How I Prepare My Beehives For Winter

    The following was originally posted on December 7th, 2015, but was edited and updated on October 27th, 2016, to reflect my current practices, such as they are.

Something weird happened. I got several emails from people asking me what I do to prepare my hives for winter.

One of my bee hives after a  snow storm in 2013.

One of my bee hives after a snow storm in 2013. The bees survived.

I’m no expert, but here’s what I do, and what I do could change entirely by this time next week.

The typical winter configuration for a world renowned and stupendous Mud Songs bee hive. (Nov. 04, 2015.)

The typical winter configuration for a world renowned and stupendous Mud Songs bee hive. (November 4th, 2015.)

So the big question is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?”
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Wondering When to Remove Shrew-Proofing Mesh

I used 6mm mesh (quarter-inch mesh) on my hives this winter for the first time because I lost most of my colonies last winter when shrews managed to squeeze through the half-inch mesh I kept on the bottom entrances. I’m not sure if the shrews got into the hives through the top entrances, but to be safe this winter, I covered both the top and bottom entrances with 6mm mesh. Now I’m wondering when I should remove the mesh, at least from the top entrances.

Opening the quarter-inch mesh and releasing the bees for cleansing flights. (March 19, 2016.)

Opening the quarter-inch mesh and releasing the bees for cleansing flights. (March 19, 2016.)


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A Real Life Demonstration of Feeding Honey Bees Dry Sugar

I usually pour dry sugar over newspaper into my Langstroth honey bee hives so the bees have something to eat just in case they run out of honey during the winter. Some people refer to it as the Mountain Camp Method, but I’m pretty sure beekeepers have been pouring dry sugar into their hives long before Mr Camp came along and popularized it. I’ll call it Dry Sugar Feeding for now on. In any case, it may not be the best method for feeding bees over the winter, but it works well for me and that’s what matters most. I like it because it’s the easiest method I’ve ever tried and it may be better for the bees than hard candy or candy boards. Do a little research on Hydroxymethylfurfural and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

2 kg of dry sugar over the top bars.

2 kg of dry sugar over the top bars.

When I first fed my bees dry sugar, I waited until January or February when the bees, if they were low on honey, would cover most of the top bars in the hive. But waiting that long is a pain in the butt for all kinds of reasons, so now I put the sugar in long before the bees really need it — just like I did today. Here’s an 11-minute video recorded a few hours ago that demonstrates the dry sugar method in all its glory. I also explain near the end how moisture quilts work.

P.S.: I’m not a big fan of feeding the bees pollen patties early in the winter because most of the time they don’t need it and it’s not always good to give the bees solids when they can’t get outside for cleansing flights. I try to reserve pollen patties for small colonies that could use a little boost in brood production. The colony in the video that I refer to as being about the size of a human head will get a pollen patty in a week or two. A small cluster like that, which is likely to get smaller before it gets bigger, won’t be able to stay warm much longer. The colony could be in trouble if I can’t get the queen laying soon.

Another postscript (written in part as a response to the first comment): If I had to do this again, I would place something round in the middle of the newspaper, a small bowl or a jar perhaps. Then after I poured the sugar on, I’d remove the bowl or jar so that a round sugar-free area of newspaper was left behind. Then I’d cut a hole in the exposed newspaper so that when the cluster came up, the bees would go through the hole without having to chew through the newspaper to get at the sugar. The hole would also allow moisture from the cluster to rise directly up to the moisture quilt. (If I have a chance, I’ll record a follow-up video.)

JANUARY 12, 2016: I eventually cleared a hole in the dry sugar. Check out Bees Not Eating Dry Sugar to see what happened after that.

When, Why and How I Give My Bees Pollen Patties

Someone asked me when, why and how I feed my bees pollen patties. Here’s a photo from one of my first posts about the topic, Adding Pollen Patties. The colony pictured below, by the way, is starving. Usually the way it works is the more winter bees above the top bars, the less honey there is in the hive (usually, not always).

Adding a pollen patty to a very hungry colony. (February, 2011.)

Adding a pollen patty to a very hungry colony. (February, 2011.)

I’ve written about pollen patties a bunch of times, so I’m likely to repeat myself here. Do a search of “patties” in my little search engine box up at the top for more detailed information with videos and photos and so on.
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Spring Orientation & Cleansing Flights

It went up to 11°C today. Is it safe to say winter is over yet? I don’t know.

Spring wake up call for Hive #3 (April 8, 2012.)

Spring wake up call for Hive #3 (April 8, 2012.)

The colony in the above photo was slow to wake up from winter. The foundationless hive that went into winter with a small cluster has been the most active in the past few weeks. That colony may have more Carniolan genes helping its population bounce back early. The slower-to-wake-up colony my have a greater Italian lineage, high on honey production but slow to build up in the spring. But who really knows? Either way, all four colonies seem to be doing well now. They went mad with orientation and cleansing flights today.
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Hive #1 Coming Back to Life

The honey bee colony in Hive #1 came to life in the morning sun like gang busters today. It was 13­°C by 10 o’clock. I noticed activity near the bottom entrance — for the first time this year. I removed the entrance reducer to see if the extra air circulation would bring out more bees through the bottom. It did. The temperature reached nearly 15°C by 10:30 and the bees in Hive #2 began to fly around too, though not nearly as much as Hive #1. None of this may seem like a big deal, but for a first-year beekeeper, this is huge. The bees have survived the winter (so far). How do they do it?


Some browsers seem to flatten the aspect ratio on this video and I don’t know why and I don’t have the patience to try and fix it. View it on the YouTube page for accurate playback.

The temperature continued to rise, but the sun disappeared and the bees went back inside after about 90 minutes. I then put the entrance reducer back on. It was warmer than usual, but not warm enough to stay out all day and start any kind of major clean up. (I didn’t see them pulling out any of the thousands of dead winter bees piled up inside the hive.) They haven’t survived the winter yet, but any kind of activity like this — I take it as a good sign.

It’s interesting that the colony in Hive #1, the same colony that shut down dramatically in the fall, is the first colony to show signs of life as soon as the weather warms up. Their behaviour seems to make sense for bees that may have some Carniolans bred into them. As usual, I don’t really know.

Cleansing Flights

I didn’t think we’d have anything to report until March, but I was wrong. The bees in both hives finally got to use the washroom today after holding it in for the past three months. The following photos and video were taken around 11am today, not a breath of wind, a mild 3°C / 37°F, blinding sun bouncing off the snow. First I saw this little guy outside the door:

(Yes, I know it’s a female worker and not a little guy, but saying “little girl” doesn’t work for me.)
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