It’s mid-October, the temperatures outside are dropping and the beekeeping season is winding down. Runamuk’s 2018 farm-season has certainly been one for the books, mainly because this was the year we finally made farm-ownership possible─but for honey production it wasn’t the greatest of years. Even still, I’m happy with the way the season went and with the hives that I have going into the winter.
After losing twenty out of twenty-one hives over the course of the 2017-2018 winter the state of the Runamuk apiary was just a little precarious this spring. I’ve experienced hive losses before and have come to accept it as just another part of beekeeping, but it certainly makes it difficult to gain ground in this industry. With the purchase of a farm on the line, it was especially stressful.
I imported 10 packages of replacement bees from Georgia, bought 5 overwintered nucs, and managed to raise about 30 Queens of my own. Those Queens either replaced Queens in the southern packages, replaced bad Queens, or were added to nucleus colonies that are going to be overwintered in hopes of supplying my own replacement hives for this winter’s inevitable losses.
For the last 2 seasons I’ve been managing the apiary of my friend, Luke Vigneault, in addition to my own. Our beekeeping journeys have run parallel over the years; we’ve shared orders on Queens, tended bees together, and learned from each other. I’ve been so impressed by Luke’s honeybee stock that I grafted from his hives to produce two-thirds of the Queens I raised this year.
Between the 2 of us, I’m managing 27 colonies at the moment─Runamuk’s 15, and Luke’s 12 hives. Hopefully this winter is kinder to us than last winter was.
Poor Honey Season
As for for honey production, this beekeeping season wasn’t really the greatest. Runamuk was not able to supply customers with the local, raw honey they’ve been clamoring for and I can’t help feeling like it’s a failing on my part (“Geez, Sam! What gives!?”). At the same time, I know what a set-back the harsh winter and loss of colonies was for my operation─because I had to wait for replacement bees and only had one weak hive in May (when the nectar-flow really gets underway here), I wasn’t able to capitalize on Maine’s spring honey-season.
In addition, the earlier part of the summer was exceedingly dry and flowers really weren’t producing much nectar, so I was feeding the bees a lot of sugar-syrup. Because the majority of my hives this year were new colonies, or were new Queens I was trying to establish, I wanted to give them every possible resource so they would have the best chance for survival. That means I fed all but the hives that were making honey, and whatever honey that was produced got redistributed among the nucs to ensure every hive has the stores it needs to make it through the winter.
Keeping Colonies Small & Tight
It’s my goal to keep my honeybee colonies “small and tight” going into winter. After 8 seasons working with bees, learning from other beekeepers, and learning from my own experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that bees overwinter more successfully when they’re not trying to occupy so much space. With this in mind I’ve adopted a single deep and medium box set-up for my brood nest. The frames of larvae to occupy the deep-box, positioned on the bottom, with a medium filled with honey settled on top.
During the season I’ll add more mediums as necessary─either to increase the colony’s capacity for brood, or for honey production, but I always want all that extra equipment to come off before the winter sets in.
Prioritizing Mite Treatments
I’m feeling really confident in the condition of the 27 colonies under my care. I’ve learned to prioritize mite-treatments and perform them as a rule the first week of August and mid-to-late September. If the infestation were severe, I would do another late October treatment as a final clean-up before the long winter. Mite-treatments are the pits, but having seen hives go down as a result of varroa─I know that it’s not pretty and it’s not a good feeling knowing that, as the beekeeper, you’re the one responsible for it.
I’ve learned too, that I can significantly reduce mite-levels in my hives and grow my apiary at the same time just by breaking up large colonies to make more nucs. That’s a win-win in my book. By breaking up hives and sticking to my schedule for mite-treatments, I’ve been able to keep some very healthy-looking bees these last few years, and I know that these methods─in tandem with my newfound Queen-raising skills─set Runamuk up for some big growth in the next few years.
I’m not treating the hives for nosema because this disease has not historically been an issue in my apiaries. If I had hives that were coming through the winter and had an excess of brown staining on the front of the hives, I would know that the fungus had infected the colonies and I would use the Fumagillian, administered in the sugar-syrup fed to the bees in the fall. There are lots of resources about nosema and how to prevent and treat that problem; the main thing is to be aware of it and to ensure your colonies are healthy and strong going into winter, and to take steps to ensure your hives are appropriately set up.
That brings me to winter preparations. Things are almost over at the apiary for the 2018 beekeeping season. I’ll be taking mite-treatments OFF the hives this weekend. After that I won’t go back into the hives for anything more than to administer sugar-candy or pollen patties (should hives make it to March), until April.
At this point in the season I’m not manipulating frames. Since August I’ve been managing the hives with an eye toward winter; that means I’ve been moving brood “downstairs” to the bottom box, and positioning honey stores so that the colony can move up through the hive in what I hope is optimal fashion.
Sometime between now and Thanksgiving all of the inner covers will be switched out for wintering inner covers, which are deeper on one side and allow space for sugar-candy to sit under the telecoping cover. Many beekeepers fill that space with candy, but I prefer to lay my candy directly across the top bars─as close to the bees as I can get it.
I’ll put the candy on at the same time, then top it with some kind of moisture-absorbing material. This is crucial, and I think my attention to this detail is the reason I haven’t had much issue with nosema in my hives.
Nosema is a fungal disease which─like all fungi─thrives in wet conditions. I’ve tried homasote board and newspaper in the past, but nothing seems to work so well as a box of wood shavings above the inner cover. I tack a piece of burlap to the bottom of a medium box, and add several inches of wood shavings─you can even use the same type of pine bedding you might use for livestock (but not shavings that have actually been used by livestock! yuck!).
I also like to ensure my hives have both lower and upper entrances, in case the snow should cover the lower one. I make it a habit to check the apiaries periodically throughout the winter, and I’ll shovel out the front of hives just so the girls can take cleansing flights, or to ensure air-flow, but I prefer to allow the snow to pile up around the back and sides to protect the bees from the wind and cold to some degree.
It’s certainly disappointing to not have honey available for my loyal customers at the farmers’ market. Not everyone understands why I chose not to take honey from the bees this year. Some folks look at me and say: Geez, that Sam─she’s been doing this for years now and she still can’t give me honey when I want it!
And I can’t deny the truth in that.
Beekeeping is probably the hardest form of agriculture. It is not easy to keep a colonies of bees alive in today’s modern era where poisonous pesticides have infected the landscape and the changing climate is altering our world on a very basic level. Even if you do everything “right”: you feed them, manage them in a timely fashion, perform mite treatments and leave honey for the winter─you’re still at the mercy of the natural world around you. You might face drought conditions, floods, bear-attacks, or extreme temperatures; the list of what could go wrong─all of which is out of your control─is fairly extensive.
As the beekeeper and a caring, nurturing farmer, I have to be the one to say to those folks, “I’m sorry, but I need to give my bees every chance for survival that I can give them. The bees need to be super-healthy in order to cope with the pesticides and mite-infestations, and they’re healthiest when they’re eating honey and plenty of it.”
What’s more, it takes honey to build colonies, and I built a lot of new colonies this year with an eye toward the future. 15 of the 27 hives going into winter are nucleus colonies housing my Maine-raised Queens; I’m really proud of the state of the apiary, regardless of the fact that I wasn’t able to sell honey. Afterall, no one gets into farming to get rich; and certainly no one gets into beekeeping if they’re not bat-shit crazy about bees (it’s called: “passionate” thanks!). No, I’ve evolved enough that there’s really only one reason I do anything anymore: I’m doing it for love. Love of the land, love for nature─and love for bees.
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