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:
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. 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. (November 4th, 2015.)
So the big question I’ve been asked for some reason is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?” Continue reading →
I was surprised to see some of my bees bringing in pollen today.
Honey bee bringing in pollen on October 25th, 2015 in Flatrock, Newfoundland.
Judging from the colour of the pollen, my guess is that it came from Japanese Knotweed. It could be Honey Clover too. I still see some of that around (what a fantastic plant that is). I saw bees from another hive bringing in yellow pollen, probably from Goldenrod, though it seems late for Goldenrod.
This is the first year I’ve used quarter-inch / 6mm mesh to keep shrews out of my hives. I was told to put the mesh on after the bees have stopped bringing in pollen because supposedly the mesh opening is so small that it knocks the pollen off the bees’ legs as they’re going through it. NOT TRUE. Every bee that came in with pollen today had no problem getting through with the pollen still intact. So…
I’ll put the mesh on during the first week of October for now on and not worry about it. Waiting any longer increases the chances of mice getting in, which I think already happened with at least one of my hives (the bees switched from being really nice to really mean overnight, but that’s another story). Drones can’t get through the quarter-inch mesh and the bees are having a hard time pulling out dead bees through the mesh, but I’m fine with that.
Postscript: I was wrong. Drones can get through the mesh. It’s not easy, but they can do it. Here’s some raw video footage that shows drones going through the mesh along with a few other things. The mesh is an obstacle for some of the bees, but overall I don’t think it’s doing much harm.
DECEMBER 10, 2015: Bees naturally die over the winter and collect at the bottom of the hive. Then worker bees clean out the dead bees on the occasional warm days throughout the winter. The problem I’ve noticed, though I’m not calling it a huge problem just yet, is that the dead bees aren’t being cleared out as they normally would because the 6mm mesh is blocking the way.
This wasn’t such an issue earlier in the fall because there weren’t many dead bees laying around and it didn’t seem impossible for the workers to pull the dead bees through the mesh. But the quantity of dead bees alters the equation significantly. There are just too many dead bees and it’s too much work to squeeze each one through a 6mm hole in the mesh. So…
I don’t know. Pulling off the mesh and clearing out the dead bees myself is easy. But stapling the mesh back on causes so much disruption to the bees inside the hive (the bang of the mechanism is so forceful, it might as well be a hammer), that’s just not something I want to do.
So for now I’ll let the dead bees accumulate. The bottom entrances aren’t completely blocked with dead bees yet. Once that happens, though, I’ll have to make a decision. And I’m pretty sure that decision will be to pull the mesh off and clean out the dead bees on a warm day and then staple the mesh back on even if it riles up the bees. If it’s a warm day, the bees will be breaking cluster anyway, so whatever disruption is caused by a staple gun shooting staples into the hive , well, it shouldn’t be too bad.
But I need to come up with something that’s easier to remove and replace so cleaning out the dead bees isn’t such a headache. I don’t know how Michael Bush manages his hives with only top entrances. The bottom of my hives would be carpeted with dead bees by the end of the winter if I couldn’t clean them out. I have no trouble imagining the rotten stink after the dead bees begin to thaw out in the spring. Yuck.
The best method I’ve discovered for killing wasps is to go out and buy one of these wasp traps:
Add some sugar water and a teaspoon of raspberry jam and then watch all the wasps / yellow jackets get trapped and die. (Sept. 22, 2015.)
Add a dollop of some sweet jam, pour in some water sweetened with sugar and then hang or place the trap some place where wasps are known to congregate. I put the trap out this morning and when I came home from work, it was full of wasps — hundreds of them.
Wasp trap filled with hundreds of yellow jackets in less than a day. (Sept. 22, 2015.)
I’ll continue to monitor the trap over the next week or two. I’ll stop using it if too many honey bees get trapped in it. Judging only from the first day I had the trap out, I’d say there’s one honey bee for every 100 wasps that get trapped in it. Scroll down to the bottom of this post for the latest results. Continue reading →
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.)
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.)
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). Continue reading →
One of my cats killed a shrew near my hives today.
Dead shrew. (June 27, 2015.)
I lost three quarters of my honey bee colonies to shrew predation last winter. No one ever warned me about them and I never noticed much written about them. You can expect me to write a Masters thesis on them by the end of the year, though.
I will be covering all of my hive entrances with quarter-inch mesh this winter.
One of my six colonies either has a mouse in the hive that’s scaring all the bees to the very top of the hive, or the colony is completely starved for honey. Either way it seems like most of the bees (and they’re grumpy) are clustered above the top bars and living entirely off dry sugar I added about a month ago. The bees are so crowded above the top bars, they’re constantly walking in and out around the top entrance, as can be seen in this photo I took during my lunch break today:
I also noticed many dead bees in the snow in front of the hive:
Not that dead bees in the snow are unusual, but none of the other hives have many dead bees nearby, hardly any. This does not bode well. Continue reading →
A mouse got inside my city hive because I waited too long to put on mouse-proofing mesh.
From what I can tell, the mouse (or mice) was in the hive for a long time and scared the bees, queen and all, into a honey super that I had placed above the inner cover during a late fall feeding. Continue reading →