On Losing a Colony

People who idealize and romanticize beekeeping — I would guess that’s 99% of all people who have ever gotten into beekeeping, including me — are in for a big wake up call after they kill their first colony. Sometimes colonies die of natural causes, but whatever the reason, a hard fact of beekeeping is that bad things happen and colonies die. If honey bee colonies can die in nature even under ideal circumstances, they can die in a beeyard too.

The ragged queen during better days (when she was alive).

The ragged queen during better days (when she was alive).

My ragged queen bee (and her potential colony) finally died yesterday after what might be called a prolonged illness. And I’m okay with it. Honestly, I barely gave it a thought. Losing my first colony a few years back was a hard hit, especially since it was my fault and the colony was healthy and huge going into winter. The honeymoon phase of my beekeeping life died right there on the carpet. While it was certainly discouraging and sad at the time, I’ve come to accept that these things will happen and when they do, I give myself a moment (and curse to myself if no one is there) and move on. That being said, here’s the lowdown on what I found five days after I installed my ragged queen into a new hive — and after two weeks of keeping her alive with a light bulb inside a nuc box. (For anyone late to the party, all the details of this desperate tale are preserved through a unique label I just created called Ragged Queen.) So…
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Beekeeping Start-Up Costs (on the island of Newfoundland)

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. (Update: I recently ordered from Lewis & Sons out of Manitoba and got the best deal on wooden ware and foundation I’ve ever had. I wish I’d discovered them years ago. I would have saved a fortune.) 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.
Removed frame after adding 2-frame feeder. (August 25, 2010.)
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; 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.
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A Tip of The Hat to BroodMinder, But…

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.

A pair of patented Mud Songs beehives. (January 11, 2015 in Logy Bay, NL.)

A pair of patented Mud Songs beehives. (January 11, 2015 in Logy Bay, NL.)

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.

Moisture Quilts vs Hard Insulation

I’m a true believer in moisture quilts as the best overall ventilation and moisture reduction aid for Langstroth hives in the winter. I’m a true believer because I’ve seen soaking wet hives become dry as a bone within a week of having moisture quilts installed.

An emergency moisture quilt that saved this colony. (January, 2014.)

An emergency moisture quilt that saved this colony. (January, 2014.)

Empty moisture quilts are excellent ventilation aids in the high heat of summer too, allowing the bees to regulate the temperature of the brood nest with less fanning and to cure honey sooner. Moisture quilts are also really cheap and easy to make. Everybody wins.
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DIY Honey Extractor

LAST UPDATED ON AUGUST 15, 2015.

I’m more of a bee-visitor than a beekeeper these days. The most fun I had this past summer was when I made a 4-frame extractor with a friend of mine. I’m not posting the plans for it because it’s a prototype and the design has some minor flaws that need to be corrected first. But it works and is easily worth the $120 I spent on it. Here’s a demo video of its maiden voyage:

By the way, the heating gun method of uncapping the honey works great. No fuss, no muss and way cheaper than an uncapping knife.

AUGUST 13/14: I just uploaded these photos of the extractor for anyone who wants to try to figure out how I built it, though I don’t recommend it.

August 15/15: I trashed the DIY extractor and bought a professionally made extractor instead, the Maxant 3100p:

Maxant 3/6/9 Honey Extractor, Model 3100P. (August 12, 2015.)

Maxant 3/6/9 Honey Extractor, Model 3100P. (August 12, 2015.)

Epinephrine for Beekeepers

I picked up two shots of Epinephrine today in case I, or someone near our honey bees, has an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting. I don’t want anyone dying on my watch.

It’s called an EpiPen. Basically it’s a shot of adrenalin. Remember Uma Thurman’s shot to the heart in Pulp Fiction? Not exactly the same thing, but close enough. It’s for emergencies.

I had to get a prescription for the EpiPen from my family doctor. I explained that I keep bees in my backyard and I’d like to have Epinephrine on hand just to be safe. My doctor asked me if I had any known allergies. I said no. She checked my medical file and wrote me the prescription.
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Don’t Feed Your Bees Grocery Store Honey

A new local beekeeper told me he was planning to feed his bees honey that he bought in the grocery store. Don’t. Grocery store honey sometimes contains spores for various foulbrood diseases — and in Newfoundland, if you have foulbrood, you have to destroy your bees and burn your hive. No joke. If you feed your bees honey, use only honey from your own hives. I believe that’s the general rule of thumb for most beekeepers. Another way to prevent the spread of disease is never to share tools or hive equipment with other beekeepers, just in case.

What’s the deal with those big bags of sugar? The deal is that it’s the only type of sugar you should feed your bees. Not brown sugar. Not molasses. Just you good old fashioned white granulated sugar. In the spring, the sugar syrup mixture is a light 1:1 mixture (1 part sugar, 1 part sugar). For feeding nucs and topping off the hives before winter, it’s 2:1 (2 parts sugar, 1 part water). The big 20kg bags of sugar cost between $21 and $24 at wholesale stores like Costo and — in St. John’s — that place by the Avalon Mall that used to be called Atlantic Wholesalers but is now called something like President’s Choice Wholesalers. You don’t need a membership and it’s the cheapest place for sugar I’ve found.

Homemade Bottom Board

I made this bottom board from scrap wood I found in my shed today:

I cut the thick plywood 16.5 inches wide (about 42cm) and 2 feet long (70cm). The brace wood, if you want to call it that, was the same dimensions as a super, 20 inches by about 15 inches, something like that. The hive entrance (once a hive is placed on top) is about 1 and a quarter inches high, which is fine. It’s not pretty but the bees don’t care about pretty. I think it’ll work. I’ll post a photo of it in a day or two when I put a hive on top of it. I should have been making these all along. It’s way cheaper than ordering them from a supplier and having them shipped here. If you had to pay for the raw material, though, I’m guessing it would be less than $5.

FEB. 09/13: This bottom board has worked out fine. It’s ugly and half rotted now, but the bees don’t seem to care. Today I would use thick plywood instead of chipboard, and I’d paint it, but there’s nothing wrong with getting by with one made from cheap scrap wood.

JAN. 20/15: Don’t lay this flat-bottom bottom board on a pallet or anything kind of flat surface support, if that makes sense. The wood can easily become moist, and you don’t want moisture if the hive. You want the hive off the ground, but preferably with something that makes minimal contact with the bottom board.

Improving Langstroth Honey Bee Hive Ventilation with The Mud Songs Ventilator Rim™

UPDATE: I’ve since converted all of my fabulously patented ventilation rims into moisture quilts. See the updates at the end for more details.

I made some improvements to the design of my ventilator rim (a.k.a. a ventilation eke). It’s still cheap and easy to make and should do a fine job (I hope) at improving the ventilation of any Langstroth hive. First, I cut four pieces of wood for the front, back and sides of the rim. Here’s a shot of the side pieces:

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Installing Nuc Boxes (Full of Honey Bees)

THE FOLLOWING WAS LAST UPDATED ON DEC. 2, 2010.

We installed our honey bees four days ago on July 18th, 2010. We picked up our nuc boxes from the a Newfoundland Bee Company on the west coast of Newfoundland the day before at $200 a pop. (Check out my Honey Bees Are On The Way post for a definition of a nuc box and an explanation of the installation process.) I installed the first box of bees and Jenny video taped it. Jenny installed the second box of bees later and I took pictures. I can’t upload the video due to some technical difficulties which I’m working to fix. Until then, here are some of the pictures:

This is the first hive after we installed the bees.

The emptied nuc box on the ground still had a few bees in it that eventually flew back into the hive.

The upside-down Mason jar is full of a honey-sugar mixture. (Nov. 15/10 update: Don’t use honey unless it’s from your own bees. Grocery store honey often contains spores for various Foul Brood diseases which you definitely do not want in your hives.) The bees will feed on it for a couple weeks while they get oriented to their new surroundings. It also helps them build comb quicker. (Dec. 02/10 update: The bees are actually fed all summer long.)
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