Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Honeybees in winter

I keep a few hives of bees on my farm because I like the honey, and I like having the bees around to pollinate stuff that needs it.  Having a few of my own hives means that I don't have to rent bees, and I enjoy them; most of the year they're just out quietly doing their thing, with occasional bits of excitement when they swarm.  
What you don't want to see when a hive is open.  
 I entered the fall with four hives; and one of them didn't survive; it looks like it swarmed early in the year, the new queen didn't get fertilized, and the bees eventually just died out, leaving a hive full of honey and dead bees, but nothing else.  It's a shame, but it does happen.  After careful examination, I extracted the honey and ended up with 18 pints of honey.
Full combs of capped honey, but no bees
 A month or so later, I was looking at another hive, this one had done really well this year, and noticed a fair number of dead bees outside.  There is usually some loss of bees in the winter; the colony reaches its smallest numbers around now, but it's worth investigating; I pulled the dead bees out and washed them in alchohol and then looked for varoa mites, a common problem.  I didn't see unusual numbers, and a quick peek inside showed a good mass of bees that were buzzing at the intrusion, so the jurys out.  this hive may or may not survive.  they're sitting on 60lbs of honey, so it won't be from lack of available food.
dead bees at entrance to hive; inspection time

flecks of bees wax from consumed honeycomb
The final hive I checked looked good.  These little brown flecks are the wax from the top of honey that's been consumed.  There's a few mites there; you can see them as little black specs, and so I may have to do some mite control with this hive, but they're balled up and buzzing, with plenty of food, so I'll leave them be for now.

Varoa mites are a common problem, and usually can't be completely eliminated from honeybees because they breed in the bee larvae.  I control them by having the bees raise combs of drones (I supply drone wax, which has holes larger than standard bee holes) and then remove those combs for inspection after the larvae is capped.  If it shows varoa infestation on inspection, I'll freeze that comb and then return it to the hive; the bees will remove the dead larvae and clean the comb and raise another set.

If the drone comb inspects clean, I'll return it to the hive; hoping that this particular strain of bees is more varoa-resistant, and to ensure that there are plenty of drones to fertilize any queens that need it.

Treatment for varoa in the winter that I use is to shake all the bees into a "package" box in late winter, and then liberally coat the bees with powdered sugar.  The sugar causes the mites to lose footing and the bees to groom each other, and the result of this powdering means that most of the adult varoa are removed.  This only works at times when there are no brood in the hive, such as when you get a new package of bees to establish a hive, or in late winter before the queen starts laying for the new year.