April 2019 Introduction: I’m revisiting this post now and will chime in here and there with some updates and profound insights.
I borrowed of a copy of Hive Management by Richard E. Bonney recently, and I like it. It’s a practical instruction book that seems geared towards second year beekeepers, but it should give beginners something to think about too. If it had the kind of detailed photos like those in The Backyard Beekeeper or The Buzz About Bees, I might consider it essential. Either way, I just ordered a copy for myself. (I also ordered Honeybee Democracy and The Queen Must Die.) I think it’s worth the $15 I paid for it because it’s full of sensible tips that got me thinking more about the nature of honey bee behaviour in relation to how I manage the hives, and it covers the basics of beekeeping but doesn’t overwhelm.
Bonney is wise to mention that he lives the USA, in New England, and that much of the advice he gives should be adjusted to one’s local climate. New England is not the same as Newfoundland, but it’s not too far off, and at least he’s not writing from the perspective of a beekeeper in Arizona or California. Most of what he talks about — beekeeping with double deep Langstroth hives in a climate where it snows — is applicable to beekeeping in Newfoundland.
Bonney advises to reverse the brood boxes to prevent swarming around the time the first dandelions appear (page 10). I’ve heard the same from local beekeepers. But I don’t go along with everything he says. For instance, he suggests spraying sugar syrup into empty comb as a winter feeding method. That’s a new one to me, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never do it. He also says to feed dry granulated sugar only as a last resort (page 5). I choose to disregard that advice too. I don’t see how dry sugar is any worse than feeding fondant or candy cakes. I can think of a few reasons why it’s better.
April 2019 Comment: Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’ll never add syrup to my hives in the winter. I’ve sprayed down dry sugar to harden it up a bit, but otherwise I don’t want to do anything that adds moisture to my hives in the winter. I get enough of it already. I’ve added drawn comb with dry sugar poured into the cells for winter feeding, which seems to work but I’m still experimenting. I mainly use sugar bricks to feed my bees in the winter, though I don’t see anything wrong with dry sugar. As for reversing the boxes in the spring, I often do it to coincide with the first hive inspection of the year. I also like to reduce my early spring hives to a single deep until they’re ready to expand into a second deep. But neither of these practices are necessary. It’s mostly personal preference.
Page 15 has a nifty little graph that shows the population cycle of a typical colony throughout the year. Peak population for over-wintered bees in New England is about 58,000 in June, slowly dipping to 50,000 by October, 40,000 by January, going as low as 25,000 in March, then back up again as the weather gets better. I can only guess, but those numbers probably aren’t too far off for Newfoundland.
On page 17 he discusses some of the reasons a colony will swarm. Like everything in beekeeping, it’s a balancing act. A colony will swarm when it’s so large that the queen’s pheromones can’t be passed along to all the bees in the hive. Some workers in an ignored corner of the hive can’t smell the queen and so they get to thinking, “Okay, we got no queen or the queen is getting old. Let’s make a new queen and get this show on the road!” Bonney cautions allowing hives with old queens to get too big.
Congestion doesn’t help with swarm-prevention either. That’s why slatted racks and follower boards are so useful. A lack of egg-laying space also encourages swarming. When the hive population is on the increase, it doesn’t hurt to move honey frames from the edges of the brood nest and replace them drawn comb so the queen has more immediate space for new brood (p. 24). I doubt anything that makes space for new brood will do much harm. There’s more to swarm prevention than this, but Bonney offers plenty of suggestions on what to look for and how to deal with it, including the Demaree method.
April 2019 Comment: I don’t use slatted rocks or follower boards (a.k.a. dummy boards) mainly because I don’t have the skills or the time to build them myself. To prevent swarming I make sure my hives are well-ventilated with a moisture quilt (many local beekeepers use the D.E. Hive to similar effect) and I always make sure the queen has room to lay. The Demaree method looks nice, and I know of other popular swarm prevention practices, but they all make my beekeeping feel much more complicated than I care for. I know many beekeepers who get off on manipulating their bees with convoluted processes and precise calculations and measurements. I’m not one of those beekeepers.
I like Bonney’s attention to certain details like this one from page 69: “…some crops do not secrete nectar all day. Buckwheat, for instance, yields nectar in the morning but not in the afternoon. This means that to supplement understanding of the bees, the beekeeper must have a knowledge of what plants are yielding in a given period and the characteristics of those particular plants.” He uses external observation to determine what’s going on, and whether or not an internal inspection is necessary. Some would say take the hive apart every two weeks no matter what. He says watch what the bees are doing first, think about why they’re doing it, then decide. And if you do go into the hive, know what you’re looking for before you do anything. That way you can minimize the disruption of the internal inspection. I appreciate that kind of attitude.
Queens prefer new comb for laying. Workers prefer old comb for honey (page 14). If this is true, then the Warré hive design makes sense. “[Robbers] do not approach a hive entrance directly but ease in from the sides. Their flight pattern is somewhat erratic as they bob about looking for a way in.” (Page 70.) Although a colony of honey bees will build comb downwards, it eats upwards. Nurse bees will not abandon the brood, especially open brood. Foragers will always return to the original hive location. Little titbits like these might not sound like much, but they help lessen the confusion for new beekeepers when baffling situations arise and decisions have to be made. The book cultivates that kind of reflective mindset — and I can dig it.
I could say more, but I really don’t have the time for a detailed summary. Here’s a quick list, though, of some topics that are addressed: swarms and swarm prevention; creating nucs, splits and raising queens; requeening; feeding; getting a honey harvest (though he doesn’t go into much detail on extracting); hive components and equipment; inspections (what to look for, etc.); and preparing hives for winter.
A few more notes: Bonney discourages new beekeepers from making comb honey because he says it requires exceptional skill. Judging from my experience, albeit limited, I’m more inclined to say the opposite and encourage new beekeepers to use only foundationless frames in their honey supers so they can avoid the hassle and expense of buying an extractor — and experience the pleasure of eating raw comb honey right off the frame. Bonney also describes a method for increasing honey production that I will probably never try as long as my bees are in an urban environment. Just before the honey flow, the brood chamber is restricted to a single deep with a queen excluder on top. I won’t go into all the details, but basically with less brood to rear, the bees will switch their priorities to making honey in a big way. The only problem is that restricting the brood chamber to a single deep increases the chances of swarming, so you have really have to know what you’re doing. I know a beekeeper who keeps his bees in a country setting who plans to try this method in one of his hives this year. I’m curious to see how it plays out for him.
Anyway, that’s about it.