Bee Culture - Dec., 1996

Elkton, Tennessee

Southern row-crop farmers use an expression that has some applicability in beekeeping. When the farmer has done all he can do to assure a crop, and the plants are too large or thick for further cultivation, the field is referred to as "laid-by." The farmer can make periodic inspections of the field after this, but the success of the crop is pretty much beyond his control.

When you have done all you can do in the Fall to insure successful wintering, the colonies are laid-by. You have to wait out the Winter to determine the degree of success of your Fall management efforts. Unlike the farmer, however, your periodic inspections in late Winter / early Spring can influence the ultimate degree of success, if you are prepared to act on inspection findings.

It is difficult in the Southeast to specify the exact date that specific actions are appropriate. Some years, pollen and nectar is available in late January. Other seasons, it might be February or as late as March. The timing of required actions is more controlled by weather and bee activity than by the calendar.


After mid-January, any time the midday temperature is forecast to break into the 50s, do a walk-by. If the forecast temperature is middle to upper 50s, take time off from work, if necessary, to see what is happening on the landing boards of your hives. This is important for several reasons.

You want to know about a Winter die-out before the cousins find out about it. If neighboring colonies find a dead-out, or a very weak hive, before you do, robbing sets in promptly. Our first introduction to the effects of the tracheal mite came on in January, 1989, when our orchard colonies were alive with robbers. For those of you who have not seen robbers in action, perhaps a brief description is worth your while.

What you want to see on a pre-season walk-by is a few bees milling around on the landing board close to the entrance reducer opening and some bees coming and going that obviously know where the entrance is. Robbers, though, are very cautious or tentative on their approach to the hive. They fly in little sorties from well back away from the colony, expecting to be met by defenders. If they meet no resistance, they get closer and closer until they land. The dead giveaway on robbers is that they appear not to know where the entrance is. They can be seen checking the cracks where supers come together and the edges of the cover. They may be looking for a poorly defended opening or they smell open honey at these cracks. Either way, they are distributed all over the hive. Resident bees are normally entry-oriented and do not land on other areas unless they are disturbed. A cloud of tentative flyers and bees seeking access all around a colony means serious robbing is underway.

Allowing a colony to be robbed out is not in your best interest. The combs of honey and pollen can be used for other purposes if they are protected. Store them safely away from wax moths and you will be surprised how fast you use them up. Even the robbers would do better without the booty of plunder. At this time of year, the spoils must be stored in the brood nest, and anything that reduces brood nest space reduces future brood rearing, not good for early Spring buildup. If possible, shut down active robbing immediately by salvaging the comb.

Other things you can look for on a pre-season walk-by are relative number of bees that are active from colony to colony, and bottomboard debris. Keeping in mind that the activity threshold temperature may vary from colony to colony, note colonies with very little activity. They should all be stirring at 55° outside temperature on a sunny day. Those with little or no activity need to be opened for inspection at the earliest opportunity.

Bottomboard debris can provide clues to the condition of the colony. During periods of confinement in cold weather, the bees do not have an opportunity to clean the bottomboard and some of the debris is tracked outside the entry, Normal debris of some clean cappings removed from reserve honey is what you would like to find, This shows the cluster is in physical contact with reserves, A shrinking cluster often loses contact with surrounding stores, and a sustained cold spell and tight cluster cause them to starve only inches from plenty of food, However, finding no cappings is not necessarily a bad sign. Bees in my area will normally form their Winter cluster over liquid honey in open cells. Miserly use of this underfoot reservoir will often sustain the cluster into early Spring's second brood cycle. But seeing too many cappings is another story. It may indicate the colony has crashed and has already been robbed out. If you are suspicious of this condition, you can pop the top and confirm capped honey at the top without unduly disturbing the cluster (if there is one).

What you do not want to see on your pre-season walk-by is black or darkened debris on the bottomboard. This almost always is bad news of one type or another. Wax moth larvae droppings are dark-colored, and their damage may be a result of a variety of problems. Wax moth larvae are not normally active at this time of year, but the damage may have occurred in the Fall and is just now coming to your attention. Again, pop the top to see what you find.

I should have identified what is meant by "pre-season." In late Winter, mild weather encourages some activity in the colony. Some bees come out to bask in the sunshine, and others take the opportunity for a cleansing flight. The cluster remains basically intact for this activity. The bees do not "break cluster," and it is not advisable to disturb the cluster during these periods.

When mild weather is accompanied by forage availability, the bees go after it on a grand scale. They "break cluster" to the extent that capped brood is sometimes sparsely covered. Comb inspection is not a problem during these periods because the bees are geared to reorganize the cluster as the temperature cools down later. Put the comb back where you found it, and no harm is done.

When pollen is being gathered in the late Winter / early Spring, the season is on. Pre-season is over, and Spring buildup is in progress. It's time for you to become active, also passive observation from the outside is overt.

Don't waste an inspection of brood chambers by not being prepared to do all you can do on one opening of the colony. The primary mission of the first inspection is to determine overwintered condition. Equally important, though, is maintaining good condition for the impending season. That is why a mite treatment is recommended on your first hive opening. The cluster is at the season's minimum size. Whatever your mite treatment program, it will reach more bees when the cluster size is at its smallest volume of the year.


Early season flying weather normally occurs only for a short time each day. The bees may only work a few hours in midday. Do your in-hive work early in this period (like noon to 1:00 p.m.) so as not to interfere with the re-clustering toward the end of the period. If the temperature is cooling down toward 50°, quit for the day. Have a good thermometer in your bee truck.

Because of the limited time of access, the first inspection should be only a general observation of condition. You can tell at a glance the relative size of the cluster. Verify that small clusters have a laying queen by lifting one frame in the cluster an inch or two to see brood. If you find brood, apply your mite treatment and close up promptly. If you do not find brood on that frame or any other, make a note to check again in a week. Good records are mandatory!

This cursory inspection should include being alert for evidence of dysentery or nosema disease. If you see dark discoloration on the top bars in the cluster area, you might want to feed some Fumidil-B to that colony. It may clear up naturally with incoming forage, or it may not. Nosema is not dysentery, and it is debilitating.

I discontinued preventive application of medication for nosema when I concluded that Spring "stimulative feeding" is a myth. Pollen availability is all the stimulation needed, and any feed provided must be temporarily stored, which takes brood cells out of production. We have seen some rare spotting of top bars since we discontinued Fumidil-B application, but the problem cleared up without corrective action. However, we would probably take action on a severe case or widespread outbreak of symptoms. You make the call. And, our area may be different than places farther north, or south.

Note the smallest and largest clusters. Sometime downstream we may want to add bees to the weakest colony, and those supplemental bees should come from the strongest. If a cluster is smaller than a volleyball the bees are in danger of freeze-out in subsequent cold snaps. A cluster this small may be in decline from mite infestation. If you find empty cells to the side of the cluster, either outside of the cluster on a frame, or on adjacent frames, you can be sure the cluster is diminishing in size. Add healthy bees at the earliest opportunity.

It's best to add bees from a distant location so that they do not "go home" the next time they fly. If your only source of bees is at the same location, add a visual change in front of the exit. Lean a board or box against the hive to encourage departing bees to reorient to their new home. A whole book could be written about techniques for moving a hat full of bees from one hive to another, but limited space keeps me from going into detail here. One technique that is fairly reliable is to add a super of wet comb or drawn comb sprayed with honey/sugar water to the top of a strong colony. When a sufficient number of bees have come up into the super to take advantage of your charity, quickly sandwich the super between two covers, and transport to the needy hive. It is best to have an inner cover already inside the bottom cover to provide bee space below the super bottom bars. At the speed of light, or thereabouts, lift the super of captive bees, with the top transport cover still on, and place it on the open, needy colony. Do this as the temperature is falling toward the clustering range on the day the next cold front is pushing toward you. If necessary, do it again the next warm spell to stabilize a declining cluster. It is too early in the season to add brood. They are raising all the brood they can keep warm. If you can stabilize the decline, you can add brood as the weather moderates.

Before we leave tracheal mite effects behind, let me throw out an item for your consideration. We read (past tense) a report that tracheal mite infestation did not affect the nectar load of foraging bees - infested bees brought back as much nectar per trip as uninfested bees. We think we have observed that the same thing is not true of pollen loads. When most of the bees are coming in with their socks full, the colony is healthy. When a large percentage of bees are coming in with partial loads, beware of tracheal mites. Keep in mind that early-season foraging is primarily for pollen. They must have pollen for brood rearing, and they do not have storage space for nectar. Some bees will split loads of both pollen and nectar, of course, which accounts for a low percentage of apparent light pollen loads.


If you have not yet invested in tracheal-mite-resistant bees, you will have to treat for both mites this season. If you consider that "resistant" is not the same as immune, and that some low level of infestation persists, you might find treatment of resistant bees would be cost effective. I treated my Yugos like my bees of unknown ancestry (mostly locally generated swarms), and the Yugos out-performed my feral bee stock by nearly two to one. Whether any part of that can be attributed to mite treatment is unknown.

Early in the season is the best time to treat for both mites. Treatment is less expensive and most effective when the cluster is small and the active ingredient has to be dispersed over fewer bees. Whatever your preference for method of treatment, do it as soon in the late Winter/early Spring as you can gain access to the brood area.

We tried to treat the bees with menthol one Fall, but when we saw what it was doing to brood volume, we couldn't get it out of the hives fast enough. The bees can't stand the stuff. They survived the Winter with smaller clusters, but the first brood volume in Winter is important. So we use vegetable oil exclusively for tracheal mite control, but we don't use patties. We put a couple of ice-cream scoops of grease mix on the top bars in the cluster area, breaking up and spreading the clumps with the back of the scoop. This gets more bees in contact with the mix. The mix that falls between the frames is not wasted. A layer of mix is left on the bottomboard for them to walk through. Even the small amount of particles that they are able to roll through the entry and throw overboard serves a purpose. A grease film is generated at the entry for distribution.

The following grease mix formula has resulted in less than six percent winter die-out over a five-year period: Layer 10 pounds of granulated table sugar with a three pound can of vegetable shortening in a five-gallon bucket. If preventive treatment for foulbrood is desired, include a seven-ounce packet of TM-25 (we do) in the grease/ sugar layers. Tilt the bucket and rotate while smearing the ingredients together with the flat of the hand. Clean up with dish detergent.

For Varoa control, one or two strips of Apistan (depending on population) during the first or second brood cycle work wonders. We had trouble finding even one mite in mid-Summer when we put in strips in January / February '96. It is very easy to underestimate the cluster size this early. When you open the hive and the bees are foraging, the odds are good that more than half of them are in the field, since almost all the adult bees above brood tending age are foragers during the early season.

At the end of the exposure period for mite treatment, the hive will need to be reopened for removal of any medication applied. But we've already run on and on, so we'll treat swarm prevention and other buildup considerations later.

Walt Wright
Box 10
Elkton, Tn. 38455