Converting To All-Medium Hives (Sort of)

Someday I’ll start posting instructional beekeeping videos again, but these days I enjoy down and dirty beekeeping work more, just hanging out with the bees and talking out loud, saying whatever comes to mind. I did this a couple days ago while inspecting all seven hives in my little shaded beeyard. Most of it was junk, what I said and what I got on video, but I still think there’s something to be had from watching these kinds of videos where not much happens, because real life, real beekeeping, is exactly that 95% of the time. It’s grimy tedious work. Let’s see what happens…


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Honey Bees on Snow Crocuses

More slow motion shots of honey bees on crocuses. For people stuck at home looking for a break, it’s not bad to watch this one in full-screen mode in the highest resolution. No audio required, though you might like that too.

Honey bees on crocus flower. (April 14th, 2020, Flatrock, Isle of Newfoundland.)

This time the bees are in better focus (though I’m still working out some of the kinks).

Don’t ask me what variety of crocuses these are because I have no idea. (Update: But apparently they’re commonly called Snow Crocuses. I’ve revised the title of this post to reflect this newfound knowledge.)

The video was shot on a pocket-sized camera called a Sony RX-100v.

What Are These Bees Doing?

Some of my bees got out for cleansing flights a couple days ago and a bunch of them landed on the side of my shed and began scenting, grooming each other, and I saw a little trophallaxis happening too. And it wasn’t a swarm. I’ve only been keeping bees since 2010 (not a long time) with a relatively small number of hives, and I rarely meet up with other beekeepers, so it’s not surprising that I’ve never seen or heard about this before.

My best guess is that the bees have been clustered deep down in their hives all winter, buried under snow for most of it, and they haven’t had a good day for cleansing flights until now. Honey bees communicate and get to know each other by touching (grooming, bumping up to each other) and feeding each other through the exchange of enzymatic fluids in their guts. It’s how the smell of each other and, more importantly, the queen is spread throughout the colony. It’s a big part of how they stay together and work together as a single super-organism. From what I’ve seen, they usually do this kind of getting-to-know-each-other-again-after-a-long-hard-winter socialising inside or near the entrance of the hive. But I guess they were just enjoying the fresh air and sunshine so much, some of them decided to stay outside and others joined in the party.

UPDATE: It’s obvious now what the bees are doing. They’re hanging out in a warm spot of sunshine just like cats do.

A Beautifully Over-Wintered Colony

I’ve probably never been more pleased with an over-wintered colony than I am with the one in this video. I’m not entirely sure what I did, but these bees have been clustering way down in the bottom of their hive under an insulating and tasty block of honey all winter long and are only now beginning to show up above the top bars. And they’re not even close to starving. I love it. I’ll drop my theory on how that happened after the video.


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How to Do The First Hive Inspection of the Year

For any first-year beekeepers in Newfoundland (or a similar climate) wondering what they might find during their first hive inspection of the year (which usually falls somewhere between late April and mid-May), here’s a video of my first hive inspection in 2011 that shows a fairly healthy colony coming out of winter, one that allowed me to steal a boat load of honey from it later that summer (though I may have had to feed it for a few weeks to give it a boost; I don’t remember).

I found honey on the outside frames, some pollen mixed in and then capped and open brood spread out over five or six frames in the middle. I might have been concerned with one or two frames of brood (though queenright colonies with zero brood as late as May 15th isn’t unheard of) but five or six frames of brood during the first week of May is pretty good for my local climate. (None of my colonies are doing as well this year. They’re still recovering from The Attack of The Shrews.) The hive body underneath was more or less empty.

These days I’m usually much faster with my inspections, but overall the video demonstrates how I still inspect (and reverse) my hives every spring. I have a more detailed video in the works, but for now I’ll break it down like this (assuming we’re dealing with a 2-deep Langstroth hive and it’s a warm, windless sunny day somewhere between 11am and 2pm):
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A Brood Nest That Favours The West Side

I have a colony of bees that always clusters on the west side of their hive — and I don’t know why.

Cluster expanding from the west side. (April 23, 2016.)

Cluster expanding from the west side. (April 23, 2016.)

I’ve had this colony for almost four years now (she’s an old queen that I started from a swarm cell) and I’ve noticed this clustering behaviour since day one. Even when I rearrange the frames of the brood nest in the spring so all the brood is in the middle of the hive, the brood nest eventually shifts to the west side of the hive.

I’ve checked everything over the years and there’s nothing unusual about the hive set up. No signs of mice, no leaks on one side of the hive, nothing. I’ve used various hive bodies and other hive components. I even moved the hive to a different beeyard and rotated it so the cluster was on the east side. Within a month the cluster shifted to the west side. My best guess is the bees prefer the heat of the setting sun.

July 2019 Postscript: There’s nothing unusual about the bees favouring the warmer or sunny side of their hive. I’ve seen in many times, both in the winter and the summer.

Newfoundland Winter: November to April

Enough with the snow already.

100 km/h winds and enough snow to shut down schools and universities in what I hope is the last snow storm of the year. (April 20, 2016.)

100 km/h winds and enough snow to shut down schools and universities in what I hope is the last snow storm of the year. (April 20, 2016.)

A FEW HOURS LATER: The snow keeps coming.

Three days ago my bees were bringing in the first pollen of the year. (April 20, 2016.)

Three days ago my bees were bringing in the first pollen of the year. (April 20, 2016.)

THE NEXT DAY:

The day after 50cm / 20 inches of snow. (April 21, 2016.)

The day after 50cm / 20 inches of snow. (April 21, 2016.)

April 27th, 2016: A week ago today, I asked if Newfoundland has had its final snowstorm of the year. The answer is no. Here’s my sad little beeyard this morning.


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Honey Bees Eat Sugar Cakes

I removed all the emergency winter sugar from my hives today. Some of the sugar was in the form of sugar bricks or sugar cakes and I wasn’t sure if the bees were eating it or clearing it out like they sometimes do with dry sugar.

Top of a sugar cake. (April 17, 2016.)

Top of a sugar cake. (April 17, 2016.)

Well, turns out they were eating it.

Bottom side of a sugar cake eaten away by the bees. (April 17, 2016.)

Bottom side of a sugar cake eaten away by the bees. (April 17, 2016.)

The undersides of all the bricks and cakes were eaten away by the bees, and I didn’t find any sugar on the bottom board of the hives. In other words, the bees ate it; they didn’t discard it.

As much as dry sugar feeding has served me well, I might switch completely to sugar bricks next winter. The bees seem to either leave the sugar bricks alone or eat them, and I find it easier to clean up in the spring than the newspaper left behind with the dry sugar method. Just my thinking at the moment.

First Pollen of 2016

I post this for my own records. I saw some of my bees with a sprinkle of yellow pollen on their legs yesterday and today I managed to snap off this blurry photo of a honey bee with what I’d call a good load of pollen.

First pollen of the year in Flatrock, Newfoundland, and it's yellow. (April 17, 2016.)

First pollen of the year in Flatrock, Newfoundland, and it’s yellow. (April 17, 2016.)

It seems too early for dandelions or any other naturally yellow flower, so I’m guessing someone has some crocuses planted nearby. Good enough. Spring in Newfoundland hasn’t quite sprung yet, but we’re getting there.

First pollen on the year. Bee resting on old sugar cake. (April 17, 2016.)

First pollen on the year. Bee resting on old sugar cake. (April 17, 2016.)

The pollen could also bee from coltsfoot, a.k.a. Tussilago, though I haven’t seen any around. It could pollen from pussy willows too. I’ll have to look around when I have a chance.

April 24th, 2016: A week later the bees were bringing in more of the same pollen.

Seeing how there was snow on the ground, my guess is the pollen had to come from a bush or tree, not a ground level plant like crocuses.

A Hive Pumping Out Heat

I noticed something unusual yesterday. I happened to touch the top cover of one of my hives and it seemed warm. Warm on a typical frigid April day in Newfoundland. So I pulled the top off and put my hand on the wood chips in the moisture quilt…

A hive giving off some heat. (April 15, 2016.)

A hive giving off some heat. (April 15, 2016.)

…and that sucker was giving off some serious heat. I’ve felt heat over the moisture quilt in the winter in strong colonies that were clustering near the top, but never this late in the winter. (On a practical level, my winter beekeeping doesn’t end until it’s warm enough to give the bees sugar syrup, if necessary.)

Q1501 giving off heat next to the shed. (April 15, 2016.)

One seriously hot hive next to my bee supply shed. (April 15, 2016.)

It might not mean anything, but it could mean the queen has been laying and a big batch of brood recently emerged. That’s just a guess.

I took a peek under the moisture quilt and it was packed with bees all over the dry sugar and devouring a pollen patty I threw in about a week ago. I’m not sure what to think, but to feel that much heat coming out of a hive at this time of year — it’s a new one for me.

UPDATE (the next day): After inspecting the hive, I did find a frame a brood, though overall I’d say it’s a fairly small cluster for this time of the year. Whatever is going on, nothing bad seemed to have come from the heat. Strange.

Why Do Honey Bees Eat Chicken Feed?

Because they’re hungry for protein. That’s why honey bees eat chicken feed. Especially in the early spring when the queen is laying again and there are more mouths to feed. (Spring is a relative term for beekeepers on the island of Newfoundland.)

Honey bees eating chicken feed. (Flatrock, NL, April 9, 2016.)

Honey bees eating chicken feed. (Flatrock, NL, April 9, 2016.)

I gave my bees pollen patties earlier in the winter and they showed little interest in them. But judging by how intensely they’re digging into the chicken feed (full of protein), I bet they wouldn’t say no to a protein-rich pollen patty right about now.

2016-04-09 15.04.55

April 2019 Postscript: Honey bees are often starving for protein in the early spring before much of anything has flowered. They will dig into anything that looks or smells like protein, including chicken food, dog food, bird feed, a pile of sawdust — you name it, they’ll go for it.

Newfoundland Honey Bee Forage

Introduction: It’s impressive to see how many wild flowers will grow in exposed soil when the soil is simply left alone. I once moved into a house with a gravel driveway and one half of the driveway was never used. Everything seemed to grow in that gravel and dirt, every kind of clover, bush, vine — you name it, it grew there. And all I did was leave it alone. I saw more of my honey bees, bumble bees and other native pollinators over on those flowers than anywhere else. So maybe planting flowers to “save the bees” isn’t necessary. Maybe all we need to do is expose some soil to the wind and see what happens. In any case, here’s a list of flowers, both wild and cultivated, that my honey bees seem to be attracted to. This list was last updated in August 2019 when I added Cow Vetch.

Honey bees in Newfoundland, or at least where I live on the eastern part of the island, aren’t likely to see any pollen until April when crocuses begin to poke through the soil.

Honey bee on crocus  (April, 13, 2011).

Honey bee on crocus (April, 13, 2011).


And crocuses aren’t even a natural source of pollen. They’re popular in some suburban neighbourhoods, but most honey bees elsewhere won’t find natural pollen until May when the dandelions come into bloom.

Honey bee on dandelion (May 26, 2011).

Honey bee on dandelion (May 26, 2011).


I say this because I’ve casually documented every honey bee on a flower I’ve seen in Newfoundland since I started beekeeping in 2010. So far I’ve documented over 30 flowers that qualify in my mind as Newfoundland Honey Bee Forage. My list is by no means comprehensive, but it provides me with a general idea of what to expect throughout the year.
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Reversing Brood Boxes, or Not

It’s June 2019 and I’ve significantly rewritten this post from 2014 to reflect my practice of not always reversing the brood boxes in the spring. To cut to the chase, these days I tend to reduce my hives to a single deep in the spring because the colony seems to stay warmer and expand faster when it’s restricted to a single deep. Only when the colony is close to filling the single deep with bees do I add a second deep. If the weather is still cold or the colony is more on the weak side, the second deep goes on the bottom where it’s less likely to screw up the thermodynamics of the brood nest. But if the weather is warm, the colony strong and expanding quickly, the second deep goes on top. You can pretty much skip the rest of this post now.

I used to reverse the brood boxes in my hives in early spring as soon as I had a warm enough day for it. That means at the end of winter in a typical 2-deep hive when the brood nest was usually living only in the top deep, usually some time in April, I would move the top deep (full of bees) to the bottom of the hive and then the bottom deep (mostly empty drawn comb) to the top of the hive.

The logic behind reversing is to prevent swarming by providing space above the brood nest for the colony to expand. That logic assumes honey bees always expand the brood nest upwards. Perhaps the bees have a greater tendency to expand upwards in the spring after a winter of working their way up into their honey stores. But experience tells me that most colonies will expand wherever they can find space, whether it’s up or down or sideways. So the whole argument for reversing is easily dismissed.

Aware of that, I reversed my hives anyway because reversing allowed me to assess the strength of the colony going into the new season and make adjustments on the spot if necessary. I would add drawn comb to the brood nest if the cluster needed the room. I would add frames of honey or pollen if the bees were starving for it. I would give them frames of brood from another colony if they were weak. In short, I would take whatever action was required to get the bees started on the right path for the new season.

Then for the rest of the year, because I knew exactly what condition the colony was in at the beginning of the year, I’d be able to assess the strength of the colony without having to dig much into the hive and disturb the brood nest every time I did an inspection.

Drone comb split open after lifting up the top brood box for the first time this year. (May 05, 2012.)
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Reversing a Brood Chamber

This is me reversing the brood chambers on an early spring honey bee hive to prevent swarming. But really it’s an excuse to do the first full hive inspection of the year and give the bees some honey.

May 2019 Postscript: I’m not as keen on reversing my hives like this anymore. I often reduce my colonies to single deeps in the spring when the clusters are small (3-5 frames wide) because they seem to build up faster in single deeps. But I avoid placing a deep above a small cluster because it messes up the thermodynamics of the hive and the bees are often forced to move to the empty top deep to stay warm, especially when the outside weather is still freezing. It’s not so bad once all the frames in the single deep are packed with bees, but reversing may not be the best move for colonies with small spring clusters.

Urban Beekeepers, Don’t Overfeed Your Bees

I caught a swarm out in the country last year and I loved it. But unfortunately I live in a relatively crowded urban neighbourhood with an easily enraged nextdoor neighbour, so even though I only have one hive in the city now, I don’t have the luxury of a laid back attitude towards swarms. I need to keep my neighbour from calling the fire department on me again, which means I have to do everything I can to prevent my lonely little colony from swarming. So what should I do?

Upper half of the large water melon sized swarm I caught last summer.

Last year I reversed the brood chambers and checker-boarded my hives. But three of my four colonies swarmed anyway. Here’s a video that shows what one of the hives looked like shortly before its colony swarmed:
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How to Install a Jar Feeder

April 2019 Introduction: I could delete this post because there’s really not much to it. I give specific instructions on how to use a jar feeder as if I’d been doing it for years. I should have just kept my mouth shut. I’m not sure the instructions I give are good instructions. For the most part, I think I make it sound more complicated than it needs to be. There isn’t anything wrong with placing a jar feeder directly over the inner cover as long as the inner cover is in the winter position and the bees still have a top entrance.

jar-feeder-DSC01139A jar feeder, by the way, is a Mason jar or any jar with little holes poked in the metal lid. The jar is filled with honey or sugar syrup (in this case, for spring feeding, a thin 1 part sugar, 1 part water mixture), tipped upside and placed inside the hive over the inner cover (but sheltered inside an empty super). Got it?

Tip #1: Don’t place the feeder directly over the inner cover hole when night time temperatures can still hover around freezing. The syrup can expand and contract with the temperature fluctuations and leak all over the bees (speaking from experience here), and not just any bees but the baby bees that are right in the middle of the hive — the brood nest — directly underneath the inner cover hole. It may be easier for the bees to access the syrup when it’s directly over the inner cover hole, but I’m not sure it’s worth the risk. I don’t use jar feeders until nighttime temperatures are above freezing, which sometimes doesn’t happen until near the end of April. Tip #1-B: Place the jar between the inner cover hole and the top entrance (not between the hole and the back wall of the hive). That way if the syrup does leak, provided the back of the hive is tilted up a bit like it should be, the syrup will drain out of the hive or at least to the front of it — and not down the inner cover hole and all over the bees.

Tip #2: Rest the jar on two pieces of wood. When I first installed a jar feeder, I put it directly over the inner cover hole and blocked the hole. You don’t want to block the hole. Here’s a photo of a jar feeder sitting on two pieces of scrap wood. You can even see the path from the top entrance in the background, to the jar feeder, to the inner cover hole (some call that a beeline).

jar-feeder-DSC01140

I probably shouldn’t even feed the bees now. I think they have plenty of honey, and if they eat their honey, it will free up space for the queen to lay more eggs. But until I can do a quick non-invasive inspection and I know for sure they have enough honey, I’ll play the paranoid card and feed them.

P.S.: This is one way to install a jar feeder. If I find a better, safer way of doing it, I’ll update this post with that information. I’ve been known to be wrong on occasion.