Amanda out in one of our apiaries in Metro area. Where's the snow? Photo: Jeff Lee

Late-winter feeding of the bees as spring draws near

We spent much of the weekend out with the bees, making those important late-winter checks to see who had survived and who had not. Some are thriving. But not a few are struggling.

What made this weekend both enjoyable and worrisome was the extraordinarily mild weather. February can be a tough month here, both rainy and cold. March almost always proves that old adage “in like a lion, out like a lamb”. You don’t count your winter losses until after March.

The weather now is so warm and unseasonable that everything is starting to bud. The blueberry field across the road is waking up – raising the great potential that if we get that last cold blast in March, the buds could get damaged.

In the bee yards, the warm weather is also causing concern. The bees are flying, but there is little forage available. Only one in every 10 bees returning has pollen in her baskets. There will be a demand for pollen as the queen will ramp up laying in this mild weather.

I saw our first bumblebee today, too. A big fat queen, hanging out on the front face of one of the hives, catching the warming rays of sunlight. She, at least, is built for this kind of weather. A fuzzy flying tank, able to survive on her own.

Bumblebee queen, on left, sunning herself on the front of a hive, with a honeybee to right. Photo: Jeff Lee

Bumblebee queen, on left, sunning herself on the front of a hive, with a honeybee to right. Photo: Jeff Lee

Amanda spent Sunday putting pollen and emergency sugar on all the hives in our main yard. I spent the day doing the awful chore of going through the deadouts and bagging them in black garbage bags in preparation for sterilization treatment at Iotron. It is an electron beam sterilization company in Port Coquitlam that does a booming business in the medical, industrial, aerospace and plastics businesses. But it also has a growing food and agriculture sector, sterilizing feed and other products for animal consumption and cleaning important agricultural components that could harbour diseases.

The local bee clubs have organized a bulk spring run at Iotron, collectively making the minimum order. This literally isn’t nuclear science; the boxes and frames and other equipment we put through are bombarded with concentrated electricity, killing all pathogens and moulds. The result is that when bees are put back into the boxes they grow like stink for a while because they don’t have to spend time fighting the background pathogens.

Coming in for a landing, with no significant amount of pollen. You can see a little dot of orange on her right rear leg but that's all she got out on this foray. Photo: Jeff Lee

Coming in for a landing, with no significant amount of pollen. You can see a little dot of orange on her right rear leg but that’s all she got out on this foray. Photo: Jeff Lee

On Saturday we were out in one of our valley yards, and there the story was more sombre and sad. We lost 50 per cent of our hives – in this case five – due to a variety of causes. Our unhappy discovery was compounded by the fact the field they are in – which they share with some goats, sheep and alpacas – is soggy wet and muddy. Not a happy place.

Our losses this year are below the provincial average, so far. The failures can be pegged to the usual: starvation, nosema, fall mite levels, and moisture.  But I tend to lump them under a single banner: beekeeper mismanagement.

Unlike our Metro yards, this Fraser Valley yard didn’t get as much attention from us in the fall. We treated with formic acid in the fall, and fed as much as we could remember. But we failed to properly winterize the hives and we left the bottom entrances closed. We’d shut them down in the fall to try and stop the wasps, but if you don’t open them again before winter you can restrict the airflow necessary to prevent an accumulation of moisture.

That’s what happened in the main; most had gotten too wet inside and that was the end of them.

This is also the month when we get ready for the arrival of new packages from New Zealand. We’re bringing in 20 packages in early March to beef up the pollination contracts we have. If we watch our cards right and keep them warm and fed, they may be ready to split off a couple of frames in mid-April, giving us new nucs for summer honey. That means ordering a few imported queens, too, since it will be too early for local queens to be produced. It is a constant problem, this queen shortage.

There are a few local beekeepers who are working on the possibility of overwintering small nucs with well-mated fall queens, with the hope that if enough survive they can be used to populate early spring splits.

But I suppose we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. We have enough work just keeping the hives we have alive.

Bright sunshine, a beautiful backdrop, and a yard full of hives. Photo: Jeff Lee

Bright sunshine, a beautiful backdrop, and a yard full of hives. Photo: Jeff Lee

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