Why Honey Bees Swarm

A short quiet video where I explain how backfilling can signal that swarming, or splintering, could be on the way, a little tip I first picked up from Rusty Burlew. Then I insert a couple of frames of foundation into a super full of honey to relieve congestion so the queen’s pheromones can better circulate throughout the hive and all that jazz.


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Delirious Rambling in 33 Degree Heat (91°F)

I got a Gmail Reminder yesterday: CHECK FOR SWARMS CELLS. I must have written that reminder in past years for a reason. So I checked for swarm cells and I’m glad I did. Here’s a video of me talking about what I found in the first hive I checked and what I did. I talk about other things too that new beeks might be curious about.

I checked some of my other hives for swarms cells too, but not all of them. It was just too damn hot.

I did outside visual inspections and didn’t see anything too alarming in the rest. I’ve never been sold on outside hive observations for predicting swarm risk in a honey bee colony. Perhaps it takes a certain skill that I haven’t developed yet, but except for seeing a large number of bees pouring out of the bottom entrance and climbing up the outside of the hive for a few days before a swarm, I’ve never seen any clear sign from outside that a colony was about to swarm. I’ve spoken to large scale beekeeping operators who report the same thing. So I just don’t go by external observations.

But I did today because I was too hot and tired. I’m hoping for the best.

3 kg of Honey From a Medium Frame

Here’s now I inadvertently (or I could say deliberately) managed to get over 6 pounds of honey from a single medium frame. 6 pounds is about 3 kg. (I’ve created a special tag just for this hive, Giant Hive 2021, so everything I’ve written about it can be viewed in sequence.)

Other than giving the bees space inside the hive to grow, I really didn’t do much. This is 95% the result of good weather and a healthy queen. No bee whispering of any kind was required. There never is.

Essentially, all I did was place 7 frames of drawn comb in a 10-frame honey super, creating extra space between the frames. If there’s a strong nectar flow, the bees will often fill in the extra space with honey, resulting in thick frames of honey — and sometimes more honey per super.

1 of 5 thick frames of honey, averaging 5.2 pounds / 2.4 kg of liquid honey per frame. (July 7th, 2021.)

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A Beekeeping Cheat

I wrote this on Facebook, but I might as well copy it here:

Whenever I look at a full frame of capped brood (capped brood on both sides of the frame), I check to see if there are at least two frames worth of space in the hive for those bees when they hatch out. If there isn’t, it’s time to add another box.

Capped brood. (July 31, 2010.)

Capped brood.

Even if 1000 bees die every day during the foraging season1, once those babies hatch out, a hive can get crowded in no time.

This is 90% of beekeeping in the summer: Making sure the queen has room to lay.

Each full frame of capped brood will become approximately three frames of bees once they hatch out. It’s pretty basic math.2
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How To Get the Bees To Draw Straight Comb

I talk about this all the time, but here we go again, a short video that shows how I get my bees to build straight comb off bare foundation (when I have drawn comb).

Keep in mind that this method is not necessary. Many beekeepers simply let the bees build comb out from the middle frames as they naturally expand the brood nest and build comb for honey. That works too. Inserting empty frames between drawn comb is only meant to speed up the process because of the bees’ compulsion to fill in empty space.

Backfilling?

As I get used to reading the frames with this all-medium beekeeping I’ve taken on (it’s slightly different), I’m playing it safe in regards to swarm signs. We’ve also had an unusually warm summer so far. Most of my colonies are bursting at the seams. I’ve run out of frames and boxes to keep them contained. So any sign of backfilling and I’m giving the queen more room to lay.

Backfilling is when so much nectar is coming in that the bees run out of space to store it, so they end up storing it in the brood nest where the queen normally lays her eggs. When the queen runs out of space to lay like this, she becomes “honeybound.” And when that happens, the colony usually swarms.

That’s something I try to avoid as much as possible, especially since I live on a street packed with little kids, and one of those little kids is terrified of flying insects. I don’t want a swarm to land on her swing set and traumatise her for life.
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Starter Strips for Foundationless Frames

Whenever I talk about foundationless frames, they always have a starter strip in them. A starter strip is where the bees begin (or “start”) to build comb in a foundationless frames.

Foundationless frames are used for all kind of reasons. And that little strip of plastic isn’t going to pollute the honey or the bees. The bees will encounter considerably worse things in their environment while foraging. That’s one of the reasons why there’s really no such thing as organic honey.

It’s probably a better idea to securely glue in the starter strip with wax or whatever than jamming it in like I do in the video. I shot this video on the spot only as a quick demo.

Waxing Foundation with a Heat Gun

Quality plastic foundation is coated with beeswax to encourage the bees to build comb off it. But sometimes the foundation isn’t coated in wax for whatever reason and the bees won’t touch it, or if they do, they take much longer to build comb on it. So that’s when beekeepers are forced to coat the foundation with beeswax themselves. There are many ways of going about it. This is one of them.

Doubled waxed plastic foundation could make this issue moot, as might wax foundation or even foundationless frames.

This is the most convenient method I’ve found for waxing foundation. However, even more convenient might be to wax the foundation before inserting it into the frames.

Word around the campfire tells me that only the top inch or so of the foundation needs to be waxed — not the entire foundation. Apparently, once the bees start building comb on the top edge of the foundation, that gets them started and they have no trouble working down the rest of the frame. I’ve seen photos that seem to illustrate this.
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Narrow Frame Beekeeping

Something I didn’t know about when when I bought most of my beehive components is what not all commercial Langstroth frames are made the same. Some frames are slightly narrower than others — those are the good ones. Some are thicker — those can be a pain.

The thicker or wider frames fill a 10-frame brood box right to the edge. Sometimes it’s so tight that removing the first frame during an inspection be can difficult, especially if it’s packed with bees. Narrower frames provide more space on the sides of the box, which gives us sad ole beekeepers a little extra room to wiggle the frame away from all the other frames before we pull it out. For new beekeepers who have never experienced that and always find the first frame hard to pull out, you’re going to love narrow frames. This video shows how to identify them.

Cutting Down Deep Frames to Mediums

This video shows how I cut deep frames — with comb — down to medium frames. People who know their way around a workshop are going to jump all over this to tell me everything I’m doing wrong and what I should be doing to cut them properly. But this is for people like me who will likely never become a handy man in any way, shape or form.

I often forget to glue my frames together, but in this case, even though it’s not in the video, glue helps keep the bottom bars in place because they don’t clip in like the usually do.

I cut my deep supers down to medium supers too. If you watched the video, I’ll give you one guess at how I do that without measuring anything.

Assembling Langstroth Frames: Where Do The Nails Go?

This two-minute videos shows how I try to nail my frames together when I’m not lazy. When I’m lazy, I just bang a nail in on the top and bottom and call it done.

I know glue is great, but I don’t use glue to keep my frames together because glued-together frames smash into a million pieces when they break apart inside an extractor. Without the glue, I can usually put them back together. The bees also tend to fill in most of the cracks with propolis, which is a pretty good glue.

This is not a practical method of assembling frames for most commercial beekeepers, but for backyard beekeepers who don’t have compressor nails guns or any expensive gear — just a hammer and some nails — this works well.

Update: It looks like I already wrote about this in excruciating detail but forgot about it: Wooden Frames That Won’t Fall Apart.

Junuary Beekeeping on the Isle of Newfoundland

June 8th, 2021:

11:00am. It’s already 24°C in the shade and rising fast, supposedly peaking at 28°C this afternoon, feeling like 33°C (or 91°F).

24°C, 11:00am, June 8th, 2021, Flatrock, Newfoundland.

That’s about as hot as it ever gets for my bees, especially in Flatrock which is usually colder than most Newfoundland beeyards I’ve seen. So…
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These Bees Should Be Dead

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.

But I didn’t.


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