Friday, November 27, 2015

Mucking about on Thanksgiving

Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving with all of your loved ones! Now back to bee-siness. ;-)

Here's a true confession. A number of Thanksgivings ago, I realized I was putting myself into an ill-humor cooking and cleaning my entire day off work just so my kids could sit down, eat one roll, and declare they were full. That began a family tradition. When we didn't com have company, we had holiday dinners at Minado in Morris Plains, NJ. My DH could get his turkey, my kids loved it, and even though I'm generally not keen on buffets, even I was satisfied with the quality and cleanliness. Plus, I got to spend the best part of the day playing with my family, instead of cleaning dishes. However, there isn't a restaurant near our new house that even comes close to the glory of Minado, which is a frequent source of disappointment for my children who still have dreams and visions of that place.

So we've developed a new tradition. Each kid gets to request a dish, which I make, but my DH has taken over cooking the turkey & stuffing (which the rest of us vegetarians don't eat) and mashed potatoes (which we do eat, but his are better because he's not as shy with the butter and salt as I am). This year, the sides didn't take more than an hour tops to whip together, leaving me with an opportunity to abscond for a while and check on my bees.

In prep for winter, I had reduced my entrances to one hole, per Hemenway's recommendations. However, I've been uneasy about this because of my condensation issues last year, and because I'm not really sure that a 3/4" hole is sufficient. Without fact-checking, I believe that wild bees usually have entrances 4"-6" long. They propolize it to meet their needs, but it's still quite a gap. Lazutin says that this opening is large enough to provide oxygen, but not moisture control. In a wild colony, moisture is absorbed by debris at the bottom the hive. However, managed hives have to either have ventilation or moisture-absorbing materials added to the hive.

Last Saturday, something Mike Palmer said really struck me. He lives way the heck north in Vermont, but he doesn't reduce his hive entrances all all. He staples some screen over them to keep mice out, but that's all. A small vent hole at the top lets moisture out, but the bees get plenty of fresh air from the bottom of the hive. Since he has Langs, he's got some really wide entrances, too.

Mike Palmer's entrances in winter.
Image from his video Keeping Bees in Frozen North America

I've also been researching Russian blogs about horizontal hives this week. I saw quite few photos of vent bars and vented roofs. There was one site that I wish I had remembered to bookmark. It had an elaborate "chimney" system made of PVC pipe that vented to an insulated roof.

Vent bar from
Vented hive body from

These posts in conjunction with Mike's photos clinched my internal debate, so yesterday, I checked on the ventilation in the hives and made the following adjustments:
  • Opened an entrance near the bottom for Hippolyte, but did nothing else for The Beests. Even in mid-40 F weather, they're mean, so they're on their own until spring.
  • Opened up two entrances on Elsa to provide more airflow at the bottom of the hive. 
  • Austeja, which is sort of gappy anyway, overwintered successfully last year, so she just got straw in the back of the hive. 
  • My three nucs also got a quick check to make sure that the last bars in the hive weren't completely totally sealed. They now have 1/16"-1/8" of an inch between the last bar and the back of the hive -- not a huge gap, but enough so they aren't totally air-tight. 
I also took a minute to check on Buttercup, which had a couple bars of open nectar when I closed up. Because of the warm weather, she moved/used all that open nectar, so I added some sugar just in case. I simply poured sugar into empty comb and spritzed it lightly with water so that it would stick in place while I turned it over. After carefully flipping the comb (a cookie sheet on each side of the comb helped provide support), the process was repeated on the other side and the bar hung in place. (BTW, I found that each of my combs hold about 2-3 lbs of sugar.) If the bees eat the sugar -- fine. If they end up not using it, that's ok, too, since these combs were destined for melting anyway.

"Sugar comb"

There are a couple of reasons I chose to use comb for a "feeder." In addition to providing emergency stores, my fingers are crossed that "sugar combs" placed directly in the hive will absorb moisture. Also, when I added sugar to the hive floor in the past, it became a sticky deathtrap of a lake as it absorbed condensation. Because cells are built at an angle to keep nectar from pouring out, they should contain sugar to the cells where it will be easy (and non-lethal) for the bees to reach.

Actually, I replaced Austeja's fondant with sugar combs as well because wherever the netting didn't touch the fondant, bees were climbing through the holes and getting stuck. So fondant came out and "sugar combs" went in.

Sorry for the blurry photo. Not happy losing bees in the netting.

I kept thinking back to Fedor Lazutin and Michael Bush who both say that they wait for a cold spell in mid- to late October to harvest. Temps yesterday were in the mid 40's F.-- warm enough for my comfort, but chilly enough to force the bees into a cluster. Since there isn't any brood right now, the brief interruption shouldn't have any lasting negative effects on the bees, and they were sooooo easy to deal with. Will definitely remember this when/if I harvest next year.


  1. Julie,

    I'm not reducing either. I just put the metal wire over the bottom entry, so no mice can get in. There is a small hole in the back of the hive no mouse would fit in that their also using on warm days. Last year I blocked it with grass, figured if they want it closed they can do it.

    However, I need to take pictures my girls used propolis under the TBH bars. So come spring, I'll need to cut to see inside not the whole length of the hive but at least 18 inches on both sides. It's very thick almost an inch or two wide just wear the bars touch the hive body. I figure they know what their doing. Last years bee didn't do anything like this.

    Happy Belated Thanksgiving.

    1. Happy belated Thanksgiving to you as well! Glad to hear that I'm not alone in not reducing/opening entrances. I thought it might be crazy to try this, but if other people are doing it, maybe it's not. ;-) Has this worked for you in the past?

      That's so cool that your bees are making so much propolis! I always look at propolis as a sign of a healthy hive. Maybe you can harvest some in the spring.

  2. Glad you enjoyed you're Thanksgiving! I cook the turkey in our house as well, though this year we visited friends and I didn't cook one, I think for the first time in over 20 years. Nice to be on the receiving end of the food.

    I've been reading Lazutin's book as well (your fault!). Another interesting point he has about the opening is make it a half-inch high. This allows the bees to enter on the bottom and leave on the top (upside down) without hitting each other. I may try this type of opening myself.

    I've been wondering about ventilation myself. I insulated the tops to discourage condensation over the cluster, but have not added any top opening. I have some shims I could add, but worry the small hole lets heat out as well as moisture. Not a problem in all this warm weather, but will have to ponder it.

    Enjoy your leftovers.

    1. Glad to hear that you had a friend-filled (and cooking-free) Thanksgiving, too! :-)

      It's interesting that you mentioned entrances. That's something I've been playing with, too, and I think I'm going

      Theoretically, insulation on the top should work to keep the bars warmer than the sides, and moisture will condense on the coolest surfaces first. What are your winters like? I think the worst part of our winter is the extended periods that make cleansing flights impossible.

      I love Lazutin's book! It has some issues (like organization), but once you're finished I'd love to hear your thoughts!

    2. We're a good 5 to 10 degrees south of you temperature-wise. Typically our winters are not too bad, but we'll get a few weeks of very cold weather. Every few years, like last year, we'll get hit with an extended cold spell or something similar. So not as much worry bee-wise but can't hurt to be careful. Our coldest month is Dec-Jan with average lows in the 20's.

      Working on Part III of Lazutin's book, will let you know how it turns out!

  3. Sounds like you had a great Thanksgiving! I'm glad you let your DH have his turkey! I was going to smoke one this year, but it was below freezing with freezing rain and snow, and there's no way I was going to stand outside watching over a smoker! So we just roasted one inside. Since then we had a week over pretty cold temps (nights in the teens) and today is going to be the first day where I can see how my girls fared in this. Hopefully they can get out for some cleansing flights before it turns cold again.

    For my TB hives with end entrances, I close them down to a opening for 1-3 bees. It keeps the mice out and presumably the cold air, but I do worry that there could be a clog of dead bees after a cold snap like we had this week. So far, that hasn't been a problem. For my new hives with side entrance holes, I closed them down to one 1" hole (and am experimenting with which hole to leave open). I didn't put any hardware cloth over the entrance to keep mice out. I'm thinking that the layout of the hive would make it difficult for a mouse to get into there. I hope I don't find out otherwise!

    I'm going to try the sugar on comb if I need to feed in the spring, since I have some comb to work with. That looks simple and much easier than making fondant!

    1. Glad you had a good Thanksgiving (inside, away from the snow and freezing rain). Hope the bees are doing well and able to sneak in some outdoor time.

      I've been thinking a lot about entrances, too, and have often wondered about the bees preferred placement. Hope you post your results about which hole to leave open.

      Good luck keeping mice out. They're so cute, but after seeing what they can do in a hive, they sort of freak me out. Blech!

  4. Adding dry sugar to empty comb is ingenious. I don't see why it wouldn't work. I could easily do it just before winter with my Langstroth hives too, even with good drawn comb. If the bees don't touch it, they'd probably clean up the comb and discard the sugar in the spring. Or I could spray down the sugar combs with water spiked with something like anise, something to encourage the bees to dig in. If it's in any way liquid, they should be able to consume it in the spring. If not, they remove it from the comb like they would with any kind of debris. I'm setting up a Gmail reminder to try this out next year. Good work.

    1. Thanks, I'll let you know how it goes. I like the idea of spiking the water, too!

  5. Any update now that winter is mostly over? I like the idea.

    1. I fed Austeja twice this way over the winter -- once on Thanksgiving and once in February. She ate nearly all the sugar from Thanksgiving. However, I guess by the time February rolled around, she felt she had enough honey to last until spring, so I've noticed that the girls have dumped most of the sugar out of the comb onto the hive of the floor. That's ok with me, though, since I'd prefer them to eat honey anyway. The sugar was just cheap insurance they wouldn't starve.


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