Ants Around Beehives, a temporary pest?

I noticed ants all over my beehives starting around mid-May. I used a cinnamon barrier to keep them out of my hives, though I’m not sure how well it worked. I still see a few ants here and there, but overall they don’t seem to be as thick. In fact, I hardly ever see them anymore.

Close up of a formica ant, a red ant that bits and shoots formic acid from its. It's not the kind of ant that I have around my hives, but it's the only photo of an ant that I have on record, so there you go, an ant.

Close up of two formica ants, red ants that bite and shoot formic acid from their butts. They’re not the kind of ants I have around my hives, but this is the only photo of ants that I have on record, so there you go, some ants.

Perhaps the cold weather has them hiding underground (we’ve had frost warnings for the past few nights), but I think I noticed this last year too. The ants were bad for a while (black ants, not red ants) and then they more or less disappeared.

I’ll keep a note of this for next year and see if it holds true, that the ants show up sometime in May and are gone by July, and are never really a major pest.

AUGUST 04, 2016: My beeyard is surrounded by huge ant colonies (blank ants, not red ants), and they’re not an issue with my bees. Like I said, the ants seemed to cover most of my hives in May but were gone, for the most part, by July. I still see them walking around, picking up pieces of comb or pollen and other debris, but only a small handful here and there. Nothing epidemic. Other than putting out some cinnamon, which didn’t create an unbroken barrier, I didn’t do anything to get rid of the ants. No poison or traps or any of that. It’s probably fair to say I’ve never had a major ant problem. If I did, I’d probably build hive stands with oil motes or sticky tape around the legs. It would take a hell of an ant problem to motivate me to go that far, though.

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 Blockade of Cinnamon

I noticed ants crawling all over and inside two of my hives today, so I surrounded the hives with cinnamon.

A sprinkle of cinnamon around a hive to keep the ants away. (May 22, 2016.)

A sprinkle of cinnamon around a hive to keep the ants away. (May 22, 2016.)

I’ve read many times that cinnamon repels ants, though I’ve never seen it myself. I sprinkled some cinnamon around one of my hives a year or two ago, but then it rained, so I don’t know if it works. Whether it works or not, I’m not too concerned about the ants. I think it would take a biblical amount of ants to do significant damage to a hive full of bees. We’ll see.

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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Headless Honey Bees in the Snow

I found bee body parts scattered all over the snow near my hives today.

Body parts of headless honey bees. (Feb. 14, 2016.)

Body parts of headless honey bees. (Feb. 14, 2016.)

“Ah man, what the hell is this?” was my first reaction. It was a natural reaction considering the last time I saw bee body parts was inside one of my hives last February — when shrews preyed on most of my bees until they were dead.

Signs of a shrew inside a hive. (Feb. 22/15.)

Signs of a shrew inside a hive. The white stuff is sugar, not snow. (Feb. 22/15.)


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First Sign of Shrews in a Hive

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:

shrew-scare
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Attaching Mesh With Thumb Tacks (Instead of Staples)

I removed the shrew-proofing mesh from my hives yesterday so I could clear out the dead bees that have accumulated so far this winter. I reattached the mesh afterwards with the use of a staple gun that produces a loud bang that vibrates through the hive and riles up the bees. But this comment changed everything:

“Would it be possible to secure it [the mesh] with drawing pins rather than staples?”

It’s absolutely possible. I did it today, just five minutes ago.

One of three thumb tacks used to attach shrew-proofing mesh to hive. (Dec. 13, 2015.)

One of three thumb tacks used to attach shrew-proofing mesh to a hive. (Dec. 13, 2015.)

The thumbs tacks / drawing pins / push pins work just as well as staples as far as I can tell. That mesh isn’t going anywhere.

Three green thumb tacks (instead of staples) used to attach mesh over bottom entrance. (Dec. 13, 2015.)

Three green thumb tacks (instead of staples) used to attach mesh over bottom entrance. (Dec. 13, 2015.)

Now I can easily remove the mesh, clean out the dead bees and reattach the mesh without bothering the bees. I thought I might need to find a different method for keeping the shrews out of my hive for next year. Not anymore. The mesh attached with thumb tacks instead of staples works perfectly. At least that’s my story for now.

Thanks for the tip, Emily.

How To Prepare Your Beehives For Winter (If You’re Me)

Something weird happened. I got several emails from people asking me what I do to prepare my hives for winter. It’s weird for a few reasons.

First because I don’t consider myself the most experienced beekeeper around. I’m still honest about most of the mistakes I make in my beekeeping — and to this day I continue to make big mistakes. But am I really the best person to ask advice from? Although I don’t mind sharing my experiences, I’m not so sure about giving advice. I’ve seen beekeepers, myself included, fall into the trap of giving advice with little experience to back it up. Novice enthusiasm morphs into a little ego trip. It happens. Most people grow out of it through humbling experiences. But not everyone. I know beekeepers with no more or even less experience than me who have acted like hotshots since day and are glad to give advice to anyone who will believe it (because nobody ever doubts the wisdom of beekeepers for some reason). I’d rather keep my advice to myself than go down that road. I’ve even considered hitting the reset button on Mud Songs to make sure nothing too conceited gets on record. Why not? It might be fun. Either way, how much expertise do I really have?

Probably not too much. I’ve been beekeeping as a hobbyist since 2010 under ideal and less-than-ideal circumstances. Although I’ve had some much appreciated assistance from friends and fellow beekeepers at times, 99% of everything I do in beekeeping I do alone, not with the guidance of a mentor or in consultation or conversation with other beekeepers, most who live so far away that getting together with them is a logistic headache. All of which adds up to learning just about everything on my own and learning it the hard way. Learning through my painful mistakes perhaps puts me ahead of the game in some respects, because I’ve seen first hand all kinds of lovely things that can go wrong. But I think I’d be much further ahead if I’d learned along side more experienced or even equally experienced beekeepers. There are so many things that a beekeeper learns from other beekeepers simply by seeing what other beekeepers do and how they do it, obvious things that are easily overlooked — and that’s where my education and experience is lacking. The insights gained from hanging out and talking with other beekeepers will not be found here, not from me. I’ve done well considering that most of my beekeeping has been in isolation, but that isolation leads me to doubt my expertise.

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.

The other weird thing is that I didn’t think many people read my blog these days. I don’t have the time for making as many fun or interesting videos, etc., like I used to, and my readership dropped off to virtually zero after I had to pull the plug on the blog last year. Or was that two years ago? In any case, my stats never recovered from that. I averaged around 1000 visitors a day with a regular band of people getting in on the conversations in the comments section. It was a small niche but an engaging niche. That’s gone now and I’m fine with it. The Internet is fleeting and most new and eager beekeepers move beyond the obsessive phase eventually. I know I cut way back on my reading and research after my third year. I still visit plenty of web sites, though I rarely get in on any discussions. I’m also too busy with actual beekeeping and living life to sit in front of a computer for hours on end like I used to. And I doubt I’m the only one. But is my niche coming back or something? What’s up? Where are these people coming from? It’s unusual.

Whatever is going on, the emails have been coming in on a regular basis, so I’ll bite. I’ll even bang out narcissistic, pointless paragraphs like these while I’m sick in bed because what the hell, no one’s probably reading this anyway. Let’s go a little nuts here and see if anyone notices.

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 I’ve been asked for some reason is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?”
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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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