Overwintering success: zero loss and healthy bees
I’m hesitant to report overwintering success until April 15, but with only two days left, I’m elated to be at one hundred percent. There were a few times in mid-winter when I was unsure about two of my colonies, but I trusted my IR camera and left the bees alone.
My main interest in honey bee management is overwintering. It has a lot to do with my local climate, which is nine months of rain followed by three months of drought. Okay, that’s a simplification, but it’s pretty close. The winters near the coast are not terribly cold but, being on the 47th parallel, they are dark, long, and ridiculously wet.
How is beekeeping possible in this climate?
When I first began beekeeping in this area, my question was, “How was it possible to keep honey bees holed up for so long?” The spring and fall are often too wet to fly, and the summers are so dry that nothing blooms. That honey bees can live here at all is amazing. My entire management philosophy is centered on how to get the bees through the long drearies of winter and come out healthy on the other end.
Truth be told, I’ve been fairly successful at this, having had three perfect seasons in the last seven and averaging 80-90 percent success in the others. Unfortunately, I find I have to be more and more vigilant every year. For example, I used to never feed supplemental sugar, but now I have to. I used to treat for mites once a year, now I have to treat twice.
Change comes from many directions
I believe the extra feeding is related to climate change, loss of habitat, alterations in local land use, and tree cutting by the Department of Natural Resources. For sure, it’s not from excess harvesting, because last year I took no honey, and the year before I took very little. I got to thinking about this at breakfast this morning when I pulled a ten-year-old box of comb honey out of the cupboard (still perfect!). Although I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel on honey, I’m grateful that my bees are healthy.
As far as extra varroa treatments, I think the increase is caused not by the number of mites, but by an increase in the virulence of the viruses they carry. On the surface, at least, it appears that the same number of mites can make the bees sicker than they did a few years ago.
An evolving strategy
Although I’ve been successful at overwintering, my strategy has not remained constant nor has the equipment I use. I’m always listening to reader suggestions and trying many of them. I’m very much a hands-off beekeeper, so I try to keep the hives closed for the entire winter. But now with increased mite control, I find I have to disturb them a least once during the period from September 15 through April 15. On the other hand, with modern tools, especially the infrared camera, I know where my bees are and how large the colony is on any given day with no disturbance to them.
Because so many people ask, I’m going to detail the steps I took for overwintering this past season. Remember that all beekeeping is local and your primary issues are likely different from mine. As I stated above, my main issue is rain which means in-hive moisture accumulation, mold, and inability of the bees to fly even on warm days. A large number of my winterization steps are designed to combat in-hive moisture, a problem you may not have. So when designing your own overwintering scheme, be sure your local conditions are front and center in your mind.
Steps I took last year
These are the overwintering preparations I made last year, beginning in August.
- Last year I knew early that forage was scarce, so I took no honey and began to feed in early August. This was a change because in the past, I never fed bees at all in the summer or fall. It didn’t take a lot of digging in the hives to figure out stores were low. If I can lift a brood box as easily as a shoe box, I know it’s in trouble.
- Because forage was scarce, I decided to delete half my colonies. It appears that my local landscape can no longer support the 12-15 hives I use to keep here, so I cut the number in half by combining colonies. For a while some of those colonies were huge, stacked up too high to reach comfortably, but in time they winnowed down to a manageable size. As the colonies contracted, I removed the empty boxes.
- I separated my remaining colonies as much as possible. This reduces robbing and reduces drift between colonies, both of which aid in mite management. I have three permanent hive stands that hold three hives each. By the time I was done rearranging, each of these stands held one colony and some empty hives. The rest of the hives were on individual stands, scattered as far apart as I could manage. I ended up with seven colonies.
- In mid-August I monitored for mites with a powdered sugar roll and found that all my Langstroths needed treatment but, as usual, my top-bar hive did not. I treated the Langs with HopGuard II. The decision to use HopGuard was based on my rotation schedule. All beekeepers will benefit if mites do not become resistant to the soft treatments we have available. Best practices, as outlined by the EPA, dictate that treatments should be rotated, even oxalic acid. So I rotate.
- With mite treatment complete, I used the month of September to continue feeding while I prepared moisture quilts and no-cook candy boards. I don’t use either in the top-bar hive, so that meant I only had to prepare six, which was much easier than fourteen.
- At the end of October, I added an Imirie shim with an upper entrance to each Langstroth, along with a no-cook candy board and a moisture quilt filled with wood chips. The permanent hive stands have rain roofs, but I added rain shelters to the other hives. I added rodent guards to all but the top-bar hive (which, of course, subsequently got mice). All hives were strapped against wind with ratcheting tie-downs.
- At that point the hives were on their own, except I monitored them every two weeks with the IR camera. When a cluster got too close to the top, I lifted the moisture quilt for a quick peek and added sugar cakes, if necessary. This happened to my two largest colonies because they went through the sugar faster.
- On the first warm day after the winter solstice, I did an oxalic acid dribble on the Langs. In and out of each hive took about three minutes total.
- I continued to monitor with the IR camera until now. I was worried about two hives that never moved up into the candy boards, but apparently they had stored enough honey and/or syrup in the fall that they hadn’t needed the candy. The IR images showed the colonies in the middle of their brood boxes and getting larger in the last two months.
So that’s how I got through this past winter and now all seven are flying on warm days. But this year I have a new mission. After reading Thomas Seeley’s article about Darwinian beekeeping (America Bee Journal, March 2017), I have decided to go for it.
My plan for the coming season
Many of Seeley’s recommendations have been part of my beekeeping regimen for years, so there are not too many changes I have to make. I already work only with my own bees and haven’t brought in any bees from the outside in years. At this point, I wouldn’t want to try it. I’ve also spaced my hives, as I mentioned above.
Other suggestions that I already practice are having my hives up off the ground and minimizing hive disturbance. I seldom inspect hives except if I feel the need to split or combine. I use foundationless frames for brood, which produces plenty of drones, and I use follower boards for extra internal insulation. Follower boards are not the perfect answer to in-hive insulation, but I believe they are a step in the right direction and they work well in my climate.
This year I’m cutting all my hives down to single brood boxes to aid in mite management. I know, I know: fewer brood boxes means less honey. Well, I still think it’s worth a try and I’m actually excited to see how it goes. Management will be easier, if nothing else.
One thing I have not done is roughen the interior of the hive walls. They are already thick with propolis and I have never removed it. I live adjacent to a state forest that is managed for Douglas-fir, so propolis has never been in short supply. Those hives with lots of propolis always seem to do well, so early on I learned to live with it. I may try roughing up new boxes, but I don’t want to destroy the propolis layer on the old ones.
Seeley advises minimizing the relocation of hives. I seldom move my hives, although I did combine some colonies, an act which required some to be moved. But as he suggests, I did it when little forage was available, back in late summer. I also heed his final bit of advice and treat only the hives that need it, and re-queen, when necessary, only from my own mite-resistant stock that resides in my top-bar hive.
Responding to circumstances
As I mentioned above, I change my management protocol every year depending on what the bees, and more importantly the mites, throw in my direction. In addition, changes in weather patterns and climate, whether man-made or natural, dictate that we choose practices that fit the current conditions. Bottom line: our beekeeping practices must constantly evolve.
Since every beekeeping situation is different, as is every beekeeper, it is important that you devise a plan that fits your local conditions, your bees, and your beekeeping philosophy. What I’ve outlined here is what is currently working for me, but there are no guarantees that it will work in the future. It is only food for thought.
Honey Bee Suite
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