An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
No doubt the weather will set back some of the smaller colonies that were expanding quite nicely. Spring is very unpredictable, so we have to make sure our hives have plenty of feed in reserve for the bees to call on when the weather prevents them from gather nectar and pollen for themselves.
Some of my colonies are boiling over with bees ready to split (if I had queens), while others had a harder time with mite re-invasion and are quite small, filling only eight frames in a full-depth super. And some have just a handful of bees. I added a frame of brood and bees to these but I’m now not sure that these will survive in the snow as some of my apiary sites are in higher elevations.
You can add a shake of nurse bees or a frame of nurse bees and emerging brood to boost a small colony’s population without causing too much disruption to the hive. Any more and the new bees could kill the queen unless the hive scent is disguised with a spray of air freshener. Remember: we can only interchange brood frames after we have completed a brood inspection for AFB of both hives.
You can boost hives showing deformed wing virus but I wouldn’t put the frames from the infested hive back into a good healthy hive, as this could spread the virus to the good hive.
Perhaps fixing up these poor-wintering hives is a waste of time and energy. Remember the 80/20 rule; in this case, where you spend 80% of your time on 20% of your hives. This really is a waste of your resources. Concentrate on the really good hives and breed from these. I say this realising that it’s hard to let one hive go when you could bring it back into production. Then again if these dinky little hives produce drones and mate with my good queens, I will be reproducing from inferior stock. You have to decide on what your ultimate goal is: honey production from good stock or just honey production at any cost. I think I’ll build them up and then requeen them before they get into major drone production.
Colonies are expanding like mad and will continue to do so right up to the honey flow. Beekeeping is about timing—hives hitting a peak population right on the main honey flow. Reach it earlier and the hive will swarm; later and the hive is still growing on the honey flow.
Hives swarm for a number of reasons but the main one is overcrowding. The queen will continue to move the brood nest up until it hits a wall of honey. We can keep the queen moving up by reversing the bottom two brood supers, but you have to be careful not to split the colony.
The brood area is normally in the shape of an ellipse. It could be that you have brood in the bottom half of the top super and brood in top half of the bottom super. By reversing the supers at this stage, you will be splitting the brood nest. In this situation, rather than reverse the super, put some of the young brood down into the bottom super (in the middle) and create space in the second by taking empty frames from the first and putting them on the outside of the brood for the queen to expand into.
Those who only have a single brood nest could lift a couple of frames of emerging brood above the queen excluder to encourage bees into the second super. If you haven’t spotted the queen, shake all the bees of these frames so you don’t inadvertently move the queen up above the queen excluder. If you move open brood up, the bees might draw out a queen cell and you don’t want this as it could cause the hive to swarm. If you have no choice, check in five days and rub out any queen cells produced above the queen excluder.
Healthy colonies will start to draw out queen cell buds in preparation for swarming. Generally the bees will make them on the outside of the comb and along the bottom of the comb in the space above the bottom bar. I squash out those buds that I can’t easily see when looking from the bottom bars up into the super and leave those along the bottom bar. From now on we are starting to inspect hives every nine to 10 days.
It doesn’t have to be hard—just a quick inspection to see how the hive is going. Remove the roof and place it in front of the hive. Observe where the bees are in the second super, covering all frames, can you see capped honey? If you can, tilt the hive back on the bottom board and look under the frames of the bottom super.
Are there bees hanging down below the frames covering half the bottom bars? If so, the hive is ready for the next super. If you have three to five full-depth frames of sealed brood (or the equivalent in three-quarter- depth frames), in the next eight days the hive will need another super. Put the supers back down on the bottom board and this time, split the hive between the first and second super. Look along the bottom bar for eggs in those queen cell buds you left. If you don’t see any eggs, just add your third super and close up. (Feed thick sugar syrup if the bees need it.)
Swarming generally occurs at the first bush nectar flow or on pasture when the barberry, cabbage tree and/or hawthorns flower. When you see these flowering, be very diligent with your inspections. Sometimes the bees will hide a queen cell away so you don’t see it. Sometimes if there isn’t enough room to hang the cell down under the comb, they will build the cell horizontally along the bottom bar.
An egg in a queen cell indicates the hive is going to swarm, but not always. Up to this point the queen has been laying flat out and some will start to fail, so the bees will use the cell buds to create supersedure cells. Put the frame with the first queen cell aside in front of the hive and continue to look through the other brood frames. Are there eggs in the brood frames? If not, then leave the queen cells as these are supersedure cells. If eggs are present in the brood frames, then these are swarm cells. Either split the hive in half or take off a nuc.
I prefer to split the hive in half, moving the queen and most of the sealed brood and half the honey to another position in the yard. Leave a couple of queen cells of different ages and open brood on the original site. Because this queenless split is still on the old site, all of the field bees will return to this hive. The old queen’s split will be relieved of congestion and she will continue laying. In the new split, a queen will develop, hopefully mate and keep the hive going, so you will need to check in 21 days.
If you don’t want to increase your hive numbers, bring the old queen hive back to the original site at the beginning of the main honey flow. Place the new queen hive on top of the old queen hive, separated by a couple of sheets of newsprint. Add another two honey supers and it’s ready to bring in honey.
The bees going down into the old hive will kill the old queen most of the time.
This sort of operation requires an additional base and roof. If you don’t have these, use/ make a split board. This is just a crown board with an entrance notch (about 25 millimetres) cut out of the top side at one end. When making the split to stop swarming, place the old queen section on top of the split board with the entrance upwards and to the back and you have two separate colonies on top of each other. Generally because the bottom hive will have more bees, it’s best to add another super to give the bees room.
For those with top bar or bench hives, with each inspection move the brood frames back from the entrance one or two bars/frames. The colony will expand towards the entrance. (Entrances should be at the ends, not in the centre.) If you see queen cells, split the colony just as you would for a Langstroth hive.
A strong hive needs at least three frames of honey in reserve (a week’s food) all the time. Honey will be used at a great rate now as the bees turn it into food for the growing larvae. Some hives may need feeding from now on. You don’t want them to starve, as this delays brood rearing and you will have less bees for the honey flow.
For those starting with nuc hives, continue to feed your bees, maybe twice a week if a two-litre jar feeder is used. Keep feeding until all the bottom super’s frames are drawn out. If this occurs mid-December, you can stop feeding as the bees should then start working natural nectar sources and will build out a second super by themselves.
The most important thing a new beekeeper can learn is how to light a smoker and have it keep going for half an hour or more. Store pine needles or use sacking in a dry place until it’s completely dry. Place some pine needles in the bottom third of the smoker and take a handful of needles. Light the end and, while puffing the bellows, gently put the lit needles into the smoker and keep puffing the bellows. Lots of smoke will come out: that’s good. Now gently add another handful of needles and slowly compact these into the smoker while still puffing. Then add more until the smoker is full. Close the lid and puff again. The smoke should be cool on your hand. This is the distance you work the hive with.
Before opening a hive, put four puffs into the entrance. If you have hives on a pallet and intend to work the lot, smoke them all. Wait two minutes and do it again. Then wait for another two minutes and you are ready to open the hive. As you raise the crown board, waft a gentle puff over the top of the bars. You now have the hive under control. When the bees start raising their heads and looking at you from between the bars, waft just a little smoke over their heads and they will go back down again. If you have a line of bee hives, smoke the next hive as you open the first.
When you take a super off a hive to work on the lower one, cover the first with the crown board or a cotton cloth. You can keep the hive open a little longer without it losing too much heat.
Quite often beekeepers smoke hives and get straight into them, then wonder why they get stung. You have to give time for the smoke to work, to overwhelm the bees’ sense of smell and mask any alarm pheromone so they are calm and easy to handle. Some hives will sting anyway. Replace their queen with a mated queen from a queen producer at the first opportunity.
Then learn how to handle and use a hive tool. Keep it in the palm of your hand even when lifting out frames. Attend local field days and buddy up with another beekeeper.
Check feed and pollen levels. Feed if short. Do an AFB check, and get your Certificate of Inspection (COI) in the post before the end of November.
Cull old frames, or at least move them to the outside of the super so they can be removed next inspection. Replace any with broken lugs, aswell as those that you can’t see light through when held up to the sun. Replace a minimum of three frames in brood supers each year.
Check varroa mite levels. Treat any that have more than two mites per 100 bees on an alcohol wash or five mites dropping in 24 hours througha mesh bottom board. We learnt at conference in 2014 that hives with a 5% varroa level don’t produce much honey. Hives kept at or below a 1% varroa level, produce 100% more honey than those with a 5% mite load.
Miticide strips have to be out before the honey flow. Apivar® has to be out two weeks before the flow starts. Check that your treatment has been successful two weeks after the strips have been removed.
Add foundation frames into and above the brood nest to keep the bees busy. Fit foundation into comb honey frames. Super hives before the flow starts. Inter-space foundation with drawn frames to encourage the bees up into the next super.
Wash your bee suits and gloves after any stinging incident. Take all your gear off before entering your house to protect your family from the effects of bee venom.
Recently the metal work on one of my smokers died, so I looked around for a replacement. You can get a stainless copy or you can purchase the genuine thing produced by Dadant in the USA.
I bought a copy to carry me over for the season rather than purchase one locally, as I was heading to the USA later in the year where I could buy one myself.
I found that the copy burnt through the fuel in half the time of my original, so reduced the spout hole to half by flattening it slightly. This reduced the air flow to some extent. However, after getting the genuine article. I put both smokers side by side, and lit them using dried pine needles. I left the copy going on the truck and proceeded to use the new Dadant smoker while working hives.
Result: the Dadant lasted nearly twice as long than my copy. There’s more science to smokers than you think.