What's the Buzz with ATTTA #81

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Winter months are a time for planning in the beekeeper’s calendar. Planning the upcoming season will allow your apiary to run smoother, regardless of how many hives you manage. This is also a great time for someone who has only yet been considering beekeeping to prepare to dive in! Over the next few blogs, we will consider a few points that would be valuable to organize this winter. This week, we will begin with a discussion of ordering bees.

New Bees for Newbies

When spring comes and hives are unwrapped, beekeepers find out how many survived the winter. Overwintering strong hives which have been properly treated, fed, and winterized will be valuable in minimizing overwintering losses. A compelling article from researchers in Switzerland was recently released which further corroborates evidence that proper varroa mite management of winter bees improves colony success in the spring (Julie et al. 2021). Nonetheless it is not uncommon to lose a small percentage of hives to winter stresses. Beekeepers often make up for these loses by replacing colonies in the early spring. 

Unfortunately, a major challenge for the Atlantic Canada beekeeping industry is the lack of early spring queens (Bixby et al. 2019). Virgin queens typically cannot mate until late May or June at the earliest due to the absence of mature drones. Historically, the solution has been to order bees from warmer climates where queen rearing can begin much earlier, such as New Zealand and Hawaii. It is important to place these orders in the winter to ensure that they arrive when you want them. Ordering bees from outside of Canada requires special protocols which must be followed via the Canada Food Inspection Agency. There are also unique protocols for ordering bees from out of province within Canada (see protocols for Maritime provinces below). Rather than taking this on directly, it can be helpful to order imported bees through local bee suppliers who are more familiar with the legal process. 

Honey bees ordered from abroad typically come as packages of many bees or a single mated queen. A package generally holds 1-1.5 kg of adult bees as well as a mated queen. A mated queen will arrive with attendant worker bees, who are often removed from the cage before introducing the queen to a hive. Packages and individual queens must be installed into proper hives after transport and you should be prepared to do so when the bees arrive.  

Figure 1. Three common ways to buy bees. From left to right: honey bee packages (source: countryfields.ca), nucleus colony, caged queen.

If you are not anxious to have new bees immediately at the start of spring, buying local nucleus colonies (nucs) and queens is a great way to support the Atlantic beekeeping industry. There are suppliers of local nucs and queens throughout the Atlantic provinces who typically sell between May and July. Provincial beekeeping association websites can be a valuable resource in connecting with reputable providers. Once again, it is recommended that orders be placed early because lists are typically first come, first served and supplies are limited. This is especially true for beekeepers in Newfoundland and Labrador, where honey bee importation is exceptionally restricted!

For new beekeepers, nucs are a great way to get started because they already contain the necessary building blocks for starting a new colony- bees and drawn comb! There are some considerations to keep in mind when buying a nucleus colony. A nuc should include a mated queen, frames with drawn comb and food stores, and bees of all life stages. Typically, there are 3-5 frames holding a combination of these resources. For more information on nucs, explore the new ATTTA factsheet “What is a Nucleus Colony: Information for New Beekeepers!

Bixby, M., M.M. Guarna, S.E. Hoover, and S.F. Pernal. 2019. Canadian Honey Bee Queen Breeders’ Reference Guide. Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists Publication 55 pp. 

H. Julie, J. Hattendorf, A. Aebi, et al., Compliance with recommended Varroa destructor treatment regimens improves the survival of honey bee colonies over winter, Research in Veterinary Science (2021), https://doi.org/10.1016/ j.rvsc.2021.12.025

Pollinator Education New Video Release! Assessing Hive Strength: Counting Flying Bees Returning to the Hive

Check out our latest video on ATTTA's YouTube Channel about assessing hive strength. This video discusses how to assess hive strength by counting flying bees returning to the hive and the pros and cons of using this method. Watch HERE to learn more!

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What's the Buzz with ATTTA #80

Thursday, 6 January 2022

In the winter cluster blog of a few weeks ago, we said that bees had nowhere to go during the winter but, actually, they do need to step outside occasionally! Honey bees are tidy creatures and prefer not to defecate inside the hive. Under normal circumstances, honey bees will always leave the hive and defecate in flight. During cold winter months or rainy periods, they will retain waste inside their bodies until proper flying conditions return and this is perfectly healthy. Problems arise when flying days are too far and few between. In this blog, we will discuss the implications for honey bee health if colonies are not able to take valuable cleansing flights. 

Dysentery and Nosema - Winter Threats

If you are checking in on your hives every so often this winter and notice bee feces spotted around the snow, you can rest assure that your bees have gotten out for a cleansing flight. Cleansing flights occur on mild winter days, when temperatures rise above 10°C and there is no precipitation. Until this happens, bees are retaining waste matter within their rectum. This is healthy unless the bees are forced to store waste for too long, at which point they could develop dysentery or, worse, a clinical infestation of Nosema spores1

Dysentery is an infection that causes honey bees to defecate inside their hive and becomes apparent through staining on hive bodies and frames. Serious infections can lead to an early death for colonies. Furthermore, dysentery can also be a symptom of a larger problem such as nosema disease.

Nosema is a disease caused by parasites that live and reproduce within the midgut of adult honey bees. Nosema species reproduce via spores, and when these spores are released during honey bee defecation, they have the potential to be orally transmitted to other members of the colony, thereby multiplying within the hive. 

If bees are forced to defecate inside a hive, the risk of spreading Nosema spores between individuals becomes greater. A study was recently published which explored the relationship between ambient air temperatures and Nosema levels in Swiss apiaries2. Researchers found that when colonies experienced fewer flight days, when midday temperatures were lower than 10°C, they demonstrated higher levels of Nosema infestations. Spore levels were highest in winter and early spring.

Cleansing flights are important for colonies which are overwintered outdoors. When colonies are overwintered indoors, temperature and light conditions are regulated such that bees will remain inside the hive. Researchers in Alberta recently examined how differences in overwintering management might affect Nosema levels within honey bee hives3. Colonies overwintered outdoors have the potential for cleansing flights, but colonies overwintered indoors are subject to less environmental stress which is also known to exacerbate Nosema populations. Results were inconsistent in terms of the level of Nosema spores measured within hives overwintered outdoors or indoors, however, colonies overwintered indoors did have significantly higher survival rates even when suffering from high Nosema levels. This suggests that colonies overwintered indoors, potentially as a consequence of a more consistent and less stressful environment, could have a lower economic threshold level for treatment than those overwintered outdoors. 

Here in Atlantic Canada, the majority of beekeepers overwinter outdoors. This means that cleansing flights play an important role in our honey bee health, in particular when it comes to Nosema control. Testing and potentially treating hives with fumagillin before wrapping up for the winter is a valuable step in integrated pest management. Paying attention to the weather conditions over the winter and considering whether your bees have been able to take cleansing flights can already indicate to you whether Nosema treatment might be necessary in the spring. 

1. Pernal, S.F. and Clay H. (eds). 2013. Honey bee disease and pests, 3rd Edition. Canadian Association Professional Apiculturists, Beaverlodge, AB, Canada 68 pp.

2. Punko, Rosanna N., Robert W. Currie, Medhat E. Nasr, and Shelley E. Hoover. 2021. “Epidemiology of Nosema Spp. and the Effect of Indoor and Outdoor Wintering on Honey Bee Colony Population and Survival in the Canadian Prairies.” Edited by Wolfgang Blenau. PLOS ONE 16 (10): e0258801. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0258801.

3. Retschnig, Gina, Geoffrey Williams, Annette Schneeberger, and Peter Neumann. 2017. “Cold Ambient Temperature Promotes Nosema Spp. Intensity in Honey Bees (Apis Mellifera).” Insects 8 (1): 20. https://doi.org/10.3390/insects8010020.

Connecting with ATTTA Specialists

If you’d like to connect with ATTTA specialists or learn more about our program, you can: