- Mud Songs, the most reknowned and aptly-named beekeeping blog in Newfoundland, is closed until further notice (though I still post on Twitter). However, the Mud Songs Greatest Hits collection is available now while supplies last in the form of a How-To guide that I’ve revised and built upon over the years. As my coupe de gra, I offer it up in all its glory in this final post, all the gobsmacking wisdom and the many mistakes I’ve made since I began beekeeping since 2010. I believe the best teachers constantly make mistakes and answer, “I don’t know,” to most questions. My apologies in advance if I ever sound like I know what I’m talking about. My YouTube beekeeping videos aren’t such a bad classroom either. See ya!
Here’s a list of informal articles posted to the mighty Mud Songs blog that might be helpful for anyone on the island of Newfoundland (or in a similar climate) interested in starting up a few honey bee colonies for the pleasure of it. While some of these posts could be updated with better information, I’m confident most of the information is reliable. Strategies for maximizing production and profit will not be found here. These are some things that have worked for me as a hobbyist beekeeper since 2010. That’s all.
— Mud Songs (@MudSongsBeek) November 7, 2017
Check out my Practical Tips and Stuff That’s Good To Know for other how-to items that I may have forgotten to add to this page. Also, photos for many of the older articles were deleted during a technical glitch a while back and I haven’t had time to search for and re-upload all the original photos. I’m not sure you could pay enough to do that anyway. But I’ll try to fix them as soon as I can.
Beekeeping Books For Beginners — I got into what might be called my beekeeping studies about year before I bought my first hive. I found most of my learning resources online through websites like Honey Bee Suite, Michael Bush, Bee Culture, Beesource and especially David Burns. YouTube videos were extremely helpful as well. A tonne of good (and bad) beekeeping books are also available. In this post I talk about all the ones that happened to have been useful for me.
Beekeeping Start-Up Costs in Newfoundland (as of 2016) — A list of everything most new beekeepers in Newfoundland might need to get through their first year of beekeeping. These days, most beekeepers in Newfoundland are better off getting all their stuff from G & M Family Farm. Online beekeeping lessons from David Burns aren’t a bad idea either.
Top Bar Hives — I was tempted by top bar hives when I started because I thought they were more natural, but I don’t think there’s such a thing anymore (if I did, I’d pick Warré Hives). I decided to go with Langstroths because they were much less hassle to set up and they’re a known quantity in Newfoundland. While I have no experience with top bar hives (though I did go with foundationless frames during my first year, if that matters), the type of hive one chooses to house their bees in probably doesn’t change the fundamental principles of beekeeping in Newfoundland. The bees still need to be fed as much as possible during the first year. Frames still need to be rearranged on occasion to make room for the queen to lay and to prevent swarming, etc. In other words, much of what I talk about on this page can be applied to top bar hives as well.
How To Care For Nucs — Some friendly tips on building up a honey bee colony in Newfoundland from a nuc. With our short and often cold and damp summers, we can’t count on Mother Nature to get our colonies built up strong enough to make it through the winter. “Nuc” is short for nucleus hive, the small beginner 4-frame hive that has to expand to at least 18 frames before winter sets in. I had no problem getting nucs when I started in 2010, but large scale beekeeping operations and the increased popularity of backyard beekeeping now means that nucs can be hard to find. It’s probably best to place nuc orders no later than January. And two are always better than one.
Stay Away From Australian Honey Bees — I would also be cautious of ordering nucs from anyone who imports their bees from Western Australia. Personally, I don’t give my money to anyone in NL who imports bees from Australia. The motivation for importation is purely financial, people who want to make a profit now instead of later, instead of spending a few years building up their colonies in a safe and self-sustaining manner like most responsible NL beekeepers do. Newfoundland is a safe haven for honey bees that is unique on the planet. Yet we have people willing to take the importation short-cut for quick financial gain. Regardless of the humble beekeeper persona they may present to the unknowing public, individuals who import honey bees from Western Australia exhibit a blatant disregard for a resource that deserves better protection. Despite the dubious claims that Australian bees are healthier than NL bees, the fact is importation of honey bees from anywhere in the world introduces a risk of disease, a risk that is entirely unnecessary.
Sadly, now that it’s begun, importing bees is likely to become a common business practice in order for commercial operators to stay competitive. But with any luck, we can discourage importations enough that the NL government will wake up and redirect its efforts (and tax-payer dollars) into developing a self-sustaining honey bee population on the island, and thus reduce the risk of importing virulent diseases or nasty genetics to zero. Which is what they should have done in the first place.
How To Install a Nuc — A full 25-minute tutorial that shows exactly how I start up a 4-frame nuc on day one. And, yes, I know I’m evil for using plastic foundation in some of my hives. I’ve tried plastic foundation, wax foundation and no foundation in my hives, and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. These days I use a mixture of wax-dipped plastic foundation and foundationless frames in both my brood boxes and my honey supers, and my bees are doing great.
Inserting Frames Into The Brood Nest — When beekeepers move frames around inside the hive, most of the time they’re making room for the queen to lay by inserting an empty frame close to or into the brood nest. They’re also helping the bees expand the brood nest faster (when conditions are right) because the bees are compelled to fill in the empty space provided by the inserted frame. An “empty” frame can be foundationless, it can be drawn comb, it can have wax or plastic foundation. Empty drawn comb will immediately give the queen room to lay. An empty foundationless frame encourages worker bees to build comb instead of swarm cells. The bees don’t always cooperate, but, as always, one hopes for the best. This is such an obvious beekeeping procedure that many experienced beekeeper don’t even think to mention it.
A Tidy Way to Create Drones — Drone comb can gunk up a hive and make a mess when the queen doesn’t have anywhere to lay it. Inserting a foundationless frame near the edge of the brood nest in the spring as the cluster begins to expand is a cheap and easy way to give the queen room to lay drones, and it makes for a much less messy hive. Beekeepers using all foundationless frames don’t have to worry about this.
Making Sugar Syrup and Pollen Patties — It’s difficult to establish a honey bee colony from a nuc in most parts of Newfoundland without feeding it sugar syrup. Giving the bees extra pollen doesn’t hurt either. This post explains how and when I mix syrup and what kind of sugar not to use. The video also demonstrates how easy it is to make pollen patties. In another post, I also write about when, why and how I give my bees pollen patties.
Mixing Sugar Syrup — A short video that demonstrates how I mix sugar syrup with a bucket, a stick and a garden hose. It doesn’t need to be nearly as complicated as some people make it out to be. If I could modify the video, I’d change the part where I add concentrated anise oil to the mixture. Anise extract or nothing at all may be the safest way. See my post on Anise Extract vs Anise Oil for more details.
Frame Feeders / Division Board Feeders — How I slightly modify and use frame feeders. I began with Boardman feeders, but they attract wasps and ants. G & M Family Farm sells some nifty feeders that work well too.
Refilling a Frame Feeder — A video that demonstrates how easy it is to fill a modified frame feeder without disturbing the bees. There’s not much to it, but it’s always good to see exactly how common beekeeping tasks are done. I prefer frame feeders because they’re way cheaper than hive top feeders and can be easily refilled without bothering the bees, and they give first-year beekeepers an excuse to take a peek inside their hives on a regular basis, which I don’t think is a bad thing if done carefully.
Bee Sting Remedy — After scraping the stinger out of my skin, I usually apply witch hazel to bee stings for relief.
Installing a Jar Feeder — Jar feeders aren’t essential to my beekeeping, but everything has its place. Some basic tips on how to make and use a jar feeder. Sometimes what seems obvious isn’t obvious, especially for beginners.
Kill-Free Hive Top Feeder — I have no love for hive top feeders (sometimes called top hive feeders) for all kinds of reasons. One of the reasons: many bees drown in the syrup. Here’s a simple, cheap modification that prevents that. By the way, insert feeders (a cheap, plastic version of a hive top feeder) are a waste of money and fatal when used with nucs.
Dry Sugar Winter Feeding — One of several videos that demonstrates possibly the simplest method for feeding bees in the winter (much easier than mixing up a batch of hard candy). It’s dry sugar poured over newspaper. It’s sometimes referred to as the Mountain Camp Method. A modified version world renowned as The Mud Song Method involves clearing a hole in the middle of the sugar for better ventilation and easier access for the bees.
No-Cook Sugar Bricks — My least favourite aspect of beekeeping is mixing sugar syrup. Cooking sugar syrup to make hard candy is the worst. But here’s the simplest and least messy method of making sugar bricks (or cakes) that can easily be slipped into a hive in the winter without exposing the bees to cold air. I get the impression that fondant feeding is convenient and effective as well, but making fondant requires cooking up syrup, and buying fondant is too costly for me, so I can’t speak from personal experience on that one.URBAN BEEKEEPING TIPS — There’s no link to this one. I’m just passing on these guidelines based on my experience with horrible neighbours in St. John’s. This is what I would do if I could turn back time (it’s the stuff hardly anyone ever talks about when promoting beekeeping, but they should):
1) I would keep the hives hidden and keep them as far as possible from my neighbours’ back door (at least 6 metres or 20 feet).
2) To keep things under control, especially in a small backyard, I wouldn’t have more than three hives.
3) I would make sure not to overfeed my bees after the first summer because overfeeding easily leads to swarming. Honey bees don’t sting while swarming, but neighbours who don’t know that tend to freak out when they see a cloud of bees filling their backyard.
4) I would have a plan for dealing with swarms because, no matter how well they’re managed, the bees will definitely swarm some day.
5) Honey bees will often drink from swimming pools because they’re attracted to the chlorine smell of the water. Not everyone likes honey bees hanging around their swimming pools.
6) Honey bees like to poop on shiny cars (and clothes hanging on clotheslines) and it doesn’t come off easily. It can even ruin the finish on some vehicles once it cakes on. Early spring cleansing flights are the worst. If the bees’ regular flight path in the summer is over a neighbour’s driveway where said neighbour proudly washes his brand new pick-up truck every weekend, that will not be a happy neighbour. People with open-minded neighbours who are glad to have honey bees around can probably relax and won’t need to worry about any of this. See my Urban Beekeeping posts for more info.How to Reverse Brood Boxes — Reversing the brood boxes isn’t essential, but it supposedly prevents swarming. I like it because it gives me an excuse to do a full inspection to start the year off. I reverse the boxes as soon as the bees start bringing in pollen (around mid-April in Newfoundland if I’m lucky). I rarely do full hive inspections during the rest of the year. It comes with experience, from knowing what I’m looking at, but I usually only need to move empty frames closer to the brood nest and the bottom box is left untouched.
Building Frames — Everyone has their own method for building frames. This is what I did for my first few hives. But it’s a bit tedious and not recommended for anyone with more than five hives. Probably fine for beginners though. View Building Bee Hive #1 to see how we built our first hive if you want, but there’s not much to it. No detailed instructions required. This post also includes instructions on how to use and make a frame jig (a little device that speeds up the frame-making process).
How to Paint Beehives — Acrylic latex paint and a brush plus a couple saw horses and some scrap lumber.Homemade Bottom Board — A bottom board made from scrap wood I found in my shed. It’s the cheapest and easiest hive part I’ve made. I’ll never order another bottom board again. I’ve been using this thing, along with my other slapped together bottom boards, for a few years now. It’s ugly but the bees don’t care. It works as good as any industrial made bottom board I own.
Homemade Screened Bottom Board — Exactly like the other homemade bottom board, only with a big hole cut in the bottom and a screen stapled over it. I wouldn’t say it’s essential, but during the peak of summer when the honey flows are flying high, the screened bottom board greatly relieves the humidity inside the hive, which makes it easier for the bees to make honey. This is a very rough version of a screened bottom board, but it works. Another thought: I also make inner covers and top covers (which are absurdly expensive to buy because of shipping costs) and I do it with zero carpentry skills and scrap wood. A piece of old plywood with a rock on top of it can pass for a top cover. It might not look like the Taj Mahal, but it doesn’t matter to the bees one bit.
Making a Ventilator Rim — I’ve learned that proper ventilation is essential for a healthy hive. This cheap and easy-to-make ventilator rim (a.k.a. a ventilation eke) goes a long way. It also doesn’t take much work to convert it into a moisture quilt (similar to a quilt box), which for my money is the best (and most affordable) ventilation aid ever invented. I use my moisture quilts all-year round. Commercially available ventilation boxes are good, too, but for me, making my own moisture quilts is cheaper.Feeding Bees Crystallized Honey — Got left over honey that’s crystallized in the jar? Feed it back to the bees. They love it.
Mouse-Proofing a Hive with Mesh — A cheap and easy way to keep mice out of the hive over the winter. Remember to get the mesh on early, well before winter sets in. A mouse in a hive can devastate a colony. (I plan to use quarter-inch mesh as of 2015, because shrews can get in through the half-inch mesh.)
Shrew-Proofing a Hive with Mesh — Mice are a walk in the park compared to shrews. I lost 75% of my colonies in the winter of 2015 from shrew predation. That’s why I cover all the entrances to my hives in the winter with 6mm (quarter-inch) mesh by the first week of October to keep shrews out. I’ve created a category just for shrews. This information is absolutely essential. I recently heard from a local beekeeper who saw shrews squeezing through a 3/8-inch mouse guard, which makes me glad I use 1/4-inch mesh. Some people like to yell hysterically that quarter-inch mesh traps the bees inside the hive. Wrong.
Attaching Mesh with Thumb Tacks — It is what it says it is. A staple gun disturbs the bees. Thumb tacks don’t. And it’s easier to remove the mesh and clear out dead bees if necessary.
Wrapping Hives for Winter — Most beekeepers in Newfoundland wrap their hives for winter sometime in November. A Type 15 asphalt felt does the trick. I don’t always wrap my hives. None of my unwrapped hives have ever froze to death. But I can see how it might help in locations where the hives don’t get much direct sunlight during the winter. Most new beekeepers would rather play it safe, so go for it.
Making Insulated Inner Hive Covers — These insulated inner hive covers reduce condensation from building up inside the hive, which is essential for winter survival. It’s the dampness that kills the bees, not the cold. A simple piece of R-7.5 hard insulation over the inner cover seems equally as effective. I’ve since replaced these with moisture quilts, but in some climates (e.g., areas that are nowhere near Logy Bay in Newfoundland, which might be one of the dampest, foggiest places anywhere), hard insulation is probably fine.
How To Prepare Your Beehives for Winter — A long rambling post that shows how I prepare my hives for winter as of 2015.
Monitoring Bees With a Stethoscope — I use a $7 stethoscope to listen to my bees in the winter, more or less to check if they’re still alive. It works. I’ve also used a Flir One thermal camera to monitor my bees in the winter time, but it’s a fiddly device that doesn’t work with wrapped hives, the battery dies in about 5 minutes when exposed to a typical Newfoundland winter day, and it probably isn’t worth the expense for most hobbyist beekeepers.Requeening a Hive — Requeening becomes necessary for a variety of reasons that are mentioned in this post. Most new beekeepers shouldn’t have to worry about requeening until their second year.
Dealing With Wasps — Established colonies can defend off wasps, but here’s the wasp trap I use to kill them.
Water Dish for Bees — I don’t think beekeepers in Newfoundland need to worry about their bees dying of thirst. But here’s an easy, pretty way to give them water.
How To Move a Hive — Illustrated step-by-step instructions on how to move a Langstroth hive a short distance. Includes a video that shows how the bees react to having their hive moved.
How To Use an Escape Board — A video that demonstrates how I use a bee escape board to remove bees from honey supers before the honey harvest.
How to Do a Full Hive Inspection — A long video that details pretty much everything I do whenever I inspect a hive.
Cut Comb + Crushed & Strained Bottled Honey — A video (with photos) that demonstrates how we made cut comb (that’s raw honey comb) and crushed the honey out of some comb and then bottled it, all very low tech in the simplicity of our kitchen. Also see Making Sloppy Cut Comb and Crushing and Straining a Small Batch of Honey for an even lower tech method that anyone can do. Extracted honey from conventional frames with plastic foundation can give you more honey, but it’s not nearly as much fun as cutting raw comb off a foundationless frame and biting into it. Once you’ve done that, you’ll realize it was all worth it.EpiPen — The dark side of beekeeping is that some people, even people who have been stung many times before, can have an anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting that is life-threatening. I always have an EpiPen near by just to be safe.
Hive Tool For The Colourblind — I wrap yellow duct tape around the middle of red hive tools so they’re easier to find when I drop them in the grass, which I do all the time. However, since I first wrote this post, I just make sure to leave my hive tool outside on top of a hive. That way I never have to go looking for it.
THINGS I DON’T DO…
Weighing Hives — I don’t weigh my hives to determine if they have enough honey going into winter. I usually feed syrup in the fall until the bees stop taking it, which I know isn’t the best practice because sometimes it doesn’t leave the bees enough open cells to cluster in, but it’s easier than lifting hives and pulling my back out — and so far it’s worked well enough for me.
One Size Frames and Supers — I don’t use medium supers for my brood boxes, though if there’s anything I’ve been tempted to do, that’s #1 on my list. Some well-known beekeepers like Kim Flottum recommend using only medium supers for everything, brood chambers, honey supers — all of it — because then all the frames are interchangeable and lighter to lift and more convenient for the beekeeper in many ways. It’s also argued that it’s easier for the bees to move between smaller frames of honey in the winter; therefore they’re less likely to starve during extreme cold spells. But I don’t know of anyone in Newfoundland who’s ever tried it. It could be a disaster.
Natural Beekeeping — I don’t buy into natural beekeeping, though I did when I started. While many good beekeeping practices follow the direction of the bees’ instinctive behaviours, I’ve seen more natural beekeepers (for example, people who don’t believe in feeding their nucs sugar syrup) lose their colonies before the end of their first winter than anyone else. That level of so-called natural beekeeping seems to be a romanticized version of beekeeping that encourages idealistic thinking and practices that are not realistic for keeping honey bees alive on the island of Newfoundland.
Queen Rearing — I don’t rear my own queens. I’ve always wanted to, but I could never find the time. When I needed to requeen, I ordered mated queens from the Newfoundland Bee Company or the G & M Family Farm. I’ve created new colonies from swarm cells (naturally, I suppose you could say), but that only seems to work well when there are several colonies in the area and the queens can mate with drones that aren’t their siblings (inbred queens can produce some seriously mean bees).
Swarm Prevention — I don’t do anything fancy to prevent swarming. I try not to overfeed my bees in the early spring and I make sure the queen has room to lay by inserting drawn comb or blank or empty frames near the brood nest. If I find swarm cells, I move those frames to a new deep and start a new colony because everything else is too complicated and most other methods of swarm prevention, once swarm cells are present, just don’t work. That’s why the most useful thing in my tool box is extra stuff: extra frames, extra drawn comb (usually after a colony dies), extra deeps, extra bottom boards, extra feeders, etc.
The Flow Hive — The highly romantic vision of beekeeping that everybody falls for is what brings most people to beekeeping (myself included), and it’s sadly also the reason most people will quit within the first two or three years. Because it doesn’t take long for reality to sink in. The reality is that beekeeping takes more time and effort and close attention than is ever revealed by any idealized vision of beekeeping — and nothing idealizes beekeeping more than The Flow Hive. Maybe it’s a great invention, but I don’t like how new beekeepers are deceived by it. While I don’t discourage anyone from getting a Flow Hive (I’d love to see if it works in Newfoundland), I’ve never been tempted by it because I know through experience that there’s more to beekeeping than turning on a tap. And I’m pretty sure adding a Flow Hive to all my other beekeeping responsibilities wouldn’t make my life any easier.
Bee Brushes — I don’t use a bee brush and haven’t since I lost mine about four years ago. I just shake the bees off the frame because it’s quick and easy and doesn’t seem to bother the bees.
Slatted Rack — I don’t use a slatted rack only because I don’t have the carpentry skills to build one. But I’ve always heard wonderful things about them.
I don’t understand why rims (sometimes referred to as ekes and shims) aren’t sold as standard components for Langstroth hives. I use them all the time.
But that’s just me.
— Phillip Cairns (@PhillipCairns) May 15, 2017
My intention for the mighty Mud Songs blog was to share my experiences in beekeeping in a manner that may have allowed others to learn from those experiences without being told what to do. I say this because the best beekeeping teachers I’ve had don’t give advice. They share their knowledge by saying things like, “Sometimes I do this and it works. Maybe it’ll work for you.”
Enthusiastic novice beekeepers, on the other hand, easily turn into self-appointed authorities on beekeeping after absorbing everything they can about beekeeping. They’ve never had to deal with swarms, mice, shrews, ants, wasps, starving colonies, freezing colonies, failing queens, defensive bees, vandalism, unfriendly neighbours and so on. Their opinions are not tempered by experience, but that doesn’t stop them from giving self-righteous, even condescending advice. They just love telling people what to do. I can spot them a mile away because I used to be one of them when I first started beekeeping in 2010.
I learned quickly, however, that the knowledge gained from actually beekeeping is astonishing and humbling compared to what I’d learned from my research on beekeeping. And it still is. Acting like a hotshot and telling everyone what’s what is the last thing I’d want to do (and I hope I haven’t). Although doing my homework is important, I’ve learned there are few absolutes in beekeeping and there is plenty of room for every beekeeper to discover through their own experiences what works best for them and their bees.
Please note that I may eventually edit many of the early posts where I was cocky enough to give advice like I knew what I was talking about.
My scintillating guide to beekeeping ends here. There’s no need to go any further. I realize my views on so-called natural beekeeping may have rubbed a few people the wrong way, but that’s nothing compared to what I think about importing honey bees, or any kind of bees, onto the island of Newfoundland. Bring it on…
POST-POSTSCRIPT: Importing Honey Bees onto the Island of Newfoundland
Someone asked me what I thought about the importation of honey bees to Newfoundland from Western Australia. The government agency responsible for the imports, Agrifoods, argues that importing honey bees is the only way to meet market demand. I call b.s. on that. They didn’t even consider providing the resources for local beekeepers to create nucleus colonies or even packages to meet that market demand — a viable solution that requires considerably less taxpayers money to fund than the importation process. They could have encouraged the build up of Newfoundland honey bee colonies in a sustainable and guaranteed safe manner by using local honey bees instead of helping out people who want to take short-cuts by importing potentially diseased bees. It’s the kind of short-sighted behaviour that serves as a nuisance to the majority of beekeepers on the island who approach beekeeping with a greater sense of responsibility. Sacbrood virus was detected in Newfoundland honey bees in 2016 shortly after a large number of packages were imported from Western Australia. I hope that’s just a coincidence. It only takes one virulent honey bee disease to destroy decades of beekeeping on the island. Safeguards are often overlooked when there’s quick money to be made. And it looks to me like that’s where we’re headed. The importation of honey bees from Western Australia, or from anywhere, sets a dangerous precedent. Newfoundland beekeepers can do better than this, and deserve better than this.
For a more detailed discussion on this issue, see my original comment from May 2016. My opinion is the same today.
So anyhow, let’s take a look at some honey bees I recorded in slow motion on my cell phone…
— Mud Songs Beekeeping (@MudSongsBeek) June 24, 2016
As of 2017, Mud Songs is closed.