Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Treatment Free Bees and Assessing Hives for Winter Survivability

The long days of summer have faded and hives are making the last push to; raise winter bees, pack in pollen, and cap/dry nectar.  Unfortunately this is also the time of year that newer beekeepers start to panic because there might not be enough food for winter, or they are seeing disease take over.  As a treatment free beekeeper I get a lot of questions about what do when someone sees one of these issues occurring in the hive.  The answer almost always comes back to the fact that if you are seeing something in October, then you are already too late.  Winter planning should be underway by August and waiting until October is too late to do anything from a treatment free approach.  Switching to last minute treatments plans to fix already sick winter bees is likely to do little to help them survive.

I often run up against this "idea" of treatment free beekeeping and desire to not use chemicals, vs. the often cold reality of what treatment free really means.  Mother nature is not kind and will kill the weak, so by going treatment free what you are doing is letting genetically weak hives die.  This is made difficult by the fact that there are a lot of bad genetics out there so if you aren't getting queen genetics from someone that is having success with treatment free you are likely going down a difficult road and are going to loose a many hives along the way.

For me, having successful treatment free bees means that I am able to get the same genetic lines of bees through multiple winters.  Everything in the Northwest is a race to winter, so often there is not enough time to breed a new queen in June, then have the workers of the hive turnover with the new queens genetics, and then assess hygienic traits of the offspring before fall with enough time to try and replace a queen again to prevent total hive death should the hive not have desirable traits.  The assessment period for all practical purposes is really from Summer to following Spring.

Having a single hive that survives for a few years is not the same as having a lineage survive multiple years.  Sometimes excellent hives only produce 10% good queens/hives and sometimes it's 90%, but rarely do you get 100% that are as good as or better than the mother hive. The odds of a treatment free locally raised queen surviving a Seattle winter are better than the odds of say an imported CA queen, however that doesn't mean you can't get great CA queens and crappy local queens.  For this reason you never really get to a point where you have that perfect apiary of treatment free bees.  You are always working to breed from the strongest hives and working to maintain those good genetics from year to year.  This is especially true in the city where you have a saturation of foreign genetics every spring from imported bees.  My solution to this is that I make multiple nucs in summer from my best hives to take into winter which improves my odds for getting a few good queens/hive through winter.

Passion fruit vine provides nectar and actually overwinters well here.

Getting nectar from the last of the Lavender blooms.

Knotweed is a good nectar source if you have it around.

For some reason they really like broken granite pieces over all other types of rocks.  Maybe it's just easy to hang onto, or maybe it's leaching some trace minerals.

Asters are the winners for fall blooms and a great nectar and pollen source.

More Aster blooms.

Romneya coulteri is CA native poppy and provides pollen.  However this one is growing next to a patch of Feverfew which will likely keep the bees away.

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is biannual herb and NOT bee friendly.

Another type of Aster in bloom (Aster frikartii), and one of my favorites.  This one blooms a little less densely than the others but seems to start blooming sooner and doesn't stop until it freezes.

Cosmos can stand out in fall.

Some varieties of Sunflowers also last into fall.

Another Knotweed photo and in this case she is collecting pollen.

Clover is blooming and a good nectar source.

Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a nectar source.

Kangaroo Apple (Solanum laciniatum) is in bloom.

Stonecrop (Sedum) can be a nectar source.  I think they can be stingy when they give out nectar and I've only see bees on these when they are in direct sunlight.

Catmint (Nepeta) has been blooming since spring and is still going.

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

The Rose of Sharon comes to life in late summer with a long lasting display of tropical looking flowers that last until fall.  This late summer blooming shrub provides both pollen and nectar for hungry bees trying to find food at the end of the summer dearth.  Mature plants can get to 10-12 feet tall and are hardy in the northwest if planted in a sunny location that gets regular water during dry stretches.  There are many varieties and colors available to pick from, but try to avoid the double petaled varieties that make it harder for bees to access the pollen and nectar.  Another plus is that blooms are produced on new growth so winter pruning isn't going to set them back for the season.  The only negative is that they are deciduous and often stay in a long dormancy period coming out of winter and may look dead until early summer.

Crape Myrtle

These fast growing trees add a tropical look to our northwest gardens with their sweet smelling blooms at the end of summer.  The flowers of these trees range in colors from red to white, and have also evolved to attract pollinators by producing two types of pollen.  One is a false bee friendly pollen that is well suited for bee digestion, and that other pollen is used for fertilization.  These trees have also been known to produce honeydew if aphid infestations get out of control, which would also attract bees when nectar is scarce.  Originating from southeast Asia, they have moderate water requirements and some newer hybrid varieties are able to perform well here in the northwest if given a full sun location.  Crape myrtles produce flowers on new growth and will need light pruning to keep them in shape.  In addition to their late summer flowers they also have striking fall color when their leaves change as well as attractive multicolored pealing bark.

Hive Checks (8/31/2014)
Both the hives at this location are under heavy patrol by yellow jackets.  Did a quick inspection of Solis and they are light on resources and I will need to steal some from the Luna hive to get them through winter.  There were some signs that DWV had returned.

The queen is looking good.

Closed up one of the entrance holes so that they only have three now.  They were a little on edge because of the yellow jackets so only did a quick inspection.  They have good stores, but mostly older from early summer and it didn't look like any new stores had been added recently.

This queen still seems small to me.

Contrary to what I've seen previously they were storing nectar.  Not much capped yet, but it's a good sign to see nectar coming in this time of year.  The population looked good with an excellent brood pattern.

Plum Creek
This hive sits at ground level and was being targeted by yellow jackets over the other hives.  I cleared some weeds so there would be fewer places for them to hide.  The hive is clearly in defensive mode and I skipped inspecting them.

Lots of brood in this hive and they have a decent amount of stores.  They look to be in good shape for winter.

Hive Checks (9/30/2014)
Gave them some crushed comb pieces to lick clean.  Inspection looked good.  Saw a few bees with DWV but they seemed to be keeping it under control.  Good stores of pollen and honey.  Most of their stores are towards the front of the hive with the brood towards the back.

Still going strong.

Nice frame of brood.

Still raising drones!

Here is one of the all black bees.  Also notice the drones are still allowed in this hive.  Seems that this queen mated with a lot of drones form different places.

Some nice frames of pollen which they will put to good use in late winter and early spring.

Hive Checks (10/4/2014)
Ballard Daughter
Activity has been slow for this hive much like the mother hive in the Ballard Nuc.  They have condensed down and have a tight broodnest with an excellent laying pattern.  I would like to see more stores around the broodnest.  The combs are mostly empty with the top 3-4 inches capped honey.  The whole hive is like this which isn't a good clustering setup for winter unless they can keep moving back all winter from comb to comb.  I'd also like to see the hive more densely populated.  They could easily be stuffed in one of my nuc hives.  I pulled 6 mostly full honey frames from the Rebel hive and put them next to the broodnest. Saw a few bees with DWV.

Very nice brood pattern.

The queen looks good.

Here's a winter bee just emerging.  Winter bees tend to look slightly wider than summer bees.

Rebel Daughter
Things aren't looking good and it seems that DWV is getting ahead again.  It wasn't looking good in spring and then they seemed to turn things around over summer where it was pretty much gone.  However now it's back and the broodnest is small and I don't think they will make it through an extended cold spell.

Here is the queen.

Ballard Nuc
The nuc is populated with bees and they seem to be in good shape for winter.  I almost think this queen would do good in a nuc most of the year as they really haven't done much this year.  Saw some signs of DWV.

This old queen is still going.

Tight brood pattern.

Rosemary Nuc
The hive looks awesome and the bees have that healthy glow/shine to them.  Frames are heavy with honey and covered in bees.  There are some pollen stores building up as well.

Brood in any open space.  I'm not going to be too critical here because the hive is out of space and they are backfilling.

The queen looks good.

Rose Nuc
For a late swarm they are doing great and surpassing even their mother hive in the Rosemary Nuc.  The frames are heavy with honey and the bees are looking great.  They are even building comb with surplus from whatever sources are still producing nectar.

Nice brood pattern.  They are filling in a little better than in the mother hive.

Now that's a honey arch!

The queen looks well cared after.

They are drawing new comb! 

Hive Checks (10/5/2014)
Things looks good and they have been storing nectar and pollen.  The brood pattern looked good and only saw a couple bees with DWV.  Gave them a partial frame of capped honey so they should be in good shape for winter.

This queen seems to have gotten a little darker.

Nice brood pattern.

Unlike the sister hive I don't think they are going to make it.  DWV has taken hold and they are really struggling.  This was the stronger hive of the two and still has a good number of bees, but they don't look like healthy winter bees.  This hive looks like most of the other queens I've had in this line going into fall with the exception of the sister and mother hives.

The queen is trying to pull them through.

Scriber Creek
There are a lot of bees in this hive and they look great and are super clam.  The brood nest is looking solid and they have pollen and nectar buffering the brood on practically every comb.  There are a few combs at the back that are empty and the combs in the front are mostly pollen stores.  I don't usually see them pack pollen back into the broodnest frames like this, but I think it's a great trait to have and will benefit them well in the spring buildup or if the weather is cold.  Also interestingly this hive has a small patch of winter drone brood, and also a few drones hanging around.  This hive seems to have a lot of qualities that would benefit it coming out of winter in the Northwest and has the potential to do great next year.  I'll likely  have to watch them for early swarm attempts.

Nice brood pattern with pollen and honey arch.

She is a well liked queen.

Drone brood coming.

Lots of pollen surplus.

They like their drones.

Rosemary Daughter
This is looking like a great line of bees.  Like the mother and sister hives, this hive is also doing very well.  They have a good number of bees in this hive, a great brood pattern, and good stores.  I haven't noticed aggressiveness outside the hive, but there weren't very happen to get inspected today.

Very nice brood pattern.

Another well liked queen.

Back to the bees,

- Jeff

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