Monday, April 13, 2009

Lesson 51: Clean Up Your Overwintered Hives

Hello from Long Lane Honey Bee Farms. We are David & Sheri Burns, working hard to help others enjoy being beekeepers!

With winter gone and spring finally here, we are starting to dig out of winter. We live in Central Illinois...the North! People who live up north are a different lot of folks. In the fall, we look forward to winter because we like the changing seasons. We get tired of the hot, dry days of summer. In the fall, we welcome winter because the first snow is beautiful. But by the end of winter, we hate it. We are tired of snow and cold temperatures. In March and April, we fuss and complaint about lingering winter cold snaps. So by digging out, I mean we are cleaning up and shifting our honey bee farm from winter mode to summer mode. As you'll see in some upcoming photos, we clean out hives by shaking out the bees that gave their lives keeping the place warm during our harsh winters, but didn't live to see spring. Spring is fun and always forward-looking. New flowers, green grass, the smell o f dirt being tilled up for a garden, and the fragrant smell of Easter Lillies all cause us to feel better and to live better as we eagerly face another great bee season.

Bees are out and here's one on a Box Elder plant. Her back legs are stuffed full of pollen and she's hoping to find some nectar in the small flower. You can click on the photo to enlarge it. My wife, Sheri, has planted a few of these plants around our house and the bees love it.

We are still expecting Dandelions to bloom any time and that will send the bees out if full throttle. Also, we are near many maple trees and they are an early provider of nectar if a late frost does not kill the maple flower.

Every winter we experiment with beehive survivability. I believe beekeepers lose more hives to winter die-outs than all other problems combined. In fact, many beekeepers are caught on a dreadful treadmill, a rat race of methods that are proving to be be unsuccessful. Something has to change! The idea of a sustainable bee farm seems impossible, but it is not.

Beekeepers are a breed of folks who will not give up. Our tenacity and persistence can be very beneficial. Yet, when we become so stubborn that we refuse to re-tool our methods, we might be the reason so many of our colonies are disappearing.

It is my opinion that we are too quick to think that dumping medication and pesticides in the hive will solve all our problems. Our culture has taught us that there is a pill for every ill. Some medications do heal, if used temporally. But when we become dependent upon medications the balance of nature is upset.

I believe years of dumping medications and pesticides in the hive has now produce new problems. Wax is absorbent. We now know that what we put into the hive stays within the wax. We know that some harsh chemicals that were put into the hive years ago still lingers in the wax and we also now know that certain chemicals used to control mites can effect the drone and queen's ability to reproduce. Come on, enough is enough.

I was once told that people will change only when they have hurt enough. Finally, beekeepers have hurt enough. Beekeepers are tired of watching 50% of their hives die. The answer is not to do it all the same next year and hope for better results. The momentum is shifting to a new and modern type of beekeeping which I have subscribed to for years. But what's really interesting is that the new and modern way is really a return to the old ways, a more simplistic and natural way of keeping bees. This is at the heart of our honey bee farm and, in my opinion, will bring hope back to sustainable beekeeping.

In our operation here's what we subscribe to: 1) We use no medication on our hives 2) We are working hard to raise queens that have proven genetics for survivability and 3) We are using IPM (Integrated Pest Management) solutions that are natural and safe. So, I'll focus on number two above.
Here's a picture of the queens that we raise. You can click on the image to see a larger photo. I've heard people refer to older people who are tough and strong as "pioneer stock". It's a way of saying that early settlers went through a lot of challenges, harsh winters and diseases but survived the worst of circumstances.

That's why we finally decided to name our queens and call them "Pioneer Queens". There are several definitions for pioneer in the dictionary. One says, "Leading the way; trailblazing". We hope to join many others, like us, who feel the importance of seeking greater diversity within the queen genetics, traits and characteristics that show resistance toward pests, diseases and harsh winters. Most of our pioneer queens are dark in color, more along the line of being Carniolan or Russian. We open air mate our queens and this year we are planting mother drone colonies around to control genetics a bit more.

If you are interested in purchasing one of our Pioneer queens, please call. We plan to start grafting the last week of April and will start having queens available mid to late May through September.


Here my daughter Karee is setting up more hives to expand our numbers this year. Here in Central Illinois it's time to head out to the hives and clean up. It's not quite time to reverse the deep hive bodies because we still might have some cold snaps. And you NEVER want to reverse the hive bodies when the brood nest extends into both boxes. I have hives that overwintered in various ways. Some clusters have moved all the way to the top box, which on some of my hives are medium supers. Others are in the top of the deep second deep hive body, and others have expanded their brood nest into every square inch in the hive.

Here's a picture of a hive that has a brood nest all the way through all boxes. Even the lower box is full of bees and brood. So, I do not reverse this hive. I simply keep it all the same. They are in good shape just to start up fast when the nectar flow starts. These hives will need to be split because they came out of winter already overcrowded. We sometimes cause this to happen by fooling the colony with brood patties and sugar water. Thus, the bees think they can start building up since pollen and nectar are available.

Here in the north, a typical colony would have moved up into the highest area in the hive leaving the lower section(s) unoccupied and the bottom board full of dead bees. If the hive has three boxes on, like the one in the picture, most of the bees will try to go in and out of the hive higher up so as not to go through the bottom boxes and near the dead bees. See how these bees are moving in and out through a crack at the top.

Let me walk you through how I clean up hives and "set" them for spring. First, I remove the
bottom, unoccupied deep hive body by taking off the upper boxes. It was cool day to work, about 49 degrees and windy.

The hive in the picture to the left was hard to do because the second deep box had no handles so I had to hug it to move it. It was a strain. The reason the box doesn't have handles is because I bought a bunch of used materials years ago and this one didn't have handles. When it is full of honey, you cannot pick it up.

Once I have the upper boxes off which contain the cluster, the overwintered bees, queen and brood, I then take off the lower empty hive body and set it aside, which exposes the bottom board. The bottom boards can be filled with dead bees, those who died of old age and cold snaps. Last year, this bottom board was accidentally put on upside down which makes the screen sit below the actual bottom surface. A family member was helping in a hurry and didn't notice what they hand done.

So when the dead bee fell in this pocket, the bees did not attempt to drag them up and out, so I scraped them out with my hive tool. I carry a bucket of bleach water and thorough clean my hive tool and hands between each hive just in case nosema spores may be present in early spring.

Now I added another small pallet to the one it was on, because pallets sink a bit every year into the ground and another one is due to bring up the hive about 6" above the ground.

Now, I begin to muscle the handle-less hive back

onto the clean bottom board and once it is in place I will begin to inspect the hive. It is not uncommon to find dead bees throughout the hive even though the cluster is fine. Small pockets of frozen bees and sometimes be found, usually caused by a winter warmup followed by a rapid temperature drop which did not allow enough time for the bees all to recluster in one cluster.

This is what I found in this hive. So, I removed the frames of dead bees, scraping the bees and comb away. When the nectar flow starts, they will quickly repair all of these areas in the comb.

You can see the honey in the comb where they have been eating it, but then this group of bees were too small to stay warm. In the picture they look alive, but believe me they were not. Since I use plastic foundation, I can merely scrap out the comb on this side and it just leaves a small bald area that the bees will quickly repair.

It is very important that old, dead bees be cleaned out of the hive as soon as you can do that on a warm day. The bees will do it themselves eventually, but we feel it cuts down on possible spread of disease or moisture. Believe me, all beekeepers who have ever lost a hive know the smell of rotting bees. Clean up your hives!

In our next lesson we'll give several ways to make splits. That's what we'll be doing in the next few weeks, so we'll give you some pointers.

It was a pleasure to met many new beekeepers who dropped by our place over the last few weeks. We had fun talking with Leo from who stopped by driving up from Texas and Leo is a big fan of Studio Bee Live. Leo strongly encouraged us to get on the ball and get more broadcast aired and believe me we want to! We'll try and get on that!!

If you are still needing to purchase your hive equipment, do so as soon as possible. You can call us at: 217-427-2678 or go on to our website at: and purchase online.

To order our Pioneer queen, just call us at: 217-427-2678.

Until next time, remember to bee-have yourself!

David & Sheri Burns
Long Lane Honey Bee Farms

14556 N. 1020 E. Road
Fairmount, IL 61841
(217) 427-2678