A record of all the relevant beekeeping that I do (or have done) during the month of January. For the record, I began with two nucleus colonies in Langstroth hives in 2010 that I kept in my small backyard near downtown St. John’s (Newfoundland). I bought two more nucs the next year. By 2012, using swarm cells and naturally mated queens, I had six colonies on a farm in Portugal Cove. By 2013, mostly by creating splits with swarm cells, I had eight colonies on the edge of a big field in Logy Bay. I lost most of my colonies in the winter of 2015 to shrews. That was the only year I wasn’t able to take honey from my hives. I moved what was left of my colonies to Flatrock in 2015 and slowly built my beeyard up to nine colonies by the summer of 2016. My goal is to maintain a relatively self-sustaining beeyard with no more than ten colonies.
One of my beehives, back in January 2019, had its top blown off in a windstorm. The top cover — along with the inner cover and hard insulation — might have been removed in other ways, but the point is, the colony of honey bees trying to stay alive inside the hive were completely exposed to the elements for about a week. The elements included high winds, rain, freezing rain, hail and snow. Hence, the title of this post: These Bees Should Be Dead.
Not exactly what you like to find when visiting a beeyard in the winter. (January 2019.)
When I approached the hive, I didn’t expect the bees to be alive. I found dark soggy clumps of dead bees on the back edges of the top bars. Some burr comb over the top bars had lost its colour from being exposed to the elements. The frames were soaking wet with a sheen of mould growing on the surface. Ice clogged up the bottom entrance. So yeah, I expected to find nothing but dead bees inside that hive.
As much as I love moisture quilts (or anything that keeps my bees warm and dry over the winter), sometimes I think, “There’s got to be an easier way.” And when I say sometimes, I mean every single day. Instead of using moisture quilts, I’ve opted to try out these Dempster Hive Pillows. They’re 2 or 3 inch (~7cm) thick burlap pillows filled with wood chips that sit over the inner cover and inside a ventilation rim (or any kind of box with ventilation holes in it) to provide some insulation for the bees but also help absorb and wick away condensation from inside the hive.
Here’s a basic intro to the Dempster Hive Pillow:
It’s another experiment, but I think (I hope) it’ll work. I think it’ll be a lot easier to drop pillows into my hives instead dumping wood chips or some other absorbent material inside the hive. That’s the aforementioned easier way I was talking about. Considering that my bees have gone through the winter so far with zero insulation and zero moisture-absorbing material in place, my feeling is, yeah, what’s the worse thing that could happen?
Here’s the extended version of the above video that goes into a lot more detail about other things related my winter beekeeping: Continue reading →
In my ongoing series of videos designed to obliterate the Zen-like vision of beekeeping that everyone falls for (myself included), I present to all you good folk, “Wrapping Beehives in Bubble Wrap.”
The wind is blowing in the mic throughout this video, but it seems that my cheap cellphone camera does an excellent job at isolating the sound of my voice. Despite the wind, my voice can be heard clearly most of the time. Just one more thing: I don’t consume a lot of caffeinated drinks, but when I do, I sometimes get like hyped up. This video is fuelled by caffeine. Continue reading →
These thermal images show the difference between a hive with the bees clustering low (with plenty of honey above them) and bees clustering high (possibly running low on honey).
I can’t imagine the bees in any of my tall hives are running low on honey. Most of my hives were packed with honey going into the winter. But you never know. The first time I lost a colony to starvation was around this of the year. So… Continue reading →
A thermal imaging video I posted yesterday shows where my bees are clustering inside their hives, more or less. The video was created by combining high-resolution footage from my cheap cell phone camera with low-resolution footage from my expensive Flir One For Android thermal imaging device. But I also have one of these nice and cheap devices advertised as: “Infrared Thermometer Laser Industrial Temperature Gun Non-Contact with Backlight -50-380°C（NOT for Humans).”
Laser Gun Thermometer.
I wanted to see if the laser gun — which is about 25 times cheaper than the cheapest Flir One device — might work just as well as a thermal imaging device. Yeah, I know it won’t work as well, per se, but is it good enough for my backyard beekeeping brethren on a budget? I’ll tell you right now, the answer is maybe. Maybe even probably. Continue reading →
Someone on a social media site asked about a non-intrusive way to check on the bees in the winter other than blowing through the entrance or tapping on the hives to see if it riles up the bees. Someone else answered: “Put your phone in the entrance and record the sound. Then you can play it back and turn up the volume. I’ve tried it in the past and could hear their buzzing.” So I gave it a go. Does it work? Well… maybe, maybe not. But I did learn something today.
Some of you may have heard that the eastern part of the isle of Newfoundland where I keep bees got dinged with a massive snowstorm on January 17th, 2020. The official forecast called for about 90cm (3 feet) of snow. But with winds hitting about 120km/h (75mph), more than a few snowdrifts were taller than me.
I’m guessing a rat did this (January 26th, 2020).
The city of St. John’s and surrounding municipalities were under a State of Emergency for about a week. Everything was shut down. I couldn’t check on some of my hives until the roads were passable nine days later. This is what I found when I checked on them:
Here’s a 6-minute video of what passes for beekeeping during a snowstorm. Specifically, it’s the Snowmageddon snowstorm that dumped about a metre of snow over my hives on January 17th, 2020. I’ll make another video that goes into the details of what I actually did to keep my bees alive during all the snowfall, but this one is just to show how much snow came down.
I never got into tying my beehives down with ratchet straps because I was too stunned to know how to use a ratchet strap. I still prefer what some call “lashing” or “sport” straps. They’re less complicated to use, they seem to hold on just as tight to the hives as the ratchet straps, and if you’ve ever used them, you’ll know they don’t create any clack-clack ratcheting vibrations as they’re tightened (the kind of vibrations that don’t make honey bees happy). So if I had to go with any kind of strap to secure my beehives to the ground, I’d go with the so-called sport or lashing strap instead of a ratchet strap.
A lashing strap, usually cheaper and easier to use than a ratchet strap.
I should make a video on how to use the various straps. People as useless as me (people who can relate) might find the videos helpful. People with giant pick-up trucks who know their way around ratchet straps and heavy metal objects would probably get a good laugh out of it too. Continue reading →
I’ve got another shot of archived cell phone footage, this time from January 2018, most of it showing how I feed sugar bricks and crystallised honey to my bees in the winter. It’s only 3 minutes long.
What else can I say about this video? It was recorded at a time when I only had one hive because I was still recovering from a concussion injury and one hive was better than ten. The hive isn’t wrapped. The bottom entrance has 6mm / quarter-inch mesh on the bottom to keep shrews out. There’s a 2 or 3 inch rim on top to make room for sugar bricks, and on top of that is a moisture quilt, which is basically a ventilation rim with screen stapled to the bottom and half filled with wood chips.
There’s not much to see in this video. It’s just me talking.
I may post more of these videos in the future. Even though they’re not much to look at it, they kind of paint a picture of the kinds of things I think about as I continue on this beekeeping journey, the constant adjustments required to my beekeeping practices, the non-glamorous practical things I have to deal with, but it may provide insight for new beekeepers who might be wondering, “How do I actually do this?” As usual, I’m not saying what I do is the best thing to do, but if people are able to learn from my sharing of this experience, then hey, mission accomplished.
I had eight honey bee colonies going into winter last year (2014) and all but two of them were destroyed by shrews. The shrews squeezed through the half-inch mesh I’d been using since 2010 to keep mice out. But no one ever told me about shrews. The little buggers easily squeeze through half-inch mesh. They slip inside and pluck one bee at a time from the edge of the cluster. They eat the bee’s innards, toss away the bits of legs and other desiccated body parts, then climb towards the cluster for more… until they eat approximately 125% of their body weight in bees every day, gradually reducing the size of the cluster until the colony is dead.
That’s how I lost six colonies last year. With only one mated queen and no extra brood, I performed a miracle and managed to expand my remaining two colonies into five colonies last summer. They may not be the strongest colonies I’ve ever seen, but they’re hanging in there (so far). All of my hives have quarter-inch mesh covering every entrance now. Shrews will never get anywhere near my bees again.
Looking back on my notes from last year, along with photos and videos I shot and the memory of the experience burnt in my brain, the first sign of a shrew inside one of my hives seems obvious. It’s in this photo from January 5th, 2015:
The buzz of my bees has gotten quieter through my stethoscope in the past couple of weeks. I hope they’re not freezing to death. I don’t think they are. I think they’re just contracting into a tighter ball as the weather gets colder. I saw a sign of life in one of my hives this morning.
Frost around the upper entrance of a hive. Temperature: -20°C / -4°F in the wind. (Flatrock, NL, January 26, 2016.)
That’s frost build-up on the shrew-proofing mesh of the top entrance, frost that came from the respiration of the bees’ inside the hive. Which means they’re alive. I’ve been eager to take a peek inside, but that’s good enough for now.
The city of St. John’s, Newfoundland, got hit with about 50 cm of heavy, wet snow in the past 24 hours along with 110 km/h winds that made for some seriously high snowdrifts. One such snowdrift buried one of my beehives. Here it is shortly after I frantically dug it out with my bare hands:
It’s April 2019. I’ve shortened and simplified this post from 2012. Here we go:
I feed my bees patties of pollen supplement or pollen substitute to get the queen laying early in the year so that the colony’s population is at a healthy level when spring arrives. By early in the year, I mean late winter (or February and March in Newfoundland). I usually only give pollen patties to weak colonies, but I’ll give them to strong colonies as well if I plan to make splits from them.
I also feed my nucs pollen patties for first month after they arrive (usually around mid-July in Newfoundland), but that’s not a common practice. Many backyard beekeepers don’t feed their bees pollen patties for any reason at any time of the year. Overfeeding an established colony, whether pollen patties or sugar syrup, can easily create colonies so big that they swarm the first chance they get. And often the bees won’t touch pollen patties once they’re able to bring in real pollen from flowering plants. They chew up the patties and then toss the little bits out of the hive like they would with any kind of debris. So in that case, adding pollen patties creates house-cleaning work for the bees but for no benefit.
Here’s a video of me making some pollen patties — in a way that I probably wouldn’t make them today: