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With winter approaching (in some places it’s already here), the beekeeper has two jobs:
- Make sure the bees in your hives have plenty of food.
- Think about about what’s going to happen in your apiary in the spring and summer.
Neither of these jobs involves a lot of work at this point, but they shouldn’t be neglected. The main characteristic of good beekeepers is that they think ahead — one or two seasons ahead.
Now is the time think about your bees, the equipment you have and the general environment that will confront the bees when they start flying in the spring.
Will you need to order packages of bees or nucs to rebuild your apiary in the spring? That, of course, depends on how many of your hives make it through the winter. We don’t know what will happen in that regard at the moment, unless you have already experienced losses.
What we do know is that in Tennessee the winter losses for beekeepers have been about 30 percent during the past few winters. The smart thing then is to plan for that kind of loss and hope it doesn’t happen. Now is the time to get in touch with the folks who supply you with bees and see what their availability will be. Most of those people are starting a list now, and your name should be on it.
We’ll have more to say later about equipment and environment.
Right now, you should plan for some losses and think about how you will replenish your apiary.
Key words: bees, beehives, beekeeping, bee equipment, ordering bees, packages of bees, beehive nucs, winter losses for beehives
What is the purpose of a colony of bees?
Bees do this by accident. They don’t realize how much they’re helping humans and wouldn’t care if they did.
Making honey? Wrong.
Bees make honey because this is a stable food source. The fact that humans like honey is again irrelevant to the bees.
Bees are like any other wild animal. They exist for two reasons: to survive and to reproduce.
Except that, in the case of honeybees, most of them don’t reproduce. They are part of a colony, and the colony tries to survive and to reproduce.
Which brings us to “casting swarms.”
I don’t recall ever coming across that term until veteran beekeeper Jim Tew used it in a presentation to the Blount County Beekeepers Association meeting in August. Jim said then that bees will try to survive until they can find a suitable place to live — a good hollow tree or something like that — and “cast a few swarms.”
The term popped up again when I was reading Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy, a fascinating book that is built around Seeley’s decades of study of swarming behavior.
In upstate New York, where I live, my colonies begin sending forth their drones in late April, and they begin casting their swarms . . . a week or two later in early May. (p. 35)
* * *
An enduring mystery about honeybees is what exactly stimulates a colony to begin rearing queens and thereby initiate the process of swarming. Beekeepers know that certain conditions inside a colony’s hive (congestion of the adult bees, numerous immature bees, and expanding food reserves) and outside the hive (plentiful forage and spring time) are correlated with the start of queen rearing for swarming. Nevertheless, to this day, no one knows what specific stimuli the worker bees are sensing and integrating when they make the critical decision to start the swarming process. (p. 36) (quoted material)
Swarming is what bees do. It’s one of their basic purposes. As good beekeepers, we should let them do it.
Key words: bees, beekeeping, casting swarms, pollination, Thomas Seeley, Honeybee Democracy, swarming, honey
The sugar water/corn syrup/fruitcose vs. honey debate for feeding your bees is a long-standing one.
Recently, I found a Scientific American podcast interview from 2009 in which May Berenbaum, University of Illinois entomologist and bee researcher, discussed that very question with Steve Mirsky of Scientific American.
Here are some of the main points Berenbaum made:
- Honeybee grubs (baby bees) eat a mixture of pollen and honey we call “bee bread.”
- Sugar doesn’t provide bees with some of the enzymes that help bees process plant chemicals.
- Brenebaum: “. . . feeding on nectar or honey derived from nectars [is a] very different proposition from feeding on other types of plant tissue because plants load up their vulnerable tissues with chemicals, you know, natural pesticides, so that insects won’t eat them, but they want insects to eat nectar; that’s the whole point [of nectar].”
- When you substitute a natural food for an artificial one, there may unintended consequences.
Berenbaum has been awarded one of the 10 National Science Medals by President Barack Obama.
The beekeeper in this corner is a big advocate of honey over sugar water in this debate. It’s a lot easier to leave honey in the hive than to take it off and then have to feed them sugar water to get them through the next season. Sometimes that’s not possible, of course, and you do what you can to keep your bees alive. But beekeeper should think ahead and keep as much honey on the hive as possible.
They should also try to provide their bees with plants to feed on during as much of the year (Year-around (almost) blooms for the bees) as possible.
Below is the transcript to this part of the interview, and you can hear the entire interview at this link.
When I was exploring getting into beekeeping, I was standing in the barn of a friend who had kept bees for more than 30 years. The barn was full of “bee equipment,” and my friend was trying to explain some of it to me.
I remember one thing he said.
“If I had to start all over again, I would use only mediums.”
What he meant, of course, was medium-sized boxes, or Illinois supers. What he said — even though I did not completely understand it at the time — made sense to me, and it translates into a larger principle: the simpler the better.
As most beekeepers know, there are three sizes of bee boxes for the hive: deeps, mediums, and smalls. Each size has its uses, and some beekeepers use all three.
The argument for using deep boxes is that they are for brood (sometimes they are called “brood boxes”), and beekeepers say these boxes allow the queen to develop a good brood pattern. The small boxes weigh less, particularly when they are filled with honey, and if you are harvesting honey by the box, that’s what you should placing on top of your hives.
For my money, the medium is the one-size-that-fits-all box. Medium boxes allow the queen sufficient room to develop a brood pattern. They can get heavy if they are filled with honey, but removing a frame or two can lighten them quickly if that’s a consideration.
If you use only one size of box, you never have to worry about having the wrong size of frames for the boxes you have. That becomes a huge consideration when you are changing boxes and frames at any time of the year.
The arguments for using only one size of box seem to me to far outweigh the arguments for using three sizes.
Besides, I’m pretty certain the bees don’t really care.
Key words: beekeeping, beehives, bees, bee boxes, supers, Illinois supers, brood boxes, small bee boxes, brood patterns, harvesting honey, simplicity in beekeeping
To most Americans, goldenrod is a weed.
To Europeans, however, goldenrod is a much-prized plant that gardeners go out of their way to cultivate.
To many people in ancient times and a growing number in the 21st century, goldenrod is a medicinal herb that has many uses.
To honeybees, goldenrod is a major source of nectar and pollen in the fall and a source of much-needed winter stores.
And to East Tennesseans this year (the folks in my area), goldenrod is an abundant, showy yellow flower that is filling up our fields, roadside areas and pastures. And our bees are taking to it in droves.
The bees will take both pollen and nectar from goldenrod, and they make a distinctive honey from it. Some beekeepers have harvested this honey, and with its abundance this year, beekeepers in this area might be tempted to do just that. The wiser course for beekeepers might be to let the bees have what they make and to save themselves from some of the efforts of winter feeding.
Goldenrod, in addition to its medicinal uses, is also thought to have some magical powers. Some believe it has the power to bring good luck. The bees who find a good patch of goldenrod probably consider themselves pretty luck.
One of the myths about goldenrod is that it causes allergic reactions, but that’s probably not the case. Those reactions are more likely due to goldenrod’s companion ragweed, which blooms at the same time.
(More pictures below.)
If you look at most any list of “best beekeeping practices,” you will probably find this item:
Remove old comb from the hive and replace it on a regular basis.
It’s one of those items that gives people like us — who are trying to be good beekeepers — a guilty conscience. We may remove old comb, but it’s not likely that we do it regularly or have any system about it.
But it could be that in not being aggressive about removing old comb, we have been doing the right thing all along.
My thinking has been directed this way as I have been considering the presentation that Jim Tew made to the Blount County Beekeepers Association in August. Tew is a retired beekeeping expert for Ohio State University and is now working with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service.
In one of this presentations to the BCBA, Tew talked about what he had found over the years in feral hives. The bees would often build long combs, the lower part of which was dark and apparently unused — just like the old combs that we have in our hives. We’re not sure what this “old” comb is used for, he said, but it could be storage or it could be that this wax absorbs toxins and allows other parts of the hive to stay clear and clean.
Crimson clover provides an abundant source of nectar during the early spring just as the hive is set to do some serious foraging.
If you want this to happen, however, you need to do some planting in September (as we said in an earlier post).
The blooms of crimson clover are red and showy and make a wonderful addition to the landscape. They last for two to three weeks, occasionally longer. They will give the bees a lot to do while they are waiting for the white clover to spring forth.
Here’s a video of some early spring foraging by some of our bees. It won’t be hard to spot the crimson clover.
Key words: clover, crimson clover for bees, crimson clover planting in September, honeybees nutrition, light honey, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
We recently posted a short piece on the fact that bees need water, and it’s up to the beekeeper to make sure they have it.
This is a good follow-up to that post — especially since it reminds us that bees need water, no matter what season of the year.
The video below has our friend Jim Tew commenting on a short video he took of bees foraging for water, and he asks the question we don’t often ask (probably because it seems to obvious), “What are the bees doing when they forage for water?”
A couple of his comments:
- You notice the abdomen of the bee pulsing when they are at the water. Are they somehow pumping the water in?
- Are they getting more than water? Some have speculated that bees are also picking up trace amounts of minerals and natural salts they need.
- They said near the water rather than in the water, it is thought, so as not to get their wings wet.
Key words: bees and water, bees need water, beekeepers providing water for their bees, foraging for water, Jim Tew, Ohio State University, bees, beehives
Bees need water just about all year long — especially in these final hot, dry days of summer.
Water is vital for a number of functions the bee must perform, particularly cooling the hive, so it’s up to the beekeeper to make sure the bees have a good source of clean, fresh water close to the hive.
Many beekeepers place a birdbath or some other container near their hives, and they fill it on a daily basis. Filling it is necessary because the water should be shallow enough so there is plenty of surface for the bees to stand while drinking it. Bees cannot swim. So if you use a birdbath or wading pool, puts some bricks, rocks or pieces of wood in it so the bees will have something to stand on.
And check it daily. Shallow water will evaporate quickly on a hot day.
If you live in a neighborhood with swimming pools, the bees’ need for water can be a problem. The heavily-chlorinated water of a poll is probably not the best thing for the bees. And the neighbors will likely consider bees flocking to the small puddles of water beside a swimming pool to be pests, and they tend to read for the spray can.
Even if the area you’re living in has had abundant rain, think “water for the bees” on a daily basis and make sure they have it.
Key words: bees, beekeeping, water for the bees, shallow water evaporates easily, cooling the hive with water
What’s the inside of a natural beehive like? According to beekeeping expert, it’s quite different from the hives that we construct for our bees.
In the video below, Tew draws out the comparison.
Tew spoke to the Blount County Beekeepers Association on Aug. 11, 2014), and the five-minute video segment below is part of one of his presentations.
Tew talked about the many differences between places where the bees make their own home and the boxes that we build for them. For instance:
- Ventilation in a natural hive can be almost non-existent.
- The old, dark comb is like a human live, absorbing toxic chemical and other substance.
- Old comb can hold moisture to be released when it is needed by the bees.
- A “bottom eco-system” exists under the nest — something we completely eliminate in our Langstroth hives.
- Seeing drones in hard winter “is not a mistake.” Are the bees making a genetic contribution to the environment?