This is my cautionary tale for people who probably shouldn’t bother with beekeeping. If “it doesn’t take much time” is the final selling point for you, maybe you should just walk away right now and save yourself the sinking feeling of realising that beekeeping isn’t the wonderful world of golden flowing honey that simply falls from a tap on the side of your beehive while bees gently hover around you in a state of joy and bliss. That may be the idealistic vision of beekeeping that draws most people in, and at the very beginning if absolutely nothing goes wrong, that dream may at times seem like a reality, an experience so wonderful that you barely believe you’re living it. But those are fleeting moments. They don’t tell the whole story. There’s more to having chickens than collecting the eggs. There’s more to owning a dog than playing fetch. Sometimes it gets kind of dirty. Often it gets kind of dirty. And if you think you can care for a dog and raise chickens in your spare time, I’d like to know what world you’re living in. Because beekeeping isn’t that much different.
A swarm of bees hanging off a tree branch. (June 17, 2012.)
This is probably the closest video shot I’ve managed to get of the bees from inside the hive. (It zooms in and tracks along the comb around the 44-second mark.) There’s not much to learn from this, but I had to post it because it’s pretty cool looking.
It’s from inside a honey super, not the hive per se.
Today’s tip for backyard beekeepers: Don’t wear sandals.
Inappropriate footware for the beeyard. (July 17, 2011.)
The bees in my backyard fly around my raised beds to drink water from lettuce leaves and soak up moisture from the black composted soil. They also wander around the grass here and there, grass I don’t bother to mow, and so it’s easy for the bees to inadvertently crawl onto my feet while I’m standing there digging the weeds in the garden. And if I’m wearing sandals, it’s easy for a bee to get stuck under a strap, freak out and sting me. The pain from a honey bee sting isn’t too bad compared to most stinging insects. But when they first get you, it hurts. One of them got me about five minutes ago.
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 I 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.
I have two honey bee colonies in my tiny backyard, both started from nuc boxes 35 days ago and housed in Langstroth hives. The bees in Hive #1 have been fed a water-sugar mixture just about every day. I added a second deep a week ago because 9 of the 10 frames in the hive were partially or fully drawn out — the colony was ready to expand.
Hive #2 wasn’t fed until the second week, but for the past week has had two Boardman entrance feeders installed. It doesn’t get as much late-afternoon sun as Hive #1, and the last time I checked a couple days ago, only seven, maybe eight frames had partially or fully drawn out comb on them. (I also pulled a huge ugly slug from the bottom of the hive the same day.)
Those are the differences between Hive #1 and Hive #2. Here’s a quick video I shot today that illustrates the differences: