Listen to experience, not advice. With that in mind, here’s a list of informal articles posted to the mighty Mud Songs since 2010 that might be helpful for anyone on the island of Newfoundland (or in a similar climate) interested in starting up a few honey bee colonies for the pleasure of it. While some of these posts need to be updated with better information, I’m confident most of the information is reliable. Strategies for maximizing production and profit will not be found here. These are some things that have worked for me as a hobbyist beekeeper since 2010. That’s all.
This page was last updated on April 6th, 2016, when I added a link to Beekeeping Books for Beginners.
Beekeeping Books For Beginners — I got into what might be called my beekeeping studies about year before I bought my first hive. I found most of my learning resources online through websites like Honey Bee Suite, Michael Bush, Bee Culture, Beesource and especially David Burns. YouTube videos were extremely helpful as well. A tonne of good (and bad) beekeeping books are also available. In this post I talk about all the ones that happened to have been useful for me.
Beekeeping Start-Up Costs in Newfoundland (as of 2016) — A list of everything most new beekeepers in Newfoundland might need to get through their first year of beekeeping. Expect to spend between $600 and $700 for the first Langstroth hive during the first year, slightly less for subsequent hives, and extremely cheap for people with the woodworking skills to make everyhting themselves. Online beekeeping lessons from David Burns aren’t a bad idea either.
Top Bar Hives — I was tempted by top bar hives when I started because I thought they were more natural (I don’t think there’s such a thing anymore), but decided to go with Langstroths because they were much less hassle to set up and they’re a known quantity in Newfoundland. While I have no experience with top bar hives (though I did go with foundationless frames during my first year, if that matters), the type of hive one chooses to house their bees in probably doesn’t change the fundamental principles of beekeeping in Newfoundland. The bees still need to be fed as much as possible during the first year. Frames still need to be rearranged on occasion to make room for the queen to lay and to prevent swarming, etc. In other words, much of what I talk about on this page can be applied to top bar hives as well.
How To Care For Nucs — Some friendly tips on building up a honey bee colony in Newfoundland from a nuc. With our short and often cold and damp summers, we can’t count on Mother Nature to get our colonies built up strong enough to make it through the winter. “Nuc” is short for nucleus hive, the small beginner 4-frame hive that has to expand to at least 18 frames before winter sets in. I had no problem getting nucs when I started in 2010, but large scale beekeeping operations and the increased popularity of backyard beekeeping now means that nucs can be hard to find. It’s probably best to place nuc orders no later than January. And two are always better than one.
Making Sugar Syrup and Pollen Patties — It’s difficult to establish a honey bee colony from a nuc in most parts of Newfoundland without feeding it sugar syrup. Giving the bees extra pollen doesn’t hurt either. This post explains how and when I mix syrup and what kind of sugar not to use. The video also demonstrates how easy it is to make pollen patties. In another post, I also write about when, why and how I give my bees pollen patties.
Frame Feeders / Division Board Feeders — How I slightly modify and use frame feeders. I began with Boardman feeders, but they attract wasps and ants.
Refilling a Frame Feeder — A video that demonstrates how easy it is to fill a modified frame feeder without disturbing the bees. There’s not much to it, but it’s always good to see exactly how common beekeeping tasks are done. I prefer frame feeders because they’re way cheaper than hive top feeders and can be easily refilled without bothering the bees, and they give first-year beekeepers an excuse to take a peek inside their hives on a regular basis, which I don’t think is a bad thing if done carefully.
Installing a Jar Feeder — Jar feeders aren’t essential to my beekeeping, but everything has its place. Some basic tips on how to make and use a jar feeder. Sometimes what seems obvious isn’t obvious, especially for beginners.
Kill-Free Hive Top Feeder — I have no love for hive top feeders (sometimes called top hive feeders) for all kinds of reasons. One of the reasons: many bees drown in the syrup. Here’s a simple, cheap modification that prevents that. By the way, insert feeders (a cheap, plastic version of a hive top feeder) are a waste of money and fatal when used with nucs.
Dry Sugar Winter Feeding — One of several videos that demonstrates possibly the simplest method for feeding bees in the winter (much easier than mixing up a batch of hard candy). It’s dry sugar poured over newspaper. It’s sometimes referred to as the Mountain Camp Method. A modified version world renowned as The Mud Song Method involves clearing a hole in the middle of the sugar for better ventilation and easier access for the bees.
No-Cook Sugar Bricks — My least favourite aspect of beekeeping is mixing sugar syrup. Cooking sugar syrup to make hard candy is the worst. But here’s the simplest and least messy method of making sugar bricks (or cakes) that can easily be slipped into a hive in the winter without exposing the bees to cold air. Dry sugar is still #1 for me. But if I need to add more sugar after that, something like this is convenient.
Urban Beekeeping Tips — There’s no link to this one. I’m just passing on these guidelines based on my experience with horrible neighbours in St. John’s. This is what I would do if I could turn back time. 1) I would keep the hives hidden and keep them as far as possible from my neighbours’ back door (at least 20 metres or 70 feet). 2) To keep things under control, especially in a small backyard, I wouldn’t have more than three hives. 3) I would make sure not to overfeed my bees after the first summer because overfeeding easily leads to swarming. Honey bees don’t sting while swarming, but neighbours who don’t know that tend to freak out when they see a cloud of bees filling their backyard. 4) I would have a plan for dealing with swarms because, no matter how well they’re managed, the bees will definitely swarm some day. 5) Be warned that honey bees like to poop on shiny cars and it doesn’t come off easily. It can even ruin the finish on some vehicles once it cakes on. Early spring cleansing flights are the worst, but if the bees’ regular flight path in the summer is over a neighbour’s driveway where said neighbour proudly washes his brand new pick-up truck every weekend, that will not be a happy neighbour. People with open-minded neighbours who are glad to have honey bees around can probably relax and won’t need to worry about any of this. See my Urban Beekeeping posts for more info.
How to Reverse Brood Boxes — Reversing the brood boxes isn’t essential, but it supposedly prevents swarming. I like it because it gives me an excuse to do a full inspection to start the year off. I reverse the boxes as soon as the bees start bringing in pollen (around mid-April in Newfoundland if you’re lucky).
Building Frames — Everyone has their own method for building frames. This is what I did for my first few hives. But it’s a bit tedious and not recommended for anyone with more than five hives. Probably fine for beginners though. View Building Bee Hive #1 to see how we built our first hive if you want, but there’s not much to it. No detailed instructions required. This post also includes instructions on how to use and make a frame jig (a little device that speeds up the frame-making process).
How to Paint Beehives — Acrylic latex paint and a brush plus a couple saw horses and some scrap lumber.
Homemade Bottom Board — A bottom board made from scrap wood I found in my shed. It’s the cheapest and easiest hive part I’ve made. I’ll never order another bottom board again. I’ve been using this thing, along with my other slapped together bottom boards, for a few years now. It’s ugly but the bees don’t care. It works as good as any industrial made bottom board I own.
Homemade Screened Bottom Board — Exactly like the other homemade bottom board, only with a big hole cut in the bottom and a screen stapled over it. I wouldn’t say it’s essential, but during the peak of summer when the honey flows are flying high, the screened bottom board greatly relieves the humidity inside the hive, which makes it easier for the bees to make honey. This is a very rough version of a screened bottom board, but it works. Another thought: I also make inner covers and top covers (which are absurdly expensive to buy because of shipping costs) and I do it with zero carpentry skills and scrap wood. A piece of old plywood with a rock on top of it can pass for a top cover. It might not look like the Taj Mahal, but it doesn’t matter to the bees one bit.
Making a Ventilator Rim — I’ve learned that proper ventilation is essential for a healthy hive. This cheap and easy-to-make ventilator rim (a.k.a. a ventilation eke) goes a long way. It also doesn’t take much work to convert it into a moisture quilt (similar to a quilt box), which for my money is the best (and most affordable) ventilation aid ever invented. I use my moisture quilts all-year round.
Feeding Bees Crystallized Honey — Got left over honey that’s crystallized in the jar? Feed it back to the bees. They love it.
Mouse-Proofing a Hive with Mesh — A cheap and easy way to keep mice out of the hive over the winter. Remember to get the mesh on early, well before winter sets in. A mouse in a hive can devastate a colony. (I plan to use quarter-inch mesh as of 2015, because shrews can get in through the half-inch mesh.)
Shrew-Proofing a Hive with Mesh — Mice are a walk in the park compared to shrews. I lost 75% of my colonies in the winter of 2015 from shrew predation. That’s why I cover all the entrances to my hives in the winter with 6mm (quarter-inch) mesh to keep shrews out. I’ve created a category just for shrews. This information is absolutely essential.
Attaching Mesh with Thumb Tacks — It is what it says it is. A staple gun disturbs the bees. Thumb tacks don’t.
Wrapping Hives for Winter — Most beekeepers in Newfoundland wrap their hives for winter sometime in November. A Type 15 asphalt felt does the trick. I don’t wrap mine anymore because my hives are well-sheltered and I’m not convinced wrapping is necessary for fully established healthy colonies. But most new beekeepers would rather play it safe, so go for it.
Making Insulated Inner Hive Covers — These insulated inner hive covers reduce condensation from building up inside the hive, which is essential for winter survival. It’s the dampness that kills the bees, not the cold. A simple piece of R-7.5 hard insulation over the inner cover seems equally as effective. I’ve since replaced these with moisture quilts, but in some climates (e.g., areas that are nowhere near Logy Bay in Newfoundland, which might be one of the dampest, foggiest places anywhere), hard insulation is probably fine.
How To Prepare Your Beehives for Winter — A long rambling post that shows how I prepare my hives for winter as of 2015.
Monitoring Bees With a Stethoscope — I use a $7 stethoscope to listen to my bees in the winter, more or less to check if they’re still alive. It works.
Dealing With Wasps — Established colonies can defend off wasps, but here’s the wasp trap I use to kill them.
Water Dish for Bees — I don’t think beekeepers in Newfoundland need to worry about their bees dying of thirst. But here’s an easy, pretty way to give them water.
How To Move a Hive — Illustrated step-by-step instructions on how to move a Langstroth hive a short distance. Includes a video that shows how the bees react to having their hive moved.
Cut Comb + Crushed & Strained Bottled Honey — A video (with photos) that demonstrates how we made cut comb (that’s raw honey comb) and crushed the honey out of some comb and then bottled it, all very low tech in the simplicity of our kitchen. Also see Making Sloppy Cut Comb and Crushing and Straining a Small Batch of Honey for an even lower tech method that anyone can do. Extracted honey from conventional frames with plastic foundation can give you more honey, but it’s not nearly as much fun as cutting raw comb off a foundationless frame and biting into it. Once you’ve done that, you’ll realize it was all worth it.
EpiPen — The dark side of beekeeping is that some people, even people who have been stung many times before, can have an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting that is life-threatening. I always have an EpiPen near by just to be safe.
Hive Tool For The Colourblind — I wrap yellow duct tape around the middle of red hive tools so they’re easier to find when I drop them in the grass, which I do all the time.
Finally I offer up an online tool for mapping the forage area of honey bees. It’s not essential, but it’s fun as a beekeeper to imagine where my honey bees are going every day.
Postscript: My intention for the mighty Mud Songs blog is to share my experiences in beekeeping in a manner that might allow others to learn from those experiences without being told what to do. I say this because the best beekeeping teachers I’ve had don’t give advice. They share their knowledge by saying things like, “Sometimes I do this and it works.” Enthusiastic novice beekeepers, on the other hand, easily turn into self-appointed authorities on beekeeping after absorbing everything they can about beekeeping. They’ve never had to deal with swarms, mice, shrews, ants, wasps, starving colonies, freezing colonies, failing queens, defensive bees, vandalism, unfriendly neighbours and so on. Their opinions are not tempered by experience, but that doesn’t stop them from giving advice. I can spot them a mile away because I used to be one of them when I first started beekeeping in 2010. I learned quickly, however, that the knowledge gained from actually beekeeping is astonishing and humbling compared to what I’d learned from my research on beekeeping (and it still is). Although doing my homework is important, I’ve learned there are few absolutes in beekeeping and there is plenty of room for every beekeeper to discover through their own experiences what works best for them and their bees.
Please note that I’m gradually editing many of the early posts where I was cocky enough to give advice like I knew what I was talking about.