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Ross’s Bee Journal, #4: Getting Ready for Winter

October (already?) 15, 2005

Seems like the last weeks of summer went quickly. Then we zoomed through September and now here we are halfway into October and I finally get around to the bee journal again. It’s not that there weren’t things to report, time just got away from me I guess.

The honey harvest was good for a new package of bees, we’re told. Altogether we took around 110 pounds out of the hive. Seventy-five pounds we kept and bottled. The last 35 pounds we’ve been giving back to the bees, a gallon at a time. It was what remained in the supers in August after the nectar flow ended.

The bees had used up or moved all the honey they had first stored in the upper hive body so they would have more room to raise brood. The honey in the supers is what they’ll need to get through the winter, but you don’t want to leave the supers on all winter. It’s too much space for the bees to keep warm. When summer wanes it’s time to crowd them down into just two hive bodies in which they will spend the winter.

In August we had a visit from the State Apiary Inspector, a pleasant retired schoolteacher we had met at the Stateline Beekeeping Association picnic in July. Illinois has an inspection program and eight inspectors (for the whole state!). To keep bees, even a single colony, you must register with the Department of Agriculture. Once you do, eventually an inspector will come around.

Many of the beekeepers who have been at it for a number of years would prefer that he didn’t show up. They don’t feel they have anything to learn and would rather not have anyone telling them what they should be doing differently. There are many approaches to beekeeping and many strong opinions, as we learned at the picnic, which later turned into a regular meeting of the association.

Lynn, the inspector was there. And at least one outspoken beekeeper said that he felt the inspection program had nothing to offer. But Lynn gamely got up and spoke briefly about the program and its purpose. He assured everyone that he always carries several hive tools so that he doesn’t have to use a tool on your hive that he may have used on another hive earlier in the day. This is to prevent spread of diseases like nosema and foulbrood.

He sounded reasonable to us, and being rank beginners we figured it wouldn’t hurt to hear another person’s ideas on beekeeping. Before he became an inspector Lynn built up a successful beekeeping program at Heller Nature Center in Highland Park, Illinois(1). They produce hundreds of pounds of honey every year, all with volunteers (lots of school kids). We invited him to come inspect our hive anytime.

The main purpose of the inspection program(2) is to check hives for pests and diseases, and provide advice to the beekeeper on maintaining healthy colonies. Besides the diseases I mentioned above we have to watch out for mites (internal and external), wax moths (which can ruin good comb), small hive beetles (don’t think they’ve made it up to northern Illinois yet), and in the winter, mice looking for a warm place to hole up.

There was vigorous debate at the picnic/meeting about what to do for replacement bees for next season. Some colonies don’t make it through the winter (because the beekeeper didn’t leave them enough honey, or because of disease or heavy mite infestation) and many beekeepers want to add more colonies each season. (I’d like to add one or two, now that we have this first season under our belts.)

This group had organized a large quantity purchase for 2005, in which we participated. They bought (or ordered, anyway) something like 200 packages of bees. I think maybe half that is what finally came (late) this last Spring. Honey bees are struggling all across the country and it’s a real problem. Most of the wild colonies have succumbed to an increasing number of pests and diseases. Many of the kept colonies have exacerbated or spread the problem (some very high percentage of all the colonies in the country make an annual trek to California to help with almond pollination).

One common pest is the Varroa mite(3). These are tiny little bastards (about half as big as the head of a pin) that look like a kidney bean with legs along one edge. They are bloodsuckers and they like to feast on larvae. When infested bees have gestated, they emerge from their cells with mites on them. The mites then try to get off the adult bee and climb back into an empty cell or a cell with an egg in it, to wait for another larva.

California bees are notorious carriers of Varroa mites (no cold, killing winters), and the package buy for 2005 was California bees. So the association members wrestled with the problem of where to get bees for 2006. Nobody was keen to order more bees from California, and bees from Florida or Texas or other southern states tend to have the small hive beetle problem.

Some proposed putting together a queen-rearing program locally, others talked about ordering Hawaiian queens, or other hygienically-bred queens. There’s a lot of research and breeding going on to combat mites. (In addition to the external Varroa mite, there’s an even tinier mite that lives in the bee’s trachea.) In the end nothing was resolved, but some decided to buy locally raised queens from a retired Wisconsin bee researcher (who has his own mite-resistant breed) and split their colonies in the fall. Then, come spring and a bit of luck they’ll start out with more colonies than the previous year.

In the August beekeeping class Jeff showed us how to check our bees for mites. You take a frame out of the hive (one with a lot of bees on it) and shake it over a large piece of heavy white paper or posterboard to knock the bees off (one good jerk should do it). Most of the bees drop onto the paper, but many start flying around your head. Then you bend the paper into a U and pour the bees into a mason jar. You want about a cup of bees (400 or so).

Next, you pour in some powdered sugar and then put a screened cap on the jar. You roll the jar gently until the bees are completely white with sugar (they seem to love this). Now invert the jar and gently shake the loose powdered sugar out onto the paper. Mixed into the powder will be all the mites that may have been on this sampling of bees (they can’t hold onto a powdered bee). This is called the "sugar roll" or "sugar shake" test.

Now you spread the powdered sugar thinly on the paper and look for the dark spots — the mites. Zero mites would be ideal (and rare); 5 or 6 would be fairly normal and not cause for much concern. We counted 22. We counted again: 25. Arghh!

Well, we suspected it would be bad. Back in late July we had removed a chunk of comb that the bees had built sideways under one of the frames in a super. It was about the size of a croissant. We could see mites in some of the cells. We froze it and pulled it out several weeks later when Lynn came to inspect our hive. He broke up the now-brittle frozen comb and there were mites all over the place. It was Lynn who advised us to start preparing for winter by removing supers and an extra hive body, and to treat the bees for mites.

I won’t go into all the methods there are for treating mites. Some are fairly nasty pesticides, others more benign. One problem with the pesticides (besides the fact that they’re poisons) is that mites are becoming resistant. We chose one of the more benign methods, despite its somewhat scary name: Sucrocide. This is an organic formulation of sugar esters and vegetable oil that kills the mites but does not hurt the bees. You can still call your honey "organic" when you use this mite treatment.

The downside of using Sucrocide is that you must spray every bee, giving them a good soaking. And you must treat at least 3 times, at 7 to 10 day intervals (an entire brood cycle). Since you must wet every bee for this to be effective, and since the bees are going to be soaked with water for a while (Sucrocide is used highly diluted in water: 1.25 teaspoons in 32 ounces), the best time to treat is in the morning, before the field bees have left the hive. You also want to pick a day that will be warm (minimum 50F) so the bees don’t get chilled while they’re drying off.

Our first attempt was a bit disconcerting. Have I mentioned that the field bees (the ones who leave the hive to gather pollen and nectar) are the oldest workers, and the meanest? Usually when we’ve gone into the hive it’s during the day and most of the field bees are out. Compounding that is the fact that at this time of year food is more scarce so the bees are more protective of the food they’ve gathered.

They’re also much more competitive when it comes to gathering. I made the mistake Labor Day weekend after feeding the bees the first gallon of honey we saved for them, of leaving the empty gallon container (a milk jug with its top cut off to make a larger opening) out next to the hive. I was thinking the bees would be happy to clean out the thin residue of honey still clinging to the insides of the jug. I came back 3 or 4 hours later and found it 1/4 full of dead, wet bees. About 800-1000 bees by my rough guess.

This was confounding, but I formulated a theory which Jeff confirmed as highly likely in our next bee class: there was a feeding frenzy that resulted in the first bees into the jug getting crushed and pressed into a paper-thin layer of honey until they were drowned or suffocated. Had I returned to the jug shortly after leaving it I would probably have seen it overflowing with bees, all pushing and pressing to get at the honey.

But let’s get back to that first mite treatment. I started pulling frames, now well-glued into the hive body with copious gobs of propolis and burr comb. The bees were all over my gloved hands (sting-resistant — alas not sting-proof — canvas) and they were stinging with abandon. They were flying all around my head, climbing on the helmet, trying to get in through the ventilation slots, crawling on the mesh of the veil inches from my face. It was anxiety heightening, to say the least.

After pulling a few frames and holding them while Janice sprayed down the bees on both sides, we decided to take a shortcut. We just tipped the hive body on its end and sprayed in between the frames, from the bottom. This tended to force many of the bees out the other side where they covered the top bars of the frames. So we sprayed them thoroughly, too. Took the same approach with the bottom hive body, then restacked everything and poured another gallon of honey into the feeder.

We used this method for the second and the third (and final) treatment. Tomorrow we plan to do another sugar-roll test to see how effective our treatments have been. You want to go into winter with as few mites as possible. The bees that are being born now will live longer than a spring or summer worker bee, because they’ll never do the field work that is so physically demanding. These bees must stay alive right through the winter, since the queen will slow down and eventually stop laying eggs until the spring.

There isn’t much to do over the winter, except inspect and repair equipment (supers, hive bodies, frames) to get it ready for spring. But I intend to do a lot more reading on bees. You’ll be hearing about it.

Ross Thompson

More Info:
(1) Heller Nature Center
(2) Illinois Bee Inspection Program
(3) Varroa Mite

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