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.

When and Why I Still Reverse My Brood Boxes

When I reverse the brood boxes, usually some time in April, I don’t just pull the hive apart and reverse the positions of the deeps. (That’s an easy way to squish the queen, by the way.) I set up an empty deep next to the hive and, if it’s warm enough, carefully inspect each frame before I move it into the new bottom deep. No heavy lifting required. But more importantly, this allows me to assess the strength of the colony going into the new season and make adjustments on the spot if necessary. I will add drawn comb to the brood nest if the cluster looks like it needs room. I will add frames of honey or pollen if the bees are starving for it. I will give them frames of brood from another colony if they’re weak. In short, I will take whatever action is required to get the bees started on the right path for the new season.

Drone comb split open after lifting up the top brood box for the first time this year. (May 05, 2012.)

Drone comb split open after lifting up the top brood box for the first time this year. (May 05, 2012.)


Then for the rest of the year, because I know exactly what condition the colony was in at the beginning of the year, I’ll be able to assess the strength of the colony without having to dig into the bottom deep and disturb the brood nest every time I do an inspection. Are the bees filling frames in the top box with pollen? Is the brood nest straddling the deeps? I can tell a lot from looking down into a hive where the brood nest has been working its way up from the bottom.

It’s more difficult when the brood nest has been working it’s way from the top down. It’s more work, at least for me it is. I usually end up having to lift the top deep, essentially separating it from the bottom half of the hive, and potentially splitting up the brood nest, so I can see what’s going on in the bottom, to see how much the cluster has moved down and so on. In my book, that’s too much work and too disruptive. It’s much easier and less disruptive to the brood nest — if it’s seated in the bottom deep — to pull out a few frames in the top deep and look down to figure out what’s going on — and I never have to lift a deep or potentially split the brood nest if its straddling the deeps.

That’s why I reverse the brood boxes on most of my hives sometime in April. It doesn’t necessarily reduce the chances of a swarm, but it gives me an excuse to carefully inspect and assess the strength of the colony and perform future inspections with greater ease and less disruption to the brood nest.

I could be singing a different tune by this time next year, or even this time next week, but for now, this is where my experience with reversing the brood boxes has led me.

————

Reversing Brood Boxes (Video).
Checkers, Anyone? (Checkerboarding).
Reversing brood boxes: is it necessary?
How to checkerboard a hive.
Reversing brood boxes: when and why.

Crush and Strain Honey: The 3-Bucket Method

    WARNING: Plastic buckets from the hardware store contain BFA, a substance that is generally not good for humans. I doubt much BFA would get into the honey in this process because the honey isn’t stored in the plastic. It mostly just passes through the plastic funnels and sits in the plastic bucket for less than a day. But still, stainless steel or food-grade plastic buckets are preferable. Honey meant for public consumption should never come in contact with non-food-grade plastic.

I recently crushed and strained about 6 litres of liquid honey (about 1.6 US gallons) from a medium honey super. I followed what some called the 3-bucket method, which I’ve demonstrated before, except I didn’t do it properly the first time. This time I did it right and it worked perfectly. The process is explained with labelled photos below. Basically you pour the crushed comb honey into a bucket with holes it, which drains into a bucket with a paint strainer on it. Then you bottle your honey.

Honey with crushed comb dripping from top bucket into bucket with holes, then straining into bottom bucket. (Oct. 07, 2014.)

Honey with crushed comb dripping from top bucket (bucket #1) into a bucket with holes (bucket #2), then straining into a bottom bucket (bucket#3). (Oct. 07, 2014.)


I recommend this method for hobbyist beekeepers with a small number of hives. Comb honey is the best, but for liquid honey, crush-and-strained in my experience tastes and feels better than extracted honey. The fact that the honey strains through the beeswax, much of flavour of the wax — which is a huge component of natural honey — isn’t lost like it would be with extracted honey.

P.S. (July 25/15): I also posted a video called Cutting and Bottling Honey that’s been viewed 645,113 times as of today. Which reminds me, perhaps I should monetize my YouTube videos.)
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Preview of Do-It-Yourself Escape Boards

Escape boards are used to separate the bees from the honey, kind of a necessary step before harvesting honey. So… I went ahead and made myself some escape boards, also known as clearer boards and possibly known as bee escapes. Here’s a shot of the first one I made:

2014-10-07 17.17.37

And it only took me three and a half hours. I didn’t have a model to copy or plans to follow. I sort of smacked them together on the spot using nothing but my brain and some pitiful carpentry skills. The next three boards took about 30 minutes each and the final collection looked like this:

2014-09-29 18.35.34

I won’t post a video or any plans that show how I made the escape boards yet because I want to make sure they work first and I’d rather fine tune the process before I say, “Hey kids, follow me!” This post is just a preview of what’s to come.
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A Mouse Chews Into a Frame of Honey and says, “Oh yeah, that’s it.”

I had some frames of honey stored in a swarm trap in my shed and a mouse found a way in and probably came back night after night and had a feast. Here’s a photo of a frame of honey that’s been partially eaten by the mouse:

mouse-honey-2014-09-29 09.43.33

Here’s the view from the other side of the frame. You can see how the mouse chewed through the plastic foundation and the wood of the frame.

mouse-honey-2014-09-29 09.43
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How to Decap Honey Frames with a Heat Gun

I thought I’d put a quick spotlight on something I’ve only mentioned in passing before (and that allows me to recycle some old videos): Decapping honey frames with a heat gun instead of a decapping knife.

    For anyone who came late: Honey bees store honey in wax cells like little Mason jars. Mason jars aren’t cheap and neither are the lids, so the bees simply seal them with wax. These wax lids are called caps. When the bees get hungry for honey, they chew threw the wax caps and dig in. When humans get hungry for the honey, they can’t chew open the comb because that’d be silly. Instead they remove the wax caps with a long straight blade sometimes referred to as a decapping knife. Then they put the frames full of opened honey combs into a machine called an extractor that whips the honey out of the cells through the use of centrifugal force — by spinning it really fast. The honey then drips down into a bucket and the humans eat it.

I’ve used a heat gun instead of a decapping knife for three seasons now and I love it because:

1) It’s cheap as dirt. An electric decapping knife goes for about $150 before taxes and shipping. I paid $30 for my heat gun.

2) It’s quick and easy to use and it doesn’t leave behind any kind of mess. An electric decapping knife requires careful attention so you don’t burn yourself or the honey, and although it may be a little quicker to use once you get used to it, it makes a mess. You’re left with honey and wax to clean up afterwards. Some people don’t mind all that left over wax. They use it make a variety of creams and cosmetic products. But I don’t.

Decapping a frame of honey with a hot knife. (Oct. 1, 2011.)

Decapping a frame of honey with a hot knife. (Oct. 1, 2011.)


I’ve had no problems extracting honey from frames that were decapped with a heat gun (and the bees have no problem refilling the frames afterwards). Sometimes I scrape the caps with a fork as well (yup, a regular old kitchen fork) just to be sure the caps are unsealed. That takes an additional three seconds. Big deal. So this is me, Phillip, the curator of all beekeeping things a la Mud Songs, giving a big thumbs up to depcapping honey frames with a $30 heat gun instead of a messy $150 decapping knife.
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Floral Fidelity in Honey

    The following was updated on November 22nd, 2016.

Here’s an example of why I go out of my way not to mix honey from different hives.

2-honeys-02

The honey on the right was taken from one hive, and it tastes heathery. The honey on the left was taken from another hive, and it has a more earthy flavour. Both were harvested on the same day. The two hives are about 2 metres apart (7 feet), but the bees from each hive favoured different nectar sources, which resulted in slightly different honey from each hive. The favouring of specific pollen and nectar sources is called floral fidelity. The bees find an abundant nectar source and they stick with it instead of wasting time jumping from one type of flower to another. That’s why you’ll often see a flowering tree loaded down with honey bees while at the same time not a single bee goes anywhere near your beautiful Forget-Me-Nots. The results of floral fidelity are lost in most large beekeeping operations that have to blend all their honeys together. Not me.
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The Meanest Bees

I’ve had a detailed series of practical beekeeping videos in the works for several months. They’ll be great when I get them done. But I don’t have time to work on them due to other commitments. I can’t say when I’ll have them ready. In the meantime, I can only offer up short videos like this one that show me doing things that aren’t really instructive but may be of interest to a handful of beekeepers. Let ‘er rip:

Now the details…
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Honey Bees Don’t Like Black

A honey bee from a normally friendly colony stung me in the arm today because I was wearing a black t-shirt. I often wear minimal or no protective clothing around this particular colony because I know the bees are not at all defensive (not at this time of the year, anyway). Today was no different, except I forgot I was wearing a black t-shirt. As soon as I opened the hive, I noticed a few bees zig-zagging back and forth like they were hyped up on caffeine — not at all a relaxed flight pattern. Once the bees start whipping around like wasps, it’s time to turn around and leave. Come back later with a veil and gloves and a smoker if you got one. But I thought, “Nah, these bees —f%$#@!” Zap, right under the sleeve of my t-shirt. The little bugger got me good.

I’ve been told many times not to wear black around honey bees because, supposedly, honey bees have evolved to be more defensive around anything big and black. Most creatures in the natural world that are big and black (e.g., black bears) are a threat to honey bee colonies. When honey bees see something big and black coming their way, it’s usually better for them to sting now and ask questions later.

Big black bear detailed ursus americanus

I’ve heard how the bees will even sting the ankles of people wearing black socks, but I wear black boots every time I’m around my bees and I’ve never seen them go for the boots. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t take much stock in these particular campfire stories — until day. My single experience of wearing a black t-shirt and getting stung for the first time around some bees that aren’t normally defensive isn’t much of a data set. It can’t be used to arrive at any kind of scientific conclusion. But I’d rather not wait for science if it means I have to get stung a few more times in order to prove the black bear hypothesis. Getting stung once is enough. I’m a believer. I won’t wear anything black around my bees again.

August 08/14: For the sake of science, I wore black and then white around the same hive of bees. The bees came in for the sting while I was wearing black and ignored me while I was wearing white. Case closed. Closed enough, anyway.