All’s Right With The World

I wrote this last week during an extended lunch break and decided not to post it because it’s long and rambling and doesn’t say much about anything. But so what? Here it comes…

Have you ever walked towards your beeyard, sight unseen, and heard the deep hum of a swarm in flight? I have. I’m still not at the point yet where I’m 100% comfortable with swarms. I will always say this because it’s true: The best beekeeping day of my life was the day I caught a swarm on a farm in the country where my bees couldn’t stress out any humans who would then pass on their stress to me. Humans ruin everything.

The sound of a swarm in the distance should be exciting and fun for me (as it should for everyone), but it’s not. I’ve never fully recovered from the stress my neighbours caused me when they freaked out over one my colonies swarming past their back deck when I lived in the city. Although I live in a much more rural environment now, I have one particular neighbour whose kid’s swing set is not so far away from my beeyard. I single out the swing set because I imagine if my bees ever swarm, I know they’ll damn well land on that swing set — and I don’t know how my neighbour will react to that.

So when I came home after lunch yesterday and heard that oh so familiar hum that made me think, “Swarm,” I wasn’t 100% comfortable as I walked towards my beeyard. Would I find bees filling the air like in some ridiculous scene from the Old Testament? My thoughts were, “No, I’d rather not see that today, if you don’t mind.”

And I didn’t. I saw this instead:

That Twitter-compressed video clip doesn’t capture the scene well. Play it back in full-screen mode to get a better sense of it. Bees filling the air everywhere. (Fireweed seeds floating about too.)
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Empty Supersedure Queen Cells

I found a frame full of queen cells in one of my hives last week (on September 5th). Specifically, supersedure cells. I’ll skip the sad story of how they got there. Just for kicks and giggles, I moved the frame of supersedure cells, along with three other frames including a frame of brood, into a nuc box. Queen cells are usually capped eight days after an egg is laid inside, which means these ones were at least eight days old. Seeing how the queens usually emerge about eight days after the cells are capped, I figured there was a good chance I’d find open supersedure cells about a week later. And I did (yesterday).

Empty supersedure queen cells. (Sept. 11, 2016.)

Empty supersedure queen cells. (Sept. 11, 2016.)

It was only six days later, but that shows the cells had been capped for at least two days before I found them. I noticed the bees building the supersedure cells near the end of August, so I knew this was coming. (I’ll update this astounding post with a photo or video later if possible.)

Assuming everything went according to plan, there should be a single virgin queen running around my nuc box now and once her wings and things have dried and hardened, she will, in theory, take off on a mating flight or two by next week. I’m not confident she’ll mate well this late in the year as the drones are already getting the boot in some of my hives. At any rate, it might take her another week after mating for her to start laying. So…

If it all works out well, she’ll be laying by October. So come back in October and we’ll see what happens!

Nuc: Day 11 – Almost Full

I installed a 4-frame nuc on July 17th, using frames of bare foundation to fill in the remaining frames. On Day 6 I replaced most of the bare foundation with drawn comb because I wanted the queen to have immediate space to lay and expand the brood nest. Today, Day 11, I topped up the frame feeder and noticed bees covering most of the frames in the hive.

Nuc colony on Day 11. 6 frames of drawn comb. 2 frames that were more or less bare foundation. All the frames filling with bees. (July 28, 2016.)

Nuc colony on Day 11. 6 frames of drawn comb. 2 frames that were more or less bare foundation. All the frames filling with bees. (July 28, 2016.)

Click the image to see a better view of the all the bees on the frames.

I didn’t pull the frames to see exactly what was going on, and I didn’t really need to because seeing the bees working all the frames is a good enough sign to me that the colony is expanding.

Since I installed the nuc, other than removing the bare foundation, I’ve topped up the frame feeder a few times and I’ve I inserted empty drawn comb between frames of brood to encourage the queen to lay there and expand the brood nest faster. I will continue to do that as the colony expands for the next month or so.

The next time I refill the feeder (in four or five days), if I find all the frames are either full of brood or full of syrup and nectar (i.e., the queen doesn’t have much more space to lay), then I’ll add a second deep to the hive. I’ll pull up some brood into the second deep, move the feeder to the second deep, insert plenty of drawn comb for the queen to lay, and I’ll probably steal some frames of brood from one of my stronger colonies to give the nuc colony a boost.

The sunny weather doesn’t hurt.

P.S.: If I was using bare foundation, I might not add a second deep until the middle of August. It can be a different story in warmer parts of Newfoundland. But that’s not the story I’m telling here.

UPDATE: Some unplanned beekeeping happened today. I pulled three frames of brood from a big colony with about 15 frames of capped and open brood and I had little choice but to add them to this nuc hive in a second deep. So this itty bitty nuc hive now has a second deep on top of it with a frame feeder, several frames of drawn comb and three frames of capped and open brood and the nurse bees to go with it — and a big thick heavy frame full of pollen.

A single-deep nuc is suddenly a 2-deep hive. (July 28, 2016.)

A single-deep nuc is suddenly a 2-deep hive. (July 28, 2016.)

Hopefully the nurse bees won’t fight with their new queen and everything will work out fine. I’ve never transferred that much brood to a nuc before.

Nucs: Day 6 – Removing Bare Foundation

I installed three nucs six days ago. Each nuc contained a frame of capped brood, a frame with bare foundation, and two frames with a mix of empty comb, pollen and honey (and maybe some small patches of brood). Each nuc was installed in a standard 10-frame Langstroth deep super with a frame feeder full of thin sugar syrup spiked with anise extract. The frames were placed in the deep in the same order and orientation as they were in the nuc box. I used frames of drawn comb to fill up two of the nuc hives and bare foundation in the other. I recorded a video of me installing the bare foundation nuc because most new Newfoundland beekeepers will probably begin their first nucs with bare foundation, not drawn comb. My intention was to provide an ongoing and honest record of what new beekeepers in Newfoundland are likely to experience during their first year of establishing a colony from a nuc. But what I found in that nuc hive today has compelled me to change my plans.

Nuc colony installed 6 days ago. (July 23, 2016.)

Nuc colony installed 6 days ago, and not much new brood. (July 23, 2016.)

I found some new comb with fresh brood on the original bare foundation frame that came with the nuc, but not much more new brood other than that. In my other two nucs that were full of drawn comb (not bare foundation), I found at least twice as much new brood — a full frame of capped brood and at least another frame of fresh brood. Bees were covering every single frame in the deep (compared to bees covering only four frames in the above photo). That’s a huge difference. The nuc colonies with drawn comb are expanding at least twice as fast. So…

As much I’d like to provide an honest guide for first-year beekeepers in Newfoundland, I’d rather have twice as much brood in my colonies. So…

I removed the top three frames of bare foundation from the nuc hive (as shown in the above photo) and replaced them with drawn comb. (The frame closest to the feeder was already full of new comb and syrup, so I left it alone.) Now the queen will have free reign to start laying immediately. She won’t need to wait for the worker bees to build comb over the bare foundation first.

Drawn comb is worth its weight in gold. I’ve never seen such a dramatic demonstration of that fact. (Sorry I don’t photos of the other nucs full of bees. Technical difficulties.) Okay then…
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Nucs That Caused Bulging Honey

I noticed bulging honey (video link) in all three nucs I installed last week. And by bulging honey, I mean comb the bees built past the width of the frame. Here’s an extreme example from one of my honey supers two years ago:

IMG_0383-thick-comb

Bulging honey is great for a honey super where I want as much honey on each frame as the bees can manage. I deliberately space out the frames so the bees will draw thicker comb on it. But bulging comb of any kind is not what I want to see in the brood nest.

The brood frames can’t be spaced evenly against each when bulging honey gets in the way. (Have I just coined a phrase, bulging honey?) When I installed my nucs, the frames of bulging honey created uneven spacing — and extra space between the frames. The bees want to fill in that extra space and they often do so with bridge comb, which breaks apart and makes a mess in the brood nest whenever I need to inspect a frame.

Bridge comb caused by having too much space between the frames. (July 22, 2016.)

Bridge comb caused by having too much space between the frames. (July 22, 2016.)

I took a quick look at one of the nuc hives today and already noticed bridge comb. What a pain.
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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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Nucs: An Excellent Opportunity to Spot the Queen

I just installed three new nucs and I’m completely soaked in sweat. Here’s one that doesn’t have a proper top cover yet, but the bees don’t care.

By the way, now is an excellent time to look for the queen, to learn how to spot her, how she moves and wiggles across the frame and all that jazz. There are hardly any bees in the hive and there are only a few frames to inspect. The chances of spotting her couldn’t be better.

I wish I’d taken the time to look for the queen when I installed my first nucs. It subsquently took me a year before I managed to spot any of my queens.

Second Thoughts on Reversing

As of today, I’m beginning to reconsider how I do my first hive inspection of the year. I like to reverse the hive (i.e., move the brood nest to the bottom), but next year if I find all the bees are contained in a single deep (which is often the case), instead of moving the bees to the bottom and putting another deep on top, I might move the bees to the bottom and leave the hive like that — as a single-deep hive. It shouldn’t be a problem as long as the bees have enough honey and the queen has some room to lay.

I added the second deep to this hive today, which has more bees than my hives with two deeps. (May 07, 2016.)

I added the second deep to this hive today, which has more bees than my hives with two deeps. (May 07, 2016.)

Bees that are confined to a smaller space supposedly work that space faster and better than they would if there was more space (e.g., if there was a full deep on top of them). This is common knowledge for beekeepers who always have nucs on hand. The colonies in their nucs tend to build up quicker than those housed in full-sized deeps and hives.

I say it’s common knowledge, but it’s not something I’ve had any experience with until today, sort of, possibly. A brood nest of a colony that I reduced to a single deep a few weeks ago (instead of reversing it) is expanding at least twice as fast as the brood nest in my other colonies that were reversed. It could just mean I have a better queen in the single-deep colony. Or maybe the bees in that single-deep hive did better because they were able to concentrate on the limited space they had instead of spreading out their efforts across twice as much space.

I don’t know. But next year when I do my first hive inspection of the year, instead of reversing the hive, if the bees are in a single deep, I’ll reduce the hive to that single deep until the brood nest is ready to expand into a second deep.

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.