Architecture of Honey Comb

Here’s a quick video of the drone comb I pulled one of my hives yesterday with some commentary about the architecture of the comb. I point out the drone eggs too.

I call this post “Architecture of Honey Comb” even though it’s drone comb because, as far as I know, there’s no difference between the two. Both drone comb and honey comb have large cells, and drone comb is supposedly backfilled with honey once the drones emerge, anyway, so they’re virtually the same.

Natural Drone Comb

I decided to pull this natural drone comb today because the frame doesn’t have any support wire, which would have made the comb a prime candidate for snapping off the frame someday.

2019 Postscript: I don’t put wire in my foundationless frames anymore. Wires might prevent the combs from flying to pieces in an extractor, but I don’t extract foundationless frames, so that’s not a problem. The bees usually do a good job of securing the comb to the frame on their own.

Why Honey Bees Drink Dirty Water

February 2019 Introduction: This post generated a lot of discussion in the comments, even comments from fairly well-known American beekeepers, Michael Bush and Rusty Burlew. It’s from a time when this blog was actually being read by thousands of people, with lively comments and discussions happening every day. Anyway, the comments are worth reading more than the original post.

I’ve put out water for the honey bees living in my backyard, but they seem to prefer dirty water from puddles around the yard. They specifically seem to favour the moist dark compost soil in my raised garden beds.

Does the soil give off some sort of fake pheromone that attracts the bees? I didn’t know, so I looked up “water” in my excellent 1947 edition of The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture (the only edition of the book I could afford) and I learned that the bees bring in more water in the spring during brood-rearing and less water as the honey flow peaks. But more to the point, the bees drink from compost piles (and composted soil) because the water there is warmer than water left in a dish. The bees are able to absorb warm water faster than cold water. So it’s not the stink of the compost that attracts them. It’s the warmth.

I think it’s fair to conclude, from this instance and everything else I’ve observed, that whatever honey bees do, they do it with the utmost efficiency.

UPDATE (a few hours later): The warm water theory doesn’t hold much water. Here’s a shot of the bees drinking freezing cold water leaking from my garden hose all day.

August 2019 Postscript: Dr. Rachael Bonoan, whose curiosity I admire, studied the mineral preferences of honey bees when drinking water, an area of study that stemmed from her observation of honey bees drinking dirty water. She concluded that honey bees likely drink dirty water as a way to supplement the minerals in the floral diet. She said, “Dirty water is like a vitamin supplement for bees.”

Words of Caution for Urban Beekeepers

February 2019 Introduction: I look at this video and I sort of half wish I still lived in St. John’s because I actually had more land to keep my bees on in the city than I do where I live now in a rural-like location outside of the city. Just look at the video and check out the field I had behind my house. That was my property. Pretty sweet, eh?

Unfortunately, the field was also used as a local hangout for high school kids who lit the whole thing on fire at least once a year and regularly used it as a drinking spot. My hives would have been an easy target for vandalism like everything else back there. My next door neighbours were also extraordinarily unpleasant people with vicious tempers and a mean junkyard dog that barked and foamed at the mouth half the time I did anything in my backyard. I loved the house I lived in, and I loved that back field, but within months of starting up my hives, I realised I was in the worst neighbourhood for keeping bees.

The moral of the story is: Urban beekeeping in a crowded neighbourhood and a tiny backyard is entirely doable, but it’s not much fun if you’re not surrounded by good neighbours. You gotta have good neighbours.

There’s not much to see here but I’ll show it to you anyway. It’s a raw video of me walking through the field behind my shed looking for honey bees on dandelions. The field fills with a variety of wild flowers during the summer and fall. I might explore it again later on in the season when there’s more to see. (Note: The video contains some brief G-rated profanity.)

The video demonstrates how difficult it is to get a precise focus on the bee. It’s been cold for the past week and the bees have been stuck in their hives. Sunnier skies and warmer temperatures are supposedly on the way. I hope so. We only have four months of the year that aren’t cold, wet and windy (that is, they’re not as cold, wet and windy as the other eight months). I’m ready to make the most of it. I think the bees are too. Come on summer, let’s get on with it!

Dandelion Will Make You Wise

It’s May 17th in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and the spring season is on the cusp of becoming. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “becoming” as to come into existence and to undergo change and development. Exhibit A: The first dandelion of 2011.

Not the most astonishing video of honey bees on a flower, I know, but if you look closely, you might notice a few bees dragging their back legs over the pollen or even pushing the pollen down into their pollen baskets on said back legs. I recommend picking up a dandelion with bees on it to any new beekeeper. You’ll see things you haven’t seen before. I know I did.

The title of this post refers to the Rolling Stones song, “Dandelion.”

Rainbow of Pollen

I took several photos of bees with pollen today, but I like this one the most because the bee’s wings are in the forward position, and I’m not sure where that pollen is coming from, but it’s got that psychedelic thing going on.

February 2019 Postscript: Due to a technical glitch, all the other photos for this post got lost. The above photo is the best one anyway. Here’s a quick video of clip that shows how much I had to crop in on the original photo.

First Hive Inspection of the Year

February 2019 Introduction: This is a fairly boring video of a full hive inspection. Judging from the number of bees, I would say this colony is in pretty good shape for May in Newfoundland, despite the alarming number of frames with hardly any comb on them. In the video I speak about finding possible signs of wax moth. I didn’t know much in 2011. Newfoundland doesn’t have wax moth. It was just mold. It’s another hive inspection in which I essentially reverse the brood box. It doesn’t necessarily prevent swarming, but I still do it. At the end of the video I make the mistake of installing a hive top feeder with an inner cover on top, which would allow the bees to crawl into the reservoirs of the feeder and drown. Pro tip: Don’t do that. It’s also cool to see the multi-coloured pollen the bees are bringing in, most likely from crocuses.

I did the first hive inspection for one of my hives today.

The brood boxes were effectively reversed by pulling the frames from the top box, installing them in a new box which I used as the new bottom brood box. And for the record, here’s what I found on each frame from the original top box: 1) Natural capped honey comb. 2) Natural capped honey comb. 3) Honey and pollen on a plastic frame. 4) Natural brood, drone and honey comb. 5) Capped and open brood. 6) Natural drone and open brood comb. 7) Brood comb on plastic. 8) Natural empty honey comb. 9) Honey comb on plastic. 10) Uncapped honey comb on plastic. The original bottom box was completely empty, many of the frames with mostly bare plastic foundation (which I’ll probably remove soon). I mistakenly refer to plastic frames in the video. What I meant was plastic foundation. And by natural comb, I mean comb built on a foundationless frame.

Friendly Bee on My Finger

Here’s a couple of heavily cropped in (and therefore not exactly high rez) photos of honey bees with pollen crawling around my fingers:

Update: I was glad to let Elsa Coimbra use this photo in a paper she wrote for the Transdisciplinary Journal of Engineering & Science in 2015. Thanks for asking, Elsa. More often than not, my photos are used without permission. Here’s the paper (PDF).

The bees were bringing in pollen of every colour and crawling all over me after a quick hive inspection.

Honey Bee Resurrection (Topor)

A bee landed on me and followed me into the house yesterday. It tried to get outside but it only got as far as the outside window screen of my office window. The temperature overnight was below freezing. The bee appeared dead the next morning. Until…

February 2019 Postscript: This is an example of torpor. It’s when a bee is so cold it can’t move — and appears dead. The bee comes back to life once it warms up (unless it really is dead). Here’s a video I posted on Twitter that demonstrates it in a slightly more dramatic fashion.

The Aftermath of Moving a Hive

February 2019 Introduction: I makes mistakes all the time, so I feel confident in passing on this pro tip. Here’s my pro tip: After moving a hive to a new spot, remove all signs of the old hive so that any returning bees have no visual cues that their hive was ever there. In other words, don’t do what I did in this video. It’s an enlightening video in that it demonstrates how honey bees summon all their siblings to the location of their new home by fanny pheromones into the air after a major disturbance (which I admit is a very cool thing that honey bees do). But the bees in the video probably would have found the location of their new home much faster and with much less effort if I’d simply removed all signs of their old hive. I should have shaken all the stragglers off the old hive components in front of the new hive. Then I should have removed the old hive stand, the boxes, everything, from the old location, so that nothing that looked like their old hive or smelled like their old hive was there to confuse them.

Honey bees are impressive little navigators. They can continually find their way back to a small patch of flowers miles from their hive, and then give detailed directions to any other bee willing to listen. Honey bees can find their way back home like nobody’s business. It’s amazing. On the other hand, they easily become disoriented to their hive when it’s moved only a couple of feet. A hive can be moved using various techniques designed to help the bees reorient themselves to the new location. I won’t go into that now. I just want to show how cool the bees are. They can deal with just about anything we throw at them. Today after I moved one of my hives, I stood back and watched the bees gradually reorient themselves to the exact location of the new hive. It took a few hours for all of them to get the message, but eventually they homed in on the new location. When half the colony starts cranking out the Nasonov pheromone, it’s hard to miss. Check it out:

This is part 2 of Inspecting and Moving a Hive.

P.S.: I wasn’t wearing any protective clothing during this portion of the video. Not a single sting. Some of the bees became more defensive an hour or so later when plenty of foragers were still coming back to the old spot. I was probably messing up the orientation pheromones with my stinky human smell.

Inspecting and Moving a Hive

February 2019 Introduction: The well-known rule for moving beehives is “3 feet or 3 miles” (3 metres or 5km), and it’s true most of the time. Move a hive more than 3 feet and the bees get disoriented and can’t find their way back to the hive. But move the hive more than 3 miles and they recognize right away that they’re no longer in Kansas and will automatically reorient to the new hive location.

But rules are kind of for dictators, don’t you think? Locally, I know more than a few a prospective beekeepers who were told that they shouldn’t keep bees if the hives can’t be in full sun all day. And that’s bunk. I’ve never kept my bees in full sunshine and they’re fine. In fact, the best colony I ever had, that produced 50kg of surplus honey for me, was a hive that was kept in the woods in the shade for most of the day. They weren’t the most docile bees I’ve ever seen (because some bees get cranky when temperatures drop for any reason), but who cares? I got out of their way, let them do their thing, and I got 100 pounds of honey out of them. Which pretty much kills the full sunshine “rule.”

The “3 feet or 3 miles” rule can be bent in many ways too. I’ve bent the rule when moving hives more than 3 feet within my backyard by moving the bees while it’s dark, when the bees are done flying around for the day, and then I block the top entrance and cover the bottom entrance with a branch from a spruce tree — something that immediately confuses the bees and disrupts their normal flight patterns. The next morning, the branch causes them to reorient to the hive and we’re done.

When I know that three or four days of bad weather are in the forecast, I’ll move a hive the night before the bad weather starts (or even during the bad weather). Honey bees usually have to reorient to the hive location if they haven’t foraged for more than three days. I place a branch in front of the hive entrance just be safe. But that usually works too.

I’ve also moved hives early in the morning on a sunny day. As long as other hives are close by, the disoriented bees have the rest of the day to find their way into a hive, maybe not their original hive, but they find a place to live. I’ve only done that a few times under desperate conditions. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t catastrophic either.

This post from 2011 records the first time I tried moving a hive when I didn’t know all the fine details of the “rule” like I do now. Let’s see how it played out (I’ll jump in with extra info while I read through it all again)…

Hive on the left. Frames were inspected and moved to the empty deep on the right. (May 5, 2011.)

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Slow Motion Honey Bees

The following video isn’t for everyone. Eventually I’ll set up some contraption that will allow me to get close up shots of the bees in flight. I don’t have an expensive camera or any kind of fancy gear, and the angle isn’t the greatest, but you might enjoy this video if you’re truly obsessed with honey bees.

The sound of the bees plays at normal speed.

Bees Doing Bee Things

Our active spring bees haven’t had much of a chance to get active in the past week or so. Freezing rain and fun stuff like that. But they managed to get out today. Nothing big. What I’d call moderate activity. It’s all coming back to me now like a YouTube video in my brain:

I plan to inspect my hives tomorrow or the next day — if the freezing rain doesn’t come back. A hive inspection is a major operation, one that requires my full attention. I may set up a video camera on a tripod and I’ll see what it captures, but getting through the inspection without damaging the hive or injuring the queen is my highest priority.