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.

Monitoring Honey Bees with a Stethoscope

I often use a cheap stethoscope to monitor my honey bees in the winter when they’re still clustering below the top bars and out of sight. It’s the least disruptive method I have for checking on the bees.

Listening to the bees with a stethoscope.

Listening to the bees with a stethoscope.

It took some practice, but I can tell how deep and how large the cluster is by listening through the hive with the stethoscope. Most of the time, though, I’m just checking that the bees are still alive. That’s usually good enough for me.

A $7 stethoscope.

A $7 stethoscope.

Sticking my ear against the hive works too, but it’s not as dignified as walking around with a stethoscope.

FEBRUARY 20, 2016: I have to say I continue to be impressed with the $7 stethoscope I bought on Amazon. I listened again to my bees today and could hear a lively buzz of bees in every hive. It takes a bit of imagination to interpret how the bees are doing from the often distant-sounding hum heard through the stethoscope, but at least I can tell they’re still hanging in there.

Uncapped Syrup Creates Moldy Comb

A beekeeper on the island of Newfoundland recent said:

    I fed my bees sugar syrup until it was too cold for them to take any more of it, which isn’t always the smartest thing to do because even though the bees are able to store the syrup, they may not have time to cure it (evaporate most of the water from it) and cap it like they would with honey during warmer weather. Subsequently, as in my case, the ole beekeeper discovers a top third deep filled mostly with uncapped syrup — or as we like to say in the real world, moisture. Not enough moisture to drip down on the bees and kill them, but enough to dampen the frames and allow some mold to grow.

I wholeheartedly agree with that beekeeper. He seems like a smart guy.

Uncapped sugar syrup → moisture → damp → moldy comb. (Nov. 7, 2015.)

Uncapped sugar syrup → moisture → damp → moldy comb. (Nov. 7, 2015.)


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Do You Know Where Your Cluster Is?

I have a quick and easy method for inspecting my hives when it’s freezing cold outside like it is today. I take a quick peek under the hood to see how high the cluster has risen. It literally takes three seconds. Not much danger of chilling and killing the bees. When the cluster is so high that the bees are covering most of the top bars, it’s time to give them some sugar. Why? Because in my experience, the bees head to the bottom of the hive once the weather turns cold and gradually work their way to the top as they eat through their winter stores of honey. Usually the higher the bees are in the hive, the less honey they have and the closer they are to starving. (Usually, not always.)

A cluster of honey bees running low on honey. (Dec. 31, 2011.)

A cluster of honey bees running low on honey. (Dec. 31, 2011.)

All of my colonies live in 3-deep hives. Most of them seem to have between one and two deeps of honey to keep them alive all winter. Even though that’s more than enough honey, I have considered dumping sugar in all the hives just to be safe. But I think I’ll wait and see what happens. It would be wonderful to get through a winter without having to feed my bees, though chances are I’ll get paranoid and give them loads of sugar even if they don’t need it. My plan, if you can call it that, is to give them sugar perhaps even before the cluster is covering most of the top bars. As of today, though, nar a cluster is to be seen. And I hope it stays that way for the next few months (not likely).

Here’s a detailed copied-and-pasted entry from my beekeeping journal to illustrate what I’m talking about.

First up, 1505, a colony that was inadvertently started from a supersedure cell in July. The first sign of brood soaking in royal jelly from the naturally mated queen showed up around August 10th and I fed the colony sugar syrup until the end of October. It’s not what I would call a fully established colony, though not bad considering it’s only three months old.

No sign of the cluster in Q1505 and I think it's been deep for a while. (Nov. 11, 2015.)

No sign of the cluster in 1505 and I think it’s been deep for a while. I like it. (Nov. 11, 2015.)


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Switching Out Hard Insulation for Moisture Quilts

In a previous post, Moisture Quilts vs Hard Insulation, I argued that hard insulation over the inner cover is a cheap and easy way to keep a hive relatively warm and dry over the winter. And it is. I used hard insulation in my hives for several winters with no problems. Even though I’ve since switched to moisture quilts, this year — as in a couple of weeks ago — I set up two of my five hives with hard insulation as a demonstration that I planned to report in on over the winter. But I pulled the plug on that experiment because I discovered moldy frames in the top boxes of those two hives yesterday.

Slightly moldy capped and uncapped honey. (Nov. 07, 2015.)

Slightly moldy capped and uncapped honey / syrup. (Nov. 07, 2015.)


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When, Why and How I Give My Bees Pollen Patties

Someone asked me when, why and how I feed my bees pollen patties. Here’s a photo from one of my first posts about the topic, Adding Pollen Patties. The colony pictured below, by the way, is starving. Usually the way it works is the more winter bees above the top bars, the less honey there is in the hive (usually, not always).

Adding a pollen patty to a very hungry colony. (February, 2011.)

Adding a pollen patty to a very hungry colony. (February, 2011.)

I’ve written about pollen patties a bunch of times, so I’m likely to repeat myself here. Do a search of “patties” in my little search engine box up at the top for more detailed information with videos and photos and so on.
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I Sold My Soul To The Devil

Mud Songs is not only a non-profit web site. It’s a going-in-the-hole web site. I’ve spent a fair bit of money over the years to keep it online. Let’s forget about the hundreds of hours of unpaid work I’ve put into writing and making videos and taking photos to create content for it. I do this for fun, not money. But now I need money to keep it going. Not a lot of money, but enough so that I can afford a better server, one that isn’t as slow as slush like my current server is half the time. I may even need money from time to time to pay people to do some computery things behind the scenes for me, people who know how to keep the engine humming, so to speak. Shelling out that cash from my own pocket just doesn’t cut it anymore. I’m a poor working slob with a full-time job that’s not about to make me rich any time soon. And I’m not to going ask for money. Putting ads on this blog doesn’t make much sense either. I don’t think anyone reads the actual blog anymore. But splashing a few ads through my YouTube videos could bring in a few dollars. Maybe.

So as of today, most of the beekeeping videos that appear on the Mud Songs YouTube channel will contain advertisements of some kind. I’m testing the waters here to see how it goes. If you see an ad that you don’t like, or you just don’t like the ads at all, tell me and I’ll do something about it. I have no problem turning the ads off completely if they’re annoying.

I’m personally annoyed by most advertisements online, but I rarely see them because I use an ad blocker. That’s why I’m not so concerned about putting ads in my videos. People who don’t like ads probably use an ad blocker already, so it won’t be an issue for them. And I assume people who don’t use ad blockers see the ads as just a part of doing business online. They’re used to it.

I’ve also had a few people tell me advertisements are already running along with my videos in subtle ways through YouTube’s main website. Which means Google (the owner of YouTube) is making money off my videos and I’m not. I don’t see anything wrong with me wanting a piece of that pie. Why not? They’re my videos after all.

Anyway, I sold my soul to Google so I can afford a better server and make some improvements to Mud Songs. I might not make a dime off the video advertisements. If that’s the case, I’ll have to think of something else. But for now, let me know if you have any problems with them. Thanks.

JANUARY 28, 2016: Hold on to your hats because this is amazing. I’ve earned $39.53 from my YouTube videos since November 2015. Clap. Clap. Clap.

Winter Has Arrived in Flatrock

The first bit of snow to stay on the ground came down last night.

Most of the bees are clustered down deep where they should be. (Nov. 04, 2015.)

Most of the bees are clustered down deep where they should be. (Nov. 04, 2015.)

All the hives, in theory, have enough honey to get them through the winter. If they don’t, I have a rim on top to make room for dry sugar or whatever else I might need to feed them if I notice them clustering above the tops bars. I hope it’s a cold winter and I hope it stays cold. Cold is better than warm.

Moisture Quilts vs Hard Insulation

I’m a true believer in moisture quilts as the best overall ventilation and moisture reduction aid for Langstroth hives in the winter. I’m a true believer because I’ve seen soaking wet hives become dry as a bone within a week of having moisture quilts installed.

An emergency moisture quilt that saved this colony. (January, 2014.)

An emergency moisture quilt that saved this colony. (January, 2014.)

Empty moisture quilts are excellent ventilation aids in the high heat of summer too, allowing the bees to regulate the temperature of the brood nest with less fanning and to cure honey sooner. Moisture quilts are also really cheap and easy to make. Everybody wins.
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Quarter-Inch Mesh Doesn’t Knock Off Pollen

I was surprised to see some of my bees bringing in pollen today.

Honey bee bring in pollen on October 25th, 2015 in Flatrock, Newfoundland.

Honey bee bringing in pollen on October 25th, 2015 in Flatrock, Newfoundland.

Judging from the colour of the pollen, my guess is that it came from Japanese Knotweed. It could be Honey Clover too. I still see some of that around (what a fantastic plant that is). I saw bees from another hive bringing in yellow pollen, probably from Goldenrod, though it seems late for Goldenrod.

This is the first year I’ve used quarter-inch / 6mm mesh to keep shrews out of my hives. I was told to put the mesh on after the bees have stopped bringing in pollen because supposedly the mesh opening is so small that it knocks the pollen off the bees’ legs as they’re going through it. NOT TRUE. Every bee that came in with pollen today had no problem getting through with the pollen still intact. So…

I’ll put the mesh on during the first week of October for now on and not worry about it. Waiting any longer increases the chances of mice getting in, which I think already happened with at least one of my hives (the bees switched from being really nice to really mean overnight, but that’s another story). Drones can’t get through the quarter-inch mesh and the bees are having a hard time pulling out dead bees through the mesh, but I’m fine with that.

Postscript: I was wrong. Drones can get through the mesh. It’s not easy, but they can do it. Here’s some raw video footage that shows drones going through the mesh along with a few other things. The mesh is an obstacle for some of the bees, but overall I don’t think it’s doing much harm.

DECEMBER 10, 2015: Bees naturally die over the winter and collect at the bottom of the hive. Then worker bees clean out the dead bees on the occasional warm days throughout the winter. The problem I’ve noticed, though I’m not calling it a huge problem just yet, is that the dead bees aren’t being cleared out as they normally would because the 6mm mesh is blocking the way.

Dead bees stuck behind  6mm mesh.  Oh well. (Dec. 10, 2015.)

Dead bees stuck behind 6mm shrew-proofing mesh. Oh well. (Dec. 10, 2015.)

This wasn’t such an issue earlier in the fall because there weren’t many dead bees laying around and it didn’t seem impossible for the workers to pull the dead bees through the mesh. But the quantity of dead bees alters the equation significantly. There are just too many dead bees and it’s too much work to squeeze each one through a 6mm hole in the mesh. So…

I don’t know. Pulling off the mesh and clearing out the dead bees myself is easy. But stapling the mesh back on causes so much disruption to the bees inside the hive (the bang of the mechanism is so forceful, it might as well be a hammer), that’s just not something I want to do.

So for now I’ll let the dead bees accumulate. The bottom entrances aren’t completely blocked with dead bees yet. Once that happens, though, I’ll have to make a decision. And I’m pretty sure that decision will be to pull the mesh off and clean out the dead bees on a warm day and then staple the mesh back on even if it riles up the bees. If it’s a warm day, the bees will be breaking cluster anyway, so whatever disruption is caused by a staple gun shooting staples into the hive , well, it shouldn’t be too bad.

But I need to come up with something that’s easier to remove and replace so cleaning out the dead bees isn’t such a headache. I don’t know how Michael Bush manages his hives with only top entrances. The bottom of my hives would be carpeted with dead bees by the end of the winter if I couldn’t clean them out. I have no trouble imagining the rotten stink after the dead bees begin to thaw out in the spring. Yuck.

FEBRUARY 14, 2016: The quarter-inch mess works fine when I use thumb tacks to attach it instead of staples.