BEEKEEPING IN THE NORTHEAST - An account of my beekeeping, not a treatise of expertise, but for friends & family who wish to keep bees vicariously through me, and for the occasional apiarist passer-by.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Chill'n With My Bees Feb 2011 continued:

Just wanted to share two articles, one I've read half a dozen times in preparation for this spring with my surviving hive. This is only my third season, so excuse my ignorance if this is common knowledge, but I do know there are a lot of new beekeepers out there.

Last spring I shared my story: "Demise of My Hive", about my first bee hive surviving the winter into March but failing before the nectar flow in May, despite the recommended feeding of sugar syrup.

My sense was that the feeding contributed in some way to a cycle of nosema, mixed with the cold, altruistic bees leaving the hive so as not to contaminate it; hence no warmth for the brood nest. My hive was pretty much beeless in the end, but filled with honey, pollen stores, and chilled brood. The colony was softball size in March…then rapidly down to three seemingly healthy bees, the queen and two workers, then none.

"An Adaptable Workforce" March 2010 issue of American Bee Journal, p. 255, by Randy Oliver of – some heady reading, but summarized:

Oliver sites recent studies revealing perhaps what seasoned beekeepers already know without the science, but nonetheless, the science lends it a new perspective. Basically, here in the northeast especially, the house bees that over-winter with the queen have never seen the light of day, being born the end of fall or early winter.

Their sisters who foraged for the pollen and honey they subsist on have all died a brave altruistic death. Both bees, fall foragers and over-wintering housebees were/are what they ate/eat.

The honey and pollen winter stores literally, biologically, keep the over-wintering bees in housebee mode, plenty of Vg hormones that suppress the action that causes them to age into foragers. It also provides the housebee with a boosted immune system.

When cold prevents bees from reaching stored pollen and honey, or stores are depleted before the nectar flow, spring feeding of syrup introduced by the beekeeper without pollen supplementation, kicks the bee's biology into the aging process. Vg levels drop and they quickly evolve into foraging bees.

They also lose the immune boost of Vg and more readily succumb to nosema if weather does not permit them leaving the hive to void the waste they have held for sometimes months in an effort to keep the hive clean. Immune difficulties are even worse if mites are an issue.

Oliver states: "…starved, stressed, or infected bees can very quickly shift to forager status. By doing so, they rapidly begin to age, and are soon lost to the colony. Younger bees then take their places. If the infection is not brought under control, especially if nutrition is poor, this process can rapidly depopulate a colony-leaving only the queen and a handful of young (uninfected) workers. Sound familiar?"

Yeah, that about sums up my spring 2010. I did not feed pollen supplement, just syrup.

I spoke with Ben Chadwick, a state bee inspector. After ten minutes I knew I'd never live long enough to know all I need to know about keeping bees. He suggested this spring I try the Mann Lake brand pollen patties, as that is what his bees in Alton accept, if they need it, above other brands he's tested. He also said that the goldenrod/aster nectar flow we had last fall was not as nutritious as a spring flow, so to save a super of honey from spring to put on the hive in late fall.

So that is my plan. I'm also switching to the smallest size supers. Ben also stressed switching to mite and disease resistant strains of bees and whether you believe your bees have mites or not, treat for them. He mentioned an organic treatment called Thymol, but admits to only using powdered sugar for the sake of his queen-rearing apiary.

I would be interested to know if any beekeepers here have used thymol. This spring I'm getting two nucs from a Vermont apiary that has been breeding not only disease resistant bees, but cold weather bees as well. We'll see how that goes.

2nd Article is by a frustrated staff writer for Bee Culture, James E. Tew, who got up on the wrong side of winter in the January 2011 article p.36 – "Winter-Increasingly An Uncertain Season…" He stresses that modern standards of hive size coming out of winter do not lend to traditional management schemes. Combining weak hives, light syrup mixtures in spring, are no longer a good idea.

Tew's article, along with other winter reading I've done, advises not to perform any major manipulations of the colony in the spring when the temperature is under 70 degrees F and perform needed maintenance tasks with as little smoke and disruption to the bees as possible.

My conclusion is that even beekeepers doing this for decades, are having trouble keeping their hives alive. They are seeing a dramatic change in the honeybee's success as a managed species within their own apiaries, decade to decade.

These amazing creatures have been surviving as a fine-tuned successful civilization long before the Egyptians recorded the first bee journal on the walls of the pharaoh's tombs 10,000 years ago. We are still struggling to understand and manage them for our benefit, their secrets ever eluding us. Good luck with your bees this spring.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hive Demise - Spring 2010

Wanted to report on what I discovered with the demise of my hive - Spring 2010.

Bottom line, my girls were victims of situations that arise as the result of striving to survive in a cold environment. I got them through the winter, but I believe an experienced beekeeper could have gotten them through to avoid the demise that followed; however, I have found that asking other beekeepers, while important and insightful, is not the call to action that personal experience with loss can be.


I'm a beginner in my second year. I have two hives in two locations. First hive: prepared for a year, watching my wooded yard for a sunny spot and my notes indicate that I picked the sunniest spot in a high ground area. The foliage increases every year, of course, so shade was more substantial in spring 2010 as apposed to spring 2009…but in Spring-Summer 2009 it rained almost 28 days out of 30. My first hive swarmed on the 4th of July 2009 but the remaining bees did well into fall. I did not extract honey, determined to get them through the winter.

Winter Preparations:

I used a slatted bottom board under a hive deep full of bees and medium super of honey. An insulation board was placed on top of the inner cover with a prop between it and the cover. I wrapped the hive when nights got into the 20's in the fall and took it off in the spring when days got longer and temps were in the 30's at night. I fed sugar syrup in the fall in large, ziplock bags poked with pinholes.

Spring Discovery:

My bees filled one frame coming into spring, first week of April. The hive was clean as a whistle except for some normal brown droppings outside of the upper entrance. I placed sugar syrup in a small feeder on the frames in an empty super. The bees crawled up en mass to say hello. Looking back, they were just so cold.

On May 6th, I reversed the hive deep with the medium super in hopes of getting the queen to move up from her winter home into the hive body. It appeared that some syrup had leaked down into the hive body. There was terrible mold on the bottom board and down the inside back wall and the frame bottoms. The frames in the hive body were old from the nuc I bought so I removed and cut the good comb out and set the frames in the sun. Cleaned everything, put in a new bottom board and clean hive body.

On May 26 I recorded that the nest was no bigger than a large softball. In the weeks following reversal, saw few if any bees foraging; but temps in our neck of the woods have been in the 50's and the early spring bloom was lost. I fed them sugar syrup first, then comb honey cut from the frames I found when I did the reversal. I knew they had food and moved the honey frames in close to the nest, but laid the additional feed on the frames above the nest for easy access.

The End:

Checking every week, in the end on June 9th, I found the queen, apparently healthy, with two assistants only. Chilled brood. A few starved bees. Lots of pollen and honey. Nosema stains throughout that had developed since May. I cleaned everything up and placed the queen and her two loyal attendants in a nuc box. Temps in the high 40's that night. No hope of her recovery.

I want to bring attention to two valuable articles from Bee Culture Mag, May-June issues, that also seem to validate some conclusions.

1. James E. Tew in his May article on page 39 "Honey Bee Packages" comments that his surviving over-wintered hives are only "soft-ball" in size, sometimes "baseball" in size. He states this is a modern evolution of over-wintered bees from packages, but I started with Nucs.

2. Tom Webster on "Nosema ceranae" which speaks of new strains of Nosema, how serious this is for wintering bees, and the need to feed properly and have sterile equipment from hive to hive.

3. Also, Ross Conrad, who fellow beekeeper, Ingrid and I were able to see at a workshop in Vermont this spring. His book "Natural Beekeeping" notes that Nosema is more commonly associated with heavy fall feeding of syrup. (Photo right - Queenie with Hope 10,031 and Faith 10,032)


I read again and again that cold does not kill bees. That they do not keep the hive warm, they keep each other warm and that they are heartier than we think. I read also that the biggest threat is starvation and moisture. So I worked hard on keeping good airflow in the hive and made feed available when it seemed they needed it. I also read they will not eat sugar syrup if they don't need it. Also to stay away from corn syrup because of incidence of Nosema and a general shortening of bee life.

The facts are my hive coming out of winter became, for whatever reason, too small to keep up with the queen, properly sealing the brood and keeping the sealed brood warm enough to survive what I felt were moderately cold temperatures. They also, as is their nature, left the hive when they were too sick or dying to help with it's survival.

Maybe the bees got sick when I started to feed them the sugar syrup in the spring and they would not leave the task of warming the queen and brood for cleansing flights, so Nosema developed. Maybe they were too cold to move around the hive and get pollen and honey for the nest and the brood. Maybe the older bees died off and those left were less capable of defending the hive and foraging. Maybe a valuable cycle of succeeding generations was broken. The little chilled bees in their cells were perfectly formed.

So it seems that when Ingrid was looking for a Queen a month or so ago, I would have done well to offer my queen with her softball size hive. That would have saved them. But how much of a factor was Nosema? Would it have contaminated her hive? I tested for everything else as well. I did the icky AFB test on pupae…also, no mites and no hive beetles. Tom bought me a microscope for xmas. All were clean, except for signs of Nosema. My second hive is new from a nuc this year and they are cranking; but not big enough to split to save this queen.

My first year: rain, rain...

Swarming on the 4th of July
The way bees multiply, simply put, is by creating a new queen and splitting the hive up into "Loyalist" and "Separatists". The Loyalist stay behind awaiting a new queen to be born; and the Separatists move on with the old queen mother of them all.

It is an unselfish and beautiful thing when it happens on the Fourth of July. Scouts are sent out, make their case to the group for alternative locations through dance navigational movements in accordance with the position of the sun - perhaps to a hollow in a log or tree. They all take turns visiting those locations, finally to deliberate where to relocate while resting on a nearby tree branch. Despite all the bees efforts, this is when the skilled beekeeper can herd them back into a new home of his choice - if that branch is within reach. In anticipation of such an event I built a second hive and had it at the ready.

It is 2008. I am in my first year of beekeeping and write with mixed emotions: We have the largest and tallest stand of Sugar Maples on our road. My bees took to the highest branches of the tallest tree and waved at us in all their glory from limbs reaching perhaps 80 feet into the stormy sky.

We are in an "intervale" of the White Mountains of the Appalachians of the North East...shady and damp. It is colder here than my little Italian friends prefer, but they wintered in Maine and have proven themselves to be a hearty industrious hive; and a gentle one at that.

But the rain has been relentless. Only nine days in June with no precipitation and in that time hardly a one with even so much as spotty sun. During one break we quickly got our garden plants into their beds...but the flowers on my bolted herbs were soaked and not offering much in the way of pollen. Many an evening I watched the girls grumbling on the porch of the hive en-mass. Whenever a dry moment came along I opened the roof and carefully placed a bag of nectar-syrup to insure as much as possible a food source and made plenty of room for their numbers by adding another story. Most kept hives are lost to starvation and over-crowding under such conditions, I read.

Firework shows were all tentative throughout the county, the radio reported, as I sat on the porch with my cat about noon time. We then heard what sounded like a plane overhead only it never seemed to pass. Finally, walking into the garden, I looked up and beheld my bees in a swarm! The wind whipped and the clouds blew quickly across the sky. Thunder and lightening heralded the event. The greatest number landed on one large branch of our grandest maple, a smaller group on another....but by evening the majority united with the minority into one high and lofty mass of humming freedom.

Two scouts found their way into our house so we carefully caught and placed them into the new hive home hoping they would fly up and tell the others what a great new place they had found....but no luck. A handful of Loyalist lined up on the parent hive's porch waving their little buns in the air toward the swarm calling them back as well...but no.

Temperatures dropped into the 40's that night. I tossed and turned wondering if they could survive outside, but there they were Sunday morning clinging close to each other in the dawn's early light. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. The yard seemed to come alive with bird song, as if all weather concerns had gone with the winds of the previous day.

We watched with binoculars, hoped the adventurous bees would return home, and waited.

At precisely 1 PM the now familiar bee-plane noise rose in volume. All the scouts had returned, a decision had been made.

The fertile hay fields around our intervale, so beautiful with color, go yet un-mowed, unusual by this time of year. For this California girl now living in historical New England, "make hay while the sun shines" has gone from a hoky phrase of my Mom's to a call for action. We have empathized with the dilemma the rain has presented to the local farmers in this regard.

Those amber waves of grain must have been just too much to resist for my little band of Separatists observing the world beyond the garden from such heights. In an organized swoop, with perhaps a shout of freedom, they were flying off over the tree tops to brave their new world. The sun beat down turning their departure into a glittery fireworks display.

At home the Loyalist went about their chores as if nothing had happened. They cleaned empty cells and brought a rainbow of pollen in by the little buckets on their legs. They straightened up the hive, discarded, recycled and mended comb. I saw no queen, but many, many queen cells waiting for the moment to emerge and fight for their place over the hive or die. Several drones paced around waiting also.

Then, there she was. A new queen. The first to hatch. She had attendants...just a few. She was laying eggs in newly drawn comb so had obviously just returned from the one mating flight of her life. The other queen cells, created by the workers to insure the success of the hive previous to the Separatists departure, are often distroyed by the beekeeper to allow the new queen to move forward in her reign. In nature, they just fight it out.

I have a lot to learn about bee keeping but this short season with "my girls" has been a wonder. Taking control of their own destiny like that...beekeepers be damned. I know it doesn't seem right mixing America's heritage with stories of royalty and bees...but I'll never look at any insect quite the same again. It is possible I may learn that our little neck of the woods is not the haven for bees that it has been for us.

Chill'n With My Bees Feb 2011

Newest Posts are here: READ THE LATEST
February Hive Management:
We had quite a spectacular "thunder snow" event...lightening and
thunder with snow! Amazing! Very rare!
So the next day promised to be warm and the bees were buried under snow and
ice so I documented my trek out to clear it so if they wanted to fly, and they
did, they could. It's up on YouTube.