A Keeper’s Year – December

My December Beekeeping To-Do List – Serge Labesque

For bees’ sakes, this must be said

Bees are suffering! It’s a beekeepers’ leitmotiv, and yet we see little or no progress made. Helping the bees requires action on several fronts: pesticides; loss of habitat; beekeeping practices being among the most important of these.

Wrestling with pesticide manufacturers is akin to fighting the Hydra of Lerna, the mythical multi-headed monster that grew two new ferocious heads every time one was cut off. Indeed, when one pesticide is banned, new ones are already in production to replace it. Although the hard-won and all-too-infrequent bans of some of these toxic substances may look like victories, they actually accelerate the arrival of new poisons on the market and their dumping in the environment. Yet, no matter how desperate this struggle might appear, it has to be fought if only to not leave free rein to the agrochemical industry.

Yes, the pesticide manufacturers and users actually kill honey bee colonies and other pollinators with their products, but the worst and most damaging offenders really are among the beekeepers. In fact and regrettably, we are talking about the majority of beekeepers. Through conventional practices, which include treatments, feedings, and reliance on mass-produced queens, packages and nucs, they profoundly erode the intrinsic strength and the genetic diversity of the species as a whole. The dissemination of mass-produced bees and migratory beekeeping not only spread pests and diseases, but they also prevent the establishment of locally adapted populations and they destroy those that had developed successfully over time. Conventional beekeeping is so widespread that it is the species as a whole that is actually being weakened.

Beekeepers at all levels of competence cause important damage by procuring bees from commercial outfits. But the experienced beekeepers who condone or partake in the production and distribution of these mass-produced bees are particularly to be blamed, as they are very well aware of the issue and they choose to ignore it to benefit financially from this exploitation of the bees. Shame on them!

Let’s not delude ourselves or others: Queens that are mated more than a few miles away from our apiaries are not “local” bees for us. Indeed, they received and carry genes that may be unsuitable in our environment and conditions. Worse, their drones and swarms alter and degrade our local bee populations.

Writing this does not earn me many friends, but I just cannot close my eyes on this dismal state of affairs and say nothing. If we want a chance to save the honey bee, we must tell the new beekeepers why they should stay away from commercially produced packages, nucs and queens. We must also convince experienced beekeepers who participate in one way or another in this commerce to abandon their detrimental practices. Surely, these are uphill battles, but they must be fought.

Evidently, this discourse demands an alternative to the puppy-mill bees. And here it is: We can share bees and queens from our good, healthy, locally-adapted colonies with neighbor beekeepers. It is so simple, easy to do, and satisfying! Since spring is only a few months away, please, let’s plan on dividing our hives and raising a few additional queens for other beekeepers. Together, we can create enough splits to stop the flood of commercial bees. It will be good for the bees and for all involved.

December in the apiaries

The bees spend most of the time clustered at this time of year. The lower combs of the hives have been vacated by the emergence of the winter bees from the fall brood nests. When the weather is warm enough, a few bees come out of the hives. They may perform cleansing flights or forage on some of the rare plants that offer nectar or pollen at this season. It’s a modest amount of activity though. Since the bees can gather little stores during the few hours when foraging is possible, the colonies rely mainly on the contents of the hives. However, the bees do not consume much as long as they do not have to keep any brood warm and fed. This spares stores, but it also allows the colonies that possess good grooming behavior to gain control over the varroa mites. This relatively low level of colony activity will soon end, when in a few days, a few weeks at most, the queens resume or increase their egg production.

Meanwhile, occasional visits to the apiary allow us to keep an eye on the hives. The wind may have caused damage that needs to be addressed. Even when we do not see bees flying, we can take a look at the debris that accumulates on the monitoring trays and on the ground, in front of the hives, and figure out what the bees are doing inside the hives. With an ear on the side of the boxes, we can perceive the soft reassuring hum produced by the clustered bees. We do not disturb them.

Back at home, we can work on the equipment we will need next spring. Some pieces have to be cleaned and repaired, others have to be assembled or fabricated. It is also interesting and productive to review our apiary notes from the year that is coming to a close. Maybe we can figure out why some colonies were successful and others were not. What did we do right, or wrong? Much can be learned that will make us better beekeepers.

In anticipation of the next beekeeping season, we can add a few plants that will provide some sustenance for the bees and other insects and animals, as well.

In summary, this month:

  • Inspect the exterior condition of the hives:
  • The hive tops should be properly set and secured.
  • Examine the hive entrances and the ground in front of the hives.
  • Verify that the hive entrances remain unobstructed.
  • On nice days, observe the flight paths and the bee activity.
  • Examine the debris on the monitoring trays.
  • Verify that mice have not entered hives (telltale clues of their presence are visible on the monitoring trays, as coarse pieces of comb, mouse feces, etc.).
  • Ensure that the hives are adequately ventilated.
  • Clean and scorch tools and equipment.
  • Pour the ashes out of the smoker and scrub the tar build-up.
  • Repair and build beekeeping equipment.
  • Review notes from the year.
  • Plan next season (evaluate the need for equipment and bees).
  • Read and learn more about bees and beekeeping.
  • Plant bee forage.
  • Enjoy some honey.

Happy Holidays to all of you from the Labesques!

Serge Labesque © 2019