A Keeper’s Year — July

by Serge Labesque

A very special person: Anne Teller

The Valley of the Moon offers beautiful scenery, doesn’t it? One cannot visit or live in Sonoma County without noticing the sheer beauty and healthful biodiversity of the region. From the Bay to the Coast and throughout the county, natural areas have been saved from unruly development. Besides being enjoyable, these spaces help to preserve the character of the land and provide safety, nesting sites and nutrition for wildlife. But these priceless natural reserves and wildlife corridors did not just happen. They were deliberately secured and there is a plan to achieve that goal. One of the visionaries and masterminds who initiated and sustained this remarkable feat was Anne Teller.

Sadly, Anne recently passed away. Understandably, it was a painful event for all those in her family. It was hard for everyone who knew her. It is a loss for all.

I cannot tell you all the good she has done. It extends beyond what I can fathom. But, having had the good fortune to keep bees for nearly twenty years at her Oak Hill Farm, I can attest to the fact that her management of the land was a world-class model. Oak Hill Farm covers several hundred acres of land on the east side of the Sonoma Valley. It’s a beautiful land that will remain protected from human destruction forever. The fields are discretely nestled in the lower folds of the property. They hold widely diversified crops of flowers, vegetables and fruits. Two to three hundred different varieties of plants are grown there every year! Native vegetation surrounds and separates the fields of mixed crops in one of the best examples I know of respectful use of natural resources. As if the bounty of the blooming crops were not enough for bees and any other insects, inviting and nutritious insectaries are also cultivated. Not surprisingly, wildlife abounds on the farm.

Some say that we cannot farm this way and feed the masses. But considering the considerable damage that is caused by grab-all conventional agriculture, do we have any viable, self-sustainable and durable option other than what is exemplified by Oak Hill Farm?

Anne was a beekeeper at heart. I learned much from her from the very first day I met her. In her subtle and generous ways, with very few words, she taught me jewels of knowledge about plants, bees and nature. She knew what really mattered. Unassuming and altruistic, she kept an eye on the colonies and generously supplied me with tools, books and plants. I wish I could have absorbed more of her wisdom.

Anne demonstrated that people can have a positive, far-reaching and durable impact on the world and a clear message has emerged from her life accomplishments and love of nature: We have to take care of our environment, respect and protect the land. We all can help in many ways; for example by planting flowers, by supporting non-profit organizations such as our local beekeepers’ associations or the Sonoma Land Trust she helped create. Anne’s advice can be applied anywhere, and her legacy will benefit many generations to come. Now, it’s up to us to carry on.

Oak Hill Farm website: http://oakhillfarm.net

Sonoma Land Trust website: https://sonomalandtrust.org/

July in the apiaries

Summer is in full swing with hot and dry weather conditions. The location of our hives makes a difference for the bees. While the colonies that depend on natural vegetation may have access to very little nectar, pollen and even water, others, may benefit from irrigated gardens, parks and crops that can create and sustain generous honey flows.

Since the populations have reached their maximum size for the year and the brood nests are shrinking, large numbers of bees can become foragers. Therefore, the flight paths in front of the hives are very busy. The bees supply their colonies with all the nectar and pollen they are able to gather. They may also bring water, especially during the heat of the day when cooling and humidifying the brood nest areas becomes necessary in order to protect the young. If the hives receive the early morning sun the foragers are stimulated to collect nectar early in the day, before it becomes dehydrated by the hot sun and the dry summer breeze.

The nectar flow being reduced, the shrinking brood nests tend to move upward on the combs, sometimes to the point of leaving the lower combs empty. With the exception of hives that may still be benefitting from a sustained summer nectar flow, in most instances, comb construction has essentially stopped.

During the summer, the addition of nectar storage space is done more measuredly than in the spring. This is particularly important when large DD frames are used, because in these cases, we want to make sure that the brood nests and the stores will be entirely located in the double-deep brood chambers by the end of summer or early fall.

To prevent their hives from overheating, the bees collect water or hang outside the hives. Unfortunately, this reduces the attention they would otherwise be giving to the brood or it hinders their capacity to gather nectar and pollen. So, beekeepers may provide shade to the hives, as this can minimize the impact of the sun on the colonies. In some locations it is also helpful, if not necessary, to keep water constantly accessible to the bees. Although the screened upper ventilation slots of the hives are to be kept open to make sure any excess heat can be released, it is good to avoid excessive ventilation of the hives. The bees need to control the temperature and relative humidity around their brood. For this reason, I leave the monitoring trays in place under the screens of the hive bottoms.

Beekeepers have shifted their attention to the honey supers at the end of the spring honey flow. Now, ripe surplus honey may be harvested. The combs must be promptly processed to avoid Small Hive Beetle damage. Still, it is important not to miss assessing the colonies’ health and queens at this time of year. The level of varroa mite infestation is one key indicator of some of the characteristics imparted by the queens to their offspring, and a predictor of the future of the colonies. Monitoring trays are invaluable tools that help to figure this out, as they do not harm the bees while collecting the mites that fall from the nests. Monthly or more frequent examinations of the trays help to document how the colonies handle the parasite. From the observations and notes that are made, it becomes possible to begin planning any justifiable hive combination or requeening.

Although the inspections of the brood chambers are less frequent during the summer than earlier in the year, the timing of these manipulations is to be chosen carefully to prevent triggering robbing. Most often this means avoiding the middle of the day, when nectar is scarce or not available to the foragers. The best time to inspect hives during this season is in early morning, when foragers are out, active and finding nectar and pollen to collect, or in late afternoon or early evening, when they begin to return home. It is prudent to pay particular attention to the bee activity in front and around the hives to spot any would-be robber bees or other problems before opening the hives. The entrances are somewhat reduced in order to keep them defensible against robbers and the yellow jackets that will soon begin to threaten the hives. And of course, smokers have to be used and manipulated with great caution in areas of dry vegetation.

In summary, this month:

  • Keep an eye on the health of the colonies.
  • Provide adequate and safe air circulation through the hives (upper ventilation slots and follower boards).
  • Be aware of situations and manipulations that can trigger robbing.
  • Make sure that the components of the hives fit tightly to prevent secondary entrances that might allow robber bees to enter hives.
  • Adjust the size of the hive entrances to reduce the risk of robbing, particularly in developing colonies.
  • Ensure that sources of water are continuously available to the bees.
  • Provide afternoon shade, if at all possible.
  • Follow-up on the development of young colonies (Keep notes!)
  • Evaluate the quality of young queens. Replace failing or undesirable queens.
  • Monitor the mite population build-up.
  • Consider combining or requeening inherently weak colonies or those that are not developing properly.
  • Monitor swarm traps.
  • Keep some equipment at the ready to catch the occasional swarm.
  • Manage honey supers (less space is needed as the nectar flow decreases).
  • Finish harvesting surplus spring honey, but do not overharvest, particularly from hives that are kept in the dry hills, where the bees will be consuming more honey during the summer than they will be producing.
  • Extract and bottle surplus honey.
  • Return wet frames and wax to the bees for cleaning or re-filling.
  • Discard old and misshapen combs and frames.
  • Remove frames of undrawn beeswax foundation from the hives.
  • Render wax from discarded frames and from cappings (separately). Solar wax melters work very well during this season.
  • Beware of the fire danger while using the hot smoker in dry grass.
  • Routinely clean and scorch tools and equipment.

Serge Labesque © 2019