I think with the past weekend’s snow we can all agree that winter is upon us and our bees. Hopefully we all did our best during the long warm fall to prepare our bees to survive the coming months of cold weather. Again this year I will periodically report on how my hives are surviving. As you can tell from previous year’s reports I am not a master beekeeper and have on occasion suffered heavy winter losses. Some years are better than others. Each year I try to learn a little more by reading, hard knocks and conversations with more successful beekeepers and then apply those lessons to increase the chances of winter survival for the bees in my apiary.
Last year my final winter survival was a miserable 50%; worse than some and better than others. If I had to make my living at beekeeping I would probably be out of business. In the spring I surveyed several of the more successful beekeepers in hopes of learning their techniques to high survival. Here were the items that seem to have a great influence.
1) Never try to take a weak hive through the winter. Put another way: Only take a strong hive into winter. Weak hives should be combined with another hive.
2) Treat for mites in mid August. This permits the hive to raise winter bees in a fairly mite free environment.
3) Check mite levels after the August treatment and treat again as necessary.
4) Do not start new hives after June. They simply won’t have time to develop large enough populations and food stores in the remaining summer and fall. In my area the honey flow is essentially done by mid-July.
5) Heavily feed all start-up hives through August and September.
6) Minimize use of spring packages since the genetics of the factory queens are not ideal.
7) Incorporate mite resistant bees into your operation.
So how did I do incorporating these recommendations?
1) In mid-August after the honey harvest I culled 5 hives from my operation by eliminating the weak hive’s queen and combining the bees with hives of medium strength.
2) After the honey harvest I treated all hives (except one) with a full dose of MAQS (formic acid). The one exception was the hive with a Purdue Ankle Biter breeder queen. I did not want to chance killing the queen during the treatment.
3) I cheated on the “check mite levels” post treatment. So yes I was lazy. Instead in mid-September and mid-October I treated all hives with oxalic acid vapor.
4) I did not start any new hives this year after July 1st except for two swarms I managed to catch in mid-August. These were immediately re-queened and given liquid feed. A third swarm voluntarily occupied an empty hive in mid-August.
5) In early August I began feeding the 2016 start-up hives and also any hives that were not making a honey surplus. Thank god for that free sugar from the bakery!
6) I reduced my package purchases this spring to eight and perhaps that was a blessing. Through the course of the summer only 2 of those packages did anything. The others just never got going. Four of them needed re-queening and two more superceded their queen. I have my fingers crossed and hope to not buy any packages next spring. At least that’s my aim.
7) This year I raised and incorporated both Russian and Purdue Ankle Biter stock into my operation. Both strains are noted for their mite resistance and ability to withstand northern winters.
Although I did not make mite level checks on all hives as suggested I did learn how to perform these checks. This year I upped my game by learning how to use sticky boards, alcohol wash and powder sugar roll mite check methods. After a little reading I plan to standardize on the powdered sugar roll method next year. ALL of the hives I checked did have mites of varying levels; even after those three (3) mite treatments. All post-treatment mite levels showed my hives below mite limit recommendations (for those few hives I did check). The fact that I did not check all hives is an obvious shortcoming. Overall I think my hives are in the best shape going into winter since I have started beekeeping.
As of October 15th I decided to take 40 hives through the winter. I tried to gauge hive strength by quickly observing the number of frames covered with bees below the inner cover; strong 8-10 frames, medium 6-7 frames, weak 5 or less. Twenty-seven (27) hives ranked strong, ten ( 10) medium and three (3) weak. (Yes, I know I should have eliminated those 3 weak ones) Twenty-five (25) are of Russian stock, eight (8) of Ankle Biter stock, four (4) Carniolan stock and 3 miscellaneous or unknown. Note: Only a few of these a “purebreds”. All queens I raise are open mated and therefore their offspring are mongrels that hopefully retain the beneficial traits of their mother.
This year I will again compare the survival of wrapped versus unwrapped hives. In the previous two years I have done this there was no difference in survival rates. I will see if this holds true again this year.
Unwrapped hive in foreground/BeeCozy wrapped hive in background
I periodically check the hives by simply listening with a stethoscope for the loud buzz of the bees though the upper air vent hole. I am happy to say as of December 1st all hives were buzzing. A below zero cold snap will arrive next week which will test the weaker hives. But as we all know crunch time comes in January and February . Stay tuned.