Exam Notes 5: Winter Prep

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Your whole bee year comes down to this: getting the bees through the winter.

It doesn’t matter if you got lots of honey, or caught tons of swarms, or split your hives six ways from Sunday.

To paraphrase Randy Oliver, if you don’t get your bees through winter, you are not keeping bees…you are just buying bees every spring.

And worse, you are now part of the bee problem, not part of the bee solution.

To prepare a bee colony for winter, the following points are critical:

  1. the colony must have a fertile queen
  2. the colony must be a decent size so they can form a warm winter cluster
  3. the colony must have successfully raised a good crop of healthy winter bees
  4. the colony must have good amounts of capped honey and pollen in the hive
  5. the colony must be disease free and as mite free as possible
  6. the colony must be kept dry
  7. the colony must have some ventilation to prevent condensation dripping down onto the cluster
  8. the colony must be out of or protected from wind, which strips warmth out of the cluster
  9. the colony entrance must remain clear of dead bees so live bees can take cleansing flights
  10. the colony must not blow over (strap it down if necessary)
  11. in our rainy climate a 3′ x 3′ board put on top of the outer cover will act as a rain hat, strap or weight it down well against winter winds.

There are various ways of accomplishing these ends. They are, principally:

  1. don’t strip too much honey out of the hives in the late summer…leave them lots, you can always harvest in spring: you can also feed in August/September to bring up winter weight, and leave them emergency rations above the cluster
  2. keep the hive slightly crowded so the bees can heat the cluster as efficiently as possible
  3. put on a ventilated quilt box, BELOW the inner cover
  4. put a mite counting sheet and/or extra bottom insulation in so the screened bottom board is not completely open (consider creating a dead air space below the bottom board)
  5. put a rain hat on the hive, or make sure if you are in snow that the bees have a clear entrance
  6. make sure you have done your late summer mite control

Generally, you want to concentrate on hive health and queen-rightness in late summer, to enable top quality winter bees to be laid and raised. You want to feed up the hive in fall to ensure they have lots of stores.

A sugar brick or Krabby Patty positioned on the top bars, over the cluster but under the quilt box, provides emergency rations. To leave a higher volume of those rations, build a shallow (3″ high) super, staple 1/4″ grid wire on as a floor, lay one sheet of newspaper on that floor, and fill the entire thing with dampened sugar. Whatever form your emergency rations take, replace when necessary.

Your hive is only safe when the nectar and pollen sources come online in the spring. Locally that is the bloom of the Big Leaf Maples (Oregon Maples), which is around very early April, depending on the weather.

Until then, the bees are depending on you to step in if they are starving.

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Exam Notes 4: Recognizing and Treating Colony-threatening Conditions

European Foul Brood
European Foul Brood

It is not so critical to memorize what to do about diseases, pests, and catastrophic hive events (you can always look that up).

It is critical to recognize them!

That ability to recognize a disease process in progress is arguably the most important beekeeping skill: here then is a quick summary of what should set off your beekeeperly alarm bells:

Survey the Open Brood

All, all, ALL!!! of the open brood should be fat, juicy, pearly white, gleaming and wet looking. All of it. If you see any brood that are dried up looking, off-colour, in a strange position, or which look rotted or unnatural, pull the alarm bell.

How healthy brood should look: fat, white and juicy.
How healthy brood should look: fat, white and juicy.

European Foulbrood, caused by the Melissococcus plutonius bacterium affects open brood. Brood before capping. It is transmitted from infected nurse bees by mouth as they feed the larvae their gut contents. Over time the hive’s stores of nectar and bee bread (the fermented pollen fed to larvae) will be infected as well, passing through so many guts and infecting new bees.

The cappings on the brood should look solid and intact. American Foulbrood, caused by the bacterium Paenibacillus larvae ssp. larvae generally kills the bee larvae post capping. The bees sense that the larvae under capping is dead or dying and they will uncap ragged holes in the brood, in their attempt to remove the problem larva. Unfortunately, removal is by mouth and this infects a new cohort of bees, who in turn infect all their fellows and the new larvae they feed.

Loque_americana
American Foulbrood, stringing, mucousy dead larva.

Both the Foulbroods will, early or late, smell nasty. Like rotting meat or smelly old socks in a gym bag. Bad smells in the hive are always an indication that something is amiss.

Treatment is a combination of medication and getting the bees off the old, contaminated comb and hive contents. In the case of AFB, resistant spores are generated that can only be destroyed via irradiation (ie. at an Iotron facility) or burning.

Other brood diseases (sacbrood, chalkbrood) all exhibit deformed, off colour, odd or dead larvae. If you see something unusual in your open brood, or notice that developed bees are remaining in the cells, unhatched and dead, identify the cause immediately and take remedial action ASAP.

Examine the Brood Pattern

A healthy, vigourous queen should lay solid sheets of brood. If they are spotty “shotgun” patterns, examine carefully for disease. Shotgun brood pattern can also be from a poor queen, a queen infected with Nosema, or Varroasis. Sometimes a new queen or new nuc may display a shotgun pattern, but within a couple of weeks you should see solid sheets of brood. If the shotgun pattern persists, pull the alarm bell!

Also check that you have new eggs in the hive. When you do not, find that queen. Is she missing? Or is she not laying? Why isn’t she laying? Maybe a swarm is about to go off. Maybe she failed to mate successfully and is infertile. Figure it out.

Check the brood cappings. Is most of the capped brood smooth worker brood? Or is your queen laying only raised drone brood, indicating she failed to mate (fertilized eggs make worker bees, unfertilized eggs make drone bees). An infertile queen needs to be replaced. Note that her hive cannot raise a replacement queen from drone eggs!

Worker-and-drone-capped-brood-Photo-P-Perry-20131

Examine the Adult Bees

Are your bees all plump, normal body proportions, bustling happily about? Or do you see deformed wings (indicating Deformed Wing Virus, vectored by Varroa mites), stumpy bodies, tiny wizened bees,  or black, greasy bees?? Are they wandering about looking dazed, unable to fly (possible tracheal mite infection), or are they trembling constantly (possible Israeli Paralysis virus, also mite-vectored)?

Always be on top of the Varroa mite situation. Not only are they deadly on their own, unchecked, but they vector a host of diseases.

If the adults look unusual or wrong, then something probably is wrong! Get to the bottom of the issue immediately.

Deformed wing virus on stunted bee.
Deformed wing virus on stunted bee.

Examine the Hive

Do you see fecal streaking on the exterior of the hive, or on the interior? That is abnormal and indicates temporary dysentery at best (contaminated/fermented feed somewhere??) and pesticide poisoning or Nosema apis at worst. You need to medicate for Nosema immediately and hope that works.

Is there mold and/or dead bees in the combs, and/or wax moths? If there is, reduce the hive size to make sure “the colony fits the hive” ie. they have a home size they can keep clean, warm and patrolled. Make sure they are healthy, and that the hive is dry and ventilated.

Prevent Robbing

Remember that strong hives, particularly in a nectar dearth, will attack weak hives, stealing their honey. Reduced entrances and robbing screens are the answer here. If robbing is in progress, completely shut the hive being robbed, make necessary changes and hope the robber bees do not return next day. Move the robbed hive if necessary.

Wasps will rob out hives, eating eggs, larvae, adults (all good protein sources for baby wasps) as well as the nectar and honey. This is common in late summer, when wasp populations are at their peak and raising queens to overwinter.

Be careful, particularly in a nectar dearth, not to spill feed or honey in the beeyard, which can set off a robbing frenzy, or feed from open feeders (ditto, and also a disease transfer station!), or leave honey filled hives open (invites hungry robbers in). Do not leave undefended honey supers in the beeyard: they will be robbed in a twinkling.

If a hive has been robbed, check the next day (when things have settled down) to ensure the queen was not killed in the raid.

Evaluate the Vigour of the Colony

Always ask yourself if the hive is as vigourous as it should be for the time of year. Is the queen laying properly, is the hive building in spring and remaining as strong as it was a month ago? Or is it stalling out and/or dwindling for some reason. It could be you have a failing queen, or Nosema ceranae loose in the hive. You could have a sick hive, or one being predated by skunks at night (they love to eat bees!). Maybe it’s honey bound and there is no room for your queen to lay.

Any colony that is not bringing in pollen when others are, is failing to store nectar and honey, or is quiet at the door (little bee traffic, particularly when nearby hives have lots), or is failing to take a syrup feed (especially if other hives are taking it well) has a problem.

If you colony is not doing well, there has to be a reason. Find it.

Resources

There are an abundance of books and web based information pages to help you identify and remediate your hive issues. It also helps to join a good local bee club, and find a few older more experienced beekeepers as mentors. Take a bee course, as that guarantees an instant mentor! Go online and ask questions (include photos if possible) on bee forums. There is lots and lots of support out there.

Note that in the USA, several universities offer online courses leading to the Master Beekeeper certification.

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Exam Notes 3: Swarm Control and Making Nucs

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swarmSwarms will set up in the oddest places…but usually they are up in a tree somewhere. Within reach, we hope!

Swarms are the natural way bee colonies reproduce. Sensing the nectar and pollen bounties of spring, the increased crowding in the hive as the first rounds of brood hatch, and the shrinking brood area as brood and nectar vie for cell space, swarm preparations begin.

The workers decide to construct one to many queen cells. These elongated, peanut shaped structures hang off the face or bottom edge of the frames, and the larvae inside are lavishly fed royal jelly until they cap (on Day 7/8 post laying). Once the queen cells start to cap over, their queen larvae spinning their cocoons and metamorphosing into queen bees, the old queen leaves the hive with roughly half of the hive population (all ages), and as much honey as they can carry in their guts.

The resulting swarm erupts from the hive, then settles onto a perch nearby. They can remain there for up to several days, while the older scout bees fly out to find suitable homes. They are looking for:

  1. a roughly 40 litre cavity
  2. preferably 15′ or so off the ground
  3. preferably with a 15 cm, east facing opening
  4. preferably containing old brood comb

But alas few swarm colonies will survive the next winter, as they will be overcome by mites even if they can build up a colony that is large enough and well provisioned enough to endure the cold season.

Swarms are extremely docile. The bees’ tummies are stuffed with honey and so they cannot easily sting. They are collected by simply shaking them into a suitable container, then are taken to a hive and dumped inside. You can ensure a swarm stays in the hive you choose by giving them a frame of brood. Honey bees are very, very reluctant to abandon  brood. Although recent research indicates they are most “invested” in capped brood, I like to give them a frame of brood in all stages if I can. Just covering all the bases…

Because they are now without stores, a swarm colony is fed nectar and protein patties until it is putting up its own honey. This ensures healthy brood and new bees right from the start.

Swarms may be leaving hives crashing from disease, stress or pests. So watch any caught swarm carefully as it may need treatment. Quarantine them in a remote yard if you can.

Swarm control generally consists of:

  1. making sure there is always space for the queen to lay (open brood nest) by adding frames of empty drawn comb or waxed foundation to the brood area
  2. adding another deep super once the existing super(s) are 80% drawn and full
  3. maintaining young queens in the hive (under 2 years of age)
  4. maintaining good ventilation in the hive (rising CO2 levels from crowding are a spur to swarming)
  5. splitting if the queen suddenly reduces her rate of lay (in preparation to swarm) or queen cells appear
  6. **note that when a nectar flow is imminent, you must put on honey supers, more than you think the bees will need. Failing to do so forces house bees to store the incoming nectar anywhere they can, including the broodnest. If the broodnest becomes “nectar bound”, that will trigger swarming. So super for honey early and often, ensuring that one empty honey super is over the broodnest at all times during a nectar flow!!!

In the spring, the swarm impulse is mercilessly strong. So inspecting carefully every 7-10 days is essential or you risk a swarm going off.

NOTE: a queen cell can be started the minute you close up the hive after an inspection and in theory, the swarm can go off within 7 days, ie. as soon as the queen cells is capped and before you do your next inspection!!!! If you want to prevent swarms, inspect often.

Signs a hive has swarmed are:

  1. no queen in the hive!
  2. no eggs (or young open brood) in the hive
  3. queen cups with eggs in them or queen cells in the hive
  4. bees seem skittish and agitated
  5. you may hear “the queenless roar”
  6. lots of empty cells, polished and waiting for the next queen to start laying

When a swarm leaves, your hive population is halved, and your colony will be broodless from the time the old queen stops laying until the new queen comes into lay. That can be 3 to 4 weeks! More if the colony decides to let the new queen swarm off as well, which it will do if it hatches multiple fine queens and has a healthy population. If swarming happens in the lead up to the nectar flow, your hive will be seriously reduced in size, low on mature foragers, and will not be able to put up good amounts of honey.

So for honey producers, swarm control is the main focus of spring management!

There are many methods of splitting as swarm control. Which you use depends on your beekeeping goals.

Making Nucs (nucleus colonies)

It is always good to have a few nucs coming along in the apiary to cover off queen and colony losses. Here is one great nuc box design.

A nuc generally consists of:

  1. two frames of stores (honey and bee bread)
  2. three frames of brood, including eggs and capped brood
  3. a fertile, laying queen under 2 years of age

There are special boxes manufactured for this purpose (they work really well as swarm gathering boxes too!), boxes imaginatively named “nucleus (nuc) boxes”:

5frame_nuc_box2Nucs can help with swarm control (taking excess population out of the main hive, along with the old queen or queen cells), can serve as nurseries for new queens, can serve as a place to hold the old queen while a hive requeens itself, and is generally a reservoir offering a small colony for sale or for adding to a queenless colony in your own apiary.

Worker bees and brood can also be put into a nuc box, without the queen, and layered via the newspaper method onto a hive needing a boost.

It is always handy to have a few empty nuc boxes on hand. You never know when you will need one for a swarm call!

Making queens and new colonies is my favourite part of beekeeping. Left to myself I would run all nucs and devote all my time to queen and colony production. There are many methods for raising queens. For our small apiary the easiest and best method is to take the old queen out into a nuc with a small support staff and feed them both syrup and protein supplement. They will cook along nicely with HRH safe and sound while the main colony goes into panic mode and raises a new crop of queen cells.

The main colony has more bees and resources to pour into those queen cells, and since queen quality is largely a function of queen larval nutrition, the main colony can raise very well fed queens. As extra insurance I also feed the main colony while they are raising the new queen cells.

I find that queens that come out of this method are big, fat and sassy…good producers.

You can go into the hive once the queen cells are a couple of days from emergence and, if there are 5 or more, either cull or harvest the smallest ones. I would leave at least three of the largest to give the bees some choice in who they choose to emerge and survive. The bees will back the queen they feel is best, and they are seldom wrong.

Harvested mature queen cells can be put into waiting, queenless nucs to emerge and mate.

There are all kinds of approaches to queen rearing, but if you want a batch of queens, try this method for the small apiary:

http://beesource.com/resources/elements-of-beekeeping/raising-queen-cells-without-grafting-cut-cell-method/

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Exam Notes 2: The Three Horsemen

the-four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse-1937I am not entirely joking when I say there are Three Horsemen of the Bee Apocalypse. I think honey bee populations worldwide are balanced on a knife’s edge. Here in Canada, there appear to be no more truly feral colonies, ie. colonies that survive in the wild, without any help from a beekeeper, and which overwinter successfully. This means if managed (kept) colonies of bees fail, there will be NO honey bees in Canada. Period.

And the main reason kept colonies may fail are the Three Horsemen:

  1. Varroa destructor mites
  2. Vanishing and degraded forage opportunities
  3. Pesticides and other field sprays

Varroa destructor Mites

Varroa are alas, fiendishly successful at parasitizing honey bees. Not only do they suck the hemolymph (insect blood), of both adults and larvae, weakening the adults and damaging the pupating baby bees, Varroa vector (carry to) the bees a host of serious viruses, and our twin nemeses the foulbroods AFB and EFB. There just isn’t any good news for bees once the Varroa arrive.

Worse, they breed up much more rapidly than the honey bees and can evolve quickly, thanks to their biology and reproductive strategies, to become resistant to whatever selective pressures we place upon them. They quickly evolved resistance to the first few miticides used, and in spite of aggressive treatment programs, mite infestation is a universal experience of honey bees. We just can’t seem to get rid of them no matter what we do.

Even small mite loads have a big negative effect on the bees’ ability to generate a honey crop, or overwinter successfully. And because mites reproduce exponentially, they will, over time, completely overwhelm a colony. Brood fail to hatch, viruses (most notably Deformed Wing Virus) abound, EFB and AFB appear, and the colony collapses and dies.

There are many ways to attack the Varroa mites, from the use of “hard” chemicals in the hive, in the form of the medications fluvalinate, coumaphos, amitraz. In the form of the “soft” treatments: essential oils, formic acid, oxalic acid, hopguard, thymol. And on to the various Integrated Pest Management tricks like screened bottom boards, sacrificial drone brood, icing sugar dusts, grease patties, feed additives (like Honey B Healthy), small cell foundation (on the theory that small cells force bees to hatch faster, reducing or eliminating the reproductive power of Varroa mites), unusual hive types, and breeding up survivor stock.

So far, we can only reduce the impact of Varroa infestation. We cannot eliminate the Varroa. There is a Nobel Prize waiting for the biogengineer who can eradicate Varroa mites.

A large part of the beekeeping year is understanding when to apply mite treatments, allowing a maximum number of healthy bees to hatch out and take their place in the colony.

Principally, we treat (using whatever methods we find comfortable and effective):

  1. in early spring, to ensure the first critical rounds of brood are not infested by overwintering Varroa
  2. after the honey harvest, to ensure the critical winter bees are able to develop Varroa free
  3. in midwinter, when brood is absent or nearly absent from the hives, meaning all the Varroa are out on bees, not hidden under brood cappings, where they are very vulnerable to treatment; which at this time of year is via oxalic acid vapour or dribble.

So successful beekeeping demands that the beekeeper become expert in foiling the mites. Read all you can on the Varroa destructor.

Degraded Forage

The second challenge to honey bee survival is the increasing degradation of quantity and quality of bee forage. We are losing our wild places, we are aggressively managing our roadway verges, parks, home gardens, forests and even our farm fields. There is little tolerance for weedy, flowery pastures or empty lots, and as urban land becomes increasingly expensive, cities are densifying, which means little or no open land on which to grow anything.

Ditto in the farm fields! Now fields are ploughed and managed margin-to-margin, planted with monocultures and aggressively treated with herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers. There is no tolerance for weeds or non-productive areas.

Because we are denying Mother Nature any place in which wildflowers can bloom in meaningful quantities, it will take a shift in our culture to make the world a better place for honey bees and all the other pollinators. We have to plant mindfully, creating pollinator pasture out of every possible nook and cranny. We have to encourage homeowners and municipalities to purpose-plant for pollinators: if every garden had one spring flowering heather, one maple tree, dandelions, a catmint plant, mints, dills or borage, sedum, asters, some clovers (so amenable to succession sowing) and Rose of Sharon (hibiscus syriacus) shrubs, there would be a season long abundance for all urban pollinators. And if we could take pride in a front yard planted in a bee pasture mix, pretty unmown grasses spangled with pollinator friendly flowers, entire cities would be pollinator paradises.

Think of all the space you see taken up with lawn grass or field grasses, replanted with an enduring bee pasture mix!

Bees are little more than flying guts. They need season long, varied pollen and nectar sources to fuel all the activities of the hive. Hungry bees, or bees forced (as pollination bees are) to eat a severely limited diet, are stunted, stressed and prone to disease and parasitization. Poor nutrition makes them vulnerable.

Poor or scarce feed also put enormous pressure on the honey bee to fly vast distances (for a bee) and in the process out-compete the many and valuable native pollinators (many of whom have short flight ranges). If we plant more forage, we help all pollinators.

The beekeeper can, if s/he is fortunate, purpose plant for their bees. Failing that, you can seek apiary locations that are favourable…acres of blackberries being one option. You can enrich your local community by “donating” bee pasture seed and bee plants to all unclaimed/idle lands, lobbying for more pollinator patches in your community.

bluehgalerie01i629ks2x

Pesticides and Field Sprays

All field sprays, and pesticides in particular, have effects on bees. Even sprays applied to non-bee forage crops drift onto nearby hedgerows, blanketing the wildflowers there with things that harm the bees. Field sprays can out and out kill the bees that feed upon sprayed nectar plants, or have devastating, long lasting, sublethal effects ie. deformed or weak brood, reduced drone fertility, or memory impairment in foragers, who then cannot find existing forage or their way home.

Herbicides kill all plants: check the margins of sprayed fields and you often see the blackberries or hedgerow plants killed by herbicide drift, depleting an already scarce bee forage resource.

Farmers use these sprays to reduce the labour cost of bringing a crop to market. We need to shift our agricultural practices toward the organic, coming up with innovative ways to garden and farm efficiently and organically.

The beekeeper can educate both farmers and consumers to go organic (if people don’t buy what they spray, they won’t spray it any more!!!), and plant pollinator strips in all fields, and bee pasture in all fallow fields.

Be aware that biofuel is largely corn based. Large swathes of corn monoculture are very bad for bees! The corn seed is neonicotinoid coated, causing lethal and sublethal issues in colonies near fields. And the land is being occupied by a plant of little use to bees (they will gather some corn pollen but it is not a preferred pollen due to its low nutritional profile). And the large tracts sown in corn, like the almond orchards, mean there is no season long forage within a reasonable flight range for honey bees or other pollinators, driving down their numbers and diversity. The remedy here would be requiring all biofuel fields to be organic, and to include strips of pollinator pasture.

Ditto the other killer monoculture in our world, soybeans. Soybeans are a major component of animal feed, so limiting meat consumption is also one way to help honey bees and pollinators.

 

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Exam Notes 1: The Arc of the Beekeeping Year

small can be big

Spring:

In the spring, assuming the girls made it through the winter, you are checking for:

  1. life in the hive! are the bees flying? how big do you think the cluster is? is there brood coming along?
  2. do they have stores? especially honey
  3. do they need feeding…generally if we want a good honey crop or to sell nucs, the bees are going to be given all they need for success, in particular pollen/protein patties and syrup feeds when it is cold and the bees are waiting for the spring pollens and nectars (note: no feeding once honey supers go on)
  4. are they well? is there any sign of disease or pest load? do a 24 hour mite drop count onto an oiled mite counting sheet to get a rough idea of mite load

You can do your first real inspections on a warm, sunny, low-or-no wind day in excess of 15C. This is still chilly as far as the brood is concerned, so do not linger over your inspections of frames with open brood. Eggs and larvae can chill and die quickly, particularly if there is a bit of a wind.

Of first importance is: do you have new eggs and brood in the hive, any at all? Not only does the colony desperately need to breed up new spring bees to replace the old and aging-out winter bees, they have to build numbers for the honey flow. So your first spring question will be: is there a fertile queen in my hive, and is she laying as she ought to be?

Typically, young queens (and we are trying to requeen by late summer every year or two) will come out of winter laying up a storm. Many beekeepers use laying rate in the early spring as a guide to which queens they breed from. Since most are looking for good honey production, a queen that overwinters AND lays heavily in the spring is a good bet for having what it takes to make a good line of honey producers.

Queens that are laying heavily in spring are critical to those wanting to offer spring nucs for sale, and to those wanting to field pollination hives for the first crop blooms.

It is interesting to note how much of the fall honey stores are still present, and if the cluster is a good size. Thriftiness in overwintering well is another great quality to look for in your potential bee breeding program queens.

You will look carefully at all the frames to see how much they have left in terms of stores. Until the Big Leaf maples bloom, with their bounty of nectar and pollen, the hives are not safe from starvation. So I prefer to offer sugar bricks/Krabby Patties on the top bars as emergency feed until the days are above 10C, and syrup and pollen/protein patty (PP) feeds after that.

Bees draw heavily on stores during the spring brood-up, and can starve just before the spring sources of nectar and pollen appear: feed them well to be safe rather than sorry.

The first spring food for your bees will be willows, maples, and dandelions. Let a thousand dandelions bloom!!

Brad Beck photo
Brad Beck photo

Are the bees well? Do you see anything odd or unusual? Strange or obviously foulbrood-affected larvae? Bees acting or looking funny? How is your 24 hour mite drop count??

Varroa populations, low during the winter thanks to the paucity of brood to infest and reproduce in, can boom in the spring with the first few rounds of brood. Be very alert to mite loads, and consider carefully your spring mite control tactics. If your 24 hour drops are large, over 10 mites, treat ASAP. In cold weather we can use Amitraz strips or oxalic acid. As the weather moves reliably above 15C in the day, we can use formic acid pads or dribble.

Note that Varroa can overwhelm a colony in the spring, able to reproduce at exponential rates while the bees labour to increase their own population. If you think you have a mite load, deal with it earlier than later. Treat ASAP if your new bees are hatching with obvious mite issues, ie. Deformed Wing Virus, photo below.

stringwing

Summer:

Again, we are looking to see the following:

  1. queen in the hive and laying well
  2. no disease or pests
  3. hive population should be booming now
  4. we are on the alert for swarming prep…sudden slowdown in egg laying and the appearance of queen cells

Summer management is all about dealing with the natural swarming impulse. The healthier the hive, the more vigourous it will be, and the more vigourous it is, the more it will want to swarm…early and often.

Signs that a hive is going to enter swarm mode are:

  1. the open space in the brood nest gets plugged with nectar (nectar bound)…remember the queen is laying at a high rate, so the bees are finding less and less room to put the spring nectars. If they run out of easy room, they will decide to swarm based on an algorithm only the bees really understand, but is roughly crowded state x abundance factor of nectar and pollens x age of queen = likelihood of swarming
  2. suddenly the egg laying rate drops off (good you made notes in your bee inspection notebook, right!?)…indicating the bees are slimming your queen down by putting her on a diet. She stops laying and gets ready to fly.
  3. you see queen cups with eggs in them, or full queen cells….emergency!!!
  4. there is lots of drone brood suddenly coming along in the hive

If you see any of these signs, or more than one of them, immediately execute your swarm control plan. To prevent swarming, we want to keep the main hive as large as possible for the approaching honey flow (assuming we want a good honey crop), but give the bees the feeling they have swarmed. If we are wanting to sell nucs, we can harvest capped queen cells and put each into their own nuc with frames of bees, brood and stores, and let the queens fly and mate. When they return and start laying worker brood, we can sell the nuc.

Or you can let the hive swarm and enjoy restocking the wild places. Just be aware that urban bees may become very unpopular with your neighbours if they swarm! Swarms look terrifying to those not familiar with honey bees.

Keep inspecting for disease and pests. Keep an eye on colony vigour…the colony should be expanding steadily. If it is not, and is quiet at the door, or has no bees coming in with pollen (indicating queenlessness) look for the reason. There should always be sheets of new eggs in the hive.

As long as they are hauling in nectar and pollen, you don’t need to feed.

Also remember that once honey supers go on, you must not offer them sugar syrup (or your honey will not really be honey!), or put on mite control medications.

If you want to maximize your honey crop, put empty honey supers on the hives two weeks before the big flow (here on the coast we often get a good maple/hawthorn flow in April, so you can put the honey supers on then, taking care not to mix frames of sugar water “honey” with the frames of true honey), preferably full of drawn comb from last year, or baited with a couple of frames in the middle of drawn comb.

Always remember you can paint a thickish layer of old, clean beeswax onto your bare plastic foundation to get the bees to draw it out and use it quickly, both in the brood frames and the honey frames!!!

You can give the bees lots of room to bring in raw nectar, space to cure that nectar while they evaporate it down to under 18% moisture content and cap it over. You can remove fully capped frames as they are capped out, putting in empties for them to fill. And you can move full frames to the outside positions, placing the empty or partially filled frames in the centre postions in the super…those practices accelerate the rate at which nectar is gathered and frames filled.

Toward the end of summer, and here after our blackberry bloom season, the hives will slow down, and this area experiences a severe nectar dearth. If you can, plant swathes of bee forage, succession sown for late summer nectar and pollen sources. But if the hives seem to be struggling to keep stores on hand…honey capped on the shoulders of the brood nest frames, and honey capped in the single honey super you will leave them for winter feed…start to feed the bees.

Feeding in late summer, of both syrup and PP’s, is aimed at rearing healthy winter bees, a process that probably starts in mid August.

Keep an eye on mite loads…you will likely have to treat after the honey season. Personally I treat late summer whether they seem to need it or not…I am that afraid of mite populations killing the hive in winter. And in bee-dense areas, drift of bees between hives practically guarantees you will always, always have a Varroa mite load. Dang it.

And keep an eye on the robbing situation. I advocate robbing screens on ALL hives once the dearth sets in, and in addition, reduced entrances on smaller, weaker hives. On very small hives reduce the front entrance, consider eliminating the upper entrance, and also use a robbing screen. Wasps or robber bees can destroy a hive in hours.

Do everything you can to prevent robbing!

And be aware that robbing screens probably do a very good job of preventing drift…and if drift is the way a lot of Varroa and disease gets into formerly well hives….hmmmm. Hoping someone does a proper study on this issue soon, but from now on I am considering keeping robbing screens in place year round.

Fall:

Fall is all about ensuring there is brood rearing happening, even if in reduced quantities, that the hives are free of disease and pests, and that there are adequate winter stores on hand. You know how to do that! Watch carefully, and feed.

By mid October we are looking at getting the hives buttoned up for winter. Once the days fall below 10C, we cannot feed syrup any longer and it is time to do winter prep, which principally aims to keep the bees dry, sheltered and fed:

  1. make sure there are adequate winter stores in the hive
  2. make sure bees are healthy and as mite free as possible
  3. make sure you have a live queen in the hive
  4. put a sugar brick/Krabby Patty over the top bars, where it is accessible in the warm current of air coming off the cluster, as emergency rations
  5. place a ventilated quilt box on the hive
  6. place the inner cover OVER the quilt box, where condensation will drip into the quilt box material, not onto the bees…damp is the big killer of bees in the winter as when they are damp, they chill, and a chilled bee loses muscle movement, which means no wing vibration to generate cluster heat = death.
  7. place a “rain hat” (a 3′ x 3′ piece of plywood) on top of the outer cover
  8. weight the rain hat heavily and/or strap hive down to weather winter winds
  9. wrap as desired, ensuring bees have a lower entrance open
  10. and then prepare to fret all winter because if something goes wrong in cold weather, there is really nothing you can do about it!!! Except photograph the death of your colony with your infrared camera…

Winter:

Winter management is light. Replenish the emergency stores if necessary, until the spring nectar/pollen flows…and hope.

Keep the entrance clear! You can with a hooked stick or rod, brush the dead bees off the bottom of the hive floor, and be sure the lower entrance is not blocked by dead bee bodies. The bees need to fly to cleanse.

Watch the hive on sunny, warmish days for flights. Here on the coast we often get weather all winter in which the bees can fly on cleansing (defecation) flights, and often even make pollen gathering flights. The English Ivy, an invasive much beloved by beekeepers, sets pollen in the winter. You may see pollen coming into the hive all winter long. Yay!

Check to make sure the hive is intact and the rain hat secure. A hive that blows over in a wind is likely histoire!

bee_hive_tipped_over

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Final Exam Notes

1 honey bee

Given that bees do quite well in the absence of a beekeeper IF they are free of disease and pests, and have adequate forage, our exam will focus on what the beekeeper brings to the bees: the ability to recognize and treat disease and pest conditions, and expertise on the needs of the colony throughout the year, and when they need feeding and beekeeper suppport.

Of less importance to the bees is the beekeeper’s skill in managing swarming, reproduction and nectar gathering and honey harvesting. Those may be critical to the beekeeper, but not so much to the bees!

The only value this NewBees course has for all of you is that you get a clear idea of what is required of a beekeeper, and that you go into your first beekeeping adventure with a realistic set of expectations. The upwards of 80% of beekeepers who end their beekeeping careers in under three years probably do so out of frustration…principally frustration when their bees keep dying from either disease or failure to overwinter. I want you to have the tools to deal with those situations, and to avoid quitting out of needless frustration.

Not that beekeeping will cease to offer its unique frustrations, disappointments and challenges. As the saying goes, the bees do not read the same books we read. The heart of beekeeping, and one of its enchantments, is that constant need to problem solve. You never know what you are going to find when you open up a hive. There are often very deep mysteries waiting for you there. Difficult logic problems. But with some good basic knowledge, and with the proper direction in seeking resources, all those problems are explicable, if not soluble!

So I will break down your exam research topics into the following, posting a page for each:

  1. the arc of the colony year, what the colony is trying to do, when, what to look for, and how to react to what you see
  2. the Three Horsemen of the Bee Apocalypse: Varroa destructor, lack of forage, pesticides/field sprays
  3. swarm control/making nucs
  4. recognizing and treating colony-threatening conditions ie. mite infestation and the foulbroods
  5. how to prep for winter
  6. honey harvesting and handling
  7. general knowledge on what makes for a healthy bee colony

Note that as always, I am looking at the art of beekeeping through the lens of being resident in the coastal Pacific Northwest.

The exam will be multiple choice (much as I would love to set you all a series of essay topics!), and will be open book/open resource. You can rewrite it as many times as is necessary to score 90% or better to pass. A certificate of completion will be provided upon a successful pass.

Good luck, and from the bottom of my heart, may you find all this useful in having long and happy lives as beekeepers!

Week Six

Week One

Week Two

Week Three

Week Four

Week Five

Week Seven = Final Exam

Field with Poppies - Van Gogh
Field with Poppies – Van Gogh

Winter Preparations

Preparation for winter depends in part on your biozone and the conditions therein. We will be discussing winter prep for the coastal Pacific Northwest, where our big concern is rain rather than deep cold.

I was fortunate that in my second year, I was handed an object lesson in the role of the beekeeper in getting a healthy colony through the winter. A couple called me in October to say they had a colony of bees in their orchard. The beekeeper had placed them there in the previous March, and had simply disappeared. All efforts to contact him had failed, and they knew that something should be done to get the bees ready for winter…what was it and could I help?

Unfortunately, there is not much you can do for bees in October. It was already too cold for an inspection and the rains had set in. If they did not have enough honey to get them through, or massive mite loads, or disease, there was literally nothing we could do to help them. I agreed to come see the bees, and was appalled. They were in the worst equipment possible: all you could say is that it was maintaining structural integrity! Cracks everywhere, paint peeling off, the bottom board looked rotted out (and was sitting on the damp ground), and the entire colony was in a single deep. No honey super, and all was covered by a warped outer cover.

Garbed in full protective gear on a misty, rainy day, I pried off the cover, threw on a grease patty (the only organic mite control I could apply so late in the year), and put the cover back on, clouds of angry guards pinging off my veil and attacking my hands. Not only was it a terrible day for opening the hive, they had been untended for months. All the hive parts were glued together, so even getting the cover off was difficult and upsetting to the bees. I wished them good luck, and told the owners I would be back in the spring, but that the bees were unlikely to survive.

To my surprise, these bees did just fine. The hive was very strong in the spring, so strong it needed to be split twice, in spite of having no beekeeper assistance for a full calendar year. Hmmmm.

I realized that I had been given a peek into pre-1985 beekeeping! A relatively mite free colony, healthy and populous, in a single deep (and, I discovered, with a feeder in the hive taking up two frame spaces!), had managed to store lots of food in their tiny space, yet the (marked) queen still had enough room to lay and had come out strong in the spring. They didn’t get feeding, they didn’t get winter protection, they had no disease or mite control, no friendly manipulations, they had terrible, crowded, drafty equipment.

And they were just fine.

I find it very, very difficult not to fuss over my bees. But this hive demonstrated that left to themselves, bees generally do just fine. Yes, the mites will eventually overwhelm them (this hive died 18 months later when mites did them in…that was the end of my treatment free approach! Varroasis is a nasty end) and if disease hits them, they will dwindle and die. But there is something to be said for just leaving strong hives alone. And I was mindful of the comments of the legendary Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey, beekeeping in a climate similar to ours, that bees wrapped up for winter miss the spring weather cues and do not come out as strong as they ought. Hmmmmm.

So in the winter, when I sit at my window watching the rain, wind and snow, worrying about whether the bees are alright, I remind myself of that orphan hive and how well they did all by themselves.

That said, winter preparations typically concentrate on three things:

  1. that the hive is well provisioned for the winter (they only have stored honey to draw upon for sustenance and heat generation)
  2. that there are low-to-no Varroa mites in the hive (note that in midwinter, when brood amounts are low to zero, we can treat mites with oxalic acid dribble or vapour, allowing the hive to enter spring brood-up sans mites in the brood)
  3. that the bees are dry…it is not cold that kills bees, who will cluster and generate a 95F degree environment for the queen and brood, it is damp. Damp bees chill, and chilled bees cannot move to feed or to vibrate their wings to generate heat.

Disease, if not present in the fall, is unlikely to hit in the winter….another hmmmmmm. There is no drifting in the winter, so there is no opportunity for sick bees to come visiting and infect our hive. I am sure there is more involved…warmer cluster? Different bees (the fatter bodied winter bees)? Winter immune response? And in bee dense areas, we may want to consider putting robbing screens on all hives all year long. That might prevent drift of bees and with them, drift of pests and diseases. There is a thesis or two buried in those topics!

Bees will fly on warmish, sunny days of 12-15C or above. They take brief cleansing flights to defecate quickly and immediately return to the hive. In snowy areas you can see the dark mustard coloured bee feces on the white snow outside the hive. They also take whatever opportunity they can on warmish days to clear the dead bees out of the hive, but the beekeeper should sweep as many bees as possible out whenever the opportunity presents, as they build up on the bottom board and make a nasty mess…and can actually plug the small winter entrance shut. And bees need to fly, even in winter.

Here on the coast, bees also are able to fly on sunny winter days to gather English Ivy pollen. This gives the colonies a constant source of protein…making English Ivy another invasive beloved of beekeepers!

Winter Hive Configuration

There are as many approaches to winter hive configuration as there are beekeepers. What you do is determined by your philosophy, your budget and the time you have at hand. Assuming we have fed up the hives such that they have winter stores (which are minimal in our area…I would think 20-30 pounds is adequate, although I try to leave 50 or more), the winter hive configuration is all about keeping the bees dry and warm.

To that end, I strive to get the following in place before the days consistently cool down to 10C:

  1. the bees are slightly crowded, most colonies are in double deeps
  2. there is capped honey on the shoulders of lots of the frames in those deeps
  3. there is a full shallow super of capped honey over the deep(s)
  4. there is a screen inner cover over the honey super
  5. there is a sugar brick or Krabby Patty (note you can put some protein patty into the Krabby Patty bag, too) on the top bars of honey super, under the screen, as emergency rations
  6. over the screen is a quilt box to help retain heat and absorb moisture
  7. over the quilt box is the inner cover
  8. over the inner cover is the outer cover
  9. a sheet of plywood roughly 3′ x 3′ sits on top of the stack as a rain hat
  10. a concrete block is on the rain hat to hold all together in high winds (strap down entire hive in exposed locations)
  11. the hives should be sheltered from strong winds

fb8698b8c648bf970b0d2fc547bfe7bc

Wrapping is not recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture’s Apiculturalist. But many local beekeepers wrap, and in various ways. Some group the hives in stands of 4, such that their exterior walls abut, sharing heat. Some wrap in tarpaper, some in styrofoam sheets. When I wrap, I prefer to use the Bee Cozy. It is cheap, fast to slip on, works well, stores easily and is durable.

double

It is worth noting that there is a wide disparity between different beekeepers and their overwintering statistics. National averages run at about 35% loss per winter, and that statistic is drawn from a wide pool of beekeepers, large and small. Many beekeepers lose more. Many backyard beekeepers have little or no loss. And the overwintering statistic does not reflect the reports from commercial beekeepers, who report losing 10% of their queens every month during the summer (commercial pollination operators).

There has been little or no research to back my own surmise, which is that winter losses are catastrophic in commercial operations due to the bees entering winter in weakened condition after a summer on the pollination circuit: constant disruption, suppression of colony size, field spray exposures and lots of prophylactic medication for mites and diseases. In the pollination fields they are largely limited to a single pollen as their protein source, often of inferior quality for bee nutrition, and the reduced vitellogenin levels that result from poor nutrition take some time to reverse. This can have a critical, weakening effect on the production of the all-important winter bees, the longevity of the remaining summer bees, let alone the effects on the queen of sub-par nutrition. There is a well documented link between poor nutrition and infection with disease. I suspect poor nutrition also reduces the ability of the colony to purge Varroa-infested larvae.

Finally, disrupted colonies are denied the ability to garner winter stores and to store them effectively. Bees take time in the fall to put the honey and pollen where they will need it in the winter. With poor levels of stores on hand, and no time to sort them out, a colony’s chance of overwintering is slim.

This year I am also experimenting with a Baffle Box (my term), where I place a shallow super as the lowest box in the hive. In the shallow super are wood frames, empty of foundation. Into that space, the bees are welcome to build comb as they like it:

natural_comb_ham_warre_underThe idea is that this lowest box will act as covered verandah, providing a wind/rain baffle and giving the bees extra room to hang out as do slatted racks. My hope is that it will also act as a doormat: as the bees crawl over this comb they will leave germs behind and track less into the hive. It should remediate the common problem that the queen, when laying in the lower box, avoids laying in the bottom third of the frames as temperature fluctuations there are too high for egg/larvae success (or perhaps the eggs all chill and die…no one has looked into that, another thesis!). Thus in spring, when she really starts to lay prolifically, there will be more brood in the hive (since we will already be thinking of getting the hive to max size for the honey flow!).

The one problem with the Baffle Box may be the propensity of the queen to be in it. I don’t mind if she lays in that comb, but I do mind if I cannot find her when I need too! Maybe a queen excluder should go over the Baffle Box, although that has drawbacks too? We’ll see!

Fall Feeding

There is a confusing amount of information on fall feeding. From the very testy to the very vague. I would recommend instead a careful reading of Randy Oliver’s Fat Bees series.

In our area, we have relatively mild winters. The bees do not need a huge amount of honey to meet their needs. And they really don’t require significant amounts of their stores until they begin to ramp up brood rearing in January and February. Although I leave a sugar brick on even well provisioned hives, it will not usually draw their attention until they begin to brood up, and hives can starve in March as they run through all their winter stores rearing the first spring brood. You may have hefted the hives in January and found them heavy, but be surprised to find them full of dead, starved bees in March. That sugar brick can tell you a lot about your hives’ stores. If they are up on the brick feasting, and it’s beginning to disappear, they are starving and need another sugar brick ASAP.

Once the Big Leaf Maples bloom, the bees are safe….but until that day, keeping the bees fed is the job of the beekeeper.

So our objective in fall is to feed heavily until the daily temperature begins to approach 10C (feeding 2:1 syrup, which gives off less water vapour as it is cured, and is slower to spoil, than 1:1 syrup). At that point the bees cannot evaporate the nectar we are feeding to make it into capped (preserved) honey. In our fall inspections we want to see full frames of honey in the frames adjacent to the outside walls of the hive…in all deeps. And we want to see honey stores on the “shoulders” of all or most of the interior frames. In addition, the colony needs a full shallow of capped honey. They really can’t go into winter with enough honey!

If they come out with extra in the spring, you can harvest that honey once the maples are blooming.

Fall feeding should be of 2 parts sugar to 1 part honey, certainly from September 15th till we stop feeding. This thicker syrup is harder to mix (my stand mixer does the job there!), but the bees do not have to evaporate off so much water vapour as with nectar or the 1:1 syrup we feed in the late summer. An additional advantage of 2:1 (thick) syrup is that it does not ferment or spoil as readily as the 1:1. Adding a splash of Honey B Healthy, or thymol, or a drop or two of bleach will also retard spoilage.

Research increasingly points to issues with adding things to bee syrup feeds: most additives just cause trouble, but many beekeepers still like to augment their syrup feeds, ie adding a pinch of Rooster Booster (vitamins, electrolytes and lactobacillus to mimic nectar more closely) to the syrup, or a small splash of Honey B Healthy (feed stimulant and may help with Varroa control), essential oils (in particular thymol).

I have tried all these…but I think the bees do best on plain old white sugar syrup.

I feed in a Rapid Feeder, which allows in-hive feeding but does not require opening up the colony…an important consideration as the days get colder and the bees get cranky and prone to robbing. There is a smaller, nuc size available as well.

rapidfeeder
The RapidFeeder sits inside an empty super (called an eke), on top of the hole in the inner cover. The outer cover keeps robbers out.

Wasp/Robbing Control

We have seen in the student apiary how wasp colonies, reaching peak populations in late summer, can suddenly turn from being occasional scavengers of dead bees in the beeyard to ravening hoardes constantly seeking entry into the hives. A determined assault by a large wasp colony can decimate a hive in a day or two; they will simply keep returning to plunder the brood and honey stores until there is nothing and not a single bee left. This fate is common in late summer and early fall.

To control wasp predation we installed robbing screens on all the hives, which prevent robbing by other honey bee colonies as well, and we set multiple wasp traps. So far the most effective are the Rescue traps, baited with a yellowjacket pheromone. We have now filled about 8 traps with hundreds of yellowjackets and the difference in the beeyard is remarkable. We have barely detectable levels of yellowjackets now.

But wasp control starts in the early spring…March in our location. If you set out wasp traps very early in the year, you will trap the overwintered queens, and prevent the colonies from starting up in your area. You can also set out imitation wasp nests, available in dollar stores and hardware stores:

41HEaw8hgUL._SL500_AA300_Because wasps are territorial, any queen seeing this in the beeyard will fly on further to seek a nest site…no point competing for resources with the (supposed) already established colony.

There are two other sorts of robbing…robbing by other honey bee colonies, which is a constant problem in bee dense areas, and robbing by human beings. We have been fortunate that no one has driven into the beeyard and taken our hives or honey supers. But it does happen. To help prevent robbing of equipment and bees I brand all my boxes and frames with my name and telephone number. While this will not stop a determined thief, I hope seeing the information will prick their conscience. Admittedly, that would be a small target! But the lesson is there, if they can learn it.

One of the reasons theft is on the rise is the rising cost of honey bees themselves. Just in the last five years, the price of bees has doubled, driven by the high rate of bee loss in winter, and the difficulty in controlling Varroa and the foulbroods. When every colony sitting in a field represents $250 worth of bees, $200+ worth of equipment, and possibly hundreds of dollars of honey (not to mention the cost of skillful beekeeping and medications and feed applied)…the temptation is overwhelming.

Beekeeping is an expensive business to get into, presents serious risk, demands a hard-won skill set, and offers fairly thin returns. It is a grind. Hence the proliferation of theft, particularly as pollination fees rise. They have risen steadily over the last few years thanks to the ever-shrinking number of overwintered hives. In Canada, if a hive fails to overwinter, there is not enough time to build up new ones to meet early spring pollination demands. Because there are never enough polllination hives now to meet pollination needs, the pollination hive standards have fallen (used to be they wanted 10 frames of bees per hive, now 5 is enough, but does not command top fees) and the price of pollination rentals has soared.

This is all bad news for bees! The temptation for commercial operations is to push the bees’ reproductive rate to the roof, which puts bees on the thin edge; stressed out, forced and prone to disease, parasites and queen loss.

For an object lesson in the modern fate of bees, watch the luminously filmed More Than Honey. I watched the portion of the film dealing with winter prep in a commercial pollination apiary with horror, and realized my own backyard, honey-only pet bees were the luckiest bees alive. However inept my beekeeping, it is better for the bees than the apocalyptic rapine and pillage that is now commercial beekeeping, where bees experience a fate similar to that of battery hens.

That fate is, in my opinion, an abrogation of our responsibility as stewards of the bees. And it can’t do much for the commercial beekeeper either. While there are ethical commercial beekeepers, who strive to work with the bees’ natural rhythms and instincts, the larger operations are often completely unsentimental. That sort of beekeeping is not a pretty job, and no one who knows bees can feel comfortable with keeping them in such a fashion. It is wrong.

Honey Processing and Packaging

On a day in late summer you will decide the time is right to harvest your honey crop. When is a complex decision. You can wait until the fall nectar flow ends (there is a small one in typical, non-drought years here on the coast, particularly in urban neighbourhoods with watered gardens and/or Japanese Knotweed in the byways!). You can pull it off in July, so that you can treat your hives for mites before the winter brood is being laid and raised. You can wait until spring and the maple bloom to take the honey off the hives.

My decision this year was driven by two factors:

  1. in this drought year I felt the hives would find little or no feed in late summer, and the small hives in particular would need feeding to get up to winter weight…not wanting to mix sugar syrup “honey” with my good wildflower honey, I wanted the honey off before feeding began (and before late summer mite treatments).
  2. the hive stacks were getting too tall for me to pull the supers off! Even with a stepladder it was a huge chore moving the boxes off colonies of 2 or 3 deeps plus 2 or 3 honey supers. Madness! And that was preventing me from inspecting as much as I feel is wise. In late summer I am on the watch for unexpected queen loss, and the foulbroods….there is little or no time to recover if these conditions are found.

Essential equipment is:

  1. a honey bucket fitted with a honey gate

honey bucket

2. a filter…you can buy a filter that fits in the top of a gated honey bucket

filter

and/or you can use a ladies’ knee high stocking rubber banded to the honey gate!

       3. you can open the gate and let the filtered honey flow into jars…you get pretty good at filling without drips! Or you can fill into a jug and pour out from that, wiping the rim of your jars carefully before putting on a lid.

Small processing jobs can be done via Linda Tillman’s wonderful Crush and Strain method.

The reason crush and strain is not more popular is the emphasis honey producers have historically placed on keeping over the winter stores of drawn comb. Giving the bees drawn comb in the following season means they do not have to create comb in which to store honey, which increases honey production by about 10%.

But recently, bee scientists have been advising us to force the bees to make new comb every year, principally in the brood nest, such that eggs are not laid and reared in pesticide contaminated comb. Increasingly, we suspect sub-lethal levels of contaminants in brood comb are having long term effects on bees and compromising bee health and survival.

In this scenario, you should harvest as much of your comb as possible, melt it down for reuse, and get the bees to draw new comb yearly, if you like. So keeping drawn comb has become less important.

Note as well that if you brush your new foundation with a thickish layer of your own clean beeswax, the bees will draw that out almost as rapidly as they do wax foundation. This makes for a great trade-off between saving the bees the time and calorie expense of drawing all new comb, and the practice of keeping drawn comb from year to year. Your own wax will be disease free and relatively low on contaminants.

Once you get more hives, you may want to invest in an uncapping knife or plane, and an extractor. And make a lot of bee friends who will come over and help you process! It is a huge, sticky, hot chore that must be done in a bee-proof room or garage. Making it a party helps a lot.

Note that warm honey extracts much more quickly and thoroughly than room temperature honey. You can use your imagination (I converted a small powder room and enclosed shower as my honey warming cupboard, complete with a thermostatically controlled heater, using an electronic cooking thermometer to monitor temperature) or buy a commercial warming cupboard. Honey at 90F extracts very quickly and filters quickly too.

British beekeepers often furnish the honey supers with drone foundation (which in their area is sized to fit shallow honey supers). Drone cells are larger and extract much, much more quickly than worker foundation.

You can also send your honey frames out for processing. Most large honey operations will extract your honey for a fee. You may or may not get your wax cappings and comb back.

Ultimately, your honey will wind up filtered and jarred. Honeys will eventually crystallize, some slower, some faster; it all depends upon the proportions of sugars from the floral sources the bees used. But honey that is properly cured to that magic 18% or less of water content will not go bad (moister honey will ferment…although technically, moist honey is not proper honey but partially cured nectar). Any honey that crystallizes can be gently rewarmed until the crystals melt.

Commercial honeys are super filtered and pasteurized…not to make them any safer, but to keep them resistant to crystallization. Alas this processing affects the flavour profile. Raw, lightly filtered, unheated honeys have more complex and subtle flavour notes. And I have had many allergy sufferers assure me that daily intake of a local honey reduces their incidence of hayfever.

Wax Handling and Uses

The most precious of the hive products is, IMHO, beeswax. It is easy to get the bees to produce more honey than they need. Relatively easy to garner some of their pollen and propolis. But getting bees to make extra wax…not so easy! So most of your beeswax will come from the cappings you remove during honey processing. The rest will come from the scrapings of burr comb you garner during inspections (you can amass a surprising amount over the season), and comb you sacrifice. If a comb is drawn badly it is better to scrape the frame clean, rewax and hope the bees do a better job next time. The best comb is drawn during a nectar flow, either actual or produced by feeding syrup. Combs drawn in a dearth are often incomplete or deformed.

At present I use all my saved beeswax to rewax bare foundation. But most beekeepers hope for enough to make candles, and many are now making salves and cosmetic products with their own wax. It can be sold to bulk suppliers as well.

Processing wax is pretty messy, particularly if you are melting down brood comb, which contains layers of old cocoons and probably larvae and bees. You are left with a huge amount of solids, commonly called “slumgum”. Generally raw wax is simmered in water, and when cooled the wax forms a cake on top of the water. Then the wax is gently re-melted and filtered before use.

You will want to do this in equipment purpose purchased for the wax processing line, and be mindful that wherever you do this, wax drips will abound. So drop cloths and sheets are essential. Most of us set up a corner of the garage…use the kitchen and you will earn the wrath of the cook!

It is important in wax processing to remember that wax is highly flammable. Open flame heat is not wise. Exercise the most extreme caution!

I use an inverter hotplate for safety.

Planning for the Next Season

By the end of summer we are thinking ahead to winter prep and how to get the maximum number of our colonies through until spring…and since overwintered colonies are usually extremely vigourous, “like Ferrari engines” as one of my mentors said, we need to plan ahead for what to do as the spring colonies explode with brood and gather swarm energy (in this warm year swarms were prepped and flying in March…I expect we’ll see a repeat in 2016).

Your preferred method of swarm control will dictate the equipment necessary: you have all winter to get it ready. If you plan to do splits, you will need extra hive setups, including lots of frames ready to go. If you are selling bees, you will need nuc boxes and frames.

This is the time to plan next season’s goals and think about numbers of colonies and siting, whether you will do queen replacements next season, or work to bring in some interesting genetic endowments via new queens. Are you going to raise your own queens or buy them? Can you do some targeted succession sowings of bee forage?

And you’ll need a marking pen in next year’s colour! Will You Raise Good Bees? White, Yellow, Red, Green, Blue is the rotation. 2016 will be a White year.

Winter Mite Control

Because we cannot open the hives for full inspections in the winter, we are limited in winter mite control methods. The most effective is oxalic acid, which is applied on or close to Midwinter’s Day, December 21st. At this time, the amount of brood in the hive will be at a minimum (if there is any at all), and all mites will be phoretic (on the bodies of adult bees). Oxalic acid is either applied as a dribble or a vapour, allowing the bees to go into the spring brood-up with low mite levels, producing healthy new summer bees as the long lived winter bees finally start to die.

The other method of mite control is to leave a grease patty on the hives over the winter. This controls for both tracheal and varroa mites.

Here endeth the Apprentice Beekeeper lessons!

Final Exam Preparation

To prepare for the final exam, read the links in the exam prep page. The exam will be open book/open computer, multiple choice, and we’ll mark them after writing. After a discussion you may, if necessary, re-write the exam as many times as necessary to score 90%, which earns you a pass and a certificate of completion.

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