Monday, September 29, 2008

LESSON 40: The Beekeeping Year Starts In The Fall

Today, I want to offer another lesson in beekeeping focusing on how to prepare our hives to make it through the winter. Before I get into today’s lesson, let me remind you that we do have our beekeeping class coming up October 11th here at our apiary. If you are interested, we might be able to squeeze in a couple more people, so give us a call at the number at the bottom of this lesson. Also, we are still producing queens, though it is getting late in the year, now is still a good time to requeen.
By the way, here at Long Lane Honey Bee Farms, we are a family business working hard to help more people discover and enjoy keeping honey bees. We manufacture beehives and sell everything related to beekeeping. Our busiest season is from November-July. So if you are planning on purchasing hives from us, and you don’t mind getting them early before next year, then now would help relieve the spring demand and we always raise our prices the first of January.

We have a reputation, a particular way of keeping bees. Here are a few fundamentals about beekeeping that we have settled on and have become known for:
1. No harsh chemicals. (We do not use any chemicals in our hives)
2. Use locally produced queens. (We raise and sell from our own survival stock).
3. Screen bottom board.
4. Hive inspection every 2 weeks, especially for monitoring the queen.
5. Yearly requeening is a must!

I was not very fond of requeening yearly until this summer. I did a little test. I requeened about half of my hives and the other half I allowed the 2-3 year old queens to carry on. Each half consisted of approximately 25 hives. By far, hands down the requeened hives way out performed the hives with the older queens. It was not even close. The hives with the older queens had lower population of bees, weaker foraging power, less honey, less everything.

I immediately became a firm believer of requeening a hive every year. September proves to be the most strategic month so that the queen is laying strong going into and coming out of winter, and the new queen can lay well in the fall to produce lots of young bees who should overwinter better than older bees.

Okay, so those are a handful of our particular philosophy of beekeeping.

Now, let’s talk about getting your hives ready for another winter. What should you do?
Winter is a nervous time for beekeepers. With every snow, and blast of cold, north wind, we wonder and worry how our bees are doing. Months of cold, winds, snow, rain, fog and clouds causes us to fret over our bees well-being.

In December, most of us place our ear against the outside of the hive and give a gentle tap to see if they are still buzzing, and usually they are. It is rare for a hive to die in December or even in January. The fact is, most hives that die do not even die in February. They die in March, when they have exhausted their food supply and have few to forage the early nectar on the occasional warm days.

So what can we do to help our bees make it through winter? There is no plan that ensure 100% survival. Bees are livestock. Things can just go bad. But a few things can help.

Typically, most consider winter preparations consists of the following:
1) Put on a mouse guard at the entrance.
2) Lift the hive and see if it has enough stored honey by how heavy it is.
3) Wrap the hive with some sort of insulation or roofing paper.
4) We build a wind break.
5) We treat for mites and nosema.

These might be good measures to take. However, they are not fail proof. In fact, here are three concerns that probably cause our hives to die during the winter that many overlook:

1) Queenlessness. Your hive is most certain to die if your queen is weak or gone going into winter.
2) Winter Condensation. If you seal up your hive too tight, you might increase the overall condensation within the hive and cause this cold water to constantly drip onto the cluster and eventually kill your hive.
3) Keeping stored honey next to the winter cluster. How many times do we hear that a hive died even though there was plenty of honey.

So, here’s my checklist for what you should be doing to your hives now to prepare for a great hive in the spring:

1) Remove queen excluders.
2) Remove honey supers.
3) Examine the amount of stored honey and be sure your bees have plenty. Most beekeepers in the north lift the back of the hive and hope it feels like there is 70 pounds of stored honey. 70 pounds is the approximate equivalent of 1 medium super full of honey.
4) If your hive is short on stored honey, FEED! Feed 2:1 sugar water. Use an internal or top feeder if robbing is a problem. Robbing is more of a problem during the fall dearth.
5) Make sure that your hive has some sort of upper ventilation. It does not have to be much but something. We now make our inner covers with ventilation slots. And we leave our screen bottom boards open all winter.
6) Use good mouse guards, either metal or wooden entrance cleats to keep mice out.
7) Treat the hives 3 weeks in a row with powdered sugar for mite control. This is best started in August.
8) If wrapping hives, be sure to allow upper ventilation.
9) Combine weak hives with strong ones. Most of the small swarms you caught are not going to winter well unless you caught them in May. Do not feel like a failure if you’ve worked hard to build up your numbers, but now you have to slice your hive count in half by combining hives. Combining ten hives into 5 which survive the winter is better than having 8 out of 10 die out.

Much can be said about preparing a hive for winter, but the hive that has the best chance of surviving the winter will be the hive that was very strong all year and has a young queen. Remember, a strong hive is more apt to be pest and disease free, thus overwintering much better because it does not have viruses caused by mites.

No matter how much you wrap your hive, medicate your bees and build a wind break, nothing will do much to improve a weak hive overwintering well. Only strong hives overwinter well enough to explode in the spring. Weak hives that do survive the winter usually are not impressive the following year, unless requeened soon in the spring.

This year, I will expand my overwintering experiments. I will be overwintering a variety of configurations to see which hive does best. I will be overwintering 5 frame nucs, single hive bodies and a hive that is made up of 1 deep hive body and 3 medium super boxes.

We also have one hive going into winter that we are now feeding pollen and heavy nectar to stimulate the queen to keep laying deep into fall to see if this is better or worse of winter survival.

Please put it on your calendar to peak in your hive in January on a decent day when the temperature rises to atleast 40 degrees. Then, make a plan to quickly open your hive on a calm day and in 1 minute or less, pull up a frame of honey, scratch it open and place it next to the cluster. If they have no honey left, then feed!

I have a lesson that explains several feeding methods. The lesson can be found at:

I hope this lesson will motivate you to take advantage of the last few weeks of decent weather and tighten up your hives, feed them and make sure they are ready for winter. We are excited about the 2009 beekeeping year. The crises of the decline in honey bees is still with us. Last year, we helped so many jump into beekeeping for the first time. This is exciting to us because bees play such an important role in our food supply.

2009 = 1,000

For 2009 we have set a goal of encouraging 1,000 people to become first time beekeepers. We will be putting up a special web page with a goal chart anonymously reflecting each new beekeeper.

We only want to count those who we have directly inspired to keep bees for the first time. So here's the criteria for you to be counted as one of the 1,000:

1) Educated by us through our online lessons or you attended one of our on site classes as a new beekeeper.

2) Bought wooden ware or package bees from us as a new beekeeper.

3) Our website introduced you and encouraged you to start keeping bees.

Our website with our goal chart will be a frame from a hive showing 1,000 cells. Every time another person becomes a 1st time beekeeper we will seal off that cell. Eventually we hope to see all 1,000 cells completely sealed off, as all beekeepers know the joy of seeing a complete frame of sealed brood! So, get the word out. Our next blog post will reveal more of the details and the website to watch the goal expand. So get the word out, and help us reach this very lofty goal.

Sheri and I would like to thank you again for being a part of our lives, and enjoying the great experience of keeping bees. Have a great day and we'll see you soon!

Remember, BEE-have yourselves!
David & Sheri Burns
Long Lane Honey Bee Farms