A Tip of The Hat to BroodMinder, But…

I’ve been asked many times now what I think of BroodMinder, a new device that monitors the temperature and humidity of a beehive through use of a cell phone app and sells for sixty bucks American. I haven’t written about it before because I don’t have much to say about it. But here’s what I have to say for anyone who’s dying to know.

A pair of patented Mud Songs beehives. (January 11, 2015 in Logy Bay, NL.)

A pair of patented Mud Songs beehives. (January 11, 2015 in Logy Bay, NL.)

I think the BroodMinder is really neat. (Please feel free to quote me on that.) I wouldn’t hesitate to install the BroodMinder device on one or all of my hives. I would love to add temperature and humidity readings to the observational data on my hives. The BroodMinder readings might not make any difference to how I keep my bees in the winter (or the summer), but more knowledge about what’s going on inside the hive is usually a good thing (usually). So yeah, it sounds great. I’m all for it.

But it’s not going to happen for me because I don’t want to spend almost another $80 in Canadian cash on each of my hives if I don’t have to. That’s about $400 to cover all five of my hives (and I expect to max out at about ten hives in a year or two). Even $80 for one BroodMinder is too much for something that isn’t essential to my beekeeping. So although I like BroodMinder and I support it in theory and would love to try it out in the real world, it’s a pass for me.

P.S.: I’m well aware of the perception that beekeeping as a hobby is, in essence, a money pit, and I have to confess a bias towards beekeeping practices that save money, not ones that cost more money. Not that the BroodMinder is overpriced for what it does, and I admire the efforts of the people behind it, but it’s one of many items that most hobbyist beekeepers on a budget (like me) probably don’t need.

Bees Not Eating Dry Sugar (Because I Didn’t Steal Their Honey)

It’s time for my traditional New Year’s Eve action-packed post about nothing. Stand back, because here it comes.

SHORT VERSION: The bees in only one of my five hives are eating the dry sugar I gave them a little over a month ago. The rest are still well below the top bars probably because I didn’t take any honey this year and I fed them massive amounts of sugar syrup before winter. At least I hope that’s the reason.

LONG VERSION: I dumped dry sugar into my five 3-deep Langstroth hives a month ago. The bees were so deep down in the hives, they barely noticed the sugar. Two weeks later I cleared a hole in the middle of the sugar (like I should have done from the start) and added pollen patties to two hives with small clusters. But even then, most of the bees didn’t seem too hungry for the sugar. Today only one of the five hives shows any sign of eating the sugar. Here it is:

Honey bees inside a 3-deep Langstroth hive eating dry sugar over newspaper that was added a month ago. (December 31, 2015, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

Honey bees inside a 3-deep Langstroth hive eating dry sugar over newspaper that was added a month ago. (December 31, 2015, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

The bees in all the other hives seem to be well below the sugar. Most of them came above the top bars (i.e., the top of the hive) after I cleared a hole in the sugar, but within a week they were back down below. What does it mean?

It doesn’t mean anything, but I don’t take it as a bad sign. I didn’t steal honey from any of my hives this year and I went through almost 100kg of sugar (220 pounds) to make syrup for them (building most of them up from a couple of measly frames of brood). The goal was to make sure the hives had as much sugar syrup and honey as the bees could pack into them before going into winter. And I think it worked. Most of the colonies aren’t eating the dry sugar because they don’t need it. They already have enough honey to stay alive — because I made sure they had as much as they could get before winter. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

It’s nice when things work out the way you planned them.

Happy new year.

FEBRUARY 14, 2016: This has been my first winter in three years where I’ve been able to monitor my bees on a daily basis. I’m learning a lot. I feel like a first-year beekeeper again. I’ve noticed the bees in all the hives but one were clustered well below the top bars. On warms days, though, they rise to the top of their hives. When the weather turns cold again, they go back down. The bees in one hive have yet to rise above the top bars. They’re clustered so low, I can’t even see them through the top bars. I assume they have an abundance of sugar or honey frames.

Honey Bees Discard Dry Sugar Sometimes (UPDATED)

The tricky bit with feeding honey bees dry sugar in the winter is that they will sometimes discard it from the hive like they would with any other kind of debris.

Discard dry sugar. (Dec. 19, 2015.)

Discarded dry sugar? Maybe. Maybe not. (Dec. 19, 2015.)

It can take up to week for dry sugar to harden from naturally occurring moisture inside the hive after it’s been added. If it’s warm enough for the bees to move around during that week, there’s a good chance they’ll start hauling the sugar out of the hive, or at least drop it down to the bottom of the hive. I’ve seen it many times. It’s an extra little mess to clean out of the hives in the spring, but that’s fine with me. I’d rather deal with that than starved out bees.

Something similar to a no-cook candy board would probably prevent this because the sugar is a semi-solid block that isn’t going anywhere. Spraying down the newspaper and the sugar while adding the dry sugar might help harden the sugar faster too. Not that adding moisture to a hive is usually a good thing, but I use moisture quilts that quickly wick away any excess moisture, so it’s not much of a concern for me.

DECEMBER 20, 2015 (UPDATE): I think I jumped the gun in writing this post. I still suspect the bees will clear out the dry sugar like they would with any debris. But the photo I posted may not be evidence of that. Let’s clarify this situation…
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Attaching Mesh With Thumb Tacks (Instead of Staples)

I removed the shrew-proofing mesh from my hives yesterday so I could clear out the dead bees that have accumulated so far this winter. I reattached the mesh afterwards with the use of a staple gun that produces a loud bang that vibrates through the hive and riles up the bees. But this comment changed everything:

“Would it be possible to secure it [the mesh] with drawing pins rather than staples?”

It’s absolutely possible. I did it today, just five minutes ago.

One of three thumb tacks used to attach shrew-proofing mesh to hive. (Dec. 13, 2015.)

One of three thumb tacks used to attach shrew-proofing mesh to a hive. (Dec. 13, 2015.)

The thumbs tacks / drawing pins / push pins work just as well as staples as far as I can tell. That mesh isn’t going anywhere.

Three green thumb tacks (instead of staples) used to attach mesh over bottom entrance. (Dec. 13, 2015.)

Three green thumb tacks (instead of staples) used to attach mesh over bottom entrance. (Dec. 13, 2015.)

Now I can easily remove the mesh, clean out the dead bees and reattach the mesh without bothering the bees. I thought I might need to find a different method for keeping the shrews out of my hive for next year. Not anymore. The mesh attached with thumb tacks instead of staples works perfectly. At least that’s my story for now.

Thanks for the tip, Emily.

Dry Sugar With a Hole In It

I’ve been feeding my bees in the winter for a while now by pouring dry sugar on newspaper over the top bars. Some people refer to this style of feeding as the Mountain Camp Method. I like it because it’s the quickest and easiest method for feeding bees in my particular winter climate.

2 kg of dry sugar over the top bars.

Bees eating dry sugar via the Mountain Camp Method.

Although I’ve never had any problems with it, there is some room for improvement. Some people only put newspaper over the back two-thirds of the top bars so that the front is left open for better airflow. That’s an excellent tweak to the method and it works. There’s no urgent need to change it. However, in my experience, the cluster usually breaks through the top bars in the middle and spreads out from there. Most of the moisture — or humid air from the bees’ respiration — flows up from the middle as well. My little tweak is to create a hole in the middle of the sugar for better ventilation and to give the bees easier access to the sugar.

Dry sugar over newspaper with a hole in the middle. (Dec. 12, 2015.)

Dry sugar over newspaper with a hole in the middle. These bees have about 40kg of honey stores. The sugar is a precaution. (Dec. 12, 2015.)


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Mapping Honey Bee Forage Area

Do you ever wonder where your honey bees go to collect nectar and pollen? I do. I spend hours watching my bees come and go from my beeyard. I still don’t know where they go, but I know what direction they head when they leave and what direction they come back from. My hives are surrounded by trees. I can look up at a certain tree top at a certain time of day and see hundreds of bees a minute whizzing past one another like cars on a freeway. That particular tree, which happens to be a single dog berry tree in a thick ring of spruce trees, seems to be a visual marker for the bees that says, “This is home.” It’s a hub of honey bee traffic. But I digress.

I don’t know exactly where my bees go to get nectar and pollen, but a free online tool, that came to my attention via Happy Hour at the Top Bar, allows me to map out the potential forage area of my bees. Let’s cut to the chase:

Go to FreeMapTools.com and click the link for “Radius Around Point,” or the map underneath it that looks like this:


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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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A Real Life Demonstration of Feeding Honey Bees Dry Sugar

I usually pour dry sugar over newspaper into my Langstroth honey bee hives so the bees have something to eat just in case they run out of honey during the winter. Some people refer to it as the Mountain Camp Method, but I’m pretty sure beekeepers have been pouring dry sugar into their hives long before Mr Camp came along and popularized it. I’ll call it Dry Sugar Feeding for now on. In any case, it may not be the best method for feeding bees over the winter, but it works well for me and that’s what matters most. I like it because it’s the easiest method I’ve ever tried and it may be better for the bees than hard candy or candy boards. Do a little research on Hydroxymethylfurfural and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

2 kg of dry sugar over the top bars.

2 kg of dry sugar over the top bars.

When I first fed my bees dry sugar, I waited until January or February when the bees, if they were low on honey, would cover most of the top bars in the hive. But waiting that long is a pain in the butt for all kinds of reasons, so now I put the sugar in long before the bees really need it — just like I did today. Here’s an 11-minute video recorded a few hours ago that demonstrates the dry sugar method in all its glory. I also explain near the end how moisture quilts work.

P.S.: I’m not a big fan of feeding the bees pollen patties early in the winter because most of the time they don’t need it and it’s not always good to give the bees solids when they can’t get outside for cleansing flights. I try to reserve pollen patties for small colonies that could use a little boost in brood production. The colony in the video that I refer to as being about the size of a human head will get a pollen patty in a week or two. A small cluster like that, which is likely to get smaller before it gets bigger, won’t be able to stay warm much longer. The colony could be in trouble if I can’t get the queen laying soon.

Another postscript (written in part as a response to the first comment): If I had to do this again, I would place something round in the middle of the newspaper, a small bowl or a jar perhaps. Then after I poured the sugar on, I’d remove the bowl or jar so that a round sugar-free area of newspaper was left behind. Then I’d cut a hole in the exposed newspaper so that when the cluster came up, the bees would go through the hole without having to chew through the newspaper to get at the sugar. The hole would also allow moisture from the cluster to rise directly up to the moisture quilt. (If I have a chance, I’ll record a follow-up video.)

JANUARY 12, 2016: I eventually cleared a hole in the dry sugar. Check out Bees Not Eating Dry Sugar to see what happened after that.

Winter Solstice and The Death of Honey Bees

This is the time of year when I say to my bees, “I know things are looking grim, but just hang in there for another two months and you’ll be alright.”

The number of dead bees that fall to the bottom of a hive in the winter can be alarming. The bottom entrance of most of my hives look like this near the end of November:

The usual number of dead bees for late November in eastern Newfoundland.

The usual number of dead bees for late November in eastern Newfoundland.

But that’s just he beginning. Most of the bees alive inside the hive today — let’s say about 15,000 bees — will be dead before the weather warms up again in the spring. That pile of dead bees is gonna get big. Check out this bottom board from one of my hives last year:

Thick carpet of dead bees. (June 2014.)

Thick carpet of dead bees. (June 2014.)

The bottom entrance to that hive was clogged with dead bees by January and I wasn’t able to clear it out, so the photo might be a fair example of how many bees can safely die over the winter, at least in a large colony. That particular 3-deep colony was full of bees (living bees) by the end of June and gave me my first honey harvest before the end July.

So it’s not all doom and gloom.

The other good news is the Winter Solstice (usually December 21st or 22nd), the shortest, darkest day of the year. In theory, the queen begins to lay again, or increase her laying rate, once the days get longer. She won’t go wild with laying eggs right after the Solstice, but with longer stretches of daylight, at least new bees will begin to emerge to replace the winter die-offs.

That’s why I usually feel pretty good if my bees are alive and well by the end of January. They’ve gotten over the hump of Winter Solstice and baby bees are just beginning to emerge so the population is more or less stable. As long as they don’t starve to death or get eaten alive by shrews, I’m good. New bees should outnumber the dying bees sometime in April or May so that the population begins to go up and up until it peaks around June and stays there with about 50,000 bees until the end of July. Nice.

The next two months, though — that’s when I worry the most.