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The Ways of Winter

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The Ways of Winter

By Thom Trusewicz

Please don’t be confused by the title of this article. It isn’t about wintering technique, and the content may be disturbing to some, but please hear me out.

As beekeepers we are schooled in the ways of over-wintering our bees. We take the surplus honey at the end of the summer leaving our bees sixty pounds of honey to keep them going through the winter.

We treat our bees with one antibiotic for foul brood disease. We then treat with another for nosema disease which is mixed with two gallons of syrup or sugar water (one gallon in spring). Then there is the blue shop towel soaked in canola oil for tracheal mites. Then we throw in a couple of mite strips for varroa that must be removed in 45 days. Timing is everything.

I’ve spoken with a few of our beekeepers who do not want to put chemicals in their hives. They are going to see if the bees can tough it out. I would like to agree with them. A chemical free hive is most desirable but the reality is I can only imagine what can happen to bees if un-medicated.

We beekeepers have created a monster through stupidity, laziness and greed. Yes greed and stupidity is the reason we have so many troubles with bees today. We imported all sorts of pests and diseases and there are more to come. By all accounts the varroa mite is a dream compared to what is knocking at the door.

By trying to make things better and raise the profit margin, the industry was nearly ruined. Some areas of the country have to deal with Africanized bees as well. Yet another result of greed and stupidity.

So either we medicate or we suffer the consequences…but maybe there is another option.

As a hobbyist, the fall medication cycle takes a lot of time, sugar and money if you have more than three hives. Even if you do everything right you may still have a winter loss. Some years it’s only one hive that dies, and some years all your hives. Any loss is heart breaking especially when you followed the rules that you have learned to become a successful beekeeper.

We are so well trained to keep our bees alive that we may be overlooking something that may make the bees in the United States even stronger in the future and more resistant to the present mite and resistance problems we are now experiencing.

The concept is to let your bees die every winter. Actually it’s worse. The phrase should be, evict your bees every winter, also known as hive depopulation. Yes it sounds harsh, especially coming from a beekeeper, but let’s put some facts on the table.

First we are putting all sorts of chemicals into our hives. We are supposed to have a grace period (15 days) where we do not place honey supers on the hive until the major traces of chemicals are gone. That means no supers until 15 days after the nosema medicine jars have been removed, the terramycin is gone and the mite strips have been removed.

That’s a good idea, but bees are busy. Can you be sure that stuff from the medicated brood boxes never makes their way up to the honey supers?

Let’s say you smoke your bees and they eat their fill preparing to evacuate their hive. When the smoke clears do you think that they put the honey back in the same place where they got it?

This point can be argued to death so let’s move on for a moment.

Before we get into the economics and advantages of not wintering your bees, let’s look at the morality issues. I am sure that many of you reading this are disgusted with what I am suggesting. As “keepers” we are honor-bound to “keep.” So if we have to adhere to this notion, why doesn’t nature follow the same rules?

In the life cycle of the honey bee you see that the fall is the real turning point of the hive. As the days grow shorter and colder the bees evict, (depopulate) the drones. They don’t want to feed them over the winter. The queen stops laying eggs all together as the winter cold sets in. The population of workers the hive shrinks from 40,000 to a few thousand bees. There are just enough bees to cluster for warmth. If there are too many bees they will consume all their food and then starve in late winter. If they don’t starve, these bees will quickly die after a few pollen flights and once their replacements are born in the spring.

The queen will need to be replaced in order to keep the hive thriving so beekeepers kill and replace the queen with a new queen.

By the time spring rolls around every bee that was in your hive in September should no longer be alive. So if you have a problem with an early dispatch of your bees, just remember they will all be gone in April anyway, and you prevented them from a nasty death by disease or starvation.

Let’s look at the economics. With over-wintering you will be giving your bees fall and spring medications and it will generally cost you about $38 per hive. That is the price of basic medication, sugar, and chemical gloves. This does not reflect the cost of feeders, pollen substitutes, feeding without medication or product shipping.

Here on the coast you are lucky some years to get one filled super from your hive because you need to leave the bees 60 lbs of honey for the winter. They have to produce the 60 pounds they get to keep before they whole heartedly start working on your supers. So that’s 30 pounds of honey that you will sell for $5 per pound and you get $150. Then you subtract the conservative $38 from the gross and you net $112 per hive.

Economically you may think that it is less expensive because you don’t have to buy replacement bees in the spring. Wrong, remember you spent at least $38 to keep them alive and you are going to need to replace your queen and that will set you back another $12 plus $5 for shipping. We are up to $55.

Now look at it this way. You buy a single for $45 or a nuc or package for less. The bees have been medicated and they have a new queen. You put them on new foundation when you get them home. You may want to use the brood frames from the nuc or single, but mark them and keep them in the center of the hive. Let them draw out new comb for honey.

We know that a good hive can draw and fill at least 18 deep frames in one season. It may not be completed if you shut down the operation in August for medication, but here we aren’t going to do that. We are going to let the bees work through the spring and summer and into the fall. They will be able to get nectar from knot weed, fire weed, asters, and other autumn flowers. We will not disturb them with the medication cycle.

Then November comes around. The hive population is low and declining further. The bees drew and filled 20 frames, but three frames are brood and pollen frames, so we have 17 deep frames of honey.

Deep frames can hold between five and eight pounds of honey, so we’ll average it at 6.5 pounds per frame times 17 and we get 110 pounds. Or maybe 10 deeps in the bottom box and 20 westerns above, which will make lighter work, minus the brood frames. Regardless of how you set up your hive you will pretty much get about 100 pounds of honey per hive. Priced at $5 per pound you get $500 minus the $45 for your bee purchase in the spring, and you net $455 per hive.

With the traditional way you net $112 per hive. With this scenario you end up making $343 more per hive not counting the savings from how much longer your equipment will last.

On a cold day you go out, and sweep the bees onto the ground, bring the full honey frames back into a warm spot. You extract your honey and then you store your comb for the winter. Don’t look back...

Here is a list of advantages to this method:

  1. • You don’t poison your honey, comb or bees.

  2. • You don’t spend money or time on medications.

  3. • You don’t obsess about mite loads.

  4. • Your bees are left undisturbed more often and can produce more.

  5. • You prevent mites and disease from ruining future colonies.

  6. • You don’t have to find and replace the old queen because you always have a new queen every spring.

  7. • You lessen the chance for swarming, since bees are busy building comb or filling entire hives of empty comb.

  8. • You can get a higher price for your honey since you can assure your customers that chemicals are not used in your hive.

  9. • The bees have two to three more months to store and cap honey.

  10. • You get your equipment out of the weather and it lasts longer.

The disadvantages are:

  1. • You need to store and protect all your drawn frames.

  2. • You take the chance that bees may not be readily available some years

  3. • Guilt.

Sometimes we need to try new things as hobbyists. We don’t have the same management systems in place that the big operators have. We cannot buy supplies in bulk amounts that would lower our annual hive maintenance to $10 per hive.

The big operators earn most of their money from pollination. To them honey is a by-product of the process. To the hobbyist honey is what mainly helps support our efforts. Since our income and expenses are on different ends of the spectrum from the commercial operator, it only makes sense that we produce the best and purest honey and wax possible to bolster the value of what we have to offer.

When we make this commitment to quality we in turn raise the bar of customer expectations, which makes for a better industry on the whole. When people expect quality and peace of mind of chemical free products they will be happy to pay a fitting price.

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