Thursday, January 29, 2015

Honey Bee Biology

I love National Honey  Show talks on YouTube. First of all, they have amazing speakers. Second, the production value is really good so one can actually tell what the speakers are saying.

Last night, I found a terrific talk by Dr. Jamie Ellis of the University of Florida on honey bee biology. While much of it is comprised of the basic facts that most beeks know, Dr. Ellis explains them in a humorous, entertaining, and sometime awe-inspiring way. Plus, he taught me some new things, too, so I felt this video was well worth sharing.

This second talk by Dr. Ellis is highly entertaining, though perhaps not so informative. However, I did learn the correct way to spell honey bee. If you have a spare half hour, perhaps while waiting for an appointment or while drinking your morning beverage of choice, you might enjoy it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Screened Bottoms -- Yea or Nay?

I belong to several groups dedicated to TBH enthusiasts, and the question of the day lately has been, "Do I need a screened bottom on my hive?"

It's always tough for me to answer this question because my first instinct is a nearly irrepressible urge to sing something about screened bottoms to the tune of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls." However, once I pull myself together sufficiently to answer, my bottom line answer is that I don't think they're a bad thing. They may even be useful to you depending on your situation and goals. I don't like them myself, but that's a personal preference. My first year of beekeeping, I tried them. The next spring, I ripped out all the screens and replaced them with solid bottom boards (SBBs).

In the spirit of full disclosure, I won't even pretend to be unbiased in my opinions. However, I'll still attempt to outline some of the pros & cons of using screens as objectively as I can.

Integrated Pest Management

One of the main reasons people use screens is as part of an integrated pest management (IPM) system. The thinking is that one installs a screened bottom. #8 hardware cloth is usually recommended for the screen since it's small enough that pests can pass through, but not bees. Below that, one installs a removable/hinged solid bottom that is covered with something sticky like oil or diatomaceous earth (DE). The idea is that pests like small hive beetle (SHB), varroa, and wax moth larvae fall through the screen and get stuck in the oil/DE.
  • People I know who do this say that they trap a lot of pests that way, and they feel that their colonies are healthier as a result. 
  • Screened bottom users feel pest counts provide information about their colonies which they use to decide on treatments. I can see how this information would be interesting. Not sure what to do with it, but it would be interesting to observe any possible correlations over time.

  • Because the bees can't reach the sticky board, they can't clean it out. That means lots of corpses in the hive, and I don't know if/what effect that may have on hive hygiene. 
  • Because bees can't clean the hive, the beek has to periodically clean the icky sticky board. I have an aversion to extra unnecessary work and ick. 
  • IPM screens/sticky boards require more time, energy, and resources to build. 
  • Also, when the colony is really rolling in late spring/summer, you might have trouble closing the sticky board again. I know I did. I opened it, and within minutes, I had massive bearding.
  • Michael Bush claims that IPM systems just trap the klutzes that can't hang on and breed clingier pests. He could be right. I just don't know about that. What I do know is that strong, hygienic colonies are able to take care of pests themselves. If the bees can't survive without being propped up, maybe that's not a colony that should be reproducing.
  • Finally, I'm going to contradict what I said about gleaning info from the sticky board. If you plan to treat, counts are well and good. If you want to be a treatment-free (TF) beek, though, you have to decide if you need a pest count -- because as a TF beek you aren't going to do anything about it anyway. If you have information, you may actually feel pressured to treat the hive or do something to intercept "the problem" in some way. If you don't need the information for any particular purpose, then you've created a lot of work for nothing.
Overall, I would say that I have seen varroa, wax moths, and SHB around/in my hives. However, strong colonies and winter seem to be enough to take care of pests for me. 

BTW, as an aside, after removing the screens and installing SBBs, I noticed earwigs in the hive. While my bees ferociously attack various pests, they tolerate earwigs. Even though I was wigged out, I was fascinated to learn that don't harm bees or honey, and they eat mites that fall to the hive floor. Antlions, which eat ants, are another thing I've noticed around my hives. Hmmm... maybe nature has created its own IPM system. 


I'm going to be upfront. I really don't see any "pros" to using a screened bottom for ventilation, not even if you live in The Deep South (more about that in a minute).

New KTBH beeks are without exception nervous about comb getting too hot and falling off the bars. Therefore, they want to make things cooler for the bees in the summer, and ventilation is probably the most common reason I hear for using screened bottoms. I'm going to be upfront about my opinion. In fact, I honestly can't think of any benefits.

From where I stand, I see how screens might make sense in a Lang because they're built like chimneys. Without a screened bottom, it's probably harder for bees to fan air up and down the column. However, with a screened bottom (and especially if you have a top entrance), hot air rises and simultaneously sucks up cooler air from the bottom. So, ok, I can see how this might help regulate summer temperatures in a Lang. In a TBH, though, bees have an easier time regulating temperatures anyway because air is moving horizontally in a track like in a bathtub, not vertically. 

To me, TBHs are like a squat outdoor tent in summer. I remember going camping when I was a kid and having all the flaps open on the tent. It would be a little cooler inside because we had shade, but overall the inside temperature wasn't that much different from the outside. I see TBHs being the same way. You can leave the bottom open, but I don't think it really cools things off significantly.

My first year, I had screens, and I noticed the bees bearding. What did I do? I did what all people with screened bottoms do -- I opened the bottom so they could get some air. Instead of lessening, though, the bearding got worse. People will say, "Oh, wow, that's so neat! Look at how they cool themselves off!" However, I think they're missing the point. Bees beard because they are uncomfortably hot inside the hive. If the "ventilation" was doing its job, it seems to me the beard should have gotten smaller, not bigger.

The following year, I ripped out the screens and installed SBBs, and I had significantly less bearding. Yes, I know this is not a scientific observation. I have no control or test groups, no data for each year. However, I reason it away like this. Remember, that bees have their own system for air conditioning. They stand around the entrances fanning their wings in order to circulate air and remove moisture from the hive. Now think about it. If you were going to run the air conditioner in your house, would it work better if you had all the windows open or closed?

If you can't tell yet, I've really come to agree with people like Michael Bush and Sam Comfort who say a screened bottom provides too much ventilation. While a large, established colony can deal with it, screened bottoms are the #1 cause that I've heard for new packages absconding. Well-intentioned people install a package and open up the bottom. Within a day or so, their bees are gone because they can't control their climate.

Another downside of screened bottoms that are left open for ventilation is that pests can now climb up through the screen into the hive. If you feed inside the hive and leave the bottom open, you'll also encourage robbing.

But what about comb getting too hot and collapsing? Oh, yeah, back to that... In various exchanges with TBH beeks in hotter areas of the country like Texas, Florida, and the Deep South, I've found that some use screens and some don't. Of the ones that don't use screens, most of them seem to say that they 1) avoid working hives during the hot part of the day which is a good practice anyway if you're in a hot climate 2) some of them keep their hives in partly shaded spots, some of them keep their hives in full sun. Either way, they claim comb collapse has not been a big issue.

Personally, I'm not saying comb doesn't collapse. I know it does because it's happened to me. However, in my cases, heat has not been the issue. My issues were related to cracks that had developed in the comb due to improper handling. Then the comb was filled very rapidly with honey before it had time to harden. As a result, it fell.

I know I've been hard on screened bottoms for ventilation. If you disagree, that's ok. I'd actually welcome your (polite) perspective in the comments. It's always good to have a healthy exchange of differing opinions.

Wrapping Up

Ok, I know that I am strongly biased against screened bottoms myself, but I'm not against other people using them. Whatever floats your boat, I say.

If one is up to the additional work of creating and maintaining an IPM system, a screened bottom with a solid board beneath it could be very interesting. The important thing, from what I've heard, is to not leave the bottom open all the time or to find a way to open only parts of the bottom.

I doubt that leaving the entire bottom open hurts the bees (because I've done it with no ill effect other than lots of pollen dropped on the ground and more wasps nosing around), but I do think it makes the little girls work harder for no good reason. Also, it encourages robbing, and it allows pests to enter through the screen into the hive.

If you're a new beek starting out, you should have two hives anyway. If you're really torn, why not satisfy your own curiosity and get one hive with a screened bottom and one with a SBB? Then you can compare notes and see what you like better. If you do, though, please, share your observations here! I'd love to hear what you think!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Lame Shall Walk

I'd like to give a shout out to Don of Buddha and the Bees because I first heard about the lovely artwork that Slovenian beeks paint onto their hives from him in a post on Slovenian Bee-Geeking.

Anyway, today I want to share an example of this art form that was posted on one of my favorite Facebook pages, Historical Honeybee Articles - Beekeeping History a couple days ago (see below). This type of painting, called panjske kon─Źnice, dates back to the 18th centuryWhile the scenes painted on beehives may be religious, humorous, political, decorative, or just depict everyday life, this one definitely falls into the humorous category. Viewing it from right to left, you can see that it tells the story of a remarkable healing.

My husband mocks me because whenever someone has an ailment, I tell them to put some honey on it or to go and get stung. However, as you can see in the story illustrated above, bees really do have amazing curative properties. LOL!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

This, too, shall pass

“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” ― Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ode to the West Wind"

It's hard to believe that spring is just around the corner, but it really is. Early last week, as I was driving along, I spotted this:

Sorry, I would've taken a close-up, but I didn't want the owners of the house thinking I was some kind of criminal casing the joint. Although you can't really tell in this photo, the tree has some teeny weeny catkins!

My excitement over a sign of impending spring was short-lived, though, since we were pelted with snow yesterday. My girls don't really seem to care, though. I took a peek at Austeja through the observation window, and she seems just fine. While the other colonies were content to huddle up indoors, Bubblegum was making cleansing flights today in 36 degree F weather. Actually, she seems to be the most active during cold weather. I wonder why. Maybe she gets more sun than the others.

Lots of bees running around on snow. They didn't appear to be eating it.
What were they doing?

Another winter storm/blizzard warning is in effect for tomorrow (blech), but I keep telling myself that spring really is just around the corner. I found this countdown clock to remind me that we're almost there. (What are those flowers? Quince?)

As soon as it warms up a little (which should start happening in about 5 or 6 weeks), it's going to be time to start repairing hives and building new ones. I can hardly wait!

Friday, January 23, 2015

My Winter List

Recently, I wrote that I'd been reading a lot, so I thought I'd show you my winter list:

Natural Beekeeping with the Warre Hive, David Heaf

Toward Saving the Honeybee, Gunther Hauk

The Compleat Meadmaker, Ken Schramm

Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture,
Toby Hemenway

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Resources for the New TBH Beek

Updated resources 9/26/16

Lately, I've been reading a lot and watching YouTube vids because that's what beeks do over the winter. When they can't play with bees, they spend their days dreaming and thinking about them. That's when it occurred to me that new TBH beeks might like a list of books/resources to get started.

Here are some resources that I found very helpful when I got started:


  • Top-Bar Beekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health by Les Crowder. I really love this book. Every time I read it, I glean something new, and I adore Les' voice. If I met him in real life, I think we'd be friends. BTW, if you have a TBH with end entrances, you'll love the management diagrams. (Note, his entrances are on the side, but they are all the way at one end of the hive rather than in the middle.)
  • The Thinking Beekeeper: A Guide to Natural Beekeeping in Top Bar Hives by Christy Hemenway. Excellent & informative book. Christy's hives have side entrances along the middle of the hive, so if that's what you're using, her diagrams will be more helpful to you.
  • Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom and Pleasure Combined by Wyatt Mangum. This book is only available on his website, and it's a little pricier than the other two. However, it's well-worth the money.
  • The Barefoot Beekeeper by Phil Chandler. For some reason, I think I got this free somehow. In any case, it's quite inexpensive. Actually, Phil has several books available via the provided link.
  • If you're into Warres, I recommend David Heaf's book, or you can download Abbe Warre's book Beekeeping for All for free from several Internet sites.
Other Books: Ok, these aren't about TBHs, but they're highly educational.

  • Out of a Blue Sky has a terrific YouTube channel. Watching his demonstrations really helped me visualize how to manage and work a TBH.
  • GoldStar Honeybees also has a great YouTube channel. Highly recommend watching the How-To videos that are posted there.
  • Wyatt Mangum has a YouTube channel as well. To be candid, I admit that I've only watched a couple of these. The ones I've seen have been a little difficult to hear, but they were very informative.
  • Also, I would recommend looking for Youtube video talks by Sam Comfort, Michael Bush, and Michael Palmer. Sam is a top bar guy. Both of the Michaels use Langs, but a lot of the info is good and can be used with TBHs.
  • Obviously, if you have a local beekeeping club, that would be a great way to connect with other beeks. One caveat is that many clubs are all about prophylactic treatment and may be skeptical of TBHs. Don't let them get you down!
  • Facebook, if you're on it, has several excellent groups that I'd recommend: Top Bar BeehivesTreatment-Free BeekeepersTop Bar Beekeeping, Organic Top Bar Beekeeping, and state specific groups for TBHs (I know Christy H. has started groups for each state.) If your state's FB group doesn't have a lot of members, think about trying a group in a bordering state.

I really like following other people's beekeeping journeys. Their blogs don't necessarily provide start-up info, but I learn a lot vicariously about the kinds of challenges other people face and how to deal with them. I follow about 30 beekeeping blogs, so I won't list them all. However, these are just a few that are TBH/treatment-free/natural-beekeeping specific. (Note: this list is somewhat edited since I tried not to list ones that don't post fairly regularly. Also, they are not in any particular order -- just the order they show up in my blog reader.)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Ordering Bees

This spring, I'd like to start 2 Warres, and I figured packages would be easier to install than transferring bees from my TBHs. I emailed Sam Comfort about some packages the other day figuring that he would put them on sale like most suppliers at the beginning of January. Turns out, I was wrong. He usually starts selling in December, and he was already sold out. Doh!

This unfortunate oversight on my part led me to the topic of today's post and some things I've learned about ordering bees over the past two years:

  • Do your planning in winter. Even though spring doesn't roll around until March, most places start start taking orders sometime around December or January. If you wait until March to place an order, you'll have a tough time finding a supplier.
  • If you have a TBH, you'll probably have to order a package. You could wait for a swarm, but you're taking your chances. Also, very few people sell TBH nucs. If you find someone local who does, buy a lottery ticket because you are one lucky person.
  • If at all possible, try to obtain local, treatment-free, survivor bees, especially if you live in a cold climate. If you can get them, you'll be much happier than if you get bees from the deep south because they're already acclimated to local conditions. There is an interesting YouTube video with Mike Palmer (Vermont) in which he compares his bees to southern bees. His bees survive the brutal New England winter because they use very few resources during cold weather. In fact, he says that they are so still in winter he can barely even hear them hum in the hive. This is in stark contrast to southern bees that eat a lot of resources and make quite a loud buzz all winter because they're shivering more.

    So why are southern packages so popular? I've been a newbie, so I understand the impatience associated with getting ones' bees. We beeks all want our packages before the spring flow starts. That's when it's fun to watch the bees, and we all hope that if we get our bees early enough, they might, just might, give us some honey. Southern suppliers know and understand this, so to fulfill the demand that we've created, they select for bees that build up very early in winter. The problem, though, is that the Northern beekeeper can experience quite severe weather even through the end of February, sometimes into March, and these bees from the deep South may begin building up before they really should for our climate.

    Also, many southern packages have a bad rep up here because packages have to be put together so early that queens are often not fully mated. As a result, she's often replaced during her first season.
  • Order asap. If you can find local treatment-free bees, order as early as possible because they are next-to-impossible to find and sell out quickly. If I need packages next year (though I doubt it), you can bet that I will be checking Sam's site every day starting the day after Thanksgiving to make sure I don't miss out again.
  • Order a package and requeen, if necessary. If you can't find local treatment-free bees, order a package, but then requeen with a local queen when they become available (usually around June for my area).
So anyway, those are my lessons learned. Now I have to decide what to do about my Warres. Can I just cross my fingers and hope that if I build them, they will come?

How about you? Have any of you found a good supplier for your area? What has your experience with ordering packages been? Have any advice to offer?

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Happy new year, all!

Here in my neck of the woods, temps were in the mid-40's to low 50's (Fahrenheit) during Christmas and up through New Year. Then overnight, they plunged down into the 20's. Last night, we enjoyed a spectacular low of -4F. With the windchill factor, it was more like -20 something. Even for southern New England, this seems unusually cold to me.

Mother Nature's capriciousness leaves me with some (wintry) mixed feelings. I cannot lie; I definitely enjoyed my balmy holiday. At the same time, it was bizarre seeing geese headed north the day after Christmas and spotting blossoms on a forsythia New Year's Eve. My main concerns regarding the weather were:
  1. Everything might bloom early and then die if we finally got a frost. This actually happened a few years ago.
  2. The bees would burn through their stores too quickly.
  3. It was plain freaky.
Anyway, my fears have been laid to rest as we're promised some miserably, though appropriately, cold weather at least till the end of the week.

This morning, I was kind of curious to see if the bees survived the night. So I bundled up in my warmest coat, hat, gloves, boots, and ski pants. Of course, they were all intelligently huddled up in their hives, but I have my ways of checking on them. For this occasion, I trotted out my DH's stethoscope. From deep in the hives came a very light buzzing from Austeja and Peach. At first, I couldn't hear the clusters in Persephone and Bubblegum, but after shifting the chestpiece around a bit, I found the fluttering of their little hearts. Hooray! 

Bubblegum looks rather like a Christmas package,
don't you think?

Last fall, I added some insulation on top of the bars and behind the follower boards. However, as an extra precaution against our unnaturally chilly temps, I decided to strap some styrofoam to the outside walls of the hive with bungee cords. As you can see from the photo above, I didn't cut the panels nicely because it was just too dang cold outside to be mucking about. As a result, the styrofoam panels don't all sit snugly against the hives, but they may still reduce some of the wind. That's my hope anyway.

Note to Self: Next time, just build hives with thicker walls -- maybe 2" -- so that you don't feel the need to cluck and fuss in 1 degree weather dressed like Randy from A Christmas Story.

Yeah, pretty much.