Bee Culture: BeeTalk

It was an expensive business getting my apiaries back to life after this most devastating year in the history of American beekeeping, but now it is starting to pay off as the harvest has gotten underway. I’m bringing in supers beautifully filled with comb honey – all basswood, apparently, so far. And that, like so many things about beekeeping, is puzzling, because, though I searched the basswood trees when they were in bloom, I saw no bees on them.

Anyway, seeing this lovely comb honey piling up in my honey house greatly revives my spirits, and I have been wondering whether this might not be the time, not to be selling off your bees and equipment, but to be buying more. All the major newspapers and other media have covered extensively the recent drastic decline in beekeeping. Beekeepers are discouraged. Many seem to be getting out. I suggest it might be just the time to be getting in. It is a buyer’s market, and honey prices are soaring. Parasitic mites are here to stay, but solutions to this problem are in the making. I was talking to Dr. Roger Hoopingarner, an expert on these matters, recently, and he is confident that strains of bees increasingly resistant to Varroa are on the way, perhaps within a year or two. I feel, in any case, that the time has come for a brighter outlook to replace the widespread gloom of this past season.

I recently visited the apiary of Mr. David Laney, out in Indiana. Here is one of the ablest and most resourceful beekeepers to come along in a very long time. We strolled through his bee yard, no veils, peered into a few hives to note their progress, and here, it was obvious, was a beekeeper totally at home and at ease with his craft. His towering hives were filling with round-section comb honey. He had lost about half the colonies last Winter, but he got them all back into production with splits, and had obviously done everything exactly right. In addition to his skill at beekeeping, Mr. Laney, with the help of his son and daughter, has a vast honey distribution business, selling through stores as far flung as Michigan, Illinois and Tennessee. The strength of his business is the variety of very distinct nectar sources. Nothing is overheated or filtered.

I came away with one splendid idea, which I am eager to pass along. Mr. Laney makes his “grease patties,” if they can be called that, simply by dumping granulated sugar into a bucket and adding vegetable oil. The ratio is about three parts sugar to one part oil, by volume. Let it set overnight and you’ve got just what you want – a nice smooth mix. Or, if there is still some oil on top, you can add a little more sugar. Then you just take this bucket to the apiary and ladle portions onto the top bars in the brood chambers. I gave it a try when I got home, using canola oil, and it seems to be just the thing.

Beekeepers should have the Apistan strips in the hives by mid-August. Early September might be too late, but in any case, you should not put it off longer than that. Maybe in the more southern states you can wait a bit longer, but not up here. You’ve got to get the honey harvested first, of course, and don’t worry about not getting the Fall honey crop. Actually, the bees will put that Fall honey to better use than you can. If you get the mites under control, then the extra honey in the hives will not be wasted. The colonies will be all the stronger in the Spring because of it.

The rest of getting ready for Winter consists mainly of protecting the colonies from wind, moisture and mice. I keep mice out by fixing a wedge of quarter-inch hardware cloth in the entrances and, just as important, getting the hives up off the ground. Mice are much less likely to get into a hive if it is a foot or more above the ground. This also helps, come Spring, to keep the entrances unobstructed by weeds. The wedge of hardware cloth can be left in the entrance all Summer, as it does not hinder the bees. That works much better than closing the entrance with a cleat, having only a small entrance notched out, because this obstructs ventilation and easily becomes clogged, which can cause suffocation. You want ventilation through the hive to prevent moisture from building up. I make sure there is some sort of crack near the top of the hive so moisture can escape. Leaving the inner cover hole slightly open works pretty well for that. I use my stapler to fasten a scrap of tar paper loosely over the entrance to keep wind out. The bees easily find their way around the edges. Finally, I slip a scrap of wood or a stick under the bottom board, at the back, to give the hive a forward tilt. This is wonderfully effective in keeping the bottom clear of dead bees.

Should you leave the Apistan strips in all Winter? The approved rule is to get them out after 45-56 days, so that makes it simple. Follow the rules. The important thing is to get them down into the brood nest, where the bees are going to cluster, so they will be in constant contact. Otherwise, they will be totally ineffective.

Honey bees will be around for a long time, and so will good, dedicated beekeepers. We need only to know what to do, and when to do it, and then, do it.

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