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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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.

Foundationless Frame in The Brood Nest = Less Messy Drone Comb

Two weeks ago I wrote a post on Swarm Prevention. I talked about knowing when to stop feeding to prevent swarming and all kinds of good stuff. I also said something like this:

In a standard Langstroth hive with foundation, all the foundation usually has worker-sized cells imprinted on it, so the bees tend to build worker brood comb on it, not drone comb. That leaves the queen with nowhere to lay drone comb, so she’s forced to fill the space between the boxes with drone comb — drone comb that is a big ugly mess to clean up in the spring.

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after an inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

That’s why I insert at least one foundationless frame into the brood nest of every colony. Given the choice to build comb however they like it, if they’re short on drones (and they usually are in a Langstroth hive full of plastic foundation), the bees will (usually) fill the foundationless frame with drone comb instead of gunking up the space between the brood boxes with it.

I added such a foundationless frame to my one colony that’s in pretty good shape two weeks ago. Today I took a look at that foundationless frame and found this…

Natural drone comb made from dandelion nectar. (June 05, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

…naturally drawn out drone comb with freshly laid eggs inside most of the cells.

Close up of natural drone comb made from dandelion nectar. (June 05, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

Close up of natural drone comb made from dandelion nectar. (June 05, 2016, Flatrock, Newfoundland.)

The wax is yellow probably because the bees have been collecting dandelion nectar and pollen for the past few weeks.

Click the image to see a much sharper close up view of the comb.

Does adding a foundationless frame to the outside of the brood nest prevent swarming? I don’t know. I still think the #1 method for preventing swarming is the give the queen space to lay by adding drawn comb, replacing frames of honey with drawn comb if necessary. Second is to give all the bees that emerge from the brood frames space so the hive doesn’t get congested with too many bees. The pheromones from the queen and from the open brood don’t circulate well around a congested hive. The worker bees get swarmy when they can’t smell those pheromones. Third, give the rapidly-growing population of worker bees something to do. That’s another reason why I toss in foundationless frames. The bees in a crowded colony usually want to fill in that space as quick as possible. They will eat honey to make wax so they can build comb to fill in the empty space. Eating honey frees up space for the queen to lay. Then the new comb will give the queen more space to lay (probably drones). So in a perfect world all of these things balance out so the hive doesn’t get gunked up with drone brood between the boxes and the queen has enough room to lay so swarming isn’t triggered. In a perfect world.

Swarm Prevention by Not Overfeeding and Making Room for the Queen

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.

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

Destroyed drone comb between the brood boxes after inspection. (May 05, 2012.)

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.


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How to Do The First Hive Inspection of the Year

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):
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