How I Prepare My Beehives For Winter

    The following was originally posted on December 7th, 2015, but was edited and updated on October 27th, 2016, to reflect my current practices, such as they are.

Something weird happened. I got several emails from people asking me what I do to prepare my hives for winter.

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.

I’m no expert, but here’s what I do, and what I do could change entirely by this time next week.

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 is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?”
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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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Beeyard Update (Sept. 2015)

Here’s a photo and text that I’ve copied from a beekeeping journal I maintain for myself. It’s a more detailed entry than I normally bother with, but it’s a summing-up sort of entry, setting the stage for what I’m dealing with going into winter. I’ve also added a few more details for my legion of Mud Songs followers.

1401 (3 deeps + honey super); 1402 (4 deeps); 1505 (3 deeps + frame feeder); 1504 (3 deeps + frame feeder); 1501 (3 deeps + honey super). September 23, 2015.

1401 (3 deeps + honey super); 1402 (4 deeps); 1505 (3 deeps + frame feeder); 1504 (3 deeps + frame feeder); 1501 (3 deeps + honey super). September 23, 2015.


1401 (in the back): 3 deeps + a honey super. (All of my honey supers are full of drawn comb, as are most of my deeps.) Approximately year-old naturally mated queen. Good layer and the most docile bees I’ve ever seen. Colony was used to create splits in July. Not likely to get any honey, though I did see nectar in some honey frames the last time I looked. No inner cover. Empty moisture quilt for ventilation.
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Orientation Flights

Here’s a video for brand new beekeepers who’ve seen orientation flights but didn’t know what they were looking at.

I usually notice orientation flights around 11:30am on hot summer days, but sometimes the heat doesn’t kick in until the afternoon — in the case of this video, 2:30 in the afternoon. Everything seems calm and normal and then within about five minutes the air in front of the hive fills with fuzzy young bees hovering and facing the direction of the hive. That’s your standard-issue orientation flight situation. Orientation flights can appear as massive, confused clouds of bees if the bees have been stuck inside the hive for a few days because of cold or wet weather. A swarm of bees, by the way, is about 10,000 time larger and it’s a whole other ballgame.

For more information on orientation flights than you’ll ever be able to process, I recommend reading the Arnia page on orientation flights.

P.S.: In the video I inaccurately refer to these as baby bees taking their first flights outside the hive even though I know it’s wrong. Orientation flights usually occur when the bees are about 20 days old — not babies — and have completed all their assigned duties inside the hive (cleaning, nursing and so on). In my mind, they’re still babies because they’re learning to fly, and it makes no difference to my beekeeping whether or not I think of them as baby bees or 20-day-old bees. But if you’re taking a test, you’ll get that question wrong if you call them baby bees.

Hive #1 Coming Back to Life

The honey bee colony in Hive #1 came to life in the morning sun like gang busters today. It was 13­°C by 10 o’clock. I noticed activity near the bottom entrance — for the first time this year. I removed the entrance reducer to see if the extra air circulation would bring out more bees through the bottom. It did. The temperature reached nearly 15°C by 10:30 and the bees in Hive #2 began to fly around too, though not nearly as much as Hive #1. None of this may seem like a big deal, but for a first-year beekeeper, this is huge. The bees have survived the winter (so far). How do they do it?


Some browsers seem to flatten the aspect ratio on this video and I don’t know why and I don’t have the patience to try and fix it. View it on the YouTube page for accurate playback.

The temperature continued to rise, but the sun disappeared and the bees went back inside after about 90 minutes. I then put the entrance reducer back on. It was warmer than usual, but not warm enough to stay out all day and start any kind of major clean up. (I didn’t see them pulling out any of the thousands of dead winter bees piled up inside the hive.) They haven’t survived the winter yet, but any kind of activity like this — I take it as a good sign.

It’s interesting that the colony in Hive #1, the same colony that shut down dramatically in the fall, is the first colony to show signs of life as soon as the weather warms up. Their behaviour seems to make sense for bees that may have some Carniolans bred into them. As usual, I don’t really know.