A Failing Queen and Hope for The Future

What follows is an example, from my own experience as a small-scale hobbyist beekeeper, of what’s involved in keeping bees and keeping them alive and well. This is nothing compared some things I’ve had to deal with before, but the point is that beekeeping takes time and effort and close attention. It’s not all about the honey (though the honey helps). So anyway, I says to Mabel, I says…

One of my little honey bee colonies is toast.

A very small cluster for the first week of June.

A very small cluster for the first week of June.

The queen is failing. She’s been on the way out for a while, but now she’s fading fast, laying small, spotty patches of brood over three or four frames, the entire brood nest contained within half of a single brood box (a single deep). The cold weather we’ve had for the past two weeks (well below 10°C / 50°F) hasn’t helped. I did a quick inspection yesterday and found a few patches of capped brood abandoned in the bottom deep, abandoned probably because it got so cold the bees were forced to cluster up top.

Some abandoned brood. (June 07, 2016.)

I’ve never seen that before. Not good.

I reduced the hive to a single deep and put the abandoned brood frames in with the regular brood nest. I put on a jar feeder with honey. I don’t have high hopes.

Then there was one.

Then there was one.

It’s possible the queen doesn’t react well to cold temperatures, that she needs a good warm spell to get into a strong laying cycle. But I doubt it. Now that I’m feeding them, maybe the bees will create a supersedure queen. But I have my doubts about that too. If there’s no improvement by next weekend, I’ll probably remove the queen, if she’s still alive, and add whatever is left to one of my healthier colonies.
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Honey Trough

I added some crystallized honey to my hives, but the honey was still a bit too sticky to stay solid inside the jars. So I removed the jars and spread the honey around the inner cover like butter.

2016-06-006

The bees seem to like it. More bees seem to be lapping up the honey spread around the inner cover hole than from the jar.

2016-06-05 11.11.22 honey trough

Considering the cold, cold weather that’s forecast for the next week or two, I expect I’ll be feeding my bees like this for a while.

UPDATE: The sun came out briefly this afternoon and quickly heated the dark green supers I had over the hives originally to make room for the jar feeders. The heat melted the honey and it dripped out of some of the hives. The next time I butter up the hives with honey, I’ll make sure it’s only on a cold, cloudy day.

THE NEXT DAY: I switched to pouring the partially crystallized honey into jar lids. Now that’s a honey trough. Not at all practical, but easy for me with the bees in my backyard.

Honey bees gathering around the ole watering hold. (June 06, 2016.)

Honey bees gathering around the ole watering hold. (June 06, 2016.)

By the way, I DO NOT recommend this as a method for feeding bees. I made it work in my cold climate. But sunshine or any kind of heat can melt the honey and make a mess.

Jar Feeders of Honey

Here’s a jar feeder full of recently extracted honey over the inner cover of a hive housing a weak colony. (I covered it with an empty deep afterwards.)

Raw honey from a jar feeder to help out a weak colony. (May 24, 2016.)

Raw honey from a jar feeder to help out a weak colony. (May 24, 2016.)

The bees have plenty of honey in the hive, but I wonder if liquid honey stimulates them more. I know most beekeepers say there’s no need to feed if the bees have enough honey in the hive, but I wonder if feeding — syrup or honey — stimulates the colony to build up quicker than just honey in the frames.

I don’t know.

MAY 28, 2016: They’re drinking down the honey.

Bee sucking down the honey fast. (May 27, 2016.)

Bees sucking down the honey fast. (May 27, 2016.)

Mystery #1: Bees Won’t Eat Honey

Whenever I spill honey outside or leave frames sticky with honey around on a warm sunny day, the bees usually descend and lap it up as quick as they can. But not today…

Honey and wax outside in the sun, the bees completely ignoring it. (May 16, 2016.)

Honey and wax outside in the sun, the bees completely ignoring it. (May 16, 2016.)

That’s honey and goop left over from some deep frames I extracted yesterday. I posted a rough video of it on my Mud Songs Facebook page this morning:

    I got to use my extractor yesterday for the first time since I bought it last year. You can see the honey being flicked out of the frames on the side of the extractor. The spinning basket nearly flew off by the time I was done because the vibrations caused most of the nuts and bolts to loosen up. Whether I get honey this year is a whole other matter, but if I do, I’m ready for it. This honey is left over from all the hives I lost to shrews last year. I’ll feed it to my nucs in July instead of syrup.

I don’t understand why the bees aren’t going crazy for the honey. I’ve never extracted honey this early in the year before. Maybe they’re too keen on collecting pollen because there’s very little nectar available at the moment and they’re just not in a honey-sucking state of mind. I even left a full frame of scraped open honey in the beeyard yesterday and they didn’t go near it. I tasted the honey. It’s good honey. I don’t know what gives.

Honey Leaking From Hive

I noticed some honey or sugar syrup on the bottom board of one of my hives this morning.

Watered down honey or syrup on bottom board. (Feb. 02, 2016.)

Watered down honey or syrup on bottom board. (Feb. 02, 2016.)

I’ve seen this before. It usually happens in the winter when open honey comb contracts in the cold and then expands in the sudden heat of a warm spell and drips out of the cells. That’s all that’s happening. The first time I saw this, I thought a mouse got in the hive and chewed open some honey comb, which is not unheard of. But there’s no way a mouse could get through my quarter-inch mesh.

Honey Bee Friendly Flower: Fireweed

Fireweed, or Chamerion angustifolium, is a honey bee friendly flower that blossoms usually by the first week of August on the island of Newfoundland. (Click images for a better view.)

Honey bee on Fireweed in Flatrock, Newfoundland (August 11, 2015.)

Honey bee on Fireweed in Flatrock, Newfoundland (August 11, 2015.)


Some parts of the island see Fireweed before others.

Cell phone snapshot of fireweed in Eastport, Newfoundland. (August 9, 2015.)

Cell phone snapshot of fireweed in Eastport, Newfoundland. (August 9, 2015.)


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Honey Bee Friendly Flower: Maple Blossoms

The city of St. John’s may be one of the best places to keep honey bees on the island of Newfoundland because it’s full of maple trees and a large variety of flowering plants that offer honey bees a bonanza of nectar and pollen from June well into October. Walk around the city today and you will see flowering maple trees everywhere with little flowers that look like this.

A maple tree flower in St. John's, NL (June 09, 2015.)

A maple tree flower in St. John’s, NL (June 09, 2015.)

I took that photo on my cell phone and I know it’s not the greatest, but trust me, if St. John’s had more beekeepers, honey bees would be all over those flowers — and honey made from maple nectar is spectacular. Although I’m extremely pleased to have finally found a place where I can keep my bees in peace and be around them every day, I don’t think my bees will ever thrive as well as they did when I kept them in my backyard in St. John’s.

The quantity, diversity and consistency of honey bee forage makes the city of St. John’s, Newfoundland, an excellent place to keep bees. (Just make sure your neighbours don’t mind.)

MARCH 05, 2016: I found this photo from 2011 that shows flowers on a maple tree, the kind of flowers that hang down in long bunch. The bees go for these too.

Maple blossoms in St. John's, Newfoundland. (June 19, 2011.)

Maple blossoms in St. John’s, Newfoundland. (June 19, 2011.)


Not the greatest photo but good enough.

MAY 27, 2016: The maple tree flowers show up as early as May. Nice.

Maples blossoms in St. John's, Newfoundland (May 26, 2016.)

Maples blossoms in St. John’s, Newfoundland (May 26, 2016.)

Crush and Strain Honey: The 3-Bucket Method

    WARNING: Plastic buckets from the hardware store contain BFA, a substance that is generally not good for humans. I doubt much BFA would get into the honey in this process because the honey isn’t stored in the plastic. It mostly just passes through the plastic funnels and sits in the plastic bucket for less than a day. But still, stainless steel or food-grade plastic buckets are preferable. Honey meant for public consumption should never come in contact with non-food-grade plastic.

I recently crushed and strained about 6 litres of liquid honey (about 1.6 US gallons) from a medium honey super. I followed what some called the 3-bucket method, which I’ve demonstrated before, except I didn’t do it properly the first time. This time I did it right and it worked perfectly. The process is explained with labelled photos below. Basically you pour the crushed comb honey into a bucket with holes it, which drains into a bucket with a paint strainer on it. Then you bottle your honey.

Honey with crushed comb dripping from top bucket into bucket with holes, then straining into bottom bucket. (Oct. 07, 2014.)

Honey with crushed comb dripping from top bucket (bucket #1) into a bucket with holes (bucket #2), then straining into a bottom bucket (bucket#3). (Oct. 07, 2014.)


I recommend this method for hobbyist beekeepers with a small number of hives. Comb honey is the best, but for liquid honey, crush-and-strained in my experience tastes and feels better than extracted honey. The fact that the honey strains through the beeswax, much of flavour of the wax — which is a huge component of natural honey — isn’t lost like it would be with extracted honey.

P.S. (July 25/15): I also posted a video called Cutting and Bottling Honey that’s been viewed 645,113 times as of today. Which reminds me, perhaps I should monetize my YouTube videos.)
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How to Decap Honey Frames with a Heat Gun

Considering that I don’t have time to post much of anything these days, I thought I’d put a quick spotlight on something I’ve only mentioned in passing before (and that allows me to recycle some old videos): Decapping honey frames with a heat gun instead of a decapping knife.

    For anyone who came late: Honey bees store honey in wax cells like little Mason jars. Mason jars aren’t cheap and neither are the lids, so the bees simply seal them with wax. These wax lids are called caps. When the bees get hungry for honey, they chew threw the wax caps and dig in. When humans get hungry for the honey, they can’t chew open the comb because that’d be silly. Instead they remove the wax caps with a long straight blade sometimes referred to as a decapping knife. Then they put the frames full of opened honey combs into a machine called an extractor that whips the honey out of the cells through the use of centrifugal force — by spinning it really fast. The honey then drips down into a bucket and the humans eat it.

I’ve used a heat gun instead of a decapping knife for three seasons now and I love it because:

1) It’s cheap as dirt. An electric decapping knife goes for about $150 before taxes and shipping. I paid $30 for my heat gun.

2) It’s quick and easy to use and it doesn’t leave behind any kind of mess. An electric decapping knife requires careful attention so you don’t burn yourself or the honey, and although it may be a little quicker to use once you get used to it, it makes a mess. You’re left with honey and wax to clean up afterwards. Some people don’t mind all that left over wax. They use it make a variety of creams and cosmetic products. But I don’t.

Decapping a frame of honey with a hot knife. (Oct. 1, 2011.)

Decapping a frame of honey with a hot knife. (Oct. 1, 2011.)


I’ve had no problems extracting honey from frames that were decapped with a heat gun (and the bees have no problem refilling the frames afterwards). Sometimes I scrape the caps with a fork as well (yup, a regular old kitchen fork) just to be sure the caps are unsealed. That takes an additional three seconds. Big deal. So this is me, Phillip, the curator of all beekeeping things a la Mud Songs, giving a big thumbs up to depcapping honey frames with a $30 heat gun instead of a messy $150 decapping knife.
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Floral Fidelity in Honey

I accidentally deleted the photo for this post and I can’t find. But I’m looking…

Here’s an example of why I go out of my way not to mix honey from different hives.

The lighter honey on the left was taken from one hive, and it tastes heathery. The darker honey on the right was taken from another hive, and it has a more earthy flavour. Both were harvested on the same day. The two hives are about 2 metres apart (7 feet), but the bees from each hive favoured different nectar sources, which resulted in slightly different honey from each hive. The favouring of specific pollen and nectar sources is called floral fidelity. The bees find an abundant nectar source and they stick with it instead of wasting time jumping from one type of flower to another. That’s why you’ll often see a flowering tree loaded down with honey bees while at the same time not a single bee goes anywhere near your beautiful Forget-Me-Nots. The results of floral fidelity are lost in most large beekeeping operations that have to blend all their honeys together. Not me.