Christmas Gifts for Beekeepers

      At this time of year I'm especially appreciative that I have a roof over my head and food in my belly when so many in the world have neither.  You don't need to be a Christian to celebrate the idea of Christmas which should be a time of peace, love and selfless giving rather than the modern concept of commercialized over consumption.  Here are a few Christmas gift suggestions that we can give to beekeepers less fortunate than ourselves.  
     In many countries beekeeping is a practical solution to reduce poverty and relieve suffering.   Beekeeping requires little space, minimal cost and offers much needed income from the sales of honey, beeswax and pollen. In addition increased pollination from the introduction of these bees can substantially increase fruit and vegetable yields as well as pollinating native plants.  For most beekeeping has become a supplement to the family income but for an increasing number it has become a major part of the village economy.  This is one of reasons we created our Beekeepers' Library, to provide free localized information to beekeepers worldwide.  There are many good philanthropic beekeeping organizations worthy of your Christmas donations like Bahama Beekeeper's Hurricane Relief,  "Bees for Development", "Oxfam's Gift of Bees", "ICIMOD" and "Bees Abroad".
     One organization on my gift list is "Heifer International" which has been operating throughout the world for over 70 years.  For a mere $30 you can give the gift of honey bees.  

    Although I grow much of my own food and support local, organic farmers an organization that I support at Christmas and throughout the year is Fair Trade.  Farmers in developing countries have traditionally been exploited by greedy food distribution corporations.  A small portion of the price you pay for agricultural products from developing countries goes to the farmer.  The concept of "Fair Trade" has empowered these farmers and provided them and their communities with a fair income which has allowed them a healthier, happier lifestyle. This documentary "Hope is Golden" is about the beekeeping cooperatives in Brazil’s arid Caatinga region that produce Fair Trade certified honey.

     The Fair Trade organizations provide funding for the infrastructure required by farming cooperatives in developing countries.  "Fair Trade International" began 25 years ago and in 2012 the number of Fairtrade producing organizations grew by 16%.  It works and it is growing.  Each time you buy a Fair Trade product you are supporting the farmer and their family in the developing world rather than the multinational food distribution corporation.   Buying "Fair Trade" products (honey, tea, chocolate, sugar, fruit, flowers and coffee), easily identifiable by the "Fair Trade" symbol is a good idea throughout the year.
     Another organization that I support is "Schools for Chiapas".  Mexico is a prime example of how corporate agriculture exploits local farmers in developing worlds.  The Zapatista organization "Schools for Chiapas" struggles to educate (Schools for Chiapas projects) and empower local, native communities.  One part of this is the promotion and education of the beekeeping tradition of Meliponiculture.  Melipona beecheii are  stingless bees native to Mexico, Central America, the Carribean, and many parts of South America (Stingless Honey Bee of the Maya) which were domesticated by the Mayan people long before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.  In much of Latin America stingless beekeeping has been replaced by the introduction of the Africanized European Honey Bee (Killer Bees).  The native stingless bees are the only honey bee native to the Americas and are essential for the pollination of some native plants and Schools for Chiapas is supporting a revival of this traditional beekeeping practice.  You can support this initiative through the American Stingless Bee Recuperation Gift of Change.  They are also working to preserve the native, non gm varities of corn. (other Gifts of Change).
       In this video a group of Mayan women are challenging social norms and preserving an endangered species (The stingless bee, Melipona Beecheii).  Traditionally the prerogative of men in Mayan culture, beekeeping is providing this collective with a source of income and a reason to keep the species from going extinct.

          Organizations that I do not support or legitimize are Monsanto's Honey Bee Health, Bayer's Bee Care and Syngenta's Operation Pollinator.  There are a number of factors contributing to the demise of all species of bees including imported diseases, pests and diminished available forage, global warming but a major cause is the overuse of agrichemicals.  Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta are in the process of monopolizing the world seed market with patented genetically modified seeds that contain or are designed to accept massive quantities of agrichemicals that are dangerous to both bees and humans.  Their bee programs are a public relations ploy to divert you from the true danger of their products.

     A free gift I recommend to beekeepers of all ages is the wonderful book, "The Travelling Beehive".  This book is  written by Elena Garcia and Manuel Angel Rosado and beautifully illustrated by Juan Hernaz.  It is published by Apolo which is an organization dedicated to the preservation of pollinators and their habitat.  You can follow Polli the honey bee and her friend Dipter the hover fly as they face the challenges of a disappearing green space.  They are joined in their struggle by Bazumba the wild bee, Missus Bombus the bumblebee, Lepi the butterfly, her majesty the queen, Dorian the farmer and Ramon the beekeeper. Sit back with your children or grandchildren and enjoy the The Travelling Beehive.

     The bees are snuggled in their hives waiting for Santa.  Penny, from the Natural Beekeeping Trust of the United Kingdom says "Traditionally, Christian beekeepers have visited their colonies at midnight on Christmas Eve to tell the bees of the nativity.  They also hoped to hear the special melodious humming that the bees were said to perform at this time, portending health and prosperity throughout the coming year.  It was thought that this custom was predated by an earlier pre-Christian one when the return of the sun was by no means guaranteed!" If you're wondering what to recite to your bees on Christmas Eve here is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy.

The Bee Carol

Silently on Christmas Eve,
the turn of midnight's key;
all the garden locked in ice -
a silver frieze -
except the winter cluster of the bees.

Flightless now and shivering,
around their Queen they cling;
every bee a gift of heat;
she will not freeze
within the winter cluster of the bees.

Bring me for my Christmas gift
a single golden jar;
let me taste the sweetness there,
but honey leave
to feed the winter cluster of the bees.

Come with me on Christmas Eve
to see the silent hive -
trembling stars cloistered above -
and then believe,
bless the winter cluster of the bees.

     If you have any favorite bee projects that could use our financial assistance I would love to hear of them.  I hope that you, your bees and your family have a wonderful Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year.  Peace on earth and good will to all.

Merry Christmas!

Winter Preparation for Vancouver Beekeepers

      It's August and time for Vancouver beekeepers to prepare for winter.  Actually winter preparation is an ongoing task (Beekeeping Calendar for B.C.).  The main reasons our bees die over the winter is starvation, colonies suffering from parasitic mite syndrome, too few bees to heat the cluster and moisture.  I complete my winter hive setup by the middle of October.  Much of what you do in preparation depends on your management style of beekeeping (virtually nothing for the extreme natural beekeeper to intense management for others).  This is a revised post from last year and are just a few suggestions based on my experience keeping bees in Vancouver.

     To address the food issue you will need at least 10 deep frames or 12+ medium frames of honey (65 lbs or 30 kgs) for an average sized colony to survive the winter.  In our specific location (Strathcona) we still have a strong availability of nectar and pollen with many different plant species still in flower in our 4 acre garden and the surrounding area.  Due to global warming plants in Vancouver can begin to flower 2-3 weeks earlier than in the past so our forage shortage begins in mid September.  The problem occurs when the temperatures are still warm and dry enough from mid September through October for the colony to stay active.  An active colony without a natural food source will consume much of the winter food supply.  I'm fortunate this year to have a good supply of honey frames from my stronger hives that I can share with my weaker hives.  This is why I prefer to wait til October to extract honey when I know the state of my winter supply.  Some beekeepers have started feeding 2 to 1 syrup to their hives now because their honey reserves are low.  This is a personal decision based on your style of beekeeping and your location.  I usually like to reserve my feeding to emergency late winter feeding.  An issue with syrup feeding this time of year is making sure most of the syrup the bees store gets capped.  The uncapped syrup will become a source of winter moisture and mold.     
     I've identified our main foraging shortage to occur from mid September to mid October so to address this issue I have separated the root balls of common Asian Asters for planting and transplanted the invasive Canadian Goldenrod (Aster).  When mature the common Asian Aster becomes a 1.5 by 1.5 metre (4 by 4 foot) bush with hundreds of flowers and can bloom well into October.  We have about a few hundred autumn flowering variety Asters in our 4 acre garden.  Other late bloomers in our garden are Japanese Anemone, Mint, Autumn Joy Sedum, Scarlet Runner Bean, Jersulam Artichoke, and the invasive Japanese Knotweed  (Nectar Plants of British Columbia).  A mixed diet is essential for the girls so some other late blooming plants are Caryopteris 'Dark Knight' (Blue Mist Spirea), Dahlia, Hardy Fushia, Seven Sons flower (Autumn Lilac), Impatiens omeianan, Camellia sinensis (Hardy tea bush) and Osmanthus fragrans (Fragrant Olive) (Nutritional Value of Bee Collected Pollens and Pollen Sources).  I will avoid the temptation to plant the invasive late blooming ivy and Himalayan Balsam. 

It's good at this point to make sure you have your emergency winter feeders ready if you plan to use them. A major cause of colony death is late winter starvation (February - April) which can be solved by the use of an emergency winter feeder (Candy Board).  

They're easy to build with 1x2's and quarter inch wire mesh and can be a colony lifesaver.  You can quickly check on the feeders through the late winter to gauge the status of the food supply.  Some beekeepers begin feeding in August.  This article "Feeding Bees in Winter" describes the different methods of feeding at different temperatures.  The girls will take a 2 to 1 syrup down to about 12 celsius (53 fahrenheit) after which they find it too difficult to dehydrate for storage.  Some beekeepers will feed syrup baggies on top of the frames in colder temperatures on the theory that heat from the cluster warms the syrup.  I've not tried this.  In the Greater Vancouver area there are very big differences in winter food requirements based on available foraging days and available forage. Because of the  effect of the North Shore Mountains precipitation varies from 150+ inches (380 centimeters) annually at the upper altitudes of the mountains to 30 inches (75 centimeters) along the U.S. border.  This effect reduces precipitation and increases hours of sunlight as you move southward.  The graph below divides Greater Vancouver into 9 zones with 9 being the upper altitudes of the North Shore Mountains and 1 being the southern region along the U.S. border (Greater Vancouver Precipitation).  As the crow flies this is a distance of less than 30 kilometers or 20 miles.

Though active at lower temperatures I have found high population foraging in our apiary at 12 degrees celsius (53 fahrenheit) in March (Willow trees, Forsythia, Flowering Cherry).

This means more flyable, foraging weather the further south you live and the more active the colony with the additional needed sunshine warming the hive and bees. I have observed the activity of the bees throughout the lower mainland to be directly linked to the number of hours of sunlight on the hives.  Conclusion, for optimum colony health move to a southern suburb like Tsawwassen, Ladner, White Rock or Abbotsford or maximize the sun exposure on your hives (South to southeast exposure with minimal shade).  We moved our apiary because it was surrounded by fast growing Black Locust, Willow and Cottonwood trees (Great pollen and nectar sources). 
      Also effecting hive performance is available forage which can vary according to whether you are in a rural agricultural or urban setting. The rural, agricultural areas in Surrey, Delta and the Fraser Valley tend to have extreme honey and brood production during crop blossoms but can suffer in the off season while the urban areas tend to have a more consistent food source availability throughout the foraging period (March - November) due to urban landscaping and irrigation. We're fortunate to have 7 cultivated acres in our 2 combined community gardens surrounded by fields of clover and flowering trees.  While it varies by region, because of the reasons discussed above (weather and available forage) and the size of the colony we need on average a minimum of 10 deep or 12 medium frames of honey (65 lbs or 30 kilograms) to over winter.  The honey frames should be positioned on both sides of the cluster in the bottom box and above the cluster in the second super (super = hive box).  If the cluster is in an upper box it's recommended to switch the box to the bottom in preparation for winter.  In the spring you can reverse that process as the girls will have worked their way up to upper part of the second box.

Winter cluster at the end of winter
For a Kenyan Top Bar put the cluster at one end and the honey frames next to the cluster.  I've always run all deep supers in my Langstroth hives because universal boxes and frames are easier to manage.  I can add honey frames from my third or fourth box to the brood boxes to over winter.  Many new beekeepers and some old are moving towards all medium boxes because of the lighter weight.  This makes sense as a deep box of honey can weigh 80 lbs (36 kgs).
      All beekeepers have plus and negative food accumulation months and generally April 1 to Oct 1 are positive food accumulation months for us in the Strathcona area of Vancouver.  March and October can be neutral but are usually negative depending on the available foraging days (weather).  November through February are winter cluster, negative food accumulation months.
Pest and Disease Control      
     The biggest problem I see with new beekeepers is not planning ahead.   In our beekeeping coop new beekeepers are always rushing around for needed hive boxes and frames, feeders, robber screens, quilts …. The best advice I could give new beekeepers is to plan 2 months ahead of where you are at.   Pest and disease identification and control should be an ongoing process and if you are beginning now it may be too late.  Evidence of chalk brood or nosema would indicate a weak colony (Honey Bee Diseases and Parasites).  Increased ventilation and removal of old comb can be done to combat the chalk brood and a pollen patty/fumagillin mixture may help combat the nosema.  Mite counts throughout the year and subsequent treatments should let you know whether you have a major issue.  Mite treatments like formic acid can continue into October as long as there is a day time high temp of 10c and oxalic acid is usually done in December when there is little to no brood present.  A mistake made by many beekeepers is to treat in August and with a large, healthy colony assume everything is fine.  Continue mite tests and treatment through September.  A reduced screened entrance using eighth inch hardware cloth can be used to allow for needed ventilation during formic acid treatments while providing a more easily defended (against wasps) reduced entrance.  The video below "Getting Your Hives Ready for Winter" is a recorded webinar with Kim Flottum (Bee expert and editor of Bee Culture magazine) which does a very good job of discussing winter preparation for bee colonies focusing on year around mite control.  Controlling mites goes a long way to controlling virus transmission and overall colony health.


Cold and Moisture
      The U.S. Bee Informed Survey of wintering hives (the only large scale North American winter survival survey) showed that only 3 conditions determined winter survival success and they were adequate food, strong colonies (equalization or combining hives) and ventilation (moisture reduction).

The survey is extensive and includes the results for geographic region, all types of pest and disease management, feeding and winter preparation.  The Bee Informed Survey 2016 - 2017

     Wrapping and insulation showed no benefit but I think that depends on where you live.  If you live in cold northern climates like Winterpeg either you wrap and insulate or you bring the girls inside. 40 below is 40 below.  Insulation is not necessary in Vancouver and can be counter productive by keeping the heat out and preventing the hive from warming up.  Some local beekeepers wrap their hives with black roofing paper to prevent wind penetration and to help absorb the heat (Black objects absorb more heat).   The argument against this is that the girls take care of any wind penetration with use of propolis and do we want a warmer hive in the winter?  Warmer means more active bees and more food consumption.  For us wrapping in March may be a good option as we have lots of blossoms (Willow, forsythia, flowering cherry, bulbs ...) but marginal foraging temperatures.  Wrapping would warm the hives and get the girls flying earlier in the day increasing their pollen and nectar intake and stimulate egg laying.

Temperature difference on black and white surface
     Wintering your bees is like real estate value in that the 3 most important considerations are location, location and location.  Location dictates the methods you will use to protect your bees from the elements. Windbreaks are essential in some areas where there are cold, winter winds, especially for rooftop beekeepers.  In winter Vancouver has a predominant, low pressure weather pattern with winds from the southeast that bring with it fairly constant cool, wet weather.  We have only a few snow falls per year and a few weeks of freezing temperatures.  Therefore moisture, not cold is our biggest issue.  The moisture is created when warm air created by the cluster of bees rises and contacts the cold inner cover creating cold condensation which drips onto the cluster.  There are a lot of different methods to reduce moisture in the hive like tilting the hive forward by putting a 2x4 under the back of the hive to allow the moisture to run down the front of the hive and not on the cluster.  Another option is an Insulated Moisture Quilt placed above the hive boxes to reduce cold condensation dripping on the winter cluster.
The bee hive in winter without any form of moisture reduction

Insulated Moisture Quilt
The heat produced by the cluster rises to contact the warmer insulated cover producing less condensation, which then drips onto the wood chips (not the bees) which are dried by the vent holes.  They are easy to make out of scrap material and the link above provides detailed building instructions.  During winter you must have an upper entrance in your Langstroth hive for ventilation and because dead bees can block the lower entrance.  I presently have my upper entrance covered with eighth inch hardware cloth to keep out robber bees and wasps.  I will remove this once those threats have passed.  For moisture reduction in a Kenyan Top Bar Hive beekeepers can use an insulated moisture quilt, carpet over the top bars (Bill Stagg's method) or reflective insulation (Sam Comfort's method).  Whether you leave your screened bottom board open or not (for increased ventilation) is debatable but if left open you must block the drafts from blowing under the hive.  I put the mite test board in to block the winter winds but have friends who do not and successfully overwinter their bees.  One moisture issue is that if you feed syrup to your bees in September and October some of the stored syrup may not be capped before the arrival of winter and it may ferment and mold and increase the moisture within the hive.
     In Vancouver we get at least 2 major storms a year of 80+ km winds (50 miles per hr).  For this reason and the presence of skunks and racoons we use cinder blocks on our hives to prevent the outer cover from blowing off or being removed and have positioned the hives to have a natural wind break (berm to the south).  A wind break is particularly important for roof top beekeepers.  Though not necessary some of us use pieces of plexiglass extending 4+ inches over our outer covers to provide additional weather protection and extend the life of our beekeeping equipment.

 Winter Hive

      With the decrease in available forage robbing and wasp attacks become a real concern starting in August so guard bees will become more defensive and in the wild the colony may reduce the size of the entrance with propolis and wax.  The beekeeper can assist by reducing the entrance to as small as 1.5 centimeters or a half inch to make it easier to defend.  In Vancouver wasps have been more aggressive, longer into the winter over the last few years.  I received a swarm call last year in December.  There had been a few hard frosts so out of interest (knowing it wasn't a swarm)  I went to see a very active paper yellowjacket nest in an unheated crawl space.  The Yellowjacket wasps and Bald Faced Hornets have been aggressive in our apiary for about 4 weeks, attempting to enter hives and picking off stray bees at the entrance.   I have reduced the bottom entrance of my hives to between a half inch (1.5 cm) for weaker colonies to 3 inches for stronger colonies and screened off the upper entrance (eigth inch hardware cloth).  This blocks potential wasp intrusion and robbing by other bees if you are feeding and still allows ventilation. The girls are better able to defend the reduced single entrance.  Wasps will stay active at cooler temperatures than your bees so when the girls are in cluster the wasps may enter the hive.  I don't indiscriminately kill wasps (I've identified 9 different types in our garden including recently a parasitic wasp in my blue mason and leaf cutter bee cocoons) but have found them increasingly aggressive towards our colonies for a longer period of time in the fall (last year until December).  I've found the pheremone lure variety to be very effective on our greatest threat which are the common Yellowjacket wasps (does not attract Bald Faced Hornets).  This lure trap can also be used in the spring to kill the emerging wasp queens.  The Rescue brand lure variety works well.

Wasp trap
You can also make your own wasp trap.  Here is a study from the University of Athens showing the effectiveness of 3 different types of traps (Wasp Traps).  Maybe the easiest and most popular is the pop bottle trap.  We have a number of these out now with a 50/50 mixture of sugar and water and a capfull of vinegar poured in the entrance to keep the bees away.  They have worked very well but you need to add a capfull of vinegar occasionally to dissuade the bees.  Here is a study from the University of California on the effectiveness of different baits (Baits for the Control of Yellowjackets).  I've not had much success with fish or meat baits  later in the summer.  These protein baits are successful earlier in the season when the wasps are feeding their brood.  Wasps prefer a sugar and water bait at this time of year.  For more information on wasps go to the Wasp section of our Beekeeping Library.

  If wasp attacks or robbing persists you can use a robber screen which are easy to make.

Equalization or Combining Colonies     
      It is recommended that new beekeepers have 2 hives rather than 1 because inevitably one will be stronger than the other.  This allows you to strengthen the weaker hive with bees from the stronger colony (Equalization of Bee Colonies Strength by Khalil Hamdan) or to split the stronger hive if you lose the weaker colony.  Though this can be done in the spring it can also be done in preparation for winter by adding 2-3 frames of bees and brood as needed and available every 3-4 weeks starting in July.  If you find you have a weak colony now you can combine the colony with a stronger one using the newspaper method (Uniting Honey Bees by David Cushman).  Although some will insist it imperative to kill the weaker queen others like the late, great David Cushman suggest that it is not necessary: "Many texts will tell you to kill the least desirable queen in one of the two groups to be united, but I find it is often prudent to leave both queens, so that the bees can make the choice, in most cases the younger and fitter queen remains, but there may be subtle things in a queen's make up that the bees are better able to make choices about rather than the beekeeper (David Cushman)."  Some beekeepers (not me) like to requeen as part of their winter preparation to make sure they have young, active queens the following spring.  In October most beekeepers reduce their Langstroth hives to 2 deep supers and Kenyan Top Bar hives are reduced by moving your follower board or your false backs forward (Winterizing your Top Bar Hive).  Queen excluders should be removed so the queen can move with the cluster as it moves upward.

The newspaper method of combining hives

      Though still mild it's time to think of mice which like to winter in the hives. There are a hundred different varieties of mouse proof entrances from quarter inch screened mesh, drilled metal sheet to simple nails minimizing the entrance.  The mice can get through a fairly small area and will chew through wood.  I use a simple wood entrance reducer with a nail reducing the entrance to just over the width of a bee.  This allows for the removal of dead bees which the girls do as part of winter house cleaning.  If you find the mice chewing on the entrance reducer you can wrap it in wire mesh.  Here is an easy step by step guide to making a mouse guard from Brooksfield Farm just south of us near Mt. Baker.

Difficult house cleaning
Wire mesh mouse proof entrance reducer
       For more information on wintering your colonies check out the recorded webinars by Kim Flottum, "Getting your hives ready for winter" or "Putting the hive to bed for winter".  You may also want to check out The Biology and Management of Colonies in Winter , Winterization Guide for Beekeeping , The Thermology of Wintering Honey Bee Colonies or Wrapping a Honey Bee Colony with Tar Paper  from the "Winter Management" section of the Beekeepers' Library.  Good luck to you and your bees and stay dry.

                            For more information and to register click on this link.

Bees Luv Dandelions

One of our girls enjoying a Dandelion
     It was a beautiful, sunny, 20 degree celsius (70 fahrenheit) day in the garden and the bees were very active.  At this time of year there are a wide assortment of blossoms available to be foraged upon but one of the favourites is an unplanted native, invasive plant, the Dandelion (Taraxacum) of the Asteraceae (Aster) Family. Many still think of the Dandelion as an unwanted weed but I hope that attitude is changing along with the need for a manicured lawn (Grow food not lawns).  For us the Dandelion can flower throughout the growing period and if the seed heads are allowed to mature you are guaranteed a plentiful crop.
     My city garden is a 4 acre community garden close to downtown Vancouver and through the years I have grown to appreciate the invasive plants (weeds?).  Being a very multicultural city it is so interesting to hear the perspective of different cultures on particular plants.  Gout weed ( Aegopodium podagraria) for example is an extremely invasive plant, native to Eurasia which although enjoyed by the bees is difficult to remove and an irritant to most gardeners.  One day two Asian Canadian women approached me and asked if they could harvest our gout weed.  Attempting to hide my enthusiasm I asked them why.  They told me of it's medicinal properties (primarily to treat stomach ailments- thus the name gout weed) and told me how they boil it and prepare a tea.  On the same day I saw two older men harvesting dandelion leaves.  They explained to me that in Italy they cherish the leaves and fry them in olive oil and garlic.
     The entire Dandelion plant is edible and the flower petals, along with other ingredients, are used to make dandelion wine. The leaves are best when they first appear or after the first frost (Recipes). The ground, roasted roots can be used as a caffeine-free dandelion coffee.  Dandelion was also traditionally used to make the traditional British soft drink dandelion and burdock, and is one of the ingredients of root beer.  Also, Dandelions were once delicacies eaten by the Victorian gentry mostly in salads and sandwiches.  Dandelion leaves contain abundant vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins A, C, K, niacin, riboflaven and are good sources of calcium, potassium, iron, manganese and beta carotene.  Lecithin in the flower detoxifies the liver.  As well Dandelions nourish other plants through their long (up to 3 ft) tap root which brings minerals and nutrients from a less contaminated part of the soil to the surface where it is utilized by the shorter roots of neighbouring plants.  If you break the stem of a dandelion the white fluid that appears can be used to ease the pain of bee stings or sores.  Wow!  What an amazing plant.

     Like us bees are healthier, live longer and perform better when feeding on a mixed diet. 

"There is a growing body of evidence showing that poor nutrition can be a major player in affecting honey bee health. Eischen and Graham (2008) demonstrated that well-nourished honey bees are less susceptible to Nosema ceranae than poorly nourished bees.  Naug (2009) tested the hypothesis that nutritional stress due to habitat loss has played a major role in causing CCD by analyzing the land use data in U.S. He showed a significant correlation between the number of colony loss from each state and the state’s ratio of open land relative to its developed land area."   Zachary Huang, Michigan State University

     Bee Friendly Farming practices are essential for a healthy bee population.  Specifically, adopting a diverse pollinator beneficial planting farming practice.  Different pollens have different nutritional value to bees and studies have shown a slight improvement in performance when feeding on Dandelion (Nutritional Value of Bee Collected Pollens).  Interestingly for me two of the most nutritious pollens for bees, blackberry and cottonwood trees are aggressive volunteers in our garden. 

      For many in search of that manicured, green lawn a remedy for the removal of dandelions is to use a herbicide.  I request that you put away the Roundup herbicide and let your dandelions grow or control them by removing the flowers before they go to seed.  Before Roundup became the most used herbicide in the world it was a metal chelator or cleaner.  Numerous studies have proven the toxic effects of Glyphosate and  the World Health Organization has determined that Glyphosate is probably a carginogen .  In a recent study Glyphosate was found present in 98% of Canadian honey samples.  A recent U.S. court awarded 2 billion dollars in damages for the causation of cancer in Albert Pilliod (Monsanto hit with $2 billion damages verdict in third Roudup trial).  There are also studies showing the negative effects on our bees (Effects of Glyphosate on honeybee apetite and naviation).  There is an alternative.  You and I as food producers and consumers can grow and eat organically and if desired we can control the spread of dandelions by removing the flowers (hand, scythe, lawnmower or weedeater) before they go to seed (Dandelion Wine ?) or by hiring some unemployed goats (Rent a Goat).  Your bees will thank you.

Honey Bee Nucs vs Packages

     There are few hard, set in concrete rules in beekeeping despite what some will tell you. Whether to buy a bee nuc or package depends like a lot of things on your location and your needs.
     A nuc (nucleus of a colony) consists of 4-5 frames of bees in a half sized Langstroth deep box which should include a laying queen, 2 frames of brood and 2 frames of honey and/or pollen. A typical package consists of 3 pounds of bees, and a queen. Normally the package bees are from production hives where they shake out bees into the package box. A mated queen is then placed in the package, protected in a queen cage.  There is usually a container of syrup in the package to feed the bees for the days before they are transferred to a hive. A package is usually put together a few days before sold and in the case of cold weather beekeepers in spring comes from a warmer location to the south. In our case because of government restrictions (No U.S. Bees to Canada) this means thousands of miles south from New Zealand, Australia or Chile. The video below shows the process of creating a package of bees.

      The main advantage of the package is that in cold weather areas they are available (March) a few months before local nucs (May) which allows beekeepers to take advantage of spring fruit blossoms.  Fortunately for us in Vancouver a supply of "overwintered nucs" are available this year at the same time as the package, cheaper than the package (devalued dollar) and a better option.  However, in British Columbia the supply does not meet the demand as over 3,000 packages of bees will be imported this March from New Zealand to help pollinate the Fraser Valley blueberries.  In l985 biologist and author Mark Winston wrote "it is estimated that, at present colony densities, BC has the potential to produce 75,520 spring packages each year, and increased colony density and a higher level of commercial beekeeping could elevate this figure. Continued and increased package and nucleus production, coupled with increased wintering and queen production, could result in a high degree of Canadian self-sufficiency within the next few years (l989 Study on package and nuc production in B.C.)."  That self-sufficiency was never realized.  Large scale package and nuc production was never developed and with current 30% winter colony losses our dependence on imported packages will continue.
      Packages are a necessity in some areas because of the lack of nucs available.  They are usually cheaper, have less pests and diseases (no comb) and can be installed into any type of hive.  In most areas the packages come from a warmer climate so winter survival is less likely as proven in a good, small scale study carried out in New England by master beekeeper Erin MacGregor-Forbes (Comparison of colony strength and survivability between nucs and packages).  This single study is certainly not conclusive evidence but suggests a problem with imported warm weather packages and a need for more projects like this.  Erin found a significant difference in winter survival between the southern package and nucleus (the nucs had twice the survival rate) but also found that a southern package with a replaced local queen performed as well as the nucleus.

      In our situation bee packages come from a similar climate but the opposite hemisphere so they leave New Zealand in late summer and arrive in Canada a few days later in early Spring where it can be freezing and snowing (I have experienced this).  This obviously can be hard on the bees.  Erin also found in her study that the packages outperformed the nucs in terms of honey production which she attributed to a high rate of swarming by the nucleus colonies. I don't know if she took measures to prevent swarming but this has not been my experience .  I've not had exceptional problems with nucs swarming but have used swarm prevention methods like checkerboarding and splits (Check out "Swarms" section of our library).

       The benefits of using a nucleus over a package are that the queen is established, she is laying, you can see the brood pattern and there are usually at least 2 frames of brood.

Good brood pattern
     The worker bees in a nucleus colony know their roles so there are nurse bees and foragers and the foundation is set (drawn comb) which will put them at least a few weeks ahead of an imported package. 

Bees with a sense of humour drawing out a frame
     Many backyard beekeepers will not have drawn frames to install their packages on to so a lot of energy and feeding will be required to produce the wax to draw out the frames.  Because there are foragers and at least one frame of honey and pollen the nucleus may not require feeding (depending on spring weather conditions).

Frame of honey

     A survey by the Beekeepers Assocition of North Virginia to determine if the source of queens effected colony winter survival found significant differences between southern packages (23%) and local nucs (87%).  While this is an extreme example I thinks it supports the theory of the benefits of local nucs over imported southern packages.     
     While the package may be a necessity for the commercial beekeeper, in my humble opinion if available the nuc from local, survivor stock is a better option even two months after the package particularly for the new beekeeper.  With the nuc, because you have an established colony (Queen) with drawn comb and stores there is less likelihood of problems like absconding or queen failure that can occur with packages.  Biologist and author Mark Winston (Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive) suggests we need to wean ourselves off of this dependence on imported bees.  The solution lies in the lowering of the winter loss rate possibly through the development of a strong local, survivor stock with hygienic behavior.  The increasing popularity of overwintering nucs may also be helpful.


     In the video below Michael Palmer describes some of the difficulties associated with starting a bee hive from scratch using package bees including the lack of nurse bees for the new brood.

     For more information on nucs and packages check out "Splits, Nucs and Packages" in the Basic Beekeeping section of the Beekeepers' Library.  Be sure to check out the articles on overwintering nucs by Kirk Webster, Mel Disselkoen and others in the "Winter Management" section of our library.  In Vancouver Urban Bee, B.C. Beekeeping, West Coast Bee Supplies and Dancing Bee Apiary will be selling packages in March - April and B.C. Beekeeping will be selling local, overwintered nucs in May (Vancouver Bees for Sale). 
     Vancouver has been experiencing unseasonably cold weather with temperatures below freezing.  Hopefully spring will arrive soon.

Feeding Bees in Winter

     First let me say that I don't usually feed my bees unless it is a late winter/early spring emergency feed. There are exceptions such as extreme drought but in most areas of the world where honey bees are kept the bees produce enough honey to overwinter. 
     Depending on the length of your winter (no natural food source or too cold to forage) a full colony of bees in our northern regions will consume between 27-40 kgs (60-90 lbs) of honey.  In our apiary in Vancouver we have found that a average sized colony requires 10-12 deep frames (30 kg or 66 lbs - every area is different) to overwinter in a normal year.  Every location is different.  Opening the hive in winter should be avoided but if necessary you can check if your hive is in need of winter feeding with a quick check on a nice day (not snowing or windy).  It's possible to avoid opening the hive by monitoring the weight (vs weight at beginning of winter) by simply lifting the back of the hive if you have experience or using a simple luggage scale.  Here is an example of a winter hive check.

     In beekeeping it may vary yearly but months are either negative or positive in terms of food accumulation.  In our temperate northern climate April to October are positive accumulation months, March and October are neutral depending on the weather and November through February are negative.  
     In some areas where there is a late summer dearth (lack of forage) beekeepers will feed a 2 to 1 sugar syrup mixture to ready their bees for winter.  When the weather is still warm and there is not good forage, the bees are still very active and can consume a lot of their winter food supplies.  This can occur for us in October.  The recipes listed here are not as good as the natural food (honey) bees make for themselves but there are some situations when beekeepers will choose to supplement their bees' diet with a carbohydrate and/or protein feed.  Sugar syrup is sometimes fed to bees in the spring and fall but below a certain temperature (approximately 12 C / 54 F) the bees are unable to dehydrate the liquid to store it.  One issue to keep in mind when autumn feeding is the accumulation of stored uncapped syrup in frames which acts as a hive humidifier in winter.  It's a good idea to minimize this.  Some beekeepers maintain that the warmth from the cluster will be sufficient to heat a plastic baggy of syrup placed above the cluster at colder temperatures.  I've not tried this.  
     When it is colder beekeepers can use a solid sugar feed in dry form as a sugar cake.  In the "Feeding" section of our "Beekeepers Library" you will find recipes for syrup, candy, pollen patties, grease patties, pollen substitute, essential oil mixtures, inverted sugar syrup and other bee food products.  If you are using sugar make sure it is refined sucrose (table sugar) without impurities.  Unrefined sugars have poisoned bees and brown sugar and molasses are toxic to bees (Selecting sugars for feeding to Honey Bees).  While it was previously thought that high fructose corn syrup, which is used by many commercial beekeepers was chemically indistinguishable from honey a recent study (Honey elements induce detoxification and immunity) found that honey contains important elements of pollen and propolis.  These elements induce the detoxification and immunity genes and may help the bees cope with pesticides and pathogens.  Feeding anything but their own honey is not a long term healthy alternative.  
     Some beekeepers believe that if you invert the sucrose (refined table sugar) by adding an acid (i.e vinegar) you will create a more natural food similar to honey and easier to digest.  The inversion process changes the sucrose to fructose and glucose essentially the same as honey.  However, there is no scientific evidence supporting this and bees actually perform the inversion in the digestive process in their honey stomach.  Another issue you may wish to consider is whether your sugar contains pesticides.  That will depend on your supplier.  
     When feeding in winter you want to apply the food so that the girls do not have to leave their winter cluster.  You can invert your inner cover to leave space to place the sugar cake or patty on top of the frames or build a simple spacer or eke.  I use 2 inch feeding spacers similar to those used by Anita at Beverley Bees (Beverley Bees Candy Board) and a simple no cook sugar and water mixture.  Remember to make your spacer as small as possible as the ladies love to fill that space with comb and may do so rather quickly in the spring.  You can feed the ladies dry sugar on paper (Michael Bush uses a dry granulated sugar for cold weather feeding) on top of the frames wetted down with water (the hive humidity should keep it moist)  or make a Sugar Cake.  You can check quickly throughout the winter on nicer days (avoid windy,snowy days) and add as needed.  Here is a demonstration by Philip from adding a sugar cake on a winter day. 

Here is a few simple recipes for those not as lazy as me:

Fondant from Granulated Sugar
Fondant can be fed directly to the bees once cooled. They are a good food source for mini-mating nucs because there is no drowning involved when you have a small amount of bees. It is also common to use this recipe in small quantities to plug the hole on a Queen Cage.
< 1 large saucepan
< 1 Hand or electric mixer
< 1 Cooking themometer
< Shallow disposable setting pans (pizza)

< 4 parts (by volume) granulated white sugar
< 1 parts (by volume) water
< Optional 1 teaspoon white vinegar

Boil water and slowly add the sugar until dissolved, stirring constantly. Continue heating until the mixture reaches 238°F (114°C). Without mixing allow the solution to cool until it is slightly warm to the touch (200F). Then begin to mix (in a mixer) and aerate the solution. As you do this the color should turn white and creamy with air bubbles. Pour into shallow dishes or mold and allow to cool.  To feed it can be placed directly on top of the frames or in a feeding spacer.  You can make the fondant thin enough to where it can be worked into an empty frame of drawn comb.

This video is a step by step process of how to make their version of fondant by the Northwest New Jersey Beekeepers Association.

Bee Candy
Candy is not used as much as in the past because it's harder to make and work with.  However here is the recipe for those not deterred by hard work.
< Heavy duty cooking pans
< Large spoon for stirring
< Measuring jug
< Cooking themometer
< Plastic containers
< Enameled or pyrex dishes

< Refined granulated white sugar
< Water
< Cooking oil
< Newspapers

Pour 500 ml (1 pint) of water in a heavy saucepan and add 2 kgs. granulated sugar. Heat to the boiling point, stirring constantly to prevent the sugar burning on the bottom. Continue to boil til the syrup reaches 117 degrees centigrade (242 fahrenheit).  Prepare your enamel or pyrex glass dish by coating with vegetable oil, then lining with a sheet of newspaper.  Also, soak an old towel in cold water and lay it on a waterproof heat proof work surface.  Once the boiling syrup has reached 117 degrees centigrade place it on the wet towel to cool.  Stir the mixture continuously as it thickens.  Stir only so long that the mixture can still be poured into the lined dishes.  Allow to set and cool and to remove (when cooled) pull gently on the edges of the paper liner. 

     Here are a few other versions of fondant recipes from Brookfield Farm and Backyard Beehive or you can purchase it from a retailer like Brushy Mountain Bee Farm.  Whether you use the above recipes or just dry granulated sugar you can check on your feed and add as needed whenever there is a break in the weather.  Here is another video showing feeding at 40 fahrenheit (4 celsius).  


     Pollen patties (with sugar) provide both the carbohydrates from sugar and the proteins from pollen (or pollen substitute) and stimulate brood production.  In Vancouver pollen patties can be added as early as February. There is a theory to begin feeding pollen patties 8 weeks prior to the heavy pollen flow (for us fruit tree blossom).  3 weeks for the girls to be born, 3 weeks to become foragers and two weeks to build up the forager numbers. Remember the presence of new pollen in the hive triggers the queen to produce brood which is why there is little to no brood production through the winter.  Pollen is the source of protein and nutrients for bees.  The level of body protein in bees varies seasonally between 21-67% depending on the availability and type of pollen available and the amount of energy expended foraging and brood raising. Different blossoms produce different quality pollen.  For example dandelions and blueberries produce a fairly low nutritional pollen while almond pollen is fairly high in nutrition. 

Dandelion pollen, although attractive to bees lacks certain amino acids.  Other types of pollen must be gathered in order to fully utilize the protein.

     Bees store protein in their bodies in the form of vitellogenin which directly determines their life span and immunological strength  to fight diseases and pests.  When the body protein level in bees drops it may take several weeks to recover.  Low body protein level means low brood and honey production.  A wide variety of pollens are essential for optimum bee health as each pollen provides different essential nutrients.  The report, "Nutritional Value of Bee Collected Pollens" is an qualitative analysis of the pollen from different plants and trees.  This is why pollen patties or pollen substitute patties are not a healthy alternative to a natural variety of stored pollens but rather a diet supplement.  Having said that research has shown that colonies receiving pollen supplements in early spring can produce 2-4 times the brood of a non supplemented colony.  In addition the life span of worker bees is increased up to 15 days and consequently mid summer honey production is also increased.  
     The best protein source for supplemental feeding is of course pollen.  Studies show that bees are attracted to pollen and consume significantly more when the patties contain pollen rather than pollen substitute.  The graph below illustrates the benefits of pollen in supplemental feeding.  

Having said that pollen can be a carrier of bee diseases and if the source is unknown should be irradiated before use in a pollen patty. Since most beekeepers don't want to irradiate use your own pollen collected from healthy hives.  The nutritional value of pollen diminishes quickly when dried and stored so it is best to freeze your pollen immediately after collecting without drying.  It is recommended that you use between 3-5% pollen in your pollen patty and that your overall protein level be about 25%.  The best protein supplements or alternatives to pollen are yeast and soy flour.  Brewer's yeast has a 48-56% protein content and is a good but expensive protein source to stimulate brood production.  The more affordable soy flour (48-50% crude protein level) appears to be more of an adult bee food stimulating activity in the hive.  Due to these different benefits a combination of these protein sources is recommended.  Other additives like pollard (mixture of fine bran and flour- vitamin and essential oil source), vegetable oil (feed palatability), vitamins and minerals and sugar (carbohydrate and energy source) can be utilized.  I read recently where a local beekeeper is using herring meal as a protein source and no his honey doesn't taste like fish. Human vitamin and mineral supplements are made for mammals not bees so are not recommended.  Always use fresh ingredients as nutritional values decrease with time and old soy flour may even be toxic to bees.  Sugar is an attractant in your feed and vegetable oil (like soy or cotton seed) can make it more palatable.  The patty should be placed directly over the winter bee cluster which is normally in the middle of the brood box as the bees will not leave the cluster if it is cold.  You can invert your inner cover to make room for the pollen patty.  If you find there is not enough room between your hive frames and your inner cover you can make a simple hive eke (an extender frame or shallow box). When I made my insulated moisture quilt (Insulated Moisture Quilt) I left space over the frames for supplemental feeding.  Here are a few pollen or substitute pollen patty recipes. 

Pollen Patty (3 different recipes)

In supplement mixes, the percentage of pollen can be increased or decreased depending on availability.

#1             3 parts soybean flour
                 1 part pollen

#2             4 parts Brewer’s Yeast
                  2 parts dry sugar
                 1 part pollen
                 2 parts lighter sugar syrup (2 sugar : 1 water)

#3              10 parts Torula Type S Yeast
                  10 parts Brewer’s Yeast
                   1 part pollen
Note: use 2 parts dry mix to 3 parts syrup

Substitute Pollen Patty (3 different recipes)

#1               soybean flour only

#2               4 parts soybean flour
                   1 part Brewer’s Yeast

#3               10 parts soybean flour
                  6 parts casein
                   3 parts Brewer’s Yeast
                   1 part egg yolk powder

In each case, add 4-5 parts of the dry mix to 2 parts heavy sugar syrup as indicated below in directions on preparation of patties.

Prepare patties as follows:

Mix dry ingredients thoroughly.
Mix a heavy syrup of 3 parts sugar to 1 part water.
Slowly add 2 parts of syrup to 4-5 parts of dry mix (see dry mix formulas above), while kneading.
Leave overnight and knead again before flattening into a 1.5 cm cake.
Cut into squares weighing about 0.5 kg (1 lb).
Place on wax paper and cover with another wax paper to prevent drying.

Here is a video from DC Honeybees showing how to make a substitute pollen patty using these ingredients: 
1/2 lb yeast;
1/2 lb dried milk;
1.5 lb soy flour;
1/3 cup canola oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
a multi vitamin

Here are the folks from Mudsongs installing a pollen patty.

     I checked my hives a few days ago on a warm (8 C or 46 fahrenheit), sunny day and found lots of food remaining.  Don't worry Spring is just around the corner.  I saw my first cherry blossoms of the year yesterday.  For more information on feeding bees go to the "Feeding" section of our "Beekeepers' Library".

"There is no other field of animal husbandry like beekeeping. It has the appeal to the scientist, the nature lover, and even (or especially) the philosopher. It is a chance to work with some of the most fascinating of God's creatures, to spend time and do work in the great outdoors, to challenge my abilities and continue to learn. My hope is that I never become so frail with old age that I cannot spend my days among the bees. It gives credence to the old saw that "the best things in life are free". I thank God daily for the opportunity and privilege to be a beekeeper."