An Active Spring Hive

I know this must be like new parents showing off photos of their baby that looks like every other baby on the planet. It won’t be like this next year. But this year is my first spring with the bees, my first full summer with the bees, my first honey harvest — a lot of firsts — and I want a record of all of it so I know what to expect next year. Okay then. Let’s roll the video:

That’s Hive #1. There are so many bees that they literally sound like a chain saw. Hive #2 is active, but doesn’t show much interest in the bottom entrance. I think that colony may be a different breed of bees. I came in very close to the hive to shoot this video. The bees were crawling all over my hands and around my face (I had my mouth closed the whole time). I’m extremely pleased that they’re so well behaved.

First Spring Pollen

It was only about 7°C in the backyard today (45°F), but it was enough for the bees in one of my hives to bring in some pollen for the first time this year.

I like this photo because it shows how fuzzy all the bees are now:

I didn’t expect to see the bees bring in pollen for another couple weeks. Natural sources of pollen and nectar are scarce. The bees must have discovered some flowers like this growing in someone’s flowerbed nearby:

A friend of mine gave me these crocuses today. The bees were on them as soon as I put them in the ground, but the bees were bringing in loads more pollen than could be had from the few flowers in our yard. One of my neighbours must have planted a forest of flowers.

I noticed the pollen on the bees today while I was adding some peppermint oil to the syrup in my newly installed jar feeders. I noticed the bees didn’t seem interested in the syrup from the original hive top feeders I had installed and I could tell they hadn’t touched a drop of syrup from the jar feeders. So I decided to add pure peppermint oil to the mix in the hopes that it might entice them to sample the syrup. (I also gave one of the hives a pollen patty and a candy cake just for kicks.) The next batch of syrup will have anise seed oil, which apparently drives them wild.
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A Video of Spring Bees

I know it isn’t always too exciting, but one of the purposes of this website is to document anything new I haven’t seen before and to take note of when certain things happen so that I, as a novice beekeeper stumbling through all this mostly on my own, will have a reference for next year’s beekeeping — and maybe others can learn from my experience. I don’t have access to any kind of beekeeping association that might allow me to compare notes with other beekeepers in Newfoundland — because there is no association, and there aren’t many beekeepers either. So just for my records, here’s a short video of the bees flying around my backyard today about an hour after I removed some useless hive top feeders and replaced them with inverted jar feeders sheltered inside some medium supers.

January 2019 Postscript: A beekeeping association in Newfoundland didn’t exist in 2011 when I was desperate to compare notes with other beekeepers on the island. Then around 2015, a group of people fulfilled the legal requirements to be recognized by the government as an association with a president, a vice-president and so on. As much as I had always hoped for an association, I could tell right away it wasn’t a good fit for me. I’m currently not a member.

Are These Carniolan, Russian or Italian Honey Bees?

The honey bee colony in my first hive chewed out and discarded most of its drone papae and then shut down so early and so fast last September (compared to my other colony that kept going strong for another few weeks), I thought maybe the queen was dead. But now that same colony seems to be the first one to come back to life this spring. My guess is the bees in old colony #1 have mostly Carniolan genes — cold-climate honey bee genes. I’ve read that Carniolans are more sensitive to environmental changes and behave exactly in this manner.

The bees in Hive #2, on the other hand, foraged and took up syrup well into October last fall, but are showing hardly any signs of life now, which coincides with what I’ve read about Italian honey bees. They go as long as they can in the fall, but supposedly have a harder time coping with long cold winters and mild wet springs (like we have in Newfoundland).

None of this is necessarily correct. But seeing how my first year of beekeeping has often been a guessing game, I have just expressed my best guesses to explain the differences in the behaviour of my two honey bee colonies. They definitely do not behave the same.

Here’s a long boring video of the bees in Hive #1 from earlier today. It shows them coming and going through the bottom entrance. There’s not much to see in the video, no special behaviour, nothing much except for the last few seconds (around the 4:22 mark) when a worker bee pulls out one of her comrades who didn’t make it through the winter. That’s it. I am extremely pleased that they’re so alive.

January 2019 Postscript: This post has been edited and slightly rewritten. Carniolan honey bees seem to share many of the winter-hardy characteristics of Russian honey bees. I could be mistaken about everything I said in this post. But I can say a few things I’ve noticed over the years:

I’ve seen colonies shut down — and become defensive, and I’m taking a Jekyll and Hyde transformation — as early as late August. I load them up with sugar syrup and stay as far away from them as I can until they’re ready for winter. These colonies tend not to have large clusters in the winter, which always worries me, but they kick into high gear at the first hint of warm weather in the spring. A colony like that might have mostly Russian genetics, but Newfoundland honey bees are a mix of everything, so who knows?

I’ve seen queens lay big solid brood patterns well into October when it’s usually pretty damn cold in Newfoundland. My guess is that those are the Italian queens. They just don’t know when to stop. They’re slow to get started in the spring too. They sometimes have gigantic clusters going into winter, which is great, because more bees usually equates to a greater chance of surviving colder winters. But if those colonies aren’t loaded to the max with honey, they can starve. I speak from experience on that one.

Those are the big differences in behaviour that I’ve noticed in my bees over the years. But I’m not sure if any of it is reliable because my dataset, as some scientific beekeepers like to say, is pretty small. I’ve never had more than ten colonies at once and I’ve only been beekeeping since 2010. Much of what I’ve observed could be based on factors that can’t be determined accurately. That’s the uncertainty of backyard or hobbyist beekeeping. We’re talking about a small number of hives where statistically exact observations just aren’t possible.

And by hobbyist I mean someone with no more than nine or ten hives, not dozens or hundreds; someone who has a backyard, not acreage; a kitchen, not a honey house; hands and eyeballs, not microscopes and RNA tests; cheap beekeeping books and the internet, not Masterclass workshops and beekeeping certificates. Not to say that someone in their backyard with two or three hives is less likely to be a good beekeeper than someone with dozens of hives. Some of the most intuitively intelligent beekeepers I know, and marvel at, and continue to learn greatly from, are small-scale, no-frills beekeepers. But many observations of hobbyist beekeepers could easily be a result of statistical anomalies. Even though many backyard beekeepers are as good as any beekeepers on know, it might be better to view some of their observations as good stories, not necessarily good science.

Using myself as example, there could be other explanations for the behaviour of my honey bees that shut down early in the fall and start up early in the spring. It could be Russian genetics at play, or maybe the particular location of the those hives in the fall leaves the bees with less direct sunlight during the day, and seeing how the sun in the spring moves across a different location in the sky (because the location of the sun is always changing), those early-fall-shut-down colonies might get more sun in the spring and therefore spring into action sooner than the other hives. My hives have always been surrounded by trees at least on one or two sides, and the shade of those trees falls on the bees at certain times of the day, and possibly more so at certain times of the year. So what’s the best explanation for the behaviour of the bees, genetics, hive location, or both? I don’t know… You know, I don’t think that’s a good example of the point I was making, but I’ll leave it because it’s something to think about.

One more thing: In my experience, the always-gentle Newfoundland honey bee is a myth. My bees are easy to handle most of the time, but I’ve seen the gentlest bees turn on me overnight for no reason other than the weather got cold, even with honey bees from the Newfoundland Bee Company, probably the most genetically diverse and docile honey bees on the island. But judging from my experience so far, I just don’t think honey bees are in a good mood when they’re cold, whether they’re the fabled Newfoundland honey bee or not.

Hives in the Snow

It’s December 2018 as I rewrite this post from April 2011. I decided to keep a record of how much snow my hives had to contend with during my first winter of beekeeping. Whenever they got nailed with heavy snow or rain or freezing rain and drizzle and fog and wind, anything that was drastically different from the day before, I took a picture of it and observed how the bees reacted to the changing winter weather conditions. More details on all that can be gleaned from the original comments for this post that are still intact. I’ve deleted most of the photos (well over 20 by the time it was done). Missing are the final photos showing how the hives were covered in ice from storms of freezing rain in April. The final record really drove home the reality that just about every place on planet Earth has an earlier and warmer spring than beekeepers on the island of Newfoundland. Yeah. So here are just a few of the photos I kept.

Hive #1 in the snow. (Nov. 30, 2010.)


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Cranking Out The Nasonov Pheromone

Here’s quick video of the honey bees in my backyard doing the Nasonov Boogie. Yesterday I said, “The sound of the bees scenting was intense, like the sound of tiny little chain saws.” Check it out:

The end of the video when it goes back to normal speed may not be 100% normal speed. During the slow-mo section, you can almost see the wings beating. I was able to slow it down even further on my computer, but the wings beating still only showed up as a blur. They crank it up a notch when they’re fanning like that.

Anyway, the pheromone is also used to orient the bees to food and water sources, but this early in the year when snow is still on the ground (it snowed again today) and 15°C is not a daily occurrence, I’d say it’s mostly for orientating the young foraging bees on their maiden flights.

I recommend The Biology of The Honey Bee, by Mark L. Winston for more info on the importance of pheromones in a honey bee colony (and a whole lot more).
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The Nasonov Pheromone

A gland on the tip of the honey bee’s abdomen releases what’s called the Nasonov pheromone, a secretion used by honey bees for orientation and attraction. It’s one of those smells that beekeepers supposedly learn to identify over time along with the smell of honey curing, the smell of the alarm pheromone and so on. To be honest, I don’t know exactly what the Nasonov pheromone smells like. I’m not even sure what the alarm pheromone smells like even though I know right away when the bees are releasing it to the wind. I’ve heard descriptions of various pheromones released by the queen and worker bees, from the smell of ripe bananas to the smell of lemongrass, and I’ve never noticed anything remotely close to those odours emanating from a hive. Maybe my nasal passages are clogged. I don’t know.

In any case, what I assume to be the Nasonov pheromone was thick in the air today. I could smell it an arm’s length from the hives. I took plenty of photos.

Honey bee cranking out the Nasonov pheromone (April 1, 2011).


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