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?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Don't Code Your Hive Until It's Spring

Today, the weather is in the mid-30's F. Not too cold to go outside and look at the hives. (Ha! This tropical/sub-tropical girl must be adjusting to New England to believe that temps only slightly above freezing are ok. But I digress.)

Why did I want a look-see? Saturday was lovely -- upper 40's -- and bees were flying. But certain hives had less activity than expected. Thought I'd put a stethoscope on them to see if I could detect a heartbeet (sic -- get it?)

I started with Peach, then Austeja, and Hippolyte. The thing is, I really couldn't hear anything in any of the hives. So then I checked Elsa because, based on the number of bees pouring out of her on Saturday, I knew she was alive and extremely well. Dang it. I couldn't tell a difference between her and the others.  (Note to self: Get a Flir next year.)

What to do? What to do? I popped open Austeja's observation window. Not a single bee in sight. Had she absconded?

Hmmm... I tried one more thing. There is an almost foolproof scientific test for determining whether your bees are alive. It's called Kick the Hive. 

After some kicking and banging, a few heads began poking out of Buttercup, Celestia, and Persephone. Bummer. That gave me 4/8 colonies. However, after waiting another 5 minutes, some bees started pouring out of Bubblegum as well. Cool. 5/8 hives was fewer than I'd hoped, but not bad.

Bees starting to check out the banging 

Before heading back inside, I figured I might as well take some photos of Austeja's empty comb. That's when she gave me a surprise. On opening the window again, bees started breaking cluster and crawling toward the window. Now I'm up to 6/8!

The window is really dirty, but if you look really hard, you'll see some bees on the combs

What about my remaining two colonies? Until we get several consecutive days of 50+ F temps, I've decided not to diagnose them dead -- hence today's post title. 

So what's happening with my bees. I have some naive theories:
  • They may just be very tightly clustered, which is why Austeja's bees were originally not visible through the window. Maybe that's why I had trouble finding the clusters with the stethoscope.
  • They may simply be very quiet and conserving energy. Mike Palmer in VT says that the bees that overwinter best in his brutal climate are the ones that barely make a buzz in freezing temps. These are the ones he breeds. I got my original bees from Sam Comfort, who in turn collects local wild bees, but he's also got genetics from Mike Palmer and Kirk Webster in his stock. Could this just be a quality that my girls have inherited? I don't know.
  • Even though Elsa was alive, I gave her some good kicks and poundings, too, just because I wanted a Kodak Moment. Yet no amount of abuse would induce her bees to come outside. Hippolyte and Peach could be dead (seriously, I didn't have high hopes for Peach going into winter), but they could also be ignoring me like Elsa. So I'll just wait until the weather is warmer. After all, bees that I could've sworn would die/were dead have surprised me on more than one occasion.
In any case, I'm pleased to even have 6/8 alive. 8 hives was a lot of work last year, so if a few are dead-outs, that's fine. They'll provide space for new splits in the spring and give me a chance to retrofit a couple hives with insulated roofs/walls.

Going forward, I'll probably open the hives to make sure they have some sugar near the clusters, but that's for another day. A warmer one.

In any case, it's amazing how different I feel this winter compared to my first winter, or even last winter. My first couple of winters, I was on tenterhooks the entire season, praying every day that my bees would survive. Last year, I thought at least one or two hives might make it through winter, but I was still uncertain. Finally, I've reached this calm, confident place where losing 1, 2, even half of my colonies is not the end of the world. It's ok. I like this feeling.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017


The Tuesday after Christmas was the last time I was able to see the girls. It's been too cold for the bees to fly, so they've stayed indoors since then. That's why it was a shock to see this on my windshield the other day.

Did you see it? How about now?

What is half a bee doing on my car? How did it get there? What could possibly have eaten it at this time of year? Dang. I hope everything is ok with the girls.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Small Hive Beekeeping

It's no secret that I love, love, looooove Dr. Seeley's book Honey Bee Democracy. This man's work is phenomenal, and his passion for wild bees... I dig it. So when someone posted the following video clip on FB this morning, it seemed a good time for a break.

Hopefully, you watched the video, but if you didn't, the main points are as follows:

  • Dr. Seeley advocates keeping bees in a way that's normal for bees to live by "using nature as a guide to developing new beekeeping techniques." He calls his method "small hive beekeeping."
  • Current practices are all about maximizing honey production, which is great for beekeepers, but not necessarily good for bees. Traditional methods in certain areas may yield harvests of over 100 kg per hive, but this leaves the colony susceptible to parasites, especially varroa.
  • Instead, small hive beekeeping relies on 3 primary strategies: 
    • Keep bees in smaller hives. He recommends using a 10-frame deep Lang box for the brood nest as well as a super with a a queen excluder in between. He recommends a 10-frame brood nest since it is the modal size of wild nests (approx 40L according to his book).  The super, though, can be a shallow, medium, or deep. 
    • Let bees swarm. A small hive will swarm every year, and the resulting brood break helps cut down varroa. Additionally, the brood nest will start to shrink in July as the bees fill it with honey. Again, this diminishes the varroa mites' ability to breed.
    • Spread hives out. Dr. Seeley recommends a minimum of 30 m between hives. Ideally 100 m between hives. If a colony does succumb to parasites, leaving space between hives will help prevent parasites from traveling to the other bees.
  • Although small hive beekeeping yields smaller crop, the bees will be healthier, and beekeepers will not have to treat. 
Unfortunately, on my 1-acre plot, it's not practical for me to keep my hives 30 m apart, let alone 100 m. However, the other two recommendations... those are things that I'm doing already.

Curious about the volume of my own hives, I did some quick calculations this morning. My nucs are approximately 43 L, and my full-sized TBHs are about 88 L. So they are on target in terms of the dimensions he recommends for a small hive (if using a deep as a super). It's also true that my hives swarm every year, and consequently, varroa has not been an issue.

This video also explains why my colonies seem to act a bit differently than the ones kept by various Lang beeks that I know. Over the past few years, I've noticed that my colonies start to shrink around July until the autumn flow starts up again in mid-late August. At that time, they start to lay some more brood, but they don't get really big. I'd always chalked up this event to my lack of feeding. While not feeding syrup may certainly be contributing to this phenomenon, it never occurred to me that the size of my hives could be another contributing factor. Interesting.

So now, just when I was almost ready to experiment with Lazutin hives, I find out that the small size of my hives (which is the #1 reason I was going to try switching) is what's keeping my bees so healthy. Hmmm... Hive-blocked. Got some thinking to do. Buckle your seatbelts. This could get dangerous.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lessons Learned: Another Year in Review

I've not written much or even visited my bees at all since November. This year has been especially crazy since, in addition to the normal nuttiness of daily life and holidays, we've thrown two simultaneous bathroom renovations into the mix. In fact, I've started working on this post several times only to be sidetracked by other matters.

However, before 2016 slips out the door as we leave the old year behind and welcome the new, I wanted to perform my annual review of screw-ups and lessons learned.

Pull old comb
If I've learned anything this year, it's get rid of old comb! Les Crowder recommends moving it to the back of the hive so that the bees can fill it with honey before you remove it. In the past, I've always removed old empty comb both when winterizing and during the spring before the bees started filling it up again. This year, though, I tried it Les' way, and it caused me no end of misery. My bees largely ignored it, absconded from hives with lots of old comb, or did not build up well in those hives. I also found that in at least one nuc, the old comb attracted hive beetles and wax moths. From now on, I will be ruthless in pulling old comb. In any case, the bees always build new comb, and having extra space to build slows them down in spring, delaying swarming.

Freeze old combs before bringing them in the house
Sometimes I save combs in the house to show kids. I usually keep them in a nuc with lots of space between each bar and leave them exposed to sunlight. It's never been a problem before, but this year, I had a terrible wax moth infestation -- in my house. So from now on, they'll get frozen first.

Remove rings
Fortunately, I haven't had to learn this the hard way. In fact, I never really thought about it before Don at Buddha and the Bees mentioned this tip. However, it makes total sense. If you get stung in the hands and your fingers swell up, a ring could easily cut off your circulation. Definitely following Don's advice to remove any rings before checking the hives.

Wait as long as possible to harvest honey
Over the past four summers, I've had an opportunity to see what great, horrible, and average years look like in terms of honey production. This year, was an absolutely miserable year. The spring flow was late, and the autumn flow was just barely enough to keep the girls alive. This situation was not helped by at least two large construction projects in a 2-3 mile radius from my house. Huge fields of goldenrod were razed to make way for luxury apartments and a strip mall. I'm pissed.

So anyway, I'd harvested some honey at the end of the spring flow, expecting the bees to store some in autumn. Well, they didn't, and I ended up feeding honey and sugar back to them. I'm going to wait as long as possible from now on before harvesting honey. So when is that?

  • Whenever the hives are bursting with honey so that they need room
  • In late October/early November, when I'm winterizing. Harvesting honey is sooooo much easier this time of year because the bees are clustered, and I prefer fall honey anyway.

Reduce entrances in the fall -- even if not ready to winterize
I didn't get around to winterizing until quite late, and I'd forgotten to close Hippolyte's top entrance during the fall. As a result, she suffered from opportunistic wasps, and I feel terrible about that. I didn't see a mouse when I closed her up, but that was pure luck on my part. (Update: Wrote this in mid-December. Dec 27, Hippolyte was a literal hive of activity, so I didn't kill her -- not quite yet anyway.)

Stop procrastinating, and just get things done already
Originally, I'd made a roof for Celestia, but it didn't fit, so I ended up putting some temporary Coroplast board on top. Well, temporary turned into 6-months. Toward the end of that time, the roof shifted during a period of rain, and the girls got a soaking. Not cool on my part.

If you're having a crappy spring/summer,  feed
Feeding is a pain, so I usually just don't do it. But this summer was so dry the flowers didn't provide nectar. I kept hoping that the bees could make it up in autumn. They didn't. They'd either lost too many bees or didn't make enough bees during summer that they had trouble building up in the fall. So instead of storing nectar from the autumn flow, they used it to make bees, and I ended up fall feeding. It would have been better to feed earlier so they could keep their population up and take advantage of the fall flow.

So for the future, I still maintain that if the bees are still bringing in some nectar all summer and their numbers aren't plummeting, it's better to avoid feeding them sugar. (I expect and rely on some dwindling over the summer to keep varroa in check. I just don't want them to get to a point where they'll have trouble overwintering.) My lesson learned is really about feeding during a severe summer dearth that's forcing the bees to eat up their spring honey and dwindle too much.

Top bars may not be the best hive design for me
Given some of my beekeeping parameters, I'm seriously starting to rethink whether I want to continue making TBHs. While there are many things that I love about them, I'm considering going to a Lazutin-style horizontal hive or an extra-long Layens. Basically, as I mentioned before, my spring flow is incredible. Even during a horrible year, it provides enough honey that a colony could go through winter on it. However, TBHs are so small that they just don't allow my bees to store an entire season of honey before harvesting. A volumetrically larger hive like a Lazutin or Layens hive would allow the bees to store all the nectar they gather and let me harvest in the fall.

Last Tuesday (Dec 27), we had a 50 deg F. day, so I seized the opportunity to visit the girls. Despite my screw-ups over the past year, all 8 colonies are alive and well. Peach had a bit less activity going on than the others, but she wasn't doing as well to begin with. Also, she has a top entrance under the roof which also makes it harder to see what's happening. The others were bustling, though. Even Persephone, who didn't get much in terms of winter prep (just stuffed the back with straw and added mouse guard), was bustling. Of course, the coldest days are still ahead of us, but their condition has me hopeful. Fingers crossed, they'll all still be thriving in spring.

Wishing you all the best in the upcoming year. Happy New Year everyone!