How to Make Mean Bees

I took the top off one of my hives yesterday and forgot to put it back on before I went to bed. The inner cover was exposed to the elements all night without a protective top cover. And it rained and poured last night. Hopefully it wasn’t a critical goof on my part.

I had a German-style feeder over the hole of the inner cover, so it probably kept some of the rain out but not all of it. Hence, the bees are in an extremely bad mood today, pouring out of the hive at the slightest vibration.

I saw this happen in the winter once before when a top cover got partially blown off a hive for a few days. Bees exposed to the elements = mean bees.

Oops.

SEPTEMBER 03, 2016: Here’s a recreated scene of what I found the night after the rain storm:

Added rapid-feeder to Q1602.  (Sept. 02, 2016.)

The feeder, by the way, is usually referred to as a Rapid Feeder. That’s what I’ll go with for now on. At any rate, the only difference between the recreated scene in this above photo and what actually happened is that the inner cover was thinner. It’s one of those, well, thinner inner covers that often comes without a top entrance hole notched into it. What I’m saying is, it was even worse than what it looks like in the photo. I haven’t checked on those bees yet because I still want to give them time to chill out a bit before I start messing with them again.

What Makes Friendly Springtime Honey Bees Turn Mean?

My healthiest honey bee colony, one that was always full of mean bees but has been playing extremely nice so far this year, is back to being mean. Any slight vibration on the hive and the bees come pouring out. I’m not sure what reactivated the mean gene, but these bees are definitely not playing nice anymore.

Q1402, back to being mean. (June 10, 2016.)

Defensive bees just beginning to pour out of a hive. (June 10, 2016.)

Things that may have triggered the mean gene (and I’m just making this up):
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A Failing Queen and Hope for The Future

What follows is an example, from my own experience as a small-scale hobbyist beekeeper, of what’s involved in keeping bees and keeping them alive and well. This is nothing compared some things I’ve had to deal with before, but the point is that beekeeping takes time and effort and close attention. It’s not all about the honey (though the honey helps). So anyway, I says to Mabel, I says…

One of my little honey bee colonies is toast.

A very small cluster for the first week of June.

A very small cluster for the first week of June.

The queen is failing. She’s been on the way out for a while, but now she’s fading fast, laying small, spotty patches of brood over three or four frames, the entire brood nest contained within half of a single brood box (a single deep). The cold weather we’ve had for the past two weeks (well below 10°C / 50°F) hasn’t helped. I did a quick inspection yesterday and found a few patches of capped brood abandoned in the bottom deep, abandoned probably because it got so cold the bees were forced to cluster up top.

Some abandoned brood. (June 07, 2016.)

I’ve never seen that before. Not good.

I reduced the hive to a single deep and put the abandoned brood frames in with the regular brood nest. I put on a jar feeder with honey. I don’t have high hopes.

Then there was one.

Then there was one.

It’s possible the queen doesn’t react well to cold temperatures, that she needs a good warm spell to get into a strong laying cycle. But I doubt it. Now that I’m feeding them, maybe the bees will create a supersedure queen. But I have my doubts about that too. If there’s no improvement by next weekend, I’ll probably remove the queen, if she’s still alive, and add whatever is left to one of my healthier colonies.
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Beekeeping Workshop: A Full Hive Inspection

The following is probably the most detailed video of a hive inspection that I’ve posted since the dawn of Mud Songs. For everyone who couldn’t attend the informal beekeeping workshop I was ready put on today, this video shows what you missed (or would have missed if I’d gone ahead with the workshop). It’s a 24-minute video, longer than my usual videos, because I left in the all the parts with me yammering on about what I’m doing — exactly the kind of yammering I’d do if I was giving a workshop.


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Do You Know Where Your Cluster Is?

I have a quick and easy method for inspecting my hives when it’s freezing cold outside like it is today. I take a quick peek under the hood to see how high the cluster has risen. It literally takes three seconds. Not much danger of chilling and killing the bees. When the cluster is so high that the bees are covering most of the top bars, it’s time to give them some sugar. Why? Because in my experience, the bees head to the bottom of the hive once the weather turns cold and gradually work their way to the top as they eat through their winter stores of honey. Usually the higher the bees are in the hive, the less honey they have and the closer they are to starving. (Usually, not always.)

A cluster of honey bees running low on honey. (Dec. 31, 2011.)

A cluster of honey bees running low on honey. (Dec. 31, 2011.)

All of my colonies live in 3-deep hives. Most of them seem to have between one and two deeps of honey to keep them alive all winter. Even though that’s more than enough honey, I have considered dumping sugar in all the hives just to be safe. But I think I’ll wait and see what happens. It would be wonderful to get through a winter without having to feed my bees, though chances are I’ll get paranoid and give them loads of sugar even if they don’t need it. My plan, if you can call it that, is to give them sugar perhaps even before the cluster is covering most of the top bars. As of today, though, nar a cluster is to be seen. And I hope it stays that way for the next few months (not likely).

Here’s a detailed copied-and-pasted entry from my beekeeping journal to illustrate what I’m talking about.

First up, 1505, a colony that was inadvertently started from a supersedure cell in July. The first sign of brood soaking in royal jelly from the naturally mated queen showed up around August 10th and I fed the colony sugar syrup until the end of October. It’s not what I would call a fully established colony, though not bad considering it’s only three months old.

No sign of the cluster in Q1505 and I think it's been deep for a while. (Nov. 11, 2015.)

No sign of the cluster in 1505 and I think it’s been deep for a while. I like it. (Nov. 11, 2015.)


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Beeyard Update (Sept. 2015)

Here’s a photo and text that I’ve copied from a beekeeping journal I maintain for myself. It’s a more detailed entry than I normally bother with, but it’s a summing-up sort of entry, setting the stage for what I’m dealing with going into winter. I’ve also added a few more details for my legion of Mud Songs followers.

1401 (3 deeps + honey super); 1402 (4 deeps); 1505 (3 deeps + frame feeder); 1504 (3 deeps + frame feeder); 1501 (3 deeps + honey super). September 23, 2015.

1401 (3 deeps + honey super); 1402 (4 deeps); 1505 (3 deeps + frame feeder); 1504 (3 deeps + frame feeder); 1501 (3 deeps + honey super). September 23, 2015.


1401 (in the back): 3 deeps + a honey super. (All of my honey supers are full of drawn comb, as are most of my deeps.) Approximately year-old naturally mated queen. Good layer and the most docile bees I’ve ever seen. Colony was used to create splits in July. Not likely to get any honey, though I did see nectar in some honey frames the last time I looked. No inner cover. Empty moisture quilt for ventilation.
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Slightly Defensive Honey Bees

Newfoundland supposedly has some of the gentlest honey bees in North America. Maybe so. But speaking from my experience and the experience of some other NL beekeepers I know, sometimes you just get a bad batch of bees. Here’s a video that shows some of the defensive behaviour of honey bees:

In my experience, when a honey bee feels threatened enough to sting — which is rare — there’s little or no warning. It will launch itself towards you like a fighter jet and you’ll feel the sting the instant it makes contact. A less defensive behaviour is what I call the head-butting dance. It’s when one or two bees fly in circles around your head and bounce off your face a few times to drive you away from the hive. They won’t sting you, but you’ll get the message that it’s time to go.

None of this is meant to discourage new beekeepers. Beekeeping is fun and rewarding most of the time. But it’s better not to idealize it every inch of the way. It’s also important to listen to people with actual experience in keeping bees, not just people who have read about it. A person with even one or two years of beekeeping under their belt can usually be trusted more than someone with none. I did so much research on bees and beekeeping when I first got interested in it, I felt I could write a book about it. I didn’t hesitate to spout out advice to anyone — and I hadn’t even kept bees yet. My enthusiasm got the best of me and turned me into a self-appointed authority on beekeeping — it turned me into a jerk. The moral of the story…? Don’t listen to jerks. Listen to experience. And remember that even the gentlest honey bees can get a little crooked from time to time.

Side Effect of Rubber Bee Gloves

I’ve already written about my switch to rubber bee gloves. I wear them because they’re more tactical than goat skin gloves, but boy oh boy do they ever fill up with sweat in no time. Here’s what my fingers looked like after about an hour of beekeeping in the sun today:

Wrinkled fingers after sweating in rubber gloves. (June 10, 2015.)

Wrinkled fingers after sweating in rubber gloves. (June 10, 2015.)

And my hands stink like rubber. I still prefer them over goat skin. I’ll wear goat skin when I want extra protection from bees that I know I’m going to upset, or in the winter for warmth. But I think I’ll invest in several pairs of rubber gloves so I can strip them off, dry my hands and put on a fresh pair every 30 minutes or so. It wouldn’t hurt. By the time I was finished with the bees today, I could feel the sweat trapped inside the fingers of the gloves squirting around every time I gripped onto something.

P.S.: I know some people don’t wear gloves. I didn’t need gloves with my bees today. They were totally chilled out. But I’m not quite there yet. I had one particular colony over the past couple summers that was started from a queen I got from a friend, and it was full of the nastiest bees you’ll ever see. I had many unpleasant experiences with those bees, things that would turn most people off beekeeping forever. I couldn’t relax around those bees. They’re dead now and I’m glad, but they left me feeling like I can’t entirely put my guard down just yet. So I still wear gloves, all the time, even though I probably don’t have to.

The Meanest Bees

I’ve had a detailed series of practical beekeeping videos in the works for several months. They’ll be great when I get them done. But I don’t have time to work on them due to other commitments. I can’t say when I’ll have them ready. In the meantime, I can only offer up short videos like this one that show me doing things that aren’t really instructive but may be of interest to a handful of beekeepers. Let ‘er rip:

Now the details…
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Rubber Bee Gloves

The standard issue goat skin bee gloves can get sweaty. Here’s a photo of my hand after beekeeping in 20°C heat (68°F) for about half an hour — and it usually gets a lot sweatier than this:

IMG_0315

Long Cuff Neoprene GlovesI recently experimented with using heavy duty rubber gloves, slightly thicker than dish washing gloves. They don’t breathe at all but provide a better feel than goat coat skin. NOTE: Gloves that don’t have long cuffs and therefore don’t provide wrist protection aren’t so great. Blue medical examination gloves, the kind dentists use, are even thinner than dish washing gloves. The bees can easily sting through them and they offer no wrist protection. I’ve gone barehanded at times, too, but only when I’m not digging too deep into a hive.

August 02/14: I’ve been using heavy duty rubber gloves for about two months now and I haven’t had any problems with them other than the fact that my hands get instantly sweaty and the sweat accumulates in the fingers of the gloves after about an hour. For hygienic reasons, they should be soaked in soapy water after every use, then hung up to dry. I’d buy a few pairs. The bees, when determined, can sting through them. I got stung today for the first time. It wasn’t a deep sting but a surprising sting nonetheless. I wouldn’t use rubber gloves with defensive bees or during any kind of beekeeping that could rile up the bees. But for everyday maintenance and poking around, the heavy duty rubber gloves are the gloves for me. They’re more tactile, and even though they’re sweaty, I don’t get nearly as hot wearing them as I do with goat skin gloves. I’m not trying to advertise a specific brand of rubber gloves, but the ones I bought from a big box hardware store are described as “Long Cuff Neoprene Gloves.”

AUGUST 28, 2015: I can’t remember the last time I used my goat skin gloves. I use a variety of rubber gloves instead. Regular dishwashing gloves are fine. They don’t have to be heavy duty (though that doesn’t hurt). The bees can still sting through them, but that’s rare and the stinger never gets in too deep, so it’s not a problem. The gloves are always wet with sweat on the inside, but they flip inside-out when I take them off and dry quickly when hung up. I blow them up like balloons to inflate the fingers if they’re crumpled up. There’s a good chance I’ll never buy goat skin or leather bee gloves again.

A curious note: I get more SPAM comments for this post than anything I’ve written on Mud Songs. The comments are clearly written by real people too — people trying to sell me their brand of rubber gloves. There’s probably a group of rubber glove manufacturers who think, “If we could break into the beekeeping market, we’d be rich!” That’s fine with me. Send me a box of rubber gloves with long cuffs (some large gloves for my big man hands and small gloves for my partner’s hands). I’ll use them in my beekeeping for a full year and write-up an honest review of them when I’m done. I have no problem promoting a product that has been helpful in my beekeeping.