It looks like I’ve got a trilogy in the making because it’s too cold to slip these sugar bricks in my beehives today. In Episode I, 12 cups of refined granulated sugar were mixed with 1 cup of water and troweled into a tin pan with my bare hands. The last we saw of our big wet bricks of sugar, they were sitting in an oven with only the light on. Ten hours later we return and open the oven to find…
I use dry sugar poured over newspaper and over the top bars in my hives to feed my bees in the winter, not that they always need sugar to stay alive, but as a precaution, the sugar goes in. Sometimes the bees can’t get enough of that delectable white sugar and will eat through it quickly. That’s when I like to add more sugar, again, just as a precaution. Adding newspaper and more sugar on top can get a little tricky, especially if the bees are crowding over the top bars. If I was smart, I would have poured as much sugar as humanly possible into the hive when I first did it so as to avoid opening the hive later in the winter to add more sugar. But I’m not often that smart and so it goes. Pouring more dry sugar in isn’t a gong show, but slipping in hard bricks of sugar has the potential to be much easier. And because I always practice what I preach, here’s a video of my first attempt at making sugar bricks for my honey bees.
I had eight honey bee colonies going into winter last year and all but two of them were destroyed by shrews. The shrews squeezed through the half-inch mesh I’d been using since 2010 to keep mice out. But no one ever told me about shrews. The little buggers easily squeeze through half-inch mesh. They slip inside and pluck one bee at a time from the edge of the cluster. They eat the bee’s innards, toss away the bits of legs and other desiccated body parts, then climb towards the cluster for more… until they eat approximately 125% of their body weight in bees every day, gradually reducing the size of the cluster until the colony is dead.
That’s how I lost six colonies last year. With only one mated queen and no extra brood, I performed a miracle and managed to expand my remaining two colonies into five colonies last summer. They may not be the strongest colonies I’ve ever seen, but they’re hanging in there (so far). All of my hives have quarter-inch mesh covering every entrance now. Shrews will never get anywhere near my bees again.
Looking back on my notes from last year, along with photos and videos I shot and the memory of the experience burnt in my brain, the first sign of a shrew inside one of my hives seems obvious. It’s in this photo from January 5th, 2015:
I noticed some honey or sugar syrup on the bottom board of one of my hives this morning.
I’ve seen this before. It usually happens in the winter when open honey comb contracts in the cold and then expands in the sudden heat of a warm spell and drips out of the cells. That’s all that’s happening. The first time I saw this, I thought a mouse got in the hive and chewed open some honey comb, which is not unheard of. But there’s no way a mouse could get through my quarter-inch mesh.
The buzz of my bees has gotten quieter through my stethoscope in the past couple of weeks. I hope they’re not freezing to death. I don’t think they are. I think they’re just contracting into a tighter ball as the weather gets colder. I saw a sign of life in one of my hives this morning.
That’s frost build-up on the shrew-proofing mesh of the top entrance, frost that came from the respiration of the bees’ inside the hive. Which means they’re alive. I’ve been eager to take a peek inside, but that’s good enough for now.
The following, originally written in 2012 and revised in 2014, has been tweaked for 2016. Not all the prices are up to date, but I think it’s still a half decent guide for anyone thinking about getting into beekeeping on the island of Newfoundland. My original order came from Beemaid in Manitoba, because at the time their prices (even after shipping) were the best I could find. That may not be the case today. The NLBKA provides a list of other suppliers on its Getting Started page. I’ve only ordered from Beemaid and Country Fields and have no complaints about either. Beemaid, a few years ago, had some issues with their hive parts not fitting together easily, but they’ve since addressed that issue. Although I don’t order many heavy items from them anymore, their prices for other items, such as ventilated bee jackets, are hard to beat. Plus there’s always Amazon.ca, which I keep forgetting about.This is my rough cost estimate and guide for setting up a bare minimum honey bee hive on the island of Newfoundland in 2014. (It’ll cost somewhere between $570 and $720.) It’s better to start with more than one hive, but this is one way to do it cheaply if necessary. I order all my beekeeping supplies from Beemaid in Manitoba. Their prices are so low that even with the expense of shipping half way across Canada, it’s still cheaper than ordering from any suppliers I’ve found in Atlantic Canada. (Update: Prices have changed since 2014. Country Fields may be cheaper.) The cost savings for beekeepers able to make their own wood components are even greater. (Check out my How-To page for information on building certain hive components.) But assuming someone has to start from scratch and order all the necessary beekeeping equipment and hive pieces in one order, the cheapest and simplest option is to go with a single Langstroth hive with conventional frames and no honey supers.
Necessary items not listed below are nails, screws and tools needed for assembling the hives; Mason jars or large pickling jars for inverted jar feeding; 40-80kg of granulated sugar for mixing sugar syrup and candy; a spray bottle for misting the bees when a smoker isn’t necessary; mesh for mouse and shrew proofing hive entrances in the winter; paint for the hives; and the R5 hard insulation and Type 15 or 30 asphalt felt used for wintering the hive for those who wish to winter their bees that way. (Again, see my How-To page for more info on all that.) Those extra items will come to about $100.
Then add $200 to $250 for a nuc box (i.e., the bees) from one of the few suppliers of nucs on the island. (The NLBKA has contact information for suppliers.)
Okay then, here’s the one-shot hypothetical order for anyone interested in starting up a single Langstroth hive in Newfoundland in 2014. Note that the prices listed for each item are from 2012. The updated 2014 prices are slightly higher (and the 2016 prices are probably even higher), but I don’t have time to update all those images from my original order.
I have five chickens (yeah, I’m talking about chickens) that each lay about one egg a day in the summer, when the days are long, and about one egg every two or three days in the winter as the days get shorter. I’ve been collecting about two eggs a day for the past few months — until about ten days ago when I collected three. Some days are still two-egg days, but three is becoming the norm.
And the moral of the story is: It’s the same deal with queen bees.
I’ve been asked many times now what I think of BroodMinder, a new device that monitors the temperature and humidity of a beehive through use of a cell phone app and sells for sixty bucks American. I haven’t written about it before because I don’t have much to say about it. But here’s what I have to say for anyone who’s dying to know.
I think the BroodMinder is really neat. (Please feel free to quote me on that.) I wouldn’t hesitate to install the BroodMinder device on one or all of my hives. I would love to add temperature and humidity readings to the observational data on my hives. The BroodMinder readings might not make any difference to how I keep my bees in the winter (or the summer), but more knowledge about what’s going on inside the hive is usually a good thing (usually). So yeah, it sounds great. I’m all for it.
But it’s not going to happen for me because I don’t want to spend almost another $80 in Canadian cash on each of my hives if I don’t have to. That’s about $400 to cover all five of my hives (and I expect to max out at about ten hives in a year or two). Even $80 for one BroodMinder is too much for something that isn’t essential to my beekeeping. So although I like BroodMinder and I support it in theory and would love to try it out in the real world, it’s a pass for me.
P.S.: I’m well aware of the perception that beekeeping as a hobby is, in essence, a money pit, and I have to confess a bias towards beekeeping practices that save money, not ones that cost more money. Not that the BroodMinder is overpriced for what it does, and I admire the efforts of the people behind it, but it’s one of many items that most hobbyist beekeepers on a budget (like me) probably don’t need.
It’s time for my traditional New Year’s Eve action-packed post about nothing. Stand back, because here it comes.
SHORT VERSION: The bees in only one of my five hives are eating the dry sugar I gave them a little over a month ago. The rest are still well below the top bars probably because I didn’t take any honey this year and I fed them massive amounts of sugar syrup before winter. At least I hope that’s the reason.
LONG VERSION: I dumped dry sugar into my five 3-deep Langstroth hives a month ago. The bees were so deep down in the hives, they barely noticed the sugar. Two weeks later I cleared a hole in the middle of the sugar (like I should have done from the start) and added pollen patties to two hives with small clusters. But even then, most of the bees didn’t seem too hungry for the sugar. Today only one of the five hives shows any sign of eating the sugar. Here it is:
The bees in all the other hives seem to be well below the sugar. Most of them came above the top bars (i.e., the top of the hive) after I cleared a hole in the sugar, but within a week they were back down below. What does it mean?
It doesn’t mean anything, but I don’t take it as a bad sign. I didn’t steal honey from any of my hives this year and I went through almost 100kg of sugar (220 pounds) to make syrup for them (building most of them up from a couple of measly frames of brood). The goal was to make sure the hives had as much sugar syrup and honey as the bees could pack into them before going into winter. And I think it worked. Most of the colonies aren’t eating the dry sugar because they don’t need it. They already have enough honey to stay alive — because I made sure they had as much as they could get before winter. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
It’s nice when things work out the way you planned them.
Happy new year.
The tricky bit with feeding honey bees dry sugar in the winter is that they will sometimes discard it from the hive like they would with any other kind of debris.
It can take up to week for dry sugar to harden from naturally occurring moisture inside the hive after it’s been added. If it’s warm enough for the bees to move around during that week, there’s a good chance they’ll start hauling the sugar out of the hive, or at least drop it down to the bottom of the hive. I’ve seen it many times. It’s an extra little mess to clean out of the hives in the spring, but that’s fine with me. I’d rather deal with that than starved out bees.
Something similar to a no-cook candy board would probably prevent this because the sugar is a semi-solid block that isn’t going anywhere. Spraying down the newspaper and the sugar while adding the dry sugar might help harden the sugar faster too. Not that adding moisture to a hive is usually a good thing, but I use moisture quilts that quickly wick away any excess moisture, so it’s not much of a concern for me.
DECEMBER 20, 2015 (UPDATE): I think I jumped the gun in writing this post. I still suspect the bees will clear out the dry sugar like they would with any debris. But the photo I posted may not be evidence of that. Let’s clarify this situation…