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!!!!

Package Bees in March

About two weeks ago we brought back package bees from Wilbanks Apiaries in Claxton, Georgia. Our first load was originally scheduled for April 12th but early buildup conditions were ahead of plans. Reg called in early March to ask if we could pick up a load on the 25th. His concern was that if he didn’t start shaking bees soon they would end up swarming.  That would be a big loss for a package producer! 

Any chance that I get to start packages early I jump at it. These bees have the ability to buildup in time for the Locust flow in early June. With a 3 lb package costing  $77.00 this year, it is good to be able to recoup some of the investment in early summer.  This does not come without a price, on April 1st in Connecticut we usually have some pollen coming in but nectar is weeks away. When I set up the colonies for new packages, I was able to include at least one frame of honey and one of pollen for each hive. These came from dead outs that I brought in and cleaned up during late winter. I like to start new colonies, whether packages or nucs, with a reserve of both carbohydrate and protein so the queens can start laying and keep going regardless of the weather. The only problem is that it takes a frame of honey and pollen to raise a frame of brood. This is where the “Domino” nectar flow comes to the rescue. I keep a division board feeder in each colony at all times. It is an easy task to fill the feeder with  a gallon of sugar syrup without disturbing the bees. If we don’t have any pollen coming in, I can add a pollen substitute patty over the top bars. I fill the feeders when installing the bees and keep them full until they have three full frames in reserve and there is natural nectar coming in.

When starting bees on foundation,whether wax or plastic, it becomes even more important than ever to keep the feed on them. The good news is that if the bees can get to the syrup then they will be able to draw out the foundation and make room for the queen to lay. This is the place where I get on my soap box and scream about how useless boardman feeders are. There is no place in any northern beekeeping operation for these toys!  When out side temperatures are below 55degrees, the bees can’t get out of a loose cluster to get to the feed. This creates a lack of energy for the bees to consume so they produce enough heat to enable them to make wax or raise brood. In many cases the bees can starve to death six inches away from their feeder. If the temperatures are suitable for flying then the small colonies are set up to be robbed by other stronger hives. Yet another problem is that they don’t hold very much syrup and you will need to refill them very frequently. Boardman feeders are probably the biggest cause of starvation in small colonies of bees, so get a good division board feeder with a float to keep the bees from drowning! I recently bought some of the new two gallon feeders from Mann Lake. They work very well and you can get a lot of syrup in a hive without having to refill every few days and they don’t cost nearly as much as a hive top feeder. In addition, hive top feeders can have the same problems as boardman feeders in that the bees can’t get to them when it is cold.

This will be a good time to talk about introducing queens. If you read the literature, you will find all sorts of methods to introduce queens. One from about 100 years ago even suggested that you immerse the queen in sugar syrup and then let her go! My method is a little different. First, weather you are introducing a queen with a package or re queening, I always begin by feeding sugar syrup. This simulates nectar flow conditions and greatly improves the level of success. Queens come with a candy plug in one end and this should be exposed either by removing the cork or in the case of packages you will remove the metal disc on cages that are supplied with packages. I always secure the queen cage in the upper rear corner of a frame near the center of the cluster. If installing on drawn comb, I squash it edge first into the comb so the screen is accessible to the bees when the hive is put back together. The bees need to be able to tend to the queen at all times. In addition, they will be able to spread her pheremones to the rest of the bees. I never disturb the bees, except to fill the feeder, for seven days! I believe that this is a critical step in the procedure. I often say  it is like a first date, the bees think that they like the queen but they need time to get to know her!  They don’t need Mom or Dad bothering them.  After a week you can check for fresh eggs and larvae. If, in the rare event the queen has not been released, you can remove the plug from the other end and let her run out into the colony. Often times beginners, and even experienced beekeepers ,will get worried that she won’t get released in time and disturb the bees too soon. This all too often results in the queen getting killed by the colony.

So to sum it all up, feed and be patient!  There is nothing to be gained by rushing the relationship and a lot to loose if you try to hurry things up.  After you fail to introduce the first queen, the next try will be even harder to get accepted. One final thought, it is not necessary to remove the attendants that come with the queen. More often than not the queen may fly away while you are fumbling with opening the cage to release the workers. In most cases I never have trouble re queening a colony that doesn’t yet have laying workers! If you have laying woorkers then you are usualy better off just combining them with another hive and then starting over.

I guess that I have rambled on enough for a while!  Later, Adam