Winter watch for bees

woodpecker damage

‘Do they ever do any beekeeping at this cafe?’ asked someone while we sat around the apiary table on Saturday afternoon. The first weekend after new year and Ealing’s beekeepers had made no resolutions to give up tea and cake.

Luckily, Pat had brought something to show why bees need keeping in winter – a feeder tray with a hole bored in the side of the wood by a woodpecker. Woodpecker damage to bee hives is not common in West London, but this case of break-and-entry shows why we should keep watch. The woodpecker had attacked Pat’s hive at Osterley first by boring a hole into the top of the feeder tray, where it wouldn’t have found anything interesting, next drilling the wood below before getting fed up or disturbed and flying off. ‘It must have been very disappointed,’ said Pat.

Bee larvae can make tasty treats for hungry woodpeckers in cold weather, and maybe bees too, while causing considerable damage to the brood nest. However, Ted Hooper says that woodpecker damage to bee hives is a learned behaviour:

‘Woodpeckers learn that they can find a good meal in a beehive much in the way that bluetits learn to open milk bottles for the cream. You may keep bees in an apiary for years with lots of green woodpeckers about without any damage and then suddenly they learn the trick and through the hive wall they go, leaving behind a dead colony and several 3 inch holes. Whether all the damage is done by the woodpeckers or whether rats finish the job off I am not sure, but I have seen brood chambers in which the frames have been turned into a pile of wooden splinters, no piece being larger than a match. Covering the hive with wire netting or fish netting before the first frosts is the usual remedy.’
Ted Hooper. Guide to Bees and Honey.

The chicken wire is on order for the Osterley hives.

EDIT: Pat kindly let me use this photo of his hive at Osterley now safely protected by wire netting. He advises using chicken wire wrapped around the whole hive to keep woodpeckers off and to ‘make sure there’s a good clearance all the way round so they can’t peck through it’.


Image © Pat Turner

A walk around our apiary showed that the woodpeckers haven’t learned about the delicious morsels inside our hives – yet.

I carried out a few other winter checks including:

  • hefting the hive to check the weight of stores – it’s heavy
  • lifting the roof to look at the fondant – the bees are tucking in greedily and the hole in the fondant (a ‘window’ into the winter hive) suggests the cluster inside is loose
  • observing the entrance – foragers are flying home with bright yellow pollen suggesting that the queen has started laying.

Overall, the signs indicate that our bees are well and active, perhaps because of the mild weather, although in January they should be conserving energy. All that flying means eating a lot of honey, but at this time of year there won’t be much nectar about to replace it. We’ll need to keep a close eye on the hive’s weight and amount of fondant between now and spring.

I went back to the apiary table to report my findings. John agreed: ‘It’s much easier to get a hive through a very cold winter than a mild one, because they don’t fly about as much.’ I asked where the bees might be finding the yellow pollen and Pat thought it was from mahonia. There wasn’t much else to be done except have another cup of tea and try Cliff’s culinary invention – the ‘pake’.

the pake

It’s a mix between a cake and a pie, explained Cliff. ‘The top half is a raspberry muffin and the bottom half is a mince pie.’ I wasn’t entirely convinced but the men beekeepers were thrilled to find the mince pie half-way inside. A pake was left on the table for the apiary’s family of robins who swooped down as we left. Hopefully, it will satisfy any peckish woodpeckers too.


17 thoughts on “Winter watch for bees

  1. Those woodpeckers are pretty smart aren’t they. If they were really clever though, they would learn to hang out with you beekeepers and pinch your cakes!

    I thought of you over the weekend, number 2 son noticed an insecty commotion across the road (which is our neighbours backyard) and when I wandered over to see what it was there were a huge amount of bees swarming. The weather has been quite hot here lately, maybe they were off looking for cooler digs, maybe some ice-cream! 🙂 Please send some of your cooler weather, we could really use some!

  2. Steal our cakes? Even the bees aren’t that smart! 😉

    I suspect your swarm was looking for cold beer and ice cream, nothing bees like better! Maybe you can set up a pub for them.

    OK swop you a few clouds for sunshine 🙂

  3. ‘Do they ever do any beekeeping at this cafe?’ – hilarious! I am very sad that I missed the pakes. I have a lot of left over mince pie mincemeat so perhaps I should get the recipe from Cliff. It may be a culinary first!

  4. I saw a foraging bee in Colchester a few days ago. The location of my future beehive is not known to have woodpeckers around. An efficient killer called Helix (cat) in the location is effective against rats, mice, but they have yet to succeed against the local squirrel. Never had a pake before.

    • The unsettled seasons of cold, wet summers and mild winters must be confusing for bees and other wildlife. Don’t think squirrels are a threat to bees – they are too busy tormenting cats, although Helix sounds truly formidable!

      I am sure the pakes will be back!

  5. Funny, our woodpeckers don’t seem to know this trick. But we do have to wire underneath our garden boxes to keep the gophers out. Nature is always at work….and not always in ways we like! 😉

    • It’s a very sociable hobby – a bit like the bees! 🙂 It is interesting to think of winter forage, I always thought nature slept or died in winter and now know that’s not the case. I’d like to know if you see any bees buzzing around your forsythia.

  6. Pingback: Too cold for a bee’s nose | Miss Apis Mellifera

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