This is my first attempt at taking a series of photos showing a honey bee in flight for 1 second. Honey bees move faster than you might think. 0.294 seconds is the best I could do. That’s 8 photos. (I was aiming for 24.) I’ll do better next time.
It’s more impressive on a desktop if you click the image to view it full-screen.
One more thing: This series of photos captures approximately 75 wing beats in those 0.294 seconds. A honey bee averages about 230 wing beats per second. Yup.
Here’s a playlist collection of videos I’ve posted over the years that somewhat falls into the category of Practical Beekeeping Tips. The playlist is sort of in the order that someone new beekeeping would experience, starting off with how to paint hives and how to mix sugar syrup, how to install a nuc — all that jazz.
While I’d like to update and modify some of the videos, that would take more time than I can spare (I have a full-time job that isn’t beekeeping). Much like my Beekeeping Guide, it’s not a comprehensive series of videos, but maybe it’ll help.
I took a break from screens over the past two weeks. Social media. The news. Who needs it? Here are some random slow motion shots I took of honey bees and other insects that were attracted to the Fireweed and Malva Moschata that’s been in bloom lately. I’d go into full screen mode for this video at the highest resolution setting to sit back and take in about three and a half minutes of silence.
One of the bees does something kind of gross near the end.
It’s a myth that beekeeping doesn’t take much time. If you work from home or you’re retired, then beekeeping may not seem to take up much time. But for everyone else with day jobs that have them driving to the office every morning, not getting home until five or six in the evening or later, then walking the dog and putting supper on the table (and maybe dealing with children), beekeeping takes up a lot of time. And that’s just doing the beekeeping. Learning about it is a whole other ball game.
For the first two years of my beekeeping, for every hour I spent working with my bees, I spent at least five hours reading and taking notes or watching instructional beekeeping videos of some kind. I was also happy to do it. I was glad to spend as much time as possible with my bees, maybe too much time.
I’m not talking about obsession, though beekeeping absolutely taps into obsessive behaviour and doesn’t exactly bring out the best in everyone. But that’s another story. I’m talking about the minimal foundational work that’s required to become a good beekeeper before bees of any kind ever come into the picture.
Someone recently asked me for some information on how to start beekeeping in Newfoundland. Among another things, I sent them a link to my Guide to Beekeeping page, essentially my personal guide to beekeeping in Newfoundland, and they said, “I don’t have time to read all that.” To which I say, “Then you probably don’t have time for beekeeping.”
The information, the videos, the photos, everything I wrote up in my causal beekeeping guide doesn’t even close to being a comprehensive introduction to beekeeping. It’s meant to get prospective beekeepers warmed up and to point them in the right direction. No time to read all that? That page is simply a place to start learning about beekeeping. There is so much more to learn, it’s not funny.
Honey bees eating a sugar brick. (Feb. 14, 2016.)
It takes time to learn about the bees and it takes time to learn from them. Even now I don’t just casually walk past my beehives once in awhile so I can admire them from a distance. I don’t treat them like ornamental objects for people to look at and say, “Oh, isn’t that wonderful.” Those hives are full of bees. I pay attention to them and I’m glad to do it. I’m constantly learning from them.
I’ve met too many new beekeepers or wannabe beekeepers in the past few years who don’t seem to get this. Beekeeping takes time. Good beekeeping takes even more time.
It may not take up as much time for people who eventually develop an experiential grasp of what they’re doing, but my guess is it takes about three years before anyone even begins to know what they’re doing, especially in a place like Newfoundland where most beekeepers will have to go it alone most the time. (2021 Update: Make that 10 years. Three years? What was I thinking?) By the end of my second year, I felt like I knew everything about beekeeping. But by the end of my third year, I realised I didn’t know squat. After my third year of beekeeping — after dealing with a colony of mean bees (which instantly takes the shine off beekeeping); after catching two swarms; after losing a colony to starvation; after getting stung in the face more than once; after dealing with mice inside a hive; after having to move my hives because my neighbours called the cops on me; after manipulating my colonies to prevent swarming — that’s when I began to learn about beekeeping. Everything up to that point was like kindergarten.
When I first got into beekeeping, I was just some guy who happened to buy some bees and put them in his backyard. Having the money and the resources to have a bunch of bees, whether four hives or forty, wouldn’t have made me a beekeeper, just like buying a camera doesn’t make me a photographer, or owning a stethoscope doesn’t make me a doctor. But after two years of dedicating most of my time to learning about honey bees and beekeeping, and then surviving my third year of hell, I began to feel like, yeah, okay, maybe I can do this. Maybe I am a beekeeper. Not by any means the wise and wizened beekeeper that everybody idealises like Santa Claus, but I’m in the club. Maybe? (But I wasn’t.)
When I look back on that experience and how much time I put in to getting to where I got, and then I see people who think they can just check on their bees whenever they feel like it, who are attracted to beekeeping because they think it doesn’t take much time — good luck to them.
I don’t know it all and I know I’m a middle-of-the-road beekeeper at best. But I know enough to realise that beekeeping takes time, more time than most people think.
I would like to burst the bubble of the totally unrealistic ideal of beekeeping that attracts most people to beekeeping, just to save them the disappointment of a lousy beekeeping experience that ends with all their bees dying on them. But that totally unrealistic vision of beekeeping is what got me into beekeeping. So I don’t really want to burst anyone’s bubble. All I can say is use that bubble wisely if you can, keeping in mind that there is a different reality beyond the Zen-filled dreamland where honey bees never sting. Beekeeping is sweaty and dirty work most of the time and requires a lot of thought and effort and attention to detail to do it right. Beekeeping can be immensely rewarding, but it takes more time (and money) than most people initially realise.
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: