On Losing a Colony

People who idealize and romanticize beekeeping — I would guess that’s 99% of all people who have ever gotten into beekeeping, including me — are in for a big wake up call after they kill their first colony. Sometimes colonies die of natural causes, but whatever the reason, a hard fact of beekeeping is that bad things happen and colonies die. If honey bee colonies can die in nature even under ideal circumstances, they can die in a beeyard too.

The ragged queen during better days (when she was alive).

The ragged queen during better days (when she was alive).

My ragged queen bee (and her potential colony) finally died yesterday after what might be called a prolonged illness. And I’m okay with it. Honestly, I barely gave it a thought. Losing my first colony a few years back was a hard hit, especially since it was my fault and the colony was healthy and huge going into winter. The honeymoon phase of my beekeeping life died right there on the carpet. While it was certainly discouraging and sad at the time, I’ve come to accept that these things will happen and when they do, I give myself a moment (and curse to myself if no one is there) and move on. That being said, here’s the lowdown on what I found five days after I installed my ragged queen into a new hive — and after two weeks of keeping her alive with a light bulb inside a nuc box. (For anyone late to the party, all the details of this desperate tale are preserved through a unique label I just created called Ragged Queen.) So…
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A Cold Ragged Queen

The ragged queen I kept alive with a light bulb for two weeks. Caged four days ago and put in a new hive with new bees because most of the bees from her original starved-out colony were dead. How’s she doing? I would love to know.

Is there a queen in there?  Is she okay?  (April 6th, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

Is there a live queen in there? Is she okay? (April 6th, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)


I had hoped to lift up the top of the hive today to see if the queen is alive. Did the bees eat through the sugar plug and release the queen? Did they accept their new queen or did they kill her? Is she starved and dead in the cage? Is the cluster large enough to keep the queen warm? I do not know. The snow and the -16°C windchill (3°F) kind of put the brakes on my plans and the weather forecast calls for more of the same over the next two days. I’ll check on her as soon as I can, but man oh man, springtime in Newfoundland is brutal. Perfect timing on the snowstorm, Nature. Thanks a lot.

UPDATE (the next day): She’s dead. I’ll write a separate post soon to explain what happened and what I’ve learned from all this.

Homemade Sugar Plug and God Save The Queen (Maybe)

On March 13th, I placed the remains of a starved colony — a sad, dirty looking queen and a few hundred bees — into a nuc box with a 60-watt light bulb in a desperate move to keep it alive. Most of the bees eventually died and it looked pretty damn grim for old queenie. Luckily the post-apocalyptic winter we’ve had in Newfoundland took a break yesterday when the sun came out and the temperature went up to 14°C (57°F). That was my chance to create a new colony (essentially a nuc) with the ragged queen and some bees from another hive. But first I had to catch the queen and put her in a cage so she wouldn’t be attacked when I mixed her together with some strange bees.

Mixing up some sugar and water. (April 02, 2016.)

Mixing up some sugar and water. (April 02, 2016.)


I dug out some plastic queen cages that consist of a mesh tube (some call them “hair roller” cages). One end has a plastic plug. The other end gets plugged with some candy that takes a day or two for the bees to eat through, by which time they’ll have gotten used to the queen’s pheromones and will accept her as their own (instead of killing her), in theory.
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Red Light Heating For Honey Bees

I carelessly caused one of my colonies to slowly starve this winter. The cluster was about the size of my fist, maybe a little larger. Ten days ago while I was getting ready to dismantle the hive and cut my loses, I found the queen still alive. I knew the cluster was too small to keep her warm enough to survive another month of cold Newfoundland weather, so I quickly jury-rigged a nuc box with a light bulb for heat, put the bees in that and hoped for the best. The bright light bulb killed off about a hundred bees like moths to a flame. I eventually replaced it with a red light bulb. Today I put a cage around the light bulb (in a different box) for extra safety and it looks like this:

Empty nuc box with caged red 60-watt light bulb for heat. (March 27, 2016.)

Empty nuc box with caged red 60-watt light bulb for heat. (March 27, 2016.)


Then I put the bees in like this (that’s a dummy board on the outer edge of the frames to prevent the comb from melting):

World's smallest cluster being kept alive with the heat from the caged 60-watt red light bulb. (March 27, 2016.)

World’s smallest cluster being kept alive with the heat from the caged 60-watt red light bulb. (March 27, 2016.)


I looked over the bees during the transfer and couldn’t find the queen. There’s a chance she’s in there, but it doesn’t look good. I’ve done all I can. The bees won’t freeze with that light bulb. They have an exit hole close by for cleansing flights and three frames of honey. Now all I can do is wait.

Let’s assume this is a lost cause…

I think I could have saved the bees if I’d discovered them starving at least a week or two earlier. The cluster would have been larger. They would have had a better chance. Not using a caged red light bulb from the start probably didn’t help, but it was the best I could do on the spot with the materials I had available. I learned about a beekeeper who uses a red light to keep his bees warm all winter. I would never do that, but I do plan to keep at least one heated nuc on standby for next winter just in case (and I’d probably use a ceramic light bulb instead so the bees can’t even see the glowing filament). I’ve also decided to pick up a thermal imaging device for my smart phone. I already have a stethoscope, which has been helpful though it’s not what I’d call a precision instrument. Cheap endoscopes are also available, though I’ve heard people having mixed results with them. But I’m pretty sure if I’d been able to take an infrared photo of my starving hive throughout the winter, I would have seen the cluster begin to shrink as it was cut off from its honey supply and I would have been able to move honey close to the brood nest and save the bees.

APRIL 6, 2016: Even the caged light bulb attracted and killed some bees. If I had to do it again, I’d wrap the cage with heavy duty tinfoil, or perhaps even better, I’d use a large tin can instead of a cage and poke some tiny heat holes throughout it. Judging from what I’ve seen so far, I’d say a 60-watt light bulb, even behind a big tin can, would provide enough heat to keep the cluster and the queen alive.

Continued in God Save The Queen (Maybe).

A Heated Nuc Box

A nuc box (i.e., a converted swarm trap) heated with a 25-watt light bulb. (March 16, 2016.)

A nuc box (i.e., a converted swarm trap) heated with a 25-watt light bulb. (March 16, 2016.)


This is my attempt at saving the queen I found yesterday in the fist-sized cluster from the colony that I inadvertently starved all winter. Here’s a cropped-in shot of her:

Cropped in closer look of the raggedly looking queen in a micro cluster. (March 16, 2016.)

The first photo shows what is essentially a wooden nuc box with an exit hole drilled in one end. Inside the box on the left side are three frames of honey. In the top corner of those three frames of honey is the sad looking tiny cluster of bees from the starved colony, the smallest cluster of bees I’ve ever seen. Even more incredible is the queen walking around the middle of the cluster, still alive.
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Bees Not Eating Dry Sugar (Because I Didn’t Steal Their Honey)

It’s time for my traditional New Year’s Eve action-packed post about nothing. Stand back, because here it comes.

SHORT VERSION: The bees in only one of my five hives are eating the dry sugar I gave them a little over a month ago. The rest are still well below the top bars probably because I didn’t take any honey this year and I fed them massive amounts of sugar syrup before winter. At least I hope that’s the reason.

LONG VERSION: I dumped dry sugar into my five 3-deep Langstroth hives a month ago. The bees were so deep down in the hives, they barely noticed the sugar. Two weeks later I cleared a hole in the middle of the sugar (like I should have done from the start) and added pollen patties to two hives with small clusters. But even then, most of the bees didn’t seem too hungry for the sugar. Today only one of the five hives shows any sign of eating the sugar. Here it is:

Honey bees inside a 3-deep Langstroth hive eating dry sugar over newspaper that was added a month ago. (December 31, 2015, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

Honey bees inside a 3-deep Langstroth hive eating dry sugar over newspaper that was added a month ago. (December 31, 2015, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

The bees in all the other hives seem to be well below the sugar. Most of them came above the top bars (i.e., the top of the hive) after I cleared a hole in the sugar, but within a week they were back down below. What does it mean?

It doesn’t mean anything, but I don’t take it as a bad sign. I didn’t steal honey from any of my hives this year and I went through almost 100kg of sugar (220 pounds) to make syrup for them (building most of them up from a couple of measly frames of brood). The goal was to make sure the hives had as much sugar syrup and honey as the bees could pack into them before going into winter. And I think it worked. Most of the colonies aren’t eating the dry sugar because they don’t need it. They already have enough honey to stay alive — because I made sure they had as much as they could get before winter. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

It’s nice when things work out the way you planned them.

Happy new year.

FEBRUARY 14, 2016: This has been my first winter in three years where I’ve been able to monitor my bees on a daily basis. I’m learning a lot. I feel like a first-year beekeeper again. I’ve noticed the bees in all the hives but one were clustered well below the top bars. On warms days, though, they rise to the top of their hives. When the weather turns cold again, they go back down. The bees in one hive have yet to rise above the top bars. They’re clustered so low, I can’t even see them through the top bars. I assume they have an abundance of sugar or honey frames.

Benefits of Frequent Hives Inspections

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.

Most of the frames are stuck together with wax and propolis after three months of not being touched by humans. (Oct. 12, 2015.)

Most of the frames are stuck together with wax and propolis after three months of not being touched by humans. (Oct. 12, 2015.)


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).
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Insert Feeders Spell Disaster For Nucleus Colonies

Plastic insert feeders that fit inside medium or shallow supers are useless because they don’t provide the bees convenient access to the syrup. Using an insert feeder to build up a nuc could be disastrous, especially in a cold climate like Newfoundland.

Plastic insert feeder in a medium super (June 1, 2011).

Plastic insert feeder in a medium super (June 1, 2011).

I bought an insert feeder during my second spring of beekeeping in 2011 because it seemed like a cheaper alternative to a hive top feeder. But I could never get the bees to take syrup from the feeder. (I’ve heard the same from numerous beekeepers over the past four years.) My bees would have starved had I kept trying to feed them with the insert feeder.
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What Does Fresh Brood Look Like?

Fresh brood looks like this (click the image for a closer view):

Fresh brood in the upper deep (or hive body). The queen expanding the brood nest up without any help from humans. (August 10, 2015.)

Fresh brood in the upper deep (or hive body). The queen expanding the brood nest up without any help from humans. (August 10, 2015.)


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.

The Piping Queen Revisited

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.

Brood cells full of royal jelly. Signs of mated queen (I hope). (Aug. 10, 2015.)

Royal jelly found in a hive that’s been queenless for more than a month. (August 10, 2015.)


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.)
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