How To Prepare Your Beehives For Winter (If You’re Me)

Something weird happened. I got several emails from people asking me what I do to prepare my hives for winter. It’s weird for a few reasons.

First because I don’t consider myself the most experienced beekeeper around. I’m still honest about most of the mistakes I make in my beekeeping — and to this day I continue to make big mistakes. But am I really the best person to ask advice from? Although I don’t mind sharing my experiences, I’m not so sure about giving advice. I’ve seen beekeepers, myself included, fall into the trap of giving advice with little experience to back it up. Novice enthusiasm morphs into a little ego trip. It happens. Most people grow out of it through humbling experiences. But not everyone. I know beekeepers with no more or even less experience than me who have acted like hotshots since day and are glad to give advice to anyone who will believe it (because nobody ever doubts the wisdom of beekeepers for some reason). I’d rather keep my advice to myself than go down that road. I’ve even considered hitting the reset button on Mud Songs to make sure nothing too conceited gets on record. Why not? It might be fun. Either way, how much expertise do I really have?

Probably not too much. I’ve been beekeeping as a hobbyist since 2010 under ideal and less-than-ideal circumstances. Although I’ve had some much appreciated assistance from friends and fellow beekeepers at times, 99% of everything I do in beekeeping I do alone, not with the guidance of a mentor or in consultation or conversation with other beekeepers, most who live so far away that getting together with them is a logistic headache. All of which adds up to learning just about everything on my own and learning it the hard way. Learning through my painful mistakes perhaps puts me ahead of the game in some respects, because I’ve seen first hand all kinds of lovely things that can go wrong. But I think I’d be much further ahead if I’d learned along side more experienced or even equally experienced beekeepers. There are so many things that a beekeeper learns from other beekeepers simply by seeing what other beekeepers do and how they do it, obvious things that are easily overlooked — and that’s where my education and experience is lacking. The insights gained from hanging out and talking with other beekeepers will not be found here, not from me. I’ve done well considering that most of my beekeeping has been in isolation, but that isolation leads me to doubt my expertise.

One of my bee hives after a  snow storm in 2013.

One of my bee hives after a snow storm in 2013. The bees survived.

The other weird thing is that I didn’t think many people read my blog these days. I don’t have the time for making as many fun or interesting videos, etc., like I used to, and my readership dropped off to virtually zero after I had to pull the plug on the blog last year. Or was that two years ago? In any case, my stats never recovered from that. I averaged around 1000 visitors a day with a regular band of people getting in on the conversations in the comments section. It was a small niche but an engaging niche. That’s gone now and I’m fine with it. The Internet is fleeting and most new and eager beekeepers move beyond the obsessive phase eventually. I know I cut way back on my reading and research after my third year. I still visit plenty of web sites, though I rarely get in on any discussions. I’m also too busy with actual beekeeping and living life to sit in front of a computer for hours on end like I used to. And I doubt I’m the only one. But is my niche coming back or something? What’s up? Where are these people coming from? It’s unusual.

Whatever is going on, the emails have been coming in on a regular basis, so I’ll bite. I’ll even bang out narcissistic, pointless paragraphs like these while I’m sick in bed because what the hell, no one’s probably reading this anyway. Let’s go a little nuts here and see if anyone notices.

The typical winter configuration for a world renowned and stupendous Mud Songs bee hive. (Nov. 04, 2015.)

The typical winter configuration for a world renowned and stupendous Mud Songs bee hive. (November 4th, 2015.)

So the big question I’ve been asked for some reason is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?”
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Orientation Flights

Here’s a video for brand new beekeepers who’ve seen orientation flights but didn’t know what they were looking at.

I usually notice orientation flights around 11:30am on hot summer days, but sometimes the heat doesn’t kick in until the afternoon — in the case of this video, 2:30 in the afternoon. Everything seems calm and normal and then within about five minutes the air in front of the hive fills with fuzzy young bees hovering and facing the direction of the hive. That’s your standard-issue orientation flight situation. Orientation flights can appear as massive, confused clouds of bees if the bees have been stuck inside the hive for a few days because of cold or wet weather. A swarm of bees, by the way, is about 10,000 time larger and it’s a whole other ballgame.

For more information on orientation flights than you’ll ever be able to process, I recommend reading the Arnia page on orientation flights.

P.S.: In the video I inaccurately refer to these as baby bees taking their first flights outside the hive even though I know it’s wrong. Orientation flights usually occur when the bees are about 20 days old — not babies — and have completed all their assigned duties inside the hive (cleaning, nursing and so on). In my mind, they’re still babies because they’re learning to fly, and it makes no difference to my beekeeping whether or not I think of them as baby bees or 20-day-old bees. But if you’re taking a test, you’ll get that question wrong if you call them baby bees.

A Requeening Gone Bad

THEY KILLED THEIR QUEENS – PART 1

I added a caged mated queen to three splits last weekend. I checked on them today and found supersedure cells in all three hives. Here’s a sample (if you click the image to enlarge it, you can easily see the larvae swimming in royal jelly):

Supercedure cells in a recently requeen colony (July 18, 2015).

Supersedure cells in a recently requeened colony (July 18, 2015).

Here’s what I found in…

Split #1: The new queen DEAD inside her opened cage and several capped supersedure cells.
Split #2: The new queen alive and one supersedure cell full of royal jelly.
Split #3: The new queen M.I.A. (possibly dead) and several capped supersedure cells.

I have video of the whole bloody affair which I might post once I’ve determined what happened and what I’m going to do next. I’ll provide more details at that time, but feel free to speculate while I pour myself a drink…

P.S.: I say supersedure cell, but I suppose the more accurate term is “emergency queen cell.” Supersedure cells are created when the queen is failing but not yet dead, whereas emergency queen cells are created when the queen is suddenly dead. I think. Maybe. The difference seems so minimal to me, I always say supersedure. Furthermore, the presence of swarm cells means the bees are going to fly away, but presence of supersedure cells means they’re simply replacing a failing or dead queen. That’s how I sort it all out anyway.

JULY 23/15: I did a quick inspection of Split #2 and found a few frames of fresh eggs. Woo-hoo! The supersedure cell full of royal jelly is gone too. Way to go bees! All of this will be revealed in detail with a video and photos that are in the works.

AUGUST 05/15: Continued in Bees Returning With Pollen.

Swarm Prevention: A Swarm Revisited

It was about this time last year I walked in on a swarm. Turns out it was two swarms, but I managed to re-hive them and eventually got two new colonies from them, two colonies that were destroyed by shrews during the winter, but that’s another story.

I don’t recommend the bucket-and-dump method of re-hiving a swarm, but I had to act fast and didn’t have time to gather up the proper gear.

If I’d discovered the swarm cells a few days earlier, I would have prevented the swarm (in theory) by transferring the queen with several frames of bees to a new hive box, leaving the brood and swarm cells behind — essentially simulating the end result of an actual swarming. A queen emerges from one of the swarm cells left behind, then kills all the queens in the remaining swarm cells and eventually mates and all is right with the world. In theory.

I know some people destroy all but one or two of the remaining swarm cells, thus reducing the likelihood of swarm movement. I’ve also moved the brood and swarm cells to a new location instead and that seems to work in a pinch.

I’ve read about other methods of dealing with swarm cells, but they all seem too complicated to me, too much messing about. I like my method because it’s a simple one-time procedure and you’re done.

How do other people deal with swarm cells? If anyone still reads this blog, feel free to chime in.

Old Queen or Virgin Queen?

Here’s a video that shows what I think — what I hope — is a virgin queen that emerged from a swarm cell after a colony swarmed. If it’s not a virgin queen, it might be the colony’s original queen, which means the colony is on the verge of swarming. Please feel free to leave a comment if you can identify what kind of queen she is, old or virgin. I’ll explain more after the video.


(Thanks to Jonathan Adams for getting behind the camera.)
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Thick Combs of Honey (Slight Return)

I posted some photos a couple days ago of what is probably the thickest combs of honey I’ve ever seen in any of my hives. Here’s the video:


(Thanks to Jonathan Adams for getting behind the camera.)

It’s not the most instructive video, but I’ve relaxed my criteria for posting photos and videos on Mud Songs. If I think it could spark the imagination of anyone curious about honey bees or beekeeping, that’s good enough for me. If I can instruct at the same time, well, that’s a bonus. The 1:50 mark in the video, for instance, shows how the bees begin to build comb by festooning. My explanation in the video isn’t the most articulate. I’m so used to beekeeping alone in silence, I felt awkward talking. Festooning is not a well-defined phenomena anyway, so my bumbling explanation kind of fits.

Now here are a few things this situation has me wondering about…
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A Gentle Ball of Bees

I just happened to drop in on my country hives today as a splinter colony was taking flight. (I’ve chosen to use the less alarmist terminology for that particular phenomena of honey bee behaviour.) I was alone, only had my cell phone and couldn’t film myself shaking the bees into a new hive body. So there’s not much to learn from this short video. But if you’ve never seen a sw — I mean a splinter colony up close before, take a look. (It’s not the highest-rez video. Sorry. Couldn’t help it.)

If it looks like a scary situation, it isn’t. Only bad neighbours make it a scary or stressful situation. It was more calming for me than anything. I had somewhere I had to be, so I couldn’t sit back enjoy it as much I would have liked to, but it was an amazing thing to witness.

SEPTEMBER 22, 2014: I was dealing with two swarms and didn’t know it. It was tricky because both swarms landed on the same branch. Both were re-hived, though, and the new colonies are doing well.

DECEMBER 17, 2015: I just read an article at the Bee Culture web site about something called a swarm bucket that may have made my catching of this swarm (or swarms) a little less complicated. It’s basically a bucket with a cone made of screen built into the lid, so it acts much like a bee escape. So imagine a swarm hanging from a branch. The little old beekeeper shakes the swarm off the branch into the big bucket and then puts the coned lid on the bucket. If the queen is in the bucket, all the stranglers will eventually go through the cone to get to the queen but won’t be able to get out once they’re in. Then said beekeeper just picks up the bucket of bees and goes home. Of course nothing in beekeeping ever goes as planned, but in theory, it sounds wonderful. And plausible. I plan to build at least one of the swarm buckets for next year.

Urban Beekeepers, Don’t Overfeed Your Bees

I caught a swarm out in the country last year and I loved it. But unfortunately I live a in relatively crowded urban neighbourhood with an easily enraged next door neighbour, so even though I only have one hive in the city now, I don’t have the luxury of a laid back attitude towards swarms. I need to keep my neighbour from calling the fire department on me again, which means I have to do everything I can to prevent my lonely little colony from swarming. So what should I do?

Upper half of the large water melon sized swarm I caught last summer.

Last year I reversed the brood chambers and checker-boarded my hives. But three of my four colonies swarmed anyway. Here’s a video that shows what one of the hives looked like shortly before its colony swarmed:
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Why My Honey Bees Died (or Are Starving Now)

One of my honey bee colonies starved to death over the winter and I suspect about half of the six colonies still alive are living entirely off the raw sugar I’ve been feeding them since February. There are many reason for this. I gave the colonies some of their own honey but didn’t top them up with sugar syrup in the fall. Some of the colonies were weakened last spring because they swarmed. One colony had a failing queen for most of the year. Another colony was a caught swarm with a virgin queen that didn’t begin laying well until mid-July. Another two colonies were started up from splits (not much different then starting from mid-season nucs). All of the above can significantly reduce a colony’s ability to produce honey, especially considering the short summers in Newfoundland. New policy: Don’t harvest honey from any colony that’s been potentially weakened (from swarming, splitting, etc.). The bees need all the honey they can get. New sub-policy: I’d rather not feed the bees sugar if I can help it, but for now on if I have any doubts, I’ll top them up with sugar syrup in the fall. It’s better than dealing with dead or starving bees in the middle of the winter. Here’s a photo of some bees today that have eaten through most of the sugar I gave them since February:

You can see I added two pollen patties but the sugar is dangerously low. I dumped in more sugar over the pollen patties a few minutes after I took the photo. I’ll have to keep a close eye on all the colonies now, at least until the May dandelions bloom and they can start bringing in nectar and pollen on their own.
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