Worried about my bees

Yesterday afternoon I was outside in a short-sleeve tee admiring the sky, a clear ethereal blue above a jagged frame of alder, maple, and fir. As I gazed beyond the pasture, a meteor slashed the blue just above the tree line, ripped an arc through the sky, and vanished in a heartbeat. Is it even possible, I wondered, to see a meteor at 3:15 in the afternoon or was I crazy?

I went online to find an answer, only to learn we were entering the Orionid meteor shower at that very moment. How cool is that? Oh, and I found the answer, “Yes, it is possible to see a meteor in the daytime, but good luck setting up your lawn chair and looking for one.” Serendipity, I guess.

But the reason I was outside is more problematic. It is impossibly warm for October. The alders are still wearing their summer clothes, the aronia leaves refuse to turn, and my bean plants have flowers. The air smells of humus and earthworms, and my bees seem to think it’s August.

My colonies are actively bringing in pollen in shades of white and Day-Glo orange. Sure, pollen is good, and so are all those empty intestines. But nary a bee is bringing in nectar. I see none of those distended, nearly translucent, abdomens that signal a full honey crop. No, these bees are not storing nectar for the winter, they are using it up.

When foraging bees look for nectar and don’t find it, they expend a huge amount of energy. They fly from place to place and often come home with an empty crop. They refuel from the colony’s winter supply, and try again the next day. Each day that flying weather persists, the stores are diminished.

Even more worrisome is the fact that here in western Washington—at least in my area—the honey season was not great. The biggest flow, blackberries, was cut short by a hot and dry summer, and the fall flow didn’t amount to much. I fear many northwest bees will go hungry this winter unless their keepers are alert.

I hate to feed sugar. I believe honey bees should eat honey, and to that end I keep a large reserve for emergency feeding. But there is no way I have enough to feed all my colonies for most of the winter.

Each balmy afternoon, I get a little more worried. I purchased 200 pounds of granulated sugar as an hors d’oeuvre. Tomorrow I will buy more, stack the bags to the ceiling, shoo away the ants. Meanwhile, my bees are out there cavorting with the meteors, sunning themselves on the porch, partaking of the facilities. Silly bees . . . if only they had cable.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Moisture quilts should be dry

Every now and again someone wants to know what happens when my moisture quilts become saturated. One beekeeper wrote, “I can’t believe you keep a soggy pillow over top your bees.”

The short answer is simple. I don’t.

Here’s the issue: if your moisture quilts are soggy, they are not made correctly. Moisture quilts are designed to regulate moisture, not store it. As I’ve said before, nothing improved my overwintering more dramatically that moisture quilts. My hives remain dry inside, the quilts are never wet, and the bees thrive. Since using them, I’ve routinely overwintered 80% to 100% of my hives.

Remember, moisture quilts are not a new concept. They have been in use for decades by Warré beekeepers with great success, and they are easily adapted to Langstroth hives.

Built correctly, moisture quilts never become saturated. Never. In fact, before I tried them for the first time, I was convinced I would have to replace the chips mid-winter. But I never have. I’ve used the same chips year after year.

Here are some important points:

Water vapor from the hive does not condense on the bottom of the moisture quilt—that’s not how they work. Warm water vapor from the bees’ respiration (water in the gaseous state) rises. Still in the gaseous state, the vapor finds its way through the wood chips, moving between and around the pieces as air does. At some point, the vapor reaches the cold under surface of the hive cover where it condenses. That condensation rains down and is collected on the TOP surface of the wood chips—the side away from your bees.

The wooden frame of the moisture quilt contains a number of ventilation ports which allow the wood chips to dry out and also provides a source of ventilation for your hive. At most, I have seen the top ¼-inch of the wood chips become damp (and I live in an extremely wet climate). I can’t actually see the moisture except for the fact that the wet chips are slightly darker than the dry ones.

But humidity varies from day to day. So while the dampness collects on the wood chips during certain combinations of temperature, humidity, and wind, it disappears during other combinations of temperature, humidity, and wind. Basically, the top layer collects and then releases moisture over the course of the winter—some days it is damp, some days it is bone dry. But you never have a “soggy pillow” in your hive. And since the water that does collect remains on the top surface of the quilt, your bees never touch a damp surface.

Another benefit of the chips above the bees is that they provide good ventilation. Since the air must find channels or pathways between the chips, it travels more slowly than if it had a straight shot from the entrance to the ventilation ports. In other words, you get good ventilation without creating a wind tunnel through your hive.

If you want even more insulation, you can make thicker quilts which will slow down air movement even more. The ventilation ports can be restricted to the top of the wood chip layer since that is where the moisture collects.

I keep a feeder rim beneath my quilts in case I want to feed hard candy or granulated sugar. This is easy to do, and since the feeder rim is below the quilt, enough moisture will collect on the feed to make it palatable for the bees, but the rest of the moisture will go up through the quilt and then be caught by it.

The moisture quilt is such a slick system and works so well that if I were selling them, I’d give a money-back guarantee. I have complete faith in them. That said, they have to be built properly. Simply put: if you’ve got soggy pillows, you’re not following directions.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Fall management of honey bees

The six weeks between Labor Day and Columbus Day are often considered the fall management window. Although southern beekeepers can wait longer, most North American beekeepers can use this rule of thumb with good results.

The objective of fall management

The purpose of fall management is to assure your colonies remain healthy throughout the winter so they can build up quickly in the spring. To remain healthy your colonies must be disease-free, well fed, and led by a robust and productive queen.

In the textbook Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping (2013), Caron and Connor recommend that beekeepers make two fall inspections. The September 1 inspection is used to gather information on each hive and take corrective action. The mid-October inspection is the wrap-up when you see if your corrections worked and make any last-minute tweaks, if necessary.

Colony size and location in the hive

Colony size and location are both important for good overwintering. Although the location of the cluster is easy to fix, colony size can be more problematic. A colony of bees has its own plan for getting through the winter. To change that plan, the beekeeper has to manipulate conditions in the hive. This works for the most part, although there is always a colony that won’t comply no matter what you do.

Ideally, the cluster should be in the center of the lowest brood box. Adjacent to the cluster should be frames of pollen. Frames of honey should be against the outer walls of the lowest brood box and should fill the frames of the box overhead. To adjust the colony’s location, simply move the frames around as necessary without breaking up the nest.

Colonies can have size problems: they are either too big or too small. An overly large colony can eat through stores before the winter even begins, whereas a small colony may not have enough bee-power to keep itself warm and viable. So what is the right size? Like everything in beekeeping, it depends on where you live. Caron & Connor suggest that 30,000 bees is an average number for fall.

How to manipulate colony size

Overly large colonies (often the result of new or Italian queens) can sometimes be thwarted by feeding large quantities of heavy syrup. The bees store this in or near the brood nest, which has the effect of shrinking it. Large colonies can also be diminished by restricting the queen to the lowest brood box until cold weather sets in.

Raising the population of small colonies is more difficult. Beekeepers have reported success by feeding a light syrup of 1:1 or even 1:2 (one part sugar to two parts water) in small daily increments (so it is used and not stored). Often this feeding is combined with replacing a few honey-filled frames near the brood nest with empty drawn frames, giving the queen a place to lay. A good supply of pollen is also necessary for brood rearing. If pollen is scarce in the environment, give supplemental pollen in small doses (small so it is used up before attracting beetles).

If you are lucky enough to have both types of colonies—overly large and way too small—you can equalize. This is the technique I like best. First I evaluate all the colonies for size, and then I take frames of brood from the overly large colonies and give them to the small ones. I brush them free of adults (to avoid fighting) and then simply place the frames of brood alongside the existing small brood nest.

Now, three caveats about equalizing:

  • To avoid spreading disease, don’t equalize unless the colonies are disease free.
  • Do not add more brood than the nurse bees can cover. Brood that is not covered will be abandoned and the dead bees become a burden to the colony. You may be able to add brood in increments: give a small frame of brood, wait for it to partially hatch, and then add another. Make sure your bees have honey and pollen.
  • Equalization can be disrupting to a colony that has different plans for winter. I like to complete all equalization during the first inspection (early September) so the colony can sort itself out before winter sets in. If a situation drastically changes between the two inspections, I may equalize then, although I try to avoid it.

Combining colonies is an alternative strategy that is especially fitting when you have a tiny colony, or if you don’t have enough brood frames to equalize or enough nurses to cover. Always combine a weak colony with a strong one. Nearly always, a weak colony added to a weak colony produces a weak colony, and chances are slim it will see spring.

Other items for the first inspection

  • Check for honey stores: Feed any colony that is short on honey or pollen, or make note of those that will need supplemental frames of honey.
  • Evaluate your mite load: If you haven’t already assessed your mite numbers, do it now. If your mite count warrants intervention, use your preferred method of control. Mites are probably the number one cause of winter loss, so they can’t be ignored.
  • Look for other diseases. While you are evaluating your colony for size, be alert for signs of other disease and take corrective measures if necessary.
  • Reduce entrances. Besides helping to stop robbing bees and wasps, smaller entrances discourage mice and other furries from taking up residence in the hive. Reducers are especially important if you are feeding wet frames.

The second and final inspection

  • Check colony size: this is your last chance to correct for colony size. Any management item that didn’t work should be obvious by now.
  • Inspect honey stores: Continue to feed colonies that are light or provide frames of honey from storage.
  • Add winter insulation and ventilation systems: If you will be using hive wraps, moisture boards, quilts, hay bales, rain roofs, or whatever, now is the time to put them in place. Winter is just around the corner.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

How many bees is enough? Pixabay photo by PollyDot.
How many bees is enough? Pixabay photo by PollyDot.

 

How much honey should I leave in my hive?

How much honey will your bees need for winter? Good question. But before I answer, here’s a question for you: How much heating fuel will my household use this winter?

Well, you say, that is complex. It depends on where you live, your local climate, and the size and geometry of your house. It depends on what type of furnace you have, how warm you like it, and how many people live there. It depends on how much insulation you have, and whether you have wind breaks, and what color it is. It depends on air leaks and ventilation and the materials it is made from. It depends on whether the seasons are early or late. And on and on.

Your bee colony has different issues, of course, but just as many. The climate and weather, the amount of ventilation, the structure of the hive, the number of bees, the kind of bees, the number of warmish days and the number of abnormally cold ones are some obvious examples. The fact is, you can’t predict exactly how much honey a colony will need, so it is better to estimate on the high side.

I checked dozens of sources this morning and found an amazing amount of agreement on general guidelines. Bees in the southern U.S. may thrive on as little as 40 pounds, bees in the middle states need about 60, and northern bees may require 80 or 90. Those are average numbers for average years and average hives. What’s average? Another good question.

In all but the warmest areas, I recommend that a beekeeper leave 80 to 90 pounds. In nearly all cases, this will assure a good supply of natural food for your bees, and it will save you messing around with syrups and sugars and supplements. In short, it is good for them and good for you.

The Mann Lake catalog used to have estimates for the weight of full boxes. According to them, a full ten-frame deep weighs 80-90 pounds, and a full ten-frame medium weighs 65-75 pounds. Discounting the weight of the structure and dividing by 10, a full deep frame holds about 8 pounds of honey and full medium holds about 6 pounds. (If you evenly space nine frames in a ten-frame box, a full frame will weigh a bit more.)

According to Caron and Conner (2013), the ideal fall colony will have brood in the center of the lowest box. This will be flanked with frames of honey and pollen, and the two outermost frames will be filled with just honey. The second deep will be filled to the brim with honey—all ten frames.

Applying the math to their ideal colony, you will have 12 deep frames completely full of honey which gives you (8 x 12) or 96 pounds, plus any additional that is stored on the pollen frames.

This setup should get you through any winter, but in the more temperate states, you could easily replace the second deep with a medium, which would give you (6 x 12) or 72 pounds of honey plus any additional on the pollen frames.

A common error that new beekeepers make is harvesting the honey supers without checking the brood boxes for honey. You cannot assume the deeps are full just because the honey supers are full. Often the bees use one or both brood boxes for brood and pollen during most of the season. Not until late in the year do they start moving the honey closer to the brood nest. If you take the supers without checking, you could be leaving your bees with almost nothing for the winter. So above all, remember to look before you take.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

A-full-frame-of-honey
A full frame of honey. © Nancy McClure.

When the feed is too close

A beekeeper near San Francisco complained that her bees wouldn’t leave her hummingbird feeder alone, so she set up an open feeder containing sugar syrup directly in front of her hives to divert the bees from the hummingbirds. Much to her dismay, the bees continued to dine at the bird feeder and ignore the syrup she provided in her apiary.

She decided that her bees must prefer hummingbird nectar over plain sugar syrup, so she replaced the syrup in the bee feeder with hummingbird food mixed with water. Still the bees ignored their feeder and returned to join the hummingbirds. What is going on?

As we know, honey bees are brilliant at pointing their sisters to distant food sources. The waggle dance is used for food sources that are far from the hive, and the round dance—which contains less information—is used for sources that are less than about 50-70 meters from the hive.

But according to some observers, honey bees have a problem when the source is very close. Why is this?

Jürgen Tautz in The Buzz about Bees says this about the round dance:

A round dance contains only some information about the quality feeding site. An indication is merely given about what to look for, and that this source can be found close to the nest. A bee that returns from visiting a cherry flower will smell like cherries, and a cherry tree can be found easily enough after a few flight around the hive.

But a bee coming home with a sample of sugar syrup isn’t going to smell like a flower. So even though the sugar tastes sweet, it will be difficult for a bee to explain the location to her nest mates if the syrup is less than 50-70 meters away. If it doesn’t look like a flower, and it doesn’t smell like a flower, the bees really have no reason to check it out. Some will probably find it—more or less by accident—but when they return home to report their finding, they have the same problem: how to explain the location.

In this case, it was probably much easier for the bees to locate the hummingbird feeder (which was much further away and brightly colored) than the open bee feeder that was in tripping distance of the hives. It seems that the bees will eventually find these sources, but the process is more random and takes longer than you might expect.

I have found that a drop of flavoring oil—something like tea tree, spearmint, lemon grass, anise, or peppermint—solves the problem in no time. When the bee returns to the hive smelling delicious, and she explains that the source is nearby by using the round dance, her nest mates will search in the vicinity of the hive for the scent she has delivered and immediately find the source, even if it doesn’t look like a flower.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Let the hummingbirds eat in peace. © Rusty Burlew.
Let the hummingbirds eat in peace. © Rusty Burlew.