An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
We have had hardly any decent rain since early December, which is unusual for Wellington, and has caused a short, heavy honey ow. Hives with honey boxes on were lled in a couple of weeks; hives without su cient honey supers swarmed.
In late January, the honey ow stopped abruptly as if a tap were turned o , even though the last pohutukawa was still owering. The bees suddenly stopped fanning one evening, and the next day they started sni ng around the honey room.
The short, sharp ow caused the bees to pack out the brood area, reducing the queens’ laying area to just four frames or fewer. This sudden reduction in brood area also means that the mites that have been building up since the last treatment have fewer cells to choose from. They concentrate into the few developing larvae, severely damaging them. Without immediate protection from a miticide, a colony could be history in another month.
The bees basically sat in their nuc hives, with just the water carriers going back and forward to a bucket of willow cuttings under a tape. Each day in the early afternoon, all the new eld bees would y on their orientation ights for half an hour, then the hives would settle down again. Despite the dry conditions, koromiko, fennel, eucalyptus and a few late- owering garden plantswere still available to the bees, but they took no action.
Generally during March I would expect my bees to bring in nectar from pennyroyal and lacebark before the season closes for good, but most of the ground sources in this area have dried o and have been eaten by stock. A late swarm, which I had fed twice to get the bees to build comb, starved. What a shock.
After a shower of rain, the gorse started owering and the hives came to life again, bringing in loads of three di erent-coloured pollens. Hopefully with more rain and a good show of late- owering sources, the hives will start to produce winter bees.
It’s normally di cult to see mites in a hive but if you can see them on bees or the frame surface, it’s a sure sign that the hive is about to collapse. External signs are bees crawling in the grass away from the hive, unable to y. They may look fully developed or have deformed wings but this is a sure sign of crawling death. Treat immediately.
Hopefully most will now have started their varroa treatments, or at least applied something to knock down mite numbers until a full treatment can be applied. Give the hive a quick treatment with formic acid onto a paper towel on the bottom board or above the brood nest, or half a wafer of ApiLife VAR® on top of the brood frames or a Mite-Away Quick StripTM. Another alternative is to use a fogger to apply food grade mineral oil (FGMO) to knock down phoretic mites, thus reducing their impact on the next generation of bees.
Whatever you use, monitor the results. Don’t take it as read that you have treated the hives successfully when using an alternative treatment. Fork out 100 pink-eyed drone larvae or use an alcohol wash containing 300 bees and count the mites. Treat immediately any hive that is over three mites per 100 bees in brood or nine mites per 300 bees in a wash. At the end of the treatment, monitor again so that there is less than one mite in a 100 bees in brood or less than one mite in a wash of 300 bees.
Those with mesh bottom boards should try to achieve less than one mite dropping per day over a seven-day period following a full treatment. And don’t think that is the end of your treatments, because your bees will be out trying to rob honey from other hives if nothing is owering. That hive could be a feral that’s dying from mites so within a few weeks, the mite population will be back up to risk levels again.
It’s important to know what robbing looks like. If you have several hives, it’s fairly easy. One hive in full ight when others aren’t is a sign they have found a source and at this time of the year, it’s generally another hive. Mark the hive for a more detailed inspection for disease when the rst frost occurs.
For those on the receiving end, the hive will be very active with bees coming and going. Look carefully at the entrance. Are the bees bringing in pollen? If so, that’s not robbing. If, however, the bees coming in have abdomens shorter than those leaving, and those leaving crawl up the front of the hive before ying, then the hive is being robbed.
You will see the extended abdomen is also slightly lighter, indicating there is honey in the stomach. You may also observe the odd defender surrounded by bees pulling at it, similar to bees that drift on to the entrance of the wrong hive, or there may be just straight-out ghting.
Close the hive entrance down to a couple of bee widths and block it completely using grass. If you are in an urban area, turn on a sprinkler to wet down the hive and persuade the robbing bees to go home.
In the evening, check the hive. Look for eggs. Generally something will have happened to the queen, breaking down the cohesion of the hive. The stored honey is quickly depleted: open cappings will look rough and there will be large akes of wax on the bottom board. Bees can rob out a super of honey in a couple of days, so remove all but a couple of frames for the surviving bees to feed o .
If you can’t see eggs, look for a recently emerged queen cell along the edges of the brood frames, indicating a recent supersedure. (The hive should still contain sealed brood; otherwise, it indicates a lost queen and the hive will be queenless.) If the hive still contains half a box of bees, remove the hive completely and place an empty super in the hive’s original position. The eld bees robbing the hive will return to it for the next week looking for honey and will gradually stop looking.
In the meantime, move the hive more than 100 metres away and put on a robbing screen over the entrance. A simple screen can be made with a square of y screen. Staple the y screen across the top and bottom of the entrance and secure it so it creates a tunnel with a small opening at one end, perhaps 100–150 mm away from the present entrance.
Some books show a 150 x 150 x 10 mm square frame that can be screwed or tted over the entrance, covered with a screen. An entrance of two bee spaces is created at the lower edge so that the hive bees can remove any dead bees.
Robber bees will follow the scent of the hive to the entrance but won’t be able to get past the screen, while the hive bees will soon learn that the entrance is now out to the side and will y normally.
Normally this screen works but bees are very cunning. Sometimes workers will land on the screen and beg the bees inside to feed them and over time, these bees will empty the hive of reserves. Some beekeepers protect their nucs with double screens, with another on top of the original, but this second screen is more than a bee’s tongue length apart so the outside bees can’t touch the bees inside.
We can also use the same type of screen to combat wasps. Like bees, wasps require nectar to feed their young. They have been visiting owers all through the spring and summer collecting nectar, but now turn to robbing hives for their nectar supply when the ow stops. We try to dissuade them by closing down entrances and putting out homemade jam in a container under a hive. Once the wasps are feeding on this in numbers, we return a day or two later and put an insecticide around the bait so the wasps have to walk through it to get to the jam. They take it up the insecticide on their bodies and when they return to their nest, they clean themselves and are poisoned.
Some beekeepers are using a pet ea preparation with good results. Usually once an insecticide is added, I stay in the apiary working the hives but remove the insecticide when leaving, as I don’t want my bees visiting the poisoned baits.
By far the best way to control wasps is to nd and destroy their nests. They usually make nests in banks and along gullies and will be within 500 metres of the hive. You can see them ying late into the evening when the sun is low after bees have ceased ying for the day.
If you can’t nd the nest or reduce their numbers, move the hives to a di erent location with fewer wasps. Hopefully this year it won’t be a bad wasp robbing season: the wet spring delayed the queen wasps establishing their nests, so they won’t have built up to plague numbers and the bees will be able to fend o the odd robber wasp.
Nests can easily be destroyed by pushing a large plastic bottle containing diesel into the entrance. Leave it in place for a couple of days to fumigate the nest.
Caution: wasps are very sensitive to vibrations (perhaps a little more than bees) so will detect your footsteps and will be out quickly to meet you. Walk on tiptoes to reduce your footstep vibrations and use a little smoke to control the wasps at the entrance, just as you would with bees. However, unlike bees, wasps will press home their attack if disturbed and they can pump venom on all surfaces of your suit. Also, wasp stings hurt a lot more than bee stings and last much longer.
You may see a lot of bee activity in the early afternoon at some hive entrances. Normally in times of no nectar ow, only a few bees will be ying, bringing water back to the hive. But in the mid-afternoon, you may suddenly see several hundred bees ying out of the hive in ever-increasing circles. These are the next crop of eld bees learning the location of their hive. This activity generally lasts for 15–30 minutes, then subsides to just a few bees ying again: it is a normal function of a healthy hive.
I have also been making ve-frame nucs to get queens mated for wintering. I was very pleased with the standard of queen cells I received from the queen breeder. Breeders put a lot of e ort into producing good, long queen cells and queens and hopefully I’ll have enough drones to do the rest of the job.
Preparing nucs and introducing the queens (or queen cells) is very important. If the bees are locked into the nucs for 48 hours after putting in the protected queen cells or mated queen, the bees quickly settle down and stay put. I placed the nucs in heavy shade and gave each a squirt of water through the vent hole to keep them hydrated. After the queens emerged from the cells, I put the nucs out into the apiaries, which had a frame of drone brood in each hive. Mating nucs can be made out of anything. Take an old chocolate box, add a piece of cob containing honey, then add a cell and a cup of nurse bees. Lock up until the new queen has emerged. (Reference: Chris Dawson lecture, 1979).
If you are putting in mated queens, it’s a good idea to leave queens in their shipping cage in the hive for three to ve days before removing the plug over the candy. This allows the bees to get used to the queen and gives you time to spot any queen cells they are developing. You can spot these emergency cells around the edge of the frame where eggs or young larvae were. Rub or dig out those lled with royal jelly; otherwise your purchased queen will be superseded by an emergency queen in a few weeks.
Now is also a good time to access your apiary sites. In a drought, boggy areas will continue to produce lotus major and perhaps clover. In some urban areas eucalyptus is owering, thus continuing the ow. These sites are ideal for mating queens and producing nucs while a ow is on. During the ow, full-sized hives will generally leave the nucs alone. This year I haven’t taken any risks and have stapled y screen over the nuc entrances. With luck, this will discourage any robber bees from trying to steal the nucs’ honey reserves. Most beekeepers underestimate the number of drones needed to mate with queens. Drones are reasonably fragile—perhaps 30% of those produced never make it to full maturity—and then some take o for parts unknown to mate with somebody else’s queens.
We should all try to take some nucs through the winter ready for the spring. They can be used to replace any hives that die, or can be sold if not required. An early ve-frame nuc can build into a production colony in the spring. The most important point, which I emphasise repeatedly, is that no matter what the size of the hive, it should be full of bees covering all frames going into winter. This enables the bees to regulate their temperature and successfully winter over.
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 or dry it further in the honey house using fans and a dehumidi er (although with the drought, this most probably is unnecessary).
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 o . Return any honey supers to diseased hives and burn them.
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 entrances down 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 di er from hive to hive.