Essays

Nucs? or Packages?

With the surge in interest in beekeeping during the last eight or ten years, there are a lot of terms that get bantied about on the net, often with the writers not really knowing what they are saying. Two such terms are “nucs” and “packages”. So I am going to take a little time to explain what these are.

PACKAGE BEES; Package bees or “packages” are the most common way for beginners and small scale beekeepers to establish a colony of honey bees. Basically the package part is a wooden box with two screen sides. Inside this package is a framework that supports a can of syrup that provides a temporary food source during transport. The producers, usually down south or out in California, add three lbs of bees (about 10,000) and a mated queen who is also in a small cage inside this package. They also provide a can of sugar syrup as a temporary feeder during shipment. This is all you need to start a colony of bees and over the decades, millions of these have been shipped North during the months of April, May and June. Up until about 35 years ago, the Post Office handled most of these, shipping them with few losses and beekeepers would eagerly wait for a call from the local post office saying that the bees were in and to come get them. This started to change about the time I started keeping bees in 1980. Suddenly the quality of the delivery started to slip and often the bees would be rough shape when they arrived and beekeepers started to complain. This opened up an opportunity for specialized shippers to travel down to, say, Georgia, pick up a load of packages and drive directly home and distribute them in less than 24 hours. This has now become the preferred way to ship package bees.

Once installed into a beehive, the package bees get right to work, building comb and raising the next generation of bees. During the larval and pupae stages, beekeepers call these developing bees “brood”. Getting a good start on brood rearing is very important as during the warm months, an individual bee has an adult lifespan of less than six weeks. In addition, with package bees, the population of adult bees begins to decrease as the older workers begin to age out. We have to assume that it will take a week for the queen to be released from her shipping cage and begin to lay eggs.Then the newly laid eggs will require three weeks to hatch, grow through the larval stage, pupate and then emerge three weeks later. This means that it will be a month before any new adults are added to the colony and there has been a steady attrition in the population of bees that you purchased. This is similar to what happens when a colony is established by a natural swarm so its not really anything to worry about but it comes as a surprise to many beginners. Within 6 weeks from installation, the population in a healthy colony started from a 3 lb package will rapidly begin to expand and be on its way to becoming a robust colony by mid to late summer.

Lets step back and talk about how Mother Nature makes more colonies. After a beekeeper develops proficiency in keeping his or her bees alive throughout the winter, they will soon begin to have surplus bees come springtime. As a matter of fact, one of the most respected beekeepers in the world, Randy Oliver, has said that you aren’t truly a beekeeper until this happens. Each spring, a normal healthy colony of bees will replace the old wintered bees and then rapidly expand their population in preparation for swarming. Swarming is a process of colony division where the worker bees will stimulate the queen to lay 1200 or more eggs a day until they have 50-60,000 workers, several hundred Drones, (male bees), and between 10 and 20 special larvae that will become new queens. Usually several days before these new queens hatch out, the old queen and about half of the workers and drones will leave the hive to start a new colony of bees. Quite often, the hive will issue more than one swarm resulting in a dramatic reduction in the number of remaining bees. In nature, these parent colonies will end up with a new queen and sufficient bees to survive and rebuild into a colony that is capable of surviving till the next season. These swarms only have about a 25 percent chance of surviving till their first birthday. Nobody ever said that Mother Nature was nice!  Now if the beekeeper manages to catch these swarms and properly cares for them, they will have a much better chance of surviving and the beekeeper will have more bees. (Hopefully they will visit A&Z Apiaries to purchase more hives! ) The problem is that most often these swarms issue and depart without us even seeing them or they will alight 50 feet up in a tree and we cant collect them. Then they move into a cavity somewhere and become feral hives with a very uncertain future. Meanwhile, back at our parent hive, the population has been drastically reduced to the point where they will produce little or no surplus honey for the beekeeper.

So what can we do? One way that many beekeepers will attempt to circumvent the swarming process is by preemptively dividing the colony. The resulting divisions are called Nucleus colonies, or nucs for short. What happens is this; After the colony has recovered from winter and has begun to grow rapidly, the beekeeper will remove several combs of brood and the adhering bees. These combs are installed in a new hive box along with a comb of food reserves, several empty combs to allow for future expansion, and a new queen. This queen can be a mated queen that was usually raised down South or the beekeeper could insert a fully developed queen cell that is ready to emerge in a day or so. Once the queen has been released from her shipping cage or has hatched, matured and mated, she will begin to lay eggs and we now have a new colony of bees and hopefully our overwintered hive will have lost the urge to swarm and will settle down to storing a crop of honey for the beekeeper. Now the beekeeper also has one or more new colonies of bees that can be used to replace winter losses, expand the apiary, or can be sold to another beekeeper.

Other than the benefits previously discussed, there are a few more very important things to consider. In this day of Varroa mites and their associated viruses, there is a lot of interest in selecting bees that are adapted to the seasonal conditions that we experience here in the colder climates. I raise several hundred nucs each year, some to replace winter losses, some for increase in my apiaries and many for sale to other beekeepers. My breeding program is simple. Each spring I select the best 1% of my over wintered colonies. The queens from these hives are used to provide larvae that are used to raise the queens in my nucs. My selection process starts when I remove my crop in the fall by marking the best producers. Then I start eliminating hives from the pool based on mite loads, temperament, low late fall population, excessive food consumption, and presence of disease. When spring arrives, once again I evaluate them based upon food consumption, cluster size and brood pattern. I don’t baby my potential breeders, in fact I have moved some of my best colonies to my most exposed bee yards in Upstate New York just to see how they handle it. I don’t claim to have the perfect bee nor do I claim that they are immune to the mites, but I do try to the best I can.

Lets discuss pros and cons of packages vs nucs. Packages are significantly less expensive than nucs. Packages generally arrive earlier than when our locally raised nucs are ready. Packages are far more plentiful than local nucs. When you first start a package you assume the risk of the queen being successfully accepted by the bees, the queens in a nuc have already been accepted by the bees and we have evaluated her egg and larvae production. When you start a package, the population will start to decrease and wont increase for 4-5 weeks, an nuc should have emerging brood from the beginning and will expand a lot faster than a package. The queen in a package was raised in the South or California or Hawaii, the queens in our nucs are raised here in CT from our best overwintered stock. A few more things to consider, especially for beginners. Each year I get nuc orders from beginners who then become anxious to get their bees early. They see the Spring going by and they want their bees. No matter what my customers want, I wont deliver a nuc until I am certain that it is living up to my standards. Many times the weather will also delay the production of nucs and there is nothing that I can do about it.

I hope that this essay provides some clarification of the terms that you will read about while researching honeybees. The Eastern CT Beekeepers Assn runs beekeeping classes during the winter months and if you are considering starting some Honey Bee colonies I urge you to take the class. there is more info on the clubs site www.myecba.org .

 

Assembling Equipment

Today I assembled the last frame that I ever plan to assemble in my life. Thirty one years ago on March 30th 1980, I bought my first hive of bees. They were in a rotting hive that was leaning up against an abondoned chicken coop in Lebanon CT. I paid $75.00 for the hive and a pickup load of assorted empty honey supers. The bees I bought were in an old hive body that had a few frames, but mostly natural comb. Fortunately, I ended up at an A I Root dealers home for some advise and some supplies. The dealer, Bill Gerdsen, suggested that I add a second hive body of new frames and foundation above the original box and then wait for the bees and queen to move up. I then put an excluder under the new hive body and waited for the brood to hatch out. I next added a second new hive body and removed the old combs from my first hive body.

Thus began years of assembling frames with a hammer and nails. In those days, beekeepers went to either Root or Dadant dealers and bought hive parts from them ( at very high prices). Root frames were made like furniture. Even the bottom bars were drilled for nails. We used “Medium Brood Foundation” which had no wires so we put in  four horizontal wires and then imbeded them with an electric imbeder. We even put eye-lets in the wire holes in the side bars. It would take 8 hours for me to assemble, wire and install wax foundation for 100 frames.

As time went by, I switched to vertically wired foundation and just used two horizontal wires and then stopped putting eye-lets in the side bars. This speeded things up noticeably, I could probably do 150 frames in a day. Then, in 1989, I bought a pneumatic stapler. I could now assemble 100 frames in about one hour and fifteen minutes. I got so I could wire and install foundation in 40 frames each hour. This was how I did things for the next 19 years.The only thing I changed was that I switched to using budget grade frames. These worked beautifully and cost a lot less that the commercial grade. I tried using a few hundred Peirco one peice plastic frames. I had good luck getting them drawn out but did not like the way that the bees made so much brace comb that it made the frames and supers difficult to separate  from one another. I also found that my chain uncapper vibrated the flimsy plastic frames so much that it would strip most of the comb from the frame. I kept building wood and wax frames. Probably 20,000 of them!

It was Reg Wilbanks who convinced me to start using wood frames and plastic foundation. So, in 2008, I started using plastic foundation. I switched to grooved top bars and just snapped a sheet of plastic foundation. Now I could put together a completed frame a minute!  This brings me to this past week. I had purchased 1500 frames last year and just received my order of plastic foundation from Dadant. I went to work on the frames, vowing to assemble an average of two hundred each day. This would still allow me the bulk of the work day to help my friend Lex Nishbal build a new set of kitchen cabinets in my shop. Low and behold, in ten days I had all of the frames done, completing 600 last weekend. Feeling proud of my accomplishment, I tallied up the hours and calculated that I had worked nearly 30 hours to complete 1500 frames.

I got to thinking. How much would it have cost me to buy them assembled from Dadant? I checked the catalogue and found a price of  $1.71 each by the thousand. I had paid $0.58 for the frames, $0.69 for unwaxed foundation, and added in $0.19 each to allow for the cost of waxing. This comes to $1.45 each as my cost to buy the parts. I then subtracted my result from Dadants  price of a $1.71 and came up with$0.26 each to assemble a frame. This comes to $13.00 per hour. This does not even include the fact that I had to use $40.00 worth of staples and I still need to wax the foundation, something that I  do because I like a heavier coat of wax than is provided by the suppliers. 

I kept thinking, What could I have accomplished in those thirty hours?  My answer was a whole heck of a lot more than save $350.00 by assembling 1500 frames!!!!!!  This is why I will never assemble another frame for the rest of my life!

How big should my packages bee?

Its early January and the package orders are rolling in. I was going to say the phone has been ringing off the hook, but in reality most of my orders now come from the net. I resisted setting up a web site for years, mostly because I didn’t know what to do. I got some help to start and then took over the reigns. While I admit that this site is amateurish, it draws from an immense audience and my established customers can just send an email and I can respond on my schedule. If there are changes in the delivery dates, ( as  usually seems to happen), I can put up a notice and keep hundreds of customers instantly updated. Think of all those calls I don’t need to make. One thing is for sure, if you have a simple question or need to order bees, you can send an email. On the other hand, if you need a more detailed answer or just want to talk bees, you can always call me on the phone.

A lot of beekeepers email me with questions about what type of bees I sell and then there are the ones who want to know what size packages to order. Last week, someone asked about ordering extra queen less packages to augment the populations of the other two packages he ordered. He felt that adding bees would speed things up and increase the chances of his colony surviving.  While this will be an initial boost, I feel that, depending upon what he wanted to accomplish with his bees, he would be wasting his money. Let me explain. He was ordering bees for early April. If he needed a large population of bees to pollinate apple trees on May 5th then this would help. Six pounds of bees would give him an initial population of about 18,000 – 20,000 bees. This would result in more rapid drawing of comb and brood development. By the end of four weeks, he would have new bees hatching and the queen would start laying a second brood cycle in the oldest cells. This in turn would create additional demand for pollen and there would still be possibly  3000-5000 field bees available to collect pollen. This would be a great pollinator!

Now lets assume that he just wanted to start a new colony for honey production. A three lb package would give him about 10,000 bees to begin with. At the end of four weeks, the colony would have drawn out about eight frames and like the six lb package, new bees would be hatching. Unlike the large package, there would be just 1500 to 2500 bees available to forage. This is not a real problem. Here in southern New England, our spring honey flow can begin by the tenth of May and will be over by the end of June. Neither of these colonies would be built up sufficientlyto store a surplus honey crop on the early flow. The large package would probably have drawn its second hive body and the smaller package would still have some work to do but would be catching up rapidly. By the end of July, assuming that the both hives had some natural nectar or supplemental feeding, they probably would be similar in size and population and getting ready for the fall flow. Around here, this starts between the second and third week in August. If the summer dearth was pronounced, both hives would have required feeding just to feed the existing bees and keep the queen laying so there are young healthy bees available to raise new workers for the fall. The small 3lb package would need to finish filling its second box and the 6 lb package, well, you would need to feed all those bees you raised on the Spring flow and you still would have to raise bees for the fall. If there is a strong fall flow, both hives could produce a couple supers of honey and both hives would be strong enough to overwinter. The end result is that my customer would have spent an extra $75.00 to get to the same place at the same time.

Last summer, I set up a demonstration in the yard where our bee club does its workshops. I had one overwintered colony that was too weak for pollination but was building nicely. I added one that was started on drawn comb on March 27th but had been split on May 19th, one on foundation on March 27, one on April 25th, one from a five frame nuc on April 10th, one from a swarm in mid May and lastly one from the final load of packages on June 5th. I told the class that with the exception of the over wintered colony, all of these hives would be the same on September 15th. On September 15th, the overwintered hive had four supers of honey and all of the other hives looked exactly the same, two boxes of bees ready for fall feeding. Once again, if there had been a fall flow, they all would have had a couple boxes of honey.

This year, I plan on starting some 2lb packages for expansion. I am confident that they will  be plenty strong in time for the fall flow. So to summarize, The best hives are the ones that overwinter. If you have a young queen and prevent swarming then you have a good chance of a honey crop. The second best would be a package or nuc installed in late March on drawn comb. This hive has a chance at the end of the spring flow. Every thing else will have to wait until Fall. Naturally, this depends upon plenty of resources for the bees to build up with, either natural or provided by the Beekeeper. I will talk about starting new colonies in my next post. Right now I have 18″ of new snow on the ground to deal with.   Keep on Beein’   Adam

A new year

Today is the first day of my  beekeeping year. During bee school,  I am often asked when does the year start? This of coarse depends upon your point of view. I tell people to start spring feeding on September 15th, and from my view this is sort of the start for me. If my bees are not all fed to refusal then I have no right to expect them to be alive in March. As I have said many times before, fall feeding is not just to keep their bellies full, it also is to stimulate the queen to lay a final brood cycle into October. These young healthy bees will be the ones who go into the winter cluster and ultimately raise the brood in late winter. Healthy bees raise healthy bees! I have been able to take relatively week colonies in the fall and by feeding sugar syrup and a pollen substitute, I have been able to save colonies that would have died without my intervention. So sometimes September can represent the start of next year.

Today, the temperatures climed to 54 degrees and the bees were flying like crazy! The December weather had been cold and the bees hadn’t had a cleansing flight since sometime in mid November. I had moved some single story colonies into a winter yard down in Franklin in late November. The day got late and I never was  able to install the mouse gaurds and insulation boards between the inner and outer covers. Today was the first day that was warm enough to finish up. Off I went! I was suprised that mice hadn’t snuck in and ruined about 30 colonies. I checked what was going on in a few hives. Low and behold, I saw eggs in one hive! Not a lot, but a few none the less. Another thing that goes against common belief is that there were  drones left in many colonies. Conventional wisdom says that they should have been dead a long time ago. It also says that there should be no brood between November and February. Any way I closed things up and declared my bees ready for winter!

I keep thinking that this winter brood and the  drones in January could be some adaptation to the varroa mites. Maybe the bees that have late brood are more able to survive the winter. The continued addition of young workers would certainly help with the winter populations and ultimately the survival of the colony. I have no theory about the drones other than perhaps I never was looking for them in the past.

I plan to put an indoor/outdoor thermometer in a large colony to discover when the colony raises the temperature in order to keep the brood warm. I have done this before and it is amazing to see the cluster temperatures go from about 65 to 96 in a matter of one day. Usually I can find brood by early February in the larger hives and by March in most of them. This dovetails with my policy of feeding my bees heavily in the fall. Bees will  regulate the queens diet in order to keep her from laying eggs or as the days get longer and if they have enough food stores they will invest in more bees by increasing her diet of royal jelly. Raising brood accounts for most of the food used in the winter and especially in early spring. Years ago, Al Avitable from the University of Connecticut studied the winter consumption of stores by honey bees. While the numbers have escaped my memory, the long and short of it is that they need a surprisingly small amount  of honey for themselves and most of the stores to feed and keep the brood warm. Early brood = early buildup in the spring. Early buildup = strong colonies that can exploit early nectar flows. Here in Connecticut, some of our  major nectar plants have changed from Sumac that blossoms in late June and early July to Autumn Olive that can bloom in early May. Without early buildup from either natural stores or supplemental feeding, your bees will build up on the early nectar flow instead of storing a few boxes of nice light honey from it! It’s simple math. One medium super has thirty five lbs of honey. At a wholesale price of $3.00/lb that equals about $100.00. Not too shabby!

Working with bees today in the warm winter thaw gave me a large dose of Spring Feaver! I am sure that in a few days winter  will come back with a vengence! I have a lot of equipment to make and assemble in the next two months so the cold weather will help keep me focused on winter projects. I have lots of plans for this New Year, especially swarm control. Last year, I fell and bruised several ribs on the last of March. This laid me up for two months and while I was healing, my bees were swarming! This cost me a lot of early honey. In many yards here in Connecticut, this amounted to all the years crop. I may also move more colonies arround for nectar flow. My New York bees had a good summer and fall flow. I discovered this too late to move bees and I could have made thousands of lbs of additional honey if I had responded by August 1st. I also plan to put out pallets in each yard to store empty supers when the nectar flow ends in late June. So often I end up leaving supers on hives while waiting for the fall flow. This may seem easier but then I am not able to evaluate what is going on and if the dearth is drawn out, the bees hollow out the full supers. Another bunch of lost honey! Sugar is a whole lot cheaper than honey and when you have a lot of hives, this can add up fast.

January 1st begins a New Year, but my bees usually won’t start spring buildup for several weeks. It behooves all beekeepers to take the winter to get any new equipment ready while the snow flies because when it gets warm the bees will go full speed ahead and you need to be ready. That means plenty of empty honey supers and a few empty hives ready for swarms or splits. Make sure that you put a good paint job on the wooden ware NOW! Beehives are expensive and once put out with no paint they will warp. split and eventually rot.

Happy Holidays From A&Z Apiaries

Well, here we are, at the beginning of winter. I always seem to dread the cold weather but when it gets here it really isn’t so bad after all. This past season turned out to be all-right “honey wise”  Some yards did real well and others had no surplus at all. New york was the winner this year but due to a back injury this spring, I didn’t have as many hives there as I usually do. I also had a few disappointing years out there so I kept more bees home and invested my efforts here in CT. Of coarse, that’s when I had a banner year in New York! Some colonies produced 240 lbs each! In any event, Fall has become winter, the bees are clustered and I am doing other things.

In mid November I left for my annual deer hunting trip to New Brunswick. I love being in the North Woods at any time, but during deer season I get to spend hours in a tree stand and quietly observe nature. From my favorite spot “over the brook, past Fin Mountain”, I sit on the top of a ridge in mixed balsam fir and hardwood trees. As an avid birder, it is nice to see a different group of birds than what we have in Ct. Nothing says northern boreal forest like the Red Breasted Nuthatches , Cross-bills, Brown Creepers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Grey Jays, and Ravens. The Mammal population also is a different mix. I have seen Black Bear, Moose, Bobcat, Pine Martin, Red Squirrels, Long Tailed Weasel, and of coarse, White tailed Deer. The further north you go, the lower the tree diversity. My favorite spot is dominated by Balsam Fir, White pine, White and Red Spruce,White Birch, Yellow Birch, Sugar Maple, Poplar and Beech. There are some huge White Pines and White spruce on the steep slope leading up the ridge. Each year, I fear that Acadia Timber will come in and clear cut “my woods”. This is a real worry because they have cut very near to there in the past few years. When they cut a piece of woods, there usually is nothing left standing. They truly are brutal! Any thing that is not suitable for lumber or pulp is chipped for “Hog Fuel”.

On Saturday, my last day of hunting, we experienced the first lasting snowfall of Winter. It started about nine AM as light flurries and gradually increased to a light steady snowfall. Snowfall usually quiets down the woods and it was very peaceful watching the forest floor being covered up, probably until April. I tried to imagine what it would be like with twelve feet of snow on the ground and 30 below zero. Two years ago Northern Maine and New Brunswick experienced such a winter. The deer were unable to get to feed and starved by the thousands. Additional thousands were hit by cars as they used the roads to move around. Some areas lost almost all of their deer and most locations lost more than half of their deer. The reduction in the deer herd is most noticeable in the woods as the remaining deer feed in the fields, not needing to venture into the forest for suitable habitat. It will be years before the herd recovers. Needless to say I returned home without a deer.

What does all of this have to do with beekeeping? Absolutely nothing except that my beekeeping endeavors allow me to afford trips up North or out West or to Costa Rica, wherever. In this season of Thanksgiving I need to say that I am gratefull for all the hard work of my Honeybees and all of the rewards they give me.          Adam Fuller, Hampton CT

The circle is complete

Today is March the seventh. The weather is just beautiful with temperatures in the upper fifties, the bees are flying and yes, they are bringing in pollen! I checked my notes and  this day last year was also the first day I saw pollen coming in.

I always look forward to this day and consider it the first day of the beekeeping season. I have been feeding pollen replacement for three weeks now and am seeing good brood development for early March. Naturally the stronger colonies have larger brood nests than the weak ones. I opened some hives to see how much pollen they were storing and it looks like they are feeding it out as fast as it is coming in. They really do prefer natural pollen when it is available but at this time of the year, the natural pollen supply can be sporadic at best. This is why I always keep MegaBee patties on all colonies till I see several frames of freshly stored pollen in the hives and good foraging weather ahead. In southern New England, we are blessed with an abundant and varied supply of pollen during the spring. The problem is that, especially in the last several years, we get these long stretches of cold, cloudy, and rainy weather. Nothing will shut down brood production like a dearth in pollen intake. I need to have large strong colonies for late April. This will allow me to make divides and have adequate number of colonies for Apple pollination in early May. No brood, no bees!

It is now St Patrick’s Day and I want to finish this post! We just have had five days of cold, rainy, and very windy weather. I sure am glad that my bees had pollen substitute to feed the brood. If they hadn’t they would have shut the queen down and possibly cannibalized the young brood. This is just what I was getting to in the above paragraphs. This week looks to have sunny skies and mid to upper sixties. There is a lot of pollen coming in again and they are taking sugar syrup. I try to feed a gallon of syrup a week until the maples start to blossom then I watch the weather. If the nectar flow stops then I resume feeding.

I started out by talking about signs of spring. It always amazes me how fast things change this time of the year. One day the lakes and ponds are frozen and the next it seems they are all clear. It seems like things are early this year, The Fox Sparrows flew North in mid February which is two to three weeks earlier than normal. They nest in the far north and I guess that they follow the snow line. We have not had much snow pack in Connecticut while just over the border in New York and down to the Middle Atlantic States , they have been just hammered with snow! Let them have it, I have been done with snow since New Years Day!

Two weeks ago, Charlene and I went out to the Natchaug Forest to photograph Skunk Cabbage coming up. Skunk cabbage is usually the first source of pollen in this area, followed by the Silver Maples and then some of the poplars. The next group is the Red Maples and Norway Maples. This group also provides the first nectar, sometimes quite copiously! I love driving down residential streets where Norway Maples have been planted and when in bloom many times you can smell the nectar. Lately I have been seeking out these areas for wintering yards. They are a major boost in early April and some times the bees will store several frames of honey in the brood nest. This becomes their insurance policy and then I can super up the on the first of May for the Autumn Olive. I am hoping for a good May honey flow this year. I am all out of my honey and will need to buy some  until I can harvest some of my own. This year I plan on harvesting some as soon as it is ready instead of waiting until August like I usually do.

The next two months will be a continuous parade of renewal and rebirth. Each day brings something new sprouting or a new bird coming north to nest. Meanwhile, the bee colonies will keep expanding, preparing to swarm and then store honey for the next long winter. We beekeepers will have our hands full with staying ahead of not only the bees but also the stresses that conspire to do our hives in. Make sure that starvation or poor nutrition are not one of them. I need to deal with that other sign of spring, INCOME TAXES!!!!

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!!!!

Dead bees and crow roosts

It is December 22nd, the first full day of winter. I always look forward to this day because from now on the days start getting longer.

In any event, I spent the day in New York State “paying the rent” and visiting with the landowners who allow me to keep bee yards on their property. On the 19th we had a major snow storm here on the East Coast and at my home  in Hampton, CT, we got about 16 inches of snow. Out in Dutchess County NY they got only a couple of inches. I took the time to visit a couple of yards just to look around and see if any bees were trying to fly. The temperature was 25 degrees F and the sun was shining. As expected, I watched a few bees leave the warmth of the winter cluster and fly a very short distance away from the hive, only to crash land on the snow and shortly thereafter, die. I keep ten hives in each yard and the snow was littered with dozens of dead bees. Healthy honeybees do not defecate in the hive, they usually wait until the weather is  warmer than 50 degrees and then will leave the hive to void their feces. In years past, I thought that this was what was causing the dead bees, even on cold days. The  bees , it seemed, were trying to take a cleansing flight and couldn’t make it back to the hive. However, there were none of the tell-tale yellow and brown spots that would have indicated a cleansing flight. I predicted that when I got home there would be calls from beekeepers who were wondering what was going on with thier bees. Sure enough, there was one phone message and one email wondering why bees were leaving the hive to die and hinting that something mysterious was happening.  This has nothing to do with CCD or any other malady. Here is what is going on.

I  recently read a book called Winter World by Bernd Heinrich. He is a well respected biologist, author, professor, endurance runner, beekeeper, the list keeps on going. One of his fields of expertise is in thermoregulation. Not just in insects but mammals, birds, turtles etc. In this book he talks about how organisms survive in the temperate winter and in one chapter writes about just this subject, why bees fly in winter.  He goes into great detail describing the methods he used in determining  that quite often the bees that are flying at low temperatures are actually leaving the winter cluster to look for sources of nectar or pollen!  He discovered that the cleansing flights actually took place at higher temperatures and involved much larger numbers of bees. His conclusion was that even if these foraging bees never returned, they were individually expendable due to the value of fresh food to the colony if some of them ultimately did find a  food source.

This makes sense to me when you consider that the older bees are the ones who would be leaving and they probably would perish before spring anyway. Some times there is a thin line between winter survival and starvation. It is surprising how early in the late winter we can see some bees returning with pollen on their hind legs. It is well known that bees finding skunk cabbage flowers in March are able to warm up in the protective spathe  that surrounds the flower. The temperature is several degrees warmer than the outside air. These plants are able to push up through ice in order to blossom.

In another of Heinrich’s books  “In a Patch of Fireweed” he has a series of  chapters dealing with how wasps and bees warm up and stay warmed up in order to forage. One chapter deals with swarms and how the bees regulate the temperature of the cluster. Its too involved to go into now, but the common idea that the out side or “mantle bees ” change places with interior bees in order to warm up is just not true.

Another essay in “Winter World” deals with winter roosts of crows. Two of Heinrich’s passions are Crows and Ravens. He wondered where and why crows roost at night. He discovered a large crow roost, not deep in the woods, but instead near a brightly lit shopping center!  There were thousands of crows flying for miles to roost in the trees in a well lit area. He determined that the crows were roosting there to avoid one of their most feared predators, the Great horned Owl (another passion of Bernd Heinrich, he once rescued an owlet after a late snowstorm and kept it semi domesticated for two years until he was able to integrate it back into the wild).

While I was returning home from New York tonight, I was driving on I 84 through Hartford CT as the sun was setting. There were hundreds of crows flying to roost in a group of trees in the west side of the city. It is near the former Xerox Building right next to the highway, another well lit area similar to the one Heinrich talks about. As I drove through the rush hour traffic in Hartford, I could see a steady stream of crows headed in that direction. I continued to see them all the way to East Hartford and the Manchester line, at least ten miles “as the crow flies”!  Several years ago, not too far from the crow roost, there was  (and maybe there still is) , a large European Starling roost under the highway bridges near the Hartford bus station.  These birds also form large winter flocks not only for feeding but also for roosting.  I don’t think that these flocks are for sharing warmth as much as for spreading the individual risk from predators over a large population. The individual bird, in this case, would be less likely to be taken by a predator than would one bird sleeping alone.

It never ceases to amaze me how organisms deal with the cold winters in the temperate regions. My friend Glenn has a very simple way of dealing with the long cold nights here in New England. He borrowed my copy of Winter World and went to Hawaii for the winter.  He says he will return with the Warblers!

Adam Fuller

The year with no Summer!

         Well it is the tenth of December and like it or not, the beekeeping season for 2009 is about done! I have been keeping bees for nearly thirty years and never remember a year like this past one.

          For the most part, my bees came through the winter in pretty good shape. I started feeding both Mega Bee pollen supplement and sugar syrup in early March. The bees built up nicely and of coarse the weather stayed cold well into April. Then around the 26thof the month, the temperature spiked up to 96 degrees for a couple of days.  After this it went back to cloudy and cool and stayed that way for ever! In late May we had a decent flow from  Autumn Olive and then the Black Locust had the heaviest bloom we had experienced in years. The day it opened up it started to rain and rained for weeks. When it wasn’t raining, it was threatening to rain. The result was no Locust honey, no clover honey, no sumac honey, no anything honey.

           I had started about a hundred nucs and packages to replace dead outs and for some increase. They had a lot of plastic foundation and no nectar. A real bad combination, so I started feeding them heavily. I hoped that if I built them up to double hive bodies they would be roaring for the fall flow!  Usually, I can plan on some help from Mother Nature to draw foundation. Well she is a fickle B#&%? and gave me nothing! I spent the entire summer feeding bees in order to protect my investment. Late August came and the Jewel Weed was six feet tall and loaded with bloom. You guessed it. No nectar flow! Goldenrod came into bloom, no nectar!  Aster came into bloom, no nectar! I did get some honey from purple loosestrife in two yards where it has not been killed off by those beetles that our all knowing government allowed to be introduced from Asia. I surely miss those 100 lb crops of loosestrife honey!  Now the swamps are filling up with phragmites, another invasive species that produces no honey and doesn’t have any other redeeming qualities as far as I can see.

      On September fifteenth, I harvested what little crop I had and started to feed. Usually,I need to give an average of two gallons of syrup just to fill in the gaps with many colonies needing no feed at all. This fall, I had to feed an average of  six gallons per hive with some taking as many as ten gallons. I just couldn’t seem to fill them up.

        The good news is that all of the feeding coupled with warmer than average temperatures, stimulated the queens to lay a lot later in the fall than is usual. This late flush of young bees should help with wintering. The bees consumed a lot of pollen in order to raise the brood so I will need to feed more Pollen Substitute in March to get good build up. I  seems like all I did this season was feed and wait for the nice weather that never came. Like Larry Connor says “some times you just need to write the check”.  I wrote a lot of checks for sugar this year!

        This poor crop wasn’t limited to the Northeast. From what I gather it was nationwide as well as world wide. Without getting into climate change discussions, I can say that the weather has been different during the last several years with 2009 being the worst season in my thirty years as a beekeeper. I need to locate a plant physiologist and find out just what makes a plant produce or not produce nectar. We had plenty of moisture and the late summer and fall had many nice sunny days that I thought should have been right for a honey flow.

      At any rate, in a few weeks the days will start to get longer and by February the queens will start that magic cycle all over again. I can’t wait.

          Happy Holidays from Adam & Charlene Fuller!