An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
In the rural areas of our region (Wellington), you can see the odd flowering scarlet gum (Eucalyptus cinerea), lotus major and pennyroyal in the damp areas and thistle on some farms. Along the railway line and on roadside banks, fennel is making quite a show, the honey being yellow and quite strong.
After the recent rains, catsear and clover are setting up to flower again, but whether they will produce nectar depends upon the ground temperature. The urban areas still have an assortment of flowers bees can visit.
Talking to other beekeepers, the honey crop is about average. Some of my hives have done well: the bees have stored four three-quarter-depth supers of bush honey for me in addition to ample winter stores, which have forced the brood down into the bottom super.
We recently had an overseas beekeeper visit us and he wanted to see manuka (the plant and the honey in the hives). The shrubs are easy to spot, but the honey was rather difficult to find. Most of the hives I’d put on to the manuka still had two supers of empty frames, and the bee numbers had dropped by a third. What a disappointment. The bush had just started to flower when I moved them in but that wet, windy spell after Christmas must have stopped either the flow or the bees from visiting the flowers. A check of quite a few bushes in different areas showed no seed set and plenty of growth. It’s the third year in a row the bees haven’t collected any manuka—bugger.
A little further up the line, a farmer told me it’s been one of their best seasons for a long time. They received sufficient rain to make three cuts of hay and clover is everywhere. This has affected the hives, stimulating the queens into laying. Some have converted their winter stores in three supers of brood, with the odd hive producing queen cells. At first I thought they were simply supersedure cells, but the queens are laying well with beautiful brood patterns and the cells are of different ages. I have had to make splits with them in the hope that reduced bee numbers will stop them from swarming.
In the bush areas the season is basically all over and the bees are in ‘robbing mode’. The bees start probing the defences of their neighbouring hives and those within flying distance. Any hive that is queenless or has something wrong with it will be targeted. Initially the bees defend their hive but they are overwhelmed when bees from other hives join in the robbing. This provokes more fighting, and soon anything that moves within a short distance of the robbing hive is attacked.
Generally the best thing a commercial beekeeper can do is remove the hive and leave an empty super in its place. The robbing bees quickly realise there isn’t any honey to rob and give up.
A hobby beekeeper may not be able to move the hive, but hobbyists have an advantage. Bees will not rob in the rain, so turn on the sprinkler and close down the entrance to the width of a couple of bees.
At the same time, order a new queen but don’t release her too soon. Leave her in the hive for three days without releasing the tab. Open the hive in the evening, when most of the flight activity has ceased, and look at the bees on the queen cage. If they are feeding the queen and otherwise not taking any notice of her, you can release the tab and let her emerge into the hive. Any aggressive action by any bee (e.g., grabbing or trying to sting the queen) means either there could be another queen in the hive, or just that she is not yet accepted, so leave her in the cage for another three days and check again. Sometimes it can take up to a week before she’s accepted.
Autumn is not far away. Already the willow leaves are starting to change colour, daylight hours are shortening and dew has starting to appear each night on the vehicles. Our solar water heater is no longer producing temperatures in the 70oC range.
Close down the hive entrances, block any holes or wide cracks between supers and check how your mite treatments are going. Fork out some pink-eyed drone brood and look for mites. Try to fork out 100 cells and work out the percentage of ‘dark’ mites you find. Just lately, another beekeeper reported that natural mite fall was low through the bottom board, yet there were lots of mites in the drone brood. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by relying on mite fall alone. Use sugar shakes or an alcohol wash. These methods are in the manual Control of Varroa. [Editor’s note: this book is available for ordering from the NBA website. It is currently out of stock, but is being revised.]
In some of my hives I’m seeing the odd bee with shrivelled wings but I’m not getting a high mite fall, even though mite numbers are fairly low. I suspect deformed wing virus is around. Viruses take a lot longer to disappear after the mite problems are under control. And then I came across a hive that had PMS, which was much earlier than usual. Did my formic acid treatment fail, or have they picked up the mites from somewhere else? Never make any assumptions about mites as they can quickly destroy a hive.
Most beekeepers have been hard at it extracting their honey but I have been mucking around doing a little maintenance on the truck. Cow muck is very acidic and quickly eats away at any unprotected metal. My last ute started coming away under the radiator and this truck was starting to go in the same place, so I’ve blackguarded it to hold the rust and I’ll give it a coat of paint during the next fine weekend.
The other major maintenance job was taking out the radiator to clear out the grass seed. My Nissan Atlas 150 has a ground clearance of seven inches with a scoop underneath to direct the air up on to the radiator. Off-road this works very well as a seed heater, resulting in a blocked radiator and an overheated engine. My truck has been overheating for some time so before it had to do some real work carting in honey supers, I felt it should get its annual overhaul.
At the same time we replaced the thermostat (which, incidentally, was the wrong one and partly caused the overheating problem) and the water pump. If you are going to the effort of removing the radiator (removing the driver’s seat and cab floor above the motor), you might as well do everything else while it’s out.
I played around forcing out the grass seed with an air hose for half a day, while a mechanic friend did the real work with the water pump. My vehicle now doesn’t overheat under load, but it’s not going to last very long like this. A kilometre of travelling over farm tracks coated the radiator with seeds again. I carefully vacuumed them off but you can’t do that every day. The solution came from a fellow beekeeper, who had a small roll of stainless-steel flyscreen he was planning to use to filter cappings. I loaned him a strainer that fitted on a 20-litre pail, and he donated the mesh which fits perfectly over the radiator. I’ll now put the mesh in position when I go off-road and hopefully this will save me removing the radiator again next year.
My most recent job was making up three- frame nucs to introduce 10-day-old queen cells into. I plan to winter over a number of nucs to replace any hives that go queenless during winter. Most will be wintered as five-frame nucs, with a small patch of brood in two frames and the rest will be honey frames. I’ll also put aside an extra couple of frames of honey to replace any empty ones in August to give the bees a boost.
Speaking of boosting, I used bee-boost strips this last spring in a few nucs, and what a difference it made. These hives started as four-frame nucs in the spring and produced another box of bees going into the honey flow.
Top-bar hives take quite a bit of work to get them through winter. Hives need a minimum of 10 frames with honey; i.e., the brood should be in the bottom of the frame with honey over the top. If your hive is not up to this standard, start feeding it internally with sugar syrup, and don’t spill any outside the hive as this will only encourage robber bees. Bees naturally migrate up during the winter. With a top-bar hive they have to go sideways. If they don’t have honey over the top of the cluster, they could starve. You have enjoyed your bees through the summer; now prepare them for winter. Too many of these hives die out in winter through neglect. They are not like a Langstroth hive that generally takes care of itself. You have to make sure the cluster is always in touch with the honey stores.
Remove all comb honey frames. Remove and extract surplus honey—those frames that are not fully capped should be shaken to make sure the honey is dry otherwise leave it for the bees. Don’t forget to do an AFB check before removing any honey. If bees are robbing, mark the cover of the supers and stack the supers on your vehicle, then check the hives for disease. Return supers to the hive and burn those that are diseased.
Requeen hives. Now is the best time to get queens mated while it’s still warm and there are plenty of mature drones in the hives. Queen producers should also have mated queens on hand if required.
In some areas it’s time to winter down hives. Keep an eye out for wasps and close entrances down so the bees are better able to defend the hives against them and mice getting into your hives.
Combine any small non-producing hives or make nucs out of them, so that you have spring queens on hand when you want them.
Make sure your mite treatments are working. Keep an eye out for those hives that only have a few mites in them. Produce queens from these but check the hive thoroughly beforehand. I thought I’d found a hive that only had a few mites due to a hygienic queen and brood, only to find a strip in between the bottom frames of the super.