Last Minute Winter Prep

As in the courageous worker ant from the fable, we beekeepers know that winter requires preparation starting in the summer. Bees spend their whole year building strong stores to allow a small fraction of their pairs to cluster around the queen all winter long and launch the colony as soon as possible in the following spring.

Winter preparation varies according to your region, but in the end, the core of the winter preparation is always the same: check your hives food stores and feed if necessary, reduce the size of the hive to the size of the cluster (you don’t want to give them too much space to guard and heat), always allow for a ventilation chimney (bees can handle cold, but they cannot handle humidity) and only overwinter strong colonies (combine or disperse the weak colonies who would not make it on their own).

By now (November, er even December), we think we have done all we could to give our hives the best chance to survive in this perilous period… Or, have we?

Even though you have fed, prepped, protected, sheltered, and shielded your colonies, it is actually still time to think of those extra last-minute winter preparations that can give your colonies an edge when facing this difficult stage of their annual cycle.

Are your hives ideally positioned? Choose a high ground spot to avoid humidity, maximize sun exposure and shelter your hive from direct wind. Avoid areas at risk of flooding or falling branches.

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Roof top hives at University of Maryland

Secure the top covers by weighing them down.

Unless you are far north, you probably don’t need to wrap your colonies against the cold (and if you do, don’t forget to maintain a ventilation pathway through the hive).

Your hives should be elevated from the ground for a good air circulation. The hives can be tilted towards the front to help evacuate water condensation.

Leave the hive entrance open for good ventilation, but protect your hive against mice and other small rodents who could find the hive a perfect wintering place (read Heather’s blog on large hive pests). An easy and low cost solution is to bar your entrance with meshed wire, big enough for bees to pass, but too small for rodents.

You have fed your colonies and their stores are full. Now, make sure their stores are close to them. In a Langstroth hive, the honey frames should be on both sides of the cluster and above it. For the cluster in the winter every movement is an investment in energy.  There is nothing more frustrating than to open your colony in the spring to find your bees head first in their wax cells, starved to death, with an intact food frame inches away from them…

Last year, the 2 leading causes of mortality over the winter as identified by backyard beekeepers in our annual Winter Loss and Management Survey were “colonies weak in the fall” and “starvation”.

Give your colonies the extra edge this winter!

Keeping Records 2

You have read my last blog on “why bother to keep records while beekeeping” and you’re convinced. You want to keep records. That’s the attitude!

So, how do you keep – good, detailed, relevant, informative, not-too-much-of-a-hassle – record?

Short answer: the way you want.

Longer answer:

You have to pick the method that speaks to you best. Don’t start with too complex a method or you won’t stick to it. If you start by a simple method and notice how it helps you, you will, by yourself, start taking more complex and comprehensives notes.

Some beekeepers use a notebook they leave on the hive itself (just below the roof); some use datasheets they collect in a binder and keep with their equipment; more “trendy” beekeepers will find several electronic tools from the internet that you can access using your smartphone; I also heard of a beekeeper using a voice recorder and short videos…

Whatever the tool you are using, you basically have the choice between 2 formats:

  • Open entries: as a journal, write down in a few sentences what you want to remember from visit to visit.
  • Datasheets / Forms:  a series of questions, checklists or sketches to annotate.
    I personally created my own forms that follow my visit routine. It helps me to remember what to look out for while in the hive and to compare sheets with one another (showing the progression of one hive in time but also comparing one hive to the others in the same apiary).
    I have a form for regular visits and particular forms for particular visits (treatment, harvest…) which requires a different set of information.

 

Do what is relevant for you, but consider including in your notes:

1. A descriptive of your apiary location:

  • When was your apiary established?
  • What is the orientation of your hives?
  • Are they in the sun/shade?
  • What type of environment are they in? (consider ~2miles around)
  • Some people will even go to the point of printing local weather forecasts (yes, I know at least one; no, it’s not me).
  • A summary of the “demographics” of your apiary: date and number of colonies and nucs alive on that day. Add a new entry for every change (buy new nucs, catch a swarm, make splits…).

2. A description per hive: (this can be the first page of your hive notebook)

  • What type of material do you use? Is it the same for all your hives?
    Ex: plastic frames, wax foundation, 10 frames deeps…
  • What race of bee?
  • Queen info:
    • Age of queen: indicate if you know when she was born (at least year/month)
    • Is she marked? (color / number)
    • Where does she come from: did you buy her? From where? Was she inseminated? Did you raise her naturally (after split or swarm)?
    • Whenever you change queen, indicate when, how you did it and why you did it (ex: too aggressive, too old, accident or lost queen for unknown reason…).

3. Info from visits:

  • Date
  • Objective of the visit
    Ex: routine visit; adding suppers; replacing frames; sampling for varroa; checking for swarm fever; feeding …
  • Did you see: (you can use this as a checklist)
    • The queen (=QS: Queen Seen)
    • Eggs (=QR: Queen Right)
    • Larvae
    • Capped brood
      You might want to estimate the number of frames of capped brood; this will inform you on the amount of new workers to expect in the coming week or two). You should also note if the pattern of the brood is nice of patchy. Also note if you notice an excessive amount of drone brood.
    • Pollen
    • Honey
      Again, you might want to estimate the number of frames of pollen and honey.
  • You should also indicate if you notice any:
    • Varroa
    • Deformed wings
    • Small Hive Beetles
    • Wax moths
    • Any other pest or sign of disease.

4. Info from particular visits:

4.1. For treatments:

  • Date
  • Did you treat all of your hives or only specific hives?
  • Reason for treatment: targeted pest/disease, preventive or curative?
  • Name of product
  • Dose
  • Method of application
  • If to apply at a certain frequency or for a certain duration (if follow up, add the date you did it too)
  • Any remark
    Ex: when coming to remove strip from the hive, you noticed the strip had been entirely propolized, which may have reduced the spread of the chemical.
  • If you sampled before and after treatment (ex: count of varroa on sticky board, traps of SHB,…).

4.2. For harvests:

  • Date
  • Number of frames taken per hive (will allow you to identify which hive is the most productive).
  • Number of frames left in the hive and their estimated content (if the weather turn suddenly bad after the harvest, you need to know if they will need feeding).
  • Total quantity of honey extracted
  • Quality of honey: if you know which species was responsible for mean honey flow; HR %; …

 

Those are my typical “checklists” that I use to remind me of all the subtleties to look for and without which I would not be certain if I simply missed something or did not pay attention.

Feel free to add any other observation that you think is relevant. Another of my mentors loved to just observe the outside of the hive before opening it, and would take note of his observations of the activity at the hive entrance, the patterns of the debris on the sticky board below the hive and even their buzzing!

In the end, the rule is simple: if you noticed it, it’s worth noting it.

As a concrete example of a field form used by our team when inspecting for disease and pest surveys, experiments and field trials, I recommend you read the excellent previous blog from Mike Andree on Hive inspection (http://beeinformed.org/2011/09/field-notes-and-hive-inspection/).

 

In a few words…

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Keep records and share your observations with us, take the annual survey and join in this national gathering of information on beekeeping practices. If a lot of beekeepers used the same techniques and yield similar success, we all are interested to know about it!

Keep records and start building facts, not anecdotes. Don’t make it a burden. Start small with what you believe is relevant to you and maybe you will think of new aspects of your practice that you feel should be followed. If that’s the case, share it with us!

To help you start, I’ve made an example journal you can download and use. Remember, what you write down is up to you and what you find most helpful will be a personal decision.  Good luck and get busy (like a bee)!

 

Keeping Records

Every beekeeper is a citizen scientist.

Have you noticed how in a beekeeping meeting everyone is sharing tips, experience, and advice? We are all comparing our practices, our successes, our failures. We want to hear about other people mistakes (and learn from them). We want to try their recommendations for ourselves.

When taking my beekeeping class, the most repetitive advice that our mentors provided us was to keep detailed records. Not only is it a requirement under Belgium’s legislation for hygiene of food products (yes, we do have legislation for everything in Belgium, that’s one of our oldest traditions, along with beer) but the advantages of keeping records clearly outnumber the effort. Should you start, you will soon be rewarded in terms of efficiency and personal pride (beekeepers are always proud to share stories about their bees). Keeping notes on your hives and your practices will take you a little time and organization but it will make you a better beekeeper than you already are.

(Commercial beekeepers have their own way of keeping track of their apiaries and this post will not cover their special needs.)

 

Why should you bother taking notes?   (if you’re convinced already, watch out for my next blog to see “How”)

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There is already too much going on at the same time when you are in your apiary! You want to limit the time the hive is open: hive tool in one hand, a frame in the other, one eye on your smoker, the other on the queen; how are you going to take notes? But here is the secret, with a well-kept record of your previous visits at hand, knowing precisely what to look for, what actions are needed, and what objectives you have,  your visit will be even shorter and more effective.

One of my mentors used to say that every visit of a hive is like a heart surgery: you are opening the body of the hive, displacing vital organs, shining light on things that would much rather stay alone in the dark… You don’t want your visit to take more time than it needs and you don’t want to do it more often than is needed. Every time you open a hive, you disrupt your bee’s workday. They have to clean after you, re-propolize every split, rearrange their space… and in the meantime, they aren’t doing their other jobs.

Being prepared and having a clear objective in mind makes you more efficient in your visits. You know what to follow-up: where to add a deep, where to replace frames, where to look for signs of eggs from a new queen, where to look out for a drone-layer… There is nothing more frustrating (and easily avoidable) that having to open hives twice in the same day after noticing that – yes – they would need a few new frames, but, “I have to construct them so I’ll come back later.” Coming to your hives with purpose is a time-saver. Maybe you can remember what each of your 6 hives needed from last visit but personally, I’m small-headed. I simply can’t.

Keeping notes will also help you help each other. Have you already asked a friend to keep your bees for you? Having a record allows your generous friend to know exactly what your hives need and to keep notes of everything they did for you.

But those are not the only advantages of keeping a record.

As I said, every beekeeper is a scientist at heart. For proof, no two beekeepers have the same practices, because we all do our own trials and errors. But without taking notes, all of it is only anecdotal.

Who remembers exactly everything he did in the last season? Who remembers exactly all those other factors independent of our will? (Which week was that damn drought again? When did the Linden start flowering? Was the population so high already last week?)

Keeping records allows you to have a broader view of your beekeeping practices, to document your actions, and all relevant background information and to share more concrete facts about what actually happened.

Plus, if you take the annual BIP management survey, having a notebook at hand helps you answer all our questions! Our survey is like a big national beekeeping meeting: all beekeepers sharing their last year’s practices and successes in terms of overwinter survivorship. Comparing all of your inputs, we try to isolate best management practices that effectively improve colony survival. So keeping records will help BIP gather even more relevant data!