Although the calendar says it is still September, for the bees and the people that tend them, it is almost the end of the year.
Here on California’s Central Coast, almost all beekeeping activity begins in late February and ends by early October. By September, the bees have gathered most of what they will need to get through winter.
With the hot dry weather there is less forage available for the bees to bring back to the hive. The queen bee, in response to the shorter days, has started to lay fewer eggs.
The eggs that are laid now will become the all important “winter bees” that the hive will depend on to regulate the temperature of their home in the colder months to come. Even during the coldest nights, the bees will try to keep the center of the hive at about 95°F, and this takes a good population of bees to create this heat.
First, an introduction. My name is Jim Rice and I am the president of the Lompoc Valley Beekeepers Association. We are a group of hobbyists from Lompoc and the Santa Ynez Valley that either keep beehives or are interested in honeybees and other pollinators. We hold monthly meetings that cover a variety of topics as we share what we have learned with other members. Meetings are held the second Tuesday of the month at the Flying Goat Tasting Room, 1520 E. Chestnut Court, Unit A at 6:30 p.m. With these articles, I hope to offer valuable information to the general public about bees.
The beekeeper will assess the hive and determine if there is enough honey present to harvest. How much is needed by the bees for winter is dependent on the climate the hive is located in.
In milder winter areas it can be as little as 50 pounds of honey; in colder areas it can be double or even triple that amount.
Frames of capped honey can be removed from a hive, the capping wax opened up and the honey removed. Typically, this is done with the use of a centrifuge called an extractor.
The honey is then filtered to remove impurities and bottled. Any hive with insufficient stores of honey will have to either be fed a sugar/water solution or combined with a stronger hive in order to survive until spring.
After the honey is removed, the beekeeper will examine the hive for the presence of varroa mites. These mites were accidentally introduced to the U.S. in the late 1980s from Asia and have had a tremendously negative effect on the bee population both here in the U.S. and worldwide.
The varroa attaches itself to a bee larva and feeds on what are called fat bodies (similar to a liver in mammals) from the bee while it is developing. Though this does not kill the bee, it weakens the immune system and can make an infested colony susceptible to other bee pathogens.
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A hive with a high mite-load is likely to die out even with plenty of food stores available.
The beekeeper may decide to treat the mites with a method designed to kill the mites while sparing the bees.
Various treatment options are available to the beekeeper to keep the mites from overwhelming a hive. Some require the use of chemicals and are best used after the honey has been removed from the hive.
There are also non-chemical methods available, but they require either specialized equipment (hive heaters that increase the temperature enough to kill the mites without killing the bees) or intensive management that would be cost prohibitive for anyone with more than a couple hives.
There are currently trials being done to develop a bee variety that can aid in removal of the mites by hygienic behavior. In theory, these bees can detect the presence of varroa inside of a capped brood cell and they then open it up and carry the infested larva outside of the hive.
After a final inspection of the hives, the beekeeper will remove unused boxes from each colony. This has two purposes: to reduce the total volume of space that the bees will need to keep warm during the cold months, and also to prevent small hive beetles and wax moths from taking up residence in an undefended portion of the equipment.
These pests can damage the equipment and consume resources needed by the colony.