Inspecting The Hives

It’s November 2018 as I take a second look at this post from 2010 so I can tweak away any bits that could be misleading to new beekeepers. I’ll jump in with comments as we go. So… let’s go.

I decided to do a thorough inspection of my honey bee hives today. It was supposed to rain all day, but the sun came out in full force in the early afternoon, so I took advantage of the sunshine and put on my bee suit.

I rarely wear a full bee suit anymore, only when I’m digging into a massive hive full of bees that aren’t in a good mood. Today, to inspect a single-deep colony, I use a veil or maybe a bee jacket. Gloves would be optional. I play that by ear. Mist. No smoke.

I need to find an experienced beekeeper to help me identify exactly what I’m looking at. I know I saw plenty of honey and plenty of uncapped brood. At one point I could see the little white larva at the bottom of the cells filling one full side of a frame. It was impressive. I couldn’t find the queen in either hive, but both seem to be laying plenty of eggs.

I’ll fess up. I don’t think I was able to spot the queen in any of my hives for the first year. My bees weren’t marked with paint to make them easier to see, so that didn’t help. I don’t believe I spotted the queen until my second summer when Aubrey Goulding dropped by to help me requeen one of my colonies that had a nasty queen. He found the old queen in no time and after that I didn’t have much difficulty spotting queens. Once you see how big the queen really is and notice how she moves, how the other bees move around her, how her abdomen (most of the time) is so elongated that her wings only reach halfway down her body — she’s unique and stands out among the thousands of bees in the hive. But it helps to get the ball rolling on this by having someone point her out to you like I did in 2015.

I’ve decided that I don’t like smoking the bees. The Seldom Fools beekeepers in Ontario spray their bees, and now so do I. Whenever the bees were agitated (I could hear the difference in their buzzing immediately), I just misted them with a little sugar water and five seconds later they were back to normal. I probably could have used plain water mist, but a little sugar never hurt no one. The last time I used the smoker on the bees, they were buzzing like mad and flying around the hives in large numbers for at least an hour afterwards. It took them a while to recover. Today, using the water mist on them, they were totally cool. You’d never know I’d completely dismantled their houses and put it back together again. I can see maybe using the smoker next year when we harvest some of the honey and have to brush the bees off the frames, but I’m convinced for now that misting the bees with a little water is the way to go.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using a smoker on the bees if it’s done right. I use a sugary mist on my bees 95% of the the time. I don’t do it because it’s more natural. I do it because most of the time I get the same effect (easier to control bees) using mist instead smoke. In general, though, I don’t break out the smoker until the bees are well into filling a second deep. Then I keep it on standby just in case I need the little extra umph that smoke provides.
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First Taste of Honey

It’s November 2018 as I take a second look at this post I wrote in 2010. It doesn’t make me cringe, but almost. I’m impressed by my enthusiasm and fascination for beekeeping, my attention to every little detail that I don’t understand. These days when I meet new beekeepers or people who want to get into beekeeping, I can usually tell what kind of beekeepers they’re going to grow up to be. Bad beekeepers don’t notice too much. Good beekeepers notice everything. You don’t have to tell them what to look out for because they’re already looking out for everything.

I got my first taste of honey from one of our hives this morning (5 minutes ago), and there is no doubt about it: It’s the best honey I’ve tasted in my life. This is what it looks like at the bottom of a Mason jar, a mouthful chunk of comb with honey in it.

I decided to inspect the hives this morning because it’s going to rain for the next few days and I knew I’d be too busy with my silly job next week to poke around with the bees. I wanted to look down at the frames to see how much comb has been drawn out, but I didn’t want to pull out the frames and disturb the bees too much.

Inner cover upside-down with broken comb attached in the middle. (July 30, 2010.)

I didn’t use a smoker on either of the hives because I don’t like the way smoke agitates the bees, even though it’s supposed to make the bees easier to handle. This is what I saw when I pulled off the inner cover from Hive #1. That’s broken attached to the middle. I didn’t plan on sampling any honey, but I knew I could scrape some off the top without bothering the bees too much.

Here you can see how thick the comb is on top of the frames — and it’s full of honey. I’m not sure if I should be concerned about this, if I should clean it up before it gets out of control — I don’t know. The last time I used the smoker on the bees, the whole hive lit up with a rumbling buzzing sound. Not using the smoker this time, they acted like I wasn’t even there.

Here’s a close-up of the broken comb. The bees were virtually silent during all this. Maybe they were wondering what happened to the roof and why there’s honey all over the place now. Most that were on the honey stayed on the honey, eating it up, I assume.

Bridge comb. (July 30, 2010.)

Many of the frames were connected together with comb. It’s going to be messy when I have to pull out the frames for a thorough inspection, which I have to do soon. I wonder, should I break up these connections now before it gets worse? It seems like it might be trouble.

And this is what I saw under the roof of Hive #2, a well-behaved and tidy little hive — and no honeycomb on top to sample. These bees haven’t drawn out as much comb as those in Hive #1, probably because I didn’t feed them anything for the first week. There are more bees in the hive now than there were two weeks ago, and more of the frames have been drawn out — in both hives. So the hives seem to be doing alright. I will have to give them a thorough inspection soon just so I can see exactly what’s going on — how much brood is being reared, if there are any swarm cells and so on. I’d like to find an experienced beekeeper to help me out with that, but if I have to I’ll keep doing what I’m doing: taking my best guess.

Anyway, the honey is delicious.

November 2018 postscript: That’s burr comb I had to scrape off because the inner cover was upside-down. The flat side of the inner cover is usually face down in the summer. It’s unlikely the honey I tasted from the burr comb was pure honey. It was most likely fake honey created from sugar syrup. Today I would not place empty frames between frames of brood so early in the life of a nuc colony. I would put the 4-5 frames of the nuc in the middle of the deep and probably let them build out to 7-8 frames before I’d start inserting empty frames.

Homemade Boardman Feeder

I’ve been using a Boardman feeder so our bees will create brood comb faster and build up the colony to a healthy size, one strong enough to make it through the winter. This is a Boardman feeder:

The Mason jar is filled with a honey-sugar mixture (made from clean local honey, not potentially diseased grocery store honey). It sits upside-down on a round piece of perforated metal (or the lid of the jar with holes poked in it). The bees crawl onto the lip of the feeder from inside the hive and suck the mixture out of the holes. Here’s a photo of a feeder I made today. You can see on the left where the bees crawl in and get under the bottle to feed:

There are conflicting opinions on whether or not to feed bees, what kind of feeders and mixtures are best, when and when not to feed — there is no consensus. Some say feeding encourages robbing, especially with Italian honey bees (the kind I have); some say the colony will swarm when they’re fed too much; and then other beekeepers say it’s essential to feed bees from a nuc box at least until they’ve filled an entire brood chamber (that’s what I plan to do).

The problem for me is that beekeeping practices vary from region to region based on local climate and geography — and most of the information I read does not come from beekeepers in Newfoundland, or any place remotely similar to Newfoundland (being on island in the middle of the North Atlantic does pose unique challenges). There is only one professional beekeeper in St. John’s that I know of, and he’s busy running his business. So I’m pretty much on my own here. Everyday I go out and watch the bees doing their thing, and every day I see something new I don’t understand. I don’t think I’ve done anything drastically bad so far, but having a few local beekeepers I could meet with once in a while, even beginners like me, would be a great help.

So, hoping for the best, I built my own Boardman feeder today because I noticed how the bottle doesn’t fit snugly into the feeder hole. This attracts ants and allows bees to take up the feed from outside the hive from the space between the feeder and the bottle’s lip — which I think defeats part of the purpose of having the feeder in the first place. If other bees from outside the hive can get at the feed easily, it’s no wonder they get the idea to start robbing. Here’s my homemade Boardman feeder in action:

I made my own perforated cap from the Mason jar lid, then shoved the outer lid into the feeder hole, nice and tight, so now when I put on the jar of feed mixture, it screws on tight so the bottle can’t tip and spill sweet liquid all over the place (which would attract more ants). It also makes refilling the feeder much easier and less messy. But more importantly, it’s working for the bees. I’ve checked the feeder every couple hours today. I’ve seen only one ant instead of 10, and there are no bees trying to get at the feed from outside the hive.

I’m in the process of making a second Boardman feeder for the other hive. The next big event will be our inspection of the hives about a week from now. We haven’t pulled out any of the frames for inspection yet. That’ll be a big day. I want to see tons on brood and honey and no swarm cells. That’s exactly what I want to see, because if I see anything else, I don’t know what I’m going to do.

Anyway, boardman feeder plans — here are the pieces for the second Boardman feeder I made, with measurements written right on the pieces (in inches). I stuck it all together with carpenter’s glue.

November 2018 Postscript: I gave up on entrance feeders / Boardman feeders quickly, whether homemade or not, because they attract wasps and ants and encourage robbing from other bees, and they can get messy. For building up nucs, I use mostly frame feeders or what some call a rapid feeder or German style feeders. I want to get as much syrup into the bees as possible and Boardman feeders (which are basically jar feeders) provide limited access to the syrup. I also use various hive top feeders — anything but a Boardman feeder. However, if I did need to use a Boardman feeder for some reason, I would place a piece of wood about 10cm (4 inches) long against the side of the feeder to reduce the entrance and block immediate access to the feeder from wasps and robbing bees. The only good use of a Boardman feeder, as far as I can tell, is to provide water for the bees. Install it on the bottom entrance as usual. Just fill it with water instead of syrup.

Bees Cooling The Hive

I like watching the honey bees in my backyard. It’s impressive to see a bee come back to the hive weighed down with pollen. I’ll get a picture of that soon enough. But today — five minutes ago — I noticed a row of bees near the entrance of Hive #2 fanning their wings.

Just sitting there together, not moving, but fanning their wings like crazy. I’m guessing they were trying to cool down the hive, get a breeze blowing through it. At first there were three bees in a row. Then one flew away but the two remaining kept at it.

Maybe they’re just a couple of baby bees drying off their newly-minted wings. As usual, I don’t know, but I’m going with the cooling-the-hive theory.
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Installing Nuc Boxes (Full of Honey Bees)

It’s November 2018 as I review this old post from 2010. It’s an excellent example of what not to do and how easily new beekeepers are misled. By this time I had watched many video of beekeepers putting blank frames between brood frames, which is a thing I still do under specific circumstances. But it’s not something I’d even consider doing with the tiny brood nest of a nuc. Luckily my bees survived my bad beekeeping thanks to some unusually warm weather we had at the time.

I installed my honey bees four days ago on July 18th, 2010. I picked up our nuc boxes from the a Newfoundland Bee Company on the west coast of Newfoundland the day before at $200 a pop (and a 1300km, 16-hour road trip).

This is the first hive after I installed the bees. The emptied nuc box on the ground still had a few bees in it that eventually flew back into the hive. The upside-down Mason jar is full of a honey-sugar mixture that I made from safe local honey. (Grocery store honey often contains spores for various diseases that can do serious damage to a honey bee colony.) The bees will feed on a sugar syrup mixture until the fall.
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Honey Bees (Audio)

I picked up three nuc boxes of honey bees last night. Two for me, one for someone who should be picking up her bees today. Here’s a shot of the boxes and the bees close-up.

I’ll install the bees into my hives later today.

I’ll document it all eventually. In the meantime, this is what the bees sound like in their boxes.

(The bees come in around the 1:00 mark.)