As Summer Winds Down

It has been a busy summer at Dow Gardens with programs being back in full swing. We have kept on top of our beekeeping, but I regret that we haven’t shared more of the journey on this blog.

We have managed to maintain all 4 hives through the summer, however, the status and progress varies dramatically with each hive. This year we are focusing on strengthening our hives, drawing out some new equipment, and some overwintering experimentation, not necessarily a large honey harvest. Here is a status update (from bottom to top):

Dow Gardens Hives mid-June
Dow Gardens Hives late-August

The California queen…this hive overwintered with a queen and very few bees. We supplemented her population and she continued to produce bees. But the hive wasn’t thriving…she really couldn’t grow the population at all. She was replaced with a new queen early-summer and they have really taken off. They have a nice temperament and two well-developed boxes of brood space (maybe one undrawn frame). We call them the California Blondes because they are so light in color. We will not harvest honey from them this year…just preparing for winter. Mite status a week ago: zero from a sample of 300 bees. Yay!

Split 1 from an overwintered hive – including the overwintered queen. These bees are also doing well. Not the BEST honey producers, but they have a solid population and are working on a super. It is late in the season so we won’t harvest more than one super (probably partially filled) from them. They are gentle and easy to work. We are experimenting with queen longevity…will she be able to sustain the population through another winter? Mite status a week ago: 1 mite from a sample of 200 bees (.5%). Yay!

Our spring package is doing really well. If you remember, our new beekeeping class started them on undrawn equipment so the students could see how long it takes for a package to build out a 10-frame deep. Their second story, we gave them drawn comb to allow them quicker expansion. The queen has a good laying pattern and they are a nice population to work. They have a single honey super that is about 20% full. Mite status THIS week: 8 from a sample of 200 (4%) – 3% or more, treatment required. Our final hive…this is the one we always try to decide, do we go in that one first or last? They can be temperamental if there is something off in their conditions and they are a BIT sensitive to disruption. This hive is also a split from an overwintered hive with the original queen. All last year, I referred to these bees in my apiary as Demons. Personally, I prefer to work them first when I have the most patience. They have really mellowed out, but still working them is riskier from a stinging standpoint. On the other hand, they produce a LOT of honey. We have pulled 2 supers from their hive this year. You will notice in the photo, one of the supers is a deep. Our expert, Elly, found that these bees had become honey bound…their top deep box which was supposed to contain more brood was FILLED with honey. She made an adjustment and put a new deep box on the hive as the second brood box and moved the full one above the queen excluder. This allowed them to start fresh with making more brood, prevent possible swarming due to lack of reproduction space, and for us to reap the benefits of their hard work. They have since filled the newly added deep more appropriately for brood space and you can’t even tell they had this issue. Of course, filling this new box took a lot of attention and time, so the super left on their hive is relatively empty…but that is ok. We want them to get the brood space ready for themselves first. (prepare yourself) Mite check THIS week: 48 from a sample of 300 bees (16%) – treatment ABSOLUTELY required. This was a bit shocking!

We are starting to see a trend with this genetic line that it may not be as capable of keeping down mite populations…that is definitely not a positive attribute, so we will be monitoring this more closely. This also provides us with an opportunity to test our preferred HOT weather mite treatment, Hopguard 3, to see how effective it is. We have treated both hives with Hopguard 3 strips and will wait 14 days per label instructions. We will then re-sample to see how effective this treatment really was. At that time, it may be cool enough to use another treatment if it is indicated. 

In the past few weeks, we have heard of so many late summer swarms! Swarming is a HUGELY risky venture for both the population leaving and those left behind in the hive. Usually it happens in the spring so that the populations have time to build back up and get their home right before winter. The following information is from a publication by Michigan State University’s Meghan Milbrath on Swarms, 2018. Most swarms do not survive the first winter, survival is around 15%. There is risk also to the parent hive because new queens have a 10-25 % chance of NOT coming back from a mating flight leaving a hive queenless. In the north there is a short window to get enough food and raise enough bees for winter and this disrupted hive may not be able to right itself in time. I highly recommend any beekeeper read this publication BEFORE you are dealing with a swarming situation.

That said, a hive could swarm due to lack of space. One of the anomalies of the 2021 season, is that we didn’t get a dearth and the bees just kept filling and the queens kept laying. (Dearth, a time when it is dry and nectar flow ceases in enough quantity to sustain or grow honey production). If the beekeeper doesn’t notice a honey bound hive, there is a swarming risk.

Another non-swarming reason bees could abandon a hive and be mistaken for a swarm, is if mite populations are extremely high, a hive could simply leave the space hoping to find a more hospitable home – this is called absconding…we have seen this as well.

As you can see from my update, we have had conditions in the Dow Gardens hives that without intervention could have led to these same outcomes.

My final words are a bit of a warning. Beekeeping really cannot happen in a vacuum. Networks of beekeepers, whether in online chat groups/facebook, educational publications, in person beekeeping societies or just a couple of friends who also keep bees, provide a valuable resource. They can provide a broader perspective about what is going on at any time during the season as well as bouncing ideas off each other about how to deal with situations you encounter (or should expect). I try to be open to new ideas about how to interpret or deal with situations I find in the hives I visit.