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.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.
The following is probably the most detailed video of a hive inspection that I’ve posted since the dawn of Mud Songs. For everyone who couldn’t attend the informal beekeeping workshop I was ready put on today, this video shows what you missed (or would have missed if I’d gone ahead with the workshop). It’s a 24-minute video, longer than my usual videos, because I left in the all the parts with me yammering on about what I’m doing — exactly the kind of yammering I’d do if I was giving a workshop.
For any first-year beekeepers in Newfoundland (or a similar climate) wondering what they might find during their first hive inspection of the year (which usually falls somewhere between late April and mid-May), here’s a video of my first hive inspection in 2011 that shows a fairly healthy colony coming out of winter, one that allowed me to steal a boat load of honey from it later that summer (though I may have had to feed it for a few weeks to give it a boost; I don’t remember).
I found honey on the outside frames, some pollen mixed in and then capped and open brood spread out over five or six frames in the middle. I might have been concerned with one or two frames of brood (though queenright colonies with zero brood as late as May 15th isn’t unheard of) but five or six frames of brood during the first week of May is pretty good for my local climate. (None of my colonies are doing as well this year. They’re still recovering from The Attack of The Shrews.) The hive body underneath was more or less empty.
These days I’m usually much faster with my inspections, but overall the video demonstrates how I still inspect (and reverse) my hives every spring. I have a more detailed video in the works, but for now I’ll break it down like this (assuming we’re dealing with a 2-deep Langstroth hive and it’s a warm, windless sunny day somewhere between 11am and 2pm):
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.)
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.
Hive inspections every two weeks aren’t always such a bad thing, especially for new beekeepers, because one of the best ways to learn what the bees are up to is to see what the bees are up to. (Collect that data!) I found an excuse to dig into my hives at least once a week during my first summer of beekeeping, and I learned more from my intrusiveness and observing everything up close and personal than I ever did from reading or watching the bees from a safe distance. Yes there is a risk of disturbing the bees and killing the queen, but I was careful and gentle and made sure to put all the frames back the way I found them, and everything worked out fine.
Regular inspections also allowed me to remove comb and propolis that would have otherwise gunked up the frames and made future inspections messier, more difficult and perilous for the queen.
Messier — because comb connected between frames will often split open and scrape against honey in adjacent frames and spill honey all over the place. Drone comb, especially between brood boxes, is exceptionally gross when pulled apart.
Difficult — because frames that are bonded to the hive box with propolis don’t move. It requires careful maneuvering to pry out the frames with a hive tool — to snap off the propolis — and even then all the extraneous comb between the frames tends to squish bees and tear up honeycomb as well as brood comb along the way. Whereas frames that are cleaned up every two weeks can usually be pulled up with bare hands.
Perilous for the queen — because any comb between the frames or the brood boxes can easily trap and kill the queen (along with other bees) while the frames are being pulled out. (Some refer to this as rolling the queen.) Comb between the brood boxes leaves no space for the queen. If the queen is on that comb while a frame is slid back in, she’s dead.
I’ll try to update this post in the future with more detailed photos that illustrate what I’m talking about. For now, though, here’s a photo of a hive that I haven’t touched for almost three months.
Those frames are super-glued to the hive box with propolis and are held together by brace-comb as one big solid 10-frame block. Pulling those frames will be one seriously tangly experience (an experience I’m glad to have avoided during my first summer of beekeeping).
Fresh brood looks like this (click the image for a closer view):
I was planning to pull up a frame or two of brood from the bottom box to make sure the queen expanded the brood nest up (a lazy edition of pyramiding), but I found fresh brood on the second or third frame that I inspected. The queen didn’t need any help from me. So I put everything back the way I found it and left the bees alone.
I also filled the frame feeder on the nuc and added a pollen patty.
I forgot to post an update about the possible Piping Queen I heard in a queenless colony a while ago. (It’s a longer-than-usual but detailed post that might be interesting for beekeepers who’ve never encountered piping or even heard of it.) The update: I pulled a frame from the hive six days after I heard the piping and found a frame full of royal jelly.
Royal jelly isn’t a guarantee that I have a well-mated queen. I could have a laying worker or a drone-laying queen. But I’m taking it as a good sign. For now on if I hear piping, I’ll assume that a good queen is present. A shot in the dark: The virgin queen mated the very day I heard the piping. (I’ll update this post if it turns out the queen is a dud.)
Here’s a brief recap of the saga known as They Killed Their Queens: Mated queens (in standard cages with candy plugs) were added to three splits about 25 days ago which were checked five days later (July 18th) and the following was found:
Split #1: The new queen DEAD inside her opened cage and several capped supersedure cells. Today (18 days later): A naturally mated queen, because Life Finds a Way. Happy Ending #1, or as good at it gets anyway.
Split #2: The new queen alive and one supersedure cell full of royal jelly. Five days later: Fresh eggs and supersedure cell gone. Happy Ending #2.
SHORT VERSION: I inadvertently created a walk-away split on July 18th when I removed some brood from an established colony to make a nuc. I would have much rathered that the mated queen I gave the bees hadn’t been killed by the bees, but that’s another story to be continued as a video at a future date.
LONG VERSION: The answer to my previous post — Bees Returning with Pollen – A Sign of a Queen? — is yes. I found a big fat brand new queen in a hive that was queenless 18 days ago. Or as Dr. Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park: “Life breaks free. It expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously. But… well, there it is… I’m simply saying that life… finds a way.” You better believe it.
If we return briefly to the beginning of this story, 18 days ago on July 18th (A Requeening Gone Bad), we learn that a mated queen was added to a split about 23 days ago and five days later, the mated queen was found dead in her cage along with several open and capped supersedure queen cells. I didn’t touch the hive until today when I noticed a few bees bringing in pollen. Foragers don’t usually collect pollen unless they have a reason to do so, and that reason is usually to feed a queen bee and her brood. So I decided to take a peek inside and low and behold, I found a new queen scooting around one of the frames looking for a place to lay.
SHORT VERSION: I heard what I believe is the sound of a new queen piping, but I was unable to spot the queen because, most likely, she hasn’t been inseminated by drones yet, and thus probably looks like every other bee in the hive (she doesn’t get big until she mates and begins laying). If a queen bee doesn’t mate within about 20 days, then it’s game over. Tomorrow is Day 20 for this queen. Bloody great.
LONG VERSION: Well, here comes another learning experience.
I checked on a hive yesterday that was queenless and in the process of capping a supersedure queen cell a month ago. I didn’t touch the hive until today when I discovered no signs of brood and no queen that I could see — but I did hear a high pitched piping squeak from one frame that sounded similar to something I recorded back in 2011 (see Piping From Inside The Hive):
I followed the sound of the piping on the frame for five minutes but couldn’t spot the queen. It was maddening. So I carefully put the frame and everything else back the way I found it so I could ponder over what might be happening in that hive. So let us ponder…