Thursday, October 27, 2016

Well, Shoot

So not ready

What is this white stuff falling from the sky? Sigh.

At least, temps are supposed to be back up in the 60's next week.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

How Much Honey Should I Leave for Winter?

In the fall, every new beek wants to know how much honey they should have in their hives. The answer isn't as cut-and-dried as most people would like since it's a regional thing. The amount of honey a colony needs in New England is probably very different from the amount needed in Florida. I have sneaking feeling that it may also vary depending on what kind of hive you're running. For example, local commercial beeks tell me that they leave anywhere from 75-100 lbs of honey on for winter, but I've never seen my bees consume more than 40 lbs max.

Anyway, most of the info I've read says that an average-strength colony will consume about 30 lbs of honey during the winter. However, I don't know if that fact takes into account regional differences, so Phil Chandler's advice seems more helpful to me. He says to allow 2 lbs of honey per week of non-foraging weather for a strong colony. BTW, I have no idea how to define "average" or "strong" colony," but more on that toward the end of this post. 

OK, let's go back to the problem of calculating how much honey to leave. Say that your non-foraging weather stretches from mid-October to mid-March like mine. 
5 months x 4 weeks = 20 weeks 
20 weeks x 2 lbs = a minimum of 40 lbs

If you hadn't noticed, I really emphasized the word "minimum" because you should always have some reserves in case things go pear-shaped. What if winter starts earlier than expected? What if a late frost kills the spring blooms? The bees should have some backup stores for emergencies.

Additionally, Lazutin maintains that a colony will build up better in spring if it has at least 20 lbs of reserves. To quote:
"An average-strength colony that is left to its own devices will consume up to 30 pounds (15 kg) and more of honey during the winter...practicing beekeepers have seen that if a colony is left with "just enough" honey in the fall -- just enough, that is, to last until the first honeyflow next spring -- then when spring does arrive the colony will struggle to grow and will be unlikely to build up sufficient strength in time for the main honeyflow. In the spring, the queen will only lay eggs effectively if the hive contains reserves of at least 20 pounds (10 kg) of honey and the bees are certain that the "kids" won't lack for warmth or food. That's why conscientious beekeepers are in the habit of leaving at least 50 lbs (25 kg) of honey in the hive in the fall, and those who are especially caring keep another 20 pounds (10 kg) for each colony around as an emergency reserve to be used for supplemental feeding if necessary.
As I mentioned earlier, one of my issues has been trying to define what an "average-strength" and "strong" colony looks like. In his book Beekeeping with a Smile, Lazutin provides the following descriptions for evaluating hive strength. Bear in mind, that one of his extra-deep frames equals 2 deep Lang frames:
  • Strong colony: Winter cluster occupies 8-11 extra-deep frames, 5-6 lbs (2.5-3 kg) of bees
  • Average colony: Winter cluster occupies 6-7 extra-deep frames (He doesn't provide weight for this, but it should be an average of strong/weak.)
  • Weak colony: Winter cluster occupies 4-5 extra-deep frames, 2-3 lbs (1-1.2 kg) of bees
If I were to try and compare this to a TBH, this description just wouldn't work for me. By his definition, a winter cluster in a strong colony would have to occupy about 20 bars in my hive. Ummm...yeah, no. If they'd ever gotten that big, they'd have swarmed. So I'm thinking that maybe there are different definitions for what a strong/average/weak colony looks like depending on the kind of hive that you have. This is why I also have that sneaking feeling that the kind of hive you run may also determine how much honey you need to overwinter.

For myself, I try to leave about 15 bars of stores. After weighing various combs, I know that one of my brood combs backfilled with honey weighs an average of 4 lbs. A full honeycomb weighs somewhere between 4.5-5.5 lbs.* Therefore, I can conservatively estimate that I've been leaving about 60 lbs of honey for winter, which puts me on track with Lazutin's recommendations. So far, my bees have never eaten anywhere close to that amount -- not even this past spring when we had such miserable weather, but I'd rather be safe than sorry.

*If you weighed combs from your own hives, you might end up with different weights than me based on the dimensions of your hive.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Random Thoughts (Mostly Complaints) about Feeding

For the past few years, I've generally avoided feeding my bees. The exceptions to this policy were new colonies (if I didn't have any nectar/honey to give them) and bees that were starving. This year, though, has been rough. Really rough. None of the bees had stored honey by late September, and I wasn't alone in this predicament. A late frost that killed the early spring flowers and a hot, dry summer meant a pitiful flow for the bees this year. As a result, I've been mixing so much syrup lately that I'm starting to feel like Willy Wonka.

I truly hate messing with syrup, especially now that I have so many bees. It's not so bad mixing up syrup for 1 colony now and then, but 8 thirsty colonies drink a lot of syrup. Each one can easily suck down a gallon overnight, and I have a feeling they'd take more if they could get it.

Making up gallons and gallons of the sweet stuff is a pain because:

  • It's expensive. I go through at least 100 lbs of sugar every week (approximately $19 for a 50 lb bag at Costco). I don't even feed everyday. If I did, I'd need closer to 300-400 lbs. Of course, sugar is still cheaper than new bees, so I feed.
  • It's time-consuming. Mixing up syrup, bottling it, and feeding -- that's a huge time investment. Just opening the hives and swapping out feeders takes about 40 minutes.
  • It's inconvenient. As a working mom, I'm busy all day, but the real craziness starts when the kids get home -- there's so much to do -- homework, snacks, dinner activities, baths... However, because I like to feed inside the hives, I have wait until about an hour before sundown (or a rainy day) to feed in order to avoid setting off robbing. Unfortunately, that's also the same time of day that at least one of the little people in my house requires Mom's Chauffeur Services.
  • It's a pain. Literally. The bees are not particularly happy this time of year, and they're not shy about making their feelings known. They also act like crackheads when I lug all that syrup out to the beeyard, which again, is not always fun.
On the other hand, I've found a great tool to help out with feedings -- my DH's beer brewing pot. It holds 4 gallons, which is awesome because it cuts down the mess in my kitchen & time spent making syrup considerably. Before, I'd make 2 batches of syrup in 2 large pots (4 pots total). Now, I only need 1 pot (though I still make 2 batches.) I'd love to try his bottle filling siphon to fill up all my jugs with syrup, but I have a feeling that it might not clean up well, so if you've ever done that, please, let me know!

The gallon markers on the pot are very helpful for knowing how much water/sugar to add.
Another reason why I don't like feeding is that sugar really isn't that great for bees. Bees raised on/fed sugar syrup don't live as long as bees that get honey. I suppose this is sort of ironic when you think about it -- the autumn bees are the ones that need to live a good long time so that the colony can survive until spring, but they're the ones that get the syrup. Additionally, my understanding is that bees that are fed syrup are more susceptible to diseases. It's like living on Twinkies. You can do it, but you're going to have a lot of health issues.

Even though I follow a treatment-free beekeeping philosophy, I have a gray area when it comes to feeding. Although I don't use supplements or essential oils, I do use bee tea as the base for my syrup in order to add some extra nutrients. I also add a pinch of sea salt for the same reason. It's probably like adding nuts and cherries to your ice cream sundae -- The nuts and cherry are alright, but you're still eating a sundae.

Anyway, on a whim, this year, I started adding seaweeds like wakame and kombu to my bee tea. In Korea, seaweed soup is one of those essential foods for nursing moms because it's supposed to provide lots of nutrition and help increase milk production. Ok, I'm not planning to milk any bees, but the micronutrients can't hurt, so into the pot they go.


After making the first pot of syrup with some seaweed, I figured I should at least see if there was any research on bees and seaweed. Wouldn't you know it, but the company that makes ApiVar also sells a supplement called HiveAlive that contains seaweed?! (I supposed I would've known this years ago if I shopped for mite treatments.) Although I'm not intending to purchase HiveAlive, I did find out what I wanted to know -- a little bit of seaweed's not going to kill my bees and may even be beneficial. So I'll probably continue adding some seaweed to the bee tea from now on.  (BTW, if you want to try adding seaweed to your syrup, you can usually find it at Whole Foods or a health food store, but a tiny bag of the stuff is kind of pricey. Instead, if you have a good Asian grocery nearby, you can usually find huge bags of the stuff quite inexpensively.)

Until last week, the weather was staying steady in the 60s. We even had a few days in the upper 70's. This week, temperatures have plunged into the 50's, so the window of opportunity for bulking up the hives is quickly closing.

Chow time. Elsa had some nectar, but I want to bulk her up as well, so she gets crystallized honey.

P.S. I'm not shilling for HiveAlive. I've never tried it and don't even plan on trying it. However, if you're curious, the American Bee Journal Aug 2016 edition ran a short (though not particularly informative) blurb about it. You can also read about the study performed with HiveAlive in The Journal of Apiculture Research vol 54, 2015, Issue 5


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Treatment-Free Beekeeping in Wales

Someone shared this video on FaceBook, and I enjoyed it so much, I thought to pass it on. It's an interview with David Heaf, author of Natural Beekeeping with the Warre Hive (which is excellent), and Pete Haywood, a former government bee inspector.

Anyway, they discuss TF beekeeping in Wales and how local bee colony survival rates are back up to pre-varroa numbers despite widespread non-treatment in their area. (About 6:45 is where they show survey numbers.)

The clip has German subtitles and an opening in German, which you can skip past. The rest of the video is in English.

Behandlungsfreie Imkerei in Gwynedd, Wales / Treatment free beekeeping in Gwynedd, Wales from OUTSIDE THE BOX on Vimeo.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Buddy Bees

Feeding syrup is the pits, but it seems a necessary evil this year.  I got a late start on it (around Sept 25), but some commercial beeks in my area started feeding about the same time, so maybe that's ok.

I suppose I should backtrack a bit and explain the unusual title of this post. This morning, I was thinking of that scene from the movie Elf in which Buddy grabs a bottle of hooch from a coworker, thinking it's full of maple syrup and dumps it in his coffee, exclaiming, "I love syrup! Oh, I love it!" Some unprofessional behavior ensues. Well, I have Buddy bees. They love syrup, but it makes them lose all dignity.

When I have open fed in the past, it's led to widespread fighting at the feeders and casualties on all sides. (Plus, it seems more costly since I end up feeding every bee & wasp in a 3-mile radius.) Feeding inside the hive, though, generally seems to encourage robbing.

LOL! Labeling bottles of syrup in the fridge so that nobody pours it in their coffee.

When I made up the first batch of syrup last week, I noticed that Peach must have already been the victim of a theft since there were a bunch of ragged cells in the hive. It could also have been that she had simply uncapped the honey I'd given her previously, but my money is on robbing since waxy flakes were also present at the entrance and on top of some bars.

Ragged comb is a tell-tale sign of robbing

To reduce the amount of robbing that might occur, I fed the hives in the evening when the foragers were returning and the bees were beginning their bedtime routines. However, my good-intentions were insufficient. Within minutes of feeding Peach, more robbers descended en masse. Ugh. To shut that down, I closed up her entrances up for a couple of days, allowing only single bees to enter/exit through a tiny gap in the bars. (The weather has been cool, and there are plenty of tiny cracks between bars, so overheating wasn't a concern.)

Fortunately, we've had a number of cloudy/rainy days since then, and I've been trying to time feedings to coincide with those days since the bees are less inclined to go outdoors.

I should note that I haven't been feeding all of the hives:

  • Elsa had plenty of nectar the last time I checked, so I haven't fed her, though I should check again soon. Waiting for a warm day. 
  • I also haven't fed Persephone, who is kind of nasty.  So if she doesn't make it, I won't be too chuffed.
  • Hippolyte isn't interested in the syrup I've been giving her, so I've stopped feeding her.

Although feeding syrup is generally a pain, it does have its amusing moments. This past Friday, the hubby and I were at Costco when he asked, "How many pounds of sugar do you want?"

"100. I used 50 lbs in two days last week."

"Ok. That's a lot of cookies..."

During this exchange, a woman was passing by. Her head whipped around, eyes large with surprise, mouth agape in shock and delight. I didn't bother correcting her. The mystery was much more fun.