This is a pivotal time of year for beekeepers large and small. As the weather starts to turn colder and less predictable, bees begin preparing for winter, but recent years have brought a succession of man-made problems that the bees can’t easily overcome. Fortunately, we’re able to help them.
Fall is a tricky time, because you alternate temperatures during the day and from day to day, Bruce Kearns explained. He’s the master beekeeper who oversees the hives at the George Landis Arboretum in the Schoharie Valley town of Esperance in upstate New York. While the Arboretum is known for its gardens and nature trails, it also offers educational programs – and Kearns’s class offered a chance to explore specific apiary-related questions.
Bees work to keep themselves at a constant temperature in the hive, he explained, and they can generate a lot of heat. As outside temperatures drop, the bees form a cluster inside the hive, a ball of bees surrounding the queen to keep her – and the surrounding bees – at optimal temperature, which is 95 degrees Fahrenheit – although they’re lucky to get it up to 85 degrees during the coldest periods.
Bees on the inside of the cluster create heat with their wings; bees on the outside remain still (and colder), serving as an insulating layer. The cluster is in a constant rotation, so that the chillier outside bees (it can be below 50 degrees out there) move to the inside with the no doubt wing-tired inside bees taking their place.
But all that generated heat rises to the top of the hive box, which, when it hits the cold cover, turns into wet condensation and falls back down. Wet bees are dead bees, Kearns told us. It can help to flip the inner cover so the notch is on the bottom. You can also drill some small air-circulation holes in the boxes and cover them with mesh. But the best way to control moisture is with insulation.
He described a technique of adding a spacer at the top of your hive, giving enough room to add a layer of insulation batting, but not completely covering the surface of the topmost hive box. Another alternative is using a styrofoam lid, which is available from bee-supply places. Just be sure to put some weights on top of the hive. Or strap the hive boxes together.
Strapping the hives also partially ameliorates a problem that has been arriving more frequently in even the less-rural beeyards: Bears. I had one get into my yard and knock over a hive, but the strap at least kept the boxes together, so they didn’t get destroyed.
Another wintering-over problem is food supply. They’ll starve to death if they can’t find the honey. I’ve seen a hive starve with all the bees clustered in the top box and 90 pounds of honey in the box beneath them.
The traditional beehives is a stack of wooden boxes – called a Langstroth hive – of varying depths, inside of each a row of eight to ten frames, with each frame containing an insert upon which the honeybees create wax comb in the familiar pattern of sturdy hexagonal cells. Those cells are then filled with honey, pollen, or larvae. (This hive design is named for the Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth, known as the father of American beekeeping, who crafted this box design in the mid-19th century after discovering a bee colony’s preferred space requirements.) The bottom box is termed a deep, and it’s just shy of 10 inches high. A typical hive has two of them. Atop those are placed medium boxes, or supers, as any of the boxes is also known. Each medium super is a little less than 7 inches high, and is where the bees are encouraged to store their honey. (Other-sized boxes are available but used less frequently.)
The last honeyflow of the year occurs in early autumn. Beekeepers, who become keenly attuned to the plant-flowering events in their neighborhood, will harvest honey from the medium supers of their hives and leave whatever remains in the two deep supers for the bees to feed upon through the cold months. But it’s not always an ideal set-up.
If they can’t get to the honey, it doesn’t matter how much is there, Kearns reminded us. He noted that there needs to be enough bees in a hive to generate the warmth needed to allow them to make their foraging trips – and that the bees tend to travel up in the hive, not down, to find their food. They should have frames of honey on each side, and frames of it in the box above them.
Other overwintering techniques include wrapping the hive in some kind of insulating material. Tarpaper is a favorite, as it can cut down on the chilling effect of high winds, but it adds almost no temperature-control value. One-inch-thick insulation boards will increase the R-value, but it’s most important to insulate the top, where nearly 75 percent of the hive’s heat loss occurs.
Make sure to do an inspection in February to see if they’re finding the food. If they don’t have enough honey left, add a two-inch spacer to the top of your upper super, put some newspaper over the frames, and then sprinkle regular granulated sugar on top of the paper. They’ll eat through the newspaper to get to the sugar.
Kearns was drawn into the world of beekeeping in a roundabout way. It started when I was researching how to produce alcohol for fuel. This was between 2005 and 2006, when gas and heating fuels increased sharply. He discovered that it took 26 pounds of corn to make one gallon of fuel grade alcohol, so I started looking at other options. You can’t grow cane sugar in our area, but I did find sugar beets. And at some point in this research, I learned that a beehive can average about 50 pounds of honey. Since I was also interested in brewing, making mead sounded like a good possibility. The more I read about bees, the more I thought that this could become a side business.
He attended a beekeeping class hosted by the Southern Adirondack Beekeepers Association (SABA), a group of enthusiasts based in eastern upstate New York, and began his beekeeping journey. I’m not really looking at pursuing it as a business, but I do enjoy the bees. They are very interesting animals. And he strongly recommends joining SABA in order to take advantage of their knowledge and resources, which includes equipment they make available that might be out of the beginning beekeeper’s budget.
His favorite book on the subject is The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile, an encyclopedic guide that’s now in its fourth edition. And a general spirit of curiosity is helpful, too. As soon as you feel comfortable with something, question it. Assumptions get you in trouble. For example, we assumed that varroa mites were sucking the blood out of bees. Turns out they’re burrowing down between the plates of a bee’s skin and eating the fat off the bee, and that’s where the bee’s energy stores are kept.
Varroa mites are the greatest bane of all beekeepers, and every hive is subject to invasion by these tiny, strength-sapping parasites. Kearns also notes it’s important to test for mites throughout the season. There are several ways to do that, and there are different treatment options depending on whether there’s brood in the hives or you’re collecting honey.
And there are other predators as well including fellow bees that will rob the honey stores from weak hives, and I’ve had some dragonfly issues – I’ve seen them picking off honeybees. Yellowjackets are also aggressive towards bees.
Once your hives have made it through the winter, you can anticipate rapid population growth as maples and dandelions begin to flower. If the hive seems too crowded, the bees will swarm, which means that half of the population will take off in search of a new home. So early in the season, if you think that might be happening, you can set up a hive with some old frames in it. It’s not guaranteed to work, but I’ve seen it attract bees.
Bees make honey throughout the warm months, so Kearns suggested putting extra supers on early. That way, your hives don’t get honey-bound. That’s when they’ve filled so many frames with honey that there’s no room for the queen to lay eggs. And even though they pretty much take care of themselves, you should inspect your hives every two weeks during the season, and do regular mite counts.
As we know, bees are a vital element in the propagation of all vegetation, particularly those we rely upon for food products. And, of course, they’re the source of honey, the most natural and delicious of all sweeteners. Stay away from commercial honey, he advised. It’s probably from China, even if it says it’s from India or somewhere like that. A Chinese honey isn’t regulated at all, so who knows what kind of additives are in there?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has refused to create a Standard of Identity for honey (just as it refused to do so with olive oil, another famously faked food), so producers can and will cut honey with corn syrup, and some falsely label the country of origin. Real honey is raw, which means it retains pollen. And choosing local raw honey means that it contains beneficial anti-allergen properties. Honeybees collect pollen from the very trees and plants that are causing the sneezing and runny noses. By taking a spoonful of local honey daily, approaching and during allergy season, there’s logic to believe you inoculate yourself against the offending pollen and reduce your allergic reaction.
I don’t put any heat on my honey, Kearns explained, so it’s truly raw. And I have a lot of blackberries around my house, so that affects the flavor.
Informed consumers support their neighboring beekeepers, creating a beneficial cycle of supply and demand. Back in 1989, the National Honey Board declared September as National Honey Month, which means we’re at the perfect time to support our local apiaries, our environment – and, of course, ourselves.
(B.A. Nilsson, 9/10/20)
[Editor’s Note (FWB): Our honey directory includes listings of dozens of sources for local and raw honey from Connecticut to West Virginia.)