Alternatives to Joining a Beekeeping Association

Updated and completely rewritten in 2019.

There is a public assumption that joining the Newfoundland & Labrador Beekeeping Association (the NLBKA) is the best way to begin one’s beekeeping journey in Newfoundland. But that’s not always the case. For people in Newfoundland who just want to become good beekeepers but don’t want to join the NLBKA or can’t afford it, there are plenty of alternatives available to them:

Any of the websites maintained by Rusty Burlew, David Burns, Randy OliverMichael Bush or Ron Miksha should provide more than enough practical information on honey bees and beekeeping to help anyone get started.

There’s a ton of reading material out there, both online and in print, but The Beekeeper’s Handbook may be the most comprehensive and affordable single-volume guide to beekeeping I’ve ever read, so that might be something worth reading, just to get the ball rolling.

The YouTube videos posted by the National Honey Show are world class beekeeping presentations from some of the biggest heavy hitters in the beekeeping world.  They may go a bit too deep for absolute beginners, but it probably doesn’t hurt to have them on the radar. The University of Guelph produces more beginner-friendly videos from its beeyards that also also might be worth checking out.

Ian Steppler’s beekeeping videos out of Manitoba are exactly the kind of videos I would post if I was a commercial beekeeper. I’ll likely never have the money or the land to keep bees on a commercial level, but if I ever thought about hitting the big time, I’d be all over his videos. Even as a backyard beekeeper, I’ve learned quite a lot from him.

Due to the province’s sparse population and ridiculous geographical expanse, it’s difficult for prospective beekeepers in Newfoundland to find even the most basic beekeeping workshop, but talking with at least one beekeeper and seeing some bees up close and personal might be the best first step. Locally, the Backyard Farming & Homesteading NL Facebook page is a friendly place to ask people about their beekeeping experiences (and to meet up with other beekeepers).  So is the BeeSource forum and the Worldwide Beekeeping forum (where many beekeepers from Atlantic Canada regularly contribute).

And finally, for the truly desperate, we have my beekeeping videos which, as far as I know, are the only ones on planet earth that thoroughly document what it’s like to get into beekeeping as a backyard beekeeper in Newfoundland.

My lofty goal for the videos and everything I post on this stupendous blog is to be honest about my mistakes while documenting what actually seems to work so that others might learn from me without being told what to do. An intuitive intelligence for beekeeping can come to light through experiential teaching and learning. My intention is to provide space for people to ‘get it.’ I hope that’s what I do.

Most of the above alternatives to joining a beekeeping association are available for free to everyone, which is a nice break for people who can’t afford the NLBKA’s $100+ AGMs and annual membership fee on top of their already hefty beekeeping expenses. Most of the above (not just my stuff) represents thousands of hours of unpaid work given to the public for the pleasure of it, and I know by talking with many new beekeepers that it often provides a better option than what’s currently offered through the NLBKA which seems more concerned at times with its façade of authority than with helping people with the practical matters of getting into beekeeping.

I don’t think the NLBKA is all it’s made out to be. I’m not completely against it, but I know too many good beekeepers who have been thoroughly repelled by a certain officious element within the association over the years — and I’m obviously one of them. I can’t pretend to ignore that any longer (I’ve tried). Nevertheless, there are some important beekeeping initiatives being brought forward by the association that shouldn’t be dismissed. I doubt any of those initiatives are going to win back all the beekeepers who’ve walked away from the NLBKA over the years, but maybe they will once certain gatekeepers step aside and some new blood has a chance to circulate. I hope so.

Either way, new or prospective beekeepers shouldn’t feel pressured to join the NLBKA. It’s not the end of the world if they don’t join. Many people in Newfoundland continue to become excellent, well-informed beekeepers without having anything to do with the provincial beekeeping association. And that’s okay.

The small backyard where I first kept bees.

Earwigs in the Hive

Just for the record, August in earwig month in Newfoundland. More and more of them are showing up under the top covers of my hives.

February 2019 Postscript: Earwigs are creepy and gross and I flick them out the hives when I see them, but they don’t hurt the bees.

Hive Humidity Video

This kind of humidity probably wouldn’t be an issue if I could find a screened bottom board or a screened inner cover somewhere. Or I suppose I could try to build one.

Imagine how difficult it is to dry honey inside such a humid hive. My ventilation rim helps, but a screened bottom board would probably help out even more.

UPDATE: The ventilation rims pull moisture from the hive by allowing an air current to flow over the inner cover hole. But as you can see in the video, humidity can still build up inside the hive underneath the inner cover. So here’s a little something I do with my hives when I know we’re in for some sunny days:

Popsicle stick ventilation aid. (August 17, 2011.)

I pry up the inner covers just a bit and slide Popsicle sticks through the corners of the hive. This allows more hot air and humidity trapped under the inner cover to escape, yet the crack is small enough to prevent predatory insects like wasps from getting in. Another simple, cheap and effective beekeeping tip brought to by the good folks at Mud Songs.

August 20th, 2011: I put my hand in front of the entrances of all the hives today, no entrance reducers on the hives, and I could feel the humidity pumping out of every one of them. I’m convinced now that all my Langstroth hives in St. John’s, Newfoundland, maybe even my nucs, would benefit from as much ventilation as possible at least during the month of August. That means: 1) Screened bottom board, 2) Ventilated inner cover, 3) Ventilation rim. Those three together would be dynamite. Add to it a slatted rack and follower boards (aka dummy boards) and the hives will be boiling over with healthy bees and tons of honey. That’s my best guess, anyway.

February 2019 Postscript: I don’t use slatted racks because I don’t have the carpentry skills to make them and I can’t affordably buy them from any commercial supplier. I’d use one if I had one, but I’ve gone almost nine years without using slatted racks and I’m doing alright, so…?

I don’t use screened inner covers, though I sometimes add empty moisture quilts to my hives during extreme heat spells.

I’ve used commercially manufactured screened bottom boards and my own homemade junky looking screened bottom boards. Honestly, the ones I made from scrap wood worked just as well, if not better. The bees don’t care. I only have two or three of them banging around, so most of my hives do fine without them. But they help keep the hives dry, even in the winter, though I don’t have enough experience to have the most informed opinion about that.

(Note: Screened bottom boards in Newfoundland aren’t used for mite counts because the island of Newfoundland doesn’t have Varroa mites. We’ll have them someday because the measures in place to prevent them from getting on the island are not adequate, especially considering that honey bees in Newfoundland have never had Varroa and all the diseases that come with it and are probably the healthiest honey bees on planet Earth. But as of February 25th, 2019, Varroa hasn’t yet made its way to Newfoundland. When it does, that’s the day I quit.)

I pretty much just use ventilation rims and moisture quilts for ventilation, a nearly identical configuration to the D.E. Hive, and that seems to work well for me most of the time.

I just remembered that I also stick hive tools and one-dollar coins underneath my inner covers just like I do with Popsicle sticks to provide a little extra ventilation from time to time.

Beekeeping for Honey, or Beekeeping for Bees?

It’s February 2019 as I revisit this post from 2011 — and I’ve deleted the whole thing except for two photos. The original title of this post was, “Still No Honey.”

This was my second summer of beekeeping and I wanted some payback for all the work I’d put into keeping my bees alive. I wanted some honey. I was midway through August and still saw no signs of my bees making honey. I always tell people that honey isn’t the reason I keep bees. It isn’t. But… if I wasn’t able to get a taste of honey at all, ever, I wouldn’t put nearly as much work into beekeeping as I do.

Let’s pause this thought for a minute and talk about keeping bees just for the sake of keeping bees. If that’s all I wanted to do, I’d do everything I normally do to build a colony up from a nuc so that it would survive its first winter. If the colony was weak, I’d give it sugar and pollen patties in late winter, early spring, to give it a boost, etc. — all the standard stuff most first year beekeepers have to do on the island of Newfoundland.

Fresh comb in Hive #1’s honey super. (August 12, 2011.)

But instead of concerning myself with harvesting honey, I’d add a third deep in the late spring and simply manage the hive as a 3-deep hive. An established healthy honey bee colony living in a 3-deep hive should be able to make enough honey for itself so that it doesn’t need syrup or sugar feeding to get through the winter. The space of 3 deeps should provide enough room for it to build up in the spring without much risk of swarming. Ideally, it would be a self-sustaining and self-regulating honey bee colony, producing enough honey to survive the winter on its own and having enough space to expand in the spring with little risk of swarming.

And by ideally I mean it’ll never work out that way. It would still require some heavy lifting by an attentive beekeeper to keep the bees alive from time to time. For instance, emergency feeding when necessary; splitting the hive or adding deeps if the population gets out of control. But overall, I imagine it would be easier to manage than a regular 2-deep Langstroth hive that’s being pushed to make as much honey as possible.

But back to wanting a honey harvest when the bees don’t want to make honey. It can’t be forced. Or it can be, but is that a good idea? In my experience, bees working off foundationless frames take longer to fill up a medium honey super. That makes sense. Even if the honey super frames are full of foundation, it might still take a while for the bees to build comb and then make surplus honey. The best situation is usually when the honey super already has drawn comb in it. The bees clean up the comb and then get to work making honey in no time. The smell of the empty comb stimulates them and signals to them that they have space upstairs to store some honey.

But even then, they still won’t do anything in the honey super until they’re ready. Like all of Mother Nature’s wonderful creations, honey bees have evolved to be extremely efficient. The bees won’t expand unless they have to. If they already have plenty of room to store honey, they’ll just stay where they are. But once the population expands and there’s not enough room for all the bees and not enough honey for them, then (generally speaking) they’ll move upstairs and go to work on the honey supers.

Most of my attempts at pushing the bees to make surplus honey when they weren’t ready for it didn’t turn out so well. Reducing the whole hive to a single deep, for instance, and giving them only honey supers up top can work. But it usually requires feeding the bees buckets of syrup afterwards so they have enough stores to survive the winter. So essentially I take all their honey and replace it with expensive sugar syrup that isn’t nearly as good for them. Commercial beekeepers do that all the time because otherwise they go broke, but as a backyard beekeeper, I just don’t feel the need to push my beekeeping to that level.

When I want my bees to make surplus honey, I add a honey super. Then I wait.

To answer the question, do I keep bees for the bees or for the honey? A bit of both, really.

Homemade Bottom Board

I made this bottom board from scrap wood I found in my shed today:

Bottom boards made from scrap lumber. I’m so proud of myself. (August 12, 2011.)

I cut the thick plywood 16.5 inches wide (about 42cm) and 2 feet long (70cm). The brace wood, if you want to call it that, was the same dimensions as a super, 20 inches by about 15 inches, something like that. The hive entrance (once a hive is placed on top) is about 1 and a quarter inches high, which is fine. It’s not pretty but the bees don’t care about pretty. I think it’ll work. I’ll post a photo of it in a day or two when I put a hive on top of it. I should have been making these all along. It’s way cheaper than ordering them from a supplier and having them shipped here. If you had to pay for the raw material, though, I’m guessing it would be less than $5.

February 9th, 2013: This bottom board has worked out fine. It’s ugly and half rotted now, but the bees don’t seem to care. Today I would use thick plywood instead of chipboard, and I’d paint it, but there’s nothing wrong with getting by with one made from cheap scrap wood.

January 20th, 2015: Don’t lay this flat-bottom bottom board on a pallet or any kind of flat surface (like a pallet), if that makes sense. The wood can easily become moist, and you don’t want moisture in the hive. You want the hive off the ground, but preferably with something that makes minimal contact with the bottom board. And by “you,” I mean me.

Improving Ventilation in a Langstroth Hive with the Patented World-Famous Mud Songs Ventilation Rim™

I’ve since converted all of my fabulously patented ventilation rims into moisture quilts. See the updates at the end for more details. And of course I’m joking about the trademark… and the patent.

I made some improvements to the design of my ventilation rim (also known as a ventilation eke; also known as a vent box; also known as a whole bunch of other things because beekeepers are the worst for settling on a single name for one thing). It’s still cheap and easy to make and should do a fine job at improving the ventilation of any Langstroth-type hive. First, I cut four pieces of wood for the front, back and sides of the rim. Here’s a shot of the side pieces:

Side pieces for the ventilation rim.


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