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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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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Quarter-Inch Mesh Doesn’t Knock Off Pollen

I was surprised to see some of my bees bringing in pollen today.

Honey bee bring in pollen on October 25th, 2015 in Flatrock, Newfoundland.

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.

Dead bees stuck behind  6mm mesh.  Oh well. (Dec. 10, 2015.)

Dead bees stuck behind 6mm shrew-proofing mesh. Oh well. (Dec. 10, 2015.)

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.

FEBRUARY 14, 2016: The quarter-inch mess works fine when I use thumb tacks to attach it instead of staples.

Quick & Dirty Winter Preparations

I’m a huge fan of moisture quilts because they keep my bees warm and dry all winter long better than anything I’ve used before. But for my first two winters when I kept my hives in the city in a relatively dry climate, hard insulation over the inner cover worked fine. For people who don’t have much time, money or carpentry skills, the winter preparations I demonstrate in this video are better than nothing.

I’m not saying this is the best winter set up for a hive, but I have a good sense of my local climate and I think this minimal set up will work out okay.