What should I bee doing in February 2019

Know your enemy, Tools in your toolbox and is it spring yet?

Who is tired of cold and snow? As we slowly make it passed the half way point of the shortest month of the year, why does it always feel like the longest?! In reading last month’s blog entry, the weather could not be more different since then. The Polar Vortex happened, which was a new experience for me as a non-migratory beekeeper. I lost sleep in my cozy home worrying about my bees and my “drone-fed” chickens. My poor poor Roufus, the Rooster suffered severe frostbite and I am afraid he will loose his comb. He will look like the hen I thought he was when he was a little pullet. Now, what he lacks in a head piece and wattle he will make up for as an adult with his big beautiful tail feathers and spurs. We are also experiencing the snowiest February on record. Compare the Jan. photo of my beeyard with the one from this month. I wish I had some snowshoes!

Any bees that were weak before the vortex, perished with the extreme cold. I saw an image in a book called “OTS Queen Rearing” by Mel Disselkoen. He had a picture of a bunch of bees with little red circles where mites may bite into the bees. The author, called them “wounded workers.” Death by a thousand cuts is how I think of it. Imagine the wounds on the bees from the mites sharp mouth leaving open sores, weakening their little bodies and ability to fight virus spread by the bees before winter when they need the most strength. For many years, the science community thought mites were sucking blood but it was revealed last year, by Dr. Samuel Ramsey that mites feed on the underside of the bee, sucking out fat bodies inside the bees while releasing an enzyme that continues to break down the fat bodies even after the mites moves to another one. Fat bodies of bees, function a lot like the human liver. According to Ramsey, the fat bodies in the bees are responsible for the following crucial functions:

  • Growth and metamorphosis-when the larva changes to pupa, fat bodies are necessary

  • Storage of energy and nutrient mobilization

  • Pesticide detox

  • Immune function

  • Temperature regulation

  • Protein and fat synthesis-so if you feed pollen sub to a bee that has had a lot of fat body sucked out, they are not able to process and therefore benefit from that supplement

  • Vitellogenesis-vitellogen is a protein that helps winter bees live through long winters

I highly recommend you sit down with this video (linked here) to understand how the mite works. Know your enemy. These nasty little parasites are enemy numero uno. We should be using every tool in our toolbox to help our bees stay strong all year long. And remember, JUST BECAUSE YOU CANT PHYSICALLY SEE THE MITES ON THE BEES DOES NOT MEAN THEY ARE NOT THERE! They hide underneath the bee. If you see them on the backs of the bee it means they are done feeding on one and looking for another bee to take a fat body bite out of.

And what are the bees doing in February?

So, in my opinion, doing your best to understand what the bees are doing at a particular time of year, really helps the beekeeper. So from now on with this blog, I will start with what the bees are doing. Today is the 17th of February. In 2016, the temperature got up to 60F on Feb. 21st. Because of this, the bees were already collecting pollen in some areas. Obviously, this is not the case in 2019. Not only are we having the snowiest month, we are below average in temps. However, the position of the sun and the extension of daylight, can trigger the queen to start laying a small patch of brood in anticipation of spring. The colder than average temps may delay this process but I did observe a little brood in the colonies that have already perished. Rearing brood requires more resources and a certain temperature in the hive so the bees will start to work harder and dig into those resources. We are about 10 days till March and Hutty did mention an early spring warm up, so cross your fingers for that! Anyways, the next 2 months are the time when bees really start to dig into their winter stores. I have included another pic of the observation hive I keep at El Centro in Minneapolis. That pic was taken just a few days ago. I did not see any brood in the colony but that hive has 8 frames and I am not able to see what is happening between the frames. My guess is that is where the queen is hiding and if there is brood started, between the frames is the warmest spot. Interestingly, there is a little tray at the bottom of the hive with a screen where mites and other hive debris fall below. Once a month, i have been cleaning the mites out of the bottom of the tray and counting. In December, I counted 15, in Jan. it was 12, and this month 12 again. I can also see that they still have honey in the hive. If you compare it to the photo in my Jan. post, the number of bees looks similar. Pretty neat, huh?

And what should the beekeeper be doing in February?

Knowing that the weather could change back to cold for who knows how long, after the vortex, I went out to check losses and add food supplies to those that needed it. There was only one 2-3 day window for these checks in the first weekend of February when the weather would be above freezing. The 2nd picture in the line up comes from an infrared camera. Super fun technology to play around with. The photo was taken on Feb.2nd at the Inver Grove Heights teaching yard. Between all 3 teaching sites, 2 at Inver Grove and 1 at Fridley, we only lost 3 hives. In the photo, even though all the boxes do not show the red/white color, all of the hives were alive (hard to pick up with camera and fit all the hives in the shot). So far, my overall total losses from 100 teaching and production hives are at around 28%. For the most part, the ones that died were not a surprise for me except for one yard where I had some nucs packed together. They all seemed up to weight and healthy in the fall and were alive before the vortex. When I went to check after the cold, 5 out of the 7 were quiet. Because they were all wrapped together, i could not break them apart and risk losing the other two to assess what happened. I will keep you posted when I am able to look at them.

So, in February, the beekeeper should be researching, prepping equipment for next year, assessing bee survival and food stores(only by lifting the back of the colony or taking a quick peak if it is above freezing). Remember that I have 100 hives and you may only have a few. If you took care of mites last year, left them with enough food, put mouse guards on and have them wrapped and protected from the wind, your bees should make it just fine. And I know you will worry anyway, but try not to. Spring will be here soon and the bees will return to your boxes one way or another.

Speaking of equipment, I want to make an announcement that some of you already know. I am super excited to be working with the owner of a brand new company called “Propolis Hive Company”. Christian Dahm featured in the photo below, is a former US Marine now beekeeper and sawyer from near Moose Lake, MN. He has worked at the U of MN bee lab and keeps his own hives, and has developed a patten pending propolis hive body from wood that he sustainably harvests from his land. I went for a visit to see his operation. Check out the size of those white pines he is standing in front of!

What does that mean and why propolis? He roughs up the inside of the box using a special technique, encouraging bees to build a propolis envelope. According to research done at the University of MN which I helped assist with as a lab tech in 2014 (click here) and more done at University of Georgia (click here), propolis acts as a antimicrobial layer that helps keep the bees healthy! Starting March 1st, The Beez Kneez Honey House will be the exclusive retailer of these boxes. We are super excited to add another tool to our toolbox in keeping bees healthy by understanding what they do in nature and applying it to our management system. For a great podcast on how bees live in the wild and benefit from propolis, listen to this great interview with one of our favorite bee scientists Dr. Tom Seeley. We will try these out in our own apiaries this summer. Interested? Let me know asap because we only ordered 20 deeps and 6 are already sold! We will also have mediums and nucs available.

Also, our first Better Bee order will be coming in tomorrow Monday, Feb. 18th so we will be stocked up with supplies.

Save the date-We will be having our annual equipment building class on Saturday March 9th at 2pm.

propolis hive company.jpeg
Kristy Allen
What should I bee doing in January 2019

Perparation preparation preparation

In September of 2018, I moved to a little piece of heaven I call Trade River Ranch near Grantsburg, WI. I set up about 19 hives in and in front of the “Lazy L Lodge”. I realized after watching the video below a few times that my partner’s filming framed “Lazy” above my head. While I don’t think this is intentional, bad form on his part, don’t you think? I assure you, I am anything but lazy. In fact, I have the opposite problem.

The day I took this video it was in the low 40’s and sunny in early January which to a northerner feels more like 65. Thoughts of spring and swimming were dancing through my head ;) My favorite weather man, Paul Huttner, or who I like to refer to as “Hutty”, tells us that we are experiencing an El Nino year causing a winter more mild than normal. But he also talks at great length about how climate change is real and upon us, which means a warming planet and more extreme temp. swings and weather events. I can tell you as someone who has been working in and around agriculture for over 10 years, growing food is going to become even more difficult unless we make some drastic changes concerning climate change. And I can tell you as a beekeeper, bees in the winter do not fair well with drastic swings in temperature. And frankly, neither do most other organisms on the planet. But I digress…

To improve your beekeeping skills and to make smart informed management decisions, one must understand what the bees are doing and why. And one of the most important things to remember about honey bees and northern bee management is that bees are perennial. They live as a colony year round so they are wired to be preparing for winter year round. When more people lived from what the land provided, this was better understood. Some around the world still do. They depend on climate, natural resources and feeding themselves from what they can grow. A delicate balance at times. One that is increasingly out of balance. I now understand this in a more personal way because of my migration to the country. We try to heat our house with wood and fill our pantry with food we grow in harmony with the ecosystem in a sustainable manner so it gives back for decades to come. You must be in a mind set of constant preparation. You can’t burn wood unless it has cured and depending on the type of wood, it can take 6 months-a year or more. Our ability to grow food drastically decreases in the winter time so you must think about what you can grow in the summer and fall to feed yourself in the winter. You get the point. Preparation, preparation, preparation.

Bees in the north and those in areas that have long seasons of dearth (a time when there is little to no forage in the landscape), spend the year preparing for those times. In fact, breeds of bees that are better adapted to cold weather climates will actually shut down reproduction when there are little to no flowers producing nectar even though it is warm. This is also why some beekeepers freak out between the spring flow (what beekeepers refer to as the time when bees are making honey ) and summer flow. They assume they do not have a queen because suddenly there are no eggs in the colony. In my experience, this is especially true for bees with strong Russian genetics! A queenless hive will act very different than a hive with a queen that is alive and well but not laying, but that is a topic for a different day. Main lesson here and the other really important thing that will make you a good beekeeper is pay attention to what is going on in the environment in relation to your hive. What flowers are blooming when? What is the forecast and how will it affect the bees forage? One May a few years back, there was a crazy hail storm on a farm where I have 10-15 hives. In just a few hours, it shredded many of the little plants the farmer transplanted a few weeks earlier. The next day the bees were robbing like crazy. The flower faucet suddenly turned off, at a time when the bees were building up in anticipation to reproduce and then BLAMO, the food disappeared so they were trying to get it wherever they could!

Anyways, January.

What should the beekeeper be doing in January? This January, I have been doing a combination of things: resting my body, reading about bees, planing for next year, checking for life in my hives and prepping equipment for this coming year. Preparation, preparation, preparation. In the second photo up above, I am checking for life. The most simple way to check if your ladies are hanging on is to put your ear next to the entrance and gently tap on the box. Make sure there is minimal noise entering your other ear because the buzzing can be faint depending on where they are clustered in the hive. You can also blow in the hole if tapping doesn’t work, some use a stethoscope and if you’re real fancy, an infrared camera will show you the cluster.

And what are the bees doing in January? They are clustered. But let’s back up. How did they get that way and why? Bees cluster when the temp. drops below 57 degrees, depending on the breed. The 3rd pic above is of a hive on October 1st starting to cluster. The one next to it is of an observation hive I manage in Mpls. I included both so you could see a top view and a side view of a cluster. They form a ball around the frames, engage their flight muscles and shiver to keep the whole cluster warm. How do they do this when it is super cold you may ask? They eat honey to produce energy. The middle of the hive is the warmest spot-around 85-93 degrees. The queen is in the middle and being cared for by the bees around her. The bees on the outside will appear dead because they are not moving much but they are at the coldest spot. The bees on the inside will trade with the bees on the outside, kind of like penguins! They worked all summer to collect honey to put in their pantry to get through the whole winter so they can start all over again in the spring. Preparation, preparation, preparation. A few terrible things can happen during a really cold winter. They don’t have enough bees to keep the cluster warm and it is too cold for them to break cluster and move to another part of the hive. It is always revealing when you find a hive with the cluster all to one side, the side where the sun hits it most and a bunch of honey untouched on the cold side. And what about a mild winter? Or one where the temperature swings too much? Let’s say it is 40 one day and 5 the next. On the 40 degree day, the bees have broken up to access more food, take a cleansing flight and take the dead out the bottom. Then BLAMO, the temp drops and they can’t get organized in time to cluster tight and keep everyone warm.

As a sustainable beekeeper, you will only take what is extra and leave them enough for this long time of seasonal dearth. At The Beez Kneez, we pull our honey in late July or early August with the idea that they are going to benefit from the fall flowers and we will not have to feed. Some years, like the last one, you may have to feed because the fall flowers did not provide. We are working on selecting bees that are really good at storing honey but not all hives do what you want them to so you must determine this before it is too late. And last fall, we did not have much of a fall. Not many 60 degree days to make sure the bees can effectively take down syrup and turn it into food stores in time for the long winter. So, we had to feed but knowing that getting honey stores on them was an issue in a timely manner, I marked the colonies that would be light and on these freakishly warm days in Jan, while it is NOT a good idea to open your colonies in the winter, it is a good idea to lift them and see how heavy they are. If they are light, you can very quickly pop the top and place a winter patty on top of the hive. Some beekeepers will add dried sugar or winter patties in the fall for insurance. See the photo below.

This practice may be especially useful this winter because, beeks, what does a warmer winter do to bees? They will break cluster more and eat more. They will also leave the hive to take cleansing flights like I talk about in the video below. However, I Do NOT recommend opening the hive in the winter unless you asses that they will starve without something before the first bloom. As curious and worried as you may be, you don’t want to chill them so be quick and prepared when if and when you do it. And don’t do it unless it is above 35degrees. Remember the main theme…Preparation, preparation, preparation! If you fed or your colonies were heavy in October, they should be fine till spring. In fact, I work with a few beekeepers who have hive scales. Just yesterday, they said their colonies had only lost 15-21lb’s since October 17th. So that is just 5-7lb’s per month. Before winter, we try to make sure our double deep, 10 frame colonies weigh 120-130 lb’s and our double nucs weigh 70’lbs. That includes bees and woodenware so that leaves roughly 70-80'lb’s or 50-60lb’s of feed for winter. Bees will eat more as spring approaches. More bees means more workers to replace the ones that naturally die off in the spring. When the weather starts to change, and we have longer days with warmer temps, this is when bees can starve. So sit tight beeks. It is middle of January and the weather is about to drop again. There is not much you can do until spring. And keep in mind that if your hive is dead already, it is highly likely that it perished from mites and therefore viruses, rather than lack of food stores.

Kristy AllenComment