All posts by Bill Thurlow


This past winter was the worst in recent memory for the bee population in Ontario. The final survey of overwintering losses by Ontario Beekeepers conducted by the Ontario Beekeepers Association (OBA) were released in mid – May .

Thirty percent of beekeepers reported a loss of 70% or greater of their overwintered hives; 40 % reported losses of 50% to 70 % and 30 % reported losses of 25% to 50 % According to Mr. Jim Coneybeare, President of the OBA, A the number of dead or weak colonies is astounding. These could be the worst winter losses on record.


In the Province of Quebec and New York State many beekeepers  reported losses of 90%.

It would appear that the main cause for these losses was the weather. In our area, Environment Canada reported 49 freeze cycles. This occurs when temperature fluctuations between cold and warm, varies over a short period of time B say a week or less. Normally this would occur 5 or 6 times during the winter season and bees can handle those conditions.

In addition to overwintering losses, as of May, surviving colonies are at least four if not six weeks behind their normal spring build up. The winter and spring of 2018 were particularly severe and damaging for beekeepers, with record breaking cold weather in December and January and no temperature relief through March and April brood rearing – often starting as early as February – was delayed until warmer weather arrived in late April.

In addition, the problem of neonicotinoids is still a major problem.

Pesticide related losses continue with 40 % of commercial beekeepers participating in the OBA survey saying they  suspect pesticides may have weakened their hives as a reason for high winter losses.

Beekeeper’s Calendar – MAY

All the hives in the bee yards have now been opened. In our area this means the protective winter cases have been removed (that helped protect the bees from the cold, wind and snow). Also the hive reducers which narrowed the hive entrance to help maintain the heat have been removed.

The food reserves in each hive have been checked and a sugar syrup feed to those bee colonies that have insufficient honey reserves to last until the spring flowers provide a new food source.

The hives have been checked to ensure each one has a healthy Queen and that she is laying eggs in a regular pattern throughout the brood chamber.  Since it is our practice to have a double brood chamber ( 2 hive boxes) for the Queen to use in laying eggs, and the colony to feed and nurture the developing brood, it is normal to reverse the two hive boxes. In other words, to switch the bottom and top supers.  This is done at this time because the Queen works her way to the upper part of the hive laying eggs as she goes. By putting her down at the bottom she continues the process of laying eggs in the now empty cells since the brood has hatched.

If there are some weak hives, (that have a small population of bees) the bees will be combined with another weak hive to ensure one strong healthy hive. If a hive is very weak, it will be combined with a strong hive.

These activities are part of the first comprehensive inspection of the season. The hive is being checked for capped brood and the brood pattern which helps determine the health of the Queen.  If there is a low amount of capped brood or erratically spaced brood throughout the hive, the Queen may have to be replaced.

The frames in the hive ( 10 frames per box) are examined for swarm cells. Eggs will be laid in Queen cells, the larvae will hatch in 3 days and later sealed on the 9th day and the new Queen will hatch in 7 days later (16 days in all).  The old Queen will leave with the swarm of bees around when the Queen cell is sealed.

It is at this time the bee keeper can exercise several options to control swarming. One is to remove the old Queen and hence the prime swarm cannot leave the colony and the soon to be hatched Queen will take over the hive.  Alternatively, if the old Queen is young and healthy, the new Queen cells might be removed.  It is very important to control swarming if at all possible since the loss of a significant number of bees weakens the hive and reduces the overall honey production for the  year.

Testing for varroa and tracheal mites is undertaken and medication applied if necessary. The hive is also inspected for infection by the small hive beetle and American Foul Brood and medicated if necessary.

Under the regulations of the Ontario Ministry of Food and Agriculture, beekeepers must wait 30 days after the last treatment of any kind before adding any additional supers to the hive. This permits the disappearance of all chemicals from the hive before the bees start to store honey in the upper supers.


Bees collect the sticky resinous sap from the bark of conifers and other types of trees. They take this back to the hive and mix it with wax and their saliva to create propolis. Propolis is chemically very complex and contains more than 150 compounds, including terpenes, caffeic, and phenolic acids. It also has a high flavonoid content.

Propolis is generally brown in color, but can ranges from red to yellow depending on the particular sources of resin. In hot weather, propolis is soft and pliable, but when cold is hard and brittle.

Bee keepers harvest propolis in a number of ways.  During the extraction of honey, the frames of honey must be separated since they are usually glued together with propolis. After honey extraction the propolis is scraped off the frames  and ground to a powder.

Another method is the use of flexible plastic traps. These are basically special plates with small holes placed on the top of a hive below the cover lid.  Bees try to fill the holes and thus fill the trap with propolis.  The average production of propolis in a hive is 300 gms per year, although it can be considerably higher depending on the  climate, the forest resources and  the type of trapping mechanism used.

photo credit

Medical research has shown  that propolis is a powerful, natural antibiotic, and has notable antioxidant and anti-microbial properties. Hippocrates prescribed it for the treatment of sores and ulcers and Romans used it in poultices in the first century A.D. The Hebrew word for propolis is Tzori and the therapeutic properties of tzori are mentioned throughout the Old Testament.

Propolis is a strong allergen and can cause a rash in susceptible people.

One might question why bees would have need of a substance with broad antibacterial and antiviral properties. Since bees are very susceptible to bacterial and viral infections that can destroy their hives propolis (Pro – before, Polis – City = defense of the City) is used to disinfect the beehive.  This is sometimes done by using propolis as a thin coating on the inside walls of the hive.  Larger amounts are used to block cracks in the hive and reduce the entrance. Of more importance is the use of small amounts of propolis mixed with beeswax to seal brood cells. This  takes advantage of the antibacterial and antifungal effects of propolis in protecting the colony against diseases.

Propolis is a natural antiseptic which has been used by humans since the times of ancient Egypt.  It has historically been used as an anti-viral treatment against colds and sore throats; an anti-inflammatory treatment that accelerates healing in minor burns, bruises and cuts; and to ease pain and relieve symptoms of sinusitis and tonsillitis.

Other medicinal uses of propolis include treatment of the cardiovascular and blood systems; ear infections; and gastro-intestinal problems.

Raw propolis can be used in chunks, fine powder, paste, liquid extracts, tablets or as an additive to other medicinal preparations.

The most common application technique is a tincture either in alcohol or water in varying percentages from 10 % to 35 % propolis.  Usage is  2 to 10 drops in a small glass of water once or twice daily.

Beekeeper’s Calendar – MARCH

March is a critical month.  If the hive was low on honey going into the winter, then March is the month they may starve out.  The bees have probably moved all the way up in the hive and their overall population is very low due to normal die – outs throughout the winter. The bees are going to be flying much more in March, especially this year with the mild weather and consequently they consume more honey.   The entire hive will begin to return to an almost normal operation now that winter is almost over. There will be cold snaps, but the bees will do fine as they begin to expand.

It is at this time of year that bee keepers will inspect the hives. There will be a few days in which the temperature will rise to 12 degrees or higher. At these temperature we can look in the hive and remove a few frames for inspection.  March is a great month to start feeding pollen patties (which is necessary to help feed the brood).

The bottom board is usually filled with dead, winter bees.  They did their job, we play “Taps”, salute them, and toss them in the yard for the mice and birds to enjoy.  It is also at this time that we serve the mice an eviction notice. (To a mouse, a beehive is a very desirable residence. It is warm, protected from the wind and rain, and offers an ideal place for a nest. They will consume stores, especially pollen. When a colony is active, mice will generally be warned off by the bees’ ability to sting,  but as the winter cluster of bees forms, this threat is greatly diminished and the mice will try to gain access.)

At this time  we are able to assess how many colonies have died out over the winter. These boxes are cleaned out and we freeze the comb to use in the new hives in the spring. This will prevent the spread of wax moth.

March is the time in which beekeepers, begin getting the boxes and frames ready for addition to old hives and to establish new ones.