An informative and sometimes humorous column published in
The New Zealand Beekeeper Journal
In the hives, the bees have been pushed down into one or two supers and where necessary, supplies have been topped up by feeding sugar syrup.
This is the time of year when varroa mites start showing up again in hives. Anywhere there’s been a swarm could be considered an at-risk area. I have been regularly treating with formic acid and the hives ‘looked good’ and strong but last month, one apiary I had five dead hives. They wouldn’t have been dead if the other hives in the apiary hadn’t been in robbing mode, but once the bees sniff that a hive’s defences are down, they are in. So you get a small mat of dead bees in front of the hive and the telltale cappings at the entrance, or in my case, on the slide.
What I mean by saying the hives ‘looked good’ is that from my observations of the hive entrance (no small bees, no ‘crawling death’, good population), I had no idea that varroa numbers were building in this particular apiary, as mite fall on the mesh bottom board slides was already low and reducing. It seems the only way to really check is to do what Randy Oliver (California) does: alcohol wash a couple of hundred bees from a few hives and check the actual status of varroa mites.
Why had I selected formic acid as a treatment? As reported earlier, I’m seeing mites in hives after an eight-week strip treatment as I have had mites for 10 years, the result of a log coming down from Northland with a swarm in it. Pretty soon we will all need to change our treatment regimes, so why not now? We can learn while it’s relatively easy to clean up mistakes (just pop in another set of strips and add frames of emerging brood if it goes wrong).
Formic acid is also cheap and fast to apply (I can do half my hives in a day). It is very effective if the brood is down in the bottom super, but not so good if the brood nest is in the second super, away from the majority of the fumes.
I’m not the only one having troubles. Several hobbyists using alternative treatments have called me to report similar problems. It’s all a learning experience (but rather a dear one), and devastating for those with only a few hives. The take-home message—monitor your hives.
After 43 years playing with bees, being around good beekeepers and sampling honey frames to separate different honeys, you get a taste for the stuff. Holding a honey competition is very good for hobby clubs. It gives members feedback on how to improve presentation and quality but eventually this makes it much harder to judge a competition.
I recently attended a Wanganui Beekeepers’ Club meeting to judge their competition and was rather surprised by the number of entries and categories. The difference between the winner and second place in the runny honey section was a bit of lint. Meticulous preparation is the key to winning competitions.
Another thing that I noticed was the different honey types. In Wellington we get a variety of bush types as well as pohutukawa in the city, with light clover further north.
In the Wanganui region, the majority was lotus major (with pohutukawa in the city), but there was one gorgeous sample of a malt barley sugar honey. Nothing of the bush varieties we get around here as their season is later than ours.
Winter down hives—some may need extra feeding. If you want to reduce the amount of sugar you have to feed them, reduce the hives to a single super and feed until at least six or seven frames are full of nectar. The only problem is that you will most probably have to start feeding the hives again in August to get them to full strength again before the main honey flow.
AFB inspection. This is very important at this time of the year after the robbing season has finished. Better to find AFB now instead of perhaps finding a hive dying out during winter and the neighbouring hives robbing it and spreading the disease.
Check the hives’ foundation. It’s a good time to change pallets and set up the hives so they have a slight slope forward so rain runs out of the hive.
Then replace any supers that are showing signs of aging; e.g., extra opening due to rot.
If the apiary is in a rural area, check the fencing. I’ve known cattle and horses to push over hives and eat the frames once the bees have got chilled.
Check any stored honey supers for wax moth. Generally store them in an open shed where there is a good draft running over and under the supers, with queen excluders fitted top and bottom to prevent rodents making a nest in the frames. Put out rodent baits in a plastic bottle under a hive in the apiary to clean up any mice that are considering using your hive as a comfortable warm home. (Entrances should have already been reduced to 8 mm by 100 mm to prevent mice entering.)
Clear away grass in front of the hives. If the apiary is partially shaded during winter, consider placing a sloping board in front of the hive so that any bees that come in cold and land short of the entrance can walk in. Otherwise they tend to be lost, which can be a real problem if the bees fly a lot during winter.
And finally, extract the last of the honey.