An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
Beekeeping work carries on nonetheless: checking for disease, removing honey, extracting, requeening, treating for mites and setting hives up for winter. Winter? In some areas, hives are swarming!
As I write this in mid-February, the bees are bringing in nectar, pollen and propolis but I’m seeing the early signs of autumn: cooler, longer nights with dew in the mornings. Clover is still producing nectar on hot days in those areas of New Zealand that had sufficient rain to keep it going. Other species flowering include gorse, catsear, fennel, crimson eucalyptus and a white flowering gum (small flowers, 9–19 per bud cluster), plus white rata. Crimson rata is just about to flower.
At the same time I’m seeing some of the autumn sources already in flower: koromiko (hebe), pennyroyal and lancewood. I have even had a report that broom is flowering again. Has this flush of pollen and dribble of nectar stimulated swarming in some areas? Just yesterday a log hive I was allowing to build up swarmed before I had time to dismantle it. The swarm is now hanging in the top of a neighbour’s tree.
Some hives have been producing supersedure cells to replace a failing queen. Perhaps instead of the new queen killing off the old queen and the developing queen cells, the bees have pushed her out and half the bees left with her.
Other hives have brood into the second super and a frame of brood in the third. Hopefully while this last lot of nectar comes in, the bees will deposit enough in these brood frames to crowd the brood into the bottom super.
Some other hives are happy with their queen and have started forcing the drones onto the bottom board. Not a good sign for those of us that want to keep producing queens through to the end of March.
In some North Island areas, robbing has already started. Nectar production has stopped altogether, so field bees with nothing to gather probe the defences of colonies within flying distance around them. Any colony that can’t defend itself will be robbed out. When this happens, a stinging frenzy sometimes develops.
Working hives during robbing season means that frames cannot be left exposed for more than a few minutes. Use covers or cloths to cover supers while inspecting brood nests. If robbing occurs in a suburban garden, simply reassemble the hive, close down the entrance or cover it with wet grass and turn on the garden sprinkler. This will allow the hive to re-establish its defences again while robbers are put off by the water. You can tell a robber bee by the way it flies in front of the hives. She will fly in a jerky, nervous manner rather than going straight in.
Wasps are also prowling for sucrose and when plants and trees have finished secreting, wasps look for weak hives but can be more destructive. They will totally clean out a hive of bees, brood and honey, and once they have the smell of a beehive on themselves, they will go straight into the next hive without being challenged and clean that out. This pattern will continue until all the hives in an apiary are dead. This generally happens in ‘plague’ years (when wasps are in large numbers everywhere). It may also depend on the type of bee you have. Carniolans, I am told, defend their hives better than Italian stock.
You can assist the bees to defend their hives by putting on winter closures, or reduce entrances on strong colonies to 100 millimetres by seven millimetres and down to a couple of bee widths on nucs.
If wasp numbers are high, look along banks and down ravines for nests or try putting out a jam bait to get them feeding. When a good number are feeding, add a little flour or carbaryl powder (wasp killer) over the wasps to coat them and watch them as they fly home. The only problem with carbaryl powder is that wasps can detect its scent, so you have to be careful in its use (place it around the bait so they walk through it, for instance).
In severe cases of hive robbing, I have closed the hives completely and dusted the wasps when they have accumulated on the landing boards. I then washed the powder off when their numbers reduced. An alternative for some is to move the apiary completely.
Two good points about wasps: they collect nectar and eat blowflies and caterpillars for protein. Some of that nectar could be honey dew from tutu bushes. The downside, perhaps, is that wasps also could have been collecting manuka nectar.
Most of our hobby beekeepers will have removed their surplus honey and extracted it, returning the supers in the evening for the bees to clean out.
You should leave these supers on the hives for a month or two longer for two reasons. Some years (one in 17), the bees will fill a super from a late-autumn flow and in the hive, the bees will protect the frames from wax moth. It only takes a few weeks for wax moth to make a mess of your frames and without the aid of chemicals, it’s best to let the bees protect them.
Other beekeepers store the supers wet (straight off the extractor) in a dry environment to stop fermentation of the remaining honey, or freeze them to kill any wax moth eggs and larvae.
For those still to take honey supers off, it’s a guess as to how much to leave. Bees will survive on sugar syrup if all the honey is removed, but they winter better on honey. I winter my hives three high with at least a full super of honey, with honey and pollen in the second super. It seems like a lot but our main honey flow starts in late October and to take advantage of this, I leave the hives strong with plenty of honey, which the bees turn into early brood.
Those with the main honey flow in December can winter in singles (minimum of six frames of honey) if they are prepared to feed continuously in the spring (every two to three weeks, depending on the size of the feeders). Most opt to winter in doubles with a full super of honey in the second super, and feed in the spring to stimulate brood production for early splits.
It doesn’t really matter how big the container the bees are hived in (half-width, 3/4 frame baby nucs to full-size hives): successful wintering is dependent on the bees filling the chamber so they can establish a compact cluster and access to ample nutrition to carry them through.
So the judgment for most is how much to take off, knowing that some hives will continue brood rearing into the autumn. If you take too much, you could be topping up the hives with sugar syrup so they survive through to August when you will have to start feeding again. It’s up to you to decide. It depends on what you are planning for the coming spring and your financial position.
Queens should be replaced every second year but even then, some will fail during the winter. It’s easier to purchased mated queens and introduce them into a nucleus first, to get them laying before dequeening and introducing the nuc to a full-size hive. Queens are easily to replace if both are laying at the same rate, producing the same amount of pheromones.
Queen rearing can be fun but also disappointing. Everything rests with the preparation. The hives you intend to graft from (your best hive) and the one you intend to raise the queen cells in (your second best hive) should be fed sugar syrup and pollen to simulate spring conditions. If you don’t have pollen, scrape down and mash up the pollen and honey from an outer brood frame and dribble it over the brood nest. It makes it easier to graft when the tiny larvae are floating on a pool of royal jelly
To make a cell builder colony, set up a single super hive with a small entrance. Take five to six frames of emerging brood and bees, put them into the super with honey and pollen frames as well and place it in front of a strong hive. Turn the original one around to face the opposite direction. The flying bees from this hive will fill the new queenless hive and will be bringing in valuable nectar and pollen.
Leave for two days and then shake off the bees from each frame of brood, destroying any queen cells the bees have started. When the bees realise they are queenless, they will accept a bar of cells. (I put 18 cell cups on a single cell bar.) You can place the cell bar in the cell-building hive for 24 hours before grafting for the bees to clean and polish, but this is not necessary with new plastic cells.
There are a lot of different grafting tools available, including a size 000 (triple zero) sable artist’s brush, a specially designed grafting tool, or you can simply chew a twig so that it has a soft tiny tip. I prefer to use a Chinese grafting tool as it’s easier to use. The other types require you to twist off the tiny larvae onto the bottom of the cell and with only one good focusing eye, I don’t have the depth of field to do this.
Select a frame with just-hatched larvae from your best hive and brush off the bees. One method is to introduce a fully drawn frame into the brood nest of your breeder queen hive four days beforehand, so you know any larvae in the cells are less than 24 hours old. Others just go through the hive until they find a group of larvae that have just hatched and use these.
I do my grafting in the cab of my truck. I have made a board that goes on the steering wheel to support the frame, and I borrow my wife’s cross-stitch magnifier with LED lights, which provide a cold light.
Spray the windows of the cab about four times with a mister until the side windows mist up. This is very important as it prevents the grafted larvae from drying out. An alternative would be to cover the grafted cells with a damp tea towel.
Using a Chinese grafting tool (or even a chewed twig), carefully insert the tongue of the tool under a larva that is no bigger than an egg and transfer it into the cell cup by pressing in the end of the tool (which pushes the larva and royal jelly off the tongue), while slowly withdrawing the tongue from the cell. The larva is deposited into the bottom of the cell cup still on its royal jelly. Any larvae that are rolled or take more than one attempt to pick up or place down should be discarded, as they will drown.
Feed the hive after the cell bar is put into the hive and close it up. You can check again in three hours if you like to see how many have been accepted. Accepted cells will have the larva sitting on a pool of royal jelly and the edges of the plastic cell cup will have started to be drawn down. First attempts result in quite a few failures, so the graft can be replaced on those that are missed.
Now to the disappointment. The cells are transferred on the 11th day after grafting into queenless nucs made up a day earlier so the bees know they are queenless. When I went to get my last graft, all the cells had been torn down as I had missed an emergency queen cell the bees had made on the bottom of a frame of brood. An inspection of the frames found a virgin queen happily going about her business. She was caged and put into a nuc and the whole process started again, this time with an extra frame of emerging brood and a shake of young nurse bees. By adding brood and bees, the queenless cell builder will keep going for three or four grafts.
Pollen in the hive is not sufficient; it must be in the stomach of the bees for them to produce royal jelly.
It pays to mark your queens so that a queen is not introduced inadvertently into the cell builder hive.
Always brush off the bees from frames and queen cell bars as shaking can move the young larvae in their cells or damage the wing buds of the new queen in the cell.
Handle completed cells carefully. Dropped cells should be discarded.
Leave the cell cups pointing down.
If you have done everything right, there should be a plug of royal jelly still in the cell cup after the queen has emerged.
When you have your queen cells, each can be introduced into a queenless four- frame nuc (two of honey and pollen and two frames of mostly emerging brood), or protected and pushed between the frames near the brood nest of a hive with an old queen. There’s no need to find the old queen if you don’t want to, as 80 percent of these queens emerging from the cells will dispatch the old queens and take over the hive.
If you intend to follow this course of action, make up some additional nucs to produce queens to replace those hives that fail to mate or produce a new queen. Not all queens return to the hive they came from. Cells can be protected using a piece of irrigation hose or wrapped in aluminium foil lunch wrap around the cell, except for the end where the queen emerges.
The protector stops the hive bees from tearing down the cells before the new queen emerges.
Remove all comb honey frames. Remove and extract surplus honey—those frames that are not fully capped should be shaken to make sure the honey is dry; otherwise, leave it for the bees. Don’t forget to do an AFB check before removing any honey. If bees are robbing, mark the supers and check the hives once the honey is off. Return and burn any that are diseased.
Requeen hives. Now is the best time to get queens mated while it’s still warm and there are plenty of drones about. Queen producers should also have mated queens on hand if required.
In some areas, it’s time to winter down hives. Replace any woodware that requires attention. Keep an eye out for wasps and close down entrances so the bees are better able to defend the hives against them and to stop mice getting into your hives.
Monitor mite levels when miticide treatments have been completed. Results with organic treatments can differ from hive to hive.