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October 2003

Are Your BEES Ready For WINTER?

surely, most beekeepers in Maryland and Northern Virginia will remember 2003 as one of the worst honey production years of the past 50 years, and then "insulted" by Hurricane Isabel in mid September. Many colonies STARVED in May and June simply because continuous rain kept bees from flying, more were lost in the anticipated dearth of nectar in July and August, some hives were simply blown away in the strong winds of Hurricane Isabel, and some people were out of electrical service for days and just did not even think about their bees.

There is little doubt that many colonies that are still alive just aren't going to make it through the winter, but maybe some can be saved by intensive work in October.

If you did NOT treat your bees with Menthol for tracheal mites during AUGUST, or have not had grease patties in place continuously since July 1st, I am afraid that your only help might be PRAY and PRAY hard.

Based on the findings of numerous famous honey bee scientists and researchers, I STILL BELIEVE that the BEST time to install Apistan in our area around Washington, DC is OCTOBER 1st, because queen laying is dramatically diminishing or even stopped and the ONLY place that the female varroa mite lays eggs is in a honeybee cell with a 4-5 day old honey bee larvae. When there are no or very few honey bee LARVAE, there are no new mites being born to hurt your bees and the Apistan strips will kill perhaps 99% of all the adult mites in the colony. HOWEVER, don't leave those strips in the colony past December 1st, as THIS LONG EXPOSURE is the very thing that makes the mites RESISTANT to Apistan, or any other miticide in case you don't trust Apistan. Frankly, I have had absolutely no trouble with Apistan and it always works, BUT I always use FRESH Apistan, and not some that is a carryover from last year, but if I have some left from last year, it has been carefully resealed in its original package, frozen and protected from light (as the DIRECTIONS say) for the past 11 months. By waiting to install the Apistan strips until October for the Washington, DC area, when the queen bee is dramatically laying fewer eggs, that system surely must be working well, as my sticky board tests later in the year always indicate almost ZERO varroa mites. test for varroa mites with a sticky board on April 1st and again on July 1st, and in 18 years I have never had to make a second treatment of a colony for a varroa mite infestation. Some people have told me that they are afraid to open a colony in late November to remove the strips. Of course, you can't do it on a weekend when you are off or interrupt your Thanksgiving Dinner to do it, but there are always a few hours on a few days in November when the temperature "soars" to 500 or even 600, and you just take a few hours leave from work, DASH home, PULL those strips, and SAVE your bees from mites! You would leave work for a few hours to consult with your child's school teacher, see your dentist, get your car battery replaced, so why not take good care of your bees? But then there are always those that forget to put antifreeze in their car, forget to check their auto tire pressure before dashing off 100 miles to Aunt Suzies for Christmas, forgot to let the dog back in the house even though the weather was going to 100 that night, and not to mention those who are sick each winter with the FLU because they are "too busy" to get their FLU SHOT in October at the local drugstore. Some people don't like my bluntness or chide them about "doing 'bee stuff' when it is the OPTIMUM time to do it, rather than when it is most convenient for you. That does not bother my even a little bit, because I am trying as hard as I can to tell you "in a few words" those things that our hardworking (and underpaid) bee scientists and bee researchers have learned from year's of exhaustive work. So much for varroa.

Before I talk about FEEDING, I want to redundantly tell you how to protect your bees from the sickness of NOSEMA. Bee scientists and researchers estimate that Nosema is the most widespread and prevalent of all bee diseases, infecting as many as 60% of all colonies in the U. S. every spring. Nosema is a disease of the bee's gut that rarely kills them, and perhaps therefore OVERLOOKED by most beekeepers, but causes them diarrhea right at brood rearing time and nectar collecting time. Now I ask you: How good a job can do in your line of work when you have a case of the "runs"? In November give your bees just $2 worth of Fumadil-B dissolved in 2 gallons of sugar syrup; and your bees will be free of Nosema in the following spring "rearing to go nectar collecting". Dissolving that Fumadil-B is tricky, so just closely follow the directions.

I left FEEDING to the last comments, because it is the most important and least understood by many. Let me outline a few statements first:

  1. You feed 2 parts of sugar to 1 part of water, which is winter feed, NOT that 1:1 ratio that is used in the spring and summer. What do I mean by "parts"? One pint of water weighs one pound, or 8 pints of water weigh 8 pounds. Hence, a ratio of 2:1 equals dissolving 16 pounds of sugar in 8 pints of water or 10 pounds of sugar in 5 pints of water, or 5 pounds of sugar in 2 1/2 pints of water.
  2. In our Washington, DC area, a colony needs about 50 pounds of honey or heavy sugar syrup to get through most winters, but I play it safe and try to have 70 pounds of feed "aboard" by December 1st. Hence I don't have winter starvation death. A colony of two deep bodies consisting of 20 deep frames should weigh about 120 pounds gross Weight on December 1st, and a colony of 3 Mediums using 30 medium frames (like I use) should weigh about 130 pounds on December 1st.
  3. The time to feed is NOW, NOW, NOW, not in January or March.
  4. Bees are NOT warm blooded like humans, but cold blooded that requires warmth to move around. If the temperature falls below about 500, the bees ability to move around is severely limited. When bees are CLUSTERED for winter warmth, starting about 500 (NOT at 321, bees cannot or will not move away from their cluster even 2 inches (yes, 2 inches) to get food. Hence the TYPE of feeder that you use is extremely important, because it almost MUST be in contact with the cluster and not some distance of several inches away.
  5. NEVER, NEVER feed commercially made honey because the great majority of it is contaminated with American Foul Brood Disease, because almost all commercial beekeepers medicate their bees with TERRAMYCIN to prevent the death of their bees from AFB, but their bees HAVE AFB spores in the honey which will kill your bees. I am reminded here that as long as a diabetic person (like my now dead wife) gets their shot of insulin every day, they might live to be 100, but they still have diabetes and must have that insulin to stay alive. Terramycin is more or less quite similar to insulin. As long as beekeeper continues to treat his bees with Terramycin, the bees live and thrive, but if he misses the dose of Terramycin, his bees are DEAD because every part of his colony including the wood, the honey, the wax, and of course the bees are heavily infected with the spores of AFB! For many, many years bee scientists and bee researchers have WELL PROVEN that the feeding of sucrose, common garden variety table sugar, is the BEST bee food that you can buy that has no side effects that are often found by those who are using fructose, coke syrup, candy, and all those other concoctions that have been tried.

Now that those quick remarks are done, let me add some important details to them. Starting with:

  1. concerning the constituents of 2:1 heavy sugar syrup, winter feed. Dissolving 2 pounds of sugar in just 1 pint of water is a problem, or 16 pounds in just 8 pints of water. The water has to be BOILING HOT, and hot water tap water just will not dissolve the sugar. Further, you don't want to BURN the sugar. Hence, I like to get exact amount of water come to a close boil, like 200°, and start adding the correct amount of sugar with CONSTANT STIRRING (very important), and watch my thermometer so the temperature never goes over about 210°
  2. About 12 deep frames totally filled and capped yield about 70 pounds of honey; or about18 medium frames totally filled and capped also yield about 70 pounds of honey.
  3. Bees can be fed easily when the temperature is above 50°, but when the temperature is 20°- 40°, feeding is TOUGH not only for the bees, but for YOU. Feed NOW!
  4. Wow, I am going to get arguments about this, but You will not change my 71 years of observance. Feed has to put extremely close (like touching) the bees for them to get any to store away in cells. Hence, forget the BOARDMAN feeder (that "critter" with the pint jar that sits ouside the hive front entrance and portrudes inside the front entrance), because the front entrance of the hive is cold and a long way away from the cluster. Forget the hive feeder shaped like a super, because the bees have to leave their cluster, crawl UP 4-6" to get to the syrup in the feeder, and they just won't do it when the bees are clustered in the brood area. Forget the Division Board Feeder, because if it is not in the center of the cluster, the bees will not break cluster to visit the feeder, plus the feeder drowns many bees. Some people speak highly of using zip-lock bags of sugar syrup placed on top of frames between hive bodies. I don't like them because I have to break the propolis sealing between hive bodies to install new ones and remove old empties, plus the fact that a feeding slot in the bag that has been cut too large can drown or chill a whole bunch of bees. Bart Smith, who I think is an expert beekeeper, uses zip-lock bags, but he is an expert, maybe you and I are not. I still think an inverted gallon GLASS jug whose cap have no more that 3-4 holes punched with a frame nail (very small, like only 1/16" or 5/64") directly on top of the inner cover center hole is the best feeder possible. To prevent inner cover sag, I place 2 quarter inch thick sticks on top of the frames at each end of the inner cover hole, so that the bees can always have walking room on the frame tops and still nestle right up to the holes of sugar syrup. Of course this feeder jug is surrounded by an empty deep body or 2 empty medium bodies for protection; and all I do to see if the jug is empty or needs additional sugar syrup is simply remove the colony telescoping cover and look. I can change jars in a snow storm at 20° without a bee getting cold. In EXTREME cases of need of quick food, remove the inner cover, and place as many as FOUR gallon jugs of heavy syrup directly on top of the frames. In my71 years with bees, I have done this a couple of times with success, BUT IT SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN NECESSARY IN THE FIRST PLACE if I was a good beekeeper. LIVE and LEARN!
  5. During the past few months, there has been a tremendous amount of discussion about the BEST winter feed. I have watched this with great interest, because so many NON scientific beekeepers are searching for CHEAPER and easier things to winter feed than plain old table sugar, sucrose. Vilhen the scientists and honey bee researchers finally get mad enough at all this penny saving frivolity of using everything from Goldilock's shoes to the wash waters of wine barrels, they appear on the Internet or private writing stating that "THERE IS NO BETTER WINTER FOOD THAN PLAIN OLD TABLE SUGAR" that you put in your coffee every morning.

Lastly, and I'll bet I have said it over 1000 times in my life, but few seem to listen. NEVER JUDGE THE CONDITION OF A COLONY, PARTICULARLY WHETHER IT IS ALIVE OR DEAD, BY JUST LOOKING AT THE OUTSIDE OR ITS ENTRANCES. The bees you see may be robber bees, and your bees may be dead. You MUST remove your inner cover, remove an outer frame and then examine the inner frames for BROOD if you are really going to determine the colony condition. You can ALWAYS do this when the outside temperature is over 50°, the sun is shining, and there is NO wind; and there are numerous days in November and even February when these days occur. Way back, over 65 years ago, my mentor and teacher, Dr. James I. Hambleton, Chief Apiculturist of the U. S. Government, told me "George, NEVER bother to look into the supers for anything, because if your bees are healthy, the BROOD area will show it, but if your bees are sick or infected, it is the same BROOD area that will define the problem." Now starting my 72nd year of beekeeping in 2004, I totally agree with Dr. Hambleton. ALL of your bee problems or successes occur in the BROOD chamber area, and the supers take care of themselves based on the conditions in the BROOD area. Just try to remember that HEALTHY bees headed by a young genetically selected queen stay healthy and make more honey than most other beekeepers near you; and you locate all the good points and bad points by examining the BROOD area of the colony.

George W. lmine, Jr. - Certified EAS Master Beekeeper