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.
I’ve been keeping bees since 2008, and this is the first time I’ve been able to wish them a Merry Christmas in person.
On one hand—that’s a good thing. Until I aggressively treated Varroa (this was the first year that I would classify my treatments as aggressive), I experienced the typical late fall die-offs that Varroa cause. Didn’t have any die-offs this fall, so I actually had LOTS of bees to greet, and lots of opportunities to greet them as they zipped about seeking food. Want to attract their attention? Wear flower colors when they’re out flying in the winter, you’ll have dozens of friends uncomfortably crawling all over your shirt.
On the other hand, seeing bees actively checking out any and everything in December is likely not a good thing. That activity burns lots fuel, which they’re replenishing by eating their winter stores. In a typical Michigan winter, they’re tightly assembled and not burning much fuel. They cluster for warmth in practically a comatose state, shivering efficiently to keep the queen warm.
Bottom line: they’ve consumed more than normal the last three “balmy” months, and I hope they don’t run out of stores before the earth’s grocery stores re-open.
What can we do about it? As always, read and research to gain understanding about the issues, and figure out what you want to do about it. Here’s what I’m doing about it, and some thoughts.
Worrying lots, although that probably isn’t helping anyone.
Feeding 2:1 sugar syrup in an open-feed situation on days they’re out flying. By “flying” – I mean not just a half dozen bees leaving the hive for brief cleansing flights. Look for foraging behavior, and a dozen or more actively flying. If the temperature is sinking or about an hour before sunset, you may want to put the feed away. I’ve found if I leave it out, there’s always a handful of foragers who didn’t leave in time and perished from cold at the feeder.
Peeking at their emergency food ceiling to ensure something is still there. If it is 20-40 degrees, you can crack the top and assess in 2-4 seconds if they’ve devoured most of it, or what they still have. (You have a candy board at the top, or used the Mountain Camp Method, right?) If the emergency feed method is greatly diminished, add some sort of supplemental feed—being very efficient if weather demands. Note: we did this a lot last week, and in some cases found hundreds of bees chowing on their Mountain Camp. We surmise it was because it was warm enough for them to be roaming about the hive (40-65 degrees outside, but raining), and they decided to dash upward for food. That may be wishful thinking. Some of our hives seemed alarmingly light, so the Mountain Camp may be the extent of their larder at this point. (If “Mountain Camp” is an unfamiliar term, check out my hand-out on it in the Publications section of this site.)
Providing honey. Best thing for bees to eat? We’d saved some honey frames, and we took advantage of last week’s warm weather to add those to the top of a few colonies that seemed light. Remember, bees are “chimney eaters” – they generally cluster in the bottom boxes and consume the honey about and around them as it is softened by the heat of the cluster.
We also put out small amounts of honey where we open-fed, although the bees seemed to prefer the 2:1 sugar syrup.
Providing pollen substitute on days when they’re out flying—and this is not without some angst. You see, pollen stimulates brood rearing, and a problem with rearing brood in January is that there may not be enough bees to keep the bees-to-be warm while they’re developing … so we don’t want the queen to prematurely start laying. However, my bees (yep, pretty sure they were mine) were attacking my neighbor’s bird feeder (containing cracked corn), and carrying off what appeared to be pollen, so I’m assuming they want some. If winter shows up as expected this week, I probably won’t have to worry any longer as they won’t be flying anyway.
Checking out other things because I was there. During one Mountain Camp peek, I found mold growing—indicating the hive was not sufficiently vented. (Drilled a few more half inch holes in the upper hive bodies.) I scraped dead bees out the doorway of a few others, because it’d been too cold for them to carry out the bees dying from (hopefully just) natural attrition. I looked about for limbs that may be ready to fall or other things amiss, and my just looking about was rewarded by—ALLELUIA—finding a hive tool I misplaced last summer.
Winter as we tend to think of it (freezing temperatures) is allegedly seeping into our area soon. I’m not looking forward to shoveling the drive, slipping on ice, and hearing the furnace run. However, I will be relieved when the temperatures are more conducive to our bees efficiently using their waning stores, so I can return to my normal worrying about them, things like – are they missing me as much as I’m missing them?
Happy New Year everyone, and please use this bee off-season to read, ponder and plan for Spring. It’ll be here before we know it, right?
For most beekeepers, what to get us as a gift is easy—bees. Like chocolate and money, you can probably never have too many. But, if your budget or backyard don’t allow you to get more bees for your favorite beekeeper, here are a few other gift suggestions.
One of the two things that I ALWAYS have when working bees (beyond Hubby and my protective suit) is the Kent Williams hive tool–the reddish, well-worn one pictured. No other j-hook hive tools that I’ve found compare (sure, the blue one has a hook … but it doesn’t compare.) To me, the key feature is the perpendicular pry bar edge (on the left of its photo.) That allows you to hook a frame with the wonderfully long hook, and then leverage the frame out using the side of the hive body. It also is tapered from the right end well up the shaft; most j-hooks are only tapered a quarter-inch or so. The longer hook is also helpful when wrestling a well-propolized frame. Just google ‘Kent Williams hive tool’ — lots of places carry them. Other than the hive tool not coming to me when I call it (after I have of course misplaced it), it is PERFECT.
Background: I began keeping bees with a death threat hanging over my head. My husband Tom had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, and needed me to care for his two bee-loved colonies while he aggressively fought the disease.
Wanting to support him however I could, I bee-grudgingly took care of his doggone stinging insects, and in the process, fell head-over-hive tool in love with them.
When Tom passed about a year later, the bees helped me grieve by giving me frequent challenges and the occasional sweet reward of honey, and motivating me to focus on the future and plan for next season. I will forever be grateful for the assistance from these angels with real wings.
In this season of Thanksgiving, I’m reflecting on other bee-related things in my life for which I’m immensely grateful. They include:
BEES: as without these vital pollinators, our dinner table would lack pumpkin pie, cranberries, applesauce and blueberry muffins. They’re also helpful for pollinating Brussel sprouts, but frankly—I think we can do without those.
STINGS: I marvel at inter-species communication—like when my dog climbs next to me and places her paw on my leg; or when the bees buzz loudly about me, but then settle down and check me out with amused curiosity. It is magical when they perch on my hand and gaze at me (with lots more eyes than I have) while I gaze back with a mere two eyes. I swear they smile. Continue reading Some Things for Which I Bee Thankful→
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!)→