Thursday, March 13, 2014

Building Unity Farm - Winter Hive Maintenance

The 2014 winter has been brutal with more single degree days than any winter during my 20 years living in Massachusetts.   Our bees are resilient, started from colonies overwintered in New Hampshire last year.  Keeping them alive has required careful management and we’ve learned a great deal in our first year as beekeepers.

We began the winter with 8 hives, 7 of which were strong and one of which had very few bees.

Our hives started as “nucs” 5 frame mini hives purchased from an apiary.   We placed the frames in 10 frame deep body boxes last May.   After a few months, we added another layer of 10 frames deep body boxes as the colony expanded.

We’ve tried to care for the bees organically and not introduced any chemical treatments for bee diseases like varroa mites, nosema, and hive beetles.

In November, we added division board feeders with 2:1 sugar syrup, and placed fondant under the inner cover on the top of the hive.   Typically we examine the health of the hive on days when the temperature is 50F or greater.

Our problem is that December-February had no 50F days, so we listened to the hives for signs of internal activity.

In January we lost the weak hive - it could not sustain itself through the bitter cold.

Last weekend, we opened each hive (pictured above), and examined each hive body to get a sense of bee health.  

Our South facing hives were vigorous and active.   Our Southeast facing hives were vigorous and less active.   Our Northeast facing hives were sick with Nosema, a unicellular parasitic disease of the bee gut that gives them dysentery-like symptoms.

The bees in the north facing hives died.

We’ve learned an important lesson - all bee hives should be south facing and we should treat with Fumagilin B proactively in the Fall to reduce the threat of Nosema.

We need to be more aggressive with supplemental feeding of hives with limited honey stores - hive top feeders in the Spring, jars of bee tea in the Fall, fondant, and pollen patties.

We need to standardize our components to enhance hive ventilation and reduce moisture.   We’re replacing our solid bottom boards with screened bottom boards as part of an integrated pest management/ventilation strategy.   We’re also drilling 3/4 inch holes in each hive to provide an escape/ventilation when snow drifts block the primary entrance.

Our bees are very gentle.   Although I’m wearing a bee suit and gloves in the pictures above, our bees have never stung me and seem content to land on me and check out the white suited invader.  

When the snow melts we’ll relocate all our hives to a flat, unshaded, dry, south facing spot in the corner of the orchard, protected from creatures that might attack the hive, wind, running water, and falling branches.  

Many of our colleagues lost all their bees this winter, so we’re happy six of eight hives survived.    Hopefully next year, with our lessons learned, we’ll overwinter 100% successfully.

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