All’s Right With The World

I wrote this last week during an extended lunch break and decided not to post it because it’s long and rambling and doesn’t say much about anything. But so what? Here it comes…

Have you ever walked towards your beeyard, sight unseen, and heard the deep hum of a swarm in flight? I have. I’m still not at the point yet where I’m 100% comfortable with swarms. I will always say this because it’s true: The best beekeeping day of my life was the day I caught a swarm on a farm in the country where my bees couldn’t stress out any humans who would then pass on their stress to me. Humans ruin everything.

The sound of a swarm in the distance should be exciting and fun for me (as it should for everyone), but it’s not. I’ve never fully recovered from the stress my neighbours caused me when they freaked out over one my colonies swarming past their back deck when I lived in the city. Although I live in a much more rural environment now, I have one particular neighbour whose kid’s swing set is not so far away from my beeyard. I single out the swing set because I imagine if my bees ever swarm, I know they’ll damn well land on that swing set — and I don’t know how my neighbour will react to that.

So when I came home after lunch yesterday and heard that oh so familiar hum that made me think, “Swarm,” I wasn’t 100% comfortable as I walked towards my beeyard. Would I find bees filling the air like in some ridiculous scene from the Old Testament? My thoughts were, “No, I’d rather not see that today, if you don’t mind.”

And I didn’t. I saw this instead:

That Twitter-compressed video clip doesn’t capture the scene well. Play it back in full-screen mode to get a better sense of it. Bees filling the air everywhere. (Fireweed seeds floating about too.)
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Nuc: Day 11 – Almost Full

I installed a 4-frame nuc on July 17th, using frames of bare foundation to fill in the remaining frames. On Day 6 I replaced most of the bare foundation with drawn comb because I wanted the queen to have immediate space to lay and expand the brood nest. Today, Day 11, I topped up the frame feeder and noticed bees covering most of the frames in the hive.

Nuc colony on Day 11. 6 frames of drawn comb. 2 frames that were more or less bare foundation. All the frames filling with bees. (July 28, 2016.)

Nuc colony on Day 11. 6 frames of drawn comb. 2 frames that were more or less bare foundation. All the frames filling with bees. (July 28, 2016.)

Click the image to see a better view of the all the bees on the frames.

I didn’t pull the frames to see exactly what was going on, and I didn’t really need to because seeing the bees working all the frames is a good enough sign to me that the colony is expanding.

Since I installed the nuc, other than removing the bare foundation, I’ve topped up the frame feeder a few times and I’ve I inserted empty drawn comb between frames of brood to encourage the queen to lay there and expand the brood nest faster. I will continue to do that as the colony expands for the next month or so.

The next time I refill the feeder (in four or five days), if I find all the frames are either full of brood or full of syrup and nectar (i.e., the queen doesn’t have much more space to lay), then I’ll add a second deep to the hive. I’ll pull up some brood into the second deep, move the feeder to the second deep, insert plenty of drawn comb for the queen to lay, and I’ll probably steal some frames of brood from one of my stronger colonies to give the nuc colony a boost.

The sunny weather doesn’t hurt.

P.S.: If I was using bare foundation, I might not add a second deep until the middle of August. It can be a different story in warmer parts of Newfoundland. But that’s not the story I’m telling here.

UPDATE: Some unplanned beekeeping happened today. I pulled three frames of brood from a big colony with about 15 frames of capped and open brood and I had little choice but to add them to this nuc hive in a second deep. So this itty bitty nuc hive now has a second deep on top of it with a frame feeder, several frames of drawn comb and three frames of capped and open brood and the nurse bees to go with it — and a big thick heavy frame full of pollen.

A single-deep nuc is suddenly a 2-deep hive. (July 28, 2016.)

A single-deep nuc is suddenly a 2-deep hive. (July 28, 2016.)

Hopefully the nurse bees won’t fight with their new queen and everything will work out fine. I’ve never transferred that much brood to a nuc before.

Why Do Some Colonies Ignore the Bottom Entrance?

The answer, by the way, is I don’t know. (I will continue to update this post throughout the summer instead of writing follow-up posts. Updates will appear at the bottom. This post is likely to turn into a meandering monster.)

All of my honey bee colonies this year seem to ignore the bottom entrances to their hives. Here are some photos I just took of one of my colonies — my one and only colony that I think is in good shape — where the bees often fumble over each other trying get in through the top entrance.

Bees using the top entrance. And...

Bees using the top entrance. And…

...pretty much ignoring the bottom entrance.

…pretty much ignoring the bottom entrance.

You can see I even use a deep with an extra entrance hole to entice the bees to use a lower entrance. But nope. They pretty much ignore the hole too.

I’ve done a lot of reading and I’ve talked to several beekeepers and I honestly don’t know who or what to believe. I’m not too concerned about it. My guess is my usual guess about this type of thing: The bees will do whatever they need to do whenever they need to do it. They know what they’re doing — even if I don’t. And as long as they’re not preparing to swarm, I’m totally cool with it.

Nonetheless, does anyone reading this have any ideas?
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Nucs: Day 6 – Removing Bare Foundation

I installed three nucs six days ago. Each nuc contained a frame of capped brood, a frame with bare foundation, and two frames with a mix of empty comb, pollen and honey (and maybe some small patches of brood). Each nuc was installed in a standard 10-frame Langstroth deep super with a frame feeder full of thin sugar syrup spiked with anise extract. The frames were placed in the deep in the same order and orientation as they were in the nuc box. I used frames of drawn comb to fill up two of the nuc hives and bare foundation in the other. I recorded a video of me installing the bare foundation nuc because most new Newfoundland beekeepers will probably begin their first nucs with bare foundation, not drawn comb. My intention was to provide an ongoing and honest record of what new beekeepers in Newfoundland are likely to experience during their first year of establishing a colony from a nuc. But what I found in that nuc hive today has compelled me to change my plans.

Nuc colony installed 6 days ago. (July 23, 2016.)

Nuc colony installed 6 days ago, and not much new brood. (July 23, 2016.)

I found some new comb with fresh brood on the original bare foundation frame that came with the nuc, but not much more new brood other than that. In my other two nucs that were full of drawn comb (not bare foundation), I found at least twice as much new brood — a full frame of capped brood and at least another frame of fresh brood. Bees were covering every single frame in the deep (compared to bees covering only four frames in the above photo). That’s a huge difference. The nuc colonies with drawn comb are expanding at least twice as fast. So…

As much I’d like to provide an honest guide for first-year beekeepers in Newfoundland, I’d rather have twice as much brood in my colonies. So…

I removed the top three frames of bare foundation from the nuc hive (as shown in the above photo) and replaced them with drawn comb. (The frame closest to the feeder was already full of new comb and syrup, so I left it alone.) Now the queen will have free reign to start laying immediately. She won’t need to wait for the worker bees to build comb over the bare foundation first.

Drawn comb is worth its weight in gold. I’ve never seen such a dramatic demonstration of that fact. (Sorry I don’t photos of the other nucs full of bees. Technical difficulties.) Okay then…
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Beekeeping Basics: Installing a Nuc

Most new beekeepers on the island of Newfoundland (and many other places on the planet) will start up their first colonies with what is often referred to as a nuc, or a nucleus colony, or a starter hive that contains a laying queen, at least one frame of brood, a frame or two of pollen and honey, and usually a blank or empty frame to give the worker bees something to work on while they’re stuck in a 4-frame nuc box for up to a week. The frames from the nuc are usually placed inside a single hive body (in Newfoundland, it’s usually a deep) with empty frames to fill in the rest of the box. A feeder of some sort is installed. And that’s it. The following 24-minute video demonstrates the entire process.

I’ll post a condensed version of this video at a later date, but for now it’s probably more helpful to show how it plays out in real time (more or less) so that anyone new to all this, or anyone thinking about starting up a few honey bee colonies next year, will have a realistic idea of what to expect when it comes time to install their first nuc. I plan to post follow-up videos to track the progress of this colony right into next spring, again so that anyone hoping to start up their own hives in the future will have a non-idealized take on what to expect.

It was well over 30°C (86°F) by the time I finished installing all of my nucs. The sweat was pouring off my face and stinging my eyes. Expect that too.
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Lemongrass Oil as a Swarm Lure

I’ve heard for a long time that lemongrass oil is an excellent swarm lure. A few drops inside a swarm box full of old drone comb and the bees will be all over it.

Food grade lemongrass oil and other essential oils are used for mixing with pollen patties and syrup. NOTE: The lemongrass oil pictured here is not food grade, but the bees aren't eating it, so that's not a problem.

The lemongrass oil pictured here is not food grade quality, but that’s not a problem because the bees aren’t eating it.

So I went ahead and got myself some lemongrass oil ($5 at my local Bulk Barn), sprinkled five or six drops of it on some old comb (drone comb, comb with patches of honey, etc.) and set up a few swarm boxes. And within hours the bees were all over them.

Honey bees attracted by lemon grass oil. (June 15, 2016.)

Honey bees attracted by lemon grass oil. (June 15, 2016.)


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Swarm Prevention by Not Overfeeding and Making Room for the Queen

In my experience, it’s important to constantly feed the bees during the first year (in Newfoundland), but it’s also important to stop feeding them at a certain point in the spring so they don’t swarm. When I find drone comb gunking up the bottom of the frames in the spring, that’s my cue that the colony could potentially swarm. Queens can’t mate without drones. That’s why the first swarms usually coincide with the flight of the first drones. I could be wrong about all of this, but from what I’ve seen with my bees, it’s true. A colony won’t swarm without drones.

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

If the bees have two or three solid frames of honey in every box — enough to prevent them from starving — and drone comb is present, then I stop feeding. I don’t feed my bees if they have enough honey on their own anyway, and unless it’s a weak colony, I don’t usually feed past May 31st either because there’s usually enough natural nectar sources available by then (in my local climate), especially in the city of St. John’s that is heavily populated by maple trees. I also check my hives at least every two weeks until the end of June to make sure the queen has room to lay. Most beekeeping (beyond feeding) can be summed up with that one sentence: Make sure the queen has room to lay.

This video is from an April 2013 post.
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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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Making Room for the Queen

Here’s a 6-minute video from an inspection I did yesterday that shows me spotting the queen, adding a frame of drawn comb to give the queen more space to lay, and there’s a shot of the bees cleaning up a mouldy frame of pollen taken from one of my dead colonies — and you’ll hear me talking about my plans for inspecting all my hives and how I’m going to manage them. That part sounds boring, but it might give new beekeepers a sense of how to go about inspecting their hives, that is, having a plan and knowing that most plans are a joke. The bees will tell you want they need.

I mention in the video that I plan to add another deep to the hive, which is what I did, though it’s not in the video. It’s in this 1-minute time-lapse behind-the-scenes video where I explain why the hive has a moisture quilt and a few other things.

Part 2 of the hive inspection video: Combs of Pollen and Nectar.

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.

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