What Makes Friendly Springtime Honey Bees Turn Mean?

My healthiest honey bee colony, one that was always full of mean bees but has been playing extremely nice so far this year, is back to being mean. Any slight vibration on the hive and the bees come pouring out. I’m not sure what reactivated the mean gene, but these bees are definitely not playing nice anymore.

Q1402, back to being mean. (June 10, 2016.)

Defensive bees just beginning to pour out of a hive. (June 10, 2016.)

Things that may have triggered the mean gene (and I’m just making this up):
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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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Touchy-Feely Honey Bees

Here’s a three-and-a-half-minute video that shows some honey bees in a touchy-feely kind of mood after having their pheromones thrown into confusion with smoke.

I had to smoke the bees to curb the looking-for-a-fight enthusiasm of some of the guard bees (the first minute of the video provides the details). The bees, as far as I can tell, respond to the stimuli of strange-smelling bees and smoke by tasting and touching (and possibly cleaning) each other all over. My guess is they’re getting to know each other again. They all smell like smoke instead of bees, so they have to re-taste and smell each other to re-register in their little bee brains the smell and taste of home, of all their sisters and brothers. A perfect opportunity for any queenless bees looking for a new place to live to slip in unnoticed.

My previous video shows how the Guard Bees reacted.

P.S. (a few hours later): I’m not sure if the smoke was useful. I just checked on the hive again and saw a few battling bees tumbling and fumbling over each other near the bottom entrance. The smoke seems to have delayed the inevitable… Newspaper combines can be tricky. Bad things can happen if the bees get through the newspaper too soon. That’s why I usually don’t even cut a slit in the newspaper. If the slit is too big, or tears at some point, the new bees can pour into the hive and stir up a storm. I’ve seen it happen with other beekeepers with grim results. I’ve got a feeling that most beekeeping problems are caused by beekeepers.

Guard Bees

Here’s a short video of some guard bees patrolling the bottom entrance of a hive.

The bees were recovering from being smoked after I did a newspaper combine that let the new bees in too fast. Some bee battles started up. Instead of watching a few thousand bees go at it (and the queen possibly getting killed in the melee), I hit them with some smoke. In theory, when the smoke clears, all the bees’ pheromones are messed up, nobody knows who anyone is and they become all touchy-feely getting to know each other again, along with the new bees.

Continued in my Touchy-Feely Bees video.

Checkerboarding with Fat Bee Man

I don’t usually post videos that aren’t my own, but this video from Fat Bee Man works well as a follow-up to yesterday’s long winded post about our first checkerboarded hive. Fat Bee Man says, “When the bees get full [i.e., when the hive gets full], they do what’s natural. They’re going to multiply, so they subdivide.” That is, the crowded colony produces queen cells in preparation for swarming. And then they swarm. Adding empty frames between every other frame gives them something else to do.

Fat Bee Man’s version of checkerboarding completely splits up the brood nest. He can get away with that in a warm place like Georgia. Cold-climate beekeepers may want to stick to checkerboarding only honey frames.

The video is also full of excellent hive inspection tips for beginners. How to smoke the bees gently, how to spot real queen cells — all kinds of good stuff. Note that Fat Bee Man doesn’t wear any protective clothing. Do not try that at home. He’s apparently bred a strain of stingless bee. That’s almost too good to be true.

Falling Short of My Ideals

I’m still in my first year of beekeeping and I’m learning a lot. And I suspect one of the reasons I’m learning a lot is that I don’t follow many of the more widely accepted practices that make beekeeping easier. First up are the Backwards Beekeepers out of Los Angeles, California, who have been my number one inspiration from the get-go. They advocate the use of foundationless frames, natural re-queening and starting hives from feral swarms that are better adapted to the local environment than imported queens. Let the bees be bees because they know what they’re doing better than any humans. I love what the Backwards Beekeepers are all about, but it would be foolish of me to think my bees could do as well with 1,500 hours of sunshine a year as theirs do with 3,000 hours of sunshine (and much higher temperatures). And that’s just one of the stumbling blocks. I will continue to follow their example as well as I can, but they present an ideal that I seriously doubt I will ever be able to live up to in St. John’s, Newfoundland, given the severity of our local climate. (I’ll talk about this in more detail in a future post.)

Another ideal I realize that I can’t stick to 100% is the use of a spray bottle instead of a smoker.

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Inspecting The Hives

Jenny and I decided to do a thorough inspection of our honey bee hives today. It was supposed to rain all day, but the sun came out in full force in the early afternoon, so we took advantage of the sunshine and put on our bee suits.

I need to find an experienced beekeeper to help us identify exactly what we’re looking at. I know we saw plenty of honey and plenty of uncapped brood. At one point we could see the little white larva at the bottom of the cells filling one full side of a frame. It was impressive. We couldn’t find the queen in either hive, but both seem to be laying plenty of eggs.

We’ve decided we don’t like smoking the bees. The Seldom Fools beekeepers spray their bees, and now so do we. Whenever the bees were agitated (we could hear the difference in their buzzing immediately), we just misted them with a little sugar water and five seconds later they were back to normal. We probably could have used plain water mist, but a little sugar never hurt no one. The last time we used the smoker on the bees, they were buzzing like mad and flying around the hives in large numbers for at least an hour afterwards. It took them awhile to recover. Today, using the water mist on them, they were totally cool. You’d never know we’d completely dismantled their houses and put them back together again. I can see maybe using the smoker next year when we harvest some of the honey and have to brush the bees off the frames, but I’m convinced for now that misting the bees with a little water is the way to go.
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