About the Apiary - February 2001

About the Apiary

Around Wellington everything has dried out. The countryside looks like Blenheim. A lot of plants are showing signs of stress. Leaves on the Rangiora bushes are crumpled and shrunken. However if you look around, nectar sources are still available to the bees. Along road edges and in waste areas, fennel and thistle are flowering while in the city and in parks, the red and orange flowering eucalyptus is just getting under way.

It's a good time to take off the honey.

Just how much honey you leave on the hive to feed the bees over the winter depends upon your spring management (does the area have an early flow or late flow) and the way you operate your bees.

A few beekeepers take the majority of the honey off and winter hives in single supers with six frames of honey. Spare bees are either harvested for exported, used to make up nucs or the old field bees are just left hanging on the outside of the hive to die off naturally. Hives are inspected in August and from then on are fed sugar syrup to stimulate the queen into laying and to feed the hive.

Others winter in two supers, leaving one full super of honey. These hives can be left a little later into the spring before being inspected and providing addition food for those that are running short. I winter my hives three super high because we tend to have a very early honey flows (October) which require a strong population earlier. Basically hives are left with a super and a half of honey and room for a large cluster of bees. This practice is rather expensive for a commercial beekeeper. Some say it's more profitable to remove all the honey and feed back sugar. I prefer to leave the hives well stocked for spring. Any that breed up excessively and are likely to swarm in the early spring are split and requeened as a form of swarm control.

This was the method I have used during the past twenty years, however now that we have varroa mites in NZ, my hive management must change. When mites arrive in our district, hives will have to be monitored more closely. Hives with large populations will cost more to control so I’ll have to change my beekeeping methods and adapt to new conditions. Over the next few months I hope to get the ideas off other beekeepers and work out an operational plan that best suits our area. The movement control line (a line many consider unfair) gives those below the line time to observe and adapt before the mite arrives.

As a first step I am weeding out frames that contain patches of drone comb. I have put a lot of foundation comb into my hives this year and these have been drawn and filled with honey. During my disease inspection (before removing any honey), I either move frames with drone cells to the outside of the super or remove them altogether and replace the frame with one of the newly drawn ones. By the time mites arrive, most of my hives should have only one comb with drone comb and the rest will be beautifully drawn worker comb.

With this in mind, it's time to take off the honey. Hives in the country, well away from houses can be worked at any time of the day, however hives close to neighbours have to be worked with consideration.

A few weeks ago when hives were working the flow, hives could be open, inspected and honey supers removed with the use off very little smoke. The bees were so busy they hardy took any notice of you. This all changes as soon as the flow finishes. Bees start hanging around the honey house looking for exposed honey frames.

If can be difficult to remove honey from hives if there are other hives nearby. They are attracted to exposed honey and seem to find it within minutes. A roof left off a hive will quickly attract robbers. The resident bees defend their precious harvest and soon you have a stinging situation around the hives. This shouldn’t happen but if it does as a last resort, cover all the hive entrances with grass and put the sprinkler on above the hives. Bees don’t work in the rain and will quickly settle down. Plan your activities well ahead of time and this shouldn’t happen.

Now back to removing honey. Generally only frames that are fully or 80% capped are selected for extraction. However supers put on late in the flow may not be fully capped by the bees if the flow sudden finishes. These can be removed if you are sure the honey has been ripened. You will observe that it will not shake out when the frame is held flat and given a sharp shake and there could be tiny specks of debris on the surface of the honey. If any honey comes out, leave the frame for the bees.

There are several methods of removing bees from the honey supers; shaking, brushing, escape boards, fume boards and blowing. One of the best methods for a hobbyist with a hive in the garden is to use an escape board. These have a one or two, escape devices that permit the bees to leave the super but not return.

Escape-boards will normally clear 90% of the bees over 48 hours and can be use to clear up to four supers at once. The last remaining bees can be removed by using a brush, (twig, feather or whatever), using a brushing motion to deposit them back into the hive entrance.

However escape boards will not clear the bees out of the honey supers if:

  • The evenings are still warm.
  • There are open or capped brood cells in any of the frames.
  • The supers are not completely sealed (alternative entrances, cracks or holes).
  • The hive is totally congested.
  • The queen happens to be in the honey super or
  • The escape is block with burr comb or dead bees.

If the hive is congested with bees, add another spare super below the escape-board. If there is a line of drone brood in one of the honey frames, run the hive tool through them. Frames with patches of worker brood should be put down into a lower super. The queen will quickly move out of the honey super by gently puffing a little smoke over the top of the honey supers before they are removed. Supers joined with burr comb should be cracked a day or two before the escape-board is put on so that the bees clean up any honey in the burr comb. Before leaving the hive re-inspected it again for any crack between the honey supers. They must be totally bee tight. Seal any crack or holes with tape or foam plastic to prevent robber bees removing any of the honey.

Generally hives should only be worked in the middle of the day when all the field bees are out doing their work. Bees tend to be more defensive if worked earlier in the morning or late into the evening but when you have near neighbours we have to compromise and work hives when they least disturb the neighbours.

I find that it's easier to work hives early in the morning - 6 am. Its cool at this time of the morning and the bees are not generally flying. A few puffs of smoke in the entrance and under the lid will quieten the bees and stop them rushing out. Hives can be inspected, escape boards put on and the hives put back together again before the neighbours are out of bed. This gives the hives time to settle down before there’s any movement in the neighbourhood.

Extracting honey is a messy business requiring lots of newspaper and usually takes twice as long as first anticipated. Many hands make light work so try and do a combined extraction with another beekeeper. Use a sharp knife and keep all windows and doors closed. Be careful how you handle extracted honey supers. If left out, they will attract every bee in the neighbourhood to your property, which can quickly turn to a robbing frenzy resulting in stings and a complaint to the Council. . Wet supers should be put back on the hives in the evening once all bee activity has ceased to either clean out or refill again if the flow is still on.

February is also an ideal time to requeen your hives. Queens are easier to obtain and introduce at this time of the year. Ideally queens should be replaced every year (less swarming and more honey) but most beekeepers replace them every two years. Beekeepers who requeen regularly find beekeeping more profitable and in fact have less work to do in the spring. You should also consider requeening all the swarms retrieved this season. They are usually headed by an old queen and will have a tendency to swarm, no mater what the age of the queen. As you check your hives mark for requeening any hives that has not produced a lot of honey, any with many frames of pollen in the brood nest (far more than other hives) and those that have a spotty brood.

I determine the age of my queens in two ways. I mark as many as I come across (the queen and the outside of the bottom super) with a water-based paint poster pen and look at the brood patten. To determine how the queen is laying, look at the open brood. A new queen will lay in nearly all the cells and the brood will be at the same stage of development. If you have brood of all ages scattered through a patch of brood, consider replacing the queen.

Requeening is the basis of all beekeeping and yet a lot of beekeepers still have trouble with this aspect of beekeeping. Finding the old queen can be a problem. Dark queens are almost impossible to find because they run and so may require extreme methods, (a relic of the old days when the bees that ran out of skeps lived while the quiet, steady bees were sulphured). Use very little or no smoke and go through the hive very carefully in the morning. Don't bump or jar the hive. Remove any honey supers (cover to prevent robbing) starting at the sunny side of the hive, remove the frames until you come across the brood frames. Look down on the exposed surface of the frame. The queen is larger and can be often seen scurrying away from the light. Remove the frame, look on the surface of the next frame then examine the frame in your hands. Look for a hole or space amongst the bees on the frame. She should be in the middle of one of these. When you find her, put her into a four-frame nuc. (2 frames of honey and two of brood). This way you still have a queen should the new one fail to be accepted by the hive.

Wait a day then put the queen cage as is into the hive just above the brood nest. Four days later go through the brood nest of the hive and remove and queen cells and then release the candy cover on the cage.

If you can't find her (or for dark queens), put a queen excluder between the two bottom supers of the brood nest. Wait four to five days and look for the super that has eggs in the brood nest. She is in this portion. Look again and it you still can't find her, move this part of the hive to another location and requeen the half left on the old site. As a last resort, consider putting a queen excluder between the floorboard and the first super and shake all the bees out in front of the hive. Wait a few hours and all the bees will have gone back inside and she should be with a small group of bees on the underside of the queen excluder. Once the new queen is laying, kill the old queen and unite the portion of the hive that contained the old queen, under the new queen portion using two sheets of newspaper.

I prefer to make up a number of four frame nucs from a hive that hasn't produced much honey and once the new queens are laying, find and dispatch the old queens and unite the nuc to the hives as above.

If you live close to a queen breeder, consider putting protected 10-day-old cells into the brood nest. A protector can be anything that stops the bees chewing away the side of the queen cell. A piece of hose, insulation tape or tin foil. Wrap it around the cell but leave the bottom exposed so the new queen can emerge from the cell. Check the hive again in three weeks and look for new brood. If there isn't any, the hive could be queenless and will require a new queen. Normally there should be an 80% acceptance.

Things to do this month: Extract honey, remove comb honey, rear autumn queen. Introduce purchased queens. Produce nuclei (carry a few through the winter as spares). Check for AFB before removing any honey and keep an eye out for wasps.

Frank Lindsay