Spring is here! No wait, it isn’t, where are my gloves? Never mind, look at those blossoms—spring is here. Um, is that tulip actually shivering? Spring, gone again…
Spring has somewhat sprung; BEE SEASON definitely has. SW Michigan has received a couple major package distributions already, and plenty of nucs have arrived. Those dear bees that came out of Georgia seem a bit bee-wildered.
We’re getting swarmed (pun intended) with calls from new and first year beekeepers wondering about spring bee activities. Here are some of the FAQs, and my responses. As always, these are my answers. Others will have different opinions, experience and insights.
How do I clean up a dead-out?
Here’s what I tend to do after a dead colony’s postmortem:
Frames are removed and evaluated:
If the frames are gross with bee poop, I toss the entire thing. Frames are relatively cheap and I don’t want to risk passing on disease and disgust to the new bees.
If the frames are so dark such that I can’t see sunlight thru them, I punch out the wax. (This of course assumes all wax foundation.) I leave anywhere from a trace amount to an inch around the frame’s interior for bees to use as a guide in drawing new comb. Hopefully they’ll get started in the right direction with that.
These occasional warm days have probably revealed, for far too many newbees and plenty of us oldbees, that some colonies did not survive the winter. Whether you’ve just killed your first hive or your 41st, it still stings. The beekeeping learning curve is long and steep, and losing colonies is part of beekeeping, but argh! I love my bees and any loss still really hurts. Having been responsible for and then failing this bee-loved insect is a punch to the stomach.
My apologies. Yes, it has been too long since I posted a blog.
My excuses? Been working our own hives, a couple dozen others with beekeepers, or for beekeepers (they can’t help it if they ended up in the hospital), AND – posting more on Facebook. FB makes it easier to pop up insights or info. If you aren’t following me there, please check out “Charlotte Hubbard, Beekeeper and …”
Shockingly, it looks like the weather may still allow us to get into the hives here in early November. Wow. But whould you?
Yes—IF weather allows and IF you have a reason. Otherwise, why disturb them?
What’s acceptable weather? Let the bees tell you. If they’re flying—not just one or two but several—you may efficiently go through your hive without too much risk. But a weather general rule of thumb is: above 50, sunny, and light or no wind.
So if this is the last time you get in before next spring, are there things you should be doing? Here are my recommendations. Remember, other beekeepers have other opinions.
And if you don’t have reason to get in the hive, you can still help your favorite insect by providing 2:1 sugar syrup in an open feed situation. Remember though, it can set off raiding. Make sure you do it FAR from your colonies (like 100 feet), and restrict access to it doesn’t become a mad house. I’ve had some suggestions on my FB page in the last month on ways to do that.
Anyway, here’s our to-do list …
Inside the Hive
Make sure you’re queenright–well, sort of. I always say make sure you’re queenright each and every time you’re in the hive, by finding evidence of the queen. (One egg per cell, and / or worker brood in various stages, or queenie herself when the laying season is over.)
But, you likely can’t do that in early November. Your queen may have already stopped laying for the season–you may not find any eggs or stages of brood. And, it is risky to go through the entire hive searching for the queen (if you accidentally smash her, they can’t recover this time of year.)
Thus, you may want to peek in the brood nest to verify there are no obvious signs that you’re “queen wrong.” We’ve had a couple hives go queenless in the last month. We knew this because of a sign: copious amounts of capped drone brood (and no worker brood) and multiple eggs / cell, along with lots of failed queen cells.
A hive without a queen could make it through the winter, but they can’t raise a new queen (no fertilized egg from which to do so) and cannot build up … and will die between now and next spring with no new worker bees coming online. If you have no queen, contact me and we can discuss options.
Assess their stores. The guidelines for SW Michigan hives is 100-150 pounds of honey to make it through the winter. A full deep frame of honey weighs about 9 pounds; a full shallow about four. Hopefully you made this assessment over a month ago and have been feeding if you’re light. (Feed 2:1 sugar syrup.)
How long do you feed? As long as they’ll take it. However, at some point it’ll get too cold for them to move out of their cluster to travel to a feeder—even an internal feeder.
Reduce the main entrance. To discourage raiding, to hold in heat, to deter critters from entering.
Add critter guards. These are available commercially, or you can make your own easily with carpet tack stripes or hardware cloth. You need to do this before the mice get inside for the winter. Bees won’t chase out the rodents because our little darlings are clustered for warmth, and the rodents will feast on their unguarded pantry. An entrance reducer is NOT mouse-proof—they’ll chew into it to gain access. Or, if you put it on when mice are already in the hive (been there, done that!) they’ll chew their way out.
Consolidate stores over the brood chamber. I told that to a new bee, and he was six shades of confused. Let’s break it down …
Bees are “chimney eaters.” They typically hang out in a lower box, and consume the honey around them. Heat rises, so as they hang out in cluster, the heat they generate softens the honey above them and around them. As the season progresses, they’ll eat that honey and move up, and so on.
We find (repeatedly) that bees often don’t get to frames 1 and 10 in a 10-frame box. The cluster, come winter, isn’t broad enough to soften that honey … or it is so cold that the cluster is tight and doesn’t stretch that far. Thus, if we have two 10-frame boxes with only 16-17 frames of honey, pollen, etc. (the rest of the frames are empty) we center the filled frames over the brood nest (the place where most of the bees are hanging out, typically the middle.) The empty or minimally filled frames are moved to the edges (be it in 10- or 8-frame equipment.)
We have two deeps and at least one shallow on each colony this time of year, and that final top box may only have 5 frames with honey, but hey—it is right above where they’ll probably eat up to come March if they need it. And then, there’s a sugar ceiling (see below) atop that if need … bee.
Remove the queen excluder: You don’t want to keep her from travelling up into boxes as stores are consumed.
Remove extra boxes: If they didn’t draw / fill that top box, they aren’t going to now. They don’t need an attic of empty frames.
Add a sugar ceiling. Hopefully you have 100-150 pounds of honey, but regardless—a sugar ceiling is a fairly cheap insurance should they run out of stores before things are available again. We like the Mountain Camp Method. (Detailed under ‘Publications’ on this site, or google it.) Easy, and about now is the time to do it. Once you do it though, you can’t easily get back into the frames, so it needs to be one of the final things you do as you button up for the season.
And, the sugar piles need a bit of space, so you’ll need a hive body (without frames) to accommodate it. (See below.)
Allow for ventilation: The reason behind this is that bees shiver to generate heat in the winter, which creates moisture. That moisture rises, hits the cold top, condenses, and drips back down upon them. Bees have a harder time surviving being wet and cold rather than just cold. There are a variety of things we do to address this.
First, we have 5/8” upper entrances in 2-3 boxes of each colony to allow for ventilation, and so bees may come out on an unusually balmy winter day to defecate, when their lower entrance might otherwise be covered by snow. These holes are usually on the southern or eastern side of the boxes. We go a bit bigger than other recommendations because we’ve seen bees die in that hole and block it.
Second, when we skirt three sides of the hive (see below), we remove the slider boards and run until spring with screened bottom boards unblocked.
Third, we have a special absorption box—described below.
Allow for absorption: We Mountain Camp every hive, so the newspaper and sugar involved with this will absorb some of that moisture the bees create as they generate heat.
Because the Mountain Camp Method requires an inch or so of space, we’ve modified a hive body such that window screen is mounted inside it, about two inches from the bottom. This allows us to put a couple inches of cedar shavings in the top half of the box. The chips absorb any moisture that rises that far, keeping it from hitting the top cover, condensing and falling back on the bees.
This modified hive body accommodates the sugar of the Mountain Camp in the bottom half, while securing the important absorption layer on the top half.
Because my husband (God bless him!) has these skills, he also cuts a half inch off the top lengthwise sides of that special box – so air can flow across the top of the box a bit and keep the chips dry. The top cover shelters that minor gap. Alternatively, you could drill some holes above that screen so air can flow across the chips.
Outside the Hive
Skirting: When we think winter is truly, generally here, we will pull the slider boards, and skirt three sides of each colony with house wrap paper and a staple gun that never, ever works right. This keeps prevailing winds from gusting up under the hive. If the colony was light on stores, we may extend that wrap up higher to help them to stay warm.
Add wind blocks: Lawn chairs, junk cars, straw bales—anything to break the wind—that your neighbors will tolerate! J
Check out the surrounding limbs: Any dead limbs that could break off and knock over the hive? Take them out.
Styrofoam insulation: We have a handful of nucs we’re taking into winter. We’re going to bungee-cord ½” sheets of Styrofoam around those, for extra warmth. If you have a weak hive, you may want to do something similar to help them stay warm.
Here are some things to consider for your apiary this time of year, if you live in a climate similar to SW Michigan …
Watch out for the Small Hive Beetles: Argh. We’ve got way more than we’d like to find in a half dozen of our hives. In one hive, that’s understandable; they’re definitely weak. We reduced their space by about 50%, allowing the bees to focus on chasing down these dang beetles. The other hive seems very strong. It yielded eight spectacular frames of honey, so I’m confused why they’re not keeping them under control, and there are lots of bees on all frames, so I’m uncomfortable removing a hive body.
The question I’m hearing most frequently these days is “how is my hive doing?” It is challenging for a newbee to know if progress is appropriate, in the dance of two billion factors that influence colony success.
Marshall and I decided to work about 20 hives this year. When we have more than that, having bees is a lot like having a job. OK, so right now we’ve got 30 … but—that’s what happens when you have Bee Disease! Like chocolate and money, you can never have too many bees. Bee Disease, while expensive, is rarely fatal. J
We’re also actively involved in about 50 colonies, what with all the hives we visit as mentors. These hives were started in April all the way through late May; some were started as nucs, others as packages. There is incredible disparity in the progress of them all—even in hives started at the same time, and in the same apiary. For example, look at the boxes in one of our apiaries. All are first year packages or nucs except the really tall one (a ’14 August swarm survivor.) We still have one struggling (front left), two that are working on what they’ll need to survive the winter, and “Dad’s hive”, center – is doing great. (And so are the weeds.)
Here’s some things to think about for your apiary about this time of year–for colonies in climates similar to ours … in my opinion of course. Beekeeping practices vary.
1) Wish a Happy Father’s Day to any friendly drones you see. Hopefully those will be the ones “lucky” enough to become fathers by mating and sharing their happy genetics. I say “lucky” because the mating act does kill them … which I think beats dying in the fall when their sisters kick them out in the cold, but what do I know. While I tend to drone, I’m not a drone. Continue reading Happy Father’s Day Bees! (and Fathers!)→
I hesitated a few seconds before I added “and Answers” to the title of this blog. Beekeeping is often more art than science. What I prescribe may be different from other beekeepers’ answer.
The lack of black-and-white answers is a maddening thing (and one of the many maddening things) about beekeeping. It is inherent in beekeeping as there are so many variables behind a colony’s progress.
Sorting through those variables is half the fun. The other half of the fun is when you make a fairly educated guess, and it works. (I think that’s happened to me once or twice now in 8 seasons. )
Here are some recent questions (and my answers):
Q. How often can I get in the hive? And how often should I get in?
A. Every time you open the hive you disturb them, so that causes a setback of some sort. Estimates range from a few hours to a few days. So, don’t go in the hive without a purpose. For newbees, that purpose can be as simple as “you want to see what’s going on so you can learn how to best manage bees.”
That being said, unless there is a problem (like no evidence of a queen (EoQ)) or an issue (having to pull drone comb used in IPM for example), I think once a week is sufficient, and once every 10 days to two weeks better IF you know that the colony is queenright.
What would you be looking for?
Abnormal things (mold, a mouse nest, etc.)
As always, EoQ
If they have too much room, or not enough
Remember, pull a frame from the outer portions first, and work frame-by-frame toward the brood nest (where most of the bees are hanging out, typically in the center.) And never pull a frame faster than a bee can walk; you don’t want to roll the queen.
Daily is too much, btw. Had a newbee doing that, and I understand why—bees are just so interesting! However, that’s quite disruptive to them.
Q: Do I keep feeding?
A: If they’re still taking it, I would. But, recent rains have renewed things. If they are building up nicely (lots of worker bees and lots of capped worker brood), they hopefully have a workforce and stores to weather any rainy spells.
Q. When do I enlarge the entrance?
A. Again, a function of how many bees. If you got your package a month ago, the population is about as small as it should ever be. It probably took the queen a week to begin laying after installed, and it takes 21 days for a worker bee to emerge … so their build-up is just beginning. (If this is your situation, it’ll probably be a few weeks to a month yet, depending upon weather.)
Traffic jams at the entrance in the late afternoon are common. If you see that consistently throughout the day, and / or after a couple cycles of brood have hatched, open ‘er up! It has been unusually cool, especially at night. Why not give them all the help you can in keeping them warm? (Bees need temps in the mid-90s to produce wax, and the queen needs honeycomb built.)
Q. Is that honey they’re making already?
A. Probably. It usually appears as dark, clear liquid that stays in the cells fairly well. After the moisture level is appropriate, they’ll put a wax cap over it and it will be preserved … for like thousands of years!
As we’ve had nice rains, bees are making lots of honey. You may only have brood on a few frames of (say) 10-frame equipment, and the rest could be predominantly honey. You may have to add a second box because they’ve filled practically everywhere that the queen could lay, a condition called “honeybound.” If they remain honeybound, not only is colony progress slowed, but they may think about swarming.
Q. Do I go through every frame when I do an inspection?
A. No need. Typically once I find EofQ and verify they have room to work and not too much room (when the population starts to decline), I’m outta there.
Q. I’ve got queen peanuts. Problem?
A. First, let’s define those. They look so much like one lobe of a peanut shell (to me anyway) that they’re aptly named.
There are various opinions regard queen peanuts, but most of what I’ve learned suggests they’re just practicing making queen cells—they’re not really making potential queens.
However, once a queen cell is capped, that either means they’re replacing their new queen, or thinking of swarming. Generally you can tell which by the placement of the queen cell. (Google to learn more about that—although remember, bees don’t google so they may not always act as we think they will.)
I handle suspected swarming cells different than supercedure (replacement) cells.
Supercedure cells I frankly just salute—they know far more than I do about when to replace a queen. I make sure to not disturb those cells, and check to ensure the colony is queenright after the new queen emerges (16 days from egg to queen, so about 20 plus days to see if she emerged, got mated, and is laying appropriately.)
New colonies—especially packages—may replace their relatively new queens early in the season. Perhaps they’ve sensed she’s not laying appropriately, or they think she isn’t because there isn’t the right range of the various ages amongst the current bees. One theory is that happens often with packages because about three pounds of bees are shaken into it, and they might not be the age distribution of bees you’d find in a colony. They blame her, and proceed to replace her … even though it isn’t her fault!
Q. What did you tell Dan to do about those queen cells?
A. Leave ‘em “bee”. He said the hive was queenright. They are a new colony, just starting to build up. (If they were more established I might move half of the eight he found to a nuc and try to start another colony.) They’ll nurture the most viable and hopefully raise the new queen that their instinct tells them they need.
Q. You didn’t cover my question. What do I do?
A. As always, feel free to email or text me or go to my FB page (Charlotte Hubbard, Beekeeper & …). We’ve been handling swarm calls and colony inspections and other fun things so I may not get back to you super quickly, but I will get back to you!
In the bee-ginner classes I taught this year, I said I’d be posting periodic updates of my packages’ and nucs’ progress, so you could compare and ponder whether yours were ahead or behind or what.
Typically packages arrive within a few weeks of each other, and typically nucs arrive about a month later. Not this year. Some of you installed packages and nucs three weeks ago. Some of us aren’t getting our packages until mid-May, due to inclement weather in the south. It won’t be useful to say “here’s what likely is going on” – because a five-week difference in a new colony is substantial.
A year ago I posted about-weekly updates on what to look for when, and things to do. You could reference those blogs for some details. While I’ll strive to do something similar, I don’t have a package installed yet to report on, so I’ll be writing in generalities. Continue reading Honey Bear in Mind: Most Critical Check→
I’m lying. To me, bees are anything but taxing. But, having written a couple big checks this tax season, I’m trying to find some humor in the situation with a play on words.
Speaking of playing, we played with bees this weekend, when we helped some new beekeepers install their nucs. As their mentor, I thought I was quite clear about when they should get back into the hives. Bees communicate with scent, so you don’t want to dilute that too much with too frequent openings.
The guidance I provided was that they check the internal feeders (in these two cases) within 2-3 days at the earliest (and keep them filled), and check for eggs to ensure the queen is laying about 5 days after install.
I had to laugh when both groups of newbees called me 24 hours after install to tell me what they’d found. Yep, they were in the hives, checking it all out—the very next day. Yep, you could say they’re very excited about bee-coming beekeepers!
I am very excited for them, and very excited to be starting my eighth year. I sat near a survivor hive recently for nearly an hour—mesmerized by their bringing in pollen and their ignoring of me. I write for a living, yet words fail me when it comes to describing how magical this insect is, and how smitten with their fuzzy busyness I am…not to mention how appreciative I am of the species responsible for blueberry muffins and apple cider.
We are getting package bees on 4/29, and I’ll be sharing progress, reminders and milestones so others can gain some perspective. If you already have packages installed, my insights can be found in older entries of this blog from about a year ago. I did frequent posts last spring for what you should look for and what you should do.
For those of you with nucs installed – please keep providing them feed. Ours aren’t taking it; they seem to prefer the natural stuff spring is bringing forth. But, we could get some rainy days, so the option of 1:1 sugar syrup I feel is always a good idea.
Another thing I suggest you do at this time is check within a week of install to ensure the queen is laying properly—one egg / cell.
Multiple eggs per cell likely means you have a laying worker – a problem.
No eggs means either you can’t find them (a real possibility for newbees and we older folks!), or that the queen isn’t there, isn’t properly fertilized, or is possibly recovering from travel. If you can’t find eggs, check again a few days later for larva (easier to see—the small white worms curled in the bottom of a cell.) If you don’t find those within 10 days of install, you likely have a queen problem.
As always, the above are just my thoughts and opinions. Good luck with your bees, and your taxes. I’m available by email or cell for questions if I can help with the former. I offer no insights on dealing with the latter!