An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
It’s also the first time in 40 years that I have been out inspecting hives during July. The bees have been able to capitalise on any sources flowering but most hives don’t have much pollen around the brood nest, suggesting they are living day to day on whatever pollen is coming in. Strong hives had a three-quarter frame full of fresh nectar. Brood rearing is taking off and stores are quickly reducing. Hives left two supers high were light and needed feeding, while those left three high are just fine, being heavy when hefted.
I used formic acid flash treatments in my hives every time I visited the apiaries since Christmas and nothing for the last two and a half months. Some hives are very strong, with a beautiful brood pattern, but half are five-frame nuc size or smaller. This shows the inconsistencies one gets when treating with an organic acid. It perhaps didn’t help that I didn’t do enough follow-up treatments during the robbing season but it’s a learning exercise.
Losses so far are mostly due to queen failure (these hives failed before winter set in), but I have lost a few to varroa as well as one nuc I forgot to feed. What a waste.
Some early nucs have AFB. I’m not sure whether I have contributed or whether it was due to robbing. The nucs with AFB were in one apiary but weren’t consistent enough to suggest that the AFB came from frames of honey fed to them two months ago. Each had only about a dozen cells but the brood pattern is spotty, so perhaps it’s been there for a while and is only just showing now. A real disappointment and a wasted effort when you add these to the number of late nucs that were robbed out just as the queens started laying.
Diary entry: add robbing screens to all my autumn nucs next season if they are nearly full-sized hives—potential saving = $150 per nuc. A robbing screen consists of a small wooden frame about 150-mm square, covered with flyscreen that has a small entrance to the side or bottom. Robber bees are attracted to the entrance but can’t get in, while those bees in the nuc learn to use the side or bottom entrance. Sometimes it also pays to double mesh, as bees can land on the mesh and beg those inside for food and they will feed them through the mesh. They don’t even need to go into the hive to deplete it of stores. Cunning little things, those robber bees.
The warm weather has had one downside. I left some of the hives knocked out by wasps in the field to be looked at later, but within a couple of months they were full of wax moth. Another job I didn’t need but perhaps I should have attended to them earlier.
Normally I’d be making up replacement frames ready to be put in with drawn frames at the first honey flow, rather than working bees in this warm weather. Over the years I have noted that most frames break at the lug, as this bit remains slightly damp during winter so starts to rot. To overcome this, I have taken to paraffin dipping the top bars or just sticking the top bar ends in a 5 to 1 mix of mineral turps and Metalex®. Put a bundle of top bars in five millilitres of liquid and remove the bars as soon as the green liquid has run up to, or to just a little beyond the side bar groove. Leave to dry for a month before assembling to allow all of the mineral turps to evaporate. You could get better penetration if you place the top bars into a plastic bag immediately for a couple of days to prevent fast evaporation.
For years beekeepers have been treating the hive body parts with Metalex® to protect the wood from rot. Instead of just painting it on, I preferred to put them in their cut-down form into a bath of turps and Metalex® and wait for the air bubbles to stop. (I used to give them an hour as I did a lot at one time.) Then place the woodware into a large heavy- duty plastic bag (a bed mattress cover is ideal). Fillet each piece by placing thin pieces of wood (the full width at each end) to hold all apart and square so they don’t warp, then remove as much air as possible and seal. Leave for two to three days and then assemble while they are still damp. Once assembled, leave until completely dry before painting.
I now use decking nails for most of my repairs as these hold well into pine, which is a soft wood. Straight flat head nails tend to pull out a little with rough handling over the years but decking nails don’t.
Now, of course, I have a paraffin hot wax dipper. Hive parts are assembled but not totally nailed. I dip them in wax and paint them while still hot, then nail them fully when they’re cold. You can paint over the nails to seal them against the weather if you like. Paraffin dipping is much faster, but does it give you a super that lasts 20 years? No, unless you re-dip every five to 10 years to keep them in good condition.
In Australia I have often visited beekeepers during the winter and if not working bees (they have winter flows), they will be out the back repairing gear. Most will get 20–30 years out of a super in their dry climate. Any joints, cleats and knotholes are filled with BondCrete glue, as it sets solid and seals against the weather. Then three coats of paint are applied: an undercoat and two topcoats. I quizzed one beekeeper about the time spent refurbishing just one super. He replied that it is only a few dollars when you put it against a 20-year recycling programme.
Australian beekeepers use cleats, a wooden handgrip that goes right across each end of the super. These form part of the hive spacing when hives are moved, meaning that each super and the roof are exactly the same size and can be pushed up tight on a load without moving. Air can get into the middle of each row, thus preventing suffocation or overheating in their hot climate.
In New Zealand we use handholds, which put 10 times the weight of the super on your finger joints. Consequently, most beekeepers end up with ‘beekeeper’s finger’ during the honey removal season (swollen finger joints that remain sore for weeks). It’s so much easier with cleats: you have a better grasp of the super and don’t have to pop anti-inflammatories all day. And if you are wise (wisdom comes at 60 years), you will purchase and use a lifter to do all the work. There’s a slight reduction in the number of hives you can put on the truck tray and in the storage shed, but it’s so much better for moving hives and lifting individual supers.
Wiring and waxing methods are changing for commercial beekeepers. Most now purchase wooden frames with a bottom groove and slip in a plastic insert instead of wiring and waxing. I have looked at plastic frames in the brood nest and personally feel that they conduct too much heat away from the cluster. With wooden frames you get better insulation and for quickness, use a plastic (wax-coated) insert. Just bend it a little top to bottom and it slips in.
I use a single 25-mm staple from the top bar down into the end bar and again on the bottom bar when making up frames. These are put together 10 at a time in a jig, which saves time. Yes, they will pull apart if jammed in with propolis, but won’t if you prise apart the second frame in and remove this one first. If you really want to make this job easier with 10 frames in a super, put a plastic frame on the outside. Generally these are used for pollen and are far easier to prise out during inspections.
An ongoing debate is whether nine or 10 frames go into the brood chamber. With 33-mm end bars, there is five to 10 mm left on the edge with 10 frames in the super. Ten frames pushed up tight gives the correct bee space. Any wider and you need two bees between each frame to keep the brood warm. This means more bees are required in the brood chamber, so fewer bees in the air gather nectar. I spend a lot of time in the spring removing any build-up of propolis between end bars. Yes, it takes time, but I believe I have a more efficient hive.
Make up new gear when it’s wet. Have everything ready by the beginning of October. Get queen-raising equipment, feeding equipment and grass spraying gear ready. Do your truck maintenance: oil changes, new tyres, clear the grass seed out of the radiator, etc., as you won’t have time after the season starts.
Those in the warmer areas can now put foundation in the extracting frames. Some will order completely assembled frames ready to go into the hive (this can save a lot of time).
Check hive weights and look in to see that there are capped frames of honey. Don’t be lured into thinking the hive is still heavy with honey. It could be all brood and pollen. Feed sugar syrup if required. Start hive inspections (weather permitting).
Place an empty frame in the second storey about two frames in from the side for the bees to draw out and fill with drone brood. Early drones are required for queen mating mid-September/October, or they could be removed at the pink-eye stage to remove 50% of the varroa mite population. (Do this three times every 18–21 days, just after each frame is capped.)
Hives that are producing drones early are indicating they are very healthy. These perhaps will be the first to swarm if not split.
Review last year’s records. Form a plan for this season and stick to it. If you’re not sure about a certain aspect, read one of the old classic books on beekeeping. Nothing has changed in over 100 years and old books tell you why things went wrong.
Maintain strong hives, super early and two at a time: bees can fill a super in a week on a good flow under perfect conditions.
Varroa control is most important if you want honey production. We all heard about this at conference. Order queens or queen cells now if you already haven’t done so. Generally most commercial beekeepers order queens 12 months ahead. Overwintered queens are a bit dearer but build quickly, and you don’t have to rely on the weather to get them mated.
Take a few pussy willow cuttings about five feet high and leave them in a bucket of water for a couple of weeks. Ask your farmers if you can heel them in near your apiary site in a creek bed that has been fenced off as a riparian strip. (To heel them in, make a hole, push in the stick and press the ground around the cutting with your heel so it's firm. It has to be firm as the roots form at ground level. If the cutting moves in the wind, the roots will be broken and the cutting will die.)
Once the spring season starts you won’t have any time to do anything but look after bees. If you are not smiling at the end of a hard day’s work, think about doing something different.