An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
Some of the larger colonies have been living day to day on what nectar they can bring in. The swarms that found a home away from another beekeeper’s beehive are likely to have died, as bees can’t build new comb and feed themselves in the rain. Many beekeepers have been feeding hives to keep brood production going.
We are not sure how our honey crop will pan out this season. All the wet weather in the west has promoted good growth of pasture plants but as farmers will tell you, not much guts. We have seen good growth of mānuka bushes in some areas but far fewer flowering buds. With ts and overstocking of hives, some could perhaps be in for a minor flow.
Most of us are optimists (you have to be to be a beekeeper) and will be setting hives up to produce their best crop. Now is the time to decide what to do with your hives. Small hives don’t produce much honey. It’s not hive numbers that count, but the population in each hive. You need a minimum of two full-depth (three, if you’re using three-quarter- depth) boxes full of bees to produce a decent honey crop.
Once the main flow starts, the bees and brood from small hives with new queens can be used to top up other weak hives, after first putting the queen and two frames of capped brood into a nuc box to build up during the season.
Hives that produced queen cells and were split to stop them from swarming can be put back together, with the new queen on top of the original hive to boost their population. Use two sheets of newsprint to slow the merging of the bees. I move the first honey box slightly ajar to provide an upper entrance and to stop the upper bees trapped by newsprint from overheating in hot weather. (With the amount of rain we’re getting as I write this, overheating is unlikely to occur.)
New beekeepers with only foundation frames should put only one super of foundation on at a time. Draw up an outside frame from the brood super below and place it in the middle of the super. After a few days, inspect and move the fully drawn frames out one, putting another foundation frame between. It’s a slow and laborious process, but the only way to ensure you get all your frames drawn out evenly.
You cannot just put a super of foundation (undrawn) frames on top of the hive and expect the bees to draw them out. Bees don’t see foundation frames as a resource, so have to be encouraged to move up into the new frames by lifting up a few drawn frames from the super below. If you choose to use plastic frames in your honey supers, you shouldn’t mix plastic frames with beeswax frames as the bees tend to only draw out the natural frames further. We have to initially force the bees to start to draw them, so it’s necessary to interspace a few plastic frames in the brood super first until they start to draw them out. Once started, you can then move these up into the next full super of plastic frames and the bees will follow.
For those with a super of willow honey on top of the brood nest, you have to create spare storage space to stimulate the bees to collect more honey. Checkerboard the existing full frames of honey with empty drawn combs in the second super and above.
Drawing out frames requires a huge effort from the bees. A good flow or continuous feeding is necessary to keep the bees drawing out wax. This means until you have an excess of drawn frames, you do not produce much honey: enough for the bees to winter with but not much for the beekeeper.
One must consider that 30,000–40,000 bees are required to look after the brood nest. In some hives only 20% of the bees are bringing in nectar. We can change this around so fewer nurse bees are required to look after the brood nest and therefore more are gathering nectar by creating a brood break.
One method is to just squash the queen. I knew a commercial beekeeper who did this with all his singles. At the beginning of the honey flow, he would kill the queens in any weak hive and add a super of honey frames for the crop. The bees put new nectar in the brood nest initially but once the new queen started laying, they moved the honey up into the honey super. In February, he would remove the honey super and requeen all the hives to set them up for the next season with new productive queens.
If this is not to your liking, you could Demaree the hives. Find the queen and the frame she is on. Put the queen and frame into the centre of a brood super full of foundation frames, which is placed on to the bottom board. Then place a queen excluder on and rearrange the remainder of the brood so that frames with eggs are placed in the middle, immediately above the queen excluder.
Five days later, check the second super for emergency queen cells and rub any out. If the second super looks crowded, add another honey super. It takes a while for the bees to build out the new foundation and in the meantime, the hive will have produced far more honey than it would have if left as is. This works well for a short honey flow.
The amount of honey crop gathered is also dependent on the amount of varroa in the hive. Mite levels of more than one percent stresses the bees and diverts them from honey production. Make sure any miticide strips are out of the hive before the flow starts. Check mite levels by sugar shake or an alcohol wash. This takes a lot of time but when you know the mite levels, there are no surprises.
You will also identify those hives that will surprise you with higher mite levels. These may need to be treated again. Put any honey boxes on another hive for a couple of weeks (check for AFB in both hives first) until the emergency treatment reduces the mite level. We are all likely to see this happening as more mites become resistant to Bayvarol® and Apistan®.
If you find resistant mites after a standard treatment, you cannot use Apivar® at this time of the year and get a honey crop as this product requires a two-week withdrawal period before the honey supers can go on again. Use one of the fumigant products that give a quick knock down and disperse just as quickly.
Once you have identified resistant mites in your hives, you will have to re-plan your treatments and do far more mite monitoring. The easy times with some treatments are coming to an end. It may change how some commercial beekeepers manage their hives. Perhaps divert or put on a new staff member to monitor and treat hives.
Try and get your first crop off before Christmas to beat the Tutin Regulations deadline. If it’s not completely capped, shake the frames to make sure the honey is mature (if it’s wet, a few drops of nectar will drip out). I also wouldn’t put the outside frames from the honey supers in the extractor as these tend to have a higher moisture content. There’s no use extracting early if the honey is going to ferment later next year.
Refractometers are fairly cheap now and take the guesswork out of determining whether the honey is ready to extract. Measure a sample of honey from several frames in each super to give you an average for the super. If it’s under 18.6% water content, the honey can be extracted. If it’s higher, stack the supers onto drip trays in a room and put in a dehumidifier, a heater set to 35°C and a fan. Offset the supers (overlap supers back and front to allow air to move through them) and leave for 24 hours. From my experience, 10 litres of water in the dehumidifier drops the moisture in the honey frames of 60 boxes by one percent.
For those of us in wet areas (high humidity, hives in the bush, etc.), I make a wooden roof with a 50-mm rim for each stack of supers (like the roof of an Australian hive). Cut a hole to fit a domestic heater. Offset the stack of supers on the drip tray by 25 mm or lift them on blocks slightly so air can circulate. I get my fans from the dump recycling depot; you can also get dehumidifiers there as well— Woods is a good model. Get an electrician to electrically check them and add a plug. Clean the dust out with a vacuum cleaner, especially at the air exit, and put on the fan only. Hot air from the heater, directly down on to the frames will melt them; hence the need to another heater in the room. (Warm air holds more moisture so is therefore easier to remove.)
You soon get to know how long it takes to remove moisture so your honey is reduced below 18% moisture by measuring all the supers in the stack every day. I reduce mine down to 17% as they keep better, but some would say by taking out extra moisture I’m removing weight, therefore money. I prefer to produce a premium product so don’t look at value until it’s in a container.
We all feel for the beekeepers in the earthquake areas of the South Island. Some will have lost hives and will be affected for a few years to come. Hives split open by the shaking will be robbed and going from the Cyclone Bola experience in the Gisborne area in 1988, AFB will become a major problem for a year or so.
We can help our fellow beekeepers. How about making a few nucs for them? ApiNZ no doubt can organise delivery in the autumn when the roads open and the beekeepers there have had time to assess their needs. Insurance is OK but it doesn’t cover bees. These beekeepers will need bees to keep going.
If you are one of those affected and need a hand, or just to have someone beside you for a while, do ask. We tend to be loners and battle through rather than ask for assistance. Two helpers can make a lot of difference.
Books are always a good Christmas present for a beekeeper. As a gift for a new prospective beekeeper, a wise choice is Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees by Malcolm T. Sanford and Richard E. Bonney (ISBN 978-1-60342-550-6).
For the more experienced (second year plus), a reprint of Queen Rearing Simplified by Jay Smith (ISBN 978-161476-052-8) would be a good present. Even if you’re not interested in producing queens, you should at least have the knowledge and it will certainly improve the way you introduce queens.
Check feed. Check for failing queens. Introduce nuclei. Super hives—get them on before the bees need them.
Control swarming. Make nucs out of any hive that swarms and combine weak hives to make full-strength units for honey production. This is the best time to get queens mated for those making their own replacements or ordering queen cells.
Prepare the honey house equipment. Undertake the first honey extraction in some areas. Do a full brood frame check for AFB before removing any honey or combining hives. Get the honey off before 1 January to meet all the testing requirements for those in the tutin/ scolypopa areas.
Fit foundation into comb honey supers. Put the comb honey supers on when the first three-quarter-depth frames are being used for honey storage. (This super is put under the comb honey supers to prevent the bees storing pollen in the comb super frames if there’s a break in the weather.)
Check hives for mites. Keep those mite numbers low.
Have a good Christmas break, even if it’s only a couple of days. Take time off and spend it on family activities. Most commercial beekeepers’ families hardly see them at this time of the year. Family time is important. Take a break before you get into the extracting season. We hope you have a good crop. All the best from the Publications Focus Group team.