How I Prepare My Beehives For Winter

    The following was originally posted on December 7th, 2015, but was edited and updated on October 27th, 2016, to reflect my current practices, such as they are.

Something weird happened. I got several emails from people asking me what I do to prepare my hives for winter.

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.

I’m no expert, but here’s what I do, and what I do could change entirely by this time next week.

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 is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?”
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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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Unpolished Queen Cups Are Okay

I freaked out a bit when I first saw a queen cup because I didn’t know what it was. I thought my bees were about swarm and that perhaps I should destroy the queen cups. But if a colony is about to swarm or replace its failing queen (two good reasons to create new queens), destroying the queen cups won’t make much difference. It could even make things worse.

A queen cup is the first stage of a queen cell, a big fat peanut-looking cell specifically designed for raising a new queen. The cell points down instead of sideways. Most honey bee colonies build queen cups just in case they need to create a new queen. But most of the time, at least if the beekeeper is paying attention, nothing happens. The cups are left unused.

I don’t destroy queen cups because they provide the easiest place to check for possible swarming. Here’s a quick video where I blab on about that.

The obvious clue is royal jelly or brood in the queen cups. But I’ve also noticed that the bees seem to clean and polish the insides of the queen cups in preparation for the current queen to lay in it, not unlike what they do with regular brood cells. Whenever I add a frame of drawn comb to a hive, the first thing the worker bees do is clean out every cell because the queen won’t lay in a dirty cell. Anyone who has ever observed a laying queen will have noticed that she sticks her head deep into every cell and inspects it carefully before she deposits the egg. If the surface of the cell isn’t shiny and clean, she moves on. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed the bees shining up the insides of the queen cups before a swarm, but I’ve seen it enough times to say, yup, that seems to be thing.

Orienting Bees or Swarmy Bees?

My one and only hive that I might be able to steal honey from this year. Door #1: Orientation flights (after being stuck inside for a day and a half). Door #2: A swarm on the way.

I pick Door #1. I also pick Door #3 if the bees are making lots of honey behind that door.

Later that evening…

It was a hot day and the bees were sort of bearding at the bottom entrance. I’m not concerned about swarming because I checked this hive for signs of swarming about every two weeks for the past few months. I’d rather leave the bees alone, but I’d also rather not have to deal with swarms if I don’t have to. Anyhoo…

I also removed three frames of brood from the top deep about ten days ago and replaced them with empty drawn comb. I also pulled out a heavy frame of pollen from the bottom deep, one of several heavy frames that I found, and replaced it with a foundationless frame. And that’s why I’m not too concerned about this colony swarming any time soon, despite the fairly large number of bees floating around the front of the hive in the first video clip.

Removing the frames of brood reduced the number of bees in the hive, thus relieving congestion, giving the queen’s pheromones more room to flow around the hive and make everybody happy. Replacing the frames with empty drawn comb gave the queen room to lay, which is pretty much always a good thing. The foundationless frame in the bottom box gave the bees space to fill in, not just a blank frame of foundation, but actual empty space that they will be compelled to fill in to maintain the wonderful bee space that dictates the design of the best beehives all over the world. Building comb to fill in that space instead of building swarms cells — that’s what I want to see. Thus, I’m not concerned about swarming.

A night shot of some bees ventilating the bottom entrance. (August 08, 2016.)

A night shot of some bees ventilating the bottom entrance. (August 08, 2016.)

My plan is to leave this hive alone until the fall when I remove the honey supers. I may take a peek at some of the honey frames once in a while to see how they’re coming along, but the brood nest will be left untouched.

By the fall, the will have made two medium supers full of honey for me and will have enough honey in the brood chamber for themselves to stay alive all winter. That’s what I call good beekeeping… if it works.

Lemongrass Oil as a Swarm Lure

I’ve heard for a long time that lemongrass oil is an excellent swarm lure. A few drops inside a swarm box full of old drone comb and the bees will be all over it.

Food grade lemongrass oil and other essential oils are used for mixing with pollen patties and syrup. NOTE: The lemongrass oil pictured here is not food grade, but the bees aren't eating it, so that's not a problem.

The lemongrass oil pictured here is not food grade quality, but that’s not a problem because the bees aren’t eating it.

So I went ahead and got myself some lemongrass oil ($5 at my local Bulk Barn), sprinkled five or six drops of it on some old comb (drone comb, comb with patches of honey, etc.) and set up a few swarm boxes. And within hours the bees were all over them.

Honey bees attracted by lemon grass oil. (June 15, 2016.)

Honey bees attracted by lemon grass oil. (June 15, 2016.)


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Swarm Prevention by Not Overfeeding and Making Room for the Queen

In my experience, it’s important to constantly feed the bees during the first year (in Newfoundland), but it’s also important to stop feeding them at a certain point in the spring so they don’t swarm. When I find drone comb gunking up the bottom of the frames in the spring, that’s my cue that the colony could potentially swarm. Queens can’t mate without drones. That’s why the first swarms usually coincide with the flight of the first drones. I could be wrong about all of this, but from what I’ve seen with my bees, it’s true. A colony won’t swarm without drones.

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

If the bees have two or three solid frames of honey in every box — enough to prevent them from starving — and drone comb is present, then I stop feeding. I don’t feed my bees if they have enough honey on their own anyway, and unless it’s a weak colony, I don’t usually feed past May 31st either because there’s usually enough natural nectar sources available by then (in my local climate), especially in the city of St. John’s that is heavily populated by maple trees. I also check my hives at least every two weeks until the end of June to make sure the queen has room to lay. Most beekeeping (beyond feeding) can be summed up with that one sentence: Make sure the queen has room to lay.

This video is from an April 2013 post.
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How to Do The First Hive Inspection of the Year

For any first-year beekeepers in Newfoundland (or a similar climate) wondering what they might find during their first hive inspection of the year (which usually falls somewhere between late April and mid-May), here’s a video of my first hive inspection in 2011 that shows a fairly healthy colony coming out of winter, one that allowed me to steal a boat load of honey from it later that summer (though I may have had to feed it for a few weeks to give it a boost; I don’t remember).

I found honey on the outside frames, some pollen mixed in and then capped and open brood spread out over five or six frames in the middle. I might have been concerned with one or two frames of brood (though queenright colonies with zero brood as late as May 15th isn’t unheard of) but five or six frames of brood during the first week of May is pretty good for my local climate. (None of my colonies are doing as well this year. They’re still recovering from The Attack of The Shrews.) The hive body underneath was more or less empty.

These days I’m usually much faster with my inspections, but overall the video demonstrates how I still inspect (and reverse) my hives every spring. I have a more detailed video in the works, but for now I’ll break it down like this (assuming we’re dealing with a 2-deep Langstroth hive and it’s a warm, windless sunny day somewhere between 11am and 2pm):
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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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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 Honey Super Suddenly Full of Bees (Update: Ain’t No Thing)

SHORT VERSION: I was concerned when I saw a medium honey super suddenly crowded with bees. It turns that’s nothing to worry about.

LONG VERSION: I have one colony this year that isn’t in sad shape and might make some honey that I can eventually steal. The average high temperature for July where I live was 15°C (59°F), and that’s mostly with rain and fog. Honey bees that can make honey under such conditions are miracles workers. Yet I noticed bees in this one hive showing up in the honey super about a week ago and then today, just now, I found this above the honey super:

2015-08-01 19.37.41

That’s a view of the bees through a screen at the bottom of an empty moisture quilt, essentially a screened inner cover and ventilation rim. Anyway, the bees are crowded up over the top bars in the honey super, pushing themselves into the screen of the empty moisture quilt. That’s a full blown cluster of bees, not just a few hundred workers showing interest in a honey super.
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