I got an email from a first-year beekeeper today asking if she should reverse the brood boxes of her hive before winter. Assuming she’s working with the standard configuration of a Langstroth hive (two deep supers for the brood chamber), I said no, that I have no idea why anyone would reverse the brood boxes before winter.

The bees usually cluster close to the bottom of the hive as the weather turns cold in the fall. They gradually move up to the top of the hive throughout the winter as they eat through their winter stores of honey. Some beekeepers reverse the brood boxes (the deep supers) in the spring in an effort prevent swarming. That means the top deep, containing the brood nest that has worked its way into the top of the hive over the winter, is moved to the bottom of the hive, and the deep that used to be on the bottom, and is now empty of bees and honey, is placed on top, above the brood nest. The empty comb in the new top deep above the brood nest supposedly, in theory, more or less, or so we’re told, frees up space for the queen to lay and thus reduces the likelihood of swarming.

But that ain’t necessarily so. Just because the bees spend the winter moving to the top of the hive doesn’t mean they don’t have enough sense in the spring to move back to the bottom where there’s plenty of room for the queen to lay and for the workers to start making honey. That’s what natural colonies living in a hollow tree do. That’s what colonies living in Warré hives usually do. And I’ve heard from numerous beekeepers who say colonies living in Langstroth hives are no different and that reversing the brood boxes in the spring does little to prevent swarming. I can’t argue with that because in the three years that I’ve been reversing my brood boxes, I’ve had exactly 50% of those colonies swarm on me.

Most of my swarms have occurred for one reason: Neglect. That and my own idealism. I don’t buy into the “let the bees be bees” mantra, but I probably still hold on to a few idealistic notions when the cold hard facts would serve me much better. (I doubt I’m the first beekeeper to be defeated by their idealism. Nothing is more idealized than beekeeping.) Ideally, I don’t like to disturb the brood nest if I don’t have to. But I’ve learned through experience that the bees prepare for swarming in my area around the month of May, give or take a week or two — and THAT is when I shouldn’t hesitate to disturb the brood nest if I have to. That’s when I should check for swarm cells. That’s when I might try some checkerboarding. That’s when I should add empty comb to the brood nest to give the queen immediate space for laying, or empty frames to give the worker bees something else to do other than prepare for swarming. With the right timing, it’s not too difficult to reduce the chances of swarming. But I’m not sure reversing the brood chamber is the answer.

However, for me at least, it’s not a bad place to start because it gives me a chance to do the year’s first (and only) full inspection of the colony, and it makes most of the subsequent inspections of the year much easier and less invasive. Allow me to elaborate…
Read on . . . »

July 26th, 2014

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.)
Read on . . . »

July 25th, 2014

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…
Read on . . . »

July 20th, 2014

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.

Sept. 22/14: 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.

AN UPDATE WAS ADDED TO THE END OF THIS POST ON JUNE 24, 2013.

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:
Read on . . . »

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.
Read on . . . »

July 16th, 2012

Our honey bee hives now reside on an organic farm in St. Philip’s, Newfoundland, about a 25-minute drive from where we live in St. John’s. Here they are on the edge of a cornfield:

Here’s a closer less old timey view:
Read on . . . »

July 2nd, 2012

One of our hives swarmed about two weeks ago on June 17th. We caught it and hived it with no trouble (it’s nice when things go smoothly). We gave the new hive some syrup and then some frames of honey from another hive. I dropped by with some friends today just to take a quick peek and we spotted all kinds of fresh brood — and the queen. Here’s the video (the queen shows up at the 0:45 mark):


All our videos can be played back in 720p HD. I don’t know why 360p is the default setting.

The hive that swarmed two weeks ago should have swarmed with the old marked queen, but this queen isn’t marked. I’m not sure what to think of that. All I know is the hive has a mated queen that’s laying well. It’s hard to see in the video, but the queen is light coloured with distinctive rings on her abdomen similar to an Italian queen, but who knows. Whatever is going on, I’m happy to see it. Watching a young hive get on its feet and do well is more rewarding than trying to deal with our monster hives that have been swarming or on the verge of swarming for the past couple months.

P.S., I use the term “hive” and “colony” interchangeably. I shouldn’t because they’re two different things. Hive is another word for house — the boxes, the hollow logs, the sheltered enclosures where the bees live. Colony refers to the actual family of bees that live in the hive with the queen bee, the worker bees and the drones. They’re like The Borg Collective, all working together as one big happy colony. But in speaking to a general audience, most people know what I’m talking about when I say hive. So I just say hive.

UPDATE (July 17/12): See What Does a Honey Bee Queen Look Like for another good look at a queen.

June 30th, 2012

Here’s a quick two-clip video that shows some of what we had to deal with today.

The first brief clip shows a monster hive after we did a full inspection of it and thoroughly riled up the bees. It’s a swarmed hive with a newly mated queen (which we spotted). It’s full of uncapped honey and very little brood. We pulled some honey frames to give the queen more room to lay, but I’m not sure what we’re going to do next. We found swarm cells in two other hives. The second clip shows one of the swarm cells. The other hive with swarm cells had about half a dozen capped cells. Lovely. We have a swarm trap out and we took other swarm prevention measures. But we’ll see how it goes next week. We have three mated queens coming in. I hope requeening calms the bees down. The past 40 days have been exhausting. We’ve done everything we can to keep the bees in check, but they’re on fire.

June 26th, 2012

One of our honey bee colonies swarmed into a tree last week. We caught it and put it in a new hive with a small frame feeder and three frames of empty drawn comb so the queen could start laying right away. We checked on it yesterday and here’s a video that shows what we found (it’s doing well):

It’s not the greatest video, but it shows how things are working out for us since we moved the hives from our backyard to a place in the country. I won’t say exactly where we moved the hives, but anyone familiar with farms around St. John’s probably won’t have a hard time guessing correctly.

A couple notes about the video: 1) I got lazy with making my improvised ventilated inner covers. I came up with an equally effective but much easier to make version of the same thing at the 3:19 mark in the video. We haven’t tested it much yet, but I’ll write up a more detailed post for it later if it works. 2) The hived swarm probably doesn’t need two deeps just yet (and probably doesn’t need the extra ventilation), but swarms are known for building up fast. We gave them the extra hive box in case we can’t make it out next week. We’ll keep feeding the hive now just like we would with a nuc.

Continued on with Queen in a Hived Swarm.

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