Bee Culture: Give a helping hand for late-blooming colonies

It’s still too early to say, but I suspect that 2011 may be the year that we accepted mites and began to move on with our beekeeping lives. The number of both managed and wild bee colonies that have died within the past few years has been nothing short o f spectacular. With such a high number of colony losses and the concurrent increase in honey prices, it’s no surprise that our industry is in a topsy-turvy condition.

The most obvious way to rebuild colony numbers is to purchase packages of bees for col ony replacement. The problem with this simple solution is that so many of us have had the idea at the same time. Package producers have told me that they could have sold thousands of packages more than they could produce this past spring. Those beekeep ers who didn’t order packages early, in many cases, didn’t get package bees at all.

In other instances, quite a number of you took any package shipping date you could get – which invariably means “late”. What about the condition of colonies that survive d? It’s not like we have eliminated any other diseases or pests just because we have added mites to the list.

Many colonies that have survived are weak having been stressed by mites and a long winter. Is there anything that can be done to build up colo nies having small populations? Though there are co “silver bullets,” there are some ways you can help late-blooming colonies along.

1. The population

Decide right away if the colony is even worth saving as an individual colony. If you’re down to a frame of brood and two or three frames of bees, this hive isn’t going to do anything toward surplus honey production. It’ll do well just to build up enough to survive next winter. If you have other colonies, consider combining it with other below-average colonies.

2. Mite Control

Varroa Mites. If you have not had an aggressive Varroa mite control program, consider putting in a fluvalinate strip for a few days. Look on the bottom board for dead mites. If you see many more than 25-30 mites, you’ve got to make another decision. You can sacrifice part of this year’s crop and go into a traditional Varroa control program. This colony will be in better shape to survive winter and be better prepared for spring, 2012. Or, if you think the colony can stand the mite population until th e flow is over, continue to prepare for the flow. Remember to remove all strips before putting in the year, there’s not a lot you can do. Put vegetable patties on if you haven’t already done so. If you decide that the colony can get through the flow wi th the tracheal mite load that it has, then super up. If it appears really weak, consider combining it with another. Keep the grease patties on.

3. Diseases

Though mites are the glory problem just now, don’t ignore the time-honored diseases. American foulbrood is alive and quite well. If AHB is the problem causing a weak hive, I would eliminate the bees and destroy the frames. This is a harsh recommendatio n, but just cut your losses. If European Foulbrood is the problem, I would suggest giving up on honey production for this year and consider the remainder of the suggestions on this list. EFB-infected colonies are infamous for merely “breaking even” when it comes to honey production. Many common bee diseases will clear up of the brood cycle is broken thereby giving bees a chance to clean up the mess. Normally, the queen gets blamed for diseases like this. Okay, if you’ve gotten beyond 1-3 above and th e hive still seems to have a bit of a future, consider the following suggested beekeeper maneuvers the may be useful in bringing hives back from the brink.

4. The queen

A good queen can go a long way toward solving a lot of colony problems. Alternatively, it’s going to be nearly impossible to build up a colony with a weak queen. If you don’t know the age of the queen and: (a) if the brood pattern is spotty, or (b) if a dult worker bees are small or unhealthy looking, or (c) if there are signs of stress disease like chalkbrood, or finally (d) if there is a significant number of drones in what is otherwise a small colony, then consider replacing replacing the queen immedi ately. It may be hard to buy a queen quickly, but try. Don’t let the colony supersede if possible. The new queen quickly, but try. Don’t let the colony supercede if possible. The new queen and her brood will not be avaible in time to help with this y ear’s crop. If honey this season is the goal, an “okay” queen in the hive is better than a “Good” queen that the bees are raising.

5. Feeding

If you have the slightest suspicion that the colony needs either honey or pollen – or both – give it whatever it needs. It’s best to provide honey that’s still in the comb, but that’s probably hard to come by. When feeding sugar syrup, feed it as thick as possible. Since this colony is weak now and there’s not much time before the flow, I would suggest buying a pollen substitute if you feel one is necessary. There are several recipes for pollen supplements in the literature, but some of the components can be difficult to get. Buying it would be faster and easier. If the colony doesn’t need the supplemental food, it won’t take it. No great loss and possibly a great help.

6. Water

It’s very important that the hive have access to water-water-from-any-source water is better than no water at all. Water is too frequently ignored by beekeepers. Bees need water mostly to dilute honey, but they also need it to maintain the colony’s humi dity level. Water can be fed in open containers or can be provided internally. Don’t make a weak colony spend energy searching for a water source and don’t let the source you provide run out. Bees are thirsty at odd times. Don’t second guess them.

7. Location

Too Hot or Too Cold. This sounds too simple to even list, but if you are in a hot climate, put the hives in the shade or ventilate the hive so air can easily pass through. If you are in a cool climate, consider putting the hive where it gets full sunlig ht. After living in a hot climate for many years, I mistakenly put small colonies in deep shade after I moved to Ohio The colonies didn’t build up well, didn’t store a surplus and didn’t winter well.

My advice has worked fine for this part of the count ry until last summer when it routinely got above 100* F. We had to provide water and a shade for bees that were really cranky and not very appreciative. Protection from Winter Elements. Though it’s too late now for this year, if the location doesn’t pr otect the colonies in the winter, consider moving the apiary before next year. Hives shouldn’t sit in cold valleys or on unprotected hilltops. Provide wind breaks and position hives in full sunlight. Some authorities say to face hives to the east.

Acc essibility. Can you get to the yard conveniently? It becomes easy to procrastinate if there’s always a locked gate, muddy path, or nasty dog with which to contend. This is a useless comment, but I like scenic yards. I find it plesent to work bees in pleasant surroundings.

Pesticide Exposure. Thanks to mites, a lot of old-fashioned problems just aren’t heard from much more. Insecticide kills may be one of those areas. It will do no good to attempt to pump up a colony if it’s constantly being knocke d down by pesticide exposure. I know it can be difficult to find a yard with all the right attributes and still avoid a chemical hit. With some compounds, the results can be nasty. If bees store the stuff in pollen, such chemicals can cause residual ki lls that are hard to identify.

Skunks and Such. If anything short of a bear is harassing the colony, do something. If you have bear problems, this list won’t do you any good. Skunk signs are obvious. Besides the odor, there ate telltale little skunk floor prints all over the front of the hive and the grass in front will be matted down. Parts of dead bees and feces containing bee parts will be littered around. At the very least, move the colony up higher off the ground or, if necessary, move it comp letely away.

Nectar and Pollen Sources. Though bees can fly great distances to collect pollen or nectar, the closer the sources are to the hive, the easier is is for bees to produce a surplus crop. Alternatively, moving colonies is stressful for them. Since the colony is convalescing, I don’t know if I would recommend moving it too much just to get a bit closer to the nectar source.

8. Robbing

Nature can be a harsh mistress ar times. Large colonies have no qualms about overrunning smaller colonies if the opportunity arises, Here I am-suggesting that you do the things on theis list – most of which require opening the colony. If robbing gets g oing, it can be hard to stop. A form of robbing called “Progressive Robbing” is particularly insidious. The robber bees have invaded the victim’s hive so often that they have acquired the odor of the second hive and are no longer challenged by guard bee . I suppose it’s a bit freely going to your neighbor’s refrigerator as you please without the neighbors noticing. Reduce the entrance down to about two inches and always watch for signs of robbing behavior.

9. Drifting

Colonies on the ends of rows of bees tend to aquire bees while colonies within the middle of rows tend to loose bees. Consider alternating entrances or don’t put colonies in long straight lines.

10. Standardization of all Hives

A quick and relatively wasy way to weak up a colony is to add bees and brood to it. The colony receiving the donation should have an acceptable queen and appear to have potential for development. Bees from brood frames can be shaken into another colony if smoke is used and the number being added is not much more than 50% of the bees that are already in the colony. Most of the older bees will leave the new colony and return home while most of the younger nurse bees will stay. Frames of brood can be tra nsferred readily.

Capped brood is a better gift to a weak colony than uncapped brood. To make this procedure a bit safer, consider caging the queen until the colony has settled down. A second way to add bees are flying freely. In this way, the larger field force returns to the smaller colony while the larger hive gets the smaller the field force. Standardized hives generally produce more honey that an equal combination of big and small hives. Adding bees and brood to another colony is a guessy busin ess. Be sure you feel comfortable with this procedure or you can successfully screw up two colonies.

11. Swarming

I think we’re really dreaming here, but let’s suppose that things have gone along very well and the colony has increased considerably in size. Just to be on the safe side, watch for swarming tendencies. It’s a remote chance, but it would be a real shame to build a colony up only to have a late season swarm eat up all your investment.

12. Supering

If you knock off the top of the colony and the inner cover is stuck to the super with wads of think honey and withe combs, you missed part of the crop that you and the bees worked so hard to get. Tend to over-super as the flow starts and then tend to und er-super as the flow wains. House bees need room to spread nectar around the hive to allow for passive moisture removal. You can super as the hive requires (I suppose that could be called, “Just-in-time-supering,”) or you can bulk super where you put on three or four supers ar once. Some authorities have indicated that there is a bit larger honey crop obtained with the bulk supering procedure, but it does not require a lager super inventory.

A final comment – as much as possible leave the colony alone. Much like someone taking a physical examination, the little colony has been poked, prodded, and manipulated. Every day you can leave the colony alone is a day that it can recuperate. Good lu ck and try to better prepare for spring, 2012.

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