It looks like I’ve got a trilogy in the making because it’s too cold to slip these sugar bricks in my beehives today. In Episode I, 12 cups of refined granulated sugar were mixed with 1 cup of water and troweled into a tin pan with my bare hands. The last we saw of our big wet bricks of sugar, they were sitting in an oven with only the light on. Ten hours later we return and open the oven to find…
I use dry sugar poured over newspaper and over the top bars in my hives to feed my bees in the winter, not that they always need sugar to stay alive, but as a precaution, the sugar goes in. Sometimes the bees can’t get enough of that delectable white sugar and will eat through it quickly. That’s when I like to add more sugar, again, just as a precaution. Adding newspaper and more sugar on top can get a little tricky, especially if the bees are crowding over the top bars. If I was smart, I would have poured as much sugar as humanly possible into the hive when I first did it so as to avoid opening the hive later in the winter to add more sugar. But I’m not often that smart and so it goes. Pouring more dry sugar in isn’t a gong show, but slipping in hard bricks of sugar has the potential to be much easier. And because I always practice what I preach, here’s a video of my first attempt at making sugar bricks for my honey bees.
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.
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.
So the big question I’ve been asked for some reason is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?”
LAST UPDATED ON JANUARY 12, 2016.
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.
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.)
THIS FOLLOWING WAS UPDATED ON DECEMBER 10, 2015.
I was surprised to see some of my bees bringing in pollen today.
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.
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.
I’m a huge fan of moisture quilts because they keep my bees warm and dry all winter long better than anything I’ve used before. But for my first two winters when I kept my hives in the city in a relatively dry climate, hard insulation over the inner cover worked fine. For people who don’t have much time, money or carpentry skills, the winter preparations I demonstrate in this video are better than nothing.
I’m not saying this is the best winter set up for a hive, but I have a good sense of my local climate and I think this minimal set up will work out okay.
Here’s a video for brand new beekeepers who’ve seen orientation flights but didn’t know what they were looking at.
I usually notice orientation flights around 11:30am on hot summer days, but sometimes the heat doesn’t kick in until the afternoon — in the case of this video, 2:30 in the afternoon. Everything seems calm and normal and then within about five minutes the air in front of the hive fills with fuzzy young bees hovering and facing the direction of the hive. That’s your standard-issue orientation flight situation. Orientation flights can appear as massive, confused clouds of bees if the bees have been stuck inside the hive for a few days because of cold or wet weather. A swarm of bees, by the way, is about 10,000 time larger and it’s a whole other ballgame.
For more information on orientation flights than you’ll ever be able to process, I recommend reading the Arnia page on orientation flights.
P.S.: In the video I inaccurately refer to these as baby bees taking their first flights outside the hive even though I know it’s wrong. Orientation flights usually occur when the bees are about 20 days old — not babies — and have completed all their assigned duties inside the hive (cleaning, nursing and so on). In my mind, they’re still babies because they’re learning to fly, and it makes no difference to my beekeeping whether or not I think of them as baby bees or 20-day-old bees. But if you’re taking a test, you’ll get that question wrong if you call them baby bees.
Here’s a video of a simple modification I’ve made to most of my hive top feeders that helps reduce the likelihood of drowning. I put screens in and over the syrup reservoirs. It makes refilling the feeders easier too.
I have no love for hive top feeders. They can be heavy and messy and a farcical tragedy when things go wrong. But this simple and cheap modification virtually transforms them into kill-free feeders and, at least in my experience, makes them easier to use. It also allows me to put various rims over the feeder, or anything I want over the feeder, without risk of drowning any bees. Obsessive-compulsive mad scientist beekeepers (a significant portion of the beekeeping demographic) could easily build on this design so that the feeder virtually refills itself. I can already imagine how that could work, but I digress.
SEPTEMBER 09, 2015: Apparently I’ve written about this modification before: Leaking Hive Top Feeders.
WARNING: The last photo in this post is gross and so is the video.
My little beeyard is half full of fireweed. It’s very pretty.
Honey bees are attracted to fireweed.
Dragonflies are also attracted to fireweed.