Why Do Honey Bees Eat Chicken Feed?

Because they’re hungry for protein. That’s why honey bees eat chicken feed. Especially in the early spring when the queen is laying again and there are more mouths to feed. (Spring is a relative term for beekeepers on the island of Newfoundland.)

Honey bees eating chicken feed. (Flatrock, NL, April 9, 2016.)

Honey bees eating chicken feed. (Flatrock, NL, April 9, 2016.)

I gave my bees pollen patties earlier in the winter and they showed little interest in them. But judging by how intensely they’re digging into the chicken feed (full of protein), I bet they wouldn’t say no to a protein-rich pollen patty right about now.

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On Losing a Colony

People who idealize and romanticize beekeeping — I would guess that’s 99% of all people who have ever gotten into beekeeping, including me — are in for a big wake up call after they kill their first colony. Sometimes colonies die of natural causes, but whatever the reason, a hard fact of beekeeping is that bad things happen and colonies die. If honey bee colonies can die in nature even under ideal circumstances, they can die in a beeyard too.

The ragged queen during better days (when she was alive).

The ragged queen during better days (when she was alive).

My ragged queen bee (and her potential colony) finally died yesterday after what might be called a prolonged illness. And I’m okay with it. Honestly, I barely gave it a thought. Losing my first colony a few years back was a hard hit, especially since it was my fault and the colony was healthy and huge going into winter. The honeymoon phase of my beekeeping life died right there on the carpet. While it was certainly discouraging and sad at the time, I’ve come to accept that these things will happen and when they do, I give myself a moment (and curse to myself if no one is there) and move on. That being said, here’s the lowdown on what I found five days after I installed my ragged queen into a new hive — and after two weeks of keeping her alive with a light bulb inside a nuc box. (For anyone late to the party, all the details of this desperate tale are preserved through a unique label I just created called Ragged Queen.) So…
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A Cold Ragged Queen

The ragged queen I kept alive with a light bulb for two weeks. Caged four days ago and put in a new hive with new bees because most of the bees from her original starved-out colony were dead. How’s she doing? I would love to know.

Is there a queen in there?  Is she okay?  (April 6th, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

Is there a live queen in there? Is she okay? (April 6th, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)


I had hoped to lift up the top of the hive today to see if the queen is alive. Did the bees eat through the sugar plug and release the queen? Did they accept their new queen or did they kill her? Is she starved and dead in the cage? Is the cluster large enough to keep the queen warm? I do not know. The snow and the -16°C windchill (3°F) kind of put the brakes on my plans and the weather forecast calls for more of the same over the next two days. I’ll check on her as soon as I can, but man oh man, springtime in Newfoundland is brutal. Perfect timing on the snowstorm, Nature. Thanks a lot.

UPDATE (the next day): She’s dead. I’ll write a separate post soon to explain what happened and what I’ve learned from all this.

Homemade Sugar Plug and God Save The Queen (Maybe)

On March 13th, I placed the remains of a starved colony — a sad, dirty looking queen and a few hundred bees — into a nuc box with a 60-watt light bulb in a desperate move to keep it alive. Most of the bees eventually died and it looked pretty damn grim for old queenie. Luckily the post-apocalyptic winter we’ve had in Newfoundland took a break yesterday when the sun came out and the temperature went up to 14°C (57°F). That was my chance to create a new colony (essentially a nuc) with the ragged queen and some bees from another hive. But first I had to catch the queen and put her in a cage so she wouldn’t be attacked when I mixed her together with some strange bees.

Mixing up some sugar and water. (April 02, 2016.)

Mixing up some sugar and water. (April 02, 2016.)


I dug out some plastic queen cages that consist of a mesh tube (some call them “hair roller” cages). One end has a plastic plug. The other end gets plugged with some candy that takes a day or two for the bees to eat through, by which time they’ll have gotten used to the queen’s pheromones and will accept her as their own (instead of killing her), in theory.
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Red Light Heating For Honey Bees

I carelessly caused one of my colonies to slowly starve this winter. The cluster was about the size of my fist, maybe a little larger. Ten days ago while I was getting ready to dismantle the hive and cut my loses, I found the queen still alive. I knew the cluster was too small to keep her warm enough to survive another month of cold Newfoundland weather, so I quickly jury-rigged a nuc box with a light bulb for heat, put the bees in that and hoped for the best. The bright light bulb killed off about a hundred bees like moths to a flame. I eventually replaced it with a red light bulb. Today I put a cage around the light bulb (in a different box) for extra safety and it looks like this:

Empty nuc box with caged red 60-watt light bulb for heat. (March 27, 2016.)

Empty nuc box with caged red 60-watt light bulb for heat. (March 27, 2016.)


Then I put the bees in like this (that’s a dummy board on the outer edge of the frames to prevent the comb from melting):

World's smallest cluster being kept alive with the heat from the caged 60-watt red light bulb. (March 27, 2016.)

World’s smallest cluster being kept alive with the heat from the caged 60-watt red light bulb. (March 27, 2016.)


I looked over the bees during the transfer and couldn’t find the queen. There’s a chance she’s in there, but it doesn’t look good. I’ve done all I can. The bees won’t freeze with that light bulb. They have an exit hole close by for cleansing flights and three frames of honey. Now all I can do is wait.

Let’s assume this is a lost cause…

I think I could have saved the bees if I’d discovered them starving at least a week or two earlier. The cluster would have been larger. They would have had a better chance. Not using a caged red light bulb from the start probably didn’t help, but it was the best I could do on the spot with the materials I had available. I learned about a beekeeper who uses a red light to keep his bees warm all winter. I would never do that, but I do plan to keep at least one heated nuc on standby for next winter just in case (and I’d probably use a ceramic light bulb instead so the bees can’t even see the glowing filament). I’ve also decided to pick up a thermal imaging device for my smart phone. I already have a stethoscope, which has been helpful though it’s not what I’d call a precision instrument. Cheap endoscopes are also available, though I’ve heard people having mixed results with them. But I’m pretty sure if I’d been able to take an infrared photo of my starving hive throughout the winter, I would have seen the cluster begin to shrink as it was cut off from its honey supply and I would have been able to move honey close to the brood nest and save the bees.

APRIL 6, 2016: Even the caged light bulb attracted and killed some bees. If I had to do it again, I’d wrap the cage with heavy duty tinfoil, or perhaps even better, I’d use a large tin can instead of a cage and poke some tiny heat holes throughout it. Judging from what I’ve seen so far, I’d say a 60-watt light bulb, even behind a big tin can, would provide enough heat to keep the cluster and the queen alive.

Continued in God Save The Queen (Maybe).

Wondering When to Remove Shrew-Proofing Mesh

I used 6mm mesh (quarter-inch mesh) on my hives this winter for the first time because I lost most of my colonies last winter when shrews managed to squeeze through the half-inch mesh I kept on the bottom entrances. I’m not sure if the shrews got into the hives through the top entrances, but to be safe this winter, I covered both the top and bottom entrances with 6mm mesh. Now I’m wondering when I should remove the mesh, at least from the top entrances.

Opening the quarter-inch mesh and releasing the bees for cleansing flights. (March 19, 2016.)

Opening the quarter-inch mesh and releasing the bees for cleansing flights. (March 19, 2016.)


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A Heated Nuc Box

A nuc box (i.e., a converted swarm trap) heated with a 25-watt light bulb. (March 16, 2016.)

A nuc box (i.e., a converted swarm trap) heated with a 25-watt light bulb. (March 16, 2016.)


This is my attempt at saving the queen I found yesterday in the fist-sized cluster from the colony that I inadvertently starved all winter. Here’s a cropped-in shot of her:

Cropped in closer look of the raggedly looking queen in a micro cluster. (March 16, 2016.)

The first photo shows what is essentially a wooden nuc box with an exit hole drilled in one end. Inside the box on the left side are three frames of honey. In the top corner of those three frames of honey is the sad looking tiny cluster of bees from the starved colony, the smallest cluster of bees I’ve ever seen. Even more incredible is the queen walking around the middle of the cluster, still alive.
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Bees Starving in a Hive Full of Honey

One of my colonies has been quiet for a some time now and today I found out why. The bees have been slowly starving to death. The cluster is not much larger than my fist and it’s probably queenless by now.

Tiny dying cluster (March 13, 2016.)

Tiny dying cluster (March 13, 2016.)


I took a quick peek under the hood and could tell the cluster was tiny. I also noticed poop on the frames near the cluster which usually means the queen is dead. Feces inside the hive is often a sign of nosema, but the bees also make a mess of the hive when the queen dies in the middle of the winter and can’t be replaced. I’ve seen it before. In this case the cluster got so small it wasn’t able to stay warm enough to keep the queen alive. That’s my best guess.
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