Here’s a short video that demonstrates how easy it is to clear dead bees from clogged up quarter-inch mesh. This kind of thing probably isn’t practical for commercial beekeepers with a large number of hives, but it seems to work out okay for folks like me.
Do frames of dark comb always produce dark honey? I’ll give you one guess.
This isn’t the first time I’ve made crushed & strained honey in my kitchen. But it’s the first time I’ve crushed combs that were this different from one another — so dark and so light. I’ve harvested honey by the individual frame before because sometimes each frame of honey in a single hive can come from such a different nectar source that the final liquid honey in each frame has a completely different colour and flavour. (That sentence seems longer than it needed to be.) I was expecting something like that this time around. But that’s not what happened. Continue reading →
Here’s a short narrated video that explains how I use a swarm box to catch swarms that would normally get away. (A transcript of the narration can found below the video. And that’s the last time I read from a script. It sounds like the stilted narration from an instructional video by Troy McClure)
February 23rd, 2020: Here’s a 6-minute video that shows what happened to one of my hives that was completely buried in snow for a week or two — and by completely I mean all the entrances were blocked too.
The bees couldn’t get out for cleansing flights and made a big stinking mess of the hive, or at least their hive entrance. The 6mm / quarter-inch mesh I use to keep shrews out probably made the mess even worse. Who knows, maybe the heat from the colony would have melted the snow around the top entrance and allowed the bees to get out just far enough to poop. Maybe. But for now, especially if my area ever gets hit with an insane snow storm again, I may have to put 12mm / half-inch mesh around the entrances and hope for the best. Continue reading →
On this Thanksgiving weekend (in Canada), I’m thankful I’m not a male honey bee.
Canadian Thanksgiving Day is the traditional time of year when drones are expelled from honey bee hives, pestered to leave until they die, though I’ve seen drones kicked out of the hive as early as August.
Two weeks ago I wrote a post on Swarm Prevention. I talked about knowing when to stop feeding to prevent swarming and all kinds of good stuff. I also said something like this:
In a standard Langstroth hive with foundation, all the foundation usually has worker-sized cells imprinted on it, so the bees tend to build worker brood comb on it, not drone comb. That leaves the queen with nowhere to lay drone comb, so she’s forced to fill the space between the boxes with drone comb — drone comb that is a big ugly mess to clean up in the spring.
Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after an inspection. (May 05, 2012.)
Thatâ€™s why I insert at least one foundationless frame into the brood nest of every colony. Given the choice to build comb however they like it, if theyâ€™re short on drones (and they usually are in a Langstroth hive full of plastic foundation), the bees will (usually) fill the foundationless frame with drone comb instead of gunking up the space between the brood boxes with it.
…naturally drawn out drone comb with freshly laid eggs inside most of the cells.
Close up of natural drone comb made from dandelion nectar. (June 05, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)
The wax is yellow probably because the bees have been collecting dandelion nectar and pollen for the past few weeks.
Click the image to see a much sharper close up view of the comb.
Does adding a foundationless frame to the outside of the brood nest prevent swarming? I don’t know. (UPDATE: It works.) I still think the #1 method for preventing swarming is the give the queen space to lay by adding drawn comb, replacing frames of honey with drawn comb if necessary. Second is to give all the bees that emerge from the brood frames space so the hive doesn’t get congested with too many bees. The pheromones from the queen and from the open brood don’t circulate well around a congested hive. The worker bees get swarmy when they can’t smell those pheromones. Third, give the rapidly-growing population of worker bees something to do. That’s another reason why I toss in foundationless frames. The bees in a crowded colony usually want to fill in that space as quick as possible. They will eat honey to make wax so they can build comb to fill in the empty space. Eating honey frees up space for the queen to lay. Then the new comb will give the queen more space to lay (probably drones). So in a perfect world all of these things balance out so the hive doesn’t get gunked up with drone brood between the boxes and the queen has enough room to lay so swarming isn’t triggered. In a perfect world.
In my experience, it’s important to constantly feed the bees during the first year (in Newfoundland), but it’s also important to stop feeding them at a certain point in the spring the following year so they don’t swarm. When I find drone comb gunking up the bottom of the frames in the spring, that’s my cue that the colony could potentially swarm. Queens can’t mate without drones. The first swarms usually coincide with the flight of the first drones.
Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)
If the bees have two or three solid frames of honey in every box — enough to prevent them from starving — and drone comb is present, then I stop feeding. I don’t feed my bees if they have enough honey on their own anyway, and unless it’s a weak colony, I don’t usually feed past May 31st either because there’s usually enough natural nectar sources available by then (in mylocal climate), especially in the city of St. John’s that is heavily populated by maple trees. I also check my hives at least every two weeks until the end of June to make sure the queen has room to lay. Most beekeeping (beyond feeding) can be summed up with that one sentence: Make sure the queen has room to lay.
July 2019 Introduction: I still probably dig into my hives more than I should. My constant curiosity may have made me a pretty good beekeeper when I started, but it’s more likely a liability these days. I should just leave the bees alone most of the time but I don’t.
There are many arguments for and against hands-off beekeeping. For new beekeepers just starting out, for the first year (except for winter), I’d dig into those hives at least once a week. Minimum. Even if it’s just to refill a frame feeder and look down at the bees without pulling out any frames, every chance to stick your face inside a hive is a learning experience. And by you I mean me, because that’s what I did when I started and I know it put me way ahead of the game compared to other beekeepers I know who took a hands-off approach. I know hands-off beekeepers five or six years in who still can’t tell the difference between a queen cup and a drone cell. That’s not good.
I still look in my hives about once a week, but I don’t often dig deep into them. I rarely, if ever, dig into the bottom deep of a hive past the month of May. One thing I don’t do as much as I should is check for swarm cells. I do, but I don’t go crazy with it. I know beekeepers who dig down into the bottom of their hives every seven or eight days after the month of May to check for swarm cells. They see it as standard hive management, and I understand that, and I probably should do it myself, but I really don’t like disturbing the bees that much. I’ll roll the dice and leave the bees alone if I don’t think they’re likely to swarm. In my experience, the colonies that have been the most robust and have made the most honey for me are the ones I was able to leave alone. All summer long they look they could swarm any minute, but they don’t, and they make truck loads of honey for me. People don’t talk about this enough, but managing bees so they come very close to swarming and make tons of honey instead — it’s not easy.
So I guess there’s a time to dig into the hives and a time to leave them alone. Working out that fine balance may be the foundation of good beekeeping.
Hive inspections every two weeks aren’t always such a bad thing, especially for new beekeepers, because one of the best ways to learn what the bees are up to is to see what the bees are up to. (Collect that data!) I found an excuse to dig into my hives at least once a week during my first summer of beekeeping, and I learned more from my intrusiveness and observing everything up close and personal than I ever did from reading or watching the bees from a safe distance. Yes, there is a risk of disturbing the bees and killing the queen, but I was careful and gentle and made sure to put all the frames back the way I found them, and everything worked out fine.
Regular inspections also allowed me to remove comb that would have otherwise gunked up the frames and made future inspections messier. Comb connected between frames will often split open and scrape against honey in adjacent frames and spill honey all over the place. Drone comb, especially between brood boxes, is exceptionally gross when pulled apart.
Regular inspections also allowed me to remove the super glue known as propolis. Frames that are bonded to the hive box with propolis don’t move. It requires careful manoeuvring to pry out the frames with a hive tool — to snap off the propolis — and even then all the extraneous comb between the frames tends to squish bees and tear up honeycomb as well as brood comb along the way. Whereas frames that are cleaned up every two weeks can usually be pulled up with bare hands.
Regular inspections and cleaning up the frames make things less perilous for the queen. Any comb between the frames or the brood boxes can easily trap and kill the queen (along with other bees) while the frames are being pulled out. (Some refer to this as rolling the queen.) Comb between the brood boxes leaves no space for the queen. If the queen is on that comb while a frame is slid back in, she’s dead.
Here’s a photo of a hive that I haven’t touched for almost three months.
Most of the frames are stuck together with wax and propolis after three months of not being touched by humans. (Oct. 12, 2015.)
Those frames are super-glued to the hive box with propolis and are held together by brace-comb as one big solid 10-frame block. Pulling those frames will be one seriously tangly experience (an experience I’m glad to have avoided during my first summer of beekeeping). Continue reading →
Chewing out and discarding drone pupae in the fall is a disgusting no-turning-back move for the bees. They’re absolutely done with drones for the next six months. I found these drone pupae today after two days of cold wind and constant rain.
The appearance of discarded drone pupae after two days of cold wind and rain. (Sept. 16, 2015.)
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.
April 2019 Introduction: I’d be extremely pleased to see any of my colonies in early May looking as good as the colony in this video. The colony probably got that way because I was feeding it syrup all throughout April and the population was exploding. Reversing is an okay thing to do. I don’t think it hurts the colony and it’s debatable whether or not it prevents swarming. For me, I just use it as an excuse to do a full inspection early in the year so I know exactly what shape the colony is in and can gauge its development throughout the summer by only looking into the top box. Which means the reversing / early colony assessment often ends up being my only full hive inspection of the year. I also like to knock my colonies down to a single deep early in the year instead of reversing because they seem to build up quicker when they only need to focus on 10 frames instead of 20.
I performed the first full hive inspection of the year yesterday. I also reversed the brood boxes while I was at it. Next year I plan to reverse the boxes shortly after the bees start hauling in pollen from the crocuses (instead of waiting until the dandelions bloom). Whether from dandelions or crocuses, if the bees bring in pollen at a steady pace for about a week, that’s my cue to reverse the brood boxes. Had I reversed them a few weeks ago, I might have been able to avoid the disgusting mess of scraping off drone comb between the frames of the top and bottom boxes. I could have avoided splitting up the brood nest too. Check out Honey Bee Suite for more info on reversing boxes.
Another book I read while stricken with the flu is Increase Essentials by Lawrence John Connor, a short and easy read that some consider to be the definitive book about nucs — it’s comprehensive. It’s mainly about increasing hives by creating splits and nucleus colonies from established hives.
I don’t think beginner beekeepers or backyard beekeepers who are happy with two or three hives need to concern themselves with it. Laidback beekeepers who want to create nucs for themselves but don’t feel the need to earn a PhD while they’re at it can simply read Why every beekeeper should have a nuc at Honey Bee Suite. I didn’t read every single word of the book (I did some skimming), because I don’t need to know everything it covers just yet. But I do plan to expand my four hives to eight this summer and continually expand every summer after that as I secure more land for my hives. That means I eventually need to learn the basics of creating nucs and rearing mated queens for the nucs. I’ll take on queen rearing next year. This year I’ll start with making my own nucs.
Most of the following notes (and there aren’t too many) address swarming and queen mating issues. To delve into the main details of the book would take too long. Suffice it to say there is a huge amount of information in this small book, and it all seems sound. I will likely constantly reference Increase Essentials when I decide to create mating nucs and expand my hives further next year. Continue reading →
March 2019 Introduction: This is a boring post that probably won’t have much appeal to a general reader, but it does go into some fine details that might be interesting for people who want to compare notes with another beekeeper (me). It’s eight years later and today I’m intrigued by the results I had with my bees at the time. I didn’t just leave my bees alone and let them sort out their troubles. I was always messing with my bees, probably more than I should have, but I have to admit that I created an excellent classroom for myself.
Here’s a short uneventful video I took of the hives today where I mistakenly refer to Hive #2 as Hive #1. (I need to paint numbers on the damn things.)
And now here’s a quick review of the 4 hives in my backyard as they stand today: Continue reading →
I’ve had entrance reducers on all my hives for the past few weeks, and it doesn’t look like I can remove them any time soon because the wasps (a.k.a. yellow jackets) are everywhere. They’re constantly trying to get into the hives. Here’s a photo showing about six wasps blocking a ventilation hole (most of the screened holes in our ventilator rims are filled with wasps):
Wasps filling a screened ventilation hole. (Oct. 9, 2011.)
Drones don’t make honey. They only eat it. They also contribute nothing to the survival of the colony during the winter months. Hence, most drones are expelled from the hive in the fall as the temperatures begin to drop. Sometimes the worker bees will even chew out the remaining drone brood in the hive and toss the drone pupae out the front door (see Piles of Dead Pupae). Gross. Honey bees don’t mess around when it comes to their survival. Here’s a video I took this morning of several drones being expelled from Hive #1:
If you watched carefully, you may have noticed worker bees riding around on the drones like bucking broncos, biting and pinching them; at one point a worker bee grabbed hold of a drone and got taken for a ride in the sky; another worker bee tried to fly away with a drone; and many of the worker bees surrounded more than a few drones and pestered them until they were gone. And one drone got dragged out already dead. Good times.
The following was completely rewritten in March 2019.
To build up a honey bee colony in Newfoundland from 4-frame nuc in July (nucleus hives usually become available around mid-July), I feed it sugar syrup and I don’t stop feeding it until the end of October when it’s too cold for the bees to take down any more syrup. I just keep feeding sugar syrup until the bees fill all the frames of the first deep. Then I add a second deep and continue to feed until they’ve filled all the frames of the second deep. It’s unlikely that all the frames will be fully drawn out even at the end of October. But the key is to feed them sugar syrup and never let the feeders run dry. That’s basically it.
Here’s video I made in 2016 that shows exactly what a typical nuc from Newfoundland looks like and how I install a nuc into a standard deep.
I inspected Hive #1 today and was glad to see that the honey super is starting to fill up with honey. Nine frames spread out in a ten frame super, alternating plastic with foundationless frames. I didn’t take any photos or videos. My main concern was to make sure the queen wasn’t honey bound. I found three frames in the middle of the top box that looked like this…
…worker brood in the middle surrounded by pollen and honey, only this time everything looked dirtier and darker because the comb isn’t fresh like it was when the photo was taken last year. Still, it’s more or less what I wanted to see. Honey and pollen, new worker brood and enough space for the queen to continue laying.
The foundationless frames in the top box of Hive #1 were migrated to Hive #2 a while back, so it’s a mostly conventional hive now with perhaps three or four foundationless frames left over in the bottom brood box. The minimized number of foundationless frames — which perhaps knocks back drone production — might have something to do with the honey super filling with honey now. (Pure speculation.) The bees in Hive #2, a hive that is about 80% foundationless, show no signs of building in their honey super yet. So go figure. Okay then, let’s move on to even more boringer details. Continue reading →
I had time to inspect my hives today for the first time in about three or four weeks. It’s the first time in June we’ve had some half decent weather on the weekend. Anyway, I’m confident there is no chance of either of my colonies swarming or building into a honey super any time soon. Not by a long shot. I inspected my hives today and both are weak. The combination of about 40 days of drizzle and cold and thousands of drones from the foundationless frames eating up all the hives’ resources has weakened the colonies (my best guess). One hive is overloaded with drones and drone comb, a little bit of worker brood, some pollen and virtually zero honey stores.
The other hive has more worker brood and more honey, but I found several frames with waxed foundation that have barely been touched. These bees are starving (I think.)
I’m going to feed them constantly for the next week or so. They are nowhere close to filling up the two deeps of the brood chamber. I had foundationless medium supers on both hives for the past month and saw no signs that they were interested in building on the medium frames. So I removed them.
I also removed four frames of drone brood from the hive that’s overloaded with drones and replaced them with fully drawn foundation or basic waxed foundation. I put the drone comb in a box above a bee escape. The plan is to gradually remove all the foundationless frames. I’ll say more about this at another time, but I think my experiment in backwards beekeeping is coming to an end, at least for the time being.
Well, I inspected one of my hives today because I was concerned about swarming. I found a few queen cups, but also plenty of empty cells for the queen to keep laying. I don’t think the colony is at risk of swarming. It does, however, seem to be overrun by drones. This frame containing both capped worker brood and drone brood was one of the better looking frames — because it wasn’t filled entirely with drones:
Frame with drone and worker brood. (June 4, 2011).
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.
Drone bees are kicked out of the hive before winter because they’re not essential to the winter survival of the colony. I was told not to be alarmed to find piles of dead drones outside the hive any time during the fall season. Plenty of drone pupae were discarded from the hive in September, but no large numbers of dead drones until today.
Kicked out drones. (Nov. 18, 2010.)
I take this to mean the bees are getting serious about winter now — and I better hurry up and wrap the hives before winter sets in. We have nothing but rain, wind and snow in the forecast for the next few days. But I’ll get the wraps on as soon as we get a break in the weather. (Yeah, I know, it’s not the most earth shaking news, but how exciting can beekeeping get this time of year?)
It’s November 2018 and I’ve deleted this post from 2010. I was freaked out because I looked inside one of my hives and didn’t see any brood and thought the queen was dead. But I would have calmed myself down if I had happened to read this entry from the 1947 edition of The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture:
Stuff that’s good to know.
No brood in the hive by October in Newfoundland is not uncommon. Some queens lay well into the fall (probably Italian queens) and some stop as soon as it gets cold (probably Russian queens). No big deal.
I saw the first frost of the season on the ground this morning. I also saw the bees stretching their wings outside the hives, but when I went out and checked, what I thought were bees were actually wasps — at least ten of them swooping around the entrances of both hives. I lifted off one outer cover, too, and noticed the inside of it was full of condensation.
I couldn’t do much about the wasps, but I put a screen in place of the outer cover for twenty minutes while the cover dried in the sun. I’ve seen the condensation build up over the past week. I take it as a sign that I need to prepare the hives for winter soon.
September is an eventful month for beekeeping in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Let me list the reasons why: Continue reading →