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Ross’s Bee Journal, #12: Four Seasons

November 30, 2008

As our fourth year of beekeeping wanes, the first significant snowfall of the season is upon us. It has been falling steadily, sideways, since early this morning. I hope the bees have enough food. We fed them buckets of syrup in the fall, and put pie tins full of fondant* on them when we took the last buckets off. None of the hives felt as heavy as I would like and one felt a bit light. That one was F. Fellini, one of our most active hives. I worry that these Italians may have continued producing brood too late into fall and did not store the syrup we fed them.

We took all the supers off earlier than last year, as we had planned. If you leave them on too long the bees may not fill up the empty frames in the brood boxes with nectar from fall blooms, choosing instead to continue loading the supers. We planned to have all supers off by the end of August so that fall nectar flows would be all for the bees. But three of the hives had brood in some supers, so as we took the last supers off we had to leave one on each of those three.

We didn’t use queen excluders this season during the regular nectar flows. These slotted grills are typically placed on top of the brood boxes, then supers for honey production go on top of the excluders. The slots are wide enough for worker bees to squeeze through but the larger queen cannot pass and so she is prevented from going up and laying eggs in comb that is intended for honey only. Some beekeepers call them “honey excluders” because they are an impediment to a smoothly functioning colony. They slow the bees down and the bees will often burr them up with comb and propolis, making them even more restrictive. So we left them off when the first honey supers went on in June.

If the bees fill the tops of the frames of the top brood box with honey it forms a natural barrier to the queen. If she goes up and lays eggs in the super anyway, you just deal with it later. That’s what we did in fall. Several hives had brood going in one or two supers all summer, so as we took off honey we’d leave the brood frames to hatch out. When we finally wanted to get the rest of the supers off we had to consolidate all remaining frames with brood into a single super (for each hive that had brood in supers) and then put that last super on top of a queen excluder. We want the brood to hatch so we can take the last frames of honey.

But you must be sure not to trap the queen in the super above the excluder, or she’ll continue to lay eggs in those frames. We had a routine worked out to guard against this. We put an empty super on top of the brood boxes to create some space, and then brushed all the bees off of each super frame that was going back on the hive, brushing them down into the empty super. If the queen was on any of those frames she would be brushed back into the brood boxes with all the workers. Each brushed frame went into another super that was off the hive. Once that super was filled with mostly beeless frames of brood and nectar, we smoked the bees down into the brood boxes, removed the empty super, put the queen excluder on, and then the brood super on top. Come back in a couple weeks and the bees should all be hatched out.

Honey production was good on M. Davis, F. Fellini, and S. Leone, and mediocre on Thelma and Louise (the package hives) and G. Puccini, which we had to re-queen because of chalk brood. T. Monk never managed to re-queen after several attempts. We gave them two more queens, which they killed, and numerous queen cells from other hives. We tried one last desperate maneuver that is recommended when you have a laying worker, which I will describe in a moment.

After the first queen we gave them disappeared (the $20 Kona), our friend and association president Phil came over one day and gave us two of his extra queens. One went in Monk and the other was used to re-queen Puccini, which had a pretty bad case of chalk brood. We learned that the sunflower seed-like things we had seen in increasing numbers on the bottom of the Puccini hive were mummified larvae, a condition called chalk brood because of the chalky appearance of the dried up larvae. There is no control for this fungal infection, however, re-queening will usually solve the problem. But the Puccini queen was a large and beautiful Italian and we couldn’t bear to pinch her, so we put her in a nuc (a mini-hive; five frames that form the nucleus of a new colony) to see if the chalkiness would clear up.

Monk killed this second queen (another Kona) and by then it appeared the chalky queen had started to produce some viable brood again in the nuc, so we put her in Monk figuring we had little to lose. They killed her, too. Phil doubted that Monk had a laying worker, since the evidence for this was lacking. Laying workers (we learned) are sloppy and haphazard egg layers and will lay more than one egg in a cell, or not place the egg in the bottom center of the cell as a queen would. So why the continued presence of drone brood? Possibly a queen that had run out of sperm, Phil theorized. That would explain a couple things: why we saw drones emerging from this hive very late in the fall last year, even into winter, and why the colony kept killing the new queens. If they still had a queen they would reject any competitors.

We never saw a queen in Monk, but a smallish queen could have escaped detection when the hive still had a fairly high population. We based all of our later assumptions that Monk had no queen on the lack of worker brood in any frames. So, our last ditch effort, and the thing to do when you need to get rid of a laying worker or a queen that’s failing and that you can’t find, was this: Every frame is removed from the hive and carried several feet away (at least fifteen feet) where all the bees on the frame are shaken off into the grass. Then the frames are placed back in the hive. All of the able, flying bees will quickly find their way back to the hive but a laying worker or queen, heavy with eggs, will not be able to make it. Sounds harsh, I know, but the colony will likely die if nothing is done. We did the deed. Monk failed anyway.

Mid-summer was touch and go with Puccini and Thelma. It seemed to take a while for the new queen in Puccini to get going. And Thelma was very slow building up, while the other package, Louise, built up fairly quickly and produced some honey for us. Janice decided it is a bad idea to name a hive after a weak character. But Thelma, like her namesake, eventually found her pluck (probably through supercedure**) and turned into a pretty good colony by late summer.

We treated for mites this year, something we had not done very actively in past seasons. We don’t like the chemical treatments (pesticide impregnated strips that hang inside the hive) that were the first response to the blood-sucking varroa mite when it arrived on the scene a couple decades ago. Since then, a few natural treatments have been developed. In our second season we tried one called Sucrocide that had to be sprayed on every bee. Too much trouble! We later tried powdered sugar dusting, which coats the bees with something they can eat and dislodges the foothold of the mite. But this is also difficult to be successful with, since, again, every bee must be dusted.

Some local beekeepers use formic acid pads. Formic acid is a naturally occurring substance (found in bee and ant venom) that is very effective at killing mites, but the temperature range required during the 21-day treatment period is too narrow for our widely varying fall weather. The newest treatment and the one we chose for both ease of application and wide temperature range is called Api-Life Var, and comes in the form of thin wafers of foam soaked in thymol, eucalyptus, camphor and menthol. They smell nice and have the added benefit of controlling tracheal mites in addition to varroa. You put them on the hive three times, for 7 or 8 days each time. A couple of our hives were not thrilled with the strong vapors from these wafers and attempted to wall them up with propolis, but for the most part we think it was effective. The hives all seemed pretty strong in late fall, after treatment.

So now the hives are wrapped with two-inch thick foam insulation and the winds are howling. We’ll hope for a nice, sunny day when the temperature warms beyond the norm and then peek inside to see if the bees could use another tin of fondant. Six hives go into winter, how many will come out? We can only hope and guess, and order a couple safety packages.

Until spring...

* Fondant is a corn syrup and sugar water concoction made by heating the ingredients to 242 degrees. It becomes an amber-colored semi-hard candy that the bees can nibble on if their winter honey stores are insufficient.

** Supercedure occurs when the workers are dissatisfied with the current queen and raise a new queen to replace her.

Ross Thompson

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