Monday, November 9, 2015

Lessons Learned

Beekeeping Season 3 is over, and I realize that I know even less than I thought did when I first started keeping bees. However, the year hasn't been a total loss since it's taught me a lot, too. Here are the big takeaways for me from this year.

Last year was brutally cold, and condensation was a killer. This year, I'm adding heavier insulation above the bars. The colony that survived was in the draftiest hive, so I'm also going to experiment with ways to control moisture. As for what works, though, I'll wait until spring to make a report.

Top bar construction
In previous years, I made all my bars out of one piece of wood with a wedge for the bees to attach to. This year, I had to phase out a bunch of bars (long story), and so I made new ones that were flat. It was faster, easier, and cheaper to make them. Also, if I ever wanted to sell nucs, I figured the flat bars would be easier to deal with. I thought I could just insert them between drawn combs and the bees would draw them out fine. Well, the bees drew on them, but the bars were not fine since the girls drew multiple combs on the flat bars and made cross-combs. It wasn't a terrible mess, but it was enough to be a pain. From now on, I'm sticking with wedged bars.

Timing Splits
I've been thinking a lot about the best time to split this year. In other words, what is the best time to split in order to 1) prevent swarming and 2) maximize honey production. This year and last, I waited until the bees started making swarm cells (sometime around mid to late June). For a number of reasons that I've covered elsewhere, I'm thinking that this is too late in the season. Also, if I wait until they start swarming in June, I end up having to feed the splits, which is less than ideal. Next year, I'm going to start making splits when I see drones getting capped.

Hive Placement
If you live in an area with bears, install an electric fence. I learned that from Year 1. However, this year I learned that hives need to be at least 3' from the the fence. I had a nuc that was about 2 1/2' - 2 3/4' from the fence and it got knocked over by a paw that slipped between the electrified tapes in my fence. From now on -- at least 3'.

Every Flow is Different
Because of my experiences during previous years, I got complacent about managing my hives after the summer solstice. In previous years, my hives just would not build comb during that last half of the summer. However, this year, my fall flow gushed nectar, and the bees brought it in like there was no tomorrow. As a result, they began building comb again. One of them even swarmed. Basically, I have to remember that every year is different and to watch the hive. Seems like a no-brainer, but I'm thick-headed.

Insulation / Temperature Control
This summer, I experimented with an insulated hive. I have to wait until the end of winter before I can make any conclusions about the experiment, but so far, the results have been extremely promising. Recently, I communicated with a friend who built insulated Russian horizontal hives this year, and he's had optimistic results so far as well.

This year, I made 3 splits, Bubblegum, Peach, Buttercup, around June 3d-ish. Elsa, the insulated hive, was split on June 22. Bubblegum, the first with a laying queen, also has a fantastic queen (from my perspective anyway). They built up like mad; the bees are gentle; and they made loads of honey. So with an excellent queen and a great headstart over the others, her success was to be expected. However, of these four splits, Elsa may be the next strongest even though she was made last and at a less-than-ideal time. I'm not entirely sure how to explain her productivity, but one thing I noticed about her is the total absence of bearding during the worst heat of the year. My hypothesis is that stable hive temperatures allowed the bees to do more productive work in the hive when the other hives were busy trying to cool off.

Another benefit of making well-insulated hives is that they eliminate the need to scramble to winterize. Compared to many local beeks, I took my honey quite late in the year, for reasons of convenience, I didn't want to winterize before I'd taken it. However, that left me winterizing while it was actually snowing outside! (Just some flurries that didn't stick, but it was cold!) Now that I've figured out how to build them, going forward, I plan to build only insulated hives. It's just so convenient when the only thing I have to do is staple some mesh over the entrance. From my point of view, the added building cost is well-worth the time and energy savings of winterizing year after year.

Timing the Fall Harvest
Generally, in my state, conventional Lang beeks will tell you to harvest in late August or sometime in September. This ensures warm weather so that the honey flows easily out of the comb when it's spun. This also gives them time to treat their hives before closing up in mid/late October. However, I don't have Langs, don't treat, and have found that my fall honey is not capped by that time. I had to wait until October to see combs that were 80% capped.

This year, I harvested during the first half of October (sometime around the 8th). I chose that week because 1) the combs were 80% capped and 2) I was impatient 3) the weather was still fairly comfortable for me -- in the 60's F. Harvest went well enough, but the open hives attracted robbers. Also, because it was warm, there were a lot of bees on the honeycombs that had to be brushed off -- multiple times.

Recently, I watched a video of Michael Bush, who lives in Nebraska, and he mentioned that he holds off on harvesting until temps take a dip in October and the bees are in a cluster. He said this makes for a much easier harvest because he can quickly pull the supers off and doesn't have to deal with bees (e.g., brush them off or use an chemicals to drive them down into the brood boxes). This information correlated with Lazutin's comments in in his book. Lazutin's area of Russia equates with Zone 4 in the US. He talks about how he started pushing honey harvest off until late September and then even further into mid or late October. (BTW, Lazutin waits for 3 weeks until after the last brood has emerged.) He claims that:
  • Historically, this has been the traditional the time for harvesting honey in Russia before the advent of movable frame hives and modern beekeeping techniques.
  • The bees are in a cluster, making for an easier harvest.
  • The bees have positioned their stores exactly where they want them, so there is no danger of over-harvesting or taking honey/pollen that they need for medicinal purposes.
Considering these comments from Bush & Lazutin, I wish I'd waited another week before taking honey. Temperatures the following week dipped down into the 40's, and I agree that it would have been much easier to take honey at that time with the bees in a cluster. There wouldn't have been any robbing, either, and since I used a press, temperature was a non-issue.

So these are the main lessons I learned this year. How about you? Did you face any situations that gave you pause? Did anything work particularly well? What are your plans for next year?


  1. I have read somewhere that if you want the bees to start producing swarm cells you should move the follower board close in and crowd them up. Have you seen that anywhere?

    1. Yeah, that would absolutely work! Great tip!

  2. I always enjoy your year-end wrap-ups - it's a nice way to share your lessons learned. I'm glad you experimented with the bars for me so I don't have to. ;-) Next year I'm going to try making some wedged bars since you gave us handy instructions in a previous post. And if BnB2 survives the winter, I'm hoping to do an early (April?) split into BnB1 in the spring. But El Nino years are notorious for late spring dumps in Colorado which might change my plans.

    As for harvesting, one thing to think about is that in the colder weather, with a top bar hive you are potentially letting more cold air into the whole hive than in a Lang. Pulling off a super is a lot quicker than going through bars in a TBH which might be attached to the sides to check which are ready for pulling. One thing I did this year was during a late season inspection, I labeled the bars that were mostly capped so I could take them out when it was time. That saved me a little time when I actually harvested. Since the bees are clustered (hopefully away from the honey combs) the cold might not be as much of an issue but something to consider.

    We're expecting our first snow tonight so I did a quick insulation on 2 of the hives - bubble insulation between the windows and the window covers and a layer of bubble insulation on top of the bars. We also get some hellacious winds, so I bungied the lids on and bungied one of the hives to the ground. Hope to finish the other hives this weekend when it's almost warm again. I like the fact that you don't have to do much to winterize your insulated hive!

    1. Don, why do you think a TBH lets more cold in than a Lang? A Lang has a lot of dead space around it, beside and below the bees. I would think in a TBH the heat is more steady at the horizontal top and might have better temperature dynamics and the moisture could be less concentrated above the bees (since it can spread out horizontally). In addition, the bees only heat the center of the cluster so the outside bees are 45-50 degrees. There is not a lot of heat leakage from the cluster as a result.

      I'm just making stuff up, but seems semi-reasonable to me....

    2. Don, your weather patterns are just fascinating. This year, I remember how your flowers started blooming much earlier -- by at least a month -- than mine. But then you got a ton of snow or rain or something. Beekeeping must be a tricky proposition in your area.

      Regarding the flat bars, I should clarify that I cut them to 1 3/8", and the bees kept building two combs on the same bar. Maybe if I'd cut them to 1 1/4" it would have been a different story. (Hmm... note to self: New experiment with narrower bars.)

      Good points about harvesting in colder weather. I think it should be ok, though. The main problem with opening the hive too often or too long in any season has to do with the risk of chilling the brood. However, if I harvest later, after all the brood has emerged and the bees have had time to rearrange their stores, that risk is effectively eliminated.

      Also, Erik brings up some good points about the heat kept in the cluster. I have a fireplace that I can't use because the flue is way off to the side (super genius, I know). As a result, the heat and smoke from the fireplace won't go up and out and just stay in the room. I think it's kind of the same with the TBH. In any case, when I harvest honey, I won't be anywhere near the cluster. There will be at least 6 or 7 combs between me and the cluster, so there's a bit of a barrier there anyway.

      Your idea of marking bars that are mostly capped, though, is a great idea. I've started marking directly on bars this year, too, for different reasons, and it saves a lot of time... and gray cells. :-)

    3. Erik, I'm just making up stuff too... ;-) Here's my reasoning (with the caveat that I don't do Langs). If I'm harvesting supers from a Lang on a cold day, I take off the cover, lift off the super removing all the frames at once and put the cover back on. That's pretty quick and should reduce any heat loss. (although I do accept that heat rises and would escape easily through the chimney structure of the Lang). If I'm taking honey out of a TBH, I take off the cover and start inspecting/removing frames from the back. In my hives, the bees are adept at attaching the honey combs to the sides. So I have to take the time to cut those away. All the while I'm doing this, cold air is sinking into the back of the hive. Perhaps it just stays there and doesn't move horizontally toward the brood area. There is still some brood probably, but not as much as earlier in the season and the cluster should help keep it warm. And, as you point out, the bars above keep the heat from rising vertically. So, I'm probably overthinking it. It's all about how long you keep the hive open to the elements as Julie points out, but you guys are probably right that it's not an issue.

      Julie, I went to 1 1/4" bars (based on one of your posts, I might add) with a kerf this year and had much less cross comb than in previous years when I used 1 3/8 for brood and 1 1/2 bars for honey. I never found that bees liked the 1 1/2" bars, so I pared all of them down this year. Just using 1 1/4" bars with spacers worked a lot better. So, I'll let you experiment with the 1 1/4" wedges - I'm still afraid of losing some fingers making the wedges - so be careful! As for marking the bars, I write on masking tape so I can easily remove the marks when needed.

      Our storm wimped out - only 2", but another, potentially bigger one on tap for next week! Time to get the skis ready!

    4. LOL! Oh no! I'm not making 1 1/4" wedged bars! I'm too attached (literally) to all my fingers! I was thinking 1 1/4" *flat* bars. :-)

      BTW -- a couple of winters ago, when I had the 2 big bear attacks, my bees were huddled under some thing styrofoam outside the hive all night -- TWICE -- in 30 degree weather and lived. For a few months afterward anyway. I think bees are a lot tougher than we give them credit for being. Of course, they didn't have any brood.

      Enjoy your snow!!!

  3. By the way, Julie, I was hoping to make my own TBH this winter (I bought the one I have), and you may be inspiring me to try an insulated hive. I'm further south (Virginia) so would prefer to have less-thick walls, but I'm curious how it would behave in the heat we have down here. I'm not quite there yet, but under serious consideration.

    Thanks for the summaries of your year. Good stuff.

    1. Oh, I hope you do try an insulated hive and blog about how it works out! Obviously my climate is very different from yours, but during the hottest days of my summer (90's), there was absolutely zero bearding on my insulated hive. To me, that's a really good sign -- it says the bees are busy doing more productive work.

      I've also noticed that this year, Phil Chandler has really started advocating for year-round insulation above the bars because he says it helps stabilize hive temps. His climate is probably more like yours than mine, so that may be something to consider.

      Good luck with winter!

    2. Someone posted this on FB today. You might find it interesting:

    3. Sounds like a dung-covered skep is in your future! I wish they would have expounded a bit more on what they found for the top bar hives and whether they were talking about KTBH or Warre. It would seem from the introduction that a well insulated Warre hive would work well - letting the bees work downward and retreat upwards if needed. Also a narrower cavity than a Lang, generally. Thanks for sharing this perspective!

    4. If I started building a dung-covered skep in the garage, that might be the straw to break the camel's back. My family would institutionalize me. LOL!

      Yes, I would've liked more details on the TBH, too. The notes on humidity suppressing hive pests were interesting, though.

    5. Interesting paper, Julie, and seems to support the observations you've had in your new hive. I'm curious how thick your walls are overall? I was hoping to keep it relatively thin, but if you use an insulating sheet and wood on both sides it seems difficult to end with anything less than 3 inches or so.

    6. I think the walls on my insulated hives are about 3" thick. However, you could make them thinner using plywood and thinner insulation. Going forward, that's probably what I'll do -- use plywood for the portion of the wall inside the hive. I didn't this year because in one part of Lazutin's book, he recommends wood. But then I reread it, and noticed that in another part of his book, he mentions using plywood, so it must be ok.


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!