Winter Production of Nucleus Honeybee Colonies

Final Report for FS10-243

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2010: $9,944.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information


2010 – Phase I
This Producer Grant was intended to test and demonstrate techniques for overwintering Apis Mellifera honeybee hives in a greenhouse in Northern Virginia, in a geographic district where winter temperatures usually reach 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and where honeybee hives are usually wintered without any shelter. By placing small hives in a greenhouse setting, it was intended to make the bees readily available for manipulation and reproductive splitting before the usual Spring swarm season.

The grant was sufficient to provide equipment, feed, and necessary supplemental pollen stores for 50 nucleus honey bee hives in a greenhouse from November 2010 to April 2011. In July 2010, 52 five-frame nucleus hives were set up and by mid-August 2010, the presence of a queen and a successfully established brood nest was confirmed by visual inspection of each hive. Each hive was supplied with a second story or super of 5 medium frames for storage of honey, and the hives were fed sugar water and pollen patties due to severe drought conditions. The beeyard was located in NW Fairfax County near a 1 acre pond.

The greenhouse was ready for occupancy by the beehives by October 30, 2010. The plan was to place the beehives about 1 foot from the wall of the greenhouse, and to seal each hive entrance, leaving only a 2 inch pipe extending from the entrance, through a wood panel inserted in the greenhouse wall. Each hive would have individual access for flights on warm days.

Before the hives could be moved into the greenhouse, there was a catastrophic loss of 38 hives. By late November 2010, there were only 14 live nucleus hives. By the end of December 2010, the number had dwindled to 5 nucleus hives.

Because it was obvious that the project would not demonstrate anything about sustainable agriculture, permission was requested to postpone the project to November 2011-April 2012. In December 2010, Dr. Mayne approved an extension.

Inspection of the dead and survivor beehives, and careful comparison of the nucleus hives to full size hives at the same location, provided a possible explanation for the extreme losses. The severe drought of July-September 2010 in Fairfax County caused an almost complete loss of the pollen and nectar crops that the newly formed nucleus hives needed to establish winter stores and adequately fed bees to form the winter cluster. It appears probable that the nucleus hives set up in July 2010 had little or no access to essential proteins and minerals that were not adequately replaced by commercially available feeds and pollen substitutes.

2011 – Phase II
Acting on the theory that the 2010 bees died from a lack of pollen in the severe drought conditions of 2010, preparations were made to feed the 2011 nucleus hives pollen patties from several sources, and to not make up nucleus hives during a drought.

In July 2011, another 52 nucleus hives were set up to begin the experiment again. Cox Farms, the commercial nursery where the project was to take place in a greenhouse, again provided the site. September and early October 2011 were unusually wet in the beeyard. In late September and October,2011, 46 of the 52 nucleus hives were killed by small hive beetles (Athena Tumida), which had never previously been a pest in Western Fairfax County.

The project was not able to proceed with only six nucleus hives. Due to 2 years of catastrophic losses, the Producer Grant is requested to be terminated.

Lessons Learned

In an effort to test the winter survival and reproduction aspects of nucleus hives, and to demonstrate a sustainable technique for overwintering and increasing the number of beehives, a large number of nucleus hives were concentrated in one beeyard.

1. The project demonstrated that the effort to form nucleus hives during a severe drought is doomed unless a complete, commercial diet can be fed to replace absent flowers and nectar. Such a diet is not now available.
2. The project demonstrated that a beeyard with 50+ nucleus hives, set up in July and fed commercial pollen patties, can attract many thousands of small hive beetles to the hives during a period of wet weather. There is anecdotal evidence that smaller beehives, under stressful conditions, and supplied with copious amounts of pollen patties, attract small hive beetles.

Project Objectives:

Using a greenhouse that is normally used for rearing plants from April - June, and passive solar heat and wind protection in the greenhouse -
- overwinter hives without great expense, in moderated temperatures
- reduce winter losses of small colonies by weekly inspections and feeding,
- reproduce honeybee colonies without Africanized honeybees
and without material damage from Varroa mites and Small Hive Beetles;
- use honeybees that are adapted to the mid-Atlantic climate, molds,
fungi, nectars and pollen sources.
- use Winter lull in apiary work cycle to reproduce colonies
- avoid Winter loss of colonies by feeding and shielding colonies
from worst winter weather, thus encouraging early and larger brood nests
- use rapid buildup of colonies to “outbreed” Varroa mites and thereby provide partial
Varroa control in milder temperature conditions; treat for Varroa in any hive that shows
excessive mite population
- prevent Small Hive Beetle reproduction by physically inspecting frames ,boosting
weak hives with brood from strong hives, and destruction of small hive beetle larvae
- begin Spring season with strong colonies with earlier, larger populations of foragers, to
take advantage of early nectar flows and early pollination demands
- split all strong colonies in February and March and produce 100% increase in number
of colonies at end of project


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.