July 28, 2016

Feeding Bees in Late Winter / Early Spring

early spring honeybee feeding As a beekeeper it is all to easy to relax once the first spring flowers begin to show and your bees are beginning to venture out and assume that your bees can fend for themselves again. This is the time when bees may need the most help. As the bees become more active they will need more food, which they may not readily be able to replenish yet from external resources. In addition a few good spring days maybe followed by days of cold and wet weather at this time of year. In fact early spring / late winter is the time when honeybee colonies can be most at risk.

Having got your colonies through winter  it important for beekeepers to correctly manage hives that have survived as this is the time of the year when bees start running out of stored honey if they haven’t already, especially if they are starting to become active for some parts of the day. To help them not to die from starvation, it’s important that you feed your bees. If you find dead bees with their heads stuck in cells, this is a sign that they have starved to death.

It is too early to feed your bees sugar-water as they will not be able to get rid of the excess moisture. A quick method of getting food to them is to pure some sugar into a bowl and add just enough water so that you can form the sugar into a firm but moist ball. This ball can then easily be added to the hive either over the hole on the crown board or onto the frames above where there are most active bees present.

Alternatively you can tear a paper bag of sugar add a small amount of water enough to moisten but not soak the bag and place this into the hive.

Pollen patties are a good source of protein for the bees, which is essential for any new brood that maybe developing. These can be purchased or made from a dry powder mix.

More about Colony Management

Icing or Powdered Sugar for Varroa Control

The use of powdered sugar dusting is a popular non-chemical approach to the control of varroa mite in honey bee colonies and is seen as an effective integrated pest management control (that is, one that does not rely on chemical intervention but good management practices.)

The method has proved to be an effective means of reducing varroa mites in honey bee colonies, having a significant impact on mite reproduction. When the bees are covered with powdered sugar their bodies become slippery causing the varroa to lose their ability to cling to the bees, the granules of sugar interfere with the gripping surfaces of the varroas’ feet and they fall to the floor of the hive.

The powdered sugar also causes the bees to groom themselves more frequently causing more mites to be dislodged. This technique does not appear to have any adverse effect on adult bees or brood.  Unlike chemical methods this technique can be used at any time, even during a honey flow, as it does not contaminate the honey and as frequently as needed to control the mite. It can also be used as a method for detecting and assessing varroa mite infestation, within a colony.

How to apply powdered sugar to your honey bee colony

Take a sugar (or cocoa) shaker like the one pictured and use approximately 125 grams (1 cup) of sugar per single hive box. You should either have an open mesh floor or a sticky board in place, as the sugar does not kill the varroa but merely dislodges them. If not caught or dropped through a mesh floor the varroa will simply climb up into the frames again.

Smoke the colony as usual and put the sticky board in place on the hive floor if you are using one. Smoke the bees down from the top boxes. Remove the boxes and apply the sugar to the bottom box first, working up through the boxes. There is no need to remove the frames from the hive. Sift or dust the powdered sugar over the top bars of the frames and into the bees in the seams. Using a bee brush carefully brush the powdered sugar from the tops of the frames to between them.

The frequency with which you will need to apply this treatment will depend upon the level of varroa mite infestation.

The only down side to the use of powdered sugar for varroa control is if not used carefully it could potentially increase the chances of robbing by other bee colonies, during a nectar dearth and may also encourage ants. Even if you have an open mesh floor it is a good idea to apply a sticky board underneath to catch the sugar, this will also enable you to monitor the level of infestation in your hive.

Sticky boards can be purchased or made from cardboard or thick paper thinly smeared with a sticky substance such as vegetable oil or Vaseline.

More About Colony Management

How to Avoid Honey Crystallisation

Although honey crystallisation is a natural process (see also … Why does honey crystallise? ) as  a beekeeper you do not want to help initiate this process before you have had the chance to bottle and sell your honey. Therefore it is important to know how to store your extracted combs and honey.

Honey should be stored at room temperature in airtight containers and the optimum temperature for storing honey is 21 to 27 ºC (70-80 ºF). Temperatures between 11 to 18 ºC (52- 64ºF), are ideal for crystallisation and therefore should be avoided. Refrigerators also aid the process of crystallisation and should again be avoided.

Filter your honey if you want to avoid crystallisation through a 80 micro filter or pass it through several sheets of fine nylon or mesh cloth. This will remove small particles such as pollen, propolis, beeswax, sugar crystals and air bubbles all of which will aid crystallisation by providing a seed or nuclei for the process to start and develop.

Honey can be heated in hot air up to to 40ºC or 104 ºF which will melt any sugar crystals and prevent crystallisation. You must check carefully with an accurate candy thermometer that the temperature does not exceed 40ºC  otherwise it will be overheated. Overheated honey loses a lot of its natural goodness and flavour and is no longer a premium product.

Commercial honey suppliers heat honey to over 63ºC (145 ºF) for as long as thirty minutes or even higher for shorter periods, then cool it quickly. This ensures that the honey will not crystallise and keeps it runny for longer in response to the mass market demand for squeezable honey.  This product is far from the natural nutrient rich product that the bees worked so hard to produce, as the heat treatment removes and kills most of the goodness such as anti-oxidants, enzymes and vitamins from the original product.

As beekeepers we should be aiming to provide our family, friends and customers with a natural healthy product and therefore care should be taken, with regard to temperature.

Finally we would recommend that you put your supers full of empty combs  back into the hives for the bees to clean after you have extracted the honey. Not only will you be giving the bees back something but it will also reduce the likelihood of any residue honey crystallising over winter and getting into next years honey and causing it to crystallise too quickly.

More Honey Facts

More About Honey Extraction and Care

What to Look for When Inspecting a Hive

When inspecting a hive there are several things that you should be looking out for and these are summarised below.

Evidence that the hive is ‘queen right’

Queen right is the term given to describe a colony of honey bees where the queen bee is present and laying eggs. When inspecting your hive  look out for the queen, but if you cannot find her don’t worry. It is not always easy to find the queen especially if the hive has many boxes and large numbers of bees. Ideally you should have your queen marked, which will help you to find her and also to confirm that the queen you have found is your original one and not a replacement.

If you cannot find your queen, look for eggs. If you find eggs you know that your queen was at least in your hive a couple of days ago. If you cannot find your queen and you see no eggs, then you have a problem as either the queen is dead or she has stopped laying or is defective in some way and cannot lay.

As you remove a frame for inspection, be sure to hold it over the hive, in case the queen is on it and falls off. If you are holding it over the hive then she will fall back into the hive. If the queen was to fall onto the ground outside the hive there is no guarantee she will be able to find her way back in.
Presence of all stages of brood
It is important for the colonies survival that there is plenty of brood at all stages of development and in particular plenty capped or sealed brood. You should also as the season progresses see a marked increase in the bee population, which is essential if the bees are to gather enough to produce the honey that you and they need.
Check for any abnormalities
This gets easier with experience and after a while an experienced beekeeper can tell at a quick glance whether there are any real problems or not. You should be looking in particular for any sign of disease (e.g malformed larvae) or pests, such as varroa or wax moth (refer to our pests and diseases section).
Check for sufficient honey and pollen stores
The amount of honey stores will depend upon the time of year, but if you feel that there is insufficient stores then you should feed your bees. The bees will usually store pollen near the brood areas as this is where it is most needed.
Check that there is enough space
Again this depends upon the time of year. In spring and early summer it is important that the queen has plenty space to lay if not you increase the likelihood of losing most of your bees and honey as the colony will swarm. Always add supers in plenty time for the main nectar flow if you are to maximise your honey crop.
You should also  ideally keep a written record of what you have seen in each hive as it is not as easy to remember from inspection to inspection as you might imagine.

Removing the Queen Cage from a Package of Bees and First Inspections.

Having installed a package of bees for the first time it can often be hard for new beekeepers to resist the temptation of checking what is happening inside their new hive. We are often asked when you should inspect your hive after installing your packaged bees? You must wait at least 5  days any sooner and the bees may not have had a chance to accept the queen and she may be rejected or killed.
After 5 to 7 days, you can open the hive and check to see if the queen has been released from her cage. There will likely be bees on the queen cage and quite possibly they will have started to build comb on the bottom of it. Be very gentle when examining the cage and attached comb as the queen may be on the outside of the cage or on the attached comb. If she is on it gently brush her onto a frame and then shake the remaining bees off, before discarding the queen cage and any attached comb. If the queen has not been released, then you will need to carefully release her. Do not leave the queen cage in the hive longer than is necessary as the bees will cover it with comb and make it difficult to remove without damage to the frame and foundation it is attached to.
If the queen has been released and she is not on the outside of the cage, look for her. By this time, 1 or 2 frames should be drawn and you should be able to see some eggs in the cells. If you don’t find the queen but you do see eggs in the cells, don’t panic, your queen is alive and doing her job. If, however, you cannot find the queen or any eggs in the cells or if you find that your queen is dead within her cage, then you will need to place an order for a new queen, as soon as possible. If the queen is present close the hive and wait another week before inspecting again. Ensuring once again then that the queen is present and laying.
You should continue feeding the colony sugar syrup until you are certain there is a strong nectar flow and the bees are beginning to build up their honey stores.
Note: On the third week you may be concerned to notice a significant reduction in the population of the adult bees. Don’t worry, this is natural as the average life span of a worker bee during the spring and summer months is only 3 weeks and so the newly laid brood has not had a chance to replenish the colony. But as long as your queen is laying properly and you are seeing the cells being filled with brood, you have nothing to be concerned about. You should see the population increasing again within the next 2-3 weeks as the new bees begin to emerge.

Harvesting Propolis

Propolis is becoming increasingly valued by those seeking more natural products and remedies and therefore the collection of propolis has become a profitable exercise for beekeepers. Propolis is harvested in Autumn using special propolis traps, it is at this time that the bees will be anxious to seal any holes up to reduce potential winter drafts. Propolis can of course just be scraped from the hive parts but it is more likely to have pieces of wood and other impurities in it. These can be filtered out, but this can be time-consuming.

Propolis traps are usually simple metal or plastic screens, similar to queen excluders. However mosquito or fly mesh can be stretched across a frame as an alternative propolis trap. A trick that is often used is to add the traps at the top of the hive and prop the roof open slightly, thereby allowing light to enter. This will then prompt the bees to cover the mesh with propolis to block out the light.

Once the traps are full they can then be  removed and frozen, which will make the propolis become hard and brittle and therefore easier to remove. Take out any obvious debris and then store in the refrigerator in a clean air tight container.

Below are some propolis based products you might like to check out

More about Propolis

Propolis and Bee Hives

Propolis is the sticky resinous substance that bees collect from plants and trees and which gets all over your hands and clothes when inspecting a bee hive.  Propolis is produced by the trees and plants to protect their buds from, bacteria, fungus and most insects. The composition and colour of propolis varies from plant to plant and therefore colony to colony and region to region. Propolis is most commonly an orangey/brown colour.

Bees use propolis to seal up small spaces throughout the hive, bigger spaces are sealed with wax comb . Propolis is sticky above 20 °C (68 °F) and becomes brittle and hard below that temperature. As a result forager bees tend to prefer to collect propolis in warmer temperatures. The bees collect the propolis using their mandibles to scrape the substance from the plants. They then pass the propolis from their mandibles to their forelegs, then to the inner surface of the middle leg or basitarsus. The propolis is then stored for flight in their pollen baskets or corbiculum on their back legs.

On returning to the hive with their load of propolis they go to the part of the hive where it is required. The propolis is removed by other house bees. Just as with pollen, nectar and water the bees will perform a dance to pass on the exact location of the propolis to other bees.

In sealing up small holes and entrances in the hive, the bees are strengthening the structure of their home as well as limiting the possible entrance points for predators and it is believed reducing vibration. In addition, whilst bees will remove any dead bees or small predators from a hive, bigger creatures such as small mice or lizards, which have been attacked and killed but are too heavy to remove will be shrouded in a propolis cocoon. By doing so the bees prevent disease and bacteria spreading from the decaying body.

The bees will also coat the inside of the hive with a thin layer, or varnish of propolis and also coat the inside of a brood cell. This is believed to be a way of using the known anti bacterial, antiviral and antimicrobial properties of propolis to keep the colony clean and healthy and free of disease.

Some strains of bees such as Caucasians use more propolis than others and some beekeepers will not keep them for this reason. Since beekeepers tend to hate having to deal with large amounts of sticky propolis there has been a tendency to favouring and breeding from lower propolis producing colonies in recent decades. Some scientists now suggest that this reduction in propolis use could be interfering with the bees natural weapon against diseases and be contributing to the rise in pests and diseases currently damaging bee colonies worldwide.

Human use of propolis

There is a growing interest in propolis and its natural benefits for humans. Many health stores sell propolis supplements and propolis can now even be found in some toothpaste produced by major toothpaste manufacturers, promoting in particular healthy gums.

Below are some propolis based products you might like to check out

More about Propolis

Colony Collapse Disorder – Parasitic Fly Could be to Blame

A parasitic fly that hijacks the bees’ bodies and causes them to abandon their hives has been put forward as a possible explanation for Colony Collapse Disorder. Northern California scientists say the fly deposits its eggs into the bee’s abdomen, causing the infected bee to exhibit trance like behaviour, walking around in circles and then leaving the hive at night to die. This is what happens with Colony Collapse Disorder, in which all the adult honey bees in a colony suddenly disappear over night.

This research is another step in the right direction in finding the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder which is having a serious effect on the US bee industry. Research so far points to a combination of factors including pesticide contamination, a lack of the right food sources, mites, fungi, viruses and parasites.

Interaction among the parasite and multiple pathogens could be one possible factor in colony collapse, according to the latest study by researchers at San Francisco State University. It says the phorid fly, or apocephalus borealis, was found in bees from three-quarters of the 31 hives surveyed in the San Francisco Bay area. The combination of a parasite, pathogens and other stressors could cause die-off, lead investigator John Hafernik said. The parasitic fly serves as a reservoir that harbours pathogens ; honey bees from parasite-infected hives tested positive for deformed wing virus and other pathogens, the study found.

“We don’t fully understand the web of interactions,” Hafernik said. “The parasite could be another stressor, enough to push the bee over tipping point. Or it could play a primary role in causing the disease.”

A Closer Look at Honeycomb

Honey bee nests are made from honeycomb, which is made up of a mass of hexagonal wax cells built by the bees from wax . Each of these cells are used to contain honey and pollen stores and all stages of the young or brood from egg to pupa.

These hexagonal cells are built up on both sides of a central vertical plain known as the septum . The base of the cell on one side of the septum serves as the base for the cell on the other side, thereby maximizing the space created using the least amount of wax.

The hexagonal  honeycomb cells are not all the same size but come in two distinct sizes. Cells used to rear worker bees measure  approximately 5 to an inch, while those for the larger drone bees measure approximately 4 to an inch. Both types of  cells can also be used to store honey.

The honeycomb cell walls are very thin, only about .006 of an inch in thickness, with a slightly thicker top or coping. Propolis is used to strengthen and varnish the cells.

It is believed that the reason that honeycomb is composed of hexagons, rather than any other shape is that the hexagonal shapes cover a surface and create cells in a way that is composed of the least surface area. That is, the bees have typically used the most efficient way to maximise the storage space in an area while using the least amount of wax.

In a typical hive or nest in the wild the honeycomb structures or frames will hang vertically. The bees will build or draw the hexagonal cells out enough to hold the developing young bees or honey. If the cells are used for brood there will be enough space left for two bees to work back to back between the vertical honeycomb and if the cells contain honey to maximise the storage space there will be only enough space left for one bee to work between the honeycombs. The cells are also cleverly angled at about 13 degrees, which is just enough to prevent honey or nectar dripping out.

More about Honey Bee Colonies

The equipment from any colonies lost over winter should be taken apart and cleaned thoroughly, especially if you suspect death was due to disease. Please refer to our disease and pest section for how to spot and deal with specific diseases and pests.

April in the Western Hemisphere is when hives should be thoroughly inspected and cleaned up where necessary. It can still be cold, so do be careful not to chill the brood, which will kill it. When the tempera­ture is above 50°F (10°C) and there is little or no wind, you can examine brood, but do not expose it to the atmosphere for more than a minute or two. When the temperature is 65°F (18°C) and there is little or no wind, you can then safely remove and thoroughly examine the frames.

In addition to checking for food stores, you should look for brood as this will indicate whether or not the queen is present and productive. You should at this time also clean out the hive entrance and scrape clean the bottom board or floor.

Remove excess propolis and comb from the frames and top board. All old or damaged comb should be replaced with new foundation. Old comb should be replaced on a regular basis to prevent the build-up of disease organisms. Cell size is also reduced over time due to the build-up of parts of cocoons left in the cells by pupating bees, this will result in smaller adult bees. If, when held up to the sun, no light passes through a comb, it should be replaced with new foundation or new drawn comb. As a rule we suggest replacing at least 25% of all comb per year. If you use frame spacers, using different colours to represent the year the comb was first used is helpful.

It is often a good idea to reverse the hive bodies, as a queen located in the upper hive body may be slow to expand her brood nest if adjacent frames are filled with honey and she is often reluctant to move downward. However this should not be done too early, in case it results in a split brood nest. Under these circumstances if there is a sudden drop in temperature it may make it difficult for the bees to maintain the correct brood cell temperature.

This is also now the time that you should be thinking about varroa mite control. As varroa is now so widespread it is safe to assume that varroa mite monitoring and control is necessary even if you cannot see any (for more details see our Varroa Control section).

Typically, colonies are treated for varroa mites in the late summer or early fall, after the honey harvest. However any colonies not treated in Autumn may need to be treated in Spring.  All chemical control treatments must be completed well before the honey flow begins and any supers are put in place.

If you decide as we would recommend to use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques as a means of varroa mite management, many of these techniques will need to be put in place early on in the season.

More about Bee Colony Management