Monitoring Honey Bees with a Stethoscope

I often use a cheap stethoscope to monitor my honey bees in the winter when they’re still clustering below the top bars and out of sight. It’s the least disruptive method I have for checking on the bees.

Listening to the bees with a stethoscope.

Listening to the bees with a stethoscope.

It took some practice, but I can tell how deep and how large the cluster is by listening through the hive with the stethoscope. Most of the time, though, I’m just checking that the bees are still alive. That’s usually good enough for me.

A $7 stethoscope.

A $7 stethoscope.

Sticking my ear against the hive works too, but it’s not as dignified as walking around with a stethoscope.

FEBRUARY 20, 2016: I have to say I continue to be impressed with the $7 stethoscope I bought on Amazon. I listened again to my bees today and could hear a lively buzz of bees in every hive. It takes a bit of imagination to interpret how the bees are doing from the often distant-sounding hum heard through the stethoscope, but at least I can tell they’re still hanging in there.

Uncapped Syrup Creates Moldy Comb

A beekeeper on the island of Newfoundland recent said:

    I fed my bees sugar syrup until it was too cold for them to take any more of it, which isn’t always the smartest thing to do because even though the bees are able to store the syrup, they may not have time to cure it (evaporate most of the water from it) and cap it like they would with honey during warmer weather. Subsequently, as in my case, the ole beekeeper discovers a top third deep filled mostly with uncapped syrup — or as we like to say in the real world, moisture. Not enough moisture to drip down on the bees and kill them, but enough to dampen the frames and allow some mold to grow.

I wholeheartedly agree with that beekeeper. He seems like a smart guy.

Uncapped sugar syrup → moisture → damp → moldy comb. (Nov. 7, 2015.)

Uncapped sugar syrup → moisture → damp → moldy comb. (Nov. 7, 2015.)


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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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Switching Out Hard Insulation for Moisture Quilts

In a previous post, Moisture Quilts vs Hard Insulation, I argued that hard insulation over the inner cover is a cheap and easy way to keep a hive relatively warm and dry over the winter. And it is. I used hard insulation in my hives for several winters with no problems. Even though I’ve since switched to moisture quilts, this year — as in a couple of weeks ago — I set up two of my five hives with hard insulation as a demonstration that I planned to report in on over the winter. But I pulled the plug on that experiment because I discovered moldy frames in the top boxes of those two hives yesterday.

Slightly moldy capped and uncapped honey. (Nov. 07, 2015.)

Slightly moldy capped and uncapped honey / syrup. (Nov. 07, 2015.)


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Winter Has Arrived in Flatrock

The first bit of snow to stay on the ground came down last night.

Most of the bees are clustered down deep where they should be. (Nov. 04, 2015.)

Most of the bees are clustered down deep where they should be. (Nov. 04, 2015.)

All the hives, in theory, have enough honey to get them through the winter. If they don’t, I have a rim on top to make room for dry sugar or whatever else I might need to feed them if I notice them clustering above the tops bars. I hope it’s a cold winter and I hope it stays cold. Cold is better than warm.

Pre-Winter Raw Sugar Feeding

I used to add dry sugar to my hives in January or February following what some call The Mountain Camp Method, but this year I decided to add sugar around the same time I wrapped my hives, in late November. Why not? I have several reasons for adding the sugar early — the main reason is I don’t want to see another colony starve to death — but ultimately it doesn’t hurt to put the sugar on early and it saves me the trouble of having to do it in the middle of winter with snow all around. So yeah, why not? Here’s a video that shows how I did it.

This is probably the last time I’ll post a video about the Mountain Camp Method. There’s not much else to see.

I also mention in the video (at the 58sec mark) how one of my hives was full of exceptionally nasty bees until I moved the colony far away from my other colonies and just like that they settled down to become the nicest bunch of bees around. This is just speculation, but for now on whenever I come across an especially defensive colony, I’ll try moving it way off by itself, far from any other colonies, before I resort to requeening.

ADDENDUM (Jan. 16/14): It’s come to my attention that covering the entire top bars with sugar isn’t a good idea because then you can’t see down into the frames to see how the bees are doing. I knew that last year but forgot about it this year. So don’t do what I did. Cover only the back two-thirds or so of the top bars.

Macro-ish Honey Bee Video

This is probably the closest video shot I’ve managed to get of the bees from inside the hive. (It zooms in and tracks along the comb around the 44-second mark.)

It’s from inside a honey super, not the hive per se. I gave most of the colonies between a half and a full medium honey super full of scraped and uncapped honey about a month ago. I’ll probably do it for now instead of topping them up with sugar syrup before winter. The honey comb is pretty much bone dry by now, but maybe the bees are hanging up around the comb because it’s been so warm that they don’t need to maintain a full cluster in the brood chamber.

Winter Preparations – Part 2: Hive Wrap

We finally got around to wrapping our hives for the winter. Here’s another how-to video narrated by me with a sore throat.

I thought about using corrugated plastic as a type of winter wrap, but I didn’t have time to mess with that, so I stuck with following the traditional roofing felt wrap method. We don’t plan to touch the hives again until late January or early February when we might have to feed them candy cakes and pollen patties. See Wrapping Hives for Winter and Winter Preparations – Part 1 for more info.
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