Swarm Prevention by Not Overfeeding and Making Room for the Queen

In my experience, it’s important to constantly feed the bees during the first year (in Newfoundland), but it’s also important to stop feeding them at a certain point in the spring so they don’t swarm. When I find drone comb gunking up the bottom of the frames in the spring, that’s my cue that the colony could potentially swarm. Queens can’t mate without drones. That’s why the first swarms usually coincide with the flight of the first drones. I could be wrong about all of this, but from what I’ve seen with my bees, it’s true. A colony won’t swarm without drones.

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

If the bees have two or three solid frames of honey in every box — enough to prevent them from starving — and drone comb is present, then I stop feeding. I don’t feed my bees if they have enough honey on their own anyway, and unless it’s a weak colony, I don’t usually feed past May 31st either because there’s usually enough natural nectar sources available by then (in my local climate), especially in the city of St. John’s that is heavily populated by maple trees. I also check my hives at least every two weeks until the end of June to make sure the queen has room to lay. Most beekeeping (beyond feeding) can be summed up with that one sentence: Make sure the queen has room to lay.

This video is from an April 2013 post.
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Beekeeping Workshop: A Full Hive Inspection

The following is probably the most detailed video of a hive inspection that I’ve posted since the dawn of Mud Songs. For everyone who couldn’t attend the informal beekeeping workshop I was ready put on today, this video shows what you missed (or would have missed if I’d gone ahead with the workshop). It’s a 24-minute video, longer than my usual videos, because I left in the all the parts with me yammering on about what I’m doing — exactly the kind of yammering I’d do if I was giving a workshop.


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Mystery #1: Bees Won’t Eat Honey

Whenever I spill honey outside or leave frames sticky with honey around on a warm sunny day, the bees usually descend and lap it up as quick as they can. But not today…

Honey and wax outside in the sun, the bees completely ignoring it. (May 16, 2016.)

Honey and wax outside in the sun, the bees completely ignoring it. (May 16, 2016.)

That’s honey and goop left over from some deep frames I extracted yesterday. I posted a rough video of it on my Mud Songs Facebook page this morning:

    I got to use my extractor yesterday for the first time since I bought it last year. You can see the honey being flicked out of the frames on the side of the extractor. The spinning basket nearly flew off by the time I was done because the vibrations caused most of the nuts and bolts to loosen up. Whether I get honey this year is a whole other matter, but if I do, I’m ready for it. This honey is left over from all the hives I lost to shrews last year. I’ll feed it to my nucs in July instead of syrup.

I don’t understand why the bees aren’t going crazy for the honey. I’ve never extracted honey this early in the year before. Maybe they’re too keen on collecting pollen because there’s very little nectar available at the moment and they’re just not in a honey-sucking state of mind. I even left a full frame of scraped open honey in the beeyard yesterday and they didn’t go near it. I tasted the honey. It’s good honey. I don’t know what gives.

No-Cook Sugar Cakes For Honey Bees

To finalize The Sugar Bricks Quadrilogy, I present Episode IV: A New Hope:

Episode I: I mixed 12 parts sugar with 1 part water and let it harden in a deep dish tin pan.

Episode II: I came back about a day later and dumped out the dried sugar bricks.

Episode III: I slipped the sugar bricks into a few of my hives.

Episode IV: I demonstrate how the same process can be used to make easier-to-slip-in sugar cakes using small paper plates as a mold. Then I add some sugar cakes to a couple of hives. Conclusion: It works.

If I discovered starving bees crowded over the top bars in any of my hives, I would definitely choose this method instead of pouring dry sugar over the top bars. I’ll still dump dry sugar over the top bars in the early winter while the bees are down in the hives and out of my way, but these no-cook sugar bricks and sugar cakes seem ideal for adding sugar once the bees have risen up and are getting in my face.

No-cook candy cakes drying in the oven (with only the light on). Feb. 27, 2016.

No-cook sugar cakes drying in the oven (with only the light on). Feb. 27, 2016.


Some after thoughts…
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Episode III: Slipping Sugar Bricks Into The Hives

For me, the key to feeding bees emergency sugar in winter is to put the sugar in long before the bees need it (I do it in late November). It can be a gong show once the bees are hungry and clustering above the top bars, in which case these sugar bricks are pretty convenient.

I mixed the sugar bricks in Episode I and popped them out of the pan in Episode II. Now it’s time to slip them into the hives. There’s not much to see, but here it is:

If I do this again, I’ll make the bricks larger. Dry sugar on newspaper over the top bars is still my favourite method of feeding the bees in winter because a large amount of sugar dumped in all at once will keep the bees alive until spring and I won’t have to mess with them again. But I definitely appreciate the convenience of being able to slip the no-cook sugar bricks into the hives as a stopgap measure.

UPDATE (24 hours later): Well, the bees in at least one of the hives are eating the sugar brick.

Honey bees eating a sugar brick. (Feb. 14, 2016.)

Honey bees eating a sugar brick. (Feb. 14, 2016.)

MARCH 02, 2016: I use this same method to make sugar cakes in the Episode IV.

Episode II: Easy Peasy Sugar Bricks for Honey Bees

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…


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Episode I: Making No-Cook Sugar Bricks for Honey Bees

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.


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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.