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Quarterly Beekeeping Newsletter - Winter 2024


Insulated hives / photo by Grai Rice

Winter is upon us

Our bees are tucked away in winter wrap, hopefully maintaining a cluster size that can thrive safely into Spring.


It can be a fretful time…Will they survive the arctic blast…How quickly are they consuming their honey stores and/or winter bee candy…Will the queen have a good workforce to begin brood-rearing by mid-February.


Different colony personalities/traits manifest in action, or inaction. Some colonies look lifeless from outside, although inside a small calm cluster maintains a low metabolic rate. Larger colonies appear jubilant in flight, although the snow is strewn with stunned bees unable to return home in the chill.


What does any of it mean for their survival? We will have to wait and see.


What we can do is check their food supply during a winter thaw. As we near the middle of February, when brood-rearing begins again, the bees’ food consumption exponentially increases. This is the critical time when hives perish.


Beekeepers are always happy when their hives are alive in early February, but be vigilant. If they need nurturing, you will need to stay on it into the safety of Spring abundance.


Feeding bees in winter.  Photo Grai Rice
Feeding winter patties on top to help them through.
 

Winter Beekeeping Tasks

Be Gentle Around Hives

When the colony is in tight cluster it’s best to leave them bee. They may not be able to recover from a jolt.

On a Warmish Day

Once Brooding Starts

Plan Ahead for Feeding

Contemplate What the Bees have Taught You

 

Seduction is Everywhere

Colorful seed catalogues, elaborate nursery websites and voluminous beekeeping supply inventories know we are captive audiences dreaming of warmer weather. Novelty hybrids and the latest beekeeping gadgets have us mulling over possibilities with our hot cocoa, during an afternoon reverie unencumbered by realities. It’s difficult not to become over zealous.


Unless you have tons of dough to spend, step back from the seduction and chose judiciously. Every neighborhood can benefit from additional forage options, however discerning what pollinator or bee friendly means, and being specific in your choices is key to successful planting. Trusting the sources is a must in my opinion.


The Seduction of Flowers

I most often choose plants for Honey bee forage, exhibiting flowers without deep nectaries. I also prefer plants that are desired by a plethora of pollinators, especially those that bloom in times of dearth. The colors most often seen in my gardens are variations on blue and purple, with some yellow and white in the mix over the season. These are the colors preferred by Honey bees.


Honey bee on Nepeta.  Photo: Grai Rice
Honey bee on Nepeta (Catnip).

Seduction is a flower’s primary goal. This jewel of the angiosperm world is nothing without its lovers, the pollinators that perform the sex act. Seeds and fruits are the gifts of this seductive procreation that our fecund earth benefits from.


In their interaction with flowers, Honey bees perceive colors from yellow thru the lower ultraviolet range. Plus, on some yellow flowers a color known as “Bee Purple,” “a mixture of ultraviolet light and yellow light (the two extremes of the visual spectrum of the bee, analogous to the way purple for humans is a mixture of red and violet, the two extremes of the human visual spectrum. - from Wiktionary)” The color red is not in their range of perception.


Bees also sense a flower’s electromagnetic field which acts as a signal that it is either ripe with booty, or already spent.


An Abundance of Beekeeping Gear

As far as the seduction of new beekeeping equipment… you don’t need a lot to be a good beekeeper, however every year there are more and more options to entice the expanding hobby market. It is fun to see what some of the gadgety problem solvers of the bee world come up with.


Love and Longing

In the midst of winter, the feast of St. Valentine, a martyred Roman priest, is celebrated as a holiday for lovers. Seduction is the path down which lovers stroll. St. Valentine is also one of a few patron saints of beekeeping celebrated across diverse cultures, to protect bees and beekeepers and sweeten the honey.


Honey bees seduced me many years ago, and they hum in my soul. In the winter, that seduction becomes a deep longing.





Biosecurity in Beekeeping

The entire world has now had almost four years of dealing with Covid 19. During the height of the crisis, our patterns of existence and our relationship to concepts of germ transmission were on high alert. Lockdowns, border crossings, even threshold crossings, and a heavy use of germ containment with masks and sanitizers were the main modalities of our bizarre new “safety routines” for biosecurity.*


This past year, in my 19th year of beekeeping, I was confronted with a similar crisis in my apiary. The term Biosecurity entered my beekeeping practice, and my mode of interacting with bees shifted into high alert, as a number of colonies contracted European Foulbrood** (EFB), a bacterial disease that affects young larvae.


Positive result from an EFB Test Kit.  Photo: Grai Rice
Positive result from an EFB Test Kit.

* Biosecurity refers to measures aimed at preventing the introduction and/or spread of harmful organisms to animals and plants in order to minimize the risk of transmission of infectious disease - Wikipedia


** European Foulbrood (EFB) is a bacterial disease (Melissococcus plutonius) that affects the younger larvae in Honey bee colonies. Springtime is when it usually occurs and it is quite contagious. EFB sometimes clears by itself, or with antibiotics, although the bacteria can survive for approximately two years ready to rear up again. A strain of atypical EFB has been identified in recent years that is more persistent, and thrives later into the season. It is usually not lethal to a colony, unlike the spore-forming bacterial disease of American Foulbrood (AFB).


New Vocabulary

My new vocabulary now includes the three established components of Biosecurity: Conceptual Biosecurity; Structural Biosecurity and Procedural Biosecurity.


In the United States, the term Biosecurity is most often heard used in connection with practices for poultry and beef production, as well as in other fields of agriculture when the bacteria salmonella and E. coli are present in our food supply.


Honey bees are considered livestock by the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), however Biosecurity vocabulary and protocol is not highly engaged in the realm of apiculture in the US, beyond limiting international border crossings and some regulatory oversight for commercial beekeeping operations.


Australia’s beekeeping industry has been in the news since mid-2022 when, as a measure of Biosecurity, government agencies began culling massive numbers of Honey bee colonies, destroying entire apiaries to eradicate Varroa mites in their country. By September 2023, Australia gave up these drastic measures, and shifted to management to control the spread of mites.


Canada has a Canadian Best Management Practices for Honey Bee Health, which are a suggested set of guidelines for hobbyists to implement, as well as an epic 160-page Honey Bee Producer Guide to the National Bee Farm-Level Biosecurity Standard for the commercial industry. (Please note: Canada is known to have nationally high occurrences of American Foulbrood, thus they more aggressively treat prophylactically with antibiotics.)


Honey import and export in some countries is heavily restricted, as honey can carry the spores of the highly contagious and deadly American Foulbrood (AFB) bacterium (Paenibacillus larvae). AFB is the main reason there are apiary inspectors in the United States.


Hygienics on High Alert

I have instituted a strict protocol for my yard, and I limit the equipment I take off-site. I have always been aware of hygienic practice in the bee yard, including limiting the detritus that falls to the ground around the hives, closing up deadouts against robbing and cleaning my hive tools.


Dirty and clean hive tools.  Photo by Grai Rice
Scrub hive tools and frame hangers free of wax and propolis, with steel wool, prior to soaking in alcohol or bleach solution. GR

For now, it’s hygienic practice on steroids. One hive tool per hive. Plus, strict cleaning of hive tools and frame hangers that come in contact with bees, removing wax and propolis before soaking in alcohol or bleach solution. I also now change and clean my bee clothing more regularly, and used disposable gloves for all hives during the height of concern last summer. Fearing the unseen bacterium and its ravages is not fun even slightly.


The two hives that tested positive for EFB were moved to a remote area while they recovered, and treated with antibiotics. I have subsequently learned that the entire yard should be treated, which I suppose I will do in the spring. I will also store for two-years, or destroy, suspect equipment, and limit exchange of frames between hives.


Treating colonies with the antibiotic oxytetracycline requires the beekeeper to obtain a Veterinary Feed Directive from a practicing veterinarian, in order to purchase and apply the treatment for EFB in the hives.

Next Steps For EFB Biosecurity?

It turns out that there is just not enough information about EFB, or how to deal with it. Dr. Meghan Milbrath, at Michigan State University, has just received a grant for a three year study to help answer some of the outlying questions that every beekeeper who has ever encountered this bacteria wants to know the answers to. In the mean time, there are more questions than there are answers.


Brood with European Foulbrood.  Photo: Dan Wyns
Brood showing signs of European Foulbrood (EFB). Photo: Dan Wyns, Michigan State University

Learn to recognize what good brood looks and smells like, and you will know when something seems off. Be educated, and be observant, as a means to keeping all our bees as healthy as possible. If a beekeeper has sick bees, or tons of mites, their lack of vigilance threatens other beekeeper’s bees.


Please note:

For further education on European Foulbrood watch the Michigan State University EFB Webinar from Nov 9, 2023, with Dr. Meghan Milbrath and Dr. Peter Fowler.


 

Apimondia Adventure

Apimondia is an international beekeeping congress which takes place in a different country every two years. In September 2023 it was held in Santiago, Chile.


On September 6th, I presented a scientific poster “Elements of the Superorganism of a Honey Bee Colony and Its Social Immunity,” which had been accepted by the scientific committee in the biology category last spring.

It was wonderful to connect with an international beekeeping community again.


during Apimondia 47 Poster Session.
Grai St. Clair Rice during Apimondia 47 Poster Session.

I also participated in an Apimondia tour of the Volcano-Lake District in Northern Patagonia prior to the main congress. There were twelve beekeepers traveling together from five different continents for three days. We visited a rural beekeeper, a beekeeper with his apiaries deep in a national park accessible only by boat, a municipal beekeeping project to support economic diversification of local residents, and we missed the apitherapy visit as the beekeeper was stuck in a snow storm in the Andes, on the pass from Argentina.



It was not yet springtime in Chile, thus we were unable to open any hives during the visit. It was interesting to see most of the colonies being overwintered in single deeps. It was charming to see the rural beekeeper’s workshop were he makes all his equipment and wax foundation.


Apimondia 2025 will take place in Copenhagen, hosted by the Scandinavian countries: Sweden, Norway and Denmark.


 

Stylized sketch graphic of a honey bee

Enjoy the Quiet of Winter!

Winter is a great time to learn more about the Honey bees in your care.


I find it infinitely fascinating to read up on topics about bee biology and the bees’ intricate forms of communication.


The more intellectually and spiritually connected you are to your Honey bees, and world around you, the richer your experience.


Suggestions: The Biology of the Honey Bee, Mark L. Winston, and The Buzz about Bees, Jurgen Tautz and Helga Heilmann.


 

Citations & Links

Canadian Best Management Practices for Honey Bee Health


Canadian Honey Bee Producer Guide to the National Bee Farm-Level Biosecurity Standard - massive document with information and forms for record keeping. https://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/470956/publication.html


 

About the Author:

Grai St. Clair Rice
Grai St. Clair Rice

Grai St. Clair Rice

Grai has been a beekeeping educator since 2006. She teaches beekeeping classes, coaches beekeepers, does public presentations, writes about Honeybees and gardening for pollinators, and consults on landscape plantings.