How I Prepare My Beehives For Winter

The following was originally posted on December 7th, 2015, but was edited and updated on October 27th, 2016, to reflect my current practices, such as they are, and could be updated without noticed at any time in the future.

Something weird happened. I got several emails from people asking me what I do to prepare my hives for winter.

One of my bee hives after a  snow storm in 2013.

One of my bee hives after a snow storm in 2013. The bees survived.

I’m no expert, but here’s what I do, and what I do could change entirely by this time next week.

The typical winter configuration for a world renowned and stupendous Mud Songs bee hive. (Nov. 04, 2015.)

The typical winter configuration for a world renowned and stupendous Mud Songs bee hive. (November 4th, 2015.)

So the big question is: “How do you prepare your hives for winter?”
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All’s Right With The World

I wrote this last week during an extended lunch break and decided not to post it because it’s long and rambling and doesn’t say much about anything. But so what? Here it comes…

Have you ever walked towards your beeyard, sight unseen, and heard the deep hum of a swarm in flight? I have. I’m still not at the point yet where I’m 100% comfortable with swarms. I will always say this because it’s true: The best beekeeping day of my life was the day I caught a swarm on a farm in the country where my bees couldn’t stress out any humans who would then pass on their stress to me. Humans ruin everything.

The sound of a swarm in the distance should be exciting and fun for me (as it should for everyone), but it’s not. I’ve never fully recovered from the stress my neighbours caused me when they freaked out over one my colonies swarming past their back deck when I lived in the city. Although I live in a much more rural environment now, I have one particular neighbour whose kid’s swing set is not so far away from my beeyard. I single out the swing set because I imagine if my bees ever swarm, I know they’ll damn well land on that swing set — and I don’t know how my neighbour will react to that.

So when I came home after lunch yesterday and heard that oh so familiar hum that made me think, “Swarm,” I wasn’t 100% comfortable as I walked towards my beeyard. Would I find bees filling the air like in some ridiculous scene from the Old Testament? My thoughts were, “No, I’d rather not see that today, if you don’t mind.”

And I didn’t. I saw this instead:

That Twitter-compressed video clip doesn’t capture the scene well. Play it back in full-screen mode to get a better sense of it. Bees filling the air everywhere. (Fireweed seeds floating about too.)
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Unpolished Queen Cups Are Okay

I freaked out a bit when I first saw a queen cup because I didn’t know what it was. I thought my bees were about swarm and that perhaps I should destroy the queen cups. But if a colony is about to swarm or replace its failing queen (two good reasons to create new queens), destroying the queen cups won’t make much difference. It could even make things worse.

A queen cup is the first stage of a queen cell, a big fat peanut-looking cell specifically designed for raising a new queen. The cell points down instead of sideways. Most honey bee colonies build queen cups just in case they need to create a new queen. But most of the time, at least if the beekeeper is paying attention, nothing happens. The cups are left unused.

I don’t destroy queen cups because they provide the easiest place to check for possible swarming. Here’s a quick video where I blab on about that.

The obvious clue is royal jelly or brood in the queen cups. But I’ve also noticed that the bees seem to clean and polish the insides of the queen cups in preparation for the current queen to lay in it, not unlike what they do with regular brood cells. Whenever I add a frame of drawn comb to a hive, the first thing the worker bees do is clean out every cell because the queen won’t lay in a dirty cell. Anyone who has ever observed a laying queen will have noticed that she sticks her head deep into every cell and inspects it carefully before she deposits the egg. If the surface of the cell isn’t shiny and clean, she moves on. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed the bees shining up the insides of the queen cups before a swarm, but I’ve seen it enough times to say, yup, that seems to be thing.

Orienting Bees or Swarmy Bees?

My one and only hive that I might be able to steal honey from this year. Door #1: Orientation flights (after being stuck inside for a day and a half). Door #2: A swarm on the way.

I pick Door #1. I also pick Door #3 if the bees are making lots of honey behind that door.

Later that evening…

It was a hot day and the bees were sort of bearding at the bottom entrance. I’m not concerned about swarming because I checked this hive for signs of swarming about every two weeks for the past few months. I’d rather leave the bees alone, but I’d also rather not have to deal with swarms if I don’t have to. Anyhoo…

I also removed three frames of brood from the top deep about ten days ago and replaced them with empty drawn comb. I also pulled out a heavy frame of pollen from the bottom deep, one of several heavy frames that I found, and replaced it with a foundationless frame. And that’s why I’m not too concerned about this colony swarming any time soon, despite the fairly large number of bees floating around the front of the hive in the first video clip.

Removing the frames of brood reduced the number of bees in the hive, thus relieving congestion, giving the queen’s pheromones more room to flow around the hive and make everybody happy. Replacing the frames with empty drawn comb gave the queen room to lay, which is pretty much always a good thing. The foundationless frame in the bottom box gave the bees space to fill in, not just a blank frame of foundation, but actual empty space that they will be compelled to fill in to maintain the wonderful bee space that dictates the design of the best beehives all over the world. Building comb to fill in that space instead of building swarms cells — that’s what I want to see. Thus, I’m not concerned about swarming.

A night shot of some bees ventilating the bottom entrance. (August 08, 2016.)

A night shot of some bees ventilating the bottom entrance. (August 08, 2016.)

My plan is to leave this hive alone until the fall when I remove the honey supers. I may take a peek at some of the honey frames once in a while to see how they’re coming along, but the brood nest will be left untouched.

By the fall, the will have made two medium supers full of honey for me and will have enough honey in the brood chamber for themselves to stay alive all winter. That’s what I call good beekeeping… if it works.

Lemongrass Oil as a Swarm Lure

I’ve heard for a long time that lemongrass oil is an excellent swarm lure. A few drops inside a swarm box full of old drone comb and the bees will be all over it.

Food grade lemongrass oil and other essential oils are used for mixing with pollen patties and syrup. NOTE: The lemongrass oil pictured here is not food grade, but the bees aren't eating it, so that's not a problem.

The lemongrass oil pictured here is not food grade quality, but that’s not a problem because the bees aren’t eating it.

So I went ahead and got myself some lemongrass oil ($5 at my local Bulk Barn), sprinkled five or six drops of it on some old comb (drone comb, comb with patches of honey, etc.) and set up a few swarm boxes. And within hours the bees were all over them.

Honey bees attracted by lemon grass oil. (June 15, 2016.)

Honey bees attracted by lemon grass oil. (June 15, 2016.)


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