Keeping Your Bees Alive

Pigs on the Wing

Piglets at 2-3 weeks old
Piglets at 2-3 weeks old

Many beekeepers in the UK are in the process of removing supers and extracting their honey. The summer is nearly over, queens are laying less, and the bees are beginning to arrange their nests for the winter ahead. Most of the varroa treatments available to us should not be used when honey supers are on, because we don’t want to taint our honey. Plus, it’s against the rules

Not over yet

For those who take their bees to the hills for heather honey, the show isn’t over just yet. Heather is a late crop, and it’s not something I have any experience of. It seems to me that the costs and hassle of moving bees, plus the awkwardness of extracting the honey itself (it’s thixotropic) are factors which count against heather honey for me. I know that Peter Little (Exmoor) and Murray McGregor (Perthshire) get substantial crops from heather and they have invested in the proper equipment to deal with it. It’s certainly a delicious premium product! 

What matters now

However good or bad the current season has been, that’s history. What matters now is to ensure that our bees survive winter and are ready to burst into vigorous activity the following spring. For me, this involves reducing the hive size down to one or two boxes. I have found that giving bees acres of space over winter leads to damp, mould and a disgusting slimy hive floor. Bees, it seems, like to be cosy and snug over winter. They also need plenty of stored honey (or syrup) in their brood box, and they need to be as free as possible of varroa mites. 

From what I have seen, the main reasons for my hives not prospering the following year are:

  • they starved
  • varroa mites & associated viruses killed them
  • the queen failed (drone layer)
Hives in Winter
Hives in Winter

Regional Differences

There are substantial regional variations which influence winter preparation and survival. Where I live it doesn’t get freezing for long; we might have a week of ice or snow, but usually, that’s it. We get a lot of rain, though. My bees do not have to stay cooped up for months without a cleansing flight, like Mike Palmer‘s bees in Vermont. The amount and type of stored food is something that will vary considerably between areas. 

Drone Laying Queen

Drone laying queens are often the result of a newly made queen being unable to mate, or mating with few drones. It could also be that an old queen, after several years of service, has run out of sperm stored in her spermatheca. I wrote about this in my Perils of Late Supersedure article. If you are lucky enough to have well-mated summer queens on hand, from your queen rearing operation, you are in a good position. I would rather re-queen in the autumn with such queens than leave it to chance that “the bees know best”. They don’t always. Nature produces plenty of failures; they just don’t survive for long.

Varroa

The factor that everyone apart from Australia has to deal with is varroa mites. On the one hand, they are devastating to many colonies that do not have a kindly beekeeper to help out. On the other hand, varroa is the “devil we know”. Competent beekeepers are used to dealing with mites; they monitor and treat accordingly, so it’s not likely to cause huge losses for them. 

Some beekeepers are against treating for mites. Some are working on breeding programs to select for bees that have adopted strategies to be able to tolerate varroa. Who knows, one day we may have a honey bee that is gentle, low swarming, produces good honey crops and thrives in the presence of varroa mites. Hats off to those who are working on this, if they are doing it responsibly. 

Chart 2: Amitraz in August, OAV in Nov
Chart 2: Amitraz in August, OAV in Nov

Breeding Program

Randy Oliver has the right approach in my opinion; once he finds mite numbers above a threshold level, he treats those bees, and they are out of the program. There is nothing to be gained by allowing the colony to suffer and eventually collapse if they clearly cannot cope. Hives that, for whatever reason, maintain low mite numbers, are the ones he breeds from. 

Just suppose you were a pig farmer and you were proud of your healthy, happy livestock. You keep them in the right conditions, and they thrive. Then along comes a giant parasite, about the size of a large dinner plate, which attaches to your pigs and starts sucking the life out of them. Some of them survive! They are miserable and suffering, but they are alive! Let’s all celebrate: you have found pigs that don’t die when giant aliens are eating them. Alternatively, you could apply a treatment that kills the offending intruders. Which option do you think the pigs would vote for?!

I’m a Treater

Suppose we found a variety of pig which still had all the piggy qualities we need. Also, they were impervious to the parasites because of a thicker hide. Or they release some toxin or have some mutual grooming behaviour that demoralises the invader. Surely that pig would become ubiquitous. I don’t know if we have found that pig (bee) yet. If we had, wouldn’t everybody want them? Why would anyone buy anything else? 

For now, and I suspect for a considerable time, I’m a treater. I’m not ashamed of it. I look after my bees so that they can look after me. 

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