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Seasonal tips 

We inaugurated this section of the website by inviting experienced, Clarenville-area beekeeper, Jeff Harris, to share his perspectives on typical honey bee colony management practices.  We'll add to this "seasonal tips" section by inviting other experienced beekeepers in the province to share their perspectives as well.

 


 

Spring-summer management  - Jeff Harris

Keep in mind this is my philosophy and summary of everything I have read - Jeff

Q - When should beekeepers in NL be feeding our bees this year?

 A - Once the weather breaks so there are cleansing flights and temperatures are consistently above freezing at night.  Use a small mason jar bottle (~500 ml) placed over the inner cover hole [editor’s note – there are alternative feeding methods].

 Q - What form should the feeding take (e.g., sugar syrup ratio sugar:water, pollen substitute)?

 A - Sugar water 1.5 sugar - 1 water. Once the bees are flying 2-3 times a week, this can be dropped to 1-1 to encourage egg laying and brood buildup.  There is a lot of pollen at this time of the year, so unless they are trapped inside due to weather for weeks on-end, save the pollen patties for earlier in the year.

 Q - When should we stop feeding our bees?

 A - Depends on the size of the colony coming out of winter. If it is a strong colony by the middle of May, then you can stop feeding at that time.  Sometimes I have fed smaller colonies until mid-June to encourage growth.  Also add anise to the sugar syrup.  This is “crack” for bees.  They will consume the sugar syrup even during a nectar flow.

 Q - When should we unwrap our hives?

 A - They can be unwrapped once we start hitting temperatures around 10°C at regular intervals (2 days a week). Really it is a personal choice.

 Q - Should we reverse our brood boxes (deeps)?  If so, why?

 A - I have mixed opinions on this.  This time of year, if I have smaller colonies, I try to reduce down to one box.  If the colony is too big for one box then I may reverse or I may add supers.  Reversing the box can split the brood cluster and could put additional strain on heating if there are cold snaps.  And since we live in Newfoundland, there are cold snaps!

 Q - When does swarm season start?

 A - Typically late June to early July for us.

 Q - What can we do to prevent swarming?

 A - Provide ventilation, add supers, reverse brood boxes (depending on time of year, usually mid- to late June), or make progressive splits.  Splits take some of the young bees out of the picture that encourage swarming, and is a nice method to increase the number of colonies. 

 Ventilation also affects honey production. Once July kicks in, I really try to dial up ventilation.  If we get a cold night or two, there is little to no risk the brood will get cold if you have a good strong colony with high bee numbers. Also the humidity increases, so the ability of air to hold moisture decreases as it is partially saturated with water already. The more air exchange, the more moisture removal.  Also, there are four things honey bees collect, nectar, pollen, propolis, and water.  If the colony is too warm, the bees will collect water for evaporation to cool the hive.  This means that there are less bees to collect nectar.

 Q - When should we put honey supers on?

 A - Typically when I see good brood, pollen and honey storage on 12 – 16 of the frames.  If there is going to be a large amount of capped brood to hatch shortly, then I know it is time to get a super in place.

 Q - When should we take honey from our colonies this year?

 A - Depending on the bees there may be a harvest after good nectar flows, typically late August (after fireweed) and late September (after golden rod/aster) .  This still leaves sufficient time for feeding and for the bees to build some addition honey stores, but some feeding may be required.

 Q - Thinking ahead, when should winter preparations begin?

 A - In the spring.  Getting the bees off right in the spring means a lot less issues in the fall. Build a strong colony in the spring with a good laying queen to get you through until next spring.

 Q - Anything else?

 A - Less inspections is more when it comes to honey bees.  Also I try to minimize smoke use in the summer time.  When we inspect it disrupts the colony enough, but when you smoke it throws all senses off.  I usually resort to a spray bottle of 1-1 sugar water laced with anise.  The only time I use smoke is when it is close to rain or raining, or late in the day (just about dark) or times of very high humidity.


 

Winter preparations (late-season management) - Jeff Harris

Keep in mind this is my philosophy and summary of everything I have read - Jeff

Q  - When in the apicultural season should winter preparations begin?

A - In the words of Kim Flottum, winter preparation begins in the spring.  Our goal as beekeepers is to develop a strong colony with enough resources to make it through winter.  Most people believe this beings in early fall, but if the colony is not strong enough and/or lacks the resources, it may be too late to survive until next spring.

With this in mind, as a minimum in September, we need to be evaluating the strength of our colonies as the nectar flow is ending. Is there enough honey/syrup stored in the comb to make it through winter? Are there any pollen stores in the colony for late winter brood rearing?  Where are the honey/pollen stores located?  These are all important questions that need to be considered as they can impact the survival of the colony.

Personally, for those with nucs starting, my preference is to feed 1:1 syrup until frost or the bees cannot take anymore, or, as a best case scenario, the Queen is driven down to the middle 5 frames in the bottom deep.  But that is more of a utopia situation. If the bees have a good carbohydrate source, the foragers will focus more on pollen to balance their requirements for buildup, leading to stronger colonies going into fall.  While all winters can be harsh, the first winter is usually the hardest on a colony due to it being resource strapped. 

Q - What is the best hive configuration for wintering honey bees?

A - This depends on the hive style people use.  Some people use Langstroth, while there are others in the province using top bar hives with success. All I am familiar with is Langstroth hives.

Historically, I have used two deeps with a candy board or hard candy patties.  Lately I have been experimenting with two deeps and a honey super, as Michael Palmer of northern Vermont does. Both approaches have had varying degrees of success for me.  Two winters ago, I had two colonies in a single deep make it through winter and end up being among the strongest colonies that year.  My suspicion about its success was it was buried all winter under snow, which offered a high degree of insulation.

Q - How much honey should one leave in the hive for winter stores?

A - This is dependent on the area where the apiary is located, but personally 140 – 160 lb (63 – 73 kg) per colony should suffice.  Others feel less is okay, while others fare on the side of caution and prefer more.

Q - Do colonies need stores of pollen for winter?  If so, how much?  What do these stores look like on the comb?

A - Yes. The better part of two frames is ideal, but having two full frames close to the centre of the colony is highly unlikely.  DO NOT PANIC if there are not two full frames.  When there is warm weather, the bees can break cluster and get what they need.  Keep in mind that much like honey stores, pollen stores need to be closer to the centre and above the bees, so as the bees move up in the winter, they can access these resources.  Also, late fall bees are fat bees versus summer time skinny bees.  Being born in fall, they are different than spring and summer bees.  They have protein and fat bodies stored within their bodies that are “sacrificed” for brood rearing late winter/early spring.

Q - Should hives be wrapped?  If so, what is the best way to wrap hives?  When should we wrap?

A - This is a personal opinion.  Some people prefer black felt paper while others prefer bee cozies.  Each has its strengths and weaknesses.  Felt paper offers little in terms of insulation, but is good at absorbing heat on the late days of winter to allow bees to break cluster.  Also it is good for venting moisture.  Bee cozies offer added insulation and heat absorption as above, but if they are not installed correctly, they can trap excess moisture in the hive. 

Q - If we are wrapping our hives, do we also need to think about providing protection from harsh winter winds?

A - It would certainly help, and I would advise anyone to place their bees in a sheltered area if possible or provide a wind break.  Leaving bees exposed in a windy area will place additional stress on a colony.  Do you prefer to be in the lund or directly in the wind?

Q - Do we need to worry about snow accumulating around our hives?

A - In my opinion, no.  I would prefer as much snow around my colonies as I could throughout winter.  But in mid- to late March, I would shovel out around the hive to allow for solar gain so the bees can break cluster.

Q - Do hives need ventilation?  If so, why?  What do you recommend for ventilation?

Yes! Yes! Yes! Cold doesn’t kill bees, excess moisture does.  Most importantly, ventilation at the top and bottom to allow a natural convection current with an insulating material above the inner cover as a minimum.  There are others using a vented hive cover.  Gerard Smith would be a good person to contact on this. He has a hive top design that addresses this very well [D.E. Hive ventilation].  These provide good overwintering will minimal colony mortality.

Q - For those of us who are feeding our honey bees, when should we shift from 1:1 to 2:1 sugar to water ratio?

A - It depends on the condition of the colony.  If the honey harvest is over, anytime thereafter is good to feed a production colony.  For those individual with nucs, feeding starting in early to mid-September is acceptable.  If it looks like October is to be a good month, feeding can slip by another two weeks if it is a strong colony, not needing much additional weight.

Q - When should we stop feeding our honey bees in the fall?

A - If they are still taking syrup and you feel more comfortable feeding, continue to do so.  Keep in mind that total stores in excess of 140 – 160 lb for the colony may exceed what the bees need for the winter.

Q - Do we need to feed pollen to our honey bees?  If so, when?  What kind of pollen supplements should we use, if at all?

A - Typically, in the fall there is a plentiful supply and variety of pollen available to the bees.  Usually at this time of year you will observe a good amount of pollen or bee bread in the colony.  I would not feed pollen or pollen substitute in fall.  Also, if you have a strong colony in the fall, there should be food reserves for spring build-up in the colony.  That being said, I have pollen substitute around, but seldom use it.  Once again, it is a personal choice.

Also I never buy patties with real pollen as there a chance it could introduce pathogens to the island.  While the risk is small, it is one that I’m not willing to take.

Q - We know that mice and voles can be a cold-season problem for our colonies.  What should we do to prevent mice and voles from getting into our colonies?

A - Yes, I lost several nucs last season, and there proof on the frames that I had visitors. I think we should invest in #4 mesh screen and install in on the bottom and top ventilation points once the majority of the drones have been driven from the colony.  Installation of the mesh should occur in November during or shortly after the warm days have passed.  This allows the bees to break cluster, and if there are any rodents in the colony, the bees will drive them out while it’s still warm enough.  Once the rodents are out and the screen installed, the bees will be safe.  Also the #4 mesh screen allows the works to enter and exit the colony for cleansing flights if weather permits between December and April.  Also for those who may not know what #4 mesh wire is, it means it is four squares in either the horizontal or vertical row to make 1 inch (2.54 cm). So a 1 inch piece of mesh should have a total of 16 squares.