A Failing Queen and Hope for The Future

What follows is an example, from my own experience as a small-scale hobbyist beekeeper, of what’s involved in keeping bees and keeping them alive and well. This is nothing compared some things I’ve had to deal with before, but the point is that beekeeping takes time and effort and close attention. It’s not all about the honey (though the honey helps). So anyway, I says to Mabel, I says…

One of my little honey bee colonies is toast.

A very small cluster for the first week of June.

A very small cluster for the first week of June.

The queen is failing. She’s been on the way out for a while, but now she’s fading fast, laying small, spotty patches of brood over three or four frames, the entire brood nest contained within half of a single brood box (a single deep). The cold weather we’ve had for the past two weeks (well below 10°C / 50°F) hasn’t helped. I did a quick inspection yesterday and found a few patches of capped brood abandoned in the bottom deep, abandoned probably because it got so cold the bees were forced to cluster up top.

Some abandoned brood. (June 07, 2016.)

I’ve never seen that before. Not good.

I reduced the hive to a single deep and put the abandoned brood frames in with the regular brood nest. I put on a jar feeder with honey. I don’t have high hopes.

Then there was one.

Then there was one.

It’s possible the queen doesn’t react well to cold temperatures, that she needs a good warm spell to get into a strong laying cycle. But I doubt it. Now that I’m feeding them, maybe the bees will create a supersedure queen. But I have my doubts about that too. If there’s no improvement by next weekend, I’ll probably remove the queen, if she’s still alive, and add whatever is left to one of my healthier colonies.
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How To Inspect a Beehive (or How I Happened to Inspect This Particular Hive on This Particular Day)

The following is probably the most detailed video of a hive inspection that I’ve posted since the dawn of Mud Songs. For everyone who couldn’t attend the informal beekeeping workshop I had planned to put on today, this video shows what you missed (or would have missed if I’d gone ahead with the workshop). It’s a 24-minute video, which is longer than my usual videos because I left in the all the parts with me yammering on about what I’m doing — exactly the kind of yammering I’d do if I was giving a workshop.


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Second Thoughts on Reversing

As of today, I’m beginning to reconsider how I do my first hive inspection of the year. I like to reverse the hive (i.e., move the brood nest to the bottom), but next year if I find all the bees are contained in a single deep (which is often the case), instead of moving the bees to the bottom and putting another deep on top, I might move the bees to the bottom and leave the hive like that — as a single-deep hive. It shouldn’t be a problem as long as the bees have enough honey and the queen has some room to lay.

I added the second deep to this hive today, which has more bees than my hives with two deeps. (May 07, 2016.)

I added the second deep to this hive today, which has more bees than my hives with two deeps. (May 07, 2016.)

Bees that are confined to a smaller space supposedly work that space faster and better than they would if there was more space (e.g., if there was a full deep on top of them). Apparently, this is common knowledge for beekeepers who always have nucs on hand. The colonies in their nucs tend to build up quicker than those housed in full-sized deeps and hives.

I say it’s common knowledge, but it’s not something I’ve had any experience with until today, sort of, possibly. A brood nest of a colony that I reduced to a single deep a few weeks ago (instead of reversing it) is expanding at least twice as fast as the brood nest in my other colonies that were reversed. It could just mean I have a better queen in the single-deep colony. Or! Maybe the bees in that single-deep hive did better because they were able to concentrate on the limited space they had instead of spreading out their efforts across twice as much space.

I don’t know. But next year when I do my first hive inspection of the year, instead of reversing the hive, if the bees are in a single deep, I’ll reduce the hive to that single deep until the brood nest is ready to expand into a second deep.

March 2019 Postscript: This is pretty much what I do all the time now. If the bees are contained in a single deep during the first hive inspection of the year (sometime in April if I’m lucky) and I don’t see bees on all 10 frames yet, I’ll toss the second (or even third) deep and let the bees expand into that single deep before I add a second deep.

I’ve overheard many conversations about this, not with local beekeepers but online where I continue to tap into the knowledge and experience of some of the world’s best beekeepers. Some of the phrases overheard in these conversations include, “You don’t want to demoralize the bees by giving them too much to work on,” or “Small colonies do better is small hives and big colonies do better in big hives.”

Like I said, that’s pretty much how I play it these days. A colony with only 3 or 4 frames of bees seems to build up faster when it only has 6 or 7 extra frames to work on instead of 16 or 17 frames. It seems to make sense when I stop and think about it.

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.