadequate. If you have to feed then remove the crown board and place an ‘eke’ or empty shallow super on the exposed brood chamber, place a block of fondant or four damp 1kg sugar bags over the cluster, cover with an old blanket or sack (if these become damp they should be changed occasionally during the remainder of the winter), replace the crown board and roof.

If using sugar then place 1kg paper-wrapped bag of sugar in a bucket of cold water for around 20-30 seconds, turning and squeezing gently to allow any trapped air to escape and for water to enter the bag. Lift the bag out carefully (the wet paper can tear easily) and place in warm to dry (on top of a radiator or on a rack in an airing cupboard is best). The bags will dry out and form a hard crust like a giant sugar cube in a day or two. Cut a few holes in one side of the bag, with a knife or hive tool, big enough to allow the bees access and place directly onto the frames, surrounded by an eke or empty super to lift the cover board and roof.

Feeding in early Spring.

As above, but instead of leaving the bag to dry out, instead drip-dry and place directly onto the cover board for the bees to feed on. The wetness means this is half way towards a spring syrup feed, which will encourage the bees.

You can use 2, 1kg bags in each hive and this allows you to cover all the frames preventing isolation starvation.


There are many recipes for fondant or candy. Some involve using vinegar or cream of tartar in order to invert the sugar (which makes it remain more soft and pliable) but there have been links between these additives and toxicity.

5 kg White Sugar
1 litre Water

Boil the water and add the sugar and dissolve. Heat to 114°C (Soft ball) while stirring regularly, then take off the heat, and cool without stirring. It should form white streaks as it begins to set. Once at 70°C, stir well to form a creamy mix (you can use an electric blender for this if you like). Spoon/pour into trays (I use old takeaway trays or boxes) but any mould will do, and leave to cool completely.

This fondant will have a water content of around 20%, which is fairly close to that of honey, which is usually 18-19%. Once made, it will store pretty much indefinitely.

To use, simply invert over the top bars of the frames and raise the cover board slightly with an eke or a cut-down super to prevent creating too much airspace above the bees, which could chill them.


At the moment I am cleaning old frames, supers and brood chambers using a blow torch in preparation for the new season.  I am slow to get at this but it will pay off in the summer!

The most useful work at this time of the year is thinking/planning – thinking about the management system one is going to adopt for the coming year. I am interested to read in the blurb for the Ulster Bee keeping Conference in early March that one of the sessions is refocusing on the underlying principles as taught by the Old Masters of beekeeping such as Pagden..

I had never heard of Pagden but after a brief search on the internet I discovered it is another term for ‘Artificial Swarming’. Next month I will give a summary of this method. Meanwhile it is great to see the hazel catkins lengthening.