February 2005

George Imirie’s PINK PAGES

It is FEBRUARY and COLD. Are your bees ALIVE?


How much HELP have YOU been since August?

Never known for being nice or complimentary to EVERYONE (like politicians campaigning for votes and money), my thoughts are to TEACH, EDUCATE, INSTRUCT, and INFORM all beeHAVERS and some beeKEEPERS the methods used to be a successful beekeeper in central MARYLAND; and hence, sometimes, I am TOUGH and DEMANDING in order to get your ATTENTION (even MAD) in order to force you to THINK. Being nice lulls you to doze or let your mind agree that everything you do is correct; but being CHALLENGED elevates your adrenaline and puts your mind in high-gear thinking.

With that said, have you INSPECTED your bees in January? Don’t give me that crap that it is too cold!

Over and over, we hear the stories,I KNOW that my bees are alive, because I saw them flying in and out of the hive. Too often, your colony is dead, and what you saw was ROBBER bees. You CANNOT tell the colony condition without going INSIDE and inspecting! THAT IS A MUST! Just wait for a day that has a temperature over 55°-6O° and open the hive for a quick inspection – SO SIMPLE!

A queen laying in cold January? A young Carniolan queen will start laying in early January, and a young Italian queen might start laying by February 1st. WHY the difference? Southern homes have air conditioning and few furnaces, whereas northern homes have big furnaces and small air conditioners.

Or the north has elk and bear, whereas the south has flamingo and race horses . The Italian race of bees home territory is southern Italy surrounded by the warm Mediterranean Sea, whereas the home territory of the Carniolan race of bees is at the base of the ALPs in the Carniolan Mountain range in Austria and Yugoslavia (now Croatia and Serbia). Hence, the Carniolan race is geared to flying in cooler weather than the Italian race, and hence starts brood rearing earlier. Isn’t Nature WONDERFUL!

EVERY spring, one always hears the standard beekeeper excuse that the cold winter killed his bees. WHAT A BUNCH OF BALONEY! This is only MARYLAND. How do the WILD bees survive in Maine, Minnesota, Canada,Scotland, or Siberia?

DR. Southwick, before his death, kept colonies in freezers with temperatures as low as -6O° for as long as a month, and PROVED that very cold temperatures does NOT kill HEALTHY bees!

Note that word: HEALTHY! Had YOU killed both the tracheal mites and the varroa mites before November? Was your queen less than 2 years old, or preferably less than 1 year old? Did YOU have at feast 70 pounds of honey in the colony in November?

Did YOU have an UPPER ENTRANCE to allow HUMIDITY to escape the colony? Was the colony protected from northwest winds? Did the colony SLOPE FORWARD so rain or snow could drain out the front door?

Was there at least 20,000 bees in the colony in NOVEMBER? Are you SURE that the colony did not have AFB, or are YOU dependent on a bee inspector to identify AFB?

Please note that I did NOT mention any other diseases such as Nosema, because all other diseases except AFB don’t kill, particularly in the cold months. Sure, there are cases where a healthy colony died in the winter because the queen dropped dead, just like a few 20-40 year humans drop dead, but these are exceptions.

Go ahead, HATE me for saying it; but most winter deaths are caused by INSUFFICIENT food, WEAK hives entering November, forgetting tracheal mite kill in August, and POOR TIMING in varroa mite kill; and You, and I repeat YOU, could have prevented these deaths if you just were better EDUCATED in successful beeKEEPING.

This is easily done by attending meetings where bee scientists and Master Beekeepers are the speakers or demonstrators; and by reading UP-TO-DATE books like the 1992 EXTENSIVELY REVISED Edition of THE HIVE AND HONEY BEE. Books, written before about 1992, are basically useless because the did NOT cover MITES, SMALL HIVE BEETLES, or RESISTANT AFB. Don’t try to “tune” the engine of your 2000 model Chevrolet by using a GM service manual for a 1980 Chevrolet.

WHY is BROOD rearing so important in late January and surely early February? (Those 40 DAYS that I constantly mention.) Contrary to whatever else you have heard or read, in central Maryland our ONLY real nectar flow that yields any surplus honey is collected between April 15th and June 15th; and there is NO honey made after those 2 months. Some diehards are going to say “what about the clover in July or the goldenrod in late August?” Yes, there are isolated instances that these crops are possible, but rarely and totally UNdependable! (Back to 40 DAYS).

A worker bee does NOT go out to forage for nectar or pollen until it is 19 days old, because it spends the first 18 days of its life as a nurse bee doing hive duties INSIDE the hive. The gestation period for a worker bee is 21 days. Hence, from the day the queen lays the worker egg until that bee begins to forage for nectar is 21 days + 19 days that equals 40 DAYS. Hence, if you want a bee ready to ATTACK a strong nectar flow that starts on April 15th, the queen bee had to lay that worker bee egg by MARCH 6th, and 40 days later is April 15th!

WHAT CAUSES THE QUEEN TO LAY BROOD? Some people STILL do not know that a queen bee makes NO decisions, but is TOTALLY directed and controlled by the worker bees! The workers “exercise” this direction by HOW MUCH and HOW OFTEN they FEED the queen.

Since pollen is the sole source of PROTEIN in a bee diet, the first pollen found by flying worker bees on a warm winter day from such flora as maples, alders, skunk cabbage, or willows signals the colony that spring is coming.

The very first nectar collected is very thin in sugar collected, the beekeeper can really get the worker bees excited about “spring is almost here” by feeding the bees thin (1:2) sugar syrup (1 pound of sugar in 2 pints of water), and a pollen substitute like BeePro in January and early February, and then switch to 1:1 sugar syrup (1 lb. sugar in 1 pint of water) in mid February.

This treatment will greatly enhance queen laying provided that there are ENOUGH bees in the colony to maintain and WARM a large brood nest area! (Maybe now you understand why there should be a lot of young worker bees in November who will keep the late winter brood warm.)

You MUST understand that this early feeding to get the heavy brood rearing that is necessary to get a heavy yield of honey is also going to cause SWARMING problems!

Here too, most beekeepers lack knowledge about swarm control, which has basically two parameters: have a queen LESS THAN 6-8 months old, and two, for the beekeeper to always have queen LAYING space ABOVE the queen as she tries to move UP in the colony.

There is a LOT of work for the beekeeper in February, March, and particularly April.

THIS is the MOST work of the year for a successful beekeeper, and it is normally still CHILLY. If you thought that bee work was on nice warm weekends, maybe that is why you have not gained much honey or the bees swarmed. AS ALWAYS, the more bee education you get, the more successful you will be.

Shucks, I will give you just one thought, BUT very important, regarding swarm control that should be done in February rather than waiting until March; and that is REVERSING of the brood boxes. Many of you are using TWO deep bodies for brood boxes, and others are agreeing with my thoughts and using THREE medium bodies for brood boxes.

BOTH systems have EXACTLY the same amount of comb space for brood; except the 3 medium bodies give you MORE FLEXIBILITY of movement than do the 2 deep bodies, and each medium body is only 2/3 the weight of a deep body, which is great for the ladies or the older gentlemen.

By February, the bottom brood body should be EMPTY of everything, particularly BROOD, and the bees are working in the top body and getting close to the hole in the inner cover. It is the perfect time to REVERSE those brood bodies, because bees always want to go UP, and rarely down. Hence, you slide out the bottom body and simply put it up on top of the other deep brood box or on top of the other 2 medium brood boxes.

Now, your queen has empty space to move UP into, and YOU have empty comb space for the bees to install the FEED that I hope you are feeding them. REVERSING is considered by most experts the Number One swarm control technique, but it is an “art” and cannot be explained in just a few words. I have just given you the FIRST step of reversing, and it should be done in FEBRUARY (not March).

Speaking of FEEDING, I have to AGAIN mention the types of FEEDERS. A bee HAS TO GET TO THE SYRUP to take any. At outside temperatures of less than about 40° bees are well clustered and they will NOT move more than an inch or so away from that warm cluster to get food, so they STARVE.

The sugar syrup must be in contact with the cluster for them to feed. This FACT negates the use of front door feeders, hive top feeders, and most division board feeders BECAUSE THE SYRUP IN THESE FEEDERS IS SEVERAL INCHES AWAY FROM THE BEES.

The only POSITIVE type of feeder that works in cold weather is the PAIL FEEDER or INVERTED GLASS BOTTLE FEEDER both of which can be placed directly on top of the tops of brood frames in direct contact with the bees. It just seems that so many beekeepers just don’t understand the fact that a bee will NOT travel away from a warm cluster even 2-3 inches to get food, so the food has to put in direct contact with the bees to be effective!

Too many people think a bee colony is like their bay fishing boat, where you bring it back home on the trailer in October and just sit in your back yard until the weather warms up in April. Honey bees are alive, active, and EATING 365 days of the year, and maybe YOU have to help them get through the winter.

I will end with perhaps a surprise. If you are going to order any packages of bees this year and expect to get them anytime before early MAY, you might already be TOO LATE. Because of the increased demand for bees and the dismal shipping problems, many bee suppliers already have FULL RESERVATIONS for early shipments.

George Imirie
Certified EAS Master Beekeeper

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