Seconds Thought About Some Beekeeping Ideals

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 you can see from what I say in this post that I was beginning to lose faith in that vision.

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.

Gunther Hauk says:

    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.

Architecture of Honey Comb

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.

Natural Drone Comb

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.

First Hive Inspection of the Year

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 to 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.

Inspecting and Moving a Hive

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.)


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