An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
You know that conditions are seriously dry when there are no birds or bees on some trees. One hundred kilometres north of Wellington, you can see three- and four-metre-high trees in very dry areas that look dead; not a leaf on them. This is the first time in years I have seen trees drop leaves due to stress.
I had seen the odd hive throwing out drones late in December, which indicated that those hives were closing down. I blocked a few extra entrances with foam just in case robbing started, but put on an extra honey super to give the bees room to expand and in the vain hope that they might find something.
In the bush areas, mānuka, although flowering well, only started producing nectar after a few showers; then we got more rain and wind and it seemed to finish. Initially I could hear the hum of bees working the mānuka but when I got close, the hum was coming from native bees. They were all over every bush in large numbers, at least three or four bees every square foot. I believe the high populations of native bees is the reason our mānuka honey (when we get it) has a very low pollen count. Early pollen counts of our mānuka honey using a microscope had no detectable mānuka pollen in it.
After the rain in early January, my bees were half working, bringing in pollen from catsear, lotus major and the odd clover flower from shaded areas, but the hives didn’t have that activity you get when there is a flow on. The dribble of pollen and nectar coming in has kept brood rearing going but the bees are using the honey they had harvested from the bush earlier on.
Now I am seeing orange and red eucalyptus being worked and in waste areas fennel are in flower. I saw bees all over a solitary white rata vine. Oh, to have more of these in the bush.
Over Christmas I had planned to make some winter nucs, but it was no use making nucs when the bees were not working and there were so few drones about. I have had nucs robbed out within a week of putting them out under the same conditions, so have put this task off for a month.
With all the extra rain we have had lately, the pasture is greening up, so perhaps we may see a late autumn flow. I was removing my chimney and noticed little buds appearing on the top branches of a whiteywood tree beside the house. Putting all this information together—pasture greening, whiteywood preparing to flower and bees building—perhaps we are in for a late-autumn flow. Beekeepers have to be optimistic; otherwise, you would get depressed.
Looking around New Zealand, the big dry has certainly affected most beekeepers. Production is well down in most areas. Some only have a box of honey, approximately 20 kg per hive, but there are some spots on the coast or close to the ranges that got early rain so have produced a reasonable crop.
It’s nice to have feedback from readers. In the December 2017 issue, I suggested that normally once a spotty brood queen is replaced, the brood area in the brood nest expands and in these new areas should show an improved pattern. The old spotty brood pattern will remain in the existing brood area unless the hive remains in a queenless state; i.e., the new queen is caged while all the existing brood emerged. However, it was pointed out to me that the brood pattern won’t improve if there’s no pollen coming into the hive.
Nutrition is everything when it comes to beekeeping and bees need a lot of pollen to produce brood and heavy bees. When I visited Northland in November, beekeepers were preparing to move their hives out of the region as the mānuka harvest had fizzled due to wet weather and overpopulation of beehives.
Although the Northland region is small and skinny, beehive statistics for that region indicate that it has the second highest number of registered hives in New Zealand. It was possible to see five or six different commercial beekeepers’ vehicles travelling the roads each day. Apiaries in some places were barely a kilometre apart, just like in the Wairarapa. With a subtropical climate producing showers nearly every day while we were there, the few hives I looked at were expanding but basically were living day to day on what was coming in between showers. There’s definitely a place for feeding supplements under these conditions.
I was told that if the weather is poor for too long, a hive can crash and will not recover that season. We don’t see prolonged bouts of rain in my area: the wind moves it on. There are some advantages in living in a windy area. (A few, but not many.)
One of the issues beekeepers face is whether to have a single brood nest box or use two boxes for brood rearing. New Zealand research in Southland showed that single brood nests produced as much honey as a double, cost less to treat and had reasonable survival rates. This system works well in their area, where there is a steady increase in nectar and pollen sources with one main honey flow in summer.
Corporate beekeeping has adapted this model throughout New Zealand as it can be done without a lot of beekeeping knowledge, and it works well when it’s a good season, as you simply follow the recipe. Most rely on sugar feeding and therefore some sugar honey, if not all used by the bees, is moved up into the honey super to make room for brood rearing (with the prospect that the honey could be rejected because the C4 sugar content is too high).
Single brood nests doesn’t work well for spring flows, as you don’t have the requisite bee numbers early enough. Also, every area is different and microclimates and nutrition can play a big part. Each has a place in beekeeping. Whether you use a single or double brood box, the important thing is to make sure it’s full of bees when going into winter. Small colonies can’t thermoregulate: they eat more honey and spend more energy keeping warm, so the bees don’t live as long.
I’m writing this in mid-January, so haven’t seen much in print about the beekeeping aspects of the new MPI mānuka regulations that come into force on 5 February. There’s a lot of history and research behind mānuka. Before the gold rush, mānuka honey had to be 10+ to qualify
Initial assessment suggests that honey with a UMF® rating of 5–7 may no longer qualify as mānuka under the new definition. If so, this will cause a number of beekeepers to re-evaluate their operation. In the end we must all make a profit or go under.
The result of the recent change following the consultation process has seen 2’-MAP 1 mg/kg moved to 5 mg/kg,which will exclude kānuka honey.
Some areas produce a reasonably active mānuka, but there are other honeys in the frames that reduce the purity of the mānuka, which will cause it to fail the test. Beekeepers in marginal mānuka areas like Wellington will have to sort frames, removing any that are not strictly mānuka. Some taste each frame and some double extract, which removes all other honeys except mānuka and kānuka (which are thixotropic). This slows down the extracting process considerably, but at least you get a better quality mānuka and hopefully it will be accepted for export and therefore achieve a better price. What’s needed is a methodology that can quickly determine mānuka honey from other honeys as it’s being uncapped so we can maintain mānuka’s purity. Apparently mānuka honey fluoresces, but I need to find out more on this topic.
For the smaller beekeeper, it can be risky to take off honey, extract and return the wets to the hives under poor honey flow conditions. When bees have nothing to forage on, they test other hives in a 2–4 kilometre range and try to steal their honey.
(As an aside, the first thing a hobbyist should do this month is to reduce the entrance to about 50 mm and put on a robbing screen. Sometimes your bees take a while to get used to the screen. We want them to reorientate to a new entrance position above the original, so loosely put some grass over the open top entrance of the screen so the bees see something different when they fly out and reorientate.)
Now back to honey removal. The safest way which least disturbs the colony is to use an escape board. This requires two visits to the hive.
On your first visit, you will be taking everything above the brood nest off the hive and inspecting the brood frames for disease. After your inspection, add an empty super above the hive’s honey super (the bee’s winter stores). This provides space for the bees that are now in the honey supers to hang out. Next, place the escape board right-way up (i.e., exit ports to the bottom), and then the honey boxes you wish to remove.
Inspect all the honey frames to make sure there isn’t any brood in the honey supers. If you find brood, remove the frame(s) and place it below the escape board. Note: bees will not leave brood, so won’t clear a super if there is brood of any type and stage.
Close up the hive and make sure there are no cracks in the honey supers; you don’t want bees getting through and robbing the honey super.
Leave for 24 hours or slightly longer, and the bees will go down through the bee escape to the brood nest below.
Your second visit should take place early the following morning before your neighbours are up. Take a brush with you and start removing the honey supers. All but the bottom one next to the bee escape will be clear of bees, so can be removed.
Then brush off the remaining bees in that bottom honey super (frame by frame into the entrance of the hive). When it’s cleared of bees, you are ready to transport the honey supers to the extraction area. Close the hive, leaving the escape board in place so the colony isn’t disturbed.
It’s best to extract the honey straight away because warm honey flows easier and will be quicker to extract. If you can’t do this or have to wait until evening, set up an empty full-depth super (or two three-quarter- depth supers) and put a 60-watt incandescent bulb in the bottom. Place on a queen excluder and cover it with oven foil.
Normally the heat from the bulb will be concentrated in one place and without the oven foil will cause the honey frame above to melt onto the light fitting. The oven foil defuses the heat so it spreads evenly over the space.
Next, place the honey supers on the foil-covered excluder and cover the top super to seal in the heat. This can be left for only one or two days— wax moth will start breeding in the unprotected frames if you leave it longer. Also, pōhutukawa honey or any other high-glucose honey will start to granulate after it has been removed from the hive.
Set up your extraction area methodically (you will only be able to use the kitchen once if you leave a sticky mess). Place newsprint everywhere and have warm damp cloths to clean your hands. Then close all the windows and doors.
Be aware that as honey is being extracted from the comb, it will send out a scent plume that will attract all the bees in the neighbourhood if they have nothing to do. If they get a taste of honey, they will recruit more bees, and soon they will be circling around your house and disturbing everybody in the neighbourhood.
There are various ways to extract your honey. The simplest is with a fork, placing it sideways to the comb and scraping off the honey to the midrib foundation. Turn the frame over and this time, remove only half the capped honey with the fork ends. Then, very gently remove the rest of the honey comb to the midrib without breaking the comb. It’s easy with plastic frames but more difficult if you use wax comb.
Those with more than a few supers should invest in a couple of plastic settling bins (one that fits inside the other but reaches only halfway down). Drill lots of small 3/16 holes in the bottom of the bin that fits into the outside bin, and extract into this top bin. The honey and wax are initially held in the top bin but overnight the honey will drip through into the lower bin, leaving most of the wax in the top bin. Don’t forget to cover the bin at night to stop water vapour getting into the honey, as honey is hygroscopic and will attract moisture. If there’s too much water, the honey ferments.
Those with considerable numbers of supers should hire a registered kitchen and process the honey there, as it can be sold or bartered to other people. Before you can do this of course, you must have it tested for tutin. Clubs get a special rate on tutin testing.
The tricky part of the extraction process is returning the wets (sticky frames) to the hive. This is done in the evening when all bee flight activity has ceased.
Remove the roof and escape board and the spare super below. If you can, individually remove the escape mechanisms. Put on the escape board again above the brood nest, then the wet supers on top and close the hive. During the night, the bees will come up into the honey supers and clean them out, perhaps repair any damaged frames and may, if there is a flow on, move some of the fresh nectar from the brood nest below up into the honey supers. Sometimes the bees will fill them again if there is a good flow.
We put the supers back on in the evening as all this activity disturbs the hive, making it vulnerable to attack if done during the day. By morning the hive should have settled down and will defend itself if it has to.
When the honey flow is finished, each hive will have as many as 20,000 bees with nothing to do, so they go out and probe the defences of all the hives in the area. Robber bees and wasps can scent the entrance and go for it, but can’t get in as it’s covered by a screen that assists the bees to defend their hive.
Up until this time wasps have been our friend, catching and removing flies and grubs from the garden. They have also been gathering nectar, but later in the season when nectar gets scarce, they go searching it out and start attacking beehives.
We are just starting to get reports of wasps. Generally it’s somebody gardening and getting stung when they disturb the nest. If a nest has been found, it’s easy to get rid off. Allow a few hours for the wasps to settle, then approach the nest from the side on tiptoe (vibrations through the ground alert the wasps) and puff about a tablespoon of insecticide powder directly into the bottom of the entrance hole. The earth surrounding the nest has to be dry, otherwise the powder is not taken into the nest.
An alternative, if the situation is good, is to upend a one-litre bottle of diesel into the hole and leave the bottle there to block the entrance. Next morning the wasps should be dead.
Note that large nests have multiple entrances, so check first. Don’t make assumptions, as you are likely to get stung.
Many of you will have heard that ApiNZ Board member Ricki Leahy has incurred devastating losses to his hives. (See story at https://www.stuff. co.nz/environment/100789676/thousands-of-bees-dying-in-murchison- from-suspected-poisoning.)
Ricki talked about the increased number of wasps in the Murchison area. Please take heed of his advice:
“Anybody who is going to attempt to poison wasps should make sure they don’t use bait that attracts bees, they must not use any jams, honey, sugar syrups or anything like that, any bait must be meat-based.”
After the honey is removed, start treating your hives for varroa mites. February 18th is the time we all should start treating our hives for varroa mites. I already have the odd hive with ‘crawling death’ (bees affected by deformed wing virus).
If everybody in a five-kilometre area treats at the same time, well and good. If some delay a month or two, all your money spent on mite treatments is wasted, as you’ll soon get mite re-invasion from untreated hives.
Do a few mite washes to determine the percentage of mites to bees. Pick strong and weak hives and shake the bees off some brood frames. Then collect 300 bees (half a cup). Often it’s the strong hives that have a good loading of mites.
Don’t expect your mite treatment to be 96% effective. We are going through a transition where some mites are now resistant to the two main strips, Apistan® and Bayvarol®. Swap autumn and spring treatments for different products to reduce the likelihood of resistant mites developing and make sure after a few weeks of treatment that it’s working. Do a mite wash from frames of open brood.
For those who wishing to use an organic acid (formic or oxalic acid) as an alternative, these treatments have to be repeated three times in three weeks for sufficient kill because we have brood in our hives. Only one treatment is required if the hive is brood free; i.e., 20 days after putting in a queen cell. As always, after a couple of weeks, do a mite wash to see if the treatment has worked.
Check for AFB before removing any honey. Extract honey and if you are in a built-up area, place the wet supers back on the hives after dark for the bees to clean out or refill. Remove comb honey as soon as it’s capped to prevent travel stain: bees have dirty feet.
Rear autumn queens, introduce purchased queens and produce replacement nuclei. Put on entrance closures to make the hive easier to defend. You are setting your hives up for the next season.
Don’t allow robbing to start when the flow finishes by leaving honey exposed for more than a minute.
Treat for varroa with an alternative to your spring treatment. Flash treat to reduce mite numbers if you are going to do a full treatment later.
Put on propolis mats for extra income. Change when 70% full so the bees keep gathering propolis.
Keep an eye out for wasps. I haven’t seen many yet but they are out there. Nests are found in ditches and in banks. They only range about 500 metres so they tend to be close by. Kill them with a little insecticide powder down the entrance before they start producing new queens. It’s also a good idea to put out mice baits in a plastic bottle under hives. Rats and mice can do a lot of damage in a hive during the winter, so keep their numbers around the apiaries low. (Refer to the advice on this page regarding bee safety when eradicating wasps.)
Tutin test all honey removed after 31 December before it’s sold or bartered.