Here’s a 20-minute video that documents what it’s like to get a nucleus colony (or a starter hive) on the island of Newfoundland. It’s not always easy. (I’ve also posted a 6-minute version for those who want to cut to the chase.)
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.
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 my local 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.
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.
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):
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.
Fresh brood looks like this (click the image for a closer view):
I was planning to pull up a frame or two of brood from the bottom box to make sure the queen expanded the brood nest up (a lazy edition of pyramiding), but I found fresh brood on the second or third frame that I inspected. The queen didn’t need any help from me. So I put everything back the way I found it and left the bees alone.
I forgot to post an update about the possible Piping Queen I heard in a queenless colony a while ago. (It’s a longer-than-usual but detailed post that might be interesting for beekeepers who’ve never encountered piping or even heard of it.) The update: I pulled a frame from the hive six days after I heard the piping and found a frame full of royal jelly.
I inadvertently created a walk-away split on July 18th when I removed some brood from an established colony to make a nuc. I would have much rathered that the mated queen I gave the bees hadn’t been killed by the bees, but that’s another story.
If we return briefly to the beginning of this story, 18 days ago on July 18th (A Requeening Gone Bad), we learn that a mated queen was added to a split about 23 days ago and five days later, the mated queen was found dead in her cage along with several open and capped supersedure queen cells. I didn’t touch the hive until today when I noticed a few bees bringing in pollen. Foragers don’t usually collect pollen unless they have a reason to do so, and that reason is usually to feed a queen bee and her brood. So I decided to take a peek inside and low and behold, I found a new queen scooting around one of the frames looking for a place to lay.
SHORT VERSION: I heard what I believe is the sound of a new queen piping, but I was unable to spot the queen because, most likely, she hasn’t been inseminated by drones yet, and thus probably looks like every other bee in the hive (she doesn’t get big until she mates and begins laying). If a queen bee doesn’t mate within about 20 days, then it’s game over. Tomorrow is Day 20 for this queen. Bloody great.
LONG VERSION: Well, here comes another learning experience.
I followed the sound of the piping on the frame for five minutes but couldn’t spot the queen. It was maddening. So I carefully put the frame and everything else back the way I found it so I could ponder over what might be happening in that hive. So let us ponder…
June 2019 Introduction: The original post from 2015 was incredibly long and detailed and I obviously had too much time on my hands. Thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook, Murray, my goldfish, has a greater attention span than most people flicking through their phones these days. It’s not in our bones to slow down and read anything carefully anymore. To hell with poetry! Give me a meme! In that spirit of progress, I present to you a lovely digestible little ditty called, “What is this pyramiding business, anyway?”
This is a hive packed with bees…
…so many bees that they’ve run out of space in the hive and it’s time to add another box (i.e., a deep super or a hive body) so the colony has room to grow. But sometimes the queen won’t expand the brood nest into the new box because the workers fill it with honey instead, which can cause the queen to become honey bound (trapped in by honey with nowhere to lay), which can then trigger a swarm, not something most beekeepers want.
A little trick called pyramiding is the solution to that possible problem.