An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
It’s been wet and cold at times but we have also had prolonged periods of fine weather with temperatures hovering around 14°C. We have only had a couple of storms that dropped snow on the ranges but it hasn’t lasted more than a day.
Spring flowers are everywhere in our garden, which is on the south side of the hill so we don’t get a lot of sunlight. Snowdrops, jonquils, and even a magnolia is flowering. Our neighbours’ camellia seems to be late.
On the warm northern slopes, the Spanish heath (Erica lusitanica) is nearly finished and what flowers are left, the bees are working well. Some hives have even managed to store a little nectar. Tree lucerne (Cytisus proliferus) is in full flower. This is a great bee plant for nectar and pollen and for our native pigeons, the kererū, which eat the flowers.
In the bush, the five finger (Pseudopanax arboreus) has just begun flowering and wattle is budding up ready to flower in late July.
[Editor’s note: for more information on tagasaste and five finger, refer to the Trees for Bees articles in the February 2017 and February 2018 journals, respectively.]
My hives are on pallets of four hives with the entrances facing in different directions. The next pallet along, the hive entrances are turned 90 degrees further clockwise to stop bees drifting into the wrong hive. On the back shaded hives, a lot of bees have been landing short and have died in the grass with pollen on their legs. To assist the bees, I have extended the landing board by placing a piece of coreflute from the entrance to the ground at a 45° angle. This way, the chilled bees coming home that fall short can walk up into the hive.
Inside a couple of hives, I carefully broke the cluster and checked what was going on. Normally you wouldn’t do this as it can set the hive’s development back but the weather was warm and bees were flying, so I took a risk.
In one small hive the bees had cleaned out a section of comb in the middle of the cluster for the queen to begin laying. In another hive, a small patch of brood was already capped. This queen would have started laying a couple of weeks earlier, perhaps stimulated by the nectar and pollen that was brought in during a fine spell. These new bees will replace the older bees that begin steadily dying off from now on.
The nuc hive in the garden has bees with deformed wings bees being rejected, along with a few drones. I think the bees from this hive were out robbing another hive on 3 June, as the weight suddenly shot up by five kilograms, which is a lot for a single-box hive. Now I’m seeing the results of that raid—varroa in the hive.
Overseas where they have snow and very cold winters, the queen stops laying in the fall (autumn) when the pollen supply ceases with the first frost. During the last two months, the amount of brood being reared drops and the hive consists of mostly young bees. These bees that are reared last are called winter bees. They gorge on pollen and build up the body fats (vitellogenin) and because they do not have to feed brood, can live for six months. They revert to a normal lifespan (four to six weeks) as soon as they start feeding brood.
In the central North Island of New Zealand and the high country of the bottom half of the South Island, brood rearing ceases altogether, especially if the hive is of Carniolan stock, but around the coastal fringe (or if we have a mild winter), a small amount of brood rearing continues, especially if the bees are of Italian stock. This keeps the bee population ticking over but it also has a downside.
While there’s no brood in the hive, the bees use only a minimum of the stores to keep the cluster warm but once brood rearing starts, they start consuming honey and pollen, using it to generate heat to maintain the cluster at brood temperature and to produce royal jelly to feed the larvae.
A strong hive developing early can quickly run out of stored honey and after cannibalising the brood, it will starve. Feeding raw super in a top feeder (add a little water around the edges to start the bees off converting it into honey) will provide emergency stores to keep the hive alive, but it will also discourage further brood rearing as it depletes the bees’ fat reserves, unless of course nectar and pollen are coming in at the same time.
So what happens if the hive doesn’t have a large population of winter bees? If we have a prolonged cold spell, the bees will not leave the cluster around the brood, lose contact with the honey stores and will starve. This is what typically happens if a hive has been affected by varroa late in the season or if splits are made too late in the autumn.
With no brood to maintain, each warm spell will see the cluster expand and move into contact with honey frames.
There are different ways to winter hives. Commercial beekeepers recently are adopting the method of wintering in a single super. By removing all the other supers, the bees are forced into the one super with the excess of bees overflowing, often ‘bearding out’ the front of the hive. The older bees die off and the super is left full of young bees. They feed the hives continuously until only a small section of open comb remains for the bees to cluster on.
Hobbyists winter in two or three supers, leaving lots of honey for the bees. The cluster size often is large, covering half of each super. In both examples, even if the queen continues laying, if there are enough bees they are able to stay in contact with their honey stores.
During my last visit to my apiaries to check if any needed feeding (hefting the hives to see that they were still heavy), I also noticed a lot of flight activity from one hive and traced the activity to another hive. On opening the active hive, I found the bees were robbing the honey stored in the top super. Further down, the hive’s resident bees were dead with their heads into the cells, still in a cluster. These bees had died from starvation although honey was only 200 millimetres away.
What contributed to the death of this hive? The apiary was in the shade, the cluster was too small, it remained tight and compact, wouldn’t leave the brood and the weather had prevented the bees from venturing up to get at the honey reserves. On the coast or in a warmer apiary, they might have survived. Apiary location is everything.
The same thing can happen to top-bar hives. As stated above, bees normally move up to follow the honey. But in a top-bar hive, once the bees have eaten the honey up and around the cluster and when the cluster has reached the top bar, they must move sideways to stay in contact with their honey frames, but they are reluctant to do so. Generally, the beekeeper assists the bees by moving honey frames to be in contact with the bees every few weeks during the winter.
Some top-bar hives die a little earlier. These hives have their entrance in the middle of the long side. Bees position brood close to the entrance so the middle section gradually gets full of brood. Honey is stored in the outside frames at either end. When the bees go into a cluster, which way do they go? Normally towards the warm end of the hive. Whichever way they go, they only have access to half the stored honey so tend to die earlier.
The solution is to make sure the entrance is at the end rather than in the middle. This means that during the summer, the bees store honey around and slightly further away from the brood area.
Beekeepers assist during the build-up period by putting new frames to be built out for brood, close to the entrance so the bees move forward building them out. As a result, they leave empty drawn brood frames further back in the hive, which the bees utilise for honey storage. These frames are also less fragile, making them easier to handle.
In the Langstroth hive, when we add extra supers for honey storage, we interspace new foundation frames between drawn frames, which encourages the bees to store honey further up in the hive and not so much around the brood nest. Bees are very hesitant to move up into a super filled with new undrawn frames.
And then there is the problem with getting the new frames drawn out. This poses no problem if there is a very good flow on. The house bees have to store the excess nectar in their bodies when the hive runs out of empty storage cells, so wax secretion starts. If, however, there is only a slight dribble of nectar coming in, the bees are loath to draw out new comb (especially plastic combs). These are best put on once the main flow has started.
So have you got everything ready for the spring? Get new frames ready for waxing. Plastic combs can be pre-waxed ahead of time, but wax foundation is generally embedded a week before it’s to be used so that it has already warmed up and isn’t so easily damaged. Spring isn’t that far away.
My Beetech honey wax separator’s bottom bearing was very stiff. I stripped it down to expose the bearing and took a photo to my engineer. He didn’t like the look of it. It’s hard to remove and worth $600, so I cleaned it in situ. Half a can of brake cleaner later and new food-grade bearing grease and it’s now turning freely, and will be good for another couple of years.
A few years ago, I asked John Boland to estimate the life of the bearing on my 45-frame JB extractor. He had serviced one of his first extractors (which had done 40,000 drums) and he was surprised the bearings were still in good condition. He replaced them as he had the unit stripped down but said he really didn’t need to. Just shows what good design and regular maintenance does to your working machinery. Even if everything is turning freely, a little food-grade bearing grease at the right time can save breakdowns.
Recently I had an unpleasant surprise. While driving into one apiary, I noticed that five hives were missing. Judging by the tyre marks, it appears they were taken just a few days before. The site was under quarantine because of AFB (six hives in the last 18 months) and was being used for the pathogen programme. It’s likely that there will be other hives with AFB, which will show in the spring when they get stressed. If this thief spreads the brood around, there’s a good chance he will infect all his previously stolen colonies.
I have now signposted this apiary with a notice as well as installing security devices, and others are now keeping an eye on the site. The police may be able to identify the beekeeper from the traffic management cameras at the bottom of the hill.
I need to fix my weed wacker as the starter cord is not returning—that circlip holding the return spring assembly has gone again.
Use a thermal camera to check everything electrical: your house, factory and all appliances, extension cords and the meter boxes, then get an electrician to check the insulation resistance (do a Megger test) of everything. Look at the type of fusing you have and perhaps if old, have them replaced with circuit breakers and RCDs. Throw away any multiboxes that don’t have an in-built circuit breaker.
Check hives after storms. Heft each hive for weight. This gives an indication only that the hive has honey: it could be that all the weight is pollen and brood in the frames, not honey. If you’re not sure, look down into the hive to see if there are capped frames of honey. Start feeding sugar syrup when there are only three frames left and continue until the honey flow.
Check the slides under the mesh floor boards for mites. If you have normal bases, check the dead bees at the hive entrance for mite damage.
Plan your next season’s requirements and order everything early.