Friday, February 19, 2021

Winter Tests Bee Colonies


Winter weather tests honey bee colonies and the beekeepers who set up the hives last fall. This year’s cold temperatures and heavy snow contrasted with recent years which saw mild temperatures and very little snowfall. Winds that normally swirl around the arctic, known as the polar vortex, took a dip deep into the South. Southern states recorded the coldest temperatures in years, and Arkansas and much of the South was blanketed with snow. Honey bees have the same requirements as humans: a warm, dry house, food, water, and an environment free of toxins. When beekeepers set up their hives for the winter, they make sure that the bees have plenty of food, placed where the bees can access it. Especially in the winter, bee hives must have adequate ventilation; hives must be able to vent considerable amounts of water vapor. Honey bee respiration produces water vapor, and water from condensation dripping in the hive can kill bees. With air entering bee hives through screened bottom boards or hive entrances, a small vent in the inner cover allows moist air to escape. Snow covering the entrances is porous and should allow air to enter the hives; however, bees must wait for a snow melt or the beekeeper’s clearing of hive entrances to make cleansing flights.


Bee hives are by design resistant to winter weather. Cold winds are dampened by parallel sheets of honeycomb, and empty comb cells hold dead air, providing natural insulation. In the South, wrapping of hives and closing screened bottom boards is generally unnecessary. New beekeepers learn the necessary hive preparation techniques from seasoned beekeepers in their area. Regardless of the beekeeper’s care in setting up hives for winter, there are often some colony losses. The majority of these losses are due to starvation. Bees are capable at regulating temperatures in the hive, but starvation often results from small wintertime bee clusters not being able to move about the hive in extended cold weather to access stored honey.


Friday, February 5, 2021

Winter Hive Walk Around


Beekeeping involves observing hives from the outside as much as on the inside. Beekeepers can’t risk opening hives for a thorough examination during cold weather, but we should occasionally visit the hives during cold and inclement weather. Much can be told of the condition of the colonies inside the bee hives by observing from the outside. Bees do not venture outside the hives when temperatures are below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. They remain inside, clustered together to retain warmth. Honey bees eat their high-energy food, honey, and generate heat in their flight muscles. Only on warm days, bees venture from their hive to make cleansing flights to eliminate their body waste. You will see forager bees that are collecting water, nectar, and pollen. Observing foragers returning to a hive carrying pollen on their pollen baskets of their hind legs usually indicates that their queen is laying eggs. Finding some dead bees on the ground in front of the hives is normal, as a number of bees die inside the hive every day, and they are removed from the hive. A foul odor at a hive may indicate a dead colony with a large number of bees decaying on the hive’s bottom board. If the air temperature is close to 50 degrees, the beekeeper may briefly open a hive’s cover to see if the bees are alive. If the colony has died, the beekeeper needs to protect the combs so that they will not be destroyed by hive scavengers.


On my hive visit today, I observed bee pupae on the landing board at the entrance to one hive as seen here. Likely, the workers are aborting brood infested with parasitic Varroa mites. A genetic trait, called hygienic behavior, allows workers to detect Varroa developing with the bee pupae and abort the bee and mites. When the weather warms enough for me to open the hives, I will measure the mite loads and apply an appropriate treatment if the mites exceed prescribed thresholds.