The sustainable apiary─brood factories & bee bombs

For years now Mike Palmer of French Hill Apiaries in St. Albans, Vermont, has been working to convince beekeepers that they can raise their own bees. He proposes beekeepers use the brood and bee-resources in non-productive hives to make mid-summer nuclei, to overwinter for replacement bees. According to the statistics beekeepers are losing 42% over the course of the winter. At the recent annual meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers Association where Mike spoke, he asked the assembly:  “Are you satisfied with your bees in the spring? Are they alive or are they dead?”the sustainable apiary

 

Why are they dead?

In some cases its merely the result of starvation; perhaps the beekeeper did not leave enough honey on the hive, or possibly it was a warm fall season that caused the bees to be more active and they ate through all of their stores. Other times dead-outs are the product of the Nosema fungal disease, but these days the majority of winter dead-outs are largely due to varroa and the varroa viral complex associated with severe infestations.

How do you replace the bees?

Swarms, packages, and nucs are the usual methods of restocking dead-out colonies. However swarms are becoming far and few between, package bees are not sustainable─and Mike pointed out that four different studies all found the same result: that 80% of all package bees are dead within a year. He attributes this largely to the fact that the bulk of package bees and their Queens are coming from the south and those bees are not bred for the long harsh winters that northern bees face.

Nucleus colonies are expensive to buy in for bee-replacements, but when Queens are raised locally and overwintered, the results are hives that possess longevity, as well as a more sustainable apiary.

Whose idea was it?

Mike explained how he began keeping bees in 1974 with just 2 packages of bees, took all the honey off and both hives promptly starved to death. He then took a job managing 500 hives for a local orchard. Mike fully admits that he BSed his way into the position and that he got a lot of “on the job training”. In 1986 he bought the orchards’ hives, began renting them for pollination services and then he began loosing colonies to tracheal and varroa mites. He talked about how he began buying packaged bees and nucs to replace his dead-outs, but found it unsustainable for the long-term viability of his apiary.

Then in 1997 Kirk Webster invited Mike to his apiary. When he saw all of Kirk’s nucs sitting there with beards of bees hanging off the front of them Mike said that was all he needed to see, he told Kirk to “Show me more!”

Then Mike wanted to know more about the concept of overwintering nucs and who had first come up with the idea. He began researching the topic and realized that Kirk was copying the work of Brother Adam, the world renown monk and beekeeper. Kirk had read Brother Adams’ books and had modeled his beekeeping methods after the monk’s work, which included wintering Queens.

But Mike was still curious to learn more. In 2012 at the annual conference of the Eastern Apicultural Society, Mike bought a collection of books in the silent auction, and in that collection was a book called “For the Love of Bees”, which was written by a British woman named Leslie Phil who accompanied Brother Adam to Africa on an expedition to find the Monticola honeybee. According to Mike, in her book Leslie Phil gives a little history of Buckfast Abbey, she explained how in the 1530s Henry the 8th had devastated the monastic communities, killing abbots, knocking down all the abbeys and confiscating lands and monies. So in the late 1800s Britain was in the process of rebuilding the abbeys using child labor and Brother Adam was one of those children. Brother Columbin was the head mason at Buckfast Abbey, and also the beekeeper; Columbin to a shine to Brother Adam and taught him to tend the bees.

Through their expedition and talks with the monk, Leslie Phil learned how Brother Columbin had invented a beehive where he could overwinter nucleus colonies and in the spring he could use the excess brood from those overwintered nucleus colonies to boost his production hives.

Setting up your Nucs

Nucleus Colonies
Many beekeepers buy in nucs every spring to replace dead colonies.

This is not a spring split, Mike clarifies. These nucleus colonies are put together in the middle of the main honey flow, between mid-June and mid-July. They’re tiny colonies with a little bit of brood, a little bit of honey and a small amount of pollen, a few nurse bees and workers, and of course the all important Queen.

Mike says the strategy is to sacrifice non-productive hives to makes your nucs for overwintering. These are not sick or diseased hives─they’re healthy bees that have stagnated for whatever reason.

According to Mike, the brood in that hive is the most valuable resource you have in your apiary, and you can make 4 nucs out of just 1 non-productive hive. He recommends dividing the resources up into your 4 nuc boxes and then introducing a laying Queen. He cautions against simply providing a Queen-cell because it is less successful.

Using this method, the production colonies support the nucleus colonies, and the nucleus colonies will in turn support the production colonies.

Managing your Nucs

To establish your own nucleus colonies set them up with 1 to 1.5 frames of brood, a frame of honey, a frame of pollen, and a frame of empty comb. The introduced Queen should begin laying within 10-12 days and will start building up a population. These nuc boxes are small and require a lot of management and dedication, and Mike says the beekeeper needs to watch for swarming and always be ahead of the bees.

Once the nucleus colony has expanded to fill the box, Mike stacks another nuc-box on top of it, building a 2-story double nuc-box. He says you can even super your nucs and let them make honey.

Brood Factories & Bee-Bombs

You can use these full nucs to supply your production hives with fresh comb, a boost in brood, to make Queens, or even to make more nucs. Mike explained how Brother Columbin would harvest brood from his nucs to put into productions hives.

He says if you have a “slow” hive, but you also have 10 nucs, you can take 1-frame of brood from each of your nucleus colonies and put the 10 frames into a box, and then place that box of brood under the brood nest (so it would go on the bottom) of your slow production hive. Then when the brood emerges it will provide a huge boost in population and spur greater honey production.

Mike laughingly calls these “bee-bombs” because the explosion of population that happens is something akin to a bomb going off within the hive.

Cell-builders

What’s more, Mike says you should look at nucleus colonies not just as a means to make increases, but as a Queen with a support-staff. He urges beekeepers to grow their own Queens from stock that’s been overwintered here in the northeast.

By maximizing the number of nurse bees in a hive, beekeepers can maximize the amount of royal jelly each larvae is fed, and you can then graft an egg into a Queen-cup to raise your very own Queens.

You can do it too!

“We all lose bees in the winter, and replacing those dead colonies can be expensive. Expensive in dollars, if we have to go to the package bee and nuc dealers for our new bees, or expensive in bee resources and/or lost honey production if we have to divide our best colonies in the spring.”

Using the available brood and bee resources in our own apiaries, Mike is confident that any beekeeper can raise their own replacement bees and have a more productive and sustainable apiary.

Honeybee nutrition in pollens & nectar

Megan Leech is a masters’ student studying native bees under Frank Drummond at the University of Maine. She’s looking to see if bees are foraging for flowers that offer good nutrition and pointed out that different flower species provide varying levels of nutrients.

The Honeybee Food Pyramid

honeybee food pyramidWith a graphic that resembles a food pyramid, Megan explained that the image represented not what the bees need most in their diet, but how many compounds are in that nutrient source. Pollen, at the base of the pyramid, has more nutrients than nectar. And water─at the top of the pyramid, has no nutrients, because, Megan says, “It’s just water.”

Pollen supplies bees with fats, amino acids, protein and lipids; some studies have even indicated that bees with plenty of pollen have more of a resistance to nosema.

Sugars are the most important part of nectar; providing the bees with energy and fat storage, and allows bees to make honey and produce wax. New research shows that various microbes are essential to the healthy functioning of the honeybee digestive system, and that some probiotics may actually improve digestion. The transfer of enzymes plays an important role in the exchange of honey throughout the hive. Researchers have discovered through various studies, that the presence of good microbes in the honeybee gut may increase their immune response.

Good Nutrition for Healthy Bees

According to Megan, good nutrition is critical to the health and longevity of the colony. Each level of the honeybee population is dependent upon the next; for example, the overall health of the colony is dependent upon a healthy force of worker bees, and that healthy population of bees is dependent upon healthy larvae. Good nutrition means healthy larvae and healthy larvae equals healthy adult bees.

Megan went on to point out that in some very severely malnourished colonies, bees have been known to cannibalize the larvae in order to get the protein the adults need in their diets. And of course, that is not sustainable for the colony.

It’s about quantity vs. quality when it comes to pollen. Research indicates that bees with plenty of diversity in the forage available to them, have an increased resistance to disease; and that with a high protein and high quality diet have more resistance to nosema. Some studies even indicate that with enough diversity in their food, pesticides seem to have less of an effect on the bees.

And so to learn more, Megan is studying honeybees to learn if they are intentionally selecting more nutritious flower sources over those that offer less nutrition. “It’s amazing,” Megan said, “to see how bees have evolved with flowers to pollinate, and how the flowers have evolved specialized nectaries where the bees can access the nectar.”

Keys to successful bee stewardship

keys to succesful bee stewardship

This is the third segment of my coverage of the 2014 Maine State Beekeepers’ Association’s annual conference, and the second post regarding Dewey Caron’s lectures about good bee stewardship . This year Dr. Dewey Caron gave two presentations–you can read about the first entitled “Looking in the Beehive” by clicking here, and be sure to read about Matt Scott’s delivery of “Climate Change and Maine Bees“.

For the second time that day, Dr. Dewey Caron went before the audience of Maine beekeepers, this time to talk about some of the things that beekeepers who are practicing bee-stewardship are doing. Dr. Caron said that “bees can do well on their own, but don’t always know better,” and to emphasize the point he used a picture of a swarm that had built up a series of combs off the underside of a bar-b-que table, exposed and open to the elements and other dangers.

keys to succesful bee stewardshipAccording to Caron, swarms have a 1 in 5 chance of successfully surviving the winter on their own, and as beekeepers we haven’t been able to improve much on that statistic.

Caron recommends that beekeepers participate in the annual survey undertaken by the Bee Informed Partnership in order that we all might learn which management practices prove most effective for survival of honeybee colonies. Beekeepers interested in joining this citizen science project can find more details at www.beeinformed.org.

Understand the floral season

“You ought to know what the plants are that drive the hive,” Caron continued. Beekeepers should have a good grasp on what the typical forage and feeding season looks like in their area; what pollen and nectar sources are available? Those resources are what stimulate the colony to begin building up brood and the colony population, so you should know when to expect that to happen. That basic understanding of the floral season will help you, as a beekeeper, to know when to expect swarming, to know when you’ll need to be adding honey-supers for the honey-flow. It will be an asset to know when to anticipate a dearth in the nectar flow, and when it will begin to diminish altogether for the season so that you can know when to start consolidating the colony and gearing up for the winter.

Successful colonies

So what do successful fall and overwintered colonies look like? According to Dr. Caron they are hives with strong populations—but not so strong that they will burn through all of their honey reserves during the winter dormancy period. These successful colonies have young and vigorous Queens that can provide plenty of healthy, disease-free brood, and they have enough honey and bee-bread stores to last them til spring.

Challenges to successful beekeeping

There are, of course, a number of challenges beekeepers are facing that can sometimes prevent the success of overwintering colonies.

Non-native species – There’s the fact that Apis mellifera is not even native to North America and so is not necessarily adapted to the conditions here.

Varying regional conditions – Environmental conditions vary greatly from one region of the continent to the next—for example, Dr. Caron admits that in Oregon where he and his bees reside, they have just one main nectar flow and do not see the boon of the fall flow that we have here in Maine.

Changes in environment from one year to the next – Every environment has its ups and downs as well—this year was cool and Indian summer has prolonged the foraging season, while last year’s mild winter was followed by a very warm summer. These variations in the seasons are bound to have an affect on the success of our honeybee colonies.

MITES – Let’s not forget the mites. The relationship the varroa mites have with honeybees is not a good one, Caron stated. The health of honeybee colonies has declined since the late 1940s, with an accelerated decline in the ’90s as the populations of varroa increased.

Disappearing bees

For more than a century beekeepers have faced the puzzling phenomena of disappearing bees.

  • In 1891 and 1896 large colonies disappeared or dwindled to tiny clusters with Queens in May, and was referred to as “May disease”. It was suspected that the affliction was the result of a fungus known as Aspergillus flavus which can cause a form of “Stonebrood”.
  • On the Island of Wight in the United Kingdom, between 1905 and 1919—90% of the colonies died, and there was some contention about the root cause of the problem; some believed the die-offs were the result of the acarine disease, others thought it was due to the tracheal mite. Still more beekeepers believed the hive losses were related to colony starvation or Nosema.
  • The incidents of colony deaths go on over the course of the century until you come to the 2001 epidemic of the Parasitic Mite Syndrome and then the 2007 spread of Colony Collapse Disorder.

And we’re still losing hives. According to Dr. Caron and surveys by the Bee Informed Partnership in 2014 beekeepers across the U.S. lost approximately 45.2% of their colonies, and in Maine the number here was 41.2%. Furthermore—I think it’s important to note that according to these surveys—backyard beekeepers lose more hives than commercial beekeepers do.

So what can we do to improve upon those statistics?

Utilize Integrated Pest Management techniques

dr. dewey caron and bee stewardshipDr. Caron suggests beekeepers employ what’s known as “Integrated Pest Management”, or IPM. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization defines IPM as “the careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimize the risks to human health and the environment.”

Basically you’re assessing the problem to determine if the threat level has surpassed a threshold that you regard as the point where action must be taken, and then you would decide what kind of treatment the pest-level warrants.

With an IPM program, beekeepers have a range of tactics available to them in what Caron refers to as their “IPM toolbox” to aid them in the ongoing fight against varroa; from the more preventative cultural and mechanical management techniques, to the interventive softer organic treatments and then the hard chemicals.

Cultural methods include careful selection of the apiary location, induction of locally reared bees and hygienic Queens, along with your choice in cell size. Screened bottom boards, drone brood removal and late-season re-Queening are all physical approaches. Strategies that involve essential oils, powdered sugar, or other repellents fall into the soft or organic category of chemical treatment. Finally the conventional miticides are a beekeeper’s most aggressive course of action, which under the practice of integrated pest management would be reserved for the most serious of mite infestations.

Tough stuff for tough mites

ipm for good bee stewardshipThe Bee Informed Partnership took their survey a step further by asking respondents about the treatments used in their colonies—the results indicate that reporting beekeepers who used Apiguard to treat their colonies for mite infestations only lost approximately 27% of their hives compared to beekeepers who used nothing who lost 37% of hives, and beekeepers who used some other kind of product and lost about 35% of their beehives.

Dr. Caron says “Mites are tough guys and we gotta use tough stuff” to have an affect on them and reduce the numbers of hives lost annually.

Looking in the beehive with Dr. Dewey Caron

dr. dewey caron at msba

Well it’s been 2 weeks today since I went to the annual meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers’. It’s taken me that long to get all of the different bits and pieces, lectures and presentations written about in full detail. For the last 3 years I’ve provided the written coverage of the day for the MSBA’s bi-monthly publication “The Bee-Line”, which goes out to all of the registered members of the organization, and so what you read below is essentially what will be published in that journal as well. I feel it’s important to share these informative lectures with beekeepers who are not able to attend the annual meeting. Often these kinds of conferences are host to big names in the industry, men and women who have played a key role in beekeeping–and Dr. Dewey Caron is definitely one of the greats in beekeeping.

Who is Dr. Dewey Caron?

dr. dewey caron at msba
Dr. Dewey Caron with the Maine State Beekeepers’ at the 2014 annual conference.

A graduate of Cornell University and an emeritus professor for the University of Delaware, Caron has some 43 years experience teaching about bees, has served in various capacities at the Eastern Apicultural Society, and is currently the Vice President of the Oregon State Beekeepers’ Association. Caron is also the author of numerous beekeeping-related books, including “Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping”. These are just a select few of Dr. Caron’s contributions to the world of beekeeping. His was a 2-part lecture on “Good Bee Stewardship” –a topic that I was eager to learn more about. This first presentation was entitled “Looking in the Beehive”.

Objectives in beekeeping

As you would expect of a man who has a lifetime of experience educating people about bees, Caron was an engaging speaker. He talked first about our individual reasons for keeping bees. Perhaps you are part of the growing numbers of new beekeepers who have heard of their plight, and wanted to do your part to “save the bees”. Maybe the bees found you—maybe a swarm congregated in your backyard, or it could be that your “Pappy” (as Caron called him) kept bees and it inspired you to follow in his footsteps. Or were you trying to supplement your income?

For me, personally, bees were almost an afterthought—I am an avid gardener, aspiring to live an increasingly self-sufficient lifestyle and reducing my impact on the Earth. I mentioned in passing to an old friend of the family—a 35 year beekeeping veteran—that I was considering incorporating bees into my homestead for the benefit of pollination. Less than 2 weeks later she showed up unexpectedly with the equipment for my first beehive and I was lost. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be here today—devoted beekeeper and zealous pollinator conservationist—I’d have thought you were joking. But the bees spoke to me (surprisingly enough), and so now I speak for them.

But I digress—Dr. Caron went on to say to the assemblage that the person sitting next to each of us probably has different objectives in his or her beekeeping. Your priority may be maximizing yields, where the next beekeeper may be all about minimizing in-puts. “There is no one-size fits all approach,” Caron said.

Communicating with the bees

Dr. Caron said: “Beekeeping is all about communication.”

He went on to say that “the bees may be try to say something to you, or you may be trying to say something to them. You may have added a super and you expect them to fill it up, but did you tell them? Or did they tell you?” We need very close beekeeper to bee communication, and different bees use different dialogues; and like any other relationship–communication requires constant work.

Approaches to hive management

According to Dr. Caron there are 3 basic approaches to hive management: exterior, intermediate, and interventive.

The exterior approach is a more hands-off method, perhaps this beekeeper has a non-Langstroth type hive such as a top-bar beehive. He or she may consider themselves something of a “bee-hoster”, allowing the bees to do as they will, maybe hefting the hive to gauge the amount of honey the bees have stored and observing the bees coming and going from the entrance to determine the health of the colony.

Comparatively the intermediate beekeeper is looking in the top box and between the boxes, inspecting the hive to decipher the bees’ messages, while the interventive beekeeper is actually removing and inspecting frames, manipulating them and managing the colony. The level of communication from one level to the next varies, as do the benefits and downsides—which include more disruption and interruption for the colony, and more stings for us.

Minimizing disruption to the hive

Next Dr. Caron talked about how to manipulate colonies, and how to find a balance between the benefits of hive inspections and the disruption they cause. Firstly he suggests using a smoker—siting that often it can take longer to get the smoker going properly than it takes to do what you need to with the hive, but that it’s worth the effort—both for the bees’ benefit, and yours. Consider the weather; is it cold or windy? Too early or late in the day?

Are you properly dressed for the occasion? Caron says that beekeepers should dress to a comfort level that allows them to be able to focus on good bee-to-beekeeper communication, rather than having to worry about being stung, which is a huge distraction. Begin with the second frame in and be sure to hold frames securely over the open hive—so that any of the younger workers who fall off will fall back into the hive and not be lost.

Beekeeping with intention

“Do you have a reason to inspect today?” Caron went on. The spring and fall are typically the times of year when basic inspections are performed; but at other times throughout the season beekeepers might go through a hive with the intention of controlling swarming. You might open the hive to add a honey super, or to harvest the honey. Perhaps you’re performing a mite test or installing some kind of treatment for varroa. Or maybe you’re gearing the colony up for winter.

What to look for:

Whenever you’re doing a hive inspection beekeepers should be looking at the frames for 4 things: brood, food, health, and equipment. Is the brood healthy looking? What about the sealed brood? It’s a bad sign if those cappings look sunken or greasy-looking. Also, keeping in mind that frame-reading will vary from season to season–is the brood pattern okay?

Interestingly enough, Dr. Caron showed the audience a slide of a frame with a questionable brood pattern—it wasn’t so spotty that you would say the colony had a bad Queen, but just enough to make you worry. We learned that that frame came from a hive with a hygienic Queen, and that the nurse bees had torn the cappings off brood where mites were breeding in an effort to interrupt the breeding cycle of the varroa.

Beekeepers should be looking for signs that the colony is Queen-right when reading frames. Looking for eggs less than 3 days old can save a lot of time and reduce the disruption to the colony. Caron said, “you don’t need to see the Queen unless you need to do something with her.”

But what if there are no eggs present? Then beekeepers should consider the possibilities—it could be that there is no Queen. There may be a new virgin Queen, or a newly mated Queen who is not laying eggs yet. Be sure to look at more than one frame before determining that your colony is Queenless, and also consider the season or the environmental conditions that may be affecting the hive—for example, at the end of the season or in drought conditions the pollen and nectar resources may no longer be available to stimulate brood-rearing in the hive.

Dr. Caron went on to say that you should be able to do a colony reading in 3 frames—the second, third, and fourth frames are usually enough to determine if you have a viable laying Queen, enough food, and that the bees are healthy. And being able to read the colony in just 3 frames minimizes the disruption to the hive.

Practicing good bee stewardship

I want to be a good bee steward. And I like the concept of “minimizing the disruption to the hive” –hive inspections are pretty invasive events for a colony; I mean, how would we feel if someone came along and ripped the roof off of our home and began pulling out the furniture and rearranging things? We’d probably want to sting them too!

When I first got into beekeeping I was obsessed (okay–truthfully, my first year I was just afraid–but after that….), I wanted to be in the beehive every week, poking them and playing with them–I wanted to make sure everything was going well with the colony. But there’s a certain amount of aftermath–bees get crushed or lost in the process… This year, with everything going on here at Runamuk with our farm expansion I was more hands-off with the bees, and as a result I missed that window of opportunity to treat for mites–which meant I had to sacrifice my honey crop or lose the colonies.

After listening to Dr. Caron I know that there’s a middle-ground there–you can be more involved with your hives and do so in a way that doesn’t cause such chaos and devastation to the bees. And that’s what we need to strive for as beekeepers.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Dr. Caron’s presentation, as well as the lectures from the other speakers at the 2014 meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers!

Getting ready for the state beekeepers’ conference

msba annual convention

You’d think I’d be over it by now–all the excitement I feel over the Maine State Beekeepers’ Association’s annual conference.  Like a kid at Christmas I wait all year for the day to arrive when I can make the pilgrimage to the meeting location. And in the vast state of Maine where cities and towns are spread far apart, separated by miles and miles of wilderness, rolling farm-lands, and winding rivers–it is indeed something of a pilgrimage. From my remote home in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, I go to pay homage to my craft–to the bees–the bees who have chosen me to work with them, to guide them through these perilous times as a bee. I go with joy and love in my heart. And I am–ECSTATIC.

My last two trips to the convention have taken me to the great city of Portland, which lies along the coast at the very southern tip of our state. It takes me a good two hours to make that trip. This year however, the Penobscot County chapter has stepped up to host the event–that in itself is a bit of a controversy among beekeepers across the state.  Since most of our state’s population resides in the southern part of the state, more of Maine’s beekeepers are also in the southern part of the state. However we still have many fine beekeepers in the western, central, and northern parts of Maine, some can make the trip south to attend the annual conference–like myself, who make the commitment to go wherever it is held–but for others, the distance cannot be justified. This meeting is for them, and I hope that those beekeepers come out in droves to attend, to unite in solidarity for beekeepers in the rest of the state. For me the trip is still an hour and a half from home.

By all rights, I don’t have the time or funds to attend this year. But I don’t go far from my family, I’m dedicated to their well-being and I work hard on the farm. I feel also a sense of obligation–obligation to my craft and to the bees, as I previously mentioned, but also obligation as President of the Somerset County chapter of Maine State Beekeepers–to represent our local beekeepers. Sure–the convention is a once-a-year treat for me, but it is also a responsibility that I take seriously.

So today I am making preparations for my pilgrimage. I will prepare my family for my twelve-hour absence–prepping stew for meals, gathering my supplies for the journey, and making sure I have packed my notebook, pens and camera with fresh batteries. I’m a compulsive note-taker, and I will be writing about the day not only for this blog, but also for the MSBA’s bi-monthly publication “The Bee-Line” (this will also be my third time covering the event for the journal). I’m borrowing a car, since it is less than ideal to drive the gas-guzzling Runamuk-truck all the way to Bangor and the Hamton Inn–it’s good thing my in-laws love me! They’ve let me use their car the last two years.

I’m anxious and excited, and I can’t wait for what tomorrow will bring! Stay tuned for all the details!

Preparing your beehives for winter

As the rush of spring and early summer wanes, the beekeepers’ attention turns toward the up-coming cold months.  Getting your honeybee colonies through the winter–especially one such as those we experience here in Maine–is perhaps the second most challenging thing a beekeeper will face (the first being coping with varroa mites).  Wintering beehives is very largely dependent on your location, since beekeepers in the northern hemisphere will face different challenges than those in the south.  Preparations begin in the beginning of August, with the first blush of the goldenrod bloom, and involves supering for the fall honey flow, re-Queening, medicating and treating for mites, and winterizing hives.preparing your beehives for winter

Note: Bees do not hibernate.  They are active inside their hives, maintaining a temperature of about 96-degrees at the middle of their football-shaped cluster all winter, and they will even emerge from their hives on occasion to take cleansing flights.

Plan ahead

In our region, preparations for winter begin with careful forethought into the planning of the apiary location–beekeepers site their hives so that they are on dry ground, first and foremost.  We will face them south, in a spot where they have plenty of exposure to the sun, and–if possible–we will locate them with some kind of buffer at their backs.  A barn, garage, hedge, or stand of trees, all serve to protect the hives from gusting winds.

Assess the level of mite infestation

I can’t speak for other regions, but here in central Maine, once the spring honey crop has been taken and extracted, we experience a “derth”–or a lull–in the nectar flow.  How long this derth last will vary from one area to another, and even from one year to another, but generally it’s a good 3 weeks before the fall plants will go into bloom and begin producing nectar for the bees to collect.  This is an ideal time to perform mite-tests on hives, to determine if treatments are needed.  For more about mite-tests–the various methods, how to do it, and what to look for–check out this article I’ve written about the subject.

Re-Queen if necessary

re-queening for winter
Whenever I chance to spot the Queen in one of my hives, the song “Isn’t she lovely?” runs through my head. Can you spot the Queen in this picture???

Assess the Queens of each of your hives.  Remember that your Queens are now laying the eggs for the bees that will carry the colony through the winter; large populations of young bees that will live 5-6 mos are vital for overwintering colonies.  And strong colonies with young Queens are crucial.  If your Queen is older, failing, or in any way unsatisfactory, fall re-Queening should be done during the goldenrod and aster flow.

Note: It will vary depending on your location, the Queen will cease laying as the days grow shorter, and the temperatures become increasingly colder.  When the days begin to grow longer and warmer again, brood production will begin again.

Combine weak colonies

If you have a hive that has struggled all season–struggled to build up it’s population, made little to no honey, and has posed one problem after another all summer–this hive is a good candidate for combining with another hive.  These weak colonies are very difficult to get through the winter, so take winter losses on your own terms, and combine the hive with a stronger hive (never combine two weak colonies!).  Determine which Queen is better, squish the other, and use the newspaper method to combine the two different colonies.

When you make the decision to combine a weaker colony with a strong one, do so as soon as possible; the two colonies will need time to acclimate before their long winter incarceration together.

Optimize the hive

This is a frame of pollen, which is crucial for brood production.how to prepare beehives for winter.
This is a frame of pollen, which is crucial for brood production.how to prepare beehives for winter.

It’s at this point in the season that beekeepers in this region will begin “pushing the bees down”.  During the winter, the location of the colony’s food stores is crucial to their survival; because honeybees have a natural tendency to move upwards through the hive, eating their stores, the majority of their honey should be located above the cluster.  So whenever we get into the hives, we will take any empty frames from the lowermost brood box and replace it with a frame of brood from the second-story brood box.  The empty frames are placed in the second-story brood box for the bees to fill with honey.

Ideally what you want to have is a bottom box with 4-6 frames of brood (depending on whether you are using an 8 or 10-frame hive set-up) in the center, a frame of pollen on either side of the brood nest, and on either side of that–along the walls–frames of honey.  In the upper box you should have an empty frame in the center, a frame of brood if you have any remaining frames, pollen on either side, and then more honey on either side of those.

How much honey do the bees need?

Here in Maine the rule of thumb is to ensure that your bees have about 65-70 pounds of stored honey for the winter.  That translates into about 13-14 frames of honey.  And because pollen is essential for brood rearing, 3-4 frames of pollen is also recommended.

Quality of winter food

how much honey should i leave on my beehives for winter
Native bumble bee on New York Asters, one of the season’s final nectar sources.

It’s not enough, however, that the bees are simply filling those frames with nectar, or to feed your girls into October because you made the mistake of taking too much honey from the hive.  Unripe honey–nectar that the bees have not been able to evaporate all the water from to finish off as honey and then cap with wax–can cause dysentery within the hive.  Bees need the lingering warm days to process the nectar, or sugar-syrup.  That is also why at this time of the year, if we make the choice to feed the bees sugar-syrup, we do so at a 2 to 1 ratio (2 parts sugar to 1 part water).

If they do not have enough stores by the time the weather turns cold, they’ve got what they’ve got, and the only thing you can do is to make sure the colony has candy or dry sugar, and hope they make it through.

Remove extra equipment

Take your honey supers off after the first killing frost.  Some plants–such as the purple New York Asters, Japanese Knotweed (aka “bamboo”), and Sumac–will continue to produce nectar that the bees will gather, but we leave this for them to store for themselves.  Extract and bottle your honey, then go back to your hives and remove any extra equipment, including any partially drawn frames–if the bees have not built up the comb by now they are unlikely to do so at this late stage in the season.

If they are still bringing in nectar and finishing honey, you can leave frames of partially capped honey, but take care to go back and check to see that they finished capping the honey properly.  Bees cannot cluster on uncapped honey, and again, unfinished honey can cause dysentery.  Better to remove the unfinished frames completely once the season is over.

Note: If you have a 10-frame hive, but your bees have filled 10-frames in the bottom box, and only 8 in the upper box–it is better to leave empty space than to have empty frames in the hive.  The reason being that the bees will not cross an empty frame in the winter, and may get stuck on the wrong side of the hive, with no access to food, which will result in starvation and death of the colony.

Medications & end-of-season mite-treatments

medications & mite-treatments in preparation for winter
The alcohol wash is one of the most accurate methods for discerning the level of mite infestation inside your hives.

This is the time of year to treat for American Foulbrood, Nosema Ceranae, and for the Varroa mites.  For AFB, beekeepers generally apply an antibiotic in powdered form, whereas Fumagilin-B is the only drug known to be effective in preventing the Nosema disease, and is administered via your sugar-syrup feedings (again, using the 2 to 1 ratio).

As for the mites, I strongly urge beekeepers to perform mite-tests to assess the level of infestation before treating.  Do not assume that because you are in a secluded area your bees will be safe, or that because you treated in the summer, you will be set for the winter.  Test to find out what’s going on inside your hive.  If you are so lucky as to have a low-level of infestation, you may be able to skip the treatment this time around.

Winterizing hives

The amount of protection your hive requires is going to depend largely on your regional climate, and also on your own personal philosophies, but during the winter hives need protection to some degree from mice, excess moisture & CO2, and wind.

mousegards for winter beehive prepKeeping rodents out: Mice love to spend their winters inside a beehive, snug and warm, with a plentiful food source readily available, and they can do a lot of damage.  To keep the rodents out, you can purchase mouse-guards to put onto the entrances of your hives.  Personally, I use half-inch wire-mesh, which I staple right over the entrances and entrance reducers.  Some beekeepers say half-inch is too big, and they prefer three-eighths of an inch, but I have not had trouble with mice getting through the half-inch stuff, so I will continue to use it until I run into problems.

Whatever you choose to use, do it early in the fall when rodents are beginning to look for nests and dens for the winter, and be sure to check for mice inside the hives before you put the mouse-guards on!  No need to pull the entire hive apart to check; if you can get a second person to assist you, you can tip up the brood boxes away from the bottom board (not as easy as it sounds, by the way!) so that your accomplice can look under for signs of a mouse nest.

Inner cover adjustment: Many northern beekeepers are now using the wintering inner covers, created by Maine’s very own Lincoln Sennet of Swan’s Apiary in Albion.  These inner covers are deeper than the traditional inner covers, which allows for feeding candy during the winter. Lincoln’s design also boasts an opening for an upper entrance, increasing the opportunity for ventilation–both of CO2 gases, and of excess moisture.  An upper entrance is a great advantage in areas where heavy snowfall often blocks the lower entrance, preventing the bees from taking cleansing flights.

Absorbing excess moisture & allowing for ventilation: Old school beekeepers used an extra box filled with wood shavings to absorb excess moisture created by the accumulation of condensation inside the hives.  Today, many beekeepers are using “homasote board”, available a most building-supply stores; homasote board is made from recycled cardboard and is reusable for a number of years.  You can purchase ready-made homasote boards for your hives, or do-it-yourself.  Simply dado a groove in the board to run from the center of the opening in the inner cover, to the entrance so the bees can take their cleansing flights, and place between the inner cover and the telescoping cover.  In my area, a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of homasote board costs roughly $25, and can be cut on a table saw to make a number of pieces for your hives.

Wrapping hives: Here in Maine, the majority of beekeepers wrap their hives in tar paper; yet Ross Conrad of Vermont (who wrote Natural Beekeeping), prefers to leave his hives au naturale.  Also, recent studies have indicated that hives painted in darker colors–forest green, plum purple, etc.–maintain warmer colonies than the traditionally painted white hives; warmer even than the wrapped hives, since the wrapping creates a barrier of air between the hive and the paper, which must be warmed first before penetrating the hive structure.

prepping beehives for winter
I use hefty rocks to weight down my hive-covers–they’re readily accessible, and FREE!

Weight down the top-cover: Many beekeepers use a heavy rock, or a cement block to prevent the telescoping cover from being blown off by forceful winds during winter blizzards, while others prefer to strap the entire hive using a ratcheting strap–more pricey, but if your hive were to become unsettled for whatever reason, and tipped over–your bees may be jarred and on their side, but the colony would not be exposed to the elements and die, they would very likely survive because the hive would have been held together by the straps.

Wind-buffer: If you weren’t able to site your apiary with some kind of natural buffer at it’s back, you can create one by stacking hay bales or cement blocks.  Some beekeepers put a section of fencing up behind their apiary to offer their hives protection from the wind.

The rest is up to nature

Properly preparing your hives for winter is one of the most important things you can do to ensure the survival of your colonies.  If you’ve done everything you can to safeguard their health and vitality, performing mite-tests and treatments as needed, taking care to organize the frames within the hive, and providing adequate food stores–then you’ve done all you can, and the rest is up to nature.  Take a deep breath, and hope for the best; go play with some beeswax while drinking tea with honey, and wait out the long cold months til spring once again reunites you with your bees.

Bee days

swan's apiary & beekeeping supply

The last few days have been bee-days for me here at Runamuk. I’ve been more hands-off with the bees this year, which is odd for me, but good for the bees I think. However when I began to see bees crawling down the driveway with shriveled and deformed wings, I knew something was wrong in my hives.  Saturday I needed to pull at least one hive apart in order to put frames in the observation hive to take to the Madison Farmers’ Market’s second annual “Family Farm Day”, so that seemed like a good time to do mite tests on the hives.

I wrote an informative article about “How and why to do mite-tests in your apiary” last year, and I’m not going to rehash it here.  If you are a new beekeeper, or even a beekeeper with a couple of years under your belt, and you haven’t kept up with mite-testing, please click on the link above, and read the post for details about why mite-testing is so crucial, and to learn several methods you can choose from to do your own mite-testing.

Here at Runamuk, we want to be treatment free in the worst way–like Kirk Webster of Vermont, who spoke at last year’s Maine State Beekeepers’ annual conference (read about that here)–we’ve even ordered a number of Kirk’s hygienic Queens for next year.  But studies done by the University of Maine have proven that hives left untreated will die within 2-3 years, and after this last winter when I lost 7 hives to a combination of mites and bitter cold, when I see sickly bees parading down the driveway away from the hives, I know that I need to take action–else I might not have hives to put Kirk’s Queen’s into next year!

Saturday I spent a good 3 hours going through the hives, taking samples and performing alcohol washes on them (my preferred method for assessing the level of the mite populations in my hives).  I tested 3 of the 4 hives here at Runamuk, and came up with counts of 32, 11, and and whopping 90–ouch!

The tolerable level of mites in a hive is going to be different for every beekeeper, depending on his or her methodologies and principles.  My own threshold is 8 mites in a sample of 300 bees.  I had expected after the brutal winter the hives had endured, reducing the numbers of bees in the majority of the colonies, and after swarming–that the mite levels would have been more reasonable.  Hive number 4–the bearer of the 90-mite sample–I had fully anticipated would have a high mite count–as that hive was the only one to come out of the winter strong, and has been roaring all season.  And as predicted, when I looked over the frames of bees and brood–I saw a number of workers with shriveled wings–a virus known as the Deformed Wing Virus.  Not good.

I’m ashamed that I didn’t get into the hives a few weeks ago after I pulled the spring honey off.  That would have been an ideal time to treat, as we typically have a nectar derth (a lull in the season’s nectar flow between the spring and fall).  Now my bees are just beginning to bring in the fall honey and I need to do something about the mites.

I console myself to some degree, knowing that I’ve been out straight with everything happening here at the farm this year, but it does not do much to ease my wounded pride.  Now I’ve lost 7 of my hives, and the remaining few are over-loaded with mites.  Sigh.

On Sunday, with the observation hive at market, I passed out small cups of vanilla ice cream with a teaspoon of honey drizzled over it, and contemplated my options, and the fact that hive #2 had supercedure cells on their frames.

Doing nothing was not an option–because, I knew, with mite-levels such as these, I would be likely have no hives left next spring.  By the end of the day, I had resigned myself to making the trip to Swan’s in Albion to purchase some kind of treatment.

If I must treat, I prefer to use the softer, organic treatments–which are derived from substances found in nature.  HOP-guard is new in the last couple of years, which offers a couple of benefits: 1) the mites have not yet built up a resistance to the substance, and 2) it’s less expensive than some of the better established treatments.  And just as the name implies–HOP-guard is made from our favorite beer-brewing herb: hops.

swan's apiary & beekeeping supply
Swan’s apiary and beekeeping supply store is located practically in the middle of no where–surrounded by fields and forests, which suits their bees just fine!

Yesterday morning I left early to make the hour-drive to Albion–two-hours round trip.  Once you get out of Fairfield, heading through Benton and towards Albion, there’s a lot of beautiful farmlands, so it’s a nice drive–tunes cranking, kids at home with Keith, I fully enjoyed myself.

For $36, I retrieved the silver foil package that contained 50 cardboard strips soaked in the rank hop-ooze, and came home to get to work.

Once I had the hives apart, I found not only supercedure cells in hive number 2, but also several swarm cells.  I hesitated only a moment, considering the possibilities and their consequences, and then sprang into action–collecting more equipment: bottom boards, inner and top covers, and brood boxes.

Hive #4 is so big, has so many resources, and has such a high infestation of mites, that it seemed to me that breaking up the colony in addition to treating the hive would give the bees a better chance of survival.  So that is exactly what I did–I broke the massive colony up into 3 different hives.  One retained the original Queen, and the other two each received a frame from hive number 2 bearing capped Queen cells.  I was able to fill 3 deep brood boxes, and half of the second with the frames of brood, honey, and pollen from hive #4–which makes my risky maneuver plausible.

Note: When you transfer frames from one hive to another, you need to be careful not to unintentionally transfer the Queen with it.

Since hive #2 has been building supercedure cells, that tells me the bees in that colony are not satisfied with their existing Queen; it could be that she is getting old, causing her pheromone levels and egg production to drop.  So I made sure to leave a few supercedure cells in that hive.

That’s the beauty of honeybee hives.  When they decide to re-Queen themselves, or that they want to swarm–they’ll raise a number of new Queens, and you can take those Queen-cells and build new colonies with them.  As long as you provide the right ingredients, they’re generally a successful start to new hives.  You can learn more about making splits and nucs here.

Beekeepers would generally make their hive splits in the spring and early summer; making them as I have, at the end of August is a risky maneuver.  These new colonies need to build up their population to an acceptable level, and store enough food for them to subsist throughout our long Maine winter.  In each of these 3 splits I was able to fill the bottom boxes with brood in all stages, and in 2 of the splits I was also able to add a second box, with another frames of brood, pollen and honey, and a couple of empty frames for them to fill, and I’ll add more empty comb from my stash in the up-coming week.

While beekeepers in the southern part of the state, and even beekeepers down in the valley, are well underway with their fall nectar-flow–at our altitude, ours is just beginning.  Even so, I will be feeding these 3 colonies sugar-syrup to spur on brood production in a major way.

In farming, timing is crucial.  If you procrastinate you can miss those opportunities to plant, or to harvest at the peak of readiness.  And the same applies to beekeeping.  If you procrastinate, or don’t make time to perform those necessary tasks such as mite-testing, there are consequences.

For me–because I missed that window of opportunity to test and treat my hives for mites–I am risking my fall honey crop.  I will probably be able to save the bees, and the bees may make honey while they are being treated–but I won’t harvest that honey for human consumption.  There’s a chance that I may get some honey once the treatments are finished, but it’s a slim chance.  That is the price I pay for missing that window of opportunity–but it is a price I will gladly pay if it means I can keep my bees alive through the winter.

On the other hand–my timing in making these splits may be just right.  Everything may line up perfectly, and instead of 5 sickly hives, I may go into winter with 7 healthy hives with an extra honey super each, which can’t hurt either.

Time will tell.

Open-Hive for Summer Solstice

beekeepers' open hive

beekeepers' open hiveIt wasn’t the way I had intended to celebrate the summer solstice, but because last Saturday was raining and wet, the Open-Hive Event (OHE) that Runamuk was hosting for the Somerset Beekeepers was postponed til the 21st–which just happened to be the longest day of the year–the Summer Solstice.

Most farmers, I think–are particularly attuned to nature–seeing as we are working so closely with nature and the land that we serve. But I have a special affinity for nature and this Earth–it is my religion, my passion, my heart. Our family celebrates the seasonal solstices and the equinoxes, we find joy in a rain-shower, the first snow-storm, squishy mud, and glorious trees.

This was the first event we’ve hosted here at Runamuk’s new location, and I was anxious about having people here because at the moment, our farm does not measure up to the mental image that most people have of what a farm should look like. When I look around I see all of the work we have yet to get done–the distance between where we are right now, and where I want Runamuk to end up.

There were eight of us all together, with my two boys running amuck (Keith worked the overnight shift the night before, and was sleeping in preparation for another up-coming shift off the farm that afternoon).  We donned our gear and went through the 4 hives currently situated at the Runamuk apiary.

runamuk apiaryWe lost 7 of our 12 hives this winter–it’s hard to say exactly why, but I believe it was a combination of factors.  The fact that I am working toward going treatment free, resulted in at least a couple of the hives bearing high mite-loads.  A couple of the hives were on the weaker side–they had plenty of food, but fewer numbers of bees.  And I believe the severity of the winter played some hand in the loss of my hives.  The hives all had plenty of food–in fact in most cases, they had frames of honey on either side of the cluster.  But during those prolonged stretches of Arctic cold that we all endured, the bees wouldn’t break the cluster to go get food–it was just too cold, and it carried on for weeks at a time without a break.

runamuk hiveThe hives that survived the winter were the strongest of the lot, though most of them were still very weak as we made our way through the spring.  I’ve focused all my attention on building their populations back up, even resorting to feeding the bees sugar-syrup, which I have avoided doing in the past.  And on Saturday I was happy to see that all of the hives have built up to an acceptable level–with one hive just booming, and already making honey.

I had hoped to see some swarm cells that I might make some nucs with to start new colonies, which would allow me to recoup some of my winter losses, and in the process teach some of the newer beekeepers the process, but we found none.  That’s a small disappointment, but the fact that these hives have recovered from the winter and are looking healthy, with good Queens, making lots of baby bees and ready to make honey–is a great consolation to me.

The Open-Hive was the first that our small beekeepers’ club has been able to hold in the 4 years we’ve been gathering and meeting.  Up until this point we hadn’t had anyone who wanted to host the event, which is something of a ritual for beekeepers’ groups.  I would have loved to host an OPE, but at our location in-town it was impractical, as my tiny apiary was situated almost on top of the property line, and the neighbor’s house was just yards from the hives–not conducive to beekeeping–let alone beekeeper education.  But now that we have moved our apiary outside of town, I felt it was time for the Somerset Beekeepers to finally have an OPE.

It went well, the new beekeepers got to go through a hive with some of the more experienced beekeepers, see the brood in all stages, learn to distinguish between honey and pollen in the comb, tell the difference between capped brood and capped honey, and we even saw 2 of the 4 Queens.

somerset beekeepers open hiveOPEs are typically followed by a shared meal, and we did a pot-luck bar-b-que luncheon.  It was simple fare, low-key and low-stress; I served hot dogs and burgers on the propane grill I borrowed from my father for the occasion (we do own a charcoal bar-b-que grill that we typically start a small fire in to cook hot dogs on a stick over the flames–they kids love it, and it’s quick and easy after a say laboring on the farm), there was pasta salad to share, cheeses and crackers with pepperoni and salami, and delicious brownies our group treasurer had brought for desert.

open hive pot luckMy beekeepers only had good things to say about the farm, which was a huge relief to me–everyone thought my garden was beautiful (and weed-free!–though I can see a few, the mulching that I have done has kept the weeds down considerably).  They toured the hoop-house, scoped out the chickens and the goats, and they remarked at the amount of work that we’ve accomplished so far, understanding how hard it is, and journey we have embarked upon.

After the Somerset Beekeepers had dispersed and I had gotten Keith off to work, I spent the rest of the afternoon weeding and planting in the garden, enjoying the sun.  And the two boys and I finished off the solstice by catching and watching fireflies in the gathering darkness, the night-sounds of the forest abounding around us.

So, while it was not how I’d intended to spend the Summer Solstice, it was very fitting.  Working with the honeybees–creatures of the sun; one of 20,000 varieties of insects on Earth that pollinate plants (and the only ones that I get to play with!), giving life and diversity to the world.  Tending my garden, cultivating the soil, propagating the plants that convert sunlight into food to feed themselves, which will in turn feed my community and my family is a precious gift–one given to me, and one that I give to others.  And on this Solstice, I was grateful just to be able to be here, on this land, doing the things that fill my life with purpose.

Happy planting!

Spring hive management

Hooray for spring!  Let beekeepers everywhere rejoice!  The sun is shining, and the trees are beginning to bud, it’s warming up and the bees are flying again!

spring beehive managementHow did your bees fare during the long cold winter?  With diligence, and perhaps a little bit of luck–your hives came through the winter, and if you’re anything like me–the long winter months when there is little a beekeeper can do for his or her honeybee colonies are a seemingly endless trial in patience.

When the snow finally melts away, and those warm, sunny days of spring arrive–it can be difficult to resist the urge to get out there and do something with the bees.  However, there are still a number of cool, rainy and unpleasant days to come–when little is available in the way of nectar.  So, with the exception of feeding your bees–do not rush the season.  You will know it’s time to begin your spring beekeeping chores when the dandelions begin to bloom.

Spring beekeeping chores

Before the dandelion bloom

When it’s still to cool to do much with your girls, there are still a few things you can do for your honeybee colonies to gear up for the season ahead.

spring beekeeping chores
Remove mouseguards, hive wrappings, and insulation or moisture absorption materials.

Remove winter garb: This is a good time to take off any winter wrapping, packing and insulation, remove mouse guards and place your entrance reducers on the hives.  To ensure gusty spring breezes don’t chill the brood keep entrances on the hives small.  Rather than the commercial entrances, I simply use a wooden post that I cut to length-leaving half and inch to an inch open on either side of the bottom entrance.  By keeping that entrance reducer centered, I provide better protection for the brood nest, which is typically situated on the center frames inside the hive.

Look for cluster location: Knowing where your bees are clustered inside the hive will help you determine whether or not they have enough remaining food stores, and if you need to feed them to help them make it through to the nectar bloom.  When you open the hive, if the cluster is located deep inside the hive boxes and they still have frames of honey above them–then you can stave off feeding the bees for a while longer.  However if they are right there at the top of the hive when you take off the inner cover–it is likely that they have eaten through their stores, and could face starvation if food is not made available to them.

Feed if necessary: If, in fact, your colony is short on honey stores, to prevent the bees from starving you can feed them sugar.  Perhaps you used a candy board during the winter?  At this time of year, you can use sugar-syrup at a 1:1 ratio (one part sugar for every one part water) and feed it to the bees is a boardman feeder.  You should be aware though, that even with food available at the entrance of the hive–when it is cold or wet, the bees will not leave the cluster to go get the food you’ve provided to them in a boardman feeder.  For this reason, many beekeepers make the food available to the colony by placing it directly above the cluster–some use a plastic tray feeder, others a plastic frame insert–personally, I just take the mason jar and the perforated lid from my boardman feeder and place it inverted over the hole in my innercovers.  I place a third (empty)hive body on top of the inner cover, to protect the sugar syrup and the bees, and place the telescoping top cover on top of it all.  This works fine if you have just a couple of hives, or a handful of them–as I do.  Many large scale beekeepers use large pail feeders to save themselves having to make repeated trips to their apiaries to refill feeders on their hundreds of hives.

When the dandelions bloom

Once it’s warm enough for the dandelions to bloom, it’s warm enough to really dig into your hives.

Perform a full hive inspection – Assess the quality of the Queen–how old is she?  Is she laying a uniform pattern?  Is there a proper balance of eggs, larvae, and pupae?  Is the worker to drone population in proportion?  Look for bees occupying 12-15 frames, with brood in 6-10 of them (not every frame will be completely full–since the brood nest is spherical).  Do they have at least 20 pounds of honey (the equivalent of 4 deep frames full), and at least 2-3 frames of pollen?

  • managing beehives in the spring
    The alcohol-wash is one of the most effective methods for assessing mite infestation levels in your hives.

    Test for mites – This is something that I strongly urge beekeepers to do.  In the fight against the Varroa “destructor”, and to maintain healthy hives, it is crucially important to know what the level of infestation is inside your hive.  Take a sample–there are a variety of methods (ie-alcohol wash, ether roll, powdered sugar roll. drone sampling, etc.)–count the mites, and then determine if that number is within your threshold tolerance.  If the number exceeds your tolerance level–this is a good time of year to treat your hives, or to take some other form of action to decrease the mite loads in your hives.

  • Rotate boxes and manipulate frames – Because the colony will have moved up through the hive during the winter, they may be situated in the upper hive body–leaving the lower one largely empty.  When this happens, beekeepers often rotate the hive bodies, placing the colony back on the bottom, and situating the empty box above the nest, providing them plenty of space to rear more brood and store more honey.
  • Spring cleaning – Scrape away burr comb, propolis build-up on frames or boxes, scrape your bottom boards, and clean the tray on your screened bottom board if you use one.  This is a good time to remove combs that are 5 years old or more and replace them with new foundation or empty frames for your girls to build new combs in.  Remove any broken equipment (frames, boxes, etc.).

 Go forth and keep bees!

It’s a glorious feeling, standing in the golden sunshine and peeking into a hive of busy buzzing honeybees–but pulling frames apart before the weather is right can result in chilled brood, which can cause larvae mortality.  It’s really crucial to not rush the season–wait for the dandelion bloom before digging into the hive too much.  And then, once that sea of yellow blossoms has spread across your lawn or your neighbors’ lawn–give yourself free reign to get those spring beekeeping chores accomplished.  Revel in the sunshine, and enjoy your bees!

Did I miss anything?  Feel free to share by leaving a comment below!

Winter beekeeping: Checking your hives

Checking hives in winterWhat’s a beekeeper to do during the winter?  Those–like me–who hold such passion and adoration for their honeybees–for whom there is no better feeling in all the world than watching these busy girls coming and going, carrying pollen and nectar to the hive; for whom opening the hive, viewing the larvae-grubs in their cells, or finding the Queen amidst her doting entourage–brings such joy and elation.  It is the beekeeper’s lament.  When the long cold months separate us from our bees.

We miss our bees!  Reading beekeeping books and magazines does little to ease the longing.  Working to assemble and repair equipment to make it ready for the up-coming year helps, but still there is nothing like the thrill of interacting with your bees.

That’s where the winter hive checks come into play.  It’s not much, and they’re few and far between, but I look forward to each and every trek out to the apiaries to check on my hives.

Preparing hives for winter

Wintering honeybee colonies is largely dependent on your location.  Beekeepers in the southern states of America are going to do things very differently from those in the northern states.  Here in the northeast, most beekeepers begin preparing their hives for winter when it is still hot and humid outside.  We monitor honey and pollen stores, push the brood and bees down into the bottom box ’round about August and into September.  We try to gauge how strong the hive is, so that we can combine weak hives with stronger hives–since weak hives have a lower chance of survival.  We install mouse guards after the first frost, and protect hives from strong gusting winds–either by positioning them in a sheltered spot to begin with, or by stacking hay bales on the sides where the prevailing winds are strongest.

When the honey flow is over, and the cold weather really starts to set in–usually sometime in November–beekeepers here in Maine typically wrap their hives in tar paper.  Usually when we do this, we include some form of moisture absorption–I use homasote board or a thick sheaf of newspaper on top of the inner cover.

Common winter problems

Moisture – Bees can create moisture inside the hive simply by breathing, causing condensation to build up.  This condensation can drip back down onto the bees, chilling them, and it can also promote the growth of diseases, mold and fungi.  Changes in the climate are bringing milder and frequently rainer winters here in the northeast, which plays havoc with the way that beekeepers keep bees.  We are finding it increasingly important to provide adequate ventilation for our hives in the form of upper entrances and screened bottom boards, and to install some kind of moisture absorption, typically in the form either of newspaper or homasote board on top of the inner cover and under the outer cover, some use a wintering box filled with wood chips–though there are many innovative methods beekeepers have come up with for dealing with moisture in the wintering beehive.

Pests and diseases – While there may be a reduced level of varroa mites in your hives during the winter, if you did a poor job monitoring pest levels during the summer it may catch up with you now.  Bees weakened by high mite loads during the summer will be more susceptible to diseases like Nosema, which are more prevalent during the winter months.

Nosema ceranae is a fungal disease that can inhibit the bees’ ability to digest food, and at the same time suppresses the function of the honeybees’ immune system.  Bees can starve to death, even if there’s plenty of honey available in the hive.  Nosema spores are transferred throughout the hive by the house bees–the spores can be ingested when workers are cleaning cells, or it can be stored in the pollen.  The disease can be prevalent all year, but infection can become more acute during the winter when bees are cooped up inside their hives.  Soiled combs or diarrhea on the front of the hive are visible signs of Nosema infection.

For more about Nosema take a look at this article from one of my favorite beekeeping sources–the scientific beekeeper.

Predators – Usually you hear of beekeepers struggling with predators like skunks or bears during the summer months, but bees still face predators during the winter months.  Woodpeckers, mice, badgers, raccoons, and foxes are all predators who will prey upon honeybees during the winter.

Apiary monitoring

In the summer you can watch the hives and gain some indication of how the bees are doing, but during the winter when they are tightly clustered inside the beehive, it’s much more difficult to gauge how the colony is faring.  However it is still possible to monitor the activity of that winter cluster and it’s important to make the trek out to your apiary occasionally to do so.

External hive checks

  • If you do not have upper entrances, it is important to make sure the entrances are clear of snow and free from ice, also, it is a good idea to poke a stick into the entrance to make sure there is not a blockage of dead bees preventing your girls from coming and going.
  • Watch for bees on the warmer sunny days throughout the winter, they will take cleansing flights to relieve themselves and it is normal to see yellow and brown spots dotting the snow around the apiary.
  • Go ahead and thump the side of the hive to disturb the bees, press your ear against it to listen for the buzzing sound of the colony.
  • Heft the hive from the back to determine what the colony has for remaining honey stores.  This will help you decide whether or not to feed your bees.

Feeding your bees

Feeding bees is a controversial topic among beekeepers; some will avoid it at all costs, some will leave an extra super of honey on their hives in case the colony require extra food during the winter, and still other keep a candy board on their hives throughout the entire season.  It all boils down to the individual beekeepers’ personal preferences and methodologies when it comes to beekeeping.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle.  I am reluctant to feed sugar, and I will often feed honey when I can–but I am in the business of selling honey, so leaving a whole super of honey on the hive is not an option.

For most colonies, during an average Maine winter, 2 deep brood boxes filled with 65-70 pounds of honey (translates into 13-14 frames) and 3-4 frames of pollen, is sufficient to see a hive through to spring. That being said, if it is an especially large colony or if the winter is unseasonably warm, the bees will go through their stores quicker.

If it comes down to it, I’m going to feed a hive in need rather than watch it starve to death.  However–I have made the commitment to use only organic GMO-free sugar when feeding my hives, to read more about why check out this post.

Internal hive checks

If you should decide that you need to supplement your hive’s food supply plan ahead.  Prepare your candy board or sugar cakes 24 hours to 7 days in advance, then watch the weather for a winter warm-up.  Occasionally in January and February there will be days when the temperature comes above freezing, when the sun is shining and the wind ceases to blow–these are the kinds of days you want when you have to open your hives in the winter.

feeding bees candy in the winter
Position the candy or sugar directly above the cluster–or in this case, immediately surrounding the bees.

Gather ahead of time everything you’ll need prior to trekking out to the apiary.  All of your gear, tools, equipment and sugar–snowshoes and a sled often come in handy in my neck of the woods.  If you have to open the hive to feed the bees, this is a good time to check the status of your moisture absorber–so bring spare newspaper or homasote board so that you can swap them if what’s currently on the hive is soaking wet.

Be prepared to wear your protective gear–I speak from experience when I say that the bees do not take kindly to having the top popped on their hive and being exposed to that cold air–even if it is a lovely winter day.  Light your smoker, and have everything organized and laid out before you open the hive.

Once the hive is open, you want to get in and out within 1-2 minutes tops.  Swap out that moisture absorber, slap on the sugar, and close them back up again.  You need to avoid chilling the bees too much, and above all–do not disturb the cluster!  This is not the time to be pulling out frames for inspection–that will have to wait until spring.

Soldier on

Even with the best of preparations and the sincerest of dedication, beekeepers will loose hives to the long cold of winter.  It’s heart-wrenching, but if it happens to you, the best thing to do is to collect the equipment, bring it home and perform a postmortem on the hive to determine the possible cause of the colony’s death–hopefully you can glean some bit of information that may help you to preserve the life of other hives in the future.  Clean up the equipment and store it away for spring.  If there are frames of untouched honey or pollen, you can save those in your freezer for spring feeding or nuc-making.

Spring will come again, and we will be reunited with out bees–what a joy it will be to see them on the dandelions once more!  Until then we must stay the course–and like our bees–endure the long cold of winter.

Are you missing your bees too?  What are you doing to cope with the winter beekeeping hiatus?