Overwintering at the Killer Bees Honey apiaries for 2020

Summer took its time collapsing into autumn. The deep green canopies of the Pisgah National Forest turned, albeit late, chimney red and burnt orange. Inevitably, the great oaks, maples and sourwood trees relinquished their leaves. Each floating leaf reluctantly waved goodbye as it descended onto the forest floor. Even though Western North Carolina is now barren of its foliage, it’s still unseasonably and unreasonably warm. This is affecting the honeybees.

Most beekeepers will feed their hives sugar water in the fall. This supplements the stores of honey the bees have collected during the summer honey flows. Unfortunately, these beekeepers do this because they harvest as much honey as possible to increase volume and market share, thereby leaving very little honey for the bees. We rarely need to feed our bees in the fall due to the fact that we allow each hive to keep at least 50lbs of their own honey. We then harvest and bottle the surplus honey. The nectar they collected from the hundreds of different forest floral species is far more nutritionally superior than giving them bleached cane sugar or even worse, corn syrup. The later laced with pesticides, toxins and other agrochemicals. With the exception of five out of 85 hives, all our colonies were able to attain their minimum overwintering weight. The five that didn’t were each given 50lb’s of honey supers we stored for this very purpose. 

There was one very troubling development. We treat our hives for mites several times a year. The most important period for treatment is right after the sourwood flow. This occurs in late July. This year I switched from MAQS to Formic Pro. Both are organic treatments made by NOD Apiary Products located in Canada. I understood Formic Pro was easier on the bees. I've had tremendous success using MAQS, but it tends to kill more bees and worse, queen bees. I applied the Formic Pro strips per label instructions and required temperature range. After 14 days I removed the strips and waited one month to assess effectiveness.

Our intern from Brevard College, Madison Smith was doing her senior project on Varroa destructor mite populations at different altitudes. She administered sugar shakes for mites on ten hives in each apiary. Madison performed this test three times throughout the year. We also inspected each hive for any visible signs of subsequent mite infestation called, “varoosis.” The most visible symptoms being K-wing, Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) and Primary Mite Syndrome (PMS). Madison’s mite counts were below our economic threshold of <3%/100 bees on her first two sugar shakes. Here’s the rub: our final shake after treatment came in with an exponential increase in mites (see included graph). In other words, the Formic Pro had no affect on the mites. 

My only recourse so late in the season was to immediately apply oxalic acid. Oxalic acid, another organic mite treatment only kills phoretic mites mites hitchhiking on adult bees in the hive. It doesn’t work on mites sealed in the cells with baby bees. Treatments were administered every five days, four times in a row and before dawn to catch all the bees in the hives and subsequent mites exfiltrating from cells with newly born bees.

My concern now is the possible viral load introduced by the overabundance of mites. V. destructor can vector up to 20 different pathogens into the bee. Luckily, only two hives have collapsed so far and all the others have plenty of bees and show no signs of varoosis. 

The warm weather has bees venturing out of their hives and looking for nectar in all the wrong places… like our honey house. But soon, very soon, they’ll be tucked into their hives riding out the winter, hoping for a quick and nectar filled New Year to follow. 


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