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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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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Beekeeping Workshop: A Full Hive Inspection

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.


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How to Prevent the Bees From Removing Dry Sugar

SHORT VERSION: Dry sugar feeding may be more likely to work when the sugar is given a little spritz.

Bees chowing down on dry sugar. (Jan. 08, 2012.)

Bees chowing down on dry sugar. (Jan. 08, 2012.)


LONGER VERSION: I know many beekeepers who prefer feeding their bees in the winter by pouring dry sugar over the top bars because it’s quick and easy and it works. I know other beekeepers who don’t use dry sugar because the bees, instead of eating the sugar, remove it from the hive like they would with any kind of debris.

But here’s the key to the dry sugar method: THE SUGAR NEEDS TO HARDEN. It probably doesn’t absolutely need to harden. I’ve seen starving bees consume every granule of sugar within a day. Beggars can’t be choosers. But when the bees aren’t starving and the sugar is loose and crumbly, they sometimes remove it from the hive like tossing out the garbage. Anyway…
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Honey Bees Discard Dry Sugar Sometimes (UPDATED)

The tricky bit with feeding honey bees dry sugar in the winter is that they will sometimes discard it from the hive like they would with any other kind of debris.

Discard dry sugar. (Dec. 19, 2015.)

Discarded dry sugar? Maybe. Maybe not. (Dec. 19, 2015.)

It can take up to week for dry sugar to harden from naturally occurring moisture inside the hive after it’s been added. If it’s warm enough for the bees to move around during that week, there’s a good chance they’ll start hauling the sugar out of the hive, or at least drop it down to the bottom of the hive. I’ve seen it many times. It’s an extra little mess to clean out of the hives in the spring, but that’s fine with me. I’d rather deal with that than starved out bees.

Something similar to a no-cook candy board would probably prevent this because the sugar is a semi-solid block that isn’t going anywhere. Spraying down the newspaper and the sugar while adding the dry sugar might help harden the sugar faster too. Not that adding moisture to a hive is usually a good thing, but I use moisture quilts that quickly wick away any excess moisture, so it’s not much of a concern for me.

DECEMBER 20, 2015 (UPDATE): I think I jumped the gun in writing this post. I still suspect the bees will clear out the dry sugar like they would with any debris. But the photo I posted may not be evidence of that. Let’s clarify this situation…
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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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Dry Sugar Feeding

We decided to give each of our honey bee colonies about 4 pounds of sugar yesterday because the bees have been clustering at the top of the hives for the past few weeks and are possibly running low on honey stores. We fed them dry sugar following what in some circles is referred to as the Mountain Camp method: Place a piece of newspaper over the top bars, pour dry sugar on top and shelter the whole thing inside a shallow super or an eke. Here’s a brief video that shows how we did it:

We sprayed the newspaper lightly to make it easier for the bees to chew through it. The dry sugar will harden on its own by absorbing moisture from the bees’ respiration, but we also sprayed it a bit to get the process started.

I’m not convinced the bees are running low on honey. All the hives seemed to have plenty of honey the last time we checked them in the fall. Maybe the bees are clustering high in the hives because it’s easier to stay warm up there. Whatever the case may be, the dry sugar feeding was the quickest, simplest precaution we could take. And it sure beats having to mix up a batch of hard candy for them.
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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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Expanding the Hive (Video)

Here’s a video of Jenny and me inspecting Hive #1 two days ago, scraping some honey off the frames and adding a second brood chamber.

The editing isn’t the greatest because I asked our friend, who was shooting the video, to take some photos during the video as well. I read in the manual that my camera can integrate photos while still rolling on video. But it didn’t work like I thought it would, so I had to cut out most of the integrated photos. It’s a choppy edit. Details on expanding the hive were posted yesterday in the Adding a Second Brood Chamber post.

UPDATE (Sept. 17/10): Just for my own records, we added the second brood box to Hive #2 around August 28, 2010, about two weeks after Hive #1.

Related posts: Dead Baby Bees and Foundationless Frames.

Adding a Second Brood Chamber

Another long post packed with photos…

We added a second brood chamber (or deep body or brood box) to Hive #1 yesterday. As far as I can tell, it went well. The bees were extremely calm being misted with sugar water, way less agitated than when we’ve used the smoker on them. All the frames had drawn out comb except one. We put about half the drawn frames in the new box on top with empty foundation frames between them. We installed 4 foundationless frames in the original box, placing them between drawn out frames. The honey and the brood seemed mixed together on the frames, so there were no all-brood frames or all-honey frames. There was brood in just about every frame we inspected. We saw some honeycomb hanging off the bottom of one frame, but no swarm cells. Hive #1 appears to be doing great. We’ll see how the colony adjusts to the new box and having all their drawn out frames spaced out. The big experiment is the foundationless frames in the bottom box.

Here’s a shot of the bees after we removed a few frames from the hive:

I’ll upload some video of the procedure soon. (UPDATE: The video is posted.) Until then, allow me to present a big load of photos and descriptions of what we did.
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