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!


  1. Wax moths in the house, what fun! Getting a freezer is definitely on my list for the year.

    It would be interesting to see you use the Lazutin-style hive. I really enjoyed his book and would love to see you write about it :). You could also built a hexagon hive, basically a TBH upside down on top of another TBH. Twice the comb! The frames might be a challenge, though I'm sure you could figure it out.

    Good luck in the coming year! Happy 2017.

    1. LOL -- yes, wax moths in the house are definitely something -- an opportunity to view wildlife up close during a time of year when it is scarcer outside.

      The hexagon hive is cool! However, I know when to admit that I'm licked. Even Lazutin or Layens frames will most likely be outsourced.

      Hope 2017 is good to you, too!

  2. Even after freezing my combs, I'm always paranoid about having a wax moth infestation in my basement. I check the combs once a month just to make sure. But I do need a bigger freezer!

    I also need to be better about removing old comb. I'm wondering if that was the problem with my lang this year instead of mites which had low counts when I did check it. One of our local old timers just posted that in his experience, sometimes hives with low mite counts crash and it looks like mites, but more likely is due to pesticide buildup in the comb. I had used old comb/foundation from a deadout and maybe that was a mistake. This year, I'm going to do better on labeling the age of the combs and letting them build more new comb early on during the initial flow.

    So glad all your hives are alive. Since I think you have 19" wide bars, have you ever though about supering your top bar hive with a lang box? It will be interesting to read your adventures in horizontal hives if you go that way!

    Happy New Year!

    1. That's so interesting that you suspect old comb might have been the culprit in your Lang's demise. Thank you for sharing that observation and confirming my suspicions.

      Last year, Persephone contained one of the 2 packages I'd purchased from Wolf Creek. She also did extremely poorly all season while the other package thrived. Persephone had gotten more comb and pollen from a dead-out, though, than the other package. I'd chalked it up to mites, but this year, Peach, which also received a bunch of old comb when I made a split also did poorly all season. Other colonies with old comb avoided it.

      It's always interesting to see TBHs supered with Langs, but that's probably not a route I'll investigate, especially now that I'm trying to retrofit my TBHs with hinged, insulated roofs.

      Happy 2017 to you, too! Can't wait to read about all it holds in your blog!

  3. If you're really re-thinking the TBH (and I dont entirely blame you), look at a horiztonal lang as a possibility. About the same level of work is required but could cause problems in building a frame rest. Its alot easier to source frames and other various equipment. You can also keep and reuse honey comb in case of a strong flow.

    The other two options call for frames, custom frames. You're gonna need a tablesaw and a dado blade. It

    1. Hi, Sovek! I briefly considered horizontal langs, but I quickly ruled them out for a number of reasons:
      -- I like the solid roof created by TBHs, Lazutin frames, and Layens frames because there is less disturbance to the bees. I know I could use a cloth or panels over Lang frames, but to me, it's just one more piece to deal with, and my preference is for simplicity of design.
      -- Horizontal langs do not have anywhere near the capacity of Lazutin or Layens hives, and volume is my motivating driver for considering a different hive type.
      -- Lang frames are pretty shallow (even the deep ones). The extra-tall Layens/Lazutin frames are better for surviving New England's long winters.
      -- I'm not interested in double deep Langs -- moving all those frames and trying to keep them organized just looks like a nightmare to me.
      -- Reusing honey comb is not a concern. Actually, quite the opposite.
      -- Custom frames are not a concern. My husband used to build furniture as a hobby, so we have a garage full of woodworking tools, including tablesaw and dado cutter. However, I'll probably outsource the frame building anyway and just concentrate on the hive body.

  4. Hi,

    I had been thinking about trying a new hive type myself. I thought about using a Lazutin
    style hive. I reached out to Dr. Leo Sharashkin, editor of the book Keeping Bees with a Smile.
    When I asked him about using a Lazutin-style hive, here's what he told me:

    "The choice of the hive depends on several factors:
    - climate/length of winter
    - race of bees
    - abundance of nectar plants

    Lazutin hives work best:
    - in cold climates (zone 4 or lower)
    - with European dark bee
    - with very abundant nectar plants throughout the season

    In your conditions, you won't have access to the European dark bee. The swarm you get will be mostly
    Italian blood with admixture of Carniolan (another southern race) and at best 40% European dark bee. We
    simply do not have the bees here that Lazutin was working with in Russia. Southern bees like somewhat
    smaller nest. Besides, Lazutin was planting 2 acres of wildflowers for each hive, each year.

    Since our bee race is different, and the nectar plants are relatively fewer, Layens makes for a better

    I thought that was interesting. Happy New Year!


    1. Hey, Bob! Happy New Year!

      Thanks for sharing those details from your correspondence with Dr. Sharashkin. Definitely good points, and I will bear those in mind.

      A friend of mine in Goshen tried out a Lazutin hive last year, and he said it worked really well, but there were a couple of drawbacks :
      1) The size was overkill for his area. Lazutin wrote that the size is intended to hold all collected nectar for the entire season prior to harvesting. As you pointed out, Lazutin had an amazing flow, which my friend didn't have.
      2) He had used 2 Lang frames screwed together to get a larger Lazutin-sized frame. The idea was to unscrew the frames at harvest time in order to use an extractor. However, the bees propolized the frames together.

      Otherwise, he said it worked really well. However, to address those two issues, he's switching to Layens frames because of the smaller hive size, and the Layens frame will fit in an extractor.

      However, the thing that makes the Lazutin frames more attractive to me is that the hive will accommodate my top bars. So I can pop in some brood and queen cells from a TBH if I want to get her started. (At approx 15" across, Layens hives are too narrow for my bars.) In terms of length, Lazutin's hives were 25 frames long, but I can customize the hive to any size I want to match my local conditions. Plus, since I crush and strain, the bigger frame size isn't a deterrent for me.

      In any case, I still have a lot of thinking to do regarding whether I really am ready to try out Lazutin/Layens hives, and if so, how to implement that. Should be fun, though! :-)

      Wishing you and yours all the best during the upcoming year. Hope your girls are doing well!

  5. Thanks for a great year of blog posts Julie.

    re: "Top bars may not be the best hive design for me" say it ain't so!

    If it's a hive volume thing, would building a TBH with longer bars/sides work? eg. Les Crowder/Wyatt Mangum dimensions?

    I hadn't heard of Layens frames before - they look good, although it looks like a similar level of outsourcing the precision cut frame parts rather than simply knocking together a TBH? (one of the things I love about top bars, as a "carpentry challenged" person)

    Hope you solve this challenge, but either way, this blog has been an inspiration to a beginning top bar hive beekeeper.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words. I'm glad that my ramblings have helped you on your journey. :-D
      Hope your bees are doing well and surviving the winter!

      Re: re: "Top bars may not be the best hive design for me" say it ain't so!
      LOL! I'm sorry to say that it is so, but I'm not ready to abandon my TBHs entirely either. For many reasons, I think the TBHS is an awesome hive design, and I do love mine. Also, my DH would be crushed since he built the original 2 and my first nuc. At the moment, I'm just interested in experimenting.

      But yes, volume is a main consideration for me. My first TBHs built by my DH were more voluminous than the ones I've been making over the last few years. (Original hives -- 21" or 22" bars and 11" deep. Current ones -- about 19"-20" wide and about 8" or 9" deep). So I was kind of taking the very maximum dimensions I could possibly get away with. It worked out ok, but the combs were much heavier than they are now (it's weird how just a couple small adjustments can make a huge difference), and I had more combs break/fall on me.

      Still, even with those maxed out dimensions, my TBHs just didn't have anywhere near the volume needed to store all the honey from a single year.

      Also, the depth of a TBH hive is limited due to the lack of frames. When you have a framed hive, bees can build attachments to stabilize the comb. By contrast, TBH combs that are too long can easily break or fall. That's why I just can't get the kind of volume with a TBH that I'd really like to have.

      Longer combs are better for the queen (studies show they prefer to lay in the longest combs), and the idea of having lots of honey above the bees within easy reach as well as providing insulation is appealing. Although, last year and this have been pretty mild in terms of winter temps, the year with the polar vortex was a monster. Technically, I'm in USDA ag zone 6a, but I'm really just on the cusp of being in 5, and we see some lows of -5 all the way down to -10.

      Anyway, if nothing else, trying a new hive design gives me something to spend money on. LOL! For a couple of years now, I've not needed to build new hives or buy bees, so I've got nothing to shop for. Trying out a Lazutin/Layens hive is really just a civic-minded attempt to stimulate the economy. ;-) Hee hee hee!

      Have a joyous and prosperous New Year!

  6. You may want to consider having thicker walls and a thicker top bar in the design of your next top bar hive. My next top bar hive for the 2017 season will have two inch thick wood walls and one and three quarters thick top bars.

    Thicker wood offers more mass for heat absorption. During the winter, bee generated heat is lost more slowly. During the summer heat penetration from outside the hive is also slowed down.

    If you go with low mass insulation you may struggle with proper ventilation of the hive (for example, moisture problems).

    Finally, a deeper triangle will allow a larger diameter cluster for better winter survival and a larger core brooding area for queen egg laying.

    1. So glad to hear that you are considering thicker walled hives! Ever since I read Lazutin's book on horizontal beekeeping and conducted an experiment with an insulated hive a couple years ago, I've also been a huge advocate for year-round insulated hives. Both Elsa & Persephone are double-walled insulated hives, and my plans are to retrofit the others as I can. It's unlikely that I'll switch to different internal dimensions, though, for a number of pragmatic reasons that have more to do with me than the bees.

      However, depending on your location, I'd recommend looking into using a combination of dense foam board in the walls and batting in the roofs instead of just relying on wood to provide insulation. According to Lazutin, approx R-10 is the value one should shoot for in hive walls if you're in a harsh climate. Roofs should be even warmer. 1" of wood has a value or approx R-1.5. 2" = approx R-3. This is nowhere near Lazutin's recommendation for a wintery location like mine.

      If you create a foam-board sandwich in the walls using plywood & insulation, you can significantly bump the R-value up to 10 without adding too much additional weight. In my gabled roofs, insulation batting allows me to achieve much higher R-values fairly inexpensively, and it fits better.

    2. "If you go with low mass insulation you may struggle with proper ventilation of the hive (for example, moisture problems)."--Additionally, in the summer you may have over heating problems. For example, comb that gets soft and falls from the top bars as the heat builds as the hive becomes like an oven.

      Ventilation openings are important for summertime cooling of the hive even with the thick wood walls I will be building.

      This winter I used a down pillow above the top bars as insulation for the hive. The roof has to have enough space above the bars not to compress the pillow when the roof is closed. My roof is similar to Elsa but the cavity is bigger.

      In the spring-summer I will remove the pillow and allow the air in the cavity to buffer the heat transfer to the hive; my roof is open on along (long) sides.

    3. The quote that follows is from Bee Source forums, poster Susanknilans post #15

      5-What I am hoping to gain in this method of beekeeping is BETTER INSULATION and better temperature control within the hive. I've been reading along at forums for a long time now, and I can't count the number of keepers looking for better ways to insulate their bees for the winter. Tarping, wrapping, cozies, straw bales. Now, what all this told me was that our current wooden hives---all of them: Langs, TBs, Warres---are thin little things that do not provide the protection from the temps outside. None of them provide the protection from the outside elements (heat OR cold) that bees need. We are always rigging our hives, playing firehouse management in the winter.

      An inch of coiled straw is equal to the thermal value of 6 INCHES of wood. Now, I don't know about you, but I cannot be lifting logs around in my yard. So I weave my straw hives very tight and very thick: 2 inches. So my lightweight hives provide the thermal mass of 12-inches of wood!! Now, THAT grabs my attention!

      I am heading in the direction of using straw but for a top bar architecture. See this video for an example:How to build a Top Bar Hive using Straw and Cow Dung - narration by Phil Chandler

      First things first--the 2017 season

    4. Yes, I've seen that video of Phil and his straw hives. It's a terrific idea. I wish I had time and materials to experiment with that.

      Good luck in 2017!


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