“Take Your Losses in the Fall”

This is a phrase I have been hearing all too often this year. The concept is, as you evaluate your hives for their preparation for winter, if you identify major issues, you have to decide whether or not to take drastic steps such as requeening so late in the fall. Is it worth it? Will the hive have time to raise any brood before the weather turns cold? Will this step truly help them make it through the winter.

When we left off in the last issue of this blog, we had two hives with SIGNIFICANT mite issues to treat. We treated all of the hives and after the prescribed time, we removed the strips and sampled again. During that inspection we began to have some concerns.

This year we were focusing on a bit of experimentation. Our plan was to go into the winter with two hives that had queens that overwintered last year. They were still going strong so we had to try. We are trying to breed for longevity and good survival. Years ago, queen bees used to live 3-5 year…now they only seem to be making it one season. Well with this last couple of rounds of inspection, it became obvious that these queens had lost strength and the hives had decided to requeen themselves. Requeening is always risky business, but sometimes it needs to be done when Her Majesty isn’t keeping the colony growing. We saw no evidence of a laying queen when we inspected after the mite treatment in hive 1 or 3 (counting from left to right in the photos below). There was however, evidence that they were both trying to requeen.

Dow Gardens Hives mid-June

Today was about four weeks after treatment so we went in to see if there was evidence of a successful re-queening in either hive. The news wasn’t encouraging. In Hive 3, we found no eggs, no larvae, happy bees and a young QUEEN! Weird… well the queen only had wings on one side of her body, she was small, so we suspect not successfully mated. We were surprised by how the workers treated her. They seemed to really like her; they were tending her, surrounding her in a typical fashion, etc.

Sometimes beekeepers will use a dying colony to add strength to a weak one and give it a better chance for the winter. This might mean adding bees or resources from the dying colony into the other. Care MUST be taken or you risk sharing mites and diseases. We thought that we might use this strategy to strengthen hive number 3 if we had a new queen in Hive 1 because we had already determined that Hive 1 wouldn’t make it this year.

In Hive 1, we found so few bees and only a small (3 inch) patch of larvae. We saw no queen or really any cluster of bees to speak of. At the moment, it seems that we have 2 hives that won’t make it through the winter. We are feeding hive 3 just in case she was successfully mated and there were still so many bees in there. We also observed honey and pollen stores, along with workers continuing to coming in carrying pollen and nectar.  These bees appear to have the resources to make it through!

Weak colonies can also be come very vulnerable to attack by robbing insects (wasps, other honeybees) and parasitic insects such as wax moths and hive beetles. A small population cannot cover all of the hive area to keep wax moths and hive beetles from moving in. Usually a healthy population of bees can keep this from happening, but the damage these insects can do may just cause a more-costly issue than the death of the colony itself. If unchecked, the equipment can be rendered unusable and need to be thrown out.

Hive 1 we will actually dismantle soon. We saw a wax-moth in there so we will put those frames in the freezer to prevent destruction of the comb over the winter and spreading to our other equipment in the storage room.   

In better news, hives 2 and 4 seem to have decent stores put away for winter and with this CRAZY mild fall weather, they are still foraging a bit and we even saw them bringing in pollen!

Both beekeepers on staff have some similar situations in their apiaries, where we have a struggling hive, but pouring resources into a failing hive (a new queen can cost about $30) may not make good sense because it is just too late in the year to reasonably expect that the efforts would result in more certain winter survival. At this point, it may be better to just re-populate in the spring.  Additionally, the losses we are taking both personally and at Whiting are from hives that were productive this summer in terms of honey.  We have made money with the honey we harvested, and are not at a total loss from the hive.  We also feel that in our apiary we can select for specific traits.  If there are queen limitations, mite load concerns, weak honey stores, etc. we can choose to select for colonies in our apiary that exhibit genetic traits that are most important to us.  And yes! Survival is an important trait.  We also chose this year to go into winter with more hives than we anticipate using.  Which, by design, is our insurance policy to start the spring with a sustainable practice utilizing our resources and not being trapped on the treadmill of purchasing bees from outside sources at each loss. Now, that feels a little heartless to say, but remember that a typical honey bee only lives 15-38 days in the summer months and winter bees live 150-200 days. Some of these struggling hives likely don’t have winter bees so they will die out before winter actually hits. It isn’t a scenario where we are depriving the colony of support, we just aren’t creating a new colony just before the harshness of winter arrives. We are taking the losses of these hives in the fall, saving winter resources (like feed and more mite treatments – which cost $) and will use our efforts and resources to repopulate in the spring. If we have enough colonies survive, we can repopulate the hives from those that overwinter. That is our goal …to limit the number of ‘new bees’ we have to purchase in the spring.