Spring feeding and solar melters

 I started feeding bees again today. I have been hearing of severe losses and I couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. So with out any fanfare,  I loaded up some Mega Bee patties and headed out for a look-see.

At this time of the year the ground is still frozen here in Connecticut and therefore it’s a great time to collect dead outs and check stores before  mud season begins. My first stop was a large wintering yard where I usually have fifty or so hives during the winter. This year I put forty eight colonies there. About half were full sized colonies and the remainder are single story colonies that had been queen mating nucs that I built up to ten frames to winter over. I hadn’t been there since last November when I stopped feeding.

I lifted the first cover– DEAD, @#$%, this looks bad! I lifted the next cover– ALIVE, the next –ALIVE, the next– ALIVE, and so on and so on!  Out of forty eight colonies, I only lost two!!! Needless to say my anxiety levels plummeted. I went to the next yard and lost two out of ten. The next yard, all ten alive, the next yard, two out of ten dead. I came home and checked my home yard, Two dead out of eighteen! Went to a yard in Brooklyn eleven of eleven alive!   I have to be honest and say that I have a few that look very weak and won’t amount to much for a long time if they even make it till April. With all things considered, it appears that my winter die off will be a lot lighter than many beekeepers are experiencing. I attribute this to the thousands of dollars I spent last fall feeding to not only prevent starvation, but also to get the queens laying brood for winter bees. The payoff is that I will not need to buy bees to replace dead outs and will have plenty of bees to increase another fifty hives and also raise some queens.

As I find dead out hives, I  load them onto my truck and bring them home to clean up in the warmth of my shop. One thing that I do in the field is make sure there are no signs of American Foulbrood and then separate the combs of honey to feed to colonies that are light on stores. This is a very easy way to save a starving colony. Even with the temps in the thirties, I can pull out empty combs and place full ones either side of the cluster. This causes minimal disturbance to the bees and the reward far out weighs the stress of working hives in the cold. I give all colonies a Mega Bee patty and close them up. I feel that it is still a little early to feed sugar syrup and as long as I have some combs of honey to feed the needy, I will wait a couple weeks to give syrup. This is the benefit of starting my spring feeding in September! If the bees have lots of food then few will be starving in February. The ones that die, generally do so from other causes ( like mites) and usually will leave honey to feed the hungry ones.

When I return home I try to immediately get to cleaning up the empty hives. In years past , I have stacked them up outside and got to them “later”. Sometimes that “later” turned  out to be more like  April and May. By then the dead bees and some of the stored pollen would have started to mold, resulting in far too many ruined combs. Nowadays,  I brush off the dead bees and then scrape propolis and  burr comb immediately. I can then cull the old dark combs and recycle the old wax. Any rotted boxes or bottom boards are turned into heat in the wood stove. I seldom repair more than a broken rabbet on a hive body and usually burn all but  the best of the melted out  frames. They are just too much work to clean up and reuse.  

Now would be a good time to mention my solar wax melter. Several years ago, I made one that will hold five deep frames and seven medium frames. It works great in hot sunny weather. Most summer days I can run two batches. On one day when it was nearly 100 degrees out , I had the interior temp at 206 degrees! Last year we had so much grey weather that it went weeks in a row with no action. The end result was that I lost a lot of wax that just rotted or got wax moths. I have an alternative of a very large pot to boil wax in, but with propane prices as high as they have been, it didn’t seem worth while to render them that way. I think that I will make a second solar melter this year then be able to process them twice as fast. It’s worth mentioning that while I don’t get all the wax from the combs, I do get the best of it with little further processing needed in order to use it for waxing plastic foundation.

As is usually the case , I have wandered from my original topic and need to get back to the point. While I have not yet checked half of my bees, things look good as spring approaches. Each year is different and I am sure that this year will bring it’s own share of challenges. I  hope we have a good crop of honey because last year was just rotten!   One thing is for certain, it feels good to be back working bees even if I am wearing a winter coat while doing it.

Package bees and five frame nucs

Well here we are, it’s early February and the package bee orders are rolling in! Each year it seems like as soon as the days start getting noticeably longer, beekeepers start thinking about spring and a new start. To most it means replacing dead outs and many are adding a few new hives. In this era of varroa and all the related problems associated with mites, too many bees go just to replace hives that died out over the winter. I wish that this wasn’t the case, but no matter how hard we try,  20% and sometimes as many as 50% or more of the  bees in the northern half of the country die each winter.

It is very easy to blame all these losses on  varroa mites or other mysterious malady’s, but the truth is, that’s not all that goes wrong. Let’s take the last season for example.  As I mentioned in an earlier post ( The year with no summer!) , last year was a disaster. Any nectar flow was spotty at best and the queens just stopped laying  brood by mid July. This resulted in small  populations of old bees going into the fall and many colonies died before winter set in! This, my friends, for the most part, could have been  avoided. Yes, that is what I said, it could have been avoided!  The problem was that many beekeepers realized too late in the game that their bees were in serious trouble. The old days of supering up in June and forgetting about the bees until fall are long gone. If you expect to keep bees in this day and age you have to be more watch full during the summer. This includes watching the bees but also minding the  nectar flow, or lack thereof, as well.

By mid summer I was feeding sugar  syrup to many of my bees. Mostly the ones that I had started in the spring as replacements and  for increasing my number of hives. By September 15th, I was feeding all of my bees and I didn’t stop until November 1st when it got too cold. It cost thousands of dollars but the end result was that I got the queens laying in the fall and for the most part, they went into winter cluster with a good population of young fat bees.  While it is early yet, I have snuck a peek at some of my bees and from what I can see, they seem to be doing well. Light on stores but healthy. I expect to start feeding in a couple weeks because we are still 9 to 10 weeks away from any nectar flow and they just don’t have the reserves to go that long.

This is not really a new problem or a new remedy! In 1908, “A year’s Work in an Out-Apiary by G M Doolittle” (re published by Wicwas press in 2005,  available from www.wicwas.com), Doolittle confronted a similar year. It rained when it should have been sunny and was sunny when it should have rained. By judicially feeding combs of stored honey back to the bees, he was able to keep the queens laying and still managed to get a very respectable crop of honey. I collect back issues of Gleanings in Bee Culture (going back into the 1800s) and often spend nights reading them. A recurring problem is winter losses of 20 to 50%. This was long before varroa ever caused the loss of a single colony in this hemisphere . Time after time, the writers of these old articles stressed the importance of feeding not only to prevent starvation, but also to stimulate large clusters of young healthy bees for the winter. They also say time and again that no other livestock enterprise could  tolerate such huge losses and still remain in business.

Don’t think for one minute that I am claiming to be immune to winter losses. I have killed bees in most imaginable manners and then some. But one thing is for sure, I vowed years ago not to let any more bees starve. While it costs money to feed bees, it costs a whole lot more to replace them in the spring, not to mention the lost honey crop or potential splits they might have produced. Each spring we all vow to do better than last year and some of us do just that,  and some just keep making the same mistakes. I keep thinking of Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day”  Every morning he wakes up and keeps living the same day over and over until at the end of the story he sees the light and gets every thing right. Then he gets the Girl and can go home!  Perhaps this is what we beekeepers are destined to do.

In any event, we still have package bees available, although the March load is sold out. This year because we can only get so many packages from Wilbanks, we also will have 5 frame nucs available in mid to late April. We have a good supply available and hope to be able to meet the demand. These  nucs will come with a queen who was mated in the nuc and there should be no issues with queen acceptance. In addition, because they are stocked with frames of brood, they will have new bees hatching out from day one and the populations will continue to expand immediately instead waiting four weeks for newly hatched bees like a  package requires. This benefit out ways the additional cost of a nuc over a package.

So, like they say in the movie ” Wake up campers!, It’s Groundhog Day!!!!