A Brood Nest That Favours The West Side

I have a colony of bees that always clusters on the west side of their hive — and I don’t know why.

Cluster expanding from the west side. (April 23, 2016.)

Cluster expanding from the west side. (April 23, 2016.)

I’ve had this colony for almost four years now (she’s an old queen that I started from a swarm cell) and I’ve noticed this clustering behaviour since day one. Even when I rearrange the frames of the brood nest in the spring so all the brood is in the middle of the hive, the brood nest eventually shifts to the west side of the hive.

I’ve checked everything over the years and there’s nothing unusual about the hive set up. No signs of mice, no leaks on one side of the hive, nothing. I’ve used various hive bodies and other hive components. I even moved the hive to a different beeyard and rotated it so the cluster was on the east side. Within a month the cluster shifted to the west side. My best guess is the bees prefer the heat of the setting sun.

Red Light Heating For Honey Bees

I carelessly caused one of my colonies to slowly starve this winter. The cluster was about the size of my fist, maybe a little larger. Ten days ago while I was getting ready to dismantle the hive and cut my loses, I found the queen still alive. I knew the cluster was too small to keep her warm enough to survive another month of cold Newfoundland weather, so I quickly jury-rigged a nuc box with a light bulb for heat, put the bees in that and hoped for the best. The bright light bulb killed off about a hundred bees like moths to a flame. I eventually replaced it with a red light bulb. Today I put a cage around the light bulb (in a different box) for extra safety and it looks like this:

Empty nuc box with caged red 60-watt light bulb for heat. (March 27, 2016.)

Empty nuc box with caged red 60-watt light bulb for heat. (March 27, 2016.)

Then I put the bees in like this (that’s a dummy board on the outer edge of the frames to prevent the comb from melting):

World's smallest cluster being kept alive with the heat from the caged 60-watt red light bulb. (March 27, 2016.)

World’s smallest cluster being kept alive with the heat from the caged 60-watt red light bulb. (March 27, 2016.)

I looked over the bees during the transfer and couldn’t find the queen. There’s a chance she’s in there, but it doesn’t look good. I’ve done all I can. The bees won’t freeze with that light bulb. They have an exit hole close by for cleansing flights and three frames of honey. Now all I can do is wait.

Let’s assume this is a lost cause…

I think I could have saved the bees if I’d discovered them starving at least a week or two earlier. The cluster would have been larger. They would have had a better chance. Not using a caged red light bulb from the start probably didn’t help, but it was the best I could do on the spot with the materials I had available. I learned about a beekeeper who uses a red light to keep his bees warm all winter. I would never do that, but I do plan to keep at least one heated nuc on standby for next winter just in case (and I’d probably use a ceramic light bulb instead so the bees can’t even see the glowing filament). I’ve also decided to pick up a thermal imaging device for my smart phone. I already have a stethoscope, which has been helpful though it’s not what I’d call a precision instrument. Cheap endoscopes are also available, though I’ve heard people having mixed results with them. But I’m pretty sure if I’d been able to take an infrared photo of my starving hive throughout the winter, I would have seen the cluster begin to shrink as it was cut off from its honey supply and I would have been able to move honey close to the brood nest and save the bees.

APRIL 6, 2016: Even the caged light bulb attracted and killed some bees. If I had to do it again, I’d wrap the cage with heavy duty tinfoil, or perhaps even better, I’d use a large tin can instead of a cage and poke some tiny heat holes throughout it. Judging from what I’ve seen so far, I’d say a 60-watt light bulb, even behind a big tin can, would provide enough heat to keep the cluster and the queen alive.

Continued in God Save The Queen (Maybe).

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.

Monitoring Honey Bees with a Stethoscope

I often use a cheap stethoscope to monitor my honey bees in the winter when they’re still clustering below the top bars and out of sight. It’s the least disruptive method I have for checking on the bees.

Listening to the bees with a stethoscope.

Listening to the bees with a stethoscope.

It took some practice, but I can tell how deep and how large the cluster is by listening through the hive with the stethoscope. Most of the time, though, I’m just checking that the bees are still alive. That’s usually good enough for me.

A $7 stethoscope.

A $7 stethoscope.

Sticking my ear against the hive works too, but it’s not as dignified as walking around with a stethoscope.

FEBRUARY 20, 2016: I have to say I continue to be impressed with the $7 stethoscope I bought on Amazon. I listened again to my bees today and could hear a lively buzz of bees in every hive. It takes a bit of imagination to interpret how the bees are doing from the often distant-sounding hum heard through the stethoscope, but at least I can tell they’re still hanging in there.

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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Switching Out Hard Insulation for Moisture Quilts

In a previous post, Moisture Quilts vs Hard Insulation, I argued that hard insulation over the inner cover is a cheap and easy way to keep a hive relatively warm and dry over the winter. And it is. I used hard insulation in my hives for several winters with no problems. Even though I’ve since switched to moisture quilts, this year — as in a couple of weeks ago — I set up two of my five hives with hard insulation as a demonstration that I planned to report in on over the winter. But I pulled the plug on that experiment because I discovered moldy frames in the top boxes of those two hives yesterday.

Slightly moldy capped and uncapped honey. (Nov. 07, 2015.)

Slightly moldy capped and uncapped honey / syrup. (Nov. 07, 2015.)

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Benefits of Frequent Hives Inspections

Hive inspections every two weeks aren’t always such a bad thing, especially for new beekeepers, because one of the best ways to learn what the bees are up to is to see what the bees are up to. (Collect that data!) I found an excuse to dig into my hives at least once a week during my first summer of beekeeping, and I learned more from my intrusiveness and observing everything up close and personal than I ever did from reading or watching the bees from a safe distance. Yes, there is a risk of disturbing the bees and killing the queen, but I was careful and gentle and made sure to put all the frames back the way I found them, and everything worked out fine.

Regular inspections also allowed me to remove comb and propolis that would have otherwise gunked up the frames and made future inspections messier, more difficult and perilous for the queen.

Messier — because comb connected between frames will often split open and scrape against honey in adjacent frames and spill honey all over the place. Drone comb, especially between brood boxes, is exceptionally gross when pulled apart.

Difficult — because frames that are bonded to the hive box with propolis don’t move. It requires careful maneuvering to pry out the frames with a hive tool — to snap off the propolis — and even then all the extraneous comb between the frames tends to squish bees and tear up honeycomb as well as brood comb along the way. Whereas frames that are cleaned up every two weeks can usually be pulled up with bare hands.

Perilous for the queen — because any comb between the frames or the brood boxes can easily trap and kill the queen (along with other bees) while the frames are being pulled out. (Some refer to this as rolling the queen.) Comb between the brood boxes leaves no space for the queen. If the queen is on that comb while a frame is slid back in, she’s dead.

I’ll try to update this post in the future with more detailed photos that illustrate what I’m talking about. For now, though, here’s a photo of a hive that I haven’t touched for almost three months.

Most of the frames are stuck together with wax and propolis after three months of not being touched by humans. (Oct. 12, 2015.)

Most of the frames are stuck together with wax and propolis after three months of not being touched by humans. (Oct. 12, 2015.)

Those frames are super-glued to the hive box with propolis and are held together by brace-comb as one big solid 10-frame block. Pulling those frames will be one seriously tangly experience (an experience I’m glad to have avoided during my first summer of beekeeping).
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What Does Fresh Brood Look Like?

Fresh brood looks like this (click the image for a closer view):

Fresh brood in the upper deep (or hive body). The queen expanding the brood nest up without any help from humans. (August 10, 2015.)

Fresh brood in the upper deep (or hive body). The queen expanding the brood nest up without any help from humans. (August 10, 2015.)

I was planning to pull up a frame or two of brood from the bottom box to make sure the queen expanded the brood nest up (a lazy edition of pyramiding), but I found fresh brood on the second or third frame that I inspected. The queen didn’t need any help from me. So I put everything back the way I found it and left the bees alone.

I also filled the frame feeder on the nuc and added a pollen patty.

Pyramiding The Brood Nest When Adding Another Deep

SHORT VERSION: When adding another hive body (or super) to a hive because the population is expanding and crowding all the frames, I try to pull up two or three frames of brood to reduce the chances of the queen becoming honey bound. I also surround each brood frame in the original hive body with blank or drawn comb to encourage the queen to fill them with brood. All of which may or may not reduce the chances of swarming.

LONG VERSION: Whenever I add another hive box (or deep) to a nuc or colony that’s population is expanding, I pull up two or three frames of brood while I’m at it because, on her own, the queen won’t always expand the brood nest up into a new deep. The worker bees fill it with honey instead and the queen becomes honey bound (or trapped in by honey with nowhere to lay), which can trigger a swarm, not something most beekeepers want.

Bees crowding all 10 frames. Perfect candidate for pyramiding. (August 2, 2015.)

Bees crowding all 10 frames. Perfect candidate for pyramiding. (August 2, 2015.)

Some people call the pulling up of brood pyramiding or creating an unlimited brood nest. It’s also similar to checker boarding. But it all seems like a variation on a theme to me. Pulling up brood encourages the queen to expand the brood nest up (not just to the sides), thus reducing the chances of her becoming honey bound.

The first frame from the edge full of bees and nectar. (August 2, 2015.)

The first frame from the edge full of bees and nectar. (August 2, 2015.)

So let’s say your deep has six frames of brood. You pull three frames of brood from the middle and then put a new frame (drawn comb, foundation or foundationless frame) between each remaining frame of brood, thus providing space for the queen to lay between the frames of brood. (The bees will have to build comb first if the new frames aren’t drawn comb, but that’s not bad because it gives the bees something else to do — fill in space with new comb — instead of preparing to swarm.) Then you add another deep and put the three pulled frames of brood in the middle, with empty frames on the sides. This new configuration of brood is in the shape of a pyramid and now the queen has plenty of room to lay in the lower and upper deeps (or hive bodies).
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When and Why I Still Reverse My Brood Boxes

When I reverse the brood boxes, usually some time in April, I don’t just pull the hive apart and reverse the positions of the deeps. (That’s an easy way to squish the queen, by the way.) I set up an empty deep next to the hive and, if it’s warm enough, carefully inspect each frame before I move it into the new bottom deep. No heavy lifting required. But more importantly, this allows me to assess the strength of the colony going into the new season and make adjustments on the spot if necessary. I will add drawn comb to the brood nest if the cluster looks like it needs room. I will add frames of honey or pollen if the bees are starving for it. I will give them frames of brood from another colony if they’re weak. In short, I will take whatever action is required to get the bees started on the right path for the new season.

Drone comb split open after lifting up the top brood box for the first time this year. (May 05, 2012.)

Drone comb split open after lifting up the top brood box for the first time this year. (May 05, 2012.)

Then for the rest of the year, because I know exactly what condition the colony was in at the beginning of the year, I’ll be able to assess the strength of the colony without having to dig into the bottom deep and disturb the brood nest every time I do an inspection. Are the bees filling frames in the top box with pollen? Is the brood nest straddling the deeps? I can tell a lot from looking down into a hive where the brood nest has been working its way up from the bottom.

It’s more difficult when the brood nest has been working it’s way from the top down. It’s more work, at least for me it is. I usually end up having to lift the top deep, essentially separating it from the bottom half of the hive, and potentially splitting up the brood nest, so I can see what’s going on in the bottom, to see how much the cluster has moved down and so on. In my book, that’s too much work and too disruptive. It’s much easier and less disruptive to the brood nest — if it’s seated in the bottom deep — to pull out a few frames in the top deep and look down to figure out what’s going on — and I never have to lift a deep or potentially split the brood nest if its straddling the deeps.

That’s why I reverse the brood boxes on most of my hives sometime in April. It doesn’t necessarily reduce the chances of a swarm, but it gives me an excuse to carefully inspect and assess the strength of the colony and perform future inspections with greater ease and less disruption to the brood nest.

I could be singing a different tune by this time next year, or even this time next week, but for now, this is where my experience with reversing the brood boxes has led me.


Reversing Brood Boxes (Video).
Checkers, Anyone? (Checkerboarding).
Reversing brood boxes: is it necessary?
How to checkerboard a hive.
Reversing brood boxes: when and why.