We are now through one-third of the bee’s winter; October through March. November started out with below normal temperatures, but towards the end of the month temperatures have moderated and we are now running about average. There is still a long stretch of winter to go; in fact, we haven’t even reached the shortest day of the year on December 21st.
Partly out of pure curiosity and partly out of worry I listen to my hives for activity about once every two weeks; typically, on about the 1st and 15th of each month. I use a stethoscope to listen and place it over the upper entrance. A low hum indicates the bees are alive. A stoney silence is the indication of a dead hive. I dread hearing that stoney (or dead)silence. This is a simple go/no go check. Other beekeepers simply place their ear against the side of the hive. Of course, trying to listen through insulation could prove challenging.
This information is actually of little useful value, but hearing that “hum” is an indication that I performed my mite control successfully the previous year. Slowly marching down the line of hives stopping to listen to each hive gives you good or bad feedback on your mite control efforts.
The other potential value is that this information gives you a heads up on the number of packages you may need to order in the spring and allows you to budget your beekeeping dollars accordingly. Looking at my beekeeping records for the past six years I have learned three things. 1) Prior to understanding varroa population dynamics and developing a good control program I was steadily losing hives beginning in November. 2) The cold snaps in January and February were always associated with additional hive losses. 3) After implementation of the good mite control regime the hives glided through fall, winter, and even those -36F cold snaps.
Something to keep in mind is that you should never expect 100% hive survival. In the pre-varroa days winter losses usually ran in the 15 to 20% range. Demise of the queen, extremely long cold snaps and just lack of a sufficient food were the most common reasons for hive loss. If you are only running one or two hives a loss of even one hive ends up being a significant loss.
At any rate after checking my hives over the last two days my hive and winter nuc survival is running at 99%. So far, so good. This information also gives me the luxury to consider using splits to replace my winter losses instead of buying packages. A queenless walkaway split costs you nothing whereas a package will cost you at least $120. Or you could plan ahead and have a queen delivered at the time of the split. A walkway split keeps basically the same genetics in your apiary. A purchased queen imports new genetics, which may or may not be beneficial.
In November I also added winter feeders to my hives. Actually, those feeders are simply a 3 inch high spacer to allow insertion of the emergency 2 ½ pound sugar disc I add to each hive. While installing the spacer I noted the bee clusters were already in the upper brood chamber in about 75 percent of my hives. Since I have been taught that “the cluster starts the winter in the lower brood chamber’ this situation concerned me. Easing my concern are some notes I took back in the winter of 2018-2019 when a similar percentage of clusters were in the upper brood chamber in November along with the fact that last winter I had 88% survival even with the clusters starting winter in the upper brood box. Maybe the textbooks aren’t always right. I guess we will know next spring, when my final survival statistics are known.
Here is a quick pictorial of my winter emergency feed process.
First, remove the outer and inner covers. Then install a shim of appropriate height. Mine is roughly 2 ½ inches. Tape the joint between the hive and the shim to seal the crack.
Second, place the emergency sugar disc directly on top of the frames.
Third, I cover the sugar disc with a blanket. It retards are circulation and also absorbs water vapor. Then replace the inner and outer covers.
A beekeeping tidbit. Wax moths do NOT eat wax. Actually, their larvae eat the old dark cocoons in the brood comb, which are evidently high in protein. Tunneling from cell to cell they can cause a lot of damage. I have never had wax moth damage to my honey super combs in 12 years of beekeeping and do not use pesticides during their storage The wax moth and its larvae are warm weather creatures. Storing your honey supers in unheated outdoor storage area quickly leads to their demise if any were present. One caveat is that I use queen excluders between the brood chamber and honey supers so I don’t have brood cocoons in any honey super cells. A good reason to use queen excluders? Most beekeepers rail against the use of pesticides. Wouldn’t this include moth poisons? What’s the saying? Walk the talk. We will probably have a long and spirited debate on this topic at the next ECWBA meeting on December 21st.