Dear Fellow Beekeepers,
Well it is almost Christmas and hard to believe that it is almost here. As far as the beekeeping season is concerned there is another important date that will happen tomorrow and is key to our beekeeping season, i.e. the winter solstice that occurs on December 21 of each year. This is the shortest day of the year and marks the beginning of the beekeeping season. Each day after the 21st of December gets imperceptibly longer and the queen starts to lay ever more increasing eggs as we get into January and February of the new year.
The Seasons of Beekeeping:
As you may know the beekeeping season can be divided into two parts : the season of contraction and the season of expansion. These seasons are bound by the summer and winter solstice, June 21 and December 21 respectively. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year and marks the beginning of the season of contraction whereby the queen gradually slows down laying eggs, the colony slowing begins to get ready for winter, and the mites if left untreated can now begin to overwhelm the colony due to decreasing number of bees. The winter solstice in contrast is the shortest day of the year and marks the beginning of the season of expansion where the colony gets ready for the spring by slowly increasing their numbers.
Hopefully your colonies will be heavy with honey for winter stores at this time and you may notice if your colony consists of two hive bodies (or more) that the bees are probably in the bottom box. They will slowly work their way up over the winter, consuming their honey stores along the way, staying in a cluster in the cold winter days and breaking out during warm days. Generally colonies will not starve in the months of December and January but rather late February and early March when there are many hungry mouths to feed and no nectar flow.
Typically I have started feeding dry feed on January 1 of the new year by placing sugar blocks on the top of the frames with an empty hive body surrounding this so that the bees can feed underneath the sugar block. This year my hives are very heavy with honey from the fall flow and I don’t know if this will be needed – I will be checking the hives soon on a relatively warm day by just quickly looking under the inner cover (and NOT removing any frames). If the bees are up in the top box and it seems that the hive is lighter than normal then I might feed. If the bees are still in the bottom box and the top box has a lot of honey stores I may hold off feeding till February.
Mite Treatment :You should have treated your hives in August or September of this year for mites with your method of choice. Some folks will treat in mid to late December with a final treatment of oxalic acid on a warmer day when the cluster has broken up. This is due to the fact that there will not be much or any capped brood in the hive for the young mites to hide under and then the kill rate will be much greater. Paul and I treated with Formic Acid this year and probably will not treat again with oxalic acid – we will take our chances and see what happens in the spring.
Buttoning up your hives for the winter :If you have not done so already you can place your entrance reducers on at this time and put in your political sign under the screen if you have screened bottom boards. This is another reason that I like to have solid bottom boards since now I do not have to mess with this aspect of the season and have less equipment to keep up with. If I have a solid bottom board with enough of a landing in front I will at times place a brick on the bottom board in front of the hive entrance to act as a reducer. You don’t have to paint bricks, they don’t rot, you can use them as weights for the top covers come spring, etc.
Condensation :I like to guard against losing hives in the winter from condensation dripping back down on the cluster and freezing. Condensation happens to all hives due to the fact that the cluster warms the inside of the hive and when this warm air comes in contact with the colder outside temperature condensation forms on the inner cover and then drips back down. There are two things that you can do. 1) elevate the back of your hive with a piece of wood so that the water will run off toward the front and down the hive body instead of dripping into the cluster and 2) elevate the inner cover with a stick or something off of the top frames so that air and thus condensation can escape out of the top of the hive during the winter. The bee colony will not freeze with a slight elevation of the inner cover and this will help with the movement of air throughout the hive.
Predators :If you see mud on the front of your hives near the entrance or the grass around the front of the hive beaten down this is most likely a skunk making nightly visits. Predators (such as skunks or racoons) will scratch at the front of the hive, irritating the bees inside, and then gather the bees in their mouths when they come out to investigate. Many times they will just suck them dry and you will find little clusters of dead bees around the front of the hive. Getting your hive up off the ground so that the predator has to expose their necks and thus help with bees stinging in defense can help with this, you may have to set a trap if this problem is consistent.
Winter chores :Take this opportunity to repair hive bodies or make new ones. Frames can be put together, bottom boards made, hive bodies repaired and painted, etc so that in March and April you can be ready to change out hive bodies for new / repaired ones and start to put out your swarm boxes. It is always nice to have duplicate hive bodies ready to go in case you split your hives, catch a swarm, or need to replace overwintered equipment.
I appreciate everyone’s patience with this whole Coronavirus issue and hopefully we will be able to get back to having meetings again soon. I did speak with Brandon the other day at the Extension Agency and they are still not allowing meetings at the Extension Agency and don’t know when that will resume. I will keep everyone informed of anything new related to our beekeepers club and look forward to our next in person meeting.
Keep yourselves safe and have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Kent J. KesslerPresident, Madison County Beekeepers Association