Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Dr. Sharashkin: Part 1

The Connecticut Beekeeper's Association invited Dr. Leo Sharashkin to speak about natural beekeeping methods using Layens hives this past weekend. Wow! What a speaker! If you ever get a chance to hear him talk, seize the opportunity. You will be so glad you did.

The constant themes running through the various lectures he gave were:
  • Beekeeping should be a low maintenance activity
  • Use bees and a hive design that are suited to your local conditions
  • Use smaller hives, but have more of them
  • Let bees be bees

Dr. Leo Sharashkin

I won't share all the notes that I took, but here are some of the takeaways that were really notable for me.

An extended Layens hive with 19 frames

Beekeeping does not have to be labor intensive in order for bees to thrive or for beekeepers to harvest honey. 
Dr. Sharashkin shared a quote from a 19th century Russian text (1835) called Practical Beekeeping by Vivitsky. Vivitsky wrote:
 Peasant families commonly have 1000 hives. Tending these takes little effort, so the owner can work his fields and attend to other matters.

Nope. That was not a typo. People with no electricity or running water or any of our modern comforts were able to keep 1000 hives. Each year, beeks collected swarms that issued from these hives and populated new hives with them, accumulating them over time. These hives were passed down to their descendants who continued to accumulate their own hives. The actual harvest from each hive might be small (about 12 lbs), but with so many hives, the honey and wax added up. Other than catching swarms and harvesting, families did nothing with the hives -- so they had time to tend farms, cut trees, harvest crops, etc.

Follow Dr. Seeley's advice for having thriving healthy colonies.
Dr. Seeley, who has studied honeybees in the Arnot Forest outside Cornell for decades now, recommends the following for keeping healthy colonies.

  • Use local bees (either feral swarms or purchased from a local breeder) because they are adapted to survive in local conditions
  • Give colonies space 
  • Use smaller hives that allow for swarming each year
  • Don't use treatments

Local Bees. There was some argument at the club meeting regarding what constituted a local bee. For instance, caught swarms are not necessarily feral bees unless you can pinpoint the bee tree they issued from. And in order to develop a local strain, it takes bees about 10 years in isolation to fully adapt to local conditions. But isolation is a difficult thing to achieve, especially in a small state like CT, because you can't have any other beeks in a 10-mile radius. My personal feeling is that even though I was very careful about getting local bees developed from feral cutouts when I first started beekeeping, my bees have no doubt interbred with whatever feral bees and packages people have imported in the last 5 years so that a lot of different genetics have been introduced. Yet they continue to survive. So I figure that even if they may not be entirely local anymore, letting them be bees (not treating, allowing for swarms, minimizing the use of sugar, etc.) has giving them a fighting chance.

Space. If possible, give colonies space (about 100' between hives) because it helps reduce drift (and thereby disease transmission) between them. In an apiary with closely spaced hives, up to 30% of returning foragers may enter the wrong hive. Closely spaced hives has also been shown to contribute to the development of more virulent disease strains.  

If you don't have space in your beeyard, Sharashkin recommended reducing drift by:
  • Turning hives so that not all of the entrances face the same direction
  • Using distinct symbols at hive entrances. Many beeks paint their hives different colors, but honeybees can switch off their color vision in order to preserve energy. So when they return to the hive, they may be seeing in black & white. Instead, distinct symbols and patterns are more helpful to them.

Smaller hives. Smaller volumes are easier for bees to control the temp, and they encourage swarming, which creates a brood break and allows the colony to clean house. 

Not treating against disease. Treatments stress the bees out, and create their own problems. He said, "There is no such thing as being disease-free. Survival is about being disease-ok." In other words, we all have deadly bacteria all around us, but if we are healthy we can deal with it. It only becomes an issue when we are unhealthy and have compromised immunity. (Note: Dr. Sharashkin conceded that if you have bees that are not from the local area and are accustomed to being treated, they will probably die if you stop feeding and treating them, so you might have to prop them up to overwinter them. However, he cited several studies during his talks that even package bees that are kept without treatments, not fed sugar, and are allowed to swarm have a much higher chance of survival than bees from the same sources kept using conventional methods.)

Swarm Traps. Dr. Sharashkin spoke a bit about collecting swarms, and his website has a lot of info about catching them. However, there were a couple of points I thought noteworthy:
  • Scouts may start scouting 2 weeks prior to swarms emerging, so the bait hives should be set out early
  • If you don't have lemongrass and propolis to bait the hive, then you can use an old comb. However, if you DO have lemongrass and propolis to bait the swarm trap, then adding old comb as well is not shown to improve catch rates. Leo does not use old comb because he wants to encourage a brood break for the swarm.
  • When applying propolis to his traps, Leo sets a bag of propolis out in the sun to warm up. Once it is gooey, he just smears it onto the walls of his bait hive.
Wood taken from the wall of a feral bee tree.
Although it was a large chunk from a hardwood tree,

it was very light because of all the air pockets in it.

Why use Horizontal Hives?
Sharashkin second talk of the day was about using horizontal hives like the Layens hives that he uses. I confess that I didn't really take that many notes because I've read both Lazutin's book and more recently the one by George Layens. If you are interested in horizontal hives, I highly recommend reading both of these books. Layens wrote his book sometime during the 19th century and was one of Lazutin's inspirations when developing his own hive.

The real difference between these hives is that Lazutin's hive is much, much bigger (equivalent in volume to 5 10-frame Lang deeps). However, unless you have phenomenal forage in your area, Lazutin's hive may be much too large. It also doesn't encourage swarming. In his book, Lazutin indicated that he really had to force his hives to swarm every other year. By contrast, a 14-frame Layens hive is quite small -- equivalent in volume to about 18 deep Lang frames. The extended Layens hive that Leo uses has 19 frames (about 25 deep Lang frames).

He has the cutest kids.

Selling Honey for $20/LB.

Leo's last talk of the day was about selling honey for a premium price. However, since he recently wrote an article on that for Bee Culture (July 2017), I won't spend too much time on that. However, I did want to show how he packages his honey. Instead of using a regular label on glass, he uses a business card that is printed on both sides and folded in half. He says he pays about 2 cents per card and 5 cents for the string. However, the tag gives him extra space to market why his honey is special. It also allows buyers to focus on the beautiful honey instead of on the label.

A jar of Leo's honey

The inside of his packaging label

The back/front of his packaging label

Beekeepers are advised to feed colonies sugar syrup early in the spring so that they build up earlier and collect more honey when the spring flow hits. However, the danger in this is that if you get a late freeze, the cluster contracts and brood can be lost. If the brood is not cleaned out quickly enough, this can lead to putrefaction and disease. If the brood doesn't die, it may emerge but be sickly and weak.

However, there is another danger to feeding syrup. Dr. Sharashkin mentioned a study that was described in Robert Page's The Spirit of the Hive. Apparently, bees who are fed sugar syrup in early spring get spoiled, and their perception of nectar is altered. They become accustomed to the high-sugar content of the syrup and they will only seek out high-sugar nectars, ignoring nectars with a low-sugar content. They can even starve if a high-sugar nectar is unavailable despite plentiful availability of low-sugar nectars. Additionally,  brood that has been raised on syrup will share the same sweet tooth. This affects honey composition as well.

Layens bait hive and extended Layens hive

So there are my notes on Day 1. Hopefully, I'll get some time this week to share Day 2, which focused on managing a Layens hive.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Special Visitor in the Beeyard

Top bar hives seem to be gaining more and more momentum every year, but when I started out, it felt like they were still few and far between. Most people at my bee club hadn't even heard of them, much less had any experience with them. As a result, I turned to books and online communities for mentoring and support.

One of the online resources I found was Buddha and the Bees, a blog about everyday experiences keeping bees, and it quickly became one of my favorites. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was because Don, the blog's author, was in the same boat as me. We were both just starting out with our TBHs and quickly realizing that bees are not the experts that all the books claim they are. They insisted on doing unexpected wrong things. ;-) It was refreshing to find someone who was writing not about how bees are supposed to behave, but about all the nitty-gritty, wonky stuff that happens in real-life (mostly about bees, but sometimes writing bravely about other things as well). Don is also a smart guy with a terrific sense of humor, so I always looked forward to his new posts (and I still do!)

One of the bonuses of living in a digital age is that one gets the opportunity to connect with people all over the world. Over the past few years, Don and I formed a digital pen-pal relationship that started with our blogs, but it has moved on to email, packages of honey, and FaceBook. Our friendship has even extended to our spouses who now follow each other on FaceBook. That's the power of the interwebs being harnessed for good!

Although Don lives out in Colorado, he has roots back East in my neck of the woods. That's lucky for me because on his recent vacation for a family reunion, he and his lovely wife, Diana, carved time out of their busy schedule to bless my family with visit. As I told Don, after so many years of correspondence, it was delightfully surreal to finally meet in person.  He and Diana are just as I'd always imagined them to be -- warm, giving, funny, kind, clever, and passionate. They are just brilliant, and it was a blessing to have them in our home. The only bad part was that they had to leave because I would have liked them to stay and stay and stay. My DH and I lamented all the next day that they couldn't be our neighbors.

Diana in the center, and Don on the right.

I can't even begin to express how much I appreciate Don and his blog. His blog is well worth reading just for its own merits. But over the years, he has also been such a generous supporter of me and my own endeavors -- raising questions I hadn't considered, offering his own experience and insights, suggesting solutions to problems, or even just leaving comments to let me know that I haven't been shouting into the void. (BTW, Don is a fantastic problem-solver, and true to form, he gave me loads of ideas during his visit, so more on those in future posts. My daughter, though, was more impressed with his genius for finding four-leaf clovers.)

When I started beekeeping, mental stimulation was one of my new hobby's most immediate benefits. Watching bees do their thing was endlessly fascinating. Later on, collecting wax and honey became other tangible benefits. However, what I didn't predict was that beekeeping would bring so many amazing people into my life -- people I never would have met any other way because we come from such disparate walks of life or different parts of the world. Don and his wife Diana are two of those extra special people that I feel so blessed to call friends.

Don makes the best comb honey ever. I shared some with my daughter's friend Emma who agrees.
She says it tastes like rainbows, cupcakes, and unicorns.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


I'm a big proponent of learning through reading and listening to experts. On the other hand, I also believe that you have to trust what you see with your own eyes. To quote Syrio Forel, the fencing teacher from The Game of Thrones, "My words lied. My eyes and my arm shouted out the truth, but you were not seeing."

That's why my #1 lesson learned from 2016 was pull old comb. Be ruthless. Forget what you've heard about reusing for three years and stop worry about the energy spent on drawing wax. After watching my bees for a couple of years, I could see the ones who'd been given a "jumpstart" with old comb constantly struggling. (BTW, by "old comb" I mean comb that was built during the previous season and contained brood at some point.) The ones that drew fresh comb outperformed "the cheaters" every time.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that I didn't need to keep old comb around because even during a horrible flow, my bees could still fill up their hives and start swarming. It made more sense to let them build fresh, clean comb. By doing so, I could kill two birds with one stone. 1) The bees would have a more healthful environment. 2) Swarming could be delayed (hopefully), or at least better managed.

Well, that was my personal conclusion, but now I've been vindicated! I read an article by Jennifer Berry and Keith Delaplane on the effects of comb age on honey bee colony growth and brood survivorship. Their research, conducted at the University of Georgia, compared colony growth and brood survivorship in hives with old comb vs. hives with new comb over a three-year period. It's a fascinating article, so I highly recommend reading it. However, if you decide not to, here's a summary. Colonies with fresh comb produced a greater area of brood, a greater area of sealed brood, and heavier individual bees. Interestingly, colonies on old comb had a higher survivorship of brood, but as the study pointed out, that really is not a reason to keep old comb around. To quote the authors, "it is possible that the economic savings of using long-lasting comb may be offset by deleterious effects of old comb acting as a biological sink for toxins and pathogens or as a physical constraint on larval development."

Well, that's it in a nutshell, but here are a few more tidbits from the article that I found especially interesting.

On Age of Comb

The article indicated that the combs used in the experiment were of unknown age, but they "were dark and heavy as typical of combs one or more years old." [Bold face is mine.] OK, so maybe some  or most of the comb involved in the experiment was really old, but some could have been only a year-old. So I feel like my decision to cull 1-year-old comb isn't so crazy (or wasteful) after all.

On Brood Production

  • Old comb harbors numerous toxins and disease-causing contaminants such as nosema and foulbrood, which are spread from colony to colony by infectious wax. The queen may avoid laying in these cells.
  • Old comb may also be permeated with brood pheromones that can inhibit egg-laying because the queen perceives the cells to be occupied.
  • "Bees prefer to store honey and pollen in cells that have been previously used for brood rear-ing. In the wild, as a colony grows and continues to add new comb, brood rearing gradually shifts into this new comb and the honey is stored in the old brood comb." Actually, I thought this was interesting because all the books say that you should add empty bars between the brood and honey areas to keep the bees by the entrance and honey in the back. I've never found this to work for me. My bees just keep moving the brood further and further toward the back and storing honey in the emptied nest. Now I know why!
On Brood Weight
  • The cells in old comb are smaller than in new comb. As a result, the bees that are produced in old comb don't grow as much as bees in new comb. In fact, "Diminishing space may force larvae to moult to the non-feeding prepupal phase prematurely, causing nurse bees to cap the cells before larvae have developed maximally."
  • In this study, bees raised in old comb averaged 8.3% lighter than bees raised on new comb. However, other studies have shown that bees raised on new comb can be up to 19% heavier than those raised on old comb. It may not sound like much, but put it into human terms. Let's say an average woman weighs 140 lbs. A difference of 8.3% - 19% is 11.6 - 26.6 lbs. If a normal, healthy 140-lb woman lost 20 lbs, she'd be pretty unhealthy.
On Brood Survivorship

  • This is the one area in which old comb sort of outperformed new comb. Because comb absorbs and retains pheromones, the authors hypothesized that nurse bees may have been more stimulated to care for brood in old comb.
  • However, this performance was qualified because although brood in old comb was more likely to survive, colonies with new comb produced far more adult bees. This is probably due to the sheer volume of brood produced in colonies with new comb. More eggs are laid and more brood is sealed in colonies with new comb. (See table before.)
  • Although more brood survives in colonies with old comb, the number of adults in colonies with old comb was still lower. At least 35 different contaminants in wax have been documented. These contaminants may cause a high mortality rate in adult bees. Additionally, it's possible that returning foragers have a more difficult time locating their colony as contaminants may mask the hive's signature scent.

What do you think? How long do you wait to cull comb? Have you observed any differences in colonies with a preponderance of old or new comb?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Little Buggers

As I was working by the kitchen window this morning, a black shadow caught my attention. It was a big black bear with three cubs.

Mama and a couple of her babies by the chicken coop

Add caption
One of the things that I like about my bear fence is that the "rails" are made of a plastic tape that has metal woven through it. So if you accidentally brush it, you won't get a shock. You have to clamp on to it with your hands (or mouth if you're a critter) to move it. But then it really does deliver a powerful shock. It's a great feature when you have lots of little ones in the yard.

However, it looks like I'll have to rethink this design since Boo Boo can slip right under the rails.

Look at that rapscallion! He sneaked in and out twice this morning!

I predict a trip to Tractor Supply in the very near future. I'm swapping those tapes out for the kind of wire my grandpa used for his cattle pen. Instantaneous zap. Sorry kids.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Latest Notes

It's been a wet, wet spring, which is wonderful! The rain has everything growing so beautifully this year. However, it's been a bit tricky timing inspections. I also have a sick hen on my hands (a separate long story for another day), and nursing her has been time consuming to say the least. But I found a quick window of opportunity, and I took it.

The nucs
Overall, I was really pleased with the nucs.

Celestia and Bubblegum. These two ladies were chockfull of brood and honey. Since they were out of space, I actually had to donate some of the honey bars Hippolyte for to cure. I left each of them with 3-4 empty bars. Hopefully, they can build/start filling them before the clover ends (typically the first couple of weeks in July).

Peach has shattered all my expectations of her. She did so-so hive last year, and didn't come out of winter all that well. However, she boomed this spring. I chalk her growth up to a donation of capped brood and the removal of a bunch of old comb.

About three weeks ago, I made a shook swarm with her old queen for my neighbor. He stopped by last week to tell me what an amazing queen she was and how spectacular her brood pattern was. Not to toot my own horn, but while he thought she was one of his best queens ever, I considered her just ok.  So this is where I'm going to make a plug for treatment-free beekeeping. Dr. Seeley's studies show that treated queens and drones are nowhere near as fertile and vigorous as feral bees that are untreated. In fact, studies show that using chemicals in the hive actually decreases fertility.

Anyway, yesterday, I noticed that she had successfully requeened, and the bees -- oh, the bees were spilling out of the nuc. Like Celestia and Bubblegum, she had also filled up all her bars, so I donated 2-3 bars of brood to Buttercup.

Peach's bars and the underside of her roof were covered in bees.

Buttercup was a second split made from Celestia three weeks ago when I could tell that one split wasn't going to be enough. As far as splits go, she was pretty weak -- just 2-3 bars of brood & stores. But even she had managed to fill out about half of the nuc (about 7-8 bars). Hopefully, the donation from Peach will give her a good jumpstart.

The Big Girls

Austeja was the only disappointment of the day. I'd expected lots of progress; instead, there were very few bees and no new comb or brood. I suspect they absconded. The stragglers left behind appeared to have tried raising emergency queens but failed. Looking at the comb that I'd moved over to this hive with her split, I realized that all the combs were kind of old. Maybe that's why they took off.

To keep her moving in the right direction, I donated 5 bars of bees and brood on fresh white comb from Elsa because I wanted to keep Elsa from swarming. In hindsight, though, I wish I'd simply combined her with one of the nucs.

Aborted attempts to make queens in Austeja

Elsa is like Old Faithful, making honey and bees. Got no complaints. However, as I mentioned before, I do wish that I'd either combined Austeja with one of the nucs. A good alternative would have been moving Elsa's queen over to Austeja instead of just brood. Now I have this huge colony that still hasn't had a brood break this year. Perhaps, I'll ask around to see if someone wants a queen in a couple of weeks.

Hippolyte is humming along. Nothing exceptionally good or bad to report.

Persephone remains my problem child. When I requeened Persephone with a swarm cell from one of the nucs this year, I finally gotten rid of all the "bee-tches" from the psycho packages I bought 3 years ago. But she continues to be a menace. She's the sole reason I wear protective gear. At times, I've thought of burning her to the ground, but she's just incredibly productive and healthy.

Of course, I have to put things in perspective. 3 years ago, she was un-inspectable. My entire body would be covered in stings within seconds of opening the cover. Nowadays, she mostly issues a black cloud around my head, and my gloves take the brunt of her attacks. Compared to the old days, she practically treats me like a lover. I suppose this is what happens though when you name a hive after an underworld goddess -- you get bees from Hell.

Anyway, I could tell that she was starting to think about swarming -- nearly out of space, lots of queen cups and drones in the making... Ideally, it would be nice to wait for swarm cells before splitting her, but the truth is that I simply don't want to handle her any more than I have to. Waiting for swarm cells means having to crack her open a few more times, and she scares me a little! My neighbor doesn't mind uppity bees since he suits up completely for every inspection, so I gave him a preemptive shook swarm from Persephone, which he will take miles down the road.

In an emergency situation like this, it takes about 14 days for a new queen to emerge (July 4th -- Independence Day!). Then another 3-10 days to lay eggs. So we're looking at eggs somewhere around July 7th-14th. To be honest, though, I haven't decided yet if I even want to look at her again until harvest. Quite frankly, it would be a relief if she died out and left me lots of honey.

Don't remember which hive this was from, but it's so nice to see honey in the hives!!!

So that's it for the bees. The catalpa and clover are blooming, but they should be on their way out soon. So far this year, though, reminds me a lot of 2015 when we had exceptional spring and fall harvests and bees continued find nectar over the summer. Fingers crossed that the resemblance continues.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Full Beeyard Again

Last fall, an acquaintance of mine expressed an interest in seeing the bees since she'd like to take up the insanity that is beekeeping. Given the dearth we experienced most of last year and the onset of winter, my bees were super cranky. Not wanting to provide a bad first experience, I advised her to wait until spring.

During my previous full inspection, I'd made a 50/50 split with Celestia. However, I had no idea which hive Her Royal Highness was in, so I asked D to check with me.

D finally gets to see the bees. 

It turned out that Celestia was still overflowing with bees and queen cells, so I made a second split from her into Buttercup. However, she was indeed queenless. The queen had gone to Hippolyte, and the bees were busy filling that hive with comb.

We also took a quick peek at the nucs Bubblegum and Peach. Bubblegum was starting to make queen cups. Peach was completely un-inspectable. Have no idea why she was so angry, but it wasn't worth it. I closed the nuc up immediately, but the bees were all the way at the back, so she looked fairly full, too. (BTW, the other hives were beautifully behaved. Didn't even need gloves or jacket for them.)

That was on May 19. Fast forward to May 31. I knew Bubblegum was getting close to swarming, but I just never got back to her. Then yesterday, while listening to my daughter practice her guitar, a distinctive buzzing started up during This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land. I turned to find a small collection of bees gathering in my fireplace. Say what?!?!? After lighting a fire to smoke out any bees that were considering setting up shop in my chimney, I resolved to make another full inspection the very next day.

Silly bees. Chimneys are for fires.

Persephone: I don't know what the deal is with this colony, but they've abandoned the front entrance and have made their own entrance along the side of the hive. So their brood is toward the middle back, and all the honey is at the front. It's kind of inconvenient for me, but they've never expressed any consideration for me anyway.

The queen cells that I'd donated from Celestia were all open, and eggs were present - yay! I was planning to give the new queen and some bars to my friend J, but as soon as I found the new queen, I lost her again. Anyway, since all was well and good, I closed up.

Bubblegum: Bubblegum had a quite a few capped queen cells. My guess is that she's the one that swarmed and sent scouts down my chimney. Using the swarm cells, I was able to make a split for J. He may appreciate her offspring better anyway since Bubblegum is way mellower than Persephone.

Peach: I had promised a split to my neighbor, and Peach looked like she was starting swarm prep (backfilling, etc.), though no queen cells yet. Made up a shook swarm with her queen, and A will take her to his beeyard in a neighboring town this evening. Also, to speed up the requeening process, Peach got a bar of queen cells from Celestia.

Can you find Peach's queen? She's about halfway down the photo on the left.

Celestia: Celestia is one of the splits I made during the last inspection. The piping of a new queen indicated her presence, though, I didn't find her. 3 queen cells were about to emerge, and rather than let them be eliminated, I moved them to Peach. I also gave Celestia a bar of eggs from Hippolyte in case I had screwed up and moved the queen. Fingers crossed.

With no babies to care for, Celestia is making honey

Buttercup: Made this split from Celestia on the 19th with swarm cells. The queen has emerged, but no eggs yet. Just in case, she also got a donation of eggs from Hippolyte.

Hippolyte: Looks beautiful. Gave her lots of space and will try not to pester her for at least a couple of weeks.

Elsa: She had 3 empty bars left, and it looked like she was thinking about swarm prep, but she hadn't made any queen cells yet. Although, I'd prefer to use swarm cells for a split, I decided to split her preemptively since I'm trying to space out my inspections more this year. Moved some bars into Austeja so that about 1/3 of the hive is now open. Again, I don't know where the queen is, so will check in a few days.

Elsa is starting to cap honey, too.

Austeja: She's got bees again thanks to Elsa. However, I did learn a lesson. I had left her entrance open while she was empty in case some scouts decided to check her out. But I neglected to check the hive weekly, and the very first bar I pulled out had a small wasp nest attached. Fortunately, it was really tiny, and I only needed to rip it off and stomp it.

Surprise! Surprise!

Unfortunately, I never did get around to retrofitting Hippolyte and Austeja with insulation while they were empty, but oh well. All the hives are full again.

I have no idea which queen this is, but she's purty.

According to the US Drought Monitor, my area has finally been downgraded all the way from Severe Drought a few months ago to just Abnormally Dry. The forecast predicts a week of rain starting tomorrow, so maybe we'll be back to normal soon.

No room at the beeyard

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What TBHs look like after 30 days without inspection

Recently, rain, cold weather, work, birthday parties, and chicken-related jobs have all conspired against me. As a result, my TBHs haven't been inspected for a full month. But today was a glorious, sunny 72 degrees F. Not willing to let another day pass without peeking in the hives, I burned through work and took the rest of the day off to spend some quality time with the girls.

To keep the coop costs under budget, we had to finish up certain things ourselves like adding hardware cloth around the run, a chicken door, run door, nest boxes, etc. Not difficult tasks, but time-consuming. 

Primrose, scratching up some tasty treats

Olive, taking a break

Fully expecting to see a lot of cross-comb, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the bees had cooperated and built things out beautifully straight. It's so nice when they actually do things by the book. Here's a quick rundown of what I found:

Persephone: This colony has settled down considerably since she requeened herself a couple of times last year, but I still want to get rid of her because she's apt to go after my husband. A beek I know lost all of her bees over winter. She has a farm, and doesn't mind bees that are slightly testy since she suits up completely. So I made a shook swarm for her today. I also donated a queen cell from Celestia to speed up the re-queening process. Hopefully, the bees won't tear that cell down.

Celestia: Other than the ant infestation under the roof, this colony was the highlight of my morning. She was bursting with bees and had begun making swarm cells. One bar with swarm cells went to Persephone. Unwilling to attempt finding the queen, I did a 50/50 split with the rest of the colony, so Hippolyte has bees again as well. The only bad part is that I haven't had a chance yet to retrofit Hippolyte with insulation and a hinged roof. So I'll have to decide if that's something I want to try while it's full of bees or wait until it's empty again.

Freakin' ants. Yuck.
The back of the hive. Bees are bubbling out.
The first bar I pulled out. This hive is definitely going to have swarm cells in it.

Look at that brood pattern!

Bubblegum: She's not quite as far along as Celestia, but she's definitely getting close. In another week or so, I expect to see some swarm cells in this one as well.

A few queen cups getting started
Peach: This nuc was weak during the last inspection, which was unsurprising given how weak she was going into winter. However, the donated brood seems to have made a difference. She's picked up considerably since then. Although she's not anywhere close to swarming, she should continue to do reasonably well.

Buttercup: A month ago, I spotted a tiny queen and small entourage. I should have combined her with another hive (maybe Peach), but I wanted to see what would happen if I just let things play out. Given that it was already April at that time, I figured they might have a chance since stuff was blooming, and I was curious.

My hopefulness has given way to suspicion over the last couple of weeks because the amount of activity surrounding the nuc has lessened considerably. My fears turned out to well-grounded since this hive died out. However, last night, I talked with my neighbor who also keeps bees, and he also experienced a few smaller hives that made it all the way through winter only to die out in late March/April.

Elsa: Elsa continues to do very well. Given the amount of space she has, she's not as full as the nucs, but with 20 bars of brood, she is getting there as well. Lots of drones and some queen cups started. I gave her some empty bars to build on and will continue to monitor.

I don't remember finding Elsa's new queen last year. 
Turns out she's blonde, which was a surprise since all of her previous queens have been black.

So that's all for my inspection notes. As long as the weather holds out, I'll check on the splits in 3 days to figure out which ones have queens. Fingers crossed for continued sunshine (or at least some fair weather on Friday).

Monday, May 1, 2017

How hot are my bees?

Invariably, there are two questions that new beeks unaccustomed to working with honey bees ask:

  1. Are my bees aggressive?
  2. What do I do with them?

It's important to know whether you have mean bees or simply defensive ones because pleasant bees will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the hobby. 

In evaluating your bees, be aware that there are certain things that will make even the sweetest tempered bees temporarily crabby. For example:
  • A dearth
  • Bad weather (rain, snow, cold, etc.)
  • Attacks from predators
  • Being relocated (e.g., shipped in a package or hauled in a vehicle)
However, if your bees temper doesn't improve within a couple of weeks, or if they get noticeably worse as their colony size increases, it might be time to re-evaluate.

With that said, as I was organizing some bookmarked pages, I found a chart that was very helpful to me a few years ago. However, there were a few lines that I felt were a little confusing or that I disagreed on. For example, I'm not sure that an aggressive hive automatically needs to be destroyed. Yes, drones from a nasty hive will spread their DNA, but from what I've read, some of the hardier races of bees tend to be a bit on the less workable side, so maybe they have something worth keeping in the gene pool. Also, I feel there is something of a sliding scale when it comes to aggressive bees. For example, I've had colonies that would swarm me, stinging as often as they could, for more than 100'. However, with enough layers of clothing, it was possible, sort of, to inspect them. They were definitely hot, but they weren't like the bees that cover every bit of your veil until you can't see. 

So anyway, here is my re-worked version of the chart. 

If you've had experience with aggressive bees, how have you dealt with them?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The grass is definitely NOT greener on my side...

it's most decidedly yellow!

A spring feast

It's taken five years of my youngest child "planting" dandelions, but I finally have a lawn that my neighbors probably hate and the bees love.

Grabbing a snack

Ever since we bought this house, I've been working on the gardens out front. When we moved in, the soil was hot, dry, and as hard as a rock. Nothing was growing. None of the shrubs were flowering. There were no bees, no pollinators, nothing. 

Here are some shrubs in an area that I haven't done any work on. (Yeah, I know, it's been 5 years, and I haven't done jack. Still deciding whether to try and save them or rip them out.)

Sad, sad, sad

Now here is a shrub on the other side of the front door that is in a spot where I've consistently been amending the soil for 5 years.  It used to look just like the shrubs above. This spring, though, it's glorious!

My pretty shrub

I've never seen honey bees on it before. In fact, I didn't think bees were overly fond of azaleas, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. My impression has always been that bees considered them the celery sticks of the nectar smorgasbord -- it's what they go for when nothing else is available. However, this shrub is humming with bees.

So many bees on this thing!

Yeah, I know honey from these shrubs is toxic, but it would take a lot of nectar to make honey that harm a human. So instead of worrying, I'm enjoying the buzz.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Last week, temps were in the 70's perfect for inspecting. Unfortunately, I was in Florida all week, so my first inspection of the season waited until today.

Before I left, I was seeing activity outside 7/8 hives. Then yesterday, which was a beautiful 85 F, there was much less activity than I would have expected. The magnolias are in full bloom, and even some dandelions are starting to pop out. But the bees. Where were all the bees? Concerned, I decided it was time for a hive inspection.

Celestia, Elsa, and Persephone were all doing extremely well (Note: Elsa & Persehone are my double-walled hives). They had brood on about half of their bars (7 for the nuc and 14-15 for the full-sized hives) and were making drone brood. The dandelions are just starting to open, so I'll go in next week and remove their leftover stores.

Bubblegum, one of the nucs, was doing fine with brood on about 4-5 bars (including some drone brood), but given the amount of activity I'd seen a couple weeks ago, I had sort of expected more.

Peach, another nuc, had a few bars of brood, but since I wasn't really expecting her to pull through, that was a good surprise. Elsa donated a bar of brood to help boost that nuc.

There wasn't any activity surrounding Buttercup, and in fact, I expected to find a dead-out. However, when I got to the front, she had 2 bars of eggs/larvae and a really tiny queen. Really tiny. Where and when did the bees make that queen? Last fall maybe? I should probably requeen/combine that hive, but I'm kind of curious to see what's going to happen.

Austeja, as expected, was a dead-out. There was evidence of dried out eggs and larvae, so it must have happened some time this spring. My bees usually don't start rearing brood until the swamp cabbage starts blooming, so my guess is that she died out sometime during March. 

You can see the Austeja's dead queen in there.

Hippolyte was more of a surprise. There was activity a couple of weeks ago, but when I looked in the hive today, all the bees were gone. There was a lot of old, dark comb, though. My guess is that they absconded. This sort of reinforces my resolve to be more aggressive about pulling old comb this year.

So 5/7 hives remaining isn't bad. In a way, I'm kind of glad to have the space for splits, and those two hives needed some repair work anyway. This is a good opportunity to do that.

What does stink, though, is that I have about 1.5 hives worth of capped syrup that didn't get eaten. One of my hives holds 32 bars -- so that's something like 48(!!!) bars of syrup. Crikey. What am I supposed to do with that??? My freezer is jam packed, but I don't want to waste all that syrup either.  I'm thinking of crushing & straining and storing it in jars. If I end up having to feed again this fall, the syrup should be immediately cappable.

So that's my spring report. Hope your bees survived winter, too!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Georges de Layens: Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives

Just returned from a trip to Florida, and the plane ride to/from Orlando was the perfect opportunity to catch up on some bee-related reading that has been languoring by my bedside. Specifically, I was able to skim through my new copy of Georges de Layens' book Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives. Actually, it would be more accurate to say my newly translated copy since the original was written by Layens, a French beekeeper and biologist in 1897. (The recently published version was translated by Mark Pettus and edited by Leo Sharashkin.)

Can order from:
I've been wanting to read this book for awhile since it was one of the works that inspired Lazutin's approach to beekeeping. 

To say that this book is an amazingly comprehensive work doesn't really do it justice. It is thoughtfully organized into 4 sections:
  1. An intro to beekeeping focused on bees, the colony and the hive
  2. A tutorial that takes beekeepers through the first three years of beekeeping
  3. Other hive systems
  4. General observations on beekeeping, eg., apiarity products, diseases, pests, nectar sources, etc.
Some of the information is irrelevant to the modern reader (such as the information on skeps and how to transfer bees to a Layens hive from a fixed comb hive). But to me, those bits seems like an interesting little window back through time.

There were also lots of interesting little tips that I found delightful -- like rubbing one's hands with a lemon to reduce the chances of being stung (something I look forward to testing). I especially liked the chapters on nectar sources and yields. 

Another fascinating aspect of the book were Layen's feeding recommendations. By today's standards, they seem so minimal. I don't know if it's because sugar was so much more expensive then, or if modern beekeepers are feeding too much. My guess is a little of both, but if we experience another terrible season this year, I'll certainly reconsider how much sugar I purchase.

Anyway, this book is available on Amazon or, and it is a wonderful resource for anyone looking to keep bees with minimal interference. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Fun Science Fair Project

About 2 months ago, my daughter burst through the door and announced:
"Mom, I wanna do a science fair project about bees!"
I didn't know whether to be delighted that she wanted to experiment with bees or dismayed by all the tears that would inevitably ensue due to the work involved.

Anyway, Girlie Girl had lots of ideas. However, because our weather has been very uncertain, party-pooping mom talked her out of them since they involved actual flying bees. Given that the fair was April 5th and we got snow on April 1st (and still didn't have flying bees), that probably turned out for the best. Instead, we focused on a project involving honey. (BTW, I didn't come up with this idea, but I don't remember where I saw it.)

We took 10 petri dishes filled with agar and divided them into sets of 2. Each set was swabbed with bacteria collected from some part of the house/body:
  • Mouth
  • Toilet
  • Garbage can
  • TV remote
  • Floor
We also made holes in the agar for one plate in each set. Each hole was numbered and filled with one of the following:
  • Antibacterial cream
  • Manuka honey
  • The cheapest store honey
  • Local honey 1 (fall)
  • Local honey 2 (spring)

Top row is our control so we can see whether anything in our swabs can actually grow in the agar.
The bottom row is for our test. And in case you are wondering, I decided against testing multiple batches for a statistical analysis. This is only first grade after all.

Next the dishes were placed in a warm location to grow, grow, grow. One thing that was interesting to me was that after 1 day, all the honeys had been absorbed by the agar. The antibiotic cream, though, being petroleum based was still in place. Sort of makes me wonder if that happens when you put honey on a cut, too, but anyhow...

After 3 days, we measured the clearing around each hole. Because of the irregular shape of the clearings, we took three measurements for each hole and averaged them.

Of course, there were a lot of issues with the experiment. For instance, honey and antibacterial cream are so thick and sticky that it was really hard measuring out equal amounts. Also, 6-year olds tend to get honey all over everything, which may have skewed some of the results.

However, much as my daughter hypothesized, Manuka honey performed the best. After that came Local Honey 1 (fall honey), Local Honey 2 (spring honey), and antibiotic cream in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th respectively. Cheap plastic bear honey, as we predicted, was dead last.

It would have been cool to see if applying different honeys to an existing bacterial culture would kill it, but by Day 3, the stench of our petri dishes was vomit-inducing. (I was seriously dry-heaving while taking measurements. Not even Vicks under the nose helped. My daughter ran away.) Unable to endure the smell another day, we chucked the dishes in the garbage.

The day of the fair. There was a lot to write up, so she talked and I typed.
Very proud of all her work

Anyway, the project has gotten me thinking about fall honey and how it affects the health of winter bees that have to hold on until spring. It might also be interesting to see if different bacteria are more prevalent in spring/fall and whether honey produced at certain times of the year is more suited to staving off the germs that are circulating (or maybe germs that will be circulating during the following season when the honey will be consumed). Actually, I can think of a whole slew of follow-on experiments. It's a good thing my little scientist has 5 more years of elementary school fairs.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Spring is Finally Here!

I've been waiting for a day above 65 F to check on the bees. So far Mother Nature has been loathe to cooperate. Seriously, it snowed on Saturday! Meanwhile, folks closer to the coast are reporting drone activity. What the heck? Drones?!

My daughter hanging out with the chickens on a glorious Sunday

Further inland, we got a couple of warmish days mid-Feb (warm enough for the bees to fly anyway), but not warm enough to open the hives. Just from observing the entrances at that time, I was pretty sure at least half of my hives had survived winter. A couple of them were difficult to decipher without any pollen coming in.

Anyway, Sunday and Monday got almost up 60 F, so the bees were out in full force. Elsa, Celestia, and Bubblegum were especially active. The others had fewer bees coming and going. At first, I thought they might have been robbing dead-outs, but then I spotted a couple of bees with pollen entering Buttercup, Peach, and Persephone. So my guess is that they're alive as well.

Elsa carrying in the grocery bags

I didn't see any pollen-bearers entering Hippolyte, but girls at the entrance seem engaged in normal activity. So there's a chance that one survived, too. Austeja is more suspect, and I'm not holding my breath for that one. Time will tell.

Yesterday also marked my first sting of the season. Contrary to popular advice, I frequently wear black or dark colors around the hives without any ill consequences. On the other hand, wearing a blue shirt in the early spring/late autumn is a guarantee that every bee I own will home in on me. I have a hypothesis that bees respond to scent as much as they do color. I think they know my scent and so leave me alone despite my clothing color, but why does a blue shirt fool them every time? Idk. 

Lost pollen means it's time to remove the mouse guards.

Anyway, I was sporting a black sweater in the bee yard. Plenty of bees landed on my hands without showing any aggression, but then one got caught in the knit. Unable to escape, she stung me, and her pheromones were a battlecry for the others, so I pretty much skedaddled on out. Note to self: Only woven fabrics in the apiary.

Hopefully, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, your spring has begun (or is just around the corner), and your bees are waking up as well!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Why Bees Drink Dirty Water & Honey bee Immunity -- 2 Talks by RachaelE. Bonoan

In terms of finishing up posts that I have in mind, I'm way, way, way behind schedule. I haven't even opened my hives yet this year, and I'm grateful for the freakish snow and freezing temps we've had lately because now I don't have to feel guilty about that.

Anyway, several weeks ago, Rachael Bonoan, a PhD candidate at Tufts and president of the Boston Area Beekeepers Association, spoke at our bee club meeting. She was positively delightful -- sweet, humorous, and insightful -- it was a joy to hear her talk.

She gave two talks -- one on why honey bees drink dirty water and another related to the effect of diet on honey bee immune systems. Sadly, I've misplace my detailed notes, but I'll share the highlights. Also, you can read the full paper on the "dirty water" study here.

Talk 1: Seasonality of salt foraging in honey bees

  • Beekeepers have long observed that honey bees seem to prefer dirty puddles of water to fresh clean ones. One study has even shown bees to drink human tears! [Banzinger H, et al. Bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) That Drink Human Tears. J of the Kansas Entomological Society. 2009; 82(2): 135-150.)]
  • Bonoan hypothesized that honey bees are selectively foraging in soil and water for minerals that nectar may lack. 
  • She sampled and tested water from around the university where honey bees were known to collect water (barrels, cinder blocks, puddles, truck cabs, puddle behind gym) and found that the water in these places were rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium. She focused on these minerals because of they are known to be necessary for certain biological functions.For the study, she set up watering stations (basically watering tubes on a table). Each station contained water mixed with a different salt (NaCl, KCl, CaCI2, MGCL2, NH4CL, KH2PO4). The control tubes contained sucrose and deionized water. She also had another screened in table with tubes full of the same solutions so that she could account for evaporation.
  • One of the things I found fascinating was seeing bees come to the tables, tasting a solution and then moving on to one they liked better. So they definitely showed preferences.
  • Additionally, the results showed that overall, the bees had preferences for certain minerals during different seasons. Preferences also varied depending on which floral sources were available.
  • As part of the study, she also measured the effect of salt foraging on hive health. Colonies that gathered a wider variety of salts were healthier overall than ones that didn't.
  • She recommended providing bees with a supplemental mineral source. It could be as simple as giving them a dirty puddle or a mineral salt lick. Also, bees should have diverse floral resources throughout the year. 
If you are interested, you can view a copy of the slides for this presentation.

Talk 2: Physiological and behavioral immunity in the honey bee

  • Honeybees have 3 types of disease resistance: Genetic, Physiological (Individual Behavior), and Group Behavior
  • Honey bees have far fewer immune genes than other insects (about 50). Fruit flies and mosquitoes have closer to 200 immune genes. This is why genetic diversity is so critical for honey bees. The more baby-daddies a colony has, the more likely that the population will have a greater mix of immune genes. This provides population-level resistance. In other words, while certain bees with one immune gene might be susceptible to a disease, other bees in the population with different genes may not be.
  • Bees also exhibit various behaviors that increase their disease resistance. Some of these are individual behaviors like grooming, biting, etc. Others are group behaviors like collecting propolis, balling invaders, and thermoregulation. 
  • She called thermoregulation a "honey bee fever" because it acts just like a fever in humans. Bees raise the temperature of the hive in order to kill an infection like chalkbrood.
  • She discussed her research infecting colonies with chalkbrood and measuring their ability to raise hive temperatures. Here my memory is spotty, but I believe that her group also fed various pollen mixes (monofloral vs. polyfloral) to the bees to see if that affected their ability to thermoregulate. They chose to provide monofloral and polyfloral pollent because pollen is what the young bees eat. Pollen contains protein, 10 essential amino acids (EAAs), and trace minerals that are essential for honey bee health. However, not all pollens contain the same EAAs in the same amounts. Bees cannot get all 10 EAAs from monofloral crops like almonds, sunflowers, etc. 
  • What she found is that colonies fed pollen mixes from diverse sources had better overall health. Also, the amount of protein that bees receive from pollen is not as important as the diversity of EAAs that they get. In other words, pollens with higher protein content did not necessarily translate into better colony health. However, pollen diversity did.
I'm really bummed about misplacing my notes because she had mentioned some fascinating tidbits about different floral/pollen sources and the minerals they provide as well as the functions that these minerals support. If I find them, I'll definitely update this post. However, I recommend checking out her website since she has quite a few interesting articles and resources posted.

Monday, February 20, 2017

How Many Colonies Should I Get?

We still have a ton of white stuff on the ground thanks to a couple of snow days, but the weather is warming up. Temps for the past week and predictions for the near future are in the 40 F range, which means it's time for maple sugaring! Ok, no, I don't tap trees, but rising sap means that the maples, one of our earliest flowers, will be blooming soon. And blooms mean BEES!!!

It's also the time of year when everyone is ordering bees and lots of newbies are asking, "How many colonies should I get?" The traditional answer is "Have a minimum of 2 hives." However, I'm going to disagree with this because newbies, who are already shelling out a lot of money for bees, tend to focus on the "2" and not on the "minimum" part of that statement.

Starting with two hives is fine. However, as a beekeeper, you need to be thinking ahead and planning for winter and even the following spring. If you want to ensure that at least one colony will survive  through winter, I recommend having plans for a minimum of 4 healthy, thriving colonies by wintertime.

So why do I recommend a minimum of 4 going into winter? 
If you want to skip this rest of this post, the short answer is this: Increasing the number of colonies you have increases the chances that at least one of them will survive winter. That's basically this entire post in a nutshell.

However, I actually feel that the number of hives you enter winter with should depend on how many you hope will live to see spring. If you want 4 colonies in spring, go into winter with 8. If you want a 100, enter winter with 200 colonies. However, for the new backyard hobbyist, it would be nice to have at least 2 hives make it until spring. You always want to have at least 2 hives so that you have resources to switch back and forth -- even in spring. Therefore, I recommend a minimum of 4. (PS. Mike Palmer has some great talks online for making winter nucs.)

Bees & Probability
I'm not a mathematician, so perhaps someone like Don from Buddha & the Bees will correct me, but let's say all factors are equal, each colony in your beeyard has the same potential outcomes for winter -- survive or die. So all factors being equal, every hive has a 50% chance making it. 50/50 odds are pretty terrible. That's essentially flipping a coin. Let's say H = Heads and T = Tails. According to the theory of probability, there are 2 possible outcomes for this flip:
H      T
However, when you flip a coin multiple times, your chances of landing on a desired result -- let's say landing on heads at least once -- increases. If you have 2 coins and flip them, each coin has 2 possible outcomes, so flipping 2 coins has 2x2=4 possible outcomes. The possible combinations of this flip are:
HH      HT
TH      TT  
Wow! Already the possibility of at least one coin landing on heads is vastly improved -- 3/4 (or 75%)! The chance of landing on just tails though is 1/4. 25% chance is still kind of high, but it's much smaller than 50%.

If you double the number of coins again to 4 coins, what is the probability that at least one coin will land on heads? 2x2x2x2 = 16 possible outcomes. Let's look at them:
HHHH      THHH      HHHT      THHT 
HHTH      THTH       HHTT      THTT
HTHH      TTHH       HTHT      TTHT
HTTH       TTTH       HTTT       TTTT
As you can see, the chance of landing on just tails gets much, much smaller -- 1/16 (or 6.25%). The chances of having at least 1 coin land on heads are 15/16 (93.75%).

If you doubled the number of coins again (don't worry, I'm not going to list out the combinations), you'd see an even greater probability that at least 1 coin lands on heads and an even smaller chance that all the coins would land on tails. Of course, there is also the law of diminishing returns, so after a certain point, you might want to stop flipping coins. Anyway, moving on...

How does this apply to bees? Bees aren't coins.
Exactly. That's why I added that condition to my earlier statement -- if all factors are equal. The problem with bee colonies is that each one is a living organism and can have all kinds of funky things going on. Some of these variables include colony size, health, parasites, location, hive construction issues (e.g., leaks, cracks, ventilation, insulation...), forage, colony age, queen quality, appropriate winterization, weather conditions, etc. If all factors were equal, you might not need more than 2 hives as a hobbyist, but bees are not nearly as predictable as coins. That's why I recommend going into winter with double the number of hives that you want to make it through to spring -- to account for losses that will occur due to some of those variables.

By the way, some of the variables that need to be addressed have nothing to do with bees and have more to do with the beekeeper's knowledge and experience. That's a whole 'nuther layer of issues!
My first year of beekeeping, I didn't get to experience winter since a bear ravaged my bees. As a result, by the time my second winter rolled around, I hadn't yet figured it out and had 4 colonies going into the season. Condensation killed 3, 1 survived. But the one that survived... that was crucial because most of my current 8 colonies are descended from that hive. While I still have a lot to learn, ongoing reading, sharing with other beeks, and some hard lessons learned through experience have made me a better beekeeper than I was when first started. (Hopefully.)

How can I expand my beeyard to 4 hives before winter?
If you're willing to spend the cash, you can certainly buy 4 packages or nucs to start out.
However, if money is a consideration (and for most of us, it is -- especially when local treatment-free (TF) packages go for $165 and up. TF TBH nucs are even pricier, starting around $200-$300), you have some options:

  • If your package bees are bustling and local forage conditions are good, splitting your bees is a definite possibility for expansion. The benefits of this are that you save a little dough, you're almost guaranteed to be able to make splits, and splits help protect your bees from the ravages of mites. Being fortunate enough to have good spring forage, I have pretty much always needed to split colonies started from packages, so don't let anyone tell you it can't be done. Another thing is most newbies don't know when to stop feeding. As a result, they feed and feed all year, which causes massive colony growth. If this happens, don't be afraid to split! If you scroll down to the Managing the Hive section of the FAQs I'm in the process of compiling, you'll find some info on making splits.
  • Find some local TBH beeks who might be willing to give you a shook swarm when their own bees start swarming. Since TBHs are not expandable, they tend to swarm once a year. Once my bees start making swarm cells, I split them and make up shook swarms with the old queen. Since I've reach maximum capacity for my yard, I've begun giving those shook swarms away. If you're on FaceBook, Christy Hemenway has created TBH groups for each state, so that is one way to connect with local TBH beeks who might help you out.  (To find your local group, just search for [Your state name] Top Bar Hives, replacing "[Your state name]" with the name of the state in which you reside.)
  • You can try capturing swarms. If you have places you can put traps, great. Otherwise, see if you can sign up for any local swarm capture lists. Your state agriculture department might keep a list. No doubt any local beekeeping clubs have a list. Your local police or fire department might have a list as well.  Swarms are kind of iffy, though, because you have to have bees in your area, but they're a possibility.
  • Try getting cut-outs. I'd recommend this option only if you're a handy kind of person, though.

Going into winter with four hives might be overkill...
Of course, I'm writing from my own experience in a northern climate with long, cold winters. Having double the number of desired colonies going into winter may be overkill if you live in an area with year-round forage where bees are active during all four seasons. For example, in central or south Florida, Instead of having double the number, you might only want 50% more.

Also, while I've been going into winter with double the number of colonies I actually want in spring, I've been coming through winter with a greater than 50% survival rate. That's ok. I'd rather have more bees than I want than fewer. Finding new homes for some of them is a snap since the demand for local bees outstrips supply by a great margin.

If you've been keeping bees for awhile, what is your take on the optimal number of hives going into winter?