Last blog I reviewed the seven things I do inside each hive in September. If you read the entry, you know there were actually ten. I like to exceed expectations. Continue reading Honey, Bear in Mind: The Eight Things to Do in Mid-October.
After presenting to a group over the weekend about getting their colonies ready for winter, I realized how far behind I was. So, on Sunday I rolled off the couch and went through our four power hives. I started with them because we knew we had many hives with insufficient stores for the winter. If the booming hives had excess honey, I could reallocate it.
Unfortunately, because of my health in July and August, I was too tired to dig down. I just kept adding boxes instead of checking what was really going on down below. Turns out that in those four power hives of two deep boxes and a couple of honey supers, the bottom two deeps are essentially empty. (They’re now removed—no sense giving the bees something more to patrol as their colony size winds down.)
So folks, I’ll give you my advice for what I feel you should be doing this time of year, and I’ll try to take my advice as well!
First, some background on bees wintering in Michigan:
30% overwintering survival is about the national average.
Last year we had much higher failures in this area—the winter wouldn’t stop.
Generally bees can handle cold (just not that relentless sub-zero stuff we had in March that didn’t allow them to break their cluster and move to where the food was.) What typically kills bees is being wet and cold, or not having a big enough cluster to stay warm and move to where the stores area. Bees will frequently starve to death within inches of honey.
What’s a cluster? It is how bees form about the queen to keep her at about 90 degrees, and themselves warm as well. A cluster grows colder toward the edge of it. I’ve read it takes about two weeks for a bee on the outside to wriggle its way to the center in the bees’ semi-hibernating state, and they’re always rotating. If you’re the bee on the outside of the cluster when it is two degrees, you’re probably going to drop off and die, or when an icy cold drop of water knocks you off and it is too chilly to climb back on.
Icy cold drops of water? Yep. Bees shiver to generate warmth, which releases moisture. That warm moist air rises, softening the capped honey above the cluster so bees can move to and consume it. This is called “chimney eating”, and that’s why it makes sense to ensure there is honey above the brood nest.
That moist heat also rises to the lid of the hive. If that lid is cold, the moisture condenses and drops on the bees. Bees can generally survive being cold, but not being wet and cold.
Assuming fall isn’t going to be super chilly, you have some time to try and help your bees prepare for wintering. Here are the essentials that you can do in one long, probably final session when you can get into the hive, weather permitting.
- Verify that the hive is queenright. If not, and they’re not in process of making a new queen, you won’t have bees come next spring. No queen or queen-in-process? There are options, contact me to discuss if need be.
- Check the mite levels as you should’ve been doing all along, and treat if that’s what you do. (See previous blogs for reference to University of Minnesota’s great aid in mite level checking.)You don’t need to check if you’re not going to do anything about it. Some people will not treat in any form (treatments range from some fairly nasty chemicals to more natural substances.) There’s certainly some merit to that stance, but know that you may lose a lot of colonies until you find some that can combat Varroa. Google Michael Bush among others; I respect his stance on letting them die if they can’t handle mites.If you are going to treat, depending upon what you’re treating with, this generally is the time of year to do so. Read and follow the directions. We don’t want to breed resistant mites by misapplying treatments.
- Look for other critters? While you’re in the hive, look around for other predators. We found on Sunday an extensive mouse condo between the ground and the bottom board. While not a direct threat to the hive, come winter that mouse probably would’ve tried to move in.Look out for wax moths, small hive beetles, etc. If you find them, it indicates that you don’t have enough bees to keep those pests under control. Reduce the hive to a more manageable size.
- Evaluate the available resources. In SW MI, the recommendation I generally hear is 70-80# of honey. (A deep frame weighs 5-6 pounds; google to find the weight of full, capped medium and shallow frames.) If you don’t have that much, or you want to be sure, provide 2:1 sugar syrup. That’s a thicker syrup than spring, but allegedly it is more easily converted to honey. See my notes below on making that syrup.If you’re seriously light, options include:- Reallocating from other hives that may have excess
– Combining with a stronger hive (See my notes in the Publications section of this website on combining.
– Keep feeding
- Distribute those resources and rearrange the hive. I admit that historically I’ve been lousy at doing this. I generally feel the bees know what they’re doing. But, we’re working a couple dozen hives and they’re doing some very different things, like the 10 hives who don’t know it is September and have built up minimal stores. I suspect they don’t know what they’re doing; probably the toxic world we live in has impacted their little brains. So, I’m “playing God” and rearranging their hives like the human bee experts have said they should be:- Brood frames in the bottom in the middle of the box, with honey frames on either side- A full box of honey above that (if you got it), with the fullest honey frames above the brood nest-Another full box of honey above that, if you have itYou will probably find, come next Spring, frames in the outer edges of the boxes that were untouched. That’s likely because the cluster never got big enough to get to the edges when the cold set in. Cluster size gets smaller as time goes by–the queen slows down laying now, practically ceases in December, and begins laying slowly again come January.We use 10-frame Lang equipment. For a few colonies that don’t have 20 full or fairly full frames, we’re making essentially 8-frame equipment, inserting 1-inch Styrofoam on either side for insulation (taking the place of the outer frame on either side). Hopefully this’ll work.
- Sugar ceiling: If the bees eat through everything they made and it is still not Spring, anything is better than starving to death. Thus, we put on a sugar ceiling with the Mountain Camp Method (MCM), described in the Publications section of this website. You’ll find others recommending adding a candy fondant or winter patties. I’ve never done winter patties, and making a candy board or a fondant board is more cooking than I’m qualified to do. Plus, the MCM has always worked for me. And, if you use winter patties, they can be added on it.Another advantage to the MCM is that IF they don’t need it, come Spring, you can always reconstitute that sugar into a spring feed.But, do something so they have emergency stores if they get to the top in February. It typically isn’t warm enough for them to turn around and go back down to find any honey they missed.
- Absorbent layer: Remember, it usually isn’t the cold that kills them, but rather being wet and cold. Thus, you want to provide something to absorb the moisture and / or prevent it.There’s lots of options for this—a masonite board, a layer of newspapers under the lid, an absorbent blanket across the top bars. My first year of beekeeping I put the sports section under the top cover. I checked on it on a sunny day in February and it was soaked. And I was too naïve to pull it out and put something dry in. All my hives died that year. (They may have already been dead. I overwrapped them and covered their vent holes so it was really, really moist in there.)Part of addressing the moisture issue is to make it so the top cover isn’t cold. Many beekeepers add a half-inch (or more) piece of Styrofoam inside the top cover to insulate it.We do that, and we also have the absorbent layer. (I’ve killed a lot of bees, I don’t want to do that anymore.) Our absorbent layer is a shallow box with window screen in the bottom, and filled it with commercially available cedar chips, or dried leaves … about two inches of anything absorbent.So, my optimal winter Lang hive looks like this:Top cover
Make sure you put a brick or something on it to hold it down. We had one brick on this hive originally. The hive got blown over in late Nov’s high winds. Putting it back together the next day wasn’t fun for them or me, so I really pile on the bricks as it is out in a meadow.
We have popsicle sticks glued inside the top cover to allow for even more ventilation on the hives where we don’t have a Styrofoam liner. Yes, we’re inconsistent.
Not visible in picture.
Shallow super / absorbent layer
I typically use an empty honey super or a vent box with the vent holes duct-taped over. This is the uppermost navy box. We cut a half inch off the two top, long sides so that air can flow across it, drying out the chips. That’s not visible in the photo because it is covered by the orange top cover.
Shallow super or something to allow for the MCM sugar and patties.
There’s too much sugar to place the absorbent layer box on top of it). This is the gold box in the photo; it is actually just the box part that a top feeder would set into.
If you have one (navy in the picture).
Deep box (or medium box)
Pinkish-tan in the picture. Notice the hole drilled under the hand hold: 5/8” hole for ventilation AND an upper entrance, which they ended up needing as the snow was so deep last year!
Deep box (or medium box)
The big orange box in the picture. It has an upper entrance drilled in the back. Most of our boxes have the whole drilled somewhere in it. Some of our hives propolize it over.
Deep box (or medium box)
The light blue box in the picture, with a roofing paper skirt that blocks prevailing winds. What you don’t see is the critter guard across the front entrance, and the reduced front entrance.
We go with screened all winter, but skirt around the hive so wind can’t gust up into it.
Yes, I said there were only seven. But you might want to do these while you’re working the hive:
- Reduce the entrance for warmth and to protect against raiding. I probably wouldn’t go to the smallest opening yet, but reduce it down (a brick works great.)
- Remove any queen separators! If you had one on, make sure you aren’t keeping the queen from getting to the honey you’re leaving on.
- Install the critter guards. This can be done later, you don’t want to impede too many bees if the weather is nice, so this doesn’t usually happen for me until mid-end of October. The key thing is to do it BEFORE the critters move in for the winter. If it is cold, the bees will cluster and not get them out, and the field mouse will wreak havoc on honey and honeycomb. I know too many people who have put them on AFTER the mouse moved in, and I’ve got great pictures to prove it.Reality check: So, do you really have to do all of that? (I’ve got another list of seven things to do outside the hive coming soon.)
I have a commercial beekeeper friend who would laugh at that list. He doesn’t do anything other than give them an upper entrance and extra bricks. His philosophy is if they’re not strong enough to survive, he doesn’t want them in his apiary.
If you have the time, ponder what I’ve presented, look at what others suggest, and make your own decision.
And write it down, so that next season you’ll readily recall what worked and did not.
Things to Bear in Mind for this Time of Year
Happy Labor Day.
Your bees have been laboring for us all season. Now is an especially good time to evaluate how we can help with that. August and September are critical months for setting them up to succeed over the winter. Continue reading Honey, Bear in Mind: Labor Day Things to Do
Flying, stinging insects: Got two swarm calls last week. The first guy told me the “honeybees” were flying out of a gray-brown conical shape attached to his eves. I told him that sounded like wasps, but he claimed he knew honeybees and they definitely were honeybees. As it was only two miles away, I checked it out, and wished him well dealing with his paper wasps. And, I left him with a jar of honey for trying to do the right thing for honeybees.
Anyway, too often folks calling about a swarm this time of year don’t have honeybees. Before you drop everything to help (and perhaps get free bees), see if they can send you a picture of the insect or their home (the insect’s, not the caller’s.)
The second swarm was honeybees! (This person, J, called us last year as well with a swarm. Easy capture, which is always a blessing. That’s J in the photo. He’s not a fan of stinging insects, but he did get close enough for this picture.
I love swarms (except when they’re mine). They’re a reminder to all of us to make sure the colonies have room to make more babies and honey.
Honey bound: That’s also happening, along with swarming. There’s such a huge nectar flow on right now that the queen may have no place to lay; the workers are filling every open cell with honey. It’s a wonderful problem, but it is still a problem. The colony will need lots of bees headed into winter. Give her room to lay AND room for all that nectar her workforce is bringing in.
Been working with a newbee on this issue. His first-year hive is in their fourth medium box, and it is nearly full. He reasonably doesn’t want to buy a fifth box, or manage a five-box hive. I suggested pulling at least a frame or two or more of honey to enjoy, and replacing it with new frames, yet to be drawn. That gives the bees more room, and hopefully we won’t have a winter like last. Three to four boxes should be enough, and the goldenrod (which typically provides lots of honey) is just coming on.
Colony progress: If you’re like me, you’re disheartened to read about a first year colony having filled up nearly four boxes. That’s a power hive; they’d be wonderful to have. About 25% of our first-year colonies are still working their first box.
It is time to start thinking seriously about winter folks. (It pains me to write that!) A colony in SW Michigan with only a single box of resources (medium or deep) going into winter probably won’t make it. We’d like to see three boxes at least, four would be glorious. (You can always extract the honey next spring if they survive, why not leave it for them to help them survive?)
It isn’t just a matter of honey. In other words, you can’t put a second box of honey atop a single box come November and improve their chances for survival by much. They also need a lot of bees to keep the queen warm. (Or a mild winter.)
IF your colony is still just working that first box and there aren’t amber swaths of brood about to hatch (perhaps doubling the colony shortly), you probably need to do something. Try to figure out why they’re lagging (did they recently requeen so that’s why there’s a smaller population? Mite issue? Beetle issue?) and address that. Some other helpful options include:
- Add a frame of brood (and nurse bees) from a booming colony if you have one to supplement the work force. The queen won’t outlay the work force so maybe a low workforce has kept her production down.)
- Consider replacing the queen; hopefully the new one will lay enough workers to get things going in time for winter. (You can purchase a queen, suppliers are listed on the Kalamazoo Bee Club website.)
It may be too late to turn them around. It depends upon when winter is coming, if we’re going to get more rain, how long my cat naps, and other unpredictable considerations.
In another month, if you have the option of combining them with a strong hive, you’ll probably want to do that to any one-box colonies…but let’s cross that bridge if we get there, and try and build up until then as we can.
Mites: See last blog on that. I’m powdered-sugaring every hive every time we’re in there. Yes, it bugs them. (Salute to Nick for finally getting stung! Hopefully you were amused enough by the ghost bees to take part of the, er, sting away from the experience.)
Apologies again to you non-Langstroth configuration beekeepers because I keep talking in frames and boxes. That’s still the most common beekeeping configuration in the USA, so I’m sticking to those terms. And remember:
- I love your calls and emails.
- This is all my opinion. Beekeeping has very few black and whites.
- Melvin the Cat’s napping habits probably aren’t impacting your colony’s progress … much.
Great time of year to be a beekeeper. Honey is starting to come on (for those of you with power hives), and there’s generally plenty out there for bees to enjoy.
Here are some ramblings, and things to Honey, Bear in Mind this time of year.
In about a week I’ll share some info on colony progress in this area, so newbees can assess where they’re at.
Most of our first year colonies are well into building out / filling a second hive body, with many on a third. We do still have a few stragglers in just one box, but about to need a second. They have about a week to prove to me that they will kick it in. Most of them have requeened, watched too much reality TV, and gotten distracted by shiny stuff (oops, that was me) … but now that they’re all queenright, well, time to get focused Ladies!
We are checking all hives about every 10 days. If a colony is in two boxes (or more), and their disposition seems normal (for them), and they’re making progress, we just check for Evidence of a Queen (eggs or larva or the darling herself if we spot her). No need to go through every frame and box.
And of course, if it is 90 degrees and humid, we generally feel no need to check anything!
Over a recent three days, I’ve had about a dozen calls from “newbees” with bee issues. Because of that, my first question now is “you got a swarm?” (I’m standing by with some possible helpful hints and spare equipment if so.)
Yes, swarms are happening! Make sure your colonies have plenty of room to expand so they don’t get the urge. Two bee-loved plants around our area (purple loosestrife and goldenrod) are (gasp!) blooming, which is early. This gives me hope that some of our hives will produce superfluous honey for us this season. I do have this sense of foreboding though about what this early bloom might mean. Early winter? (Seems like winter finally finished about a month ago.)
CAUTION: Goldenrod pollen / nectar in the hive smells like a locker room (but tastes great.) If your hives stink, you probably don’t need to be alarmed this time of year.
There’s $100 on the Ground
Marshall and I spent about 20 hours cutting bees out of a house last week. This was an unpaid but hugely interesting (and tiring) task—but what else was the owner to do? They’d built well into the home (between the kitchen ceiling and bedroom floor) and down an exterior wall.
We hope that we got so many bees that even if we didn’t get the queen, the colony doesn’t have sufficient resources to rebuild. This woman was blessed to have been chosen by bees, but the interior damage from honey above the kitchen ceiling, and the safety issue (bees didn’t like her grandkids flying kites in the backyard), well, time to relocate them if possible.
God works in mysterious ways. We were exhausted from that volunteer effort, but were rewarded with a call 48 hours later about a swarm that had settled in a driveway. It was almost as easy as picking up a $100 bill. A package of bees costs about $100, and this swarm had waaaaay more bees than that.
Both these colonies are now relocated in our apiary … and they’re staying–knock on wood.
I love this beekeeping term, used to describe when bees are all gathered on the face of a hive. It is usually because it is warm inside, and / or nice outside. The foragers have returned from the field for the day, and playing cards and having frosty drinks on the front porch seems like the thing to do. The house bees are busy trying to cool it down in there anyway, why add to the confusion? It typically does NOT mean they’re about to swarm.
Sometimes though, all those bees outside means it is overcrowded inside. Make sure they’ve got plenty of room.
Some hives beard (or—with fewer bees—moustache) practically any warm night for most of summer. Some never do. Some also make layers of bees of varying depths. One theory says that they’re directing air currents inside the hive when they do that.
Whatever the reason, it is really cool to observe! And, the bees seemingly don’t care. I once checked a bearded hive (from a distance) at about 2:00 in the morning. Yep, they were still bearded. It was just a nice night to watch the stars I guess.
See previous blogs. Like my dentist says, you don’t have to floss all your teeth, just the ones you want to keep. You don’t have to monitor for mites in all your hives – just the hives you want to keep.
Of course, no need to monitor if you’re not going to do anything about it! There’s a strong school of thought that suggests colonies who can’t handle mites through natural resistance and behavior shouldn’t propagate. I see that point.
Of course, there’s another school of thought that suggests bees can’t live without intervention in our chemical-laden world. Perhaps.
It really is up to you to research and figure out your philosophy.
There’s a variety of ways to treat, from minimally-questionably proactive stuff (powdered sugar, screened bottom boards, drone foundation, brood disruption.) Google those for more info. Every time we’re in a hive that hasn’t had a big break in the brood cycle (like those that didn’t have queens for a while), we sprinkle about a cup of powdered sugar across the top bars of each hive body. Figure it can’t hurt. Plus it is always fun to see the ghost bees that have been doused in powder sugar, flying about.
We have found that these proactive, fairly natural approaches are helpful. The one year I had 100% overwintering survival I believe was because I (and the bees) let me use drone foundation religiously and effectively, and I powdered sugared all the time that summer.
You can also bring out super-harsh dangerous chemicals. Effective? Plenty of research supporting either side.
There are also some middle-of-the-road approaches, like the “softer” chemical Apiguard. Internet is full of insights / research—read and do what feels right for you.
My philosophy now (it has evolved over the years) is that—if I’m doing all the proactive stuff AND the levels start to increase to the threshold that the University of Minnesota recommends treating at (see previous blogs for that reference), I’ll consider chemicals.
Chemicals aren’t healthy.
Neither are dead bees.
Movie – More Than Honey
Recently saw this movie, again. Very disturbing, but amazing, documentary on the bee industry worldwide and the plight of the honeybee.
Your Calls and Emails
I love them. No need to apologize. If I can answer I will, because I love bees and learning and thinking about bees, which your calls make me do. (Sharon – did they swarm yet?)
One of our newbees embarrassingly said he “made a mistake” by not getting into his hive for about a month. He found the second box almost fully drawn, with lots of capped brood and capped honey. (He also saw bees emerging, always amazing to catch that.)
I don’t think it was a mistake—with Michigan’s monsoon season, the weather doesn’t always cooperate when you have the time. We’re working a couple dozen hives, and oopsie—we’ve opened a few in the last few weeks that we also should’ve opened earlier. Last time we checked they had 3-4 frames of capped brood, and this time, the queen’s twiddling her thumbs wondering where she’s supposed to put eggs as everything is filled with bees-to-be or honey. (That’s called honeybound.) So sorry Queenie! And thanks for not swarming on us. We quickly got another box on each of those hives.
A deep frame can hold several thousand bees … so when you have 3-4 frames of capped brood, and they hatch and get to work, production ramps up quickly. Stay ahead of them this lush time of year; there’s plenty for them to bring in and bees were born to make honey.
When you add a box: If your boxes are the same size, move a few frames of brood to the upper box to encourage them to work it also.
Remember, you don’t need to find the queen, but you should always look for evidence of the queen (EoQ)–eggs or larva. Finding eggs mean you had a queen within the last three days; she’s probably still there. Finding larva means within the last 8 days, so check again in about a week to find EoQ again if you’re suspicious she might not be there (more aggressive behavior, or capped queen cells.) You don’t want a hive to be queenless for too long or a laying worker could develop.
I use this blog to update folks with some timely considerations, if you have a new colony in a climate comparable to SW Michigan’s. These considerations may / not apply to you, depending upon your apiary management approach, colony progress, etc. But, there’s plenty to learn in beekeeping, and I hope this is one of the sources you turn to for insights.
Earwigs: There are unfortunately plenty of them, due to the continued dampness. If you have “only” several dozen, they probably don’t bother the bees much. If things would dry up, that problem should diminish. I wouldn’t add more space to the colony though until you’re sure they’re ready for it. A strong colony will keep the populations of all sorts of undesired critters under control.
Chalkbrood: This is a fungal issue exacerbated by moisture. I’ve had a couple of you contact me with pics and descriptions that fit. If you’re seeing white “bread mold” in the hive, and / or yellow or black larva, this might be your issue. Google “chalkbrood in bees” for a wealth of information. And good luck!
Sampling for Varroa mites: A newbee asked me if they need to monitor their levels. My answer is comparable to the one my sister the dentist gives patients who ask if they need to floss their teeth. “Nope,” she says. “Just the ones you want to keep.”
And you only need to monitor for Varroa in the colonies you want to keep … and monitor at least monthly.
Google ‘sample for Varroa mite Bee Lab’ for the University of Minnesota’s excellent PDF on it. Sampling is easy and interesting and pretty weird (and amusing) when the bees come out all ghosted with powdered sugar.
Your mite count is probably acceptable now—colonies are still building up—but that will likely change. And if you’ve lost a queen or the colony requeened (which seems fairly rampant from folks I’ve been talking with) that has an up side. The break in the bee brood cycle is also a break in the Varroa mite cycle.
If your level gets to the “do something” point, there are a variety of things you can do. Unfortunately, there is no single, clear-cut answer, and all the options have pros and cons and conflicting data on effectiveness.
Attacking Varroa mites: We are starting to routinely sprinkle powdered sugar across the top bars weekly, one cup per box when we’re in there. Historically I’ve had great success using it and drone comb foundation.
Mama mites prefer to lay in drone cells as drones take longer to develop. If you use drone comb, when it is fairly full of capped drones, be sure to remove it before those drones (and any mites) hatch … or you’ve just created a mite factory! You then freeze it for at least 48 hours and then put it back in a hive for them to eat the now-dead drones (for protein). My guests searching for ice cream are always curious about it when they find it in the freezer (I offer them dead drone mini-popsicles). Of course, this year, our bees are putting honey in the drone comb, sigh. Bees are gonna do what bees are gonna do.
Finding the queen: No, you don’t need to find her every time you’re in the hive, but you should make sure to find evidence of her, like eggs (means you’ve had a queen within the last three days) or larva (eight days). If you see eggs, and their behavior isn’t particularly cranky (absent other stressors like storms), you’re likely fine. If you only see larva and no eggs (and no queen) check again in a few days. Seems to be a lot of requeening by bees going on …
Love your questions. Email, call or FB me. And watch out for frogs, mice and Varroa!
We celebrated the first day of summer by removing the debris boards from the rest of our first year hives. Usually those are out earlier, but it has been a cool, wet season.
So what else should you be thinking about if you have first year colonies in a climate similar to SW Michigan’s?
Debris boards: You may have solid bottom boards, or you may have a combination of removable debris board with a screened bottom board. If the latter, probably time to pull the debris board. It’ll likely be covered with bits of wax, a few wings and legs, pollen, etc. – the normal debris from a colony of bees. It’ll like look like golden saw dust with lots of dark debris mixed in. Likely all perfectly normal. I wash and store the boards for later use.
We removed most of our debris boards a week or so ago. The ones pulled recently were from hives that have been slow to build up, such that I didn’t think they were in much danger of overheating the few hot and muggy days we’ve had so far. (Note, not complaining about the lack of hot and muggy weather—I’m sure it is coming.)
Entrance reducers: All colonies that pass the basic check (see below) are likely strong enough to defend against raiders and keep brood warm, so you could probably remove the entrance reducer next time you’re working the colony.
Second … or third box: You might have a superstar first year colony that’s ready for a third box by now. We have a few of our 35 with a third box on. You don’t want them to swarm, so make sure they have room to expand. If you’re using Langstroth equipment, previous blog posts outline my guidelines for when to add the next box. The same general criteria, but there’s a much larger workforce now so they’ll draw out that second, or in the case of some lucky beekeepers, that third box faster.
Is that third box honey for you? Whether you’re using 8- or 10-frame equipment, mediums, deeps or shallows, I think you should leave it for the colony for the winter. If that colony is filling a third box in July though, that’s impressive. You may get some honey this first year after all, by fall.
Queen separator? This is a framed narrow-gapped wire device placed between the brood boxes and the honey boxes. It keeps the broader queen from moving up to lay in honey boxes.
Should you use one? Your preference, but—if you’re going to leave that third box of predominantly honey for them anyway, what does it matter to you if she lays up there? A queen excluder will impede progress—it is another thing for bees to maneuver through, and sometimes they propolize much of it, which is why some beekeepers call it a ‘honey separator.’ You can drill a 3/8” hole in upper boxes, helpful for both ventilation and efficient access, to get around that. Hubby and I disagree on whether to use them or not, so we use them on about half our hives.
Pests: We’re finding lots more ants and beetles in hives than usual, probably because of the damp weather. We haven’t started looking proactively for the dreaded Varroa mite yet, but we’re proactively trying to control the population. In a future blog I’ll discuss mite counts.
So, what do you do about these different pests?
- Ants: See previous blog post
- Beetles: If they’re Small Hive Beetles (SHB), a strong colony can defend against them. My good friend Richard Underhill, President of the Arkansas State Beekeeper’s Association, shared that hives can usually tolerate 300 or so. Arkansas has a much bigger problem with them that we do up north. If you’re seeing dozens, make sure they’re SHB, as there are plenty of other relatively benign beetles you may find in the hive. If SHB, reduce the colony space so that the bee population can better patrol it. Use beetle traps if you want.
- Varroa: We use one frame of commercial drone comb in the second box of each colony to reduce the Varroa population. That’s been highly successful for me in years past, although this year most of our bees are putting honey in the drone comb instead of drones. Remember, bees are gonna do what bees are gonna do. If you want to know more about how to use this, drop me an email and I’ll send my instruction sheet. This is a natural method for knocking down the Varroa population, with mixed results, but generally some effectiveness. There are lots of ways to combat Varroa, and if you look long enough, you’ll find studies to support and discourage almost every method. Drone comb has worked for me, so I use it.
Basic Check: I’ve had a number of calls from first year beekeepers who are either lacking some basic knowledge, or just don’t have the time, interest or courage to ensure their colonies are on track. The actually keeping of bees requires interaction and proactive inspections, otherwise you’re a bee-haver, not a beekeeper.
By this time in the season you should:
- Have removed the queen cage
- Know that you have a queen laying predominantly worker brood. You don’t have to find the queen, but you do need to see evidence of her (see previous blog posts)
- Verify that the brood pattern is good to great (see previous blog posts)
- If Langstroth equipment, you should’ve or should be getting close to adding a second box.
If they’re bee-hind: Out of 35 colonies we’re monitoring, probably a half dozen of those are still working only 4-5 frames of their first box. Installed early May, yes, they’re behind.
Why? For a few of our laggers its because they requeened. The colony determined their queen was not optimal. They created another one and killed off the original queen. We know of this requeening because during routine checks we found capped queen cells and no queen or eggs for a bit. This requeening caused several days of no future bee production, putting them behind.
Some of our other laggers still have the original queen. The queen won’t outlay the workforce, so there’s the possibility she’s not laying much because she doesn’t have the workers to tend to lots of bees yet. Because we have other hives, we’ve moved a frame or two of brood and nurse bees to the slower hive—hopefully that’ll help them come up to speed. If you have this option, make sure you don’t move the queen also!
Another possibility some years is a lack of forage. A dry spell can shut the queen down. Not this year so far …
Time to panic? No. July could be a beautiful month of lush, ample forage. Besides, unless you can collect pollen and nectar, there isn’t much you can do about it. Keep feeding if they’re taking it, and if you have more than one colony, consider moving over a frame of eggs and nurse bees.
What I Didn’t Tell You: Unfortunately, there’s lots, but it isn’t intentional. There’s much to this keeping of bees. This blog is hopefully just one source of information for you.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted more information, but you’re likely past the first few critical benchmarks with a new colony of bees. Now it’s mainly a matter of letting them build. Random thoughts and suggestions:
Entrance reducers: If your bees are lining up to return, it is probably time to change to the next opening size. If you only have a “small” and a “full” size, you may want to leave it on small for a bit longer, a week or so. It depends upon the strength of the hive and what is available for forage out there. You want your bees to be able to defend against raiders, and it hasn’t been wildly hot yet. Amen to that! We’ve rotated our entrance reducers to the medium opening.
Bottom boards: If you’re using screened bottom boards with the slide-in solid board, also often called a debris board, probably no reason yet to pull it out for the season. When your hive population builds up more, or the weather gets continuously hot—it may be time to pull them back, or remove entirely.
Pollen patties: Those are hive beetle magnets. If there’s any left, get ‘em out of there!
Queen cells: You may find “queen peanuts” or “queen cups”, they look just like peanuts. The bottom is open, nothing inside of it. We humans think they’re just practice cells; bees do that. You might also find capped cells, which might mean:
- They’re going to swarm—or they already have. Sure, the books will tell you first year hives don’t typically swarm, but some do. Likely their nature, or they feel overcrowded.
- They’re going to replace the queen (supercedure). That’s a good thing—they’ve determined that she’s not the best choice for their future so they’re cultivating another. I think the ones pictured are supercedure cells due to their placement on the frame.
If you find plenty of queen cells, consider making a nuc with some of them. (Drop me an email if you need more info.)
How cool it all is: So, a couple of newbees have sent me videos of them inspecting their hives, or activity in their hives. Do you really think I’m going to sit around and watch those?
Well yes I am, two or three times each. I’m a bee nerd! And thanks!
Reordering frames: You’ll find recommendations to put an undrawn frame between two drawn frames. A main reason to do that is to get them to build it out—bees don’t like a “blank” in the middle of the brood nest.
Doing so is a concern when the colony is just getting started though. The brood needs to stay together for warmth until there’s enough bees or warmer weather. Now is the time of year when you can start moving them a bit. If you’re using Langstroth equipment, it is real common for them to not want to work the outer frames. Repositioning those to the middle will encourage them to work them.
If I find the queen in the top, do I dare work the bottom box? No issue, chances are very, very slim that she’ll fly off. But as always, work the box only if you have a reason to do so. Reasons might include verifying that they’ve drawn out most of the frames, checking for queen cells, or simply marveling at how cool bees are.
If you know the queen is in the top box, ever so gently set the box on the bottom-side-up outer cover, cross-ways so there are only four small points of contact. That minimizes bee squishing. Place the inner cover over that box while you’re working the bottom box. It’ll help hold in the important queen-scent, and bees—and give them the darkness they appreciate.
The queen probably will remain in the interior frames, but when covering, do a quick check to ensure she’s not on the edge in “squish me” position.
Spring is steadily arriving; here are considerations for a new install in a climate comparable to SW Michigan’s.
Frames drawn out: There should be substantial progress on at least half the frames of the first box—a few of them perhaps almost all full of brood, honey and pollen, and bees loosely covering (working) the majority of the remaining frames. Yes, you might still have some empties or close to half of them still relatively untouched, depending upon when you got your bees.
Lots of bees-to-be: Most of us have had our packages installed for nearly a month now. You should be seeing capped brood. Remember to check that most of it is worker brood (smooth not bumpy) and that the queen’s laying pattern is decent (a cell missed here and there, but most all cells in an area containing a bee-in-progress). (Google ‘good brood pattern’.) If it has been longer than two weeks and you’re not seeing larva or capped worker brood, you probably have a queen issue (queen missing or not properly fertilized.)
Did I mention lots of bees about to be? This time of year the queen may lay 1,000-2,000 eggs a day. It varies by frame and cell size, but a deep frame might easily contain 3,000-5,000 bees-to-be, along with cells of honey and pollen. That means that within 2-3 weeks of seeing brood, your hive might double in population…and she’s laying away. Given that you want to stay ahead of the queen by ensuring she has room, it is time to talk about…
When to add the next box (long promised topic, but not a hot one due to the cool weather).
First, let’s assume that your bees are only in one box. About half the newbees I’ve talked with recently put all their boxes on their new hive. Nope—that’s too much room for them to patrol and heat. If you’ve got all your boxes on your hive, email me and we’ll talk about if/how to back that down.
My when-to-add advice is based on 10-frame deep Lang equipment; adjust accordingly for 8-frame, etc. Of our 27 new packages this year, installed April 23-30, only two are ready for their second boxes over Memorial Day. Each colony’s production rate is different; I suspect by the end of June most will be ready for their next box. The overhead shot is of a box that did get their second deep a day ago. I wonder if the other bees look at that twice-as-tall hive and wonder what’s going on in that colony…
If it is about time for the next box, when you open the hive you should find:
A queen laying a good brood pattern
Predominantly worker brood on 3-5 frames (both sides) in various stages of development (eggs, larva, capped with a light color (newer) through practically chocolate-colored caps). That much brood means the population is going to at least double within a few weeks.
On a by-frame basis:
At least 50% of the frames are nearly all drawn (and most of those are nearly full with brood or resources)
Work on another 20-30% is well underway, complete with more bees than you can easily count on them, and bees loosely covering most of the surface area
Any remaining frames, while perhaps nothing is apparent, have several dozen bees patrolling/working them.
Sometimes bees are hesitant to begin working up in a new area, especially if it is new equipment. So:
Ever-so-carefully pull a frame or two of brood from the bottom box.
Carefully push the bottom’s remaining frames together and add more to the sides to the bottom box to get back to your 10 (or 8).
Add the second box.
Position the frames (from the bottom) in the top box over where the brood nest is in the bottom. This gets them “working up” and keeps the brood nest together for warmth and efficiency.
Add the remaining frames to get to 10 (or 8).
Put the inner cover on the top box, and then the top cover.
Keep feeding? If they’re still taking it, sure. I like to get them off to as good a start as possible, but most of our hives aren’t consuming much anymore.
Got ants? Cinnamon is a natural deterrent. I don’t know that ants around the feeder bother bees, but I do think they annoy them a bit. With sugar syrup on the hive, some hives have attracted plenty of ants.
I sprinkle cinnamon on the inner cover; I’ve been known to put a cinnamon ring around the hive if the rain isn’t about to wash it away, and the location allows (like my hives that are on a truck bed).
Learned at the school of hard lessons, I do these three things each time after I step away from the apiary and before I take off my veil:
Check for my hive tool. (They have legs, they’ll walk away if you leave them.)
Look over the apiary. Verify lids are on properly. Askew lids invite raiding or rain. Did I put the rock back on top of the hive? Did I leave the smoker sitting there smoking?
Document: I write down what I saw, and what I need to do (ie, “added second box, check progress second week of June.”)
SMOKING: I don’t do it much this time of year. The bee population is smaller, and they’re very focused. I carry a misting bottle with 1:1 sugar syrup and mist if they seem to be getting agitated. Often, I can work them without them seeming to care (and without misting.) But, I’ve been doing this a while. Bees can sense your demeanor. If smoking makes you more comfortable, do it.
If your bees repeatedly come at you when you enter the bee yard or always seem agitated, track that bee-havior for a few visits. Perhaps there’s something generally bothering them (branch banging the hive, a raccoon, brewing storm, sprinkler hitting them every night, etc.) Ensure they are queenright. Bees that aren’t are often easily agitated and often quite buzzy.
There are things that can be done if you have an on-going “hot hive.” Drop me an e-mail if that bee-havior persists.