Tuesday, December 31, 2019


We’ve reached the halfway point in the beekeeper’s winter (October 1st thru March 31st)!  So far, the winter in central Wisconsin has been upside down.  Snow in October and warmer weather in December.  Hopefully your bees are warm and snug in their hives because January is usually the critical time frame when the majority of winter losses occur.  

December 29th, 49F, 12:30PM

On the last few days of December I went out and checked my hives and winter nucs.  It was odd to not trudge through the snow on my rounds.  I added emergency sugar to those hives that needed it.  As mentioned previously the bee clusters in almost all hives were in the upper brood chamber.  Other ECWBA members reported the same observation at the December club meeting. 

The winter nucs are doing well also.  Two weeks ago I thought the nuc on the right side was dead.  They proved me wrong and made a showing in the warm weather. 

So far 98% of my hives and 98% of the winter nucs are alive. The survival of the nucs continues to surprise me.  Weren't we always told that it takes a big cluster to get through winter?  The mite control and feeding last summer and fall is paying off.  But to repeat, January is usually the critical time for hive survival.  At that time, when in tight cluster and immobilized by the extreme cold, the bees are most susceptible to varroa born viruses and starvation.  At any rate I will be worrying about their survival until the end of March.  The worrying is the plight of all dedicated beekeepers.

January is the time when the queen also begins slowly laying again.  This will limit the movement of the cluster since the eggs and brood must be kept warm.   Consequently, the chances of starvation are increased.  Placing an emergency sugar disc in the center of the hive on the top of the frames will lessen the chances of starvation.   The cost of a few pounds of sugar is cheap insurance against starvation and the need to buy a replacement package or nuc.

On the cold and rainy and snowy days in January I will be assembling additional frames.  Call me a traditionalist, but I feel the bees like wooden frames with wax foundation over the newfangled plastic frames.  In my experience the bees seem to ignore and not draw out plastic frames more than a year old.  Apparently, the ultra thin wax coating sprayed on the plastic evaporates over time and after that the bees avoid using it.  Dealing with undrawn plastic frames is just another task that I would like to avoid in the rush of the summer beekeeping season.  Instead I build a wax foundation frames in the winter.   One of the myriad of different choices a different beekeepers routinely make.  If you like plastic frames and foundation go with your preference.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

HALF WAY!!!! by beekeeper Fred

Yesterday, December 21st, was the winter solstice.  Meteorologically we are halfway to spring.  It appears that for the next week we will be having unseasonably warm weather.  The bees have been taking advantage of the sunny weather and are out for voiding flights.

The microclimate on the face of the hive is warmer than the surrounding air.  The warm surface and the sun entice the bees to gather on the surface around the upper entrance. Since I don't see much activity by the lower entrance (covered by mouse guard) I assume the cluster is in the upper brood box.  On a few hives the main activity is at the bottom entrance.

Here is a bank of four winter nucs.  I had thought the right nuc was dead when I checked it a few days ago, but maybe not!  Wouldn't be the first time the bees have fooled me.

Sunday, December 15, 2019


In a recent post I had stated that many of my hives seemed ill prepared for winter.  The following article provides a possible explanation.  All of my hives are in a corn and soybean environment as described in the article.


Saturday, December 14, 2019


I’ve been beekeeping for a little more than 10 years now.  Over that time my honey harvest has been gradually growing as my number hives and proficiency have been increasing.  As the volume of honey increased I have had it in storage for longer periods.  Although honey doesn’t spoil in storage it will I’ve crystalize.  The rapidity of crystallization is depend on the type of flowers used for the nectar and also the storage temperature.  I primary use 5 gallon buckets for long term storage.  Five gallon bucket heaters are readily available from most bee supply houses and will de-crystalize the bucket in a little more than a day.  The rub comes when you need to de-crystalize a large number of small honey jars.  For small quantities a simple frying pan with warm water will do the trick.  I was looking for a bigger set-up that was also less labor intensive.  

So last week I built my first honey warmer.  I chose to use an old metal army footlocker.  Some people use old refrigerators.  Footlockers are frequently available at fleamarkets for between $10 and $20 depending on your negotiating skills.  NOTE: Some footlockers are wood.  I would avoid using a wood footlocker because it may catch fire.  


Then I installed a layer of insulation on the inside.  I used one inch foam insulation with a foil backing on one side.  The insulation is held in place with duct tape.  This insulation cost me $20 for a 4’ X 8’ sheet; of which I used about half.  

My heat source was simply two 100 watt incandescent light bulbs.  The bulbs were screwed into low cost plug adapters ($2 each).  To hold them upright I purchased a five socket power strip ($5).  

Finally, there is the temperature controller.  Seeing none locally I went to Amazon.  There were two low cost controllers available.   I purchased a WILLHI 1436 controller (cost $28).  Initially I just placed the controller inside the footlocker.  I plan to permanently install it on the top of the footlocker when I get time to carefully route the wires.  Programming the controller was confusing.  The instructions were all but worthless.  After a bit of frustration and cursing, I somehow got it programmed to turn on below 99F and off above 101F.  Please don’t ask me to do it again! 

Since I placed the controller on the inside it is not possible to monitor the lights/heaters are cycling; ie not burnt out.  So I drilled a small light monitoring hole in the cover.  I just need to glance at the hole and can see the lights switching on and off. 

I loaded up it up with 30 pounds of honey in 1 and 2 pound bottles.   The controller is cycling; 20 seconds ON and 100 seconds OFF.  This is maintaining the footlocker at 100F set point.   I let it run over night and in the morning after about 12 hours the bottles closest to the lights had de-crystalized.  But those farthest away were only partially de-crystalized.  Also there was a thin layer of undesired sugar crystals on the bottom of some jars.  These crystals could act as the starting point for re-crstallization.  So I made several minor changes.  First, I repositioned the temperature to the lowest point in the box and also farthest from the heat source.  Next, I raised the jars on a grill so warm air could circulate to the underside of each jar. These changes have dissolved the sugar crystals on the bottom of the jars.   My third option is to increase the temperature set point.  Researching this issue, it appears temperatures above 120F will damage the enzymes in honey.  I will avoid this third option since I want to consider my honey as raw.  Honey in the hive probably reaches 100F on hot summer days.  
The "grill" is simply 1/2 inch hardware cloth on a wood frame. 
Two light bulbs easily keep the box at 100F and de-crystallize the honey.


Last week we experienced our first real test of bee survival when temperatures reached almost 0F for two nights in a row.  I have to report that I lost one nuc at my latest check and my overall survival of hives and nucs has declined to 98%.   But after last year’s -36F testing of the bees, I am now a believer that bees without varroa/virus infections can handle the cold.  After all they had survived for millions of years without our help.  So why am I still worried that my bees may not make it through the winter.  It’s probably a typical beekeeper reaction.  

Just prior to that cold snap I added a second round of 2 1/2 pound emergency sugar discs to all hives. (I skipped the winter nucs due to their smaller population).  While adding the discs I noted that the bees in 90% of the hives were already in the upper brood box and also consuming the first disc.  Consumption of the disc ranged from totally gone to slight nibbling.   This year I added the emergency sugar in mid-November.  In previous years I had added it in mid-December.  Are the bees eating the sugar simply because its there or are they truly short of honey?  I guess this is why I’m worrying now.  This isn’t the weather where I could disassemble the hive and research their honey storage situation.  So I will keep providing the hives with sugar every other week until spring.   Although the penny pincher in me doesn’t like the idea, it does make good economic sense to give the hive $20 of sugar instead of paying $120 for a replacement package. 

These observations got me thinking.  I don’t think I can legitimately blame the bees for not filling the brood chambers with honey.  So my first thought was that it was last summer’s weather which reduced honey production.  But I can’t use this reason, because I had my best honey production ever.   My second thought was: In my zest to get things ready for the honey flow, am I supering my hives too early?; ie. prior to the bees refilling the two brood boxes with honey.  Bees tend to work in a vertical direction if permitted.  So my early supering would divert the incoming nectar upwards instead of into the side frames of the deeps.    Referring to my beekeeping notes I see I put the honey supers on the hives earlier this year than previous years.  Also, before adding them I did not verify the deeps had been replenished.  A more experienced beekeeper told me I shouldn’t be adding the honey supers until I am seeing the bees adding fresh white wax along the top edge of the honey frames in the brood chamber boxes.   So my plan for next year is to super only when the hives need the extra storage space.   Maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks.  

On the past few cold days I have been spending my spare time assembling and wiring frames.  I will build up a small stockpile of ready-to-go frames so I can immediately replace any damaged equipment.

My other winter project will be to assemble a honey jar warming cabinet to de-crystallize the honey.  It looks like an old WWII metal footlocker will do the trick.  It is big enough to hold a large quantity of 1 and 2 pound jars.  A temperature controller can be purchased for about $28 on Amazon.  This will be used to switch on and off a heater.  In my design the heater is a simple incandescent light bulb.  In the enclosed box, the light bulb should be able to elevate the box temperature sufficiently to de-crystallize the honey.  I will show the warming box build process in detail in a future blog article. 

PS-the December ECWBA meeting is next Saturday at 9:30AM at the Caestecker Public Library in Green Lake.    See you there. 

Sunday, December 8, 2019

FERAL BEES by beekeeper Fred

Feral bees have somehow developed the ability to survive year to year without the aid of miticides or other beekeeper manipulations.  For the feral bee populations found in Ohio and Kentucky the main attribute that these feral bees exhibit is a highly elevated chewing defense mechanism; whereby the bees chew off the legs of the varroa mites which kills them.  Observations are that 60-80% of the varroa on the bottom board have been chewed.   One hive with feral bees has now lived for 5 years without any interventions.

Feral bees are not escaped swarms from your neighborhood beekeeper.  They are bees that have survived long term in the wind.

Does Wisconsin have similar populations of feral bees hidden in our woods and abandoned buildings?  For adventurous beekeepers a search for feral bees could be fun.

Here are the pointers I got from Dwight Wells in Ohio.  He is one of the leading figures in that area in the search for wild survivor bees.

1.       Minimum area of forest of interest—15 square miles

2.       Recommended distance from known beehives; both hobbyists and commercial—5 miles minimum, but 10 miles preferred

3.       Trees should be 75 to 100 years old to provide cavities of sufficient size to satisfy a feral swarm

4.       Old abandoned buildings are also possibilities.

5.       Presence of feral bees can proven by putting out feeding stations with pollen substitute, such as Mann Lake Ultra Bee powder.  On warm spring days above 50F, the feral bees will visit the feeding stations.  If you observe activity you then can put out swarm traps.   The feeding station is a 18 inch length of 4 inch diameter PVC.  Half inch hardware screen is placed over the ends to prevent other critters from each the bait.  The station is positioned about 5 feet above the ground. 

6.       Before trespassing make sure to check with the landowner or the DNR for state lands. 

For those of you on Facebook check out Chasing Feral Honey Bees FB.  

Thursday, December 5, 2019


Bees have several defense mechanisms which they use to cope with varroa.  It seems hives exhibit most of these defense mechanisms to some degree; usually at a very low level.

One mechanism is the chewing on the varroa. Chewed varroa essentially bleed to death.   The Purdue Mite Biter is an example of this bee type.

Next using chemical ques some bees decap, clean out and then recap cells containing varroa.  Finally some hives open the cells with bee larvae that are either being attacked or killed by varroa and remove the larvae and varroa inside.  These are known as VSH bees.

Various beekeeping authorities have tried to increase the efficiency of these defense mechanisms by breeding.  To date they have had limited success in making these mechanisms strong enough and also permanent.

It is also reported that feral bees have also, via natural selection, strengthened the chewing attribute as part of their coping mechanisms.  It is reported that feral bees in Kentucky and Ohio are damaging/killing 60% of the varroa that are on the bottom board.  Hives with these feral bees have been reported to have survived 5 years without chemical varroa treatments.  It has been reported that some crosses of the Kentucky/Ohio bees are chewing at an 80% rate.

Perhaps a cross which has all three types of coping mechanisms will solve the varroa problem.

Almost all bees purchased in packages do not have these enhanced attributes.

Chewing damage on the leg of a varroa mite

Sunday, December 1, 2019


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.  

Happy beekeeping!