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Fall hive management: dealing with dinks

You have a small colony of honey bees that seems to have stalled. The frames of bees look normal enough, and they contain brood, honey, pollen, and a seemingly healthy queen. The bees are performing normal honey bee activities, but the colony doesn’t seem to thrive. Instead it just persists. Although the entire colony covers just two, three, or four frames, the bees seem happy with the status quo.

As a beekeeper, you are perplexed. What do you do with it? Can you get them through winter? Should you even try?

Colonies like this are often called “dinks.” They have been around as long as beekeepers, and every fall the same questions come up. Should you feed them, combine them, destroy them, shake them out, or just ignore them?

1 dink + 1 dink = 1 dink?

The truth is, over the years I’ve changed my philosophy about these grapefruit-sized clusters. When I first started out, I frequently heard the advice that a dink plus a dink equals a dink.

The thought was that if you combined two weak colonies, the combined colony will still be weak and unable to make it through the winter. So it was considered a stupid thing to do.

Instead, I was told to combine a weak colony with a strong one so that I wouldn’t lose any bees. The problem with this idea is that it assumes the dinky colony is healthy and won’t harm the strong one. But is that true?

Any colony that under performs does so for a reason. We might never know what the reason is or whether it is contagious. But unless we know for sure, why risk passing the condition to a strong and healthy colony?

For example, if the dink is weak because it is malnourished or headed by a defective queen, there is little harm in combining. But if the dink is weak because of a pathogen or parasite, we certainly would not want to introduce that into a healthy colony.

So common sense tells us that if we combine two dinks and the resulting colony dies, we haven’t lost much. But if we combine a dink and a thriving colony and the resulting colony dies, we have lost in a big way.

Shaking is worse than combining

Here’s another bad piece of advice I frequently hear: Simply shake the bees out of the dink at the edge of the apiary so the individual bees can move into other hives. In my opinion, this is worse than combining the dink with a good colony. By shaking a diseased dink, you can easily pass whatever it is to all your other colonies at once. How utterly efficient!

So what should you do?

Usually, I start thinking about dinks in August when I evaluate the hives for mites. If I have any hives that appear weak, I start by doing a thorough inspection. I lift every frame and check for brood diseases, I look at the brood pattern, count mites, and check for winter stores.

If I have more than one dink, and they appear healthy except for mites, I combine them before mite treatments. If I have only one, or if I have two with drastically different mite loads, I keep them separate and treat the one that needs it. The next decision is whether I want to overwinter these mini colonies.

Another old adage proclaims that “once a dink always a dink.” I don’t believe this is true. In fact, at times I have been shocked by the turnaround a dink can make, especially when you keep it well fed. It almost seems like they have an internal timer. Once their time comes, they’re off like race horses.

Cost/benefit ratio

The problem, as I see it, is that these small colonies can take a lot of work. If you are willing to put in the effort, you can often turn them around. If you are already pressed for time, it may not be worth it. So at this point, I’d say it’s a personal decision.

When I say lots of work I mean the bees may need constant feeding, they may need pollen sub, they may need insulation, they may need protection from robbers and wasps, they may need windbreaks and rain shelters. In other words, you personally have to make up for the small population. Your role changes from “beekeeper” to “ginormous nurse bee,” at least until the colony gets through the rough spots.

If you succeed, it can be quite rewarding. But if you fail you’ll wonder whatever possessed you to think you could keep the thing alive. I know because I’ve done both.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Can this dink turn around?
Can this dink be saved? Pixabay photo.

My hives have no brood! What should I do?

It is October or perhaps November. You open your hives for a quick inspection only to find there is no brood. None!  Not a single cell, capped or otherwise. You panic, wondering whether you should replace your queens (tricky this time of year), combine your colonies, or just give up. You blame mites, mite treatments, predators, diseases, bad weather, weak queens, and yourself.

So what is wrong with these colonies? My first guess is “absolutely nothing.” Your colonies have little or no brood because it’s that time of year. Here in the northern hemisphere, brood rearing slows dramatically or stops altogether as the weather begins to cool.

The winter brood nest

Beekeeping in Western Canada, a thorough all-purpose beekeeping book published by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, explains it like this (p.6):

As fall progresses, egg-laying by the queen generally ceases, and there is a period of from one to three months during winter when there is little or no brood rearing.

The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture (p. 43) tells us that brood rearing begins anew after the winter solstice:

Brood rearing begins in mid-winter (end of December to January in temperate climates), accelerates in late winter and early spring, reaches a peak soon after the first forage becomes available, reduces later in the summer, and ceases entirely in autumn. (emphasis added)

Consider these two statements together and you can see that one to three months before the winter solstice puts you back in October. So basically, you may have no brood in the months of October, November, and December.

Variations due to temperature

The actual beginning of broodlessness will vary with local conditions, as will the length of time. Colonies further south where winter temperatures remain mild, may never be completely broodless. Still, even in the south, the amount of brood is lower in the winter.

My own observation is that the length of time (the one to three months) is not the same every year, but is dependent on local weather conditions. So maybe last year, for example, broodlessness started later. Maybe you didn’t notice it because your hives were already buttoned up for the winter. If broodlessness comes earlier in the year, you are more apt to notice it.

Advantages of a small or missing brood nest

All species evolve in ways that help them survive. A period of broodlessness may have a number of advantages:

  • Some researchers have suggested that a broodless stretch allows the queen a period of rejuvenation. She gets to rest and build her strength before the next onslaught of egg-laying.
  • The broodless period reduces the population of the hive by attrition. As bees die, fewer are left to feed. There is an optimum population level for any colony, one that is large enough to keep the colony warm but small enough that the food supply will last till spring. Colony size in winter varies, but it is highly dependent on sub-species. Carniolans, for example, overwinter with smaller colonies than Italians.
  • A broodless period also conserves energy in another way. When no brood is present, the cluster is maintained at a temperature of around 20°C (68°F) in the center. Conversely, a cluster with brood is maintained at about 34°C (93°F). To sustain this higher temperature, the bees must eat a much greater amount of food. So as you can see, a long broodless period is a significant energy-saving strategy.

The Hive and the Honey Bee (2014, p. 89) sums it all up:

There is little or no brood rearing during the coldest part of the winter and colonies reach their lowest population size as winter progresses. However, in late winter the queen begins to lay and brood rearing commences. This requires that workers elevate the temperature to 34-35 degrees C inside the cluster around the brood.

Colony size is not static

Colony size and the amount of brood rearing is in a constant state of flux—nothing about a honey bee colony is static. I’ve written this many times before, but there is a simple rule of thumb to help you remember what is happening inside your hive. Just divide the year into two parts, the growing part and the shrinking part.

Basically a honey bee colony increases in population from the winter solstice to the summer solstice and decreases from the summer solstice to the winter solstice. Adult populations are highest just before the downturn (late June) and lowest just before the upturn (late December).

This schedule is not intuitive, especially to a new beekeeper, so it takes some thinking. The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture states it like this:

The striking thing about this pattern is that it is so different from the pattern of when forage is available.

But when you think about it, a colony must build up before the major honey flow if the bees are to take advantage of it and store it for winter. Likewise, the colony needs to shrink before extreme cold sets in so food supplies are not rapidly consumed.

Think like a bee

When it comes to understanding your colony population dynamics, it helps to think like a bee. And a bee, it seems, is a good planner with the goal of protecting the future of the colony. My advice is to read a good book on bee biology and plot brood expansion and contraction on a calendar. You will then know what to expect before you open your hive.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

queen-bee-on-comb-pixabay
A nice long break sounds like a plan. Pixabay photo.

When is it too cold to open a hive?

My ancestors were hardy Pennsylvania Germans. They were diligent, clear thinking, and not predisposed to nonsense. Whenever I said something lacking in common sense—what they called horse sense—I got the withering glare, the one that said, “You’re no kin of mine.”

No trait is more firmly etched on my brain than common sense and I became, for better or worse, especially adept at delivering the withering glare. So when someone asks a question like the one below, I’m always grateful there are two computers, a piece of black tape, and a bunch of miles between us.

“I think my bees are starving to death. A month ago the frames were empty and I was counting on the fall flow to fill them up. But now so many bees are dead and it’s too cold for me to open the hive and feed them. Help! What should I do?”

I hardly know where to begin. Ignoring the fact that she lost a month by relying on a mere possibility, it’s the cold comment that really sends me. How can it possibly be too cold to feed them?

Her choices are obvious. She can choose to not feed because it’s “too cold” and lose the entire colony to starvation. Or she can open the hive, feed the colony, and lose some bees to the cold. Where’s the question?

Furthermore, cold losses are usually associated with chilled brood. A colony that’s starving will have little or no brood, having consumed it to conserve energy and resources. And even if there is brood, how long does it take to feed a colony? Certainly all the brood won’t die in the 10 seconds it takes to slide in a sugar cake.

Simply put, there is almost no temperature at which it is too cold to feed a starving colony. Sure, there are exceptions. If you’re in the prairie provinces and it’s 40 below, it’s probably a wasted effort. But most beekeepers can find a warmish day even in the dead of winter.

What’s warmish? It depends on how bad the situation is. Starvation is bad and deserves prompt attention. So is disease.

“I want to treat my hives by dribbling oxalic acid. I bought all the stuff, but now it’s too cold to treat. My white board gets about 50 mites overnight. What should I do? Just wait till spring?”

The same advice applies here, although it may be too late. His choices: treat and maybe save the colony or don’t treat and lose it to mites. Fall colonies are low on brood anyway, so there isn’t much brood to chill. Furthermore, it doesn’t take much time to dribble a colony. I can do one in 30 or 40 seconds, start to finish. If you can’t do it fast, practice with syrup and an empty box until you can.

Preparation is key

Before I open a hive in winter, I prepare thoroughly. I make sure I have all the equipment I will need at the site, and then I review my movements. The colder it is, the longer I review.

For example, I once combined two hives at 22 degrees F. One colony thoughtfully left it’s dead queen where I could see it on the landing board. Nice touch. Since I couldn’t re-queen in the dead of winter, I decided to combine it with a neighboring hive.

When I reviewed my steps, it became obvious that I could put the sheet of newspaper over the receiving hive the instant I opened it. This would keep the bees in place and prevent most of the heat from escaping. The queenless hive was in two partially-filled boxes, but the temperature wasn’t right for fiddling with frames. So I took off the telescoping cover (to lighten the load) and taped over the hole in the inner cover to conserve heat. Then I broke the propolis seals with my hive tool. When all was ready, the actual combination took less than a minute.

I removed the lid off the receiving hive, laid down the paper, moved the upper box of the queenless hive to one side, set the lower box on the newspaper, added the upper box, pulled the tape off the inner cover and added the lid.

How many bees died? I don’t know but certainly some. More important, however, is that I ended up with a thriving colony in the spring which I later split into two again.

Don’t assume you can’t do it

The point of all this is that you shouldn’t assume it is too cold to do something to your hives. Think about the consequences of not doing vs the benefits of doing. Compare potential losses. And once you’ve made a decision, plan your steps, review your plan, and go for it. It’s almost never too cold to open a hive.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

One of my favorite bee stories comes from A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson. He needed to destroy a colony of bumble bees because they were imported into the country and could not be released. Hoping to kill them in the most humane way possible, he decided to freeze them. He placed the entire colony into a freezer at -30°C (-22°F). When he went to get them the next morning, he was amazed to find the workers tightly surrounding the brood and queen, buzzing loudly. All the bees were perfectly fine.

Is it too cold to open a hive?
It’s not too cold to open a hive that needs attention, even in snow. Pixabay photo.

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Pollen feeders for honey bees

I was recently reminded of pollen feeders when I received a photo from Tammy Sill in Rhode Island. She said of her bees, “They roll in it like dogs on dead fish!!!” I have to agree. A good and plentiful source of autumn pollen will cause to bees to frolic as if they died and went to pollen heaven.

tammy-sill-bees in pollen
Honey bees frolic in a pollen feeder. © Tammy Sill.

Tammy’s photo reminded that another beekeeper, Naomi Price of central Oregon, has been experimenting with pollen feeding for a couple of years. She says that watching honey bees collect pollen from a feeder is an education in itself.

Feeding pollen in Oregon

Naomi and her husband had been worried about the fall supply of pollen because central Oregon’s weather pattern changed over the last few years. “We have had warmer than normal autumns that have little to offer foraging honey bees, hence they use up their valuable stores.”

She opted to purchase two pounds of bee-collected pollen from a highly-recommended local source. They ground the pellets into a powder and fed it back to the bees in an inexpensive homemade container. “It was more important that the bees be given the protein immediately rather than to worry about the human eye appeal of the pollen feeder,” she said of the plastic feeder. But the design worked perfectly and they continue to use it.

The main drawback was the expense of the pollen. “Oh well,” she said of the money. “The education was worth every penny spent for a good cause…Watching the honey bee carrying pollen is every beekeeper’s ah-ha moment.”

It turns out that the bees really packed it away. “My long hives usually store 2½ frames of pollen,” she said. “However, this extra pollen pushed the storage to 4+ frames.”

A simple pollen feeder

The following photos provided by Naomi and Larry, explain their ingenious system.

Bee-collected pollen
I started with two pounds of pollen from a reliable source.
Pollen in coffee grinder
It is best to grind small amounts of pollen pellets to produce dust that honey bees can forage. Here we used a coffee grinder.
2 liter plasic bottle
Select a container with a detachable and secure lid such as this two-liter plastic bottle.
Bottom cut from bottle
Cut out the bottom of the container to be used as the entrance and exit. Blue tape protects the rough-cut edges and presents a flower bull’s eye to the honey bee.
Bottle wrapped in tape.
The container needs to have daylight blocked so the honey bees can find the exit.
Drilling hole in tree truck
Larry used a screw to secure the container’s cap to a Juniper, upwind of the hive. Remember, honey bees usually fly into the wind because a slight breeze brings them fragrant forage information.
Installing feeder
The container can then be screwed into the lid. This container gives the pollen protection against wind and unexpected rain.
Filling the feeder
The container is loaded with a GENEROUS amount of dust. Remember, pollen is of no value to the honey bees if it is sitting on your refrigerator’s shelf.
Bees enjoying the pollen
We removed the feeder at night and brought it into the house to prevent moisture absorption by the pollen. We re-ground any dust left in the feeder and added it back the next morning. Our bees consumed 1# in three days. Most hives were bringing in three colors of pollen plus the offered pollen dust.
pollen-feeder-naomi-price-320
The second year we used the same type of container because they are easy to put up and take down. However, we added color to the outside instead of tape. We found the most important thing was to install the feeders upwind of the hives.

My own experiment was a “cat”astrophe

After reading these accounts from Naomi and Tammy, I was eager to set up my own experiment. So last week I placed three containers on the picnic table. One contained only pollen substitute, one contained a mixture of trapped pollen and pollen substitute, and the third contained only trapped pollen.

Once I was satisfied with my mixtures, I went to look for some tools. When I returned about five minutes later, the bowl of plain pollen substitute was empty. “What the?” I said aloud. Then I saw my cat doing this thing with her tongue. She was sticking it way out and scraping it against her teeth. Tongue, whiskers, and nose were dusted yellow and I thought she was going to choke to death. Who knew pollen substitute was such a yummy treat?

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

A gentle warning about upper entrances

Don’t get me wrong. I love upper entrances and use them a lot. EAS master beekeeper George Imirie was passionate about upper entrances and frequently wrote of their importance. He believed they solved two primary problems: they shortened the distance returning foragers had to travel through the hive and they provided hive ventilation, especially in winter.

Imirie was the eponymous designer of the Imirie shim, a 3/4-inch rectangular frame with the same footprint as a Langstroth box. In the center of one end, a 3/4-inch by 3/8-inch entrance is notched into the wood. Imirie used this frame between honey supers in the summer and above the brood boxes in winter. According to his writings, he designed the shim because he didn’t like drilling holes in his boxes.

Entrances drilled directly into boxes

If you don’t mind drilling holes in your boxes, a drilled hole eliminates the problem of burr comb between boxes. Imirie thought the burr comb was a small price to pay for the increased efficiency of the foragers, and he didn’t mind scraping it away.

Other beekeepers, like Tony Bees in New York, swear by holes drilled directly into the honey supers. He gets huge quantities of honey by using these upper entrances combined with little landing pads for the foragers’ convenience. I converted to this method and drilled one-inch holes in my honey supers which I then placed over a double-queen hive.

Top entrances for pollen collection

In addition, I use a 3-inch shim (also known as an eke) with three one-inch holes drilled in the front on those hives where I plan to collect pollen. I like the Sundance II top-mounted trap, but it requires that the bees first be accustomed to an upper entrance. I use the 3-inch eke with the three holes to “train” the bees. When they are comfortable with the new entrance, I simply exchange the eke with the pollen trap.

When I’m ready to remove the trap, I switch the two again and the bees go right back to using the three holes. Seamless, as they say.

Alternatives for upper ventilation

Personally, I don’t rely on a single upper entrance for ventilation. For a very large and populous colony, it doesn’t seem like enough.

In my mind ventilation and entrances are separate issues, and I prefer to use a screened inner cover for summer ventilation and a quilt box with screened ports for winter ventilation. Of course, the amount of ventilation required will vary dramatically with your climate and the size of your colony. Under some circumstances, a single small hole will be enough.

And now the warning

I see a lot of beekeepers using two small blocks of wood inserted under the lid or under the inner cover to create a huge upper entrance. In fact, I was taught to do this, and at one time I had a box of these little wooden blocks ready to go.

The problem is little blocks make ginormous upper entrances. Even if your block is only 3/8-inch high, the entrance extends the entire width of the hive and partway back on both sides.

This configuration is no problem for a large and populous hive. But if robbing begins, a small colony can quickly be overrun by invaders coming through this large entrance. And remember, the colony must guard the bottom entrance at the same time. Of course, if the top entrance is your only entrance, the situation is not as bad. Still, size is an issue.

Robbing happens fast

It is easy to forget that robbing happens fast. You can go to work one morning only to find all your honey stores gone by evening. It’s not just other honey bees, but yellowjackets, wasps, and hornets as well.

In fact, if you feed during a dearth, many sources recommend that you move the feed as far as possible from the entrance. This is so the scent of the feed is not strongest right where the opening is. So, for example, if the feed is at the top of the hive, the entrance should be at the bottom. This is another good reason to close up the top during a dearth.

The lesson is simple, if you elect to use a big gaping hole as an upper entrance, you’ve got to close it before robbing season begins. You can’t forget and you can’t be late. Trouble is, because it is often blistery hot during robbing season, and because the entrance doubles as a ventilation port, the tendency is to wait too long. This is exactly why I like to treat entrances and ventilation as separate problems.

Avoiding the big-entrance problem

If you’ve drilled upper entrances in your honey supers, you don’t have this problem because your honey supers have normally been removed by robbing season. And some beekeepers, like Tony Bees, add hinged covers that can be closed.

If you use an Imirie shim for an upper entrance, it is probably defensible by all but the weakest colonies. Or if you use multiple holes in a 3-inch rim, you can easily plug the holes with wooden or plastic buttons or a piece of duct tape.

In any case, a small entrance, whether it is round or rectangular, is easier for the bees to defend than a long, continuous one. If you read Thomas Seeley’s book Honeybee Democracy you will see that swarms are very particular about the size of the entrance opening. Although honey bees will sometimes select a long and narrow opening in a tree, it is usually quite slender and there is normally just one. Although we can only assume their motivations, colony defense seems a likely factor in their decision-making.

Other considerations

Large top entrances, especially on small colonies, also invite other problems such as wax moths and ants. If the colony is not guarding the top entrance, pests have easy access to your combs. If you use a screened inner cover, or screened ventilation ports, you can exclude some pests, especially wax moths.

On the flip side, upper entrances are especially nice in winter because the bees can come and go without having to dig through a pile of dead bodies. And predators, especially the furry mammalian type, have a harder time catching bees as they come and go from a top entrance.

Summary

To sum it all up, I like upper entrances and think they provide many advantages. But those of us using multiple entrances, especially ones at both the top and the bottom of the hive, need to be aware of the disadvantages as well.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Upper-entrances-in-shim
This three-inch eke with holes is used for “training” the bees. Some holes can be closed, depending on colony strength. © Rusty Burlew.

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