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.
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.
Well, it looks like I’m going to get some honey this year after all, at least from one of my hives. I was led to believe that foundationless hives in the cold wet climate of St. John’s, Newfoundland — with its short, sometimes non-existent summers — wouldn’t produce extra honey for humans during the first year because much of the bees’ resources are funnelled into raising drones and then back-filling the drone comb before they have a chance to make extra honey in a honey super. So far that’s turned out to be true. I migrated all the foundationless frames into a single hive, Hive #2, and that hive hasn’t done much with its honey super. However, Hive #1, the hive that I transferred all the conventional frames in to, has filled its first honey super. Check out the video and I’ll tell you more about it later:
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).
February 2019 Introduction: One of the big inspirations for me when I first got into beekeeping was the Backwards Beekeepers out of California. They described themselves as organic, treatment-free beekeepers. They kept plastic out of their hives by using all-foundationless frames, allowing the bees to build comb as they would in nature. They popularized the phrase, “Let the bees be bees.” I loved watching my honey bees build comb on foundationless frames — and I still do. But I don’t wear my Backwards Beekeepers t-shirt anymore.
Anybody can let their bees build comb on foundationless frames, but letting the bees be bees in other ways adds up to a few things that don’t work too well in a cold place like Newfoundland. In California, it means not really feeding the bees, which does not work in Newfoundland. Nucs started up in Newfoundland without feeding sugar syrup or clean honey will most likely turn into dead colonies before the new year. That’s because the summer season in Newfoundland, in both warm temperatures and the number of sunny days, is a tiny fraction of what it is California, and the bees simply don’t have as many good days to collect nectar. Unfed nucs in Newfoundland usually grow up to be small colonies that freeze and then starve to death.
Letting the bees be bees also means allowing them to swarm if they want to swarm. Which might be fine for honey bee colonies in a warm place like Los Angeles, but in Newfoundland, those swarms will not become feral or live long and prosper. They will most likely die within months if they’re not immediately caught and re-hived. Even if re-hived, if they’re late-summer swarms, they will barely have enough time to build up into a strong colony that can survive the winter. I know some so-called natural beekeepers who repeatedly end up with dead colonies before the winter is done because they’ve embraced the “let the bees be bees” approach. A significant number of their bees swarm every summer and freeze or starve to death every winter. (But it’s natural, so I guess that makes it okay?)
What I’m talking about is the definition of bad beekeeping. As much as I was inspired by the Backwards Beekeepers, their “let the bees be bees” philosophy doesn’t translate well in Newfoundland. It doesn’t sit well with many other beekeepers in North America either who view it as a laissez-faire approach to beekeeping. I totally understand the appeal of it, though. It represents an ideal that most people who get into beekeeping buy into — big time. I did. It might also be why something like 85% of new beekeepers in North America stop beekeeping within two or three years. (From what I’ve seen, those statistics are accurate in Newfoundland too.) The reality of actually keeping bees is different from most idealized visions of it.
Responsible pet owners don’t just go out and buy a puppy because it’s cute. They do their homework and ask questions about the breed, its behaviour and what they can expect from the puppy once it grows into a dog. People who become good beekeepers do the same with their bees. They don’t just buy a bunch of bees, put them in a hive and let the bees be bees.
It took me about a year to wake-up to certain realities of beekeeping in Newfoundland. At the time I wrote this post, in 2011, I was still trying to hold on to the highly idealized “let the bees be bees” approach to beekeeping, though it seems I was beginning to lose faith in that vision too.
I’m still in my first year of beekeeping and I’m learning a lot. I suspect one of the reasons I’m learning a lot is that I don’t follow many of the more widely accepted practices that make beekeeping easier. First up are the Backwards Beekeepers out of Los Angeles, California, who have been my number one inspiration from the get-go. They advocate the use of foundationless frames, natural re-queening and starting hives from feral swarms that are better adapted to the local environment than imported queens. Let the bees be bees because they know what they’re doing better than any humans. I love what the Backwards Beekeepers are all about, but it would be foolish of me to think my bees could do as well with 1,500 hours of sunshine a year as theirs do with 3,000 hours of sunshine (and much higher temperatures). And that’s just one of the stumbling blocks. I will continue to follow their example as well as I can, but they present an ideal that I seriously doubt I will ever be able to live up to in St. John’s, Newfoundland, given the severity of our local climate.
Another ideal I realize that I can’t stick to 100% is the use of a spray bottle instead of a smoker. I got the idea of misting my bees with sugar water from the Seldom Fools beekeepers who say this about smoking the bees:
The reality is that pumping smoke into the hive doesn’t “calm” the bees. It distracts them from the beekeeper’s intrusion by making them think that the hive is in danger of being burned up. They scurry down into the hive and start gorging themselves on stored honey in preparation for a mass evacuation. A simple 10-minute inspection of a hive, if accompanied by smoke, can take a couple of hours for the bees to recover. After they realize that the danger is past, they have to put the honey back into the storage cells. They have to make new wax to seal it in again. The water just makes them think it’s raining. Rain means that it’s time to go back inside and leave the beekeepers alone. It also means very little disruption to the life of the hive.
Seems great, doesn’t it? I manage to get away with using only a sugar water mist on my bees most of the time. And most of the time, I love it. The bees are calm. They don’t fly in my face. They don’t get all buzzy like they sometimes do with smoke. It’s all good.
But then I got into a bad tempered hive a few days ago, and the bees were pouring out all over the hive boxes, all over me, all over everything. It was a mess. I ended up killing a large number of bees when I put the hive back together — a large number of bees that would have been driven down into the hive and lived if I’d smoked them instead. It wasn’t the first time something like that happened. I’ve seen the bees retreat from smoke, and the smoke works. The bees aren’t happy, but they get out of the way and not as many get squished afterwards.
I admit my experience is limited, but judging from my experience so far, I think there are times when a smoker can come in handy. I’m not throwing away my spray bottle, but I might keep my smoker on call for now on. I’d rather have a smoker and not need it than need it and not have it again. The Seldom Fools beekeepers use top bar hives, too, which may be easier to manipulate without smoke.
My long experience is that the smoke is not damaging, if it is done right. I just give a little puff or two when I lift the outer cover, to let them know that I am coming. It’s the ‘door bell’ for me.
When the bees experience smoke their instinct tells them to collect instead of continuing with the daily tasks. This comes as a survival instinct when the forest is on fire. They collect and take in all the honey they can in case they have to leave their home. Of course this does not happened when you do it like I explained above; the bees don’t storm to the honey, stressed about a possible fire. They go on with their work. But they know now that I am coming.
So there’s another method for you.
I’m not abandoning the ideals that inspired me to get into beekeeping (and there are more than I’ve mentioned here). I’m just learning the difference between theory and practice. The big lesson is there’s nothing wrong with becoming inspired, but it’s vital that I pay attention to my own experience. In the end, I’ll do whatever I’m most comfortable with and whatever I think is best considering our local climate. There’s no one right way to do anything in beekeeping. That might seem obvious, but sometimes I seem to forget it in favour of an ideal that’s just bad for the bees.
February 2019 Postscript: While I do like to have my smoker lit and ready to go when I’m digging into larger hives or colonies that I know are unusually defensive, I’d say about 95% of the time I use mist on my bees instead of smoke (or nothing at all). Some bees don’t react to it because they’re so intent on doing what they’re doing that even the threat of rain barely slows them down, but most of the time the bees react to the mist just like they would to the smoke, namely they get out of the way but they don’t gorge on honey like they sometimes do with smoke.
But there’s nothing wrong with using a smoker if it’s used properly. When I first started out, as in on Day 1, I virtually drowned my bees in smoke. It was overkill. But I’ve since learned how to use my smoker so that the bees barely notice the smoke. I don’t blow smoke in the bees’ faces. I puff smoke around the hive entrance or just under the inner cover in a way that the smoke wafts around the bees. They get a whiff of the smoke but they’re not coughing on it. And they just casually get out of the way. It works. I go in, do my thing and the vast majority of the bees in the hive have no idea I was there. I occasionally have to use more smoke, but it’s rare.
Here’s a quick video of the drone comb I pulled one of my hives yesterday with some commentary about the architecture of the comb. I point out the drone eggs too.
I call this post “Architecture of Honey Comb” even though it’s drone comb because, as far as I know, there’s no difference between the two. Both drone comb and honey comb have large cells, and drone comb is supposedly backfilled with honey once the drones emerge, anyway, so they’re virtually the same.
I decided to pull this natural drone comb today because the frame doesn’t have any support wire, which would have made the comb a prime candidate for snapping off the frame someday.
2019 Postscript: I don’t put wire in my foundationless frames anymore. Wires might prevent the combs from flying to pieces in an extractor, but I don’t extract foundationless frames, so that’s not a problem. The bees usually do a good job of securing the comb to the frame on their own.
February 2019 Introduction: This is a fairly boring video of a full hive inspection. Judging from the number of bees, I would say this colony is in pretty good shape for May in Newfoundland, despite the alarming number of frames with hardly any comb on them. In the video I speak about finding possible signs of wax moth. I didn’t know much in 2011. Newfoundland doesn’t have wax moth. It was just mold. It’s another hive inspection in which I essentially reverse the brood box. It doesn’t necessarily prevent swarming, but I still do it. At the end of the video I make the mistake of installing a hive top feeder with an inner cover on top, which would allow the bees to crawl into the reservoirs of the feeder and drown. Pro tip: Don’t do that. It’s also cool to see the multi-coloured pollen the bees are bringing in, most likely from crocuses.
I did the first hive inspection for one of my hives today.
The brood boxes were effectively reversed by pulling the frames from the top box, installing them in a new box which I used as the new bottom brood box. And for the record, here’s what I found on each frame from the original top box: 1) Natural capped honey comb. 2) Natural capped honey comb. 3) Honey and pollen on a plastic frame. 4) Natural brood, drone and honey comb. 5) Capped and open brood. 6) Natural drone and open brood comb. 7) Brood comb on plastic. 8) Natural empty honey comb. 9) Honey comb on plastic. 10) Uncapped honey comb on plastic. The original bottom box was completely empty, many of the frames with mostly bare plastic foundation (which I’ll probably remove soon). I mistakenly refer to plastic frames in the video. What I meant was plastic foundation. And by natural comb, I mean comb built on a foundationless frame.
February 2019 Introduction: The well-known rule for moving beehives is “3 feet or 3 miles” (3 metres or 5km), and it’s true most of the time. Move a hive more than 3 feet and the bees get disoriented and can’t find their way back to the hive. But move the hive more than 3 miles and they recognize right away that they’re no longer in Kansas and will automatically reorient to the new hive location.
But rules are kind of for dictators, don’t you think? Locally, I know more than a few a prospective beekeepers who were told that they shouldn’t keep bees if the hives can’t be in full sun all day. And that’s bunk. I’ve never kept my bees in full sunshine and they’re fine. In fact, the best colony I ever had, that produced 50kg of surplus honey for me, was a hive that was kept in the woods in the shade for most of the day. They weren’t the most docile bees I’ve ever seen (because some bees get cranky when temperatures drop for any reason), but who cares? I got out of their way, let them do their thing, and I got 100 pounds of honey out of them. Which pretty much kills the full sunshine “rule.”
The “3 feet or 3 miles” rule can be bent in many ways too. I’ve bent the rule when moving hives more than 3 feet within my backyard by moving the bees while it’s dark, when the bees are done flying around for the day, and then I block the top entrance and cover the bottom entrance with a branch from a spruce tree — something that immediately confuses the bees and disrupts their normal flight patterns. The next morning, the branch causes them to reorient to the hive and we’re done.
When I know that three or four days of bad weather are in the forecast, I’ll move a hive the night before the bad weather starts (or even during the bad weather). Honey bees usually have to reorient to the hive location if they haven’t foraged for more than three days. I place a branch in front of the hive entrance just be safe. But that usually works too.
I’ve also moved hives early in the morning on a sunny day. As long as other hives are close by, the disoriented bees have the rest of the day to find their way into a hive, maybe not their original hive, but they find a place to live. I’ve only done that a few times under desperate conditions. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t catastrophic either.
This post from 2011 records the first time I tried moving a hive when I didn’t know all the fine details of the “rule” like I do now. Let’s see how it played out (I’ll jump in with extra info while I read through it all again)…
Hive on the left. Frames were inspected and moved to the empty deep on the right. (May 5, 2011.)
I’m not so worried about all the dead drone pupae I found outside one of my hives for the past two days. It was spooky and gross and unnerving, but it’s much less alarming now that I know what’s most likely going on.
Brood comb mixed with honey comb on a foundationless frame. (Sept. 16, 2010.)
I introduced some foundationless frames to my hives when I added the second deep. The results were fantastic. Fully-drawn comb full of honey. Beautiful. What I didn’t know is that bees that haven’t drawn natural comb before, will start off building drone comb, as shown in the above photo taken earlier today during a full hive inspection. I found two foundationless frames with large sections of drone cells, and on at least one frame, most of the drone cells appeared to be recently emptied.
Some info I got from beeuntoothers.com:
Bees will naturally raise about 10-15% drone brood. In a hive where only worker foundation is used, the bees are always squeezing some drone brood here and there… Given a totally empty frame, they will try to make up for the lack of drone comb all at once. If the beekeeper removes this comb and puts another empty frame in its place (in an attempt to keep the drone population down, and perhaps to remove varroa), they will again draw drone comb. Instead, if the drone comb is migrated towards the outside of the broodnest and an empty frame is added, they will eventually start to draw brood comb… and nothing is more beautiful than fresh, freely drawn comb.
So now I know that it’s normal for bees that have just been introduced to foundationless frames to start off drawing drone comb. I assume the drone population will eventually level out. They’re all going to be dead in a week or two, anyway, when they’re kicked out of the hive for the winter and their old cells are used for honey stores.
So that’s one mystery solved. But why would so many of the drone larvae pupae get discarded from the hive?
I looked around online and found part of my answer at beesource.com/forums (which I may sign up to soon). Someone on the forum noticed a large number of what appeared to be dead drone pupae outside the hive entrance, just like we’ve seen for the past couple days. Some of the responses were informative…
September 18th, 2010: I’ve rewritten the next two paragraphs.
Originally I thought the drone pupae got hit with some relatively harmless chalkbrood. Foundationless frames initially produce more drones than conventional frames. That means there’d be more drones around to be affected by the chalkbrood. Therefore, more drone pupae discarded in the clean up. Another possibility was water getting into the hive and chilling the brood. Hygienic worker bees will clean out any cells that have been damaged, whether the damage is from disease, cold or from a silly beekeeper banging the frames too hard. But none of the above explains why only drone brood would be affected. A possible explanation:
Sudden cold snaps — like the cold snap we had last week that lasted a few days — can trigger worker bees to chew out the drone pupae to make room for winter stores. Fall is the time of the year that drones are kicked out of the hive anyway, so what’s the point in the colony nursing more drones that will only get the boot as soon as they emerge from their cells? As mentioned in one of the comments for this post, bees are pragmatic. They don’t mess around when it comes to the survival of the colony. If for any reason cells need to be cleaned out, drones (and their pupae) are always the first to go because drones are not vital to the survival of the colony going into winter. I did a full inspection of the hive shortly after discovering the dead drone pupae, and as far as I could tell, there are more than enough drones around to mate with a late-season queen if need be, and the colony is in good shape. So there was really no need to keep most of the drone pupae around. It’s a cruel world, but the bees know what they’re doing. They’re just getting ready for winter.
Foundationless honey comb. (Sept. 16, 2010.)
The colony looked healthy during my inspection — the bees and the comb look great. I saw brood comb and honey all over the place. I noticed two frames still haven’t been drawn out (one with foundation, one without, both on the edges), so there’s still plenty of room for the population to grow. And there was so much honey, I’m seriously thinking about adding a honey super for a couple of weeks to prevent the queen from becoming honey bound. But I don’t know. I hope to have a conversation with Aubrey at Paradise Farms this weekend so I can sort out everything I need to do with our bees for the next six months. This beekeeping racket is tricky business.
P.S., Read the comments for further details on how all this played out.
December 23rd, 2010: I recently learned through a comment that our bees are a hybrid of Italians, Russians and Carniolans. Russian honey bees react faster — and more dramatically — to environmental changes. The cold snap we had at the time may have triggered a wintering response in the bees, which is natural for Russian bees because they stop rearing brood early in the fall anyway.
This is the first video I’ve posted that shows what it’s like to pull out frames full of bees. It’s a short video of my recent full inspection of Hive #1, showing off some foundationless comb the bees built from scratch in 13 days.
I inserted four foundationless frames in the hive when I added a second deep. Two of the foundationless frames were fully-drawn and filled with honey and brood within 13 days. One frame was more than half-filled. The fourth frame, on the outer edge of the box, showed the beginning of some natural comb. Not bad.
It’s November 2018 as I continue to look back on these early posts and I have to say I like what I see. Even today, when I stick a foundationless from between drawn comb and come back a week or two later to see that the bees have fill up most of that space with comb — it’s a rewarding experience. The only thing that needs correction in this post is my reference to checkerboarding. Inserting empty frames between drawn comb, on its own, is not checkerboarding. See Checkerboarding for more information on what that’s all about.
The foundationless frames are working. YES! This is what it’s all about. This was the big moment of truth — and the bees did it. They had no problem building comb from foundationless frames.
I’ll quote myself on this: “Foundationless frames have nothing but a little strip of plastic or wood near the top called a starter strip. The bees hang off the starter strip and construct their comb like they would in nature, creating cells the size they want them to be, not the size that’s imposed on them by following the pattern on a plastic foundation.”
It’s argued that a colony is generally healthier when the honey bees are allowed to build comb as they would in nature — and this is about as close as it gets in a Langstroth hive. It’s part of the Backwards Beekeeping approach and it’s what got me hooked on beekeeping long before I had any bees. I just wasn’t sure it was even possible in the cold climate of Newfoundland. But now that I see evidence it can work, I’m inspired. I love it. These honey bees are incredible.
Honey bees festooning.
I added a second deep to Hive #1 six days ago because the colony had drawn comb on at least 9 of the 10 frames. They were ready to expand. I took about half the drawn frames, a mixture of brood and honey, and placed them in a second brood chamber, checker-boarding them using regular empty frames with foundation. I checker-boarded the original bottom brood chamber, too (that is, I placed an empty frame between all the frames with drawn out comb), but those empty bottom frames had no foundation, only a waxed starter strip and some wire between the frames to provide extra support for the comb. Theoretically, the bees would build comb first by festooning — that’s when the bees hang off each other in a chain to determine the straightest line down on which to build the comb. Honey bees have been festooning for millions of years. There’s no stopping them now.
Honey bees building natural comb.
The bees built straight through the support wire like it wasn’t even there and they’ve already begun to fill the comb with honey — and it’s only been six days. All the comb they’ve drawn out will eventually join up and fill the frame. So as long as the warm weather holds up, I’m not worried about Hive #1. I’ll keep feeding them and then I’ll check them again in a couple weeks, but I think they’re doing great. Next summer when I can hopefully harvest some honey, I’ll go with foundationless frames for the honey supers too. That way when the honey is capped and good to go, I’ll just cut the comb right out of the frames and extract it by following the crush-and-strain method.
It’s November 2018 as I look back and slightly revise this post. There’s a lot I would change, but I’ll leave most of it alone. Instead I’ll jump in here and there with some comments about what I would or wouldn’t do today.
I added a second deep (or hive body) to Hive #1 yesterday. As far as I can tell, it went well. The bees were calm after being misted with sugar water, way less agitated than when I used the smoker on them. All the frames had drawn out comb except one. I put about half the drawn frames in the new box on top with empty foundation frames between them. I installed four foundationless frames in the original box, placing them between drawn out frames. The honey and the brood seemed mixed together on the frames, so there were no all-brood frames or all-honey frames. There was brood in just about every frame I inspected. I saw some comb hanging off the bottom of one frame, but no swarm cells. Hive #1 appears to be doing great. I’ll see how the colony adjusts to the new box and having all their drawn out frames spaced out. The big experiment is the foundationless frames in the bottom box.
Here’s a shot of the bees after I removed a few frames from the hive:
I’ll upload some video of the procedure soon. (UPDATE: The video is posted.) Until then, allow me to present a big load of photos and descriptions of what I did. Continue reading →