The honey drought in Victoria has affected our apiary like most beekeeping operations this season. None of our sites anywhere in the state have honey. The hives up north on grey box had to be brought back down south and fed sugar to save them from starving and we are feeding sugar at all sites and all hives. Our main job from now until next spring will be to keep our bee colonies alive and as strong as possible. It is amazing how much sugar a colony will go through in a couple of weeks. We placed a couple of kilos of solid white sugar under the hive lid and on top of the hive mat and found it was all used up in two weeks. We are constantly topping them up and will have to do so formonths. The good news for next season is that red gum, yellow gum and yellow box are budding up for possible flowering north of the divide andMessmate south of the divide.
The cold, wet winter and spring has many beekeepers in the box ironbark areas of Victoria saying that this is potentially the worst season for many years. The reason given is trees have put all of their energy into new leaf growth . Some trees will not flower for another twelve months and so there is little prospect for honey production. Yellow gum ( E.leucoxylon) only flowered sporadically in spring and Yellow Box(E.melliodora) did not flower at all. Red Gum(E.camulflowered is flowering in patches and may yield a little. The main hope may be Grey Box(E.microcarpa) in the autumn if it starts budding soon.
This is a frequently asked question by beginner beekeepers. There is a fair bit to do to put together your first hive, when you buy the equipment it is raw pine and has to be nailed together and painted. The frames have to be assembled, wired and foundation embedded onto the wire. After a colony is added to the box the bees will begin drawing out the foundation into the cells so the queen can commence laying. This requires a lot of work and collection of nectar and depends a lot on which trees and shrubs are flowering. It takes 8kg of honey for the bees to make 1kg of wax, so the more time they have, the better. This is why it is best to put bees into your new hive in the springtime so they can draw out the foundation in the brood chamber and then during the summer draw out and fill the super above the brood chamber with honey. It is vital that the bees store enough honey in that first season to get them through the next winter and not starve out. After your colony is strong and filled with plenty of bees you should enjoy many years of happy beekeeping.
Bees have had a cold and wet winter this year and hopefully have not used up all their honey stores to get them through. We are now approaching the most dangerous time of the year for hives to survive.
Queens will now have commenced egg laying as the daylight hours are increasing and field bees will be foraging for pollen to feed the hatching larvae. Now is the time to lift up the back of the hive and feel if there is still some weight in the box. If the box is really light, it may be necessary to feed the bees with sugar syrup or dry white sugar to keep them alive. Some queens will produce large amounts of brood and the hive can starve out trying to feed this brood, particularly in the spring when sudden cold snaps prevent the bees from flying. It can all look very encouraging when there are sunny days and the bees are flying into trees full of blossom, but it can suddenly go very wrong if the beekeeper is not vigilant.
In the box ironbark forests around our beehives, there is some new budding in several species for next season. Yellow gum(Eucalyptus leucoxylon) has some smaller trees well budded for winter flowering and some trees are actually already in flower. Larger trees may bud in the winter and spring.
Yellow Box (E.melliodora) has some budding and although not heavy, indicates that there may be prospects in the spring.
Red Ironbark(E.sideroxylon) has some budding for winter flowering and hives could quietly fill on warm winter days if these occur. It can be a pleasant surprise for beekeepers to find a full box of ironbark honey at the end of winter at the first inspection.
Red Gum(E.camuldensis) has good budding on some trees and a light to negligible budding on others. This will be the first flowering for two years and may result in a reasonable flowering from December for a few weeks.
South of the divide there is budding on Silvertop Stringybark(E.sieberi) for spring flowering and Messmate Stringybark(E.obliqua) for summer flowering.
Grey Box (Eucalyptus microcarpa) did not yield as much honey as we hoped this autumn. It is interesting how the trees were flowering in both sites where we have hives, but only one site gave us honey. The soils and conditions can vary greatly and affect the secretion of nectar.
Now is the time to take boxes off the hives and leave them in doubles so that they can keep warm in the winter. The bees will have stored honey in the outside frames of the brood chamber and the area of brood will be restricted to the middle frames.
The super should also have stored honey and the bees should survive the winter well with ample supplies and be able to keep warm as they don’t have a large area to keep warm.
As of the second half of February, our bees are working many species in both northern and southern Victoria. Hives in both areas have excellent brood and good populations of bees, so that if the flowers yield nectar, there should be good honey yields.
In the northern country the Grey box(Eucalyptus microcarpa) is well budded and flowering has just commenced and the parasitic Drooping Mistletoe(Amyema pendulum) is flowering and yielding valuable pollen to maintain populations.
In West Gippsland, our bees are working Mountain Grey Gum( Eucalyptus cypellocarpa) which is still flowering heavily and Manna Gum(E.viminalis), Swamp Gum(E.ovata) and Silverleaf Stringybark(E.cephalocarpa) as well as Brown Stringybark(E.baxteri).
It is important that beekeepers are aware of the many species that their bees are working at all times of the year. This enables beekeepers to be aware of the pollens and nectars available to be gathered by their bees.
Bees working in Red Flowering Gum
As of late January 2012, there a several species of flowering eucalypts that our bees are working. North of the Divide, Yellow Box (Eucalyptus melliodora) is still flowering heavily and has been going since late November. Red Stringybark (E. macrorhyncha) is well budded and due to start flowering any day now, this tree provides good pollen and nectar for the bees. Candlebark (E. rubida) has commenced flowering and provides good pollen for the bees and a clear honey similar to Manna Gum (E. viminalis). Grey Box (E. microcarpa) is now showing good budding for autumn flowering.
Beetles in Red Flowering Gum
South of the Divide, our bees are presently working Messmate Stringybark (E. obliqua) and the start of the Silverleaf Stringybark (E. cephalocarpa) flowering which should last through autumn along with the autumn flowering Swamp Gum (E. ovate) which is well budded at present.
Planted ornamental trees are also flowering – in parks and gardens, you will see Red Flowering Gum (Corymbia ficifolia formerly Eucalyptus ficifolia) is in full flower and, as well as looking great, nectar loving insects and birds are going for it.
Students searching for signs of brood
On the 7th January, 2012, we conducted our first beekeeping lesson for beginners. Our students were very enthusiastic and the day seemed to fly by.
The weather held out and it was almost perfect conditions for opening up the hives in the afternoon after a pleasant lunch. Our students, to their delight, viewed brood in many stages and spotted the queen numerous times. Our hives were all in good condition (most have been re-queened) however because of the inclement weather over December/early Jan, we discovered that almost all of them required feeding. All in all, it was a really successful and enjoyable day.
One student, Susie, is an avid blogger and wrote about her day with us and has kindly shared her experience. To see Susie’s thoughts you can visit her blog.
There is an interesting taster article (and ensuing discussion) on a new caste of soldier bees in a stingless bee of South America – the Jatai bee (Tetragonisca angustula).
Soldier bees guard their nest against attack by robbers
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that Jatai soldiers are 30% heavier than their forager nestmates, have larger legs and relatively smaller heads.
Whats interesting is that this is the first known incidence of a soldier caste in bees – ants and other super-organism species have specialist solder castes but it had yet to be seen in bees.
Evolution is a wonderful (in the true sense of the word) phenomenon.
In the honey bee (in our hives - Apis melifera), the role of hive protection is undertaken by the worker bees who will sting intruders as a form of defense, and alarmed bees will release a pheromone that stimulates an attack response in other bees. Some honey bees species also use a ‘mob’ tactic where they crowd around an intruder (particularly wasps) in a ball. The ensuing heat and, possibly, carbon dioxide kill the intruder. They also use this ‘ball of bees’ tactic to starve/kill a queen to be superseded.
Further Links (based on Wikipedia):
C. H. Thawley. “Heat tolerance as a weapon”.
Michio Sugahara & Fumio Sakamoto (2009). “Heat and carbon dioxide generated by honeybees jointly act to kill hornets”. Naturwissenschaften 96 (9): 1133–6.
Victora Gill (July 3, 2009). “Honeybee mobs overpower hornets”. BBC News.