The neighbour's ornamental plum tree is just starting to bloom, offering some nectar and pollen for our reviving bees.

On winter survival and making spring nucleus colonies

I love that proverb “In like a lion, out like a lamb“. It’s meant to signify the final taming of winter as we head into spring. Unfortunately around here, this last week has been something akin to “in like a lion, out like a lion cub.” Cold, blustery, and still swatting the bees around a bit as they poke their noses out and wonder if they can make it to the just-blossoming plum tree for some needed pollen.
It appears that all 10 of the hives we went into winter with have survived, a miracle for which I can’t take credit. We peeked in to most of the hives in early March, long enough to determine if they were dead. Surprise! All but one were still going strong enough to cover five or so frames on the top box (we wintered on doubles).
The 10th hive, a colony of hybrid Carniolans with their original queen, was clustered to one side. But since these bees tend to keep smaller winter clusters and eat less, I wasn’t alarmed at what I found, especially since the colony was still only half-way through the bottom box and were still low in the upper box.

Just a few days ago the blossoms on the plum tree were closed tight. Now they beckon to our bees.

Just a few days ago the blossoms on the plum tree were closed tight. Now they beckon to our bees.

We didn’t escape unscathed, however. In the fall we lost one hive to robbing and another hive and three nucs to wasps. Mistakes all on my part because I didn’t recognize telltale signs fast enough. All it took was an hour for the hive to be robbed, and the wasps nailed the others when I wasn’t paying attention.
At the B.C. Honey Producers Association’s semi-annual general meeting mid-month someone reminded me not to count my bees before they hatch: March is a critical month for bees, a time when hives can easily die as they run out of stores while waiting for the spring bloom.
We went back right after the conference and rearranged the honey stores on those hives that needed it, scratching the cappings to allow easier access. At the same time, I noted that all were queenright and had signs of both open and capped brood.
Then, for good measure I flipped a pollen patty on to the top bars just in case the weather stayed cool. Good thing, since we’ve only had a few nice days since then. But on Sunday we were rewarded with clouds of bees out foraging in the sunlight. I’m now pretty certain all the hives are going to make it, especially as the forecast for the next couple of weeks is mild and relatively sunny. Perhaps “out like a lamb” after all.
This last weekend we collapsed one of our small yards as part of a plan to do early early splits. We’re aiming to create 10 small nucs in which we will install mated queens coming from Kona Queens in Hawaii. It’s part of an ambitious, if not misguided master plan to move into semi-commercial beekeeping as I head towards retirement from the newspaper. We’re a long, long ways away from that goal, but a doubling of the hives this spring is at least a start, and perhaps a late-summer split may be possible as well. It will come at a sacrifice of honey production this year, however.

We closed one of our best yards in the Lower Mainland as a result of conflicts with the homeowner; he was getting stung last summer by bees  as he mowed across their flight path. Best to find another home.

We closed one of our best yards in the Lower Mainland as a result of conflicts with the homeowner; he was getting stung last summer by bees as he mowed across their flight path. Best to find another home.

Again, one of my mentors warned me to be realistic: we can plan all we want but nature has its own rhythm and nature’s bad guys are always ready to play the enforcer. We could easily be wiped out with American Foulbrood, varroa or nosema. I wouldn’t exactly call those pests factors of nature but rather inevitabilities of beekeeping.
Our plans were given a boost by the BCHPA’s timely spring education day, which dealt largely with how to create nucs and splits in the early spring and summer. Joe Lomond of Ashcroft Honey, one of the local old-timers, also does early spring splits with Hawaiian queens. Eric Stromgren, the BCHPA’s first vice-president, also gave hints on “advanced backyard beekeeping”, including how to keep a two-queen colony.
But it was Liz Huxter, the queen bee from Kettle Valley Queens, who I think most people were wanting to hear from. She and her husband Terry have become something of a legend in B.C. for their ability to produce locally-adapted queens of great fecundity, and for their prowess for overwintering small nucs with high survival rates in the Kootenays,
Even among the established and older beekeepers there was interest and surprise at the aggressiveness with which Liz and Terry create nucs in the summer. The pair will go into a yard of 25 doubled hives and come out the other end with 100 or more nucs for overwintering.
I taped Liz’s talk and was surprised to be asked by a long-time beekeeper for a copy because he’d not had such success creating and overwintering nucs. I guess we all learned something that day.

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