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When Water Comes Down, Up, or Sideways!

By: Matt Fuller P. D., Owner - Fuller Farms

Bee prepared for bad weather

In terms of late spring and summer rains, I’d say this year’s precipitation ranks right up there as one of the wettest years I can recall. Usually, rain is a welcomed sight on my farm, though I would like to be able to get outside and work a little. Still, throughout the years, I tend to find myself praying for rain more often than I find myself praying for it to stop. After the next drought kills off some trees, I’ll probably cut down said trees and see this year’s annual growth ring and think, “What was happening then?”

Honeybees are just like us, trying to make our way in the world, no matter what might come. This year’s rain has stressed them considerably, and hurricane season has just begun! So I decided to share some tips for dealing with rain, humidity, wind, hail, sudden drought, falling objects, and so much more that Texas throws the agrarian's way in late spring and summer. In the TBA Journal (Click Here pg. 22), I have focused on work you can do to prepare for hurricanes and many of the principles apply to typical storms all year round.

But first, a few caveats. In a state as diverse as Texas, there’s really no way for me to write one article that will work for every reader. With that in mind, I offer what has worked for me in Southeast Texas (Montgomery and Weimar) to help readers develop their own plans for Texas weather. Second, perhaps the most important advice I can give is that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” While weather prediction has become tremendously accurate, meteorologists still have a degree of uncertainty they have to deal with. The time to prevent a catastrophic weather loss in your apiary is well before the first raincloud, tornado, or hurricane bands are rolling in.

A few ounces of prevention

Three main culprits claim beehives during major rain events – wind, water, and falling objects. In turn, several repercussions claim beehives after these rain events – humidity, lack of forage, disease, swarming tendencies, etc. So a beekeeper, no matter how large the operation, has to have a plan for weather events and post-weather conditions. Nothing will replace the valuable knowledge you have in knowing your land. For example, a topographical map of your land might show a creek or ditch running through your property. But only you will know just how full that ditch becomes with a rain. Only you will know that there is a small recurring puddle or pond that you have to deal with each time it rains. Or, you may know of a particularly blustery gap in trees or around a building that lead the prevailing winds to focus on a specific area on your property. Placing beehives in these high risk areas might not be your best idea. But, putting beehives in areas that are less likely to flood or face strong prevailing winds is one of the best things you can do to help your bees and limit equipment losses.

Next, be aware of failing objects. Hail comes to mind, but in my experience, that's nothing a well-constructed beehive can’t manage. For me, old dead trees just look fearful. In my smaller bee yard in Montgomery, there is a “half dead” oak tree that was struck by lightning many years ago (Another risk to beehives perhaps?). When it was a smaller tree my sons would climb in the tree using the crack created by the lightning as a foothold. So I do have some sentimental investment in the tree which explains why it is not currently in my firewood pile. But, it has grown larger. In other words, it’s not fully dead, but it’s not really thriving either... I know that eventually, if I don’t do something about this tree, it will crash. And depending on its angle, I might lose a hive or two if its highest branches fall just right. Year after year, I pick up limbs from that tree that have fallen too close to my hives for my liking. What I need to do, is don a bee suit, fire up a chainsaw and control where that tree falls prior to it falling wherever it pleases; maybe right through my hives and hive stand.

Which brings me to another preventative effort: Your hive stand. I’ve seen some rather creative hive stands; some created from what beekeepers have on hand; some expensive and some factory-built models. A hive stand can get a beehive above impending water flood levels. Ironically, Hurricane Harvey was not the highest level of water I have seen on my properties. The Tax Day Flood of 2016 dumped 29 inches of rain in 24 hours. Harvey saddled me with 30 inches of rain, but it was across many days, making the effects less severe and the flood levels lower. Still, I am sure my bees were wondering what in the world was happening. In either case, my bees were never in danger of flooding because I placed them high up on a hill and on top of hive stands made from cinder blocks and dimensional lumber. 

Water isn’t the only thing one has to deal with. Wind also is a problem. I use a variety of methods to ensure my telescoping hive covers don’t end up outside of Dorothy’s window in the tornado scene from the Wizard of Oz. If the number of hives and finances allow for it, I use a ratchet strap around the entire hive and the hive stand. This is an effective solution as long as you buy the correct ratchet strap to start with… not the one sized for your first year – single deep beehive. I will admit that from time to time I have found myself cursing a little too loudly as I try to maneuver the ratchet while wearing bee gloves. Where my larger number of beehives prevent me from buying straps, I simply place a brick or a piece of a cinder block on the top of the hive cover. This also has the added benefit of contributing to my record keeping in the apiary. Certain colors of bricks indicate the hive is operating well; others remind me to keep an eye on them; still others help me recall aspects of my queen rearing business to which I need to be attentive. Either approach offers a way to keep the hive top from blowing away. Incidentally, I build all of my own equipment, which has allowed me to make my telescoping beehive cover just a little bit taller around the edges, also helping them stay on in the wind.

Bees propolize their equipment and I have seen beehives handle intense winds, so if I know a significant wind event is headed my way, I resist the urge to do a hive inspection thereby breaking the propolis seal. One time, a wind storm picked up a patio set from my neighbor’s house, carried it over and beyond my hives by 50 yards. Nothing on my hives was even moved. I attribute this to the fact that they were weighted or strapped down, but even those that were not, still survived the event. This was likely due to the fact that the bees had glued everything together with propolis, making their hive into a small fortress against the elements. I also placed my hives behind a line of small huisache trees that gives them enough of a wind break to prevent a catastrophe. This is the same principal I mentioned in my prior article in dealing with winds from hurricanes and north winds in the winter. Adding a wind block, such as a round hay bale, t-posts with tin or plywood, or a tree line, can help bees manage all that wind (and cold) thrown at them in Texas.

After rains, winds, hurricanes, and hail… our weather isn’t done with us yet! Humidity is also a culprit, at least for those of us east of the 98th meridian. This past week, after a few days of sunny weather I donned my bee suit and rubber boots and peeked inside some of my hives only to find a real musty smell and even some signs of mold (limited, fortunately, to the corners of my hive bodies and a few spots on my hive cover where pollen patties had been in months prior). To mitigate this situation, I recommend making sure your entrance reducers ,if you use them are open to the widest setting. If you use screened bottom boards; having the screens opened can help tremendously. But if you are using Freeman or sticky style bottom boards, make sure they are pushed all the way in. Even a small crack can see rain running down the side of a hive body and into the bottom board tray. While this may not drown your bees, it sure can make the beehive smell like a locker room and keeps moisture levels high, causing the bees to work all the more to keep their interiors comfy. If you’re using solid bottom board, you may face less likelihood of moisture and humidity entering the hive and bees may be able to regulate the humidity and temperature of their hive better. Additionally, you might consider making sure your hive is tilted slightly forward, so that any water that does get into a hive body can drain out the front.

As if all of this weren’t enough, the after effects of a storm or a prolonged period of storms can also stress bees and beekeepers, much the way they stress cows, pecan trees, or other agricultural farmers’ affections. Bees may need a few days to find new nectar sources after hail or wind events that strip flowers off plants. Depending on the timing of a storm, a beekeeper might face earlier or later periods wherein they need to feed their hives. They may not have flown from their hives in days, and it has been my experience that hives which are cooped up for long periods of time have become a little “swarmy” for me. So, once I have an opportunity to check on the bees after a few days of dry weather, I just keep this in mind and look for swarming signs, which is just a good beekeeping skill anyway.

I have sustained direct hits from hurricanes, a sheer line wind storm, floods, hail storms, droughts, and as of last February, a freeze that rivaled the last great freeze of 1989. I’ve not endured an earthquake, a direct lightning strike, a wildfire, a direct hit from a tornado, locusts, rivers of blood, or hail that bursts into flames…thankfully! I will say that there are limitations to what you can do in agriculture when disastrous weather strikes. Farmers and beekeepers have a tremendous spirit and help each other out after times of intense hardship. So once the clouds break, maybe you have an extra lid you can lend someone. Maybe you can help them with a split to replace a hive they lost. Either way, having a list of the beekeepers and farmers available around you sure would aid in your efforts to check up on each other. Texans help each other out after storms! It’s what we do. Ultimately, bees and beehives are

Photo By: Jim - Bees and Honey, LLC

replaceable; you are not. I’ll do a lot to care for bees, but there are some limits to what I can and should do while a storm is rolling in. I don’t put my life on the line for any animal, but if I can leverage an ounce of prevention on my farms, bees are worthy of my best efforts to do so. So find time to think about the ways in which the weather on your property might adversely affect bees. Develop a plan that relies on prevention and response after a storm, limiting the time in which you have to rush out during a storm. Bees have been weathering storms long before there were humans helping them. With just a little prevention and smart responses, bees and beekeepers can help each other through all that Texas weather places in their path.

Matt Fuller is the owner of Fuller Farms, located in Montgomery and
Weimar, TX. He comes by his love of farming naturally, as his family
has been involved in Texas agriculture since the 1800s.
 
He is a professor of educational leadership at Sam Houston State
University and President of the Montgomery Independent School
 District Board of Trustees.
 
He is a Master Beekeeper (Advanced level) and is involved in pollination
services, bee removals, queen rearing, and community efforts to teach
 children about bees.
 
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