The bees know “Winter’s coming”

It’s no game of thrones for the bees at this point, they are all tucked in and prepped for the upcoming winter. The polar vortex is causing it to get mighty chilly quickly here in MI, yet I did still see some bees come out from three of my four hives during the sunniest and warmest part of the days this past week, visiting the birdbath I have set up for them.

BeesBirdBath-AP1B

As for the 4th hive, I have not seen any activity (except for one bee, maybe a week ago). This is the same hive that is participating in the MSU Urban Pesticide Study. In July and August, it had been my strongest hive, the one that started from an experimental nuc at the beginning of the season; however, come September it seemed to dwindle its activity in comparison to my other three hives. I know that having enough space to continue their growth was not a factor, but it is also the hive that I have done the least number of inspections so as not to disrupt the study results. It really could be a variety of reasons for such a significant slowdown in activity. For one, being that I stopped feeding them completely because of the study. Or it could be the fact that we had such rainy weather and the ground was too moist for much to grow effectively. Even today, as I flipped my entrance reducers to the smallest setting on all my hives, I purposely tried causing enough of a ruckus that some annoyed soul should have come and checked me out, however, not a peep from the MSU hive! Even knocking hard on the hive with my ear pressed to the wood, I heard nothing! I do know they are in there as I have shined a flashlight through the top entrance and seen them, but I do think they probably have a much smaller population than what is ideal for going into winter. Regardless, it is much too cold to satisfy my curiosity now and open it up for a quick peek to see how many are in there – I will just have to be patient for spring to see what happens.

If I had to predict what my overwintering loss ratio will be next spring, I would guess 3 out of 4, and that’s not bad, with wagering on losing the MSU hive while the other three prevail. The other three I had fed and nurtured all summer long. During mid-september I treated the orange, pink, and yellow hives for the first time with mite-away strips in an effort to kill off the varroa mites that have been causing much distress on the colonies. I’ve also seen several bees demonstrating “k-wing” where they are holding their wings in such a way that it looks like a “K, a sign of stress and could be caused by varroa. As a side note, I’ve seen deformed wings in my orange hive which is the hive that started out from a package of bees this spring that I replaced the queen with one of my own genetics. That particular hive went through an evolution – from a delayed start due to replacing the queen, to the fact that I think they replaced the queen again on their own shortly after because she no longer indicated the marking I gave her, to suddenly becoming a super hive with a population explosion in late August. With such a disruption in the brood cycle in the spring and early summer, I am surprised to be seeing shriveled wings in that particular hive.

The mite-away strips I used were purchased in early spring, but I had taken so long in deciding whether or not I actually wanted to use them that I missed my opportunity for the correct temperature range before summer arrived. The temperatures remained above the threshold until September, and by the time it started to cool off and had I decided to treat for the mites, I realized that the strips have a very quick expiration date and had already expired in August. Without having time to re-order more and wait for delivery, I decided to go ahead and use them anyway. They still were fairly potent in smell, but they didn’t knock the breath out of me as many of my beekeeper friends have mentioned has done to them. I’m doubtful that the strips had much of an impact on the hives, and I will likely need to re-treat in the spring.

Aside from treating for varroa and prepping the hives for winter with the usual sugar-on-newspaper deal, on a nice day in early October I condensed my pink, yellow, and purple hives down in order to give an extra honey super to my orange hive (the one that got the late start on the season), so now all hives have adequate honey supplies for overwintering. Mid-September was also a time when forager bees were out in crazy numbers. There were so many everywhere, even my friends in other cities were asking me why they were suddenly noticing honey bees everywhere being “overly friendly” – I think it was the last push before winter, a period of time between rainfalls and warm weather and goldenrod blooming and final pollen collections. Two out of my four hives had become very aggressive, to the point that stepping foot in my backyard caused me to receive several warning messages, and I like to think it was solely because of how much honey stores they had to protect…but maybe it had to do with how hit and miss the weather had been this year, or maybe it’s just because they know winter is coming!

Regardless, I feel that my hives are fairly-well set up for success going into the winter this year, whereas last year I was completely clueless. Something I’d like to do for an overwintering experiment in the coming months is to capture some thermal photographs of my hives. I may have access to some thermal imaging equipment, and it would help provide me with some reassurance during the certain sub-zero weather we will receive this year of the state of my hives when I begin to doubt their survival.

 

My 1st hive is dead

As some of you local Michiganders will know, today was an unusually warm day for mid-January with it getting up to 60 degrees. I half expected to see a few honey bees making short flights to relieve themselves, but no such activity was present. I was dying to take a peek under my hive cover just for peace of mind.

At first, when I lifted the cover off, I just thought they were all gone. Peering down through the top of my second box, I didn’t see any movement, nor any bee. I thought maybe they had swarmed a while ago and I just never noticed. So I took the top box off and looked down through the top of my bottom box. Then I saw it. The mass cluster of honey bees in the middle of the hive…all dead. I will post some pictures in a few days.

Many had their tongues sticking out. Many were face-down inside of empty honey cells. I took half the hive a part inspecting it for any reason to why they had all died. There was plenty of honey all throughout the hive, but most of the honey where the cluster had been was all gone. I’m inclined to believe that they starved even when inches away from them was food to live off of. Or they may have froze on one of those especially bitter cold days we had not too long ago. I’m really not sure. In speaking with Roger Sutherland of SEMBA (South Eastern Michigan’s Bee Association), he said that he imagined many beekeepers this year will unfortunately be in the same position as me and reminded me of all the trouble we had in the spring with the frost that killed all our fruit trees and then the drought that came after, that there was very little nectar for the bees to collect this year in Michigan.

It’s a big bummer, but when life deals you lemons…
So, I have all this honey in a dead hive. Hmmm. Even though the reason for me getting into beekeeping was not specifically for the honey, I’m all about making the best of this experience. I’m going to extract some honey at the end of next week. This is my first time extracting honey, so it should be quite the learning experience. Going on SEMBA’s website to look for resources for honey extraction, the club offers a three-day rental for a four-frame manual extractor, stand, uncapping knife, and basket at $15. Should be all I need to get the honey out. I will need to figure out how many jars to buy for about 10-12 frames of honey.

The dilemma I’m contemplating now is I’m not entirely sure if I should extract all of the honey or if I should leave some for my second try with bees this spring. Any of my bee mentors out there know the answer to this?

Hunkerin’ Down

So…I know it has been a while, here’s a long overdue post.

As the Summer has faded into Autumn, and Autumn is quickly fading into Winter, the honey bees are growing less and less active. This past weekend it got up to 60 degrees, and they were happily out and about, but otherwise they have been mostly keeping inside their hive – I’d love to have a camera in there to see how they are clustering around the queen and keeping her warm, how their cluster is moving around the hive, and how they are feeding on their honey stores.

Here’s a photo I had intended on posting about a month ago of the workers pushing out the dead soldiers after the first cold week.

They like to keep their house in order. The number of dead bees has increased as the temperatures continue to drop.

Today, I found this little girl curled up at my side door.

When I poked her with my finger, she didn’t move much. It’s strange that she was just sitting there. This is the third time in the past couple months a single bee has been at my door. My friend shared an interesting Science Friday podcast with me. Listen to the story titled “SciFri 010612” although the release date is 1/9/2012. It’s about how parasitic flies are becoming a problem for honey bees…as if the honey bees needed another thing against them, right?…and causing honey bees to be attracted to porch lights and fly around at night – things outside their normal behavior. It recommends capturing and isolating those bees in case they are infected, and destroying them so the parasitic flies are also destroyed and don’t spread to the rest of the hive (if they haven’t already). I don’t know if this is why the bee was on my door, but my door is white and the porch light had been on. I guess we’ll have to wait and see….