It was 18°C / 64°F today and the bees in all of my hives — even with shrew-proofing 6mm / quarter-inch mesh covering all the entrances — were out in full force.
I’ve heard arguments that the bees can’t get through quarter-inch mesh. But that’s not true. If it was, my bees would have been locked inside their hives behind the mesh all last winter. The bees in the above photograph wouldn’t be flying around today. …
It was zero degree Celsius today (also known as the temperature at which water freezes). It was also extremely damp and miserable. Not a bad day to see if visual inspections of the clusters match the thermal images from my Flir One for Android camera device. Not a bad day to make some pre-winter adjustments to some of my hives too.
Hive #1. Other than dropping in some sugar over the top bars in a week or two, and maybe wrapping the hive, Hive #1 is just the way I like it.
A word about that top cover. Yup, it’s a piece of plywood I found in the corner of my shed. I put something heavy on top to keep it in place, but that’s it. I’ve had it on the hive for several months now, always meaning to replace it with a real top cover but never getting around to it. I may leave it on the hive all winter. Why not? The inside of the hive is warm and dry. Whether it’s a commercially made telescoping top cover dipped in wax with a metal cover, or a dirty piece of scrap plywood taken from a junk heap, it doesn’t seem to make any difference to the bees.
I carelessly caused one of my colonies to slowly starve this winter. The cluster was about the size of my fist, maybe a little larger. Ten days ago while I was getting ready to dismantle the hive and cut my loses, I found the queen still alive. I knew the cluster was too small to keep her warm enough to survive another month of cold Newfoundland weather, so I quickly jury-rigged a nuc box with a light bulb for heat, put the bees in that and hoped for the best. The bright light bulb killed off about a hundred bees like moths to a flame. I eventually replaced it with a red light bulb. Today I put a cage around the light bulb (in a different box) for extra safety and it looks like this:
Then I put the bees in like this (that’s a dummy board on the outer edge of the frames to prevent the comb from melting):
I looked over the bees during the transfer and couldn’t find the queen. There’s a chance she’s in there, but it doesn’t look good. I’ve done all I can. The bees won’t freeze with that light bulb. They have an exit hole close by for cleansing flights and three frames of honey. Now all I can do is wait.
Let’s assume this is a lost cause…
I think I could have saved the bees if I’d discovered them starving at least a week or two earlier. The cluster would have been larger. They would have had a better chance. Not using a caged red light bulb from the start probably didn’t help, but it was the best I could do on the spot with the materials I had available. I learned about a beekeeper who uses a red light to keep his bees warm all winter. I would never do that, but I do plan to keep at least one heated nuc on standby for next winter just in case (and I’d probably use a ceramic light bulb instead so the bees can’t even see the glowing filament). I’ve also decided to pick up a thermal imaging device for my smart phone. I already have a stethoscope, which has been helpful though it’s not what I’d call a precision instrument. Cheap endoscopes are also available, though I’ve heard people having mixed results with them. But I’m pretty sure if I’d been able to take an infrared photo of my starving hive throughout the winter, I would have seen the cluster begin to shrink as it was cut off from its honey supply and I would have been able to move honey close to the brood nest and save the bees.
APRIL 6, 2016: Even the caged light bulb attracted and killed some bees. If I had to do it again, I’d wrap the cage with heavy duty tinfoil, or perhaps even better, I’d use a large tin can instead of a cage and poke some tiny heat holes throughout it. Judging from what I’ve seen so far, I’d say a 60-watt light bulb, even behind a big tin can, would provide enough heat to keep the cluster and the queen alive.
I used 6mm mesh (quarter-inch mesh) on my hives this winter for the first time because I lost most of my colonies last winter when shrews managed to squeeze through the half-inch mesh I kept on the bottom entrances. I’m not sure if the shrews got into the hives through the top entrances, but to be safe this winter, I covered both the top and bottom entrances with 6mm mesh. Now I’m wondering when I should remove the mesh, at least from the top entrances.
I found bee body parts scattered all over the snow near my hives today.
“Ah man, what the hell is this?” was my first reaction. It was a natural reaction considering the last time I saw bee body parts was inside one of my hives last February — when shrews preyed on most of my bees until they were dead.
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:
I noticed some honey or sugar syrup on the bottom board of one of my hives this morning.
I’ve seen this before. It usually happens in the winter when open honey comb contracts in the cold and then expands in the sudden heat of a warm spell and drips out of the cells. That’s all that’s happening. The first time I saw this, I thought a mouse got in the hive and chewed open some honey comb, which is not unheard of. But there’s no way a mouse could get through my quarter-inch mesh.
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.
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.
I removed the shrew-proofing mesh from my hives yesterday so I could clear out the dead bees that have accumulated so far this winter. I reattached the mesh afterwards with the use of a staple gun that produces a loud bang that vibrates through the hive and riles up the bees. But this comment changed everything:
“Would it be possible to secure it [the mesh] with drawing pins rather than staples?”
It’s absolutely possible. I did it today, just five minutes ago.
The drawing pins / pushpins work just as well as staples as far as I can tell. That mesh isn’t going anywhere.
Now I can easily remove the mesh, clean out the dead bees and reattach the mesh without bothering the bees. I thought I might need to find a different method for keeping the shrews out of my hive for next year. Not anymore. The mesh attached with thumb pushpins instead of staples works perfectly. At least that’s my story for now.
Thanks for the tip, Emily.
NOVEMBER 19, 2016: The original version of this post referred to the pushpins as thumb tacks. The more common name (at least in North America) is pushpin, so I changed all the “thumb tacks” to “pushpins.”