All posts by Charlotte Hubbard

Package Start-Up Tips

Lots of packages arriving in SW Michigan this week and next. Following are suggestions for dealing with a few rare, but alarming, install issues, and some key first-week advice.

Install Issues

Sugar solution in a spray bottle may be used (temp over 55) to “distract” bees just before install, as well as to give them daily nourishment before they’re installed.

A sealed feeder can! (NOT GOOD) This has happened to two beekeepers I’ve chatted with so far this season. While a big mistake on the part of the package producer to not punch holes so the bees can feed, it obviously happens. It means the bees haven’t had anything to eat or drink since they were caged. Because of this remote possibility, spritz the package with sugar syrup when you get them, and a few times daily if you’re not able to get them installed the same day.

Uh-oh, no candy stopper! In my classes, I provide a list of what should be in your “installation kit.” Among the items – marshmallows, because if you’re removing the cork so the bees can eat the candy to release the queen, you gotta be sure there’s candy!

I’ve had a couple people with that issue. It inadvertently happens – some queen cages get missed when they’re slamming thousands of packages together in the south. So if you’re letting the bees release the queen by eating the candy, please make sure there’s candy before you remove the cork. If not, stand by with a marshmallow, or leave the cork in (and direct release the queen in a few days.) Because of where Easter fell this year, Peeps are on sale now. I highly recommend having them on stand-by for the install. Any color will do, although I feel maize and blue peeps are optimal.

And if there is a candy plug, bonus! You get to eat the Peeps!

Temperature: “They” say you should install when it is above 55, light breeze, sunny, later in the afternoon. But, meeting all those conditions might not be possible in Michigan, or with your schedule. My advice to those of you who can’t install in those conditions is to try and hit most of them, and to install sooner rather than later. They’re just spinning their wheels and suffering more and more each day in the cage.

Queenie? Oh All-Important Bee — wake up! A newbee reports a dead queen in the cage when she went to install them a day after she got them. That unfortunately also happens. Contact your package supplier to see how quickly they can get you a new queen.

Other early considerations

Entrance reducers: Reduce the entrance to about an inch, and keep it that way for about a month. It’ll take a package at least 24 days from install before a new bee emerges. Reducing the entrance helps the bees guard and regulate the temperature.

Close off the gap just before install with a clump of grass
Close off the gap just before install with a clump of grass

At install, we loosely stuff grass in the gap. This helps hold in the all-important queen scent, and heat, and bees until they figure out where their home is. It usually wilts within a day and they will move it out of the way, and generally—the couple dozen or so bees that didn’t make it in on install will find their way.

Feed: 1:1 sugar syrup as long as they take it. Which could be all summer …. and that’s fine. Let’s give them every possible advantage as they work to build up to numbers necessary for winter. And before the feed container gets slimy, clean it out. Sugar syrup can slime up quickly in hot humid weather.

If you’re using a front “in the entrance” feeder on Lang equipment and therefore your entrance reducer can’t fit, use the feeder and bricks, a shim, anything appropriate to reduce the gap to about an inch.

And let your dandelions grow! There are an important source of nutrition for bees trying to build-up.

Inner cover with a top feeder: use it, or not? (The following assumes Lang equipment.) Whether or not depends on the type of top feeder, but you can usually figure it out by thinking about the function of the inner cover. It allows for some ventilation, it provides a buffer for temperature regulation, and it can keep beekeepers (and bees) from freaking out when you remove the top cover.

If your feeder covers the frames, you probably don’t need to use the inner cover when using the feeder.

Bees drowning in the top feeder: Top feeders come in different styles. There’s a trough feeder that sets either into the box, and another style that telescopes over it. Some styles have lids—which is great. Many don’t, and you’ll find all sorts of drowned bees in them, regardless of whether you use the inner cover (not necessary) or not. It is because bees, not necessarily from your hive, will slip in the crack between any hive cover you use and the edges of the feeder (unless it has a top.) It is a rare cover—“bee” it top or inner—that sits flush enough to not allow bees in. You can minimize the drowning with insulation tape—the “sponge” of it will fill the gaps.

Ants: Sometimes, bees are attracted to the sugar syrup, and there can be seemingly bazillions of them. They annoy bees, but I’m not sure they’re otherwise an issue. Nonetheless, I use cinnamon as a barrier and annoyance back to the ants. Depending upon the feeder I’m using, the weather, etc. – I’ve put cinnamon on the inner cover, and I’ve made a circle around the hive. It smells heavenly to me, and is safely effective.

How many boxes? ONE. One!! Only one! SO many newbees send me pictures of their two- week hive with 2-3-even-5 boxes on it. ONE BOX!! Your new colony is getting smaller the first month, not larger.

Do the math for the new package: It takes about a week until the queen is released, the hive has built comb, and she lays her first egg, and then 21 days for a worker bee to hatch. The population is shrinking the first month. Don’t make them squander labor trying to heat space, regulate temperature, patrol against wax moths and other critters, etc. by adding additional boxes. Don’t call me and tell me that your bees are exceptional – that you know you have more than when you installed the bees a week ago. Bee math – you can’t change the biology. One box folks, just one (unless you installed a nuc, and all of this assumes 8- or 10-frame equipment.)

How many frames? The first time I encountered this, I laughed that someone would actually make this mistake. I’m no longer laughing because it happens to newbees, and understandably. Working with a box of stinging insects is very intimidating to most newbees, and sometimes, to us “oldbees.” It is especially easy to forget to add the last frame if you’ve shorted the box one because of the queen cage.

Anyway — if you’re using 8-frame equipment, make sure there are 8 frames in the box once the queen is out (of a package); 10-frame? Ten, etc. You won’t be the first person who put their five nuc frames in the box and forgot to add five more and now have a colossal cross-combed mess … which will also occur if you have nine of ten frames. Bees don’t want more than 3/8 of an inch of space and will fill up every gap. Bee math folks; you can’t argue with biology. They’ll fill in the spaces.

Pieces and parts: Before you leave the apiary, look at the hive. Is the top on square and flat? Where’s your hive tool? (They grow legs and scamper away.) Did you put the weight back on top? And then, write down what you saw, what you accomplished, and when / what you think they’ll need next (ie, “check the feeder in two days to see if it needs to be refilled.”)

And please–keep reading and learning, and don’t become discouraged. The beekeeping learning curve is steep, but the rewards are mountainous.


Letting Them Bee

Bee season has started in Michigan, but I’m ever-so-attentively managing a single bee—a ba-bee, in Oregon.

Grandma's future beekeeper
Grandma’s future beekeeper

Our first grandchild’s parents returned to work in April, and Grandpy and I are totally enthralled with little Thomas. I don’t know how we’ll ever leave him next week, but thank goodness we have bees in Michigan whom we suspect desperately need some attention. (Thanks to our beek friends checking in on them for us.) Continue reading Letting Them Bee

Easy Package Installations

Oh my. I just looked at my “recent” posts … and it has been since December. So sorry; I’ll try to do better!

Part of that is because I post frequently on my Facebook page, “Charlotte Hubbard, Beekeeper and …” I also post on the Kalamazoo Bee Club site. Between working bees, eating ice cream, and other priorities — posting here has taken a hit. I’ll strive to do better. But I keep getting distracted by bees bringing in pollen. I could (and have) watched it for hours.

Is that pollen basket amazing? And impressive how she selected pollen that matches her hive!
Is that pollen basket amazing? And impressive how she selected pollen that matches her hive!

Many folks will be obtaining package bees in the next few months. I’ve done hundreds of package installs over the years, and wished I’d known about this less-stress, better-for-bees method years ago. Dr. Larry Connor recommended it to me; I now teach it in my bee-ginner classes and have used it very successfully.

Continue reading Easy Package Installations

Dead December Bees

In these dwindling days of 2016, we SW Michigan beekeepers wouldn’t normally know the status of our colonies. But Mother Nature wanted us to give us more to worry about than the peaceful transition of democracy and whether Detroit beats Green Bay. Temps in the mid-50s the day after Christmas allowed folks to pop the tops to check on their bees, and investigate further if they saw no signs of life.

And then there was great sadness.

2014-08-29 13.49.12
Bright yellow pollen … from sunnier days.

Yes, many colonies have all ready failed to overwinter, and we’ve hardly even had any winter. The good news is – those that weren’t going to make it until spring didn’t suffer long. The single digit temperatures of a few weeks ago probably accelerated the inevitable. God rest their little souls.

And the bad news is – there will be many, many more that die before it is spring again.

I’ve heard from a few anguished newbees who want to know what to do and are really upset. Here are possibly a few helpful insights …

About the heartache you’re feeling …

  1. Accept that there will always bee loss. From April of 2015 to April, 2016, the US lost a staggering 44% of colonies; that’s data from small-scale beekeepers and commercial folks alike (the latter who work professionally to keep bees alive, source – Bee Informed Partnership). So don’t beat yourself up too much; loss happens to even the experts. But that’s a horrific, unsustainable figure. Thus …
  2. Use your sadness / frustration / anger to fuel doing better. Read, study, watch videos, study some more, attend some bee schools (offered widely in the upcoming months.) And for every magic answer you find about how to keep bees, you’ll also find contradictory opinions and advice, so read some more and figure out what makes sense to you (for your beekeeping style, at your location.)
  3. Try and figure out what went wrong. Chances are good that the underlying cause was Varroa – vectoring disease and shortening lives such that the colony couldn’t adequately prepare for overwintering. Google this paper from Dr. Meghan Milbrath to do a helpful post-mortem “Learning to Identify a Common Cause …”
  4. Reflect on what you did … and did not. Unless you totally ignored your bees and lost them (in which case, you’re a bee-haver and probably shouldn’t get back on the horse), you probably did your best based on what you know. So after you broaden your knowledge (#2 above), and figured out why this critical insect died on your watch (#3), do some hard self-scrutiny to figure out what you’ll change. Do you know if your mite levels were under control, and if not, what will you do differently? Did you pull too much honey? Did you assume those bottom five boxes were full of bees and stores and went into winter with a six-box tower when they only needed two? Did you realize that our 80-degree days in November and December meant they were eating critical winter stores, and offer supplemental feed? Your loss was probably the result of a bunch of assumptions, uncertainties and unawares that led you to make the beekeeping decisions you did. You just paid a hefty financial and emotional tuition—use it to make you a better beekeeper.
  5. Write it down. Find a style that works for you (plain old paper and pencil, a snazzy spreadsheet, whatever), and document what you did and will do differently. There’s nothing like reflecting on your beekeeping season to realize what you can’t recall and wish you’d written down … so make a note of those and resolve to track better next year.

What else can we do?

  1. Support what’s left. Hopefully you have a colony or two or more still alive. When weather permits, you may want to check their emergency food ceiling and supplement if needed. Read up on the pros / cons of winter patties, and make a plan for possible use. Scrape the bees out of their doorways on occasion to save the survivors the labor, and move the decay outside of the hive. Try not to worry.
  2. Brace yourself—it isn’t over. Most Michigan bees who fail to overwinter die in March—when they run out of food because they started build-up, and didn’t have the reserves to sustain it. (Winter patties – probably a good idea at some point.)
  3. Salvage any stores from the dead-out. Hives perishing this early in the winter likely died with some honey / pollen still intact. Carefully (frozen wax is very brittle) move it to a freezer for safe storage from rodents and wax moths. Freezing will negatively impact many of the possible diseases on the comb. If reusable (means you gotta have a good idea what killed them), drawn comb with stores will really help new or existing colonies in the spring. And if it was Varroa – those in the hive perished when their hosts perished.
  4. Order more bees. (Assuming you’ve had the critical self-talk and should get back on the horse, versus realizing beekeeping was fun and interesting but doesn’t fit your life right now.) You probably have a month or two to do this, but you will want to place your order before mid-March because there isn’t an endless supply.

I don’t mean to sound old and resigned, because I’m just … resigned.  I know I will have losses and it will claw at my heart. I hope the losses will stump me (temporarily) instead of being something I could’ve prevented, but hope I figure out why they occurred as well. We need bees. We all must figure out how to keep them alive so the world can continue to enjoy blueberry pancakes and applesauce, and the indescribable joy of watching them carry in pollen come spring.

I miss you little winged darlings. Please let me know how I can help.



Winter Prep

The most important thing you can do to prepare for winter is to ensure your colonies are healthy. Hopefully you’ve been monitoring religiously for mites, treating if need bee, and have the counts under control. For any colonies that don’t make it through the winter, in the vast majority of cases, the cause will be an infestation of Varroa mites. They shorten the lifespan of the bees, compromising their foraging, their care of the next generation of bees, and their health. I live to make Varroa die, but will rein myself in and discuss winter prep now!

The weather extremes of this mid-October have been hard on bees. The warm days have allowed them to be very active, but there’s not much out there to forage. So as they fly around looking, they’re consuming their winter stores as fuel, and not putting much back into their cupboards.

Because it’s felt more like summer, we’re behind on winter prep. We went thru most of our colonies last weekend, and were dismayed how light many of them are—and these are the same colonies that a month ago had the 100+ pounds of honey that experts recommend they have.

And the top cover goes atop all of this, and they can eat come rain or shine.
And the top cover goes atop all of this, and they can eat come rain or shine without having to defend their food.

Continue reading Winter Prep

Robbing and Other Fall Fun :(

A fellow beekeeper recently summarized it well: “It’s a bee-itch to love a bug.” So so so true, especially this time of year.

Mite counts are soaring–are you testing, and treating if need bee? A count can go out of control real quickly in a strong colony, because it may be robbing from weaker colonies (who have counts way out of control.) And there’s plenty of robbing going on, with the thieves not only wasps and hornets, but also friendly turned frenzied honeybees.

Dismembered bees after a robbing frenzy :(
Dismembered bees after a robbing frenzy 🙁

Why is robbing so pronounced? Nectar and pollen are nearly done. Honeybees (and all other stinging insects that, well, bee) are frantic to stock their cupboards or enjoy a last supper before fall frost zaps them. Talking with beekeepers, colonies are being robbed with frenzy, determination and massive fatalities. Continue reading Robbing and Other Fall Fun 🙁


This is bearding, and it is quite common this time of year.

As I recently explained in a recent Facebook post (you can find me on FB under ‘Charlotte Hubbard, Beekeeper and …’), bees do it because they’re at peak population. When the foraging bees return from the fields late afternoon, they just hang out on the “front porch” so the house bees can try and keep things cool inside and dry down nectar into the honey we all love. The foragers will hang out there all night, and often in the morning I’ll find little beer cans, chip bags, and a list of places to pollinate the next day.

Some of these bees are piled 3-4 deep in rows. Scientists suspect that’s so they can channel airflow thru the hive to help dry down nectar. Way to go bees!

That particular FB post has been viewed / shared over 3000 times, a new record for me. I guess I’m not the only one who finds it super-cool, even though temperature-wise, it is not. 🙂

bearding-a-fav-2016-08-11 20.12.51 copy

This is "bearding" -- one of my most favorite things about bees this time of year Bees do it because they're at peak population. When the foragers return from the fields late afternoon, they just hang out on the "front porch" so the house bees can try and keep things cool inside and dry down nectar into the honey we all love. The foragers will hang out there all night, and often in the morning I'll find little beer cans, chip bags, and a list of places to pollinate the next day. :)

What You Mite Want To Do (if you want to keep your bees alive)


This time of year is one of the most enjoyable times of beekeeping. Colonies are hopefully strong and productive. If you’re a newbee, you’ve figured out drone versus worker brood, what capped honey looks like, and how to keep the smoker going more than five minutes (salute!) You love your bees; they’re loving you back. You can just coast into fall, right?


Dr. Marla Spivak, recipient of a Genius Grant for her work with honeybees (among other impressive credentials) summarizes it well: “Left untreated, varroa mites kill most bee colonies within one to two years.”

All colonies have varroa mites; some (very few) have the genetic traits to keep them under control. Unless you are monitoring your bees to determine their level of infestation … and treating if it exceeds threshold, the little winged darlings are going to die a painful death. Lots of people have bees … but really keeping bees requires active and appropriate management, including knowing your mite level, and keeping it under control.

Beyond being able to call yourself a true beekeeper (instead of being a bee-haver), you probably got bees because you wanted to help them and the planet. You’ve put a lot of time, money and sweat into your bees and are emotionally invested in them. Don’t let them down now.

So let’s try and keep them from dying. Here’s what you do:

  1. Now – August — test your infestation level with a powdered sugar roll. It’s simple, takes about five minutes, and it is almost sort of fun (for you, not necessarily the bees, but it isn’t destructive to them.) Click here to watch a Monitoring Demo. Detailed instructions are found in this excellent guide HBHC Guide_Varroa_Interactive_23Sep, page 7.
  2. As described in the guide, determine the level, and see if it is OK for August (what’s acceptable varies by time of year; colonies in SW Michigan are generally at population peak in early August.) Page 8 of the guide tells you what is acceptable when.
  3. React to the number of mites appropriately:
  • If the test revealed more than 15 mites, you’ve got “dead hive walking” unless you do something immediately. Review the guide to determine the best option for you … and treat. And then check again after the prescribed amount of time to ensure treating did what it was supposed to do.
  • More than 6? You’ve got a week or so before you need to test again to see if your beloved insects are definitely in danger or not. Schedule to test again in a week or so.
  • Less than 6? Awesome. Kick back until September, when you’ll test again.

“Denial is not a strategy”

When you were first learning about beekeeping, you might have missed the part about varroa monitoring and having a strategy for how you’re going to deal with this devastating parasite that all colonies have. The beekeeping learning curve is broad and steep, and includes understanding the very real varroa threat and strategizing what you’re going to do about them.

If you’ve read this far, you can’t claim ignorance any longer. As Dr. Meghan Milbrath said, “denial is not a strategy.” ALL colonies have mites; the issue is whether your bees can keep them under control or not, and unfortunately – most cannot as we go into fall. There’s an excellent blog here that explains why.

Assuming your bees are fine also doesn’t help the planet (one of the reasons you wanted bees, right?) Uncontrolled varroa in your hive not only dooms them, but as your colony declines from the undeniable, life-shortening impact of varroa, it can no longer defend itself. Strong colonies in the area, with varroa under control, will raid its stores. Mites are smart. They’ll hop on the back of the raiding bees and leave the sinking ship for more the healthy bee colonies of responsible beekeepers and wild colonies, starting them on a parallel march toward death.

But but but …

I know you wanted to keep bees chemical free. Most of us do … but first you have to keep them alive. And, “left untreated, varroa mites kill most bee colonies …”

Just do it

Monitor. Treat if need bee, and then monitor again to make sure it worked.

And then monitor again in September, and maybe even October depending upon your counts.

Read about, and practice, how to help your bees naturally fight Varroa (splits, drone trapping, requeening, etc.)

We desperately need bees …. And beekeepers.


Booming Bees?

There is SO much happening in hives this time of year. Colonies are expanding, and the weather has allowed for massive nectar (soon to be honey?) collection. We’ve been busy mentoring newbees, and taking calls and answering texts about similar issues.

Hopefully your colony is booming. Here are some amazing statistics to consider. According to Dr. Larry Connor, who spoke at to Kalamazoo Bee Club last week, a full deep frame of bees yields 5,000 – 6,000 bees. A vibrant queen in a thriving hive will lay a frame every 2-3 days. The package you installed contained only about 10,000–so as that queen reaches her peak laying, the hive’s growth is exponential (and awesome!) t is a fun time of year with colonies expanding so rapidly. It means swarms, lots of nectar gathering, queen cells, and splits to be made to increase the number of hives.

Love this queen! A bee-to-be in practically every cell, very few are missed. Where there isn't the brown flat cap of worker brood, there's typically a larva, or honey, or pollen.
Love this queen! A bee-to-be in practically every cell. Where there isn’t the brown flat cap of worker brood, there’s typically a larva, or honey, or pollen.

Continue reading Booming Bees?

New Colony Hints

Lots of people started keeping bees in SW Michigan in the last few weeks. Here answers to a few FAQs / things to do for this time of year in this geographic region:

  • Keep feeding! Many days last week and this week are too cold / wet for them to fly. They won’t build up if they don’t have resources for fuel. Keep those feeders filled up, and a pollen patty available inside the hive. And yes, doggone it–we’ve had a few days where it is even too cold for them to break away to the feeder.
  • Don’t park your car near where they can sting it. 🙂

    stung truck2016-05-08 14.19.45
    A bee was clearly irritated with Marshall, and finally landed on his truck and stung it! (White spot on window gasket.) First time we’ve ever seen that happen.
  • Slider boards: I recommend keeping them in as the weather is so variable. Until new colonies build up (usually a couple of brood cycle (about 21 days / cycle), it is hard work keeping the interior warm at night. Of course, if Mother Nature dumps 90 degrees and high humidity on us in May, pull those slider boards out a bit.
  • Yes, it is too early to start planning who gets honey for Christmas. Most first year colonies will not manufacture enough honey for you this season. They’re expending too much energy building a home from scratch.
  • Yes, it is time to start thinking about Varroa mites—unless you want to kiss your investment good-by. Google HBHC Varroa guide for a free PDF on how to test and treat.
  • You probably don’t need to change the entrance size on the entrance reducer until a month (at the earliest) after you installed a package. Let’s do the bee math: 21 days until worker bees hatch, and the queen won’t start laying until likely a week after the package was installed. Thus, for the first month—no bees are born, and bees are naturally dying of old age. You will have fewer and fewer bees in the colony for about four weeks. A reduced entrance helps them defend the entrance and regulate the temperature. If you’re only two weeks past install and you suddenly see tons of activity at the entrance, probably not your bees. Perhaps your colony is being raided. Nucs are a different story—it largely depends on how much brood was underway when you installed it.
  • Speaking of kissing your investment good-bye, yes, your colony might swarm on you even though you just brought them home. (Unfortunately two people have called with this issue, so sorry. It happens.
    Yes, first year colonies do swarm, here's proof. They poured out of that hive like a brown river, unstoppable.
    Yes, first year colonies do swarm, here’s proof. They poured out of that hive like a brown river, unstoppable.

    New foundation, no stores, no sunshine – given the option bees may decide to look for some place more appealing. In both cases (this year), the queen was prematurely released. Usually a new package won’t swarm because the queen is caged for 3-7 days, and by the time she’s out, her workforce has invested in making the place home. Make their new home as appealing as possible—drawn foundation from an experienced beekeeper, food at the ready, free WIFI, etc.

  • Varroa mites—they’re not your friends. Read up now and figure out how you’re going to monitor and manage them. If you installed a nuc, it is time to start checking for them. If you installed a package, you should begin checking to get in the practice for your monthly starting-in-June checks. Either way, remember:
  • –> ALL colonies have mites, the key is whether they have too many at this point or not to survive with them (see the above guide for the thresholds) and
  • –> At this season in SW Michigan, most mites are under the cappings of developing brood, and thus—you can’t see them, or rely on seeing them on the slider board. The experts recommend the testing methods in the above publication for sound reasons.
  • Remember, there are few black and white answers in beekeeping. I’ve gotten some “when do we put on the next box” questions, and that is a function of lots of things. Among the variables—are there any, a few or several frames of dark colored capped brood? Dark coloration means it is probably within days of hatching. At about 7,000 bees-to-be for a fully covered with capped brood deep frame, a colony’s population changes fairly quickly. Weather / forage are also big factors, as is time of year. Generally speaking though, add the next box (Langstroth equipment) when bees are covering about 70% of the frames and most frames are well-drawn into comb, or well underway. And please don’t get frustrated with season beekeepers because we answer every question with “it depends…” Bee-cause, it all depends–and that’s part of the mental fun of beekeeping.
  • Did I mention that Varroa mites suck (really, that’s what they do) and that you want to understand how to manage this deadly threat to your bee-loved bees?
  • Early season key checks include assuring that the queen is laying one egg per cell. Multiple eggs / cell means laying workers and sure death of the colony. Also watch for a good laying pattern (predominantly worker brood, few spaces, an ever-increasing amount.)

We’re standing by (honestly, more likely we’re in a hive) to help you figure out what’s going on with your bees. Don’t hesitate to contact us if we can help, because we all need to help bees.