Month: August 2015

Resource Page & Equipment Picks


Whenever you are out of your depth, stumped, puzzled, or frustrated as a beekeeper, consult some resource persons or sites. Bee clubs often offer mentor programs, and monthly educational presentations.

And there is a wealth of information online!

First year care of your new colony, thanks to Randy Oliver.

A wealth of bee education, here!

And here!

Wax your plastic foundation for quick comb-building! Good experiment here.

Detailed, concise Varroa information.

More good Varroa information.

Effects of Varroa on the colony.

and I have deliberately placed after the Varroa information:

How to conduct an informative post mortem on a dead hive.

And… another post on how to do a good post mortem if you have winterkill.

How to set your hive up for winter.

Excellent winter feed technique that can save your bees.

Great blog on making winter candy supplement for your bees.

Using  Krabby Patties for winter feeding.

And….Spring Management technique.

A good method for prepping plastic foundation such that the bees draw it out immediately.

Guide to medications, good info in spite of being advertising!

Great general purpose microscope for those who wish to learn to identify their own parasites and diseases.

Exhaustive planting list for the coastal Pacific Northwest…don’t forget the the heather,  catmint and Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)!

Excellent publication on bee nutrition: Fat Bees Skinny Bees, by Doug Somerville (.pdf download)

Also for the PacNW, the BC Apiculture calendar of the beekeeping year.

The Washington state beekeepers’ forum…great place to get answers to your beekeeping questions.

Small Hive Beetle information.

Beginning Beekeeping Handbook, University of Kentucky

Some E-Book links! Thanks to Susquehanna Valley Beekeepers

“Observant Beekeeping” by BC Bee Supply, Ian Fraser

Crush and Strain Honey Harvesting (all the backyard beek needs!) by Linda Tillman

Queen Rearing Calendar Generator

My fave beekeeping videos, from the University of Guelph.

Another excellent bee video channel

And…another (Devan Rawn).



I have tried them all, but this beekeeping tool remains a firm favourite…why? Because the pry bar end actually works! The long and shallow angle is invaluable in gentle, easy prying up of sticky frames, and that means your bees are calmer.

hive tool good pry end
Can be obtained (of course) from Amazon :

My favourite feeder, the Rapid Feeder, it is the bomb!!! Linda Tilman’s blog on this feeder, here.


My favourite outer cover, the Ultimate Hive Cover.


A nice queen catcher, the One-Handed Queen Catcher, well made and easy to use! photo below

one handed qc

(although I confess I still prefer the old bottle-and-sponge queen catchers, below)

queen catcher

My very favourite bottom board, the durable and brilliant Country Rubes Screened Bottom Board, note it can be adapted to 8 frame boxes: they also have a kickass robbing screen and a small hive beetle refit available.

country rubes bottom board


Observation hive! By Greg S. Long of Corvallis, Oregon. Beautiful woodwork.

And…get a nice tote for all your hiveside beekeeping stuff (especially your Epipen and charged cell phone):

tool tote 1













Exam Notes 7: A Healthy Bee Colony

Clean, thick with bees!
Clean, thick with bees!

In your lives as beekeepers, you will often hear and be asked “why are the bees in trouble?”

There are so many answers to that simple question.

You will be pulled this way and that in your thinking. The treatment free advocates are convinced that if we just raise our bees organically, there will be no bar to colony health. The hive design advocates feel top bar hives and Warré, in which bees are free to draw their own comb as they see fit, will protect bees from diseases and pests via increased natural vigour. Many advocate teas, essential oils, drenches and commercial “natural” preps of all sorts.

As we have discussed often, the bees are in trouble because of the Three Horsemen. Of the Bee Apocalypse.

Varroa destructor mites.

Degraded/reduced forage.

Pesticides and field sprays.

But in our highly disrupted landscape, in the face of worldwide spread of Varroa, the constant disease and pest spread via mobile, treatment heavy pollination operations (super pests and diseases now arriving at your municipality!!!), unsustainable agricultural practices, global warming, pollution, and fear of stinging insects, we as beekeepers must muddle through. We can only do our best.

We cannot change the world, at least not quickly.

But we can be the best stewards possible to our bees…who in the Pacific Northwest are far, far from their ancestral homeland and need our help to thrive in this rainy, cold, urbanized place we call home.

I have often spoken critically of the commercial pollination operations that are treatment heavy and which medicate prophylactically. I have great sympathy for the economic challenges faced by pollination operations and farmers, but I am also aware of the challenges their practices can pose for bees…we can only face facts and beekeep with that in mind.

You will develop your own strategy/philosophy for healthy, ethical beekeeping. Here is the strategy that so far, is working for me:

  1. bees need good nutrition. Between October and March, there is no food and little opportunity to fly for it, thanks to the winter rains. Bees must be “put to bed” with lots of stores on board, both honey and pollen, to get them through. Because we can’t help the bees while they are tucked up for winter, leave a sugar brick on the top bars in case, for some reason, the cluster cannot move sideways to get at their honey stores. There is no virtue in letting your bees starve to death. In their home range they enjoy warm temperatures and year long forage. That is not the case here, and never will be. If you are breeding bees, by all means select for thrift in use of winter stores as one attribute of a desirable bee. But if you are not breeding bees, or running a big survivor project, feed the bees you have.
  2. bees need to be free from pests, in particular the Varroa destructor mite. All other pests and diseases pale beside the horrific impact of Varroa on honey bees. Unless you are running a survivor bee project, which must be set up well outside the flight range of other colonies (to prevent drift of pests and disease on bees fleeing crashing hives in your survivor beeyard), then I think you have an ethical duty both to the bees and to nearby colonies to control effectively for Varroa in particular, and tracheal mites in general…and small hive beetle in areas where they are an issue. IMHO and experience, effectively means using at least formic and oxalic acid treatments, probably three times a season. I see no point in letting mite populations build to a point where there is obvious stress and impact on the bees before treating. We can’t, alas, yet aspire to eradicating the mites. But we can give the bees the maximum freedom from predation possible.
  3. bees need clean homes, principally clean wax in the brood nest. We are discovering more and more sublethal effects of environmental toxins (pesticides, agrichemicals, urban pollution) on bees. The pollution and chemicals seep into the wax, and the eggs and larvae must develop in the toxic cradle of the contaminated comb. So harvest your comb often, and encourage the bees to draw fresh, clean wax every 2 or 3 years at the outside. It makes for less efficient honey harvests, but we owe it to the bees.
  4. bees need winter protection, which here on the coast means winter emergency feed (that sugar brick!), a quilt box to keep them dry, a rain hat to minimize heat loss, and optional wrapping. I fuss, so I wrap.
  5. bees need good forage. Bees are healthiest when they can choose from a wide range of floral nectars and pollens for a balanced diet. Even in urban settings we can replant roofs, byways, lots, medians, gardens and balconies with season long, healthy bee/pollinator forage plants. Farmers, if they won’t go organic, can at least practice bee friendly spray regimes (no drift, night spraying), and plant strips of bee pasture along the margins of fields to feed bees, pollinators and increase the pollination of the field crop. Municipalities can rework all plantings and unused lands to be bee and pollinator friendly. Every piece of fallow land should be planted over as a bee/pollinator pasture. And we need to go organic as consumers!
  6. bees need an attentive beekeeper to offer aid and assistance when disease and pests strike. There is no virtue in letting your bees die from neglect or a remediable condition. Beekeeper assistance includes making some effort to keep lines of bees that are resistant to local pressures ie. weather, pests and diseases. But in bee-dense (=high drift) areas and areas hosting prophylactically treated pollination hives, and areas awash in a yearly intake of non-local (in our case, New Zealand) genes, it is simply impossible and unrealistic (and, I think, cruel) to demand the bees develop to be “locally adapted”. In addition, we have an ethical duty to other beekeepers in our bees’ flight range to prevent disease and pests from our hives traveling to theirs. So bees need frequent inspection to minimize disease and pest issues…note that robbing screens may prevent drift into your hives of diseased or Varroa-laden bees looking for a new home.

Here endeth the lesson. May you find as much joy and peace in your bees as I have. They are indeed what Dr. Tom Seeley so touchingly calls them:              “sparks of wonderment”

May that wonder always be your companion in the beeyard.


Exam Notes 6: Honey Harvesting and Handling

HoneyJars_20110928When is it time to harvest? Each beekeeper has his personal approach.

The one rule to honey harvesting is: harvest and bottle ONLY cured honey, which by definition is 18% or less water by content.

This can be measured with a refractometer. The rule of thumb in the field is: only process frames of honey that are 90% or more capped over honey. Anything with more open cells can be put back on the hive in the hope the bees will finish filling and capping the cells.

If your honey has a water content over 18%, it can ferment, which ruins the honey. Also note that honey is hygroscopic, if left uncovered it absorbs moisture from the air. In a humid atmosphere, it will rapidly absorb water post harvest, even through the cappings, and be ruined. So process right away or freeze…or make into mead!

Some harvest as the frames are capped out, giving the bees empty comb to fill. Rinse and repeat for a max honey harvest! You can process immediately, or hold your honey frames in a freezer. Honey freezes well and freezing prevents crystallization.

Honey frames can be held until you have enough for a batch process, then rewarmed. Or held until a hive needs a frame of honey…maybe one of your spring hives is light and needs the food, or maybe you are making nucs, which each must have a couple of frames of stores on board.

Some harvest once the honey flow (blackberry in our area) ends. Some harvest between nectar flows, attempting to garner varietal honeys or to at least separate our their honeys into spring honey, summer honey, fall honey. As a rule, there will be very different flavour profiles, appearance and crystallization rates between the different nectar flows!

Locally, our spring honey is usually pale and citrusy with bright herbal notes (likely from maple and hawthorn). The summer honey is golden yellow, rich and buttery (likely from blackberry). The fall honey is darker, with deeper and more sultry herbal and smoky notes (likely from loosestrife and evergreen honeydews).

Once the honey flow is over, the bees may start to draw down the stored honey to eat themselves as the late summer nectar dearth sets in. Some beekeepers keep a hive sensor on at least one hive in the beeyard to track this. Once the bees begin to use their stored honey, the honey is harvested and feeding for winter begins. While it is no doubt better for the bees to eat their own honey, the beekeeper may be depending on honey sales to keep the beeyard funded!

Some beekeepers leave the honey on till the following spring, and only harvest once the spring flow begins. This works well as long as the local honey is not prone to quick crystallization. It is pretty much impossible to process honey crystallized in the comb. Crystallized honey is best fed back to the bees.

Once the honey is processed, either via crush and strain for smaller operations, or via uncapping and extracting in a larger one, you are left with sticky wax cappings. You can add a bit of water to them and feed that back to the bees in your in-hive feeder. You can spread a layer of cappings on top of the inner cover and let the bees clean them up, removing the cleaned wax cappings for melting down into beeswax blocks. You can also spread them on a large pan and let the bees rob the pan in the beeyard. But that risks disease transfer, fighting and robbing.

After straining, bottle your honey in clean, dry jars of your choice and get the lids on right away to prevent moisture absorption and fermentation.

Cut comb honey is produced by using very thin, purpose-made, sheets of wax foundation, which are put on the hive in a strong honey flow. Once drawn out, filled and capped, these frames of honey can easily be cut with a comb honey cutter:


Because honey is a food product, keep the honey line tidy and clean, and keep the processing staff tidy and clean too!

Honey will, inevitably, crystallize (great link!!). That does not mean it is bad. You can gently rewarm the honey in a warming cupboard or warm water bath, taking care not to heat it above 40C/140F. Depending on the floral nectar souce, crystallization can be slow or fast…lightning fast! So when your bees are on sources that crystallize quickly, harvest ASAP.

Commercial honeys are heated and micro-filtered to prevent crystallization on the store shelf. That is part of why commercial honeys have less interesting flavour profiles than local raw honeys (the other reason being much of the commercial crop is blended with/derived from clover and canola, mild honeys by nature). Note that canola is almost always GMO seed. Many consumers are not comfortable with GMO foods.

Honey is awesome stuff. And I feel inordinately proud of the honey my bees produce. I help the girls but they do all the work. It is a delight to give jars away, and most people are eager to get a jar of local, raw honey.

It is seductively delicious!


Exam Notes 5: Winter Prep


Your whole bee year comes down to this: getting the bees through the winter.

It doesn’t matter if you got lots of honey, or caught tons of swarms, or split your hives six ways from Sunday.

To paraphrase Randy Oliver, if you don’t get your bees through winter, you are not keeping bees…you are just buying bees every spring.

And worse, you are now part of the bee problem, not part of the bee solution.

To prepare a bee colony for winter, the following points are critical:

  1. the colony must have a fertile queen
  2. the colony must be a decent size so they can form a warm winter cluster
  3. the colony must have successfully raised a good crop of healthy winter bees
  4. the colony must have good amounts of capped honey and pollen in the hive
  5. the colony must be disease free and as mite free as possible
  6. the colony must be kept dry
  7. the colony must have some ventilation/insulation to prevent condensation forming on a cold inner cover and dripping down onto the cluster
  8. the colony must be out of or protected from wind, which strips warmth out of the cluster
  9. the colony entrance must remain clear of dead bees so live bees can take cleansing flights
  10. the colony must not blow over (strap it down if necessary)
  11. in our rainy climate a 3′ x 3′ board put on top of the outer cover will act as a rain hat, strap or weight it down well against winter winds.

There are various ways of accomplishing these ends. They are, principally:

  1. don’t strip too much honey out of the hives in the late summer…leave them lots, you can always harvest in spring: you can also feed in August/September to bring up winter weight, and leave them emergency rations above the cluster…note that in some areas, fall honeys are poor as overwintering food ie. they granulate quickly in the comb and/or have high levels of solids (which is a problem when you are a bee and have to wait for sunny warm days for bathroom breaks!)
  2. keep the hive slightly crowded so the bees can heat the cluster as efficiently as possible
  3. put on a ventilated quilt box, BELOW the inner cover or insulate heavily above the inner cover
  4. put a mite counting sheet and/or extra bottom insulation in so the screened bottom board is not completely open (consider creating a dead air space below the bottom board)
  5. put a rain hat on the hive, or make sure if you are in snow that the bees have a clear entrance
  6. make sure you have done your late summer mite control

Generally, you want to concentrate on hive health and queen-rightness in late summer, to enable top quality winter bees to be laid and raised. You want to feed up the hive in fall to ensure they have lots of stores.

A sugar brick or Krabby Patty positioned on the top bars, over the cluster but under the quilt box, provides emergency rations. To leave a higher volume of those rations, build a shallow (3″ high) super, staple 1/4″ grid wire on as a floor, lay one sheet of newspaper on that floor, and fill the entire thing with dampened sugar. Am alternate config: put an in-hive feeder filled with dampened sugar over the inner cover, and then insulate over that, heavily. Whatever form your emergency rations take, replace when necessary.

Your hive is only safe when the nectar and pollen sources come online in the spring. Locally that is the bloom of the Big Leaf Maples (Oregon Maples), which is some time in very early April, depending on the weather.

Until then, the bees are depending on you to step in if they are starving. Check those emergency stores regularly, and feed syrup when days are consistently over 10C.





Exam Notes 4: Recognizing and Treating Colony-threatening Conditions

European Foul Brood
European Foul Brood

It is not so critical to memorize what to do about diseases, pests, and catastrophic hive events (you can always look that up).

It is critical to recognize them!

That ability to recognize a disease process in progress is arguably the most important beekeeping skill: here then is a quick summary of what should set off your beekeeperly alarm bells:

Survey the Open Brood

All, all, ALL!!! of the open brood should be fat, juicy, pearly white, gleaming and wet looking. All of it. If you see any brood that are dried up looking, off-colour, in a strange position, or which look rotted or unnatural, pull the alarm bell.

How healthy brood should look: fat, white and juicy.
How healthy brood should look: fat, white and juicy.

European Foulbrood, caused by the Melissococcus plutonius bacterium affects open brood. Brood before capping. It is transmitted from infected nurse bees by mouth as they feed the larvae their gut contents. Over time the hive’s stores of nectar and bee bread (the fermented pollen fed to larvae) will be infected as well, passing through so many guts and infecting new bees.

The cappings on the brood should look solid and intact. American Foulbrood, caused by the bacterium Paenibacillus larvae ssp. larvae generally kills the bee larvae post capping. The bees sense that the larvae under capping is dead or dying and they will uncap ragged holes in the brood, in their attempt to remove the problem larva. Unfortunately, removal is by mouth and this infects a new cohort of bees, who in turn infect all their fellows and the new larvae they feed.

American Foulbrood, stringing, mucousy dead larva.

Both the Foulbroods will, early or late, smell nasty. Like rotting meat or smelly old socks in a gym bag. Bad smells in the hive are always an indication that something is amiss.

Treatment is a combination of medication and getting the bees off the old, contaminated comb and hive contents. In the case of AFB, resistant spores are generated that can only be destroyed via irradiation (ie. at an Iotron facility) or burning.

Other brood diseases (sacbrood, chalkbrood) all exhibit deformed, off colour, odd or dead larvae. If you see something unusual in your open brood, or notice that developed bees are remaining in the cells, unhatched and dead, identify the cause immediately and take remedial action ASAP.

Examine the Brood Pattern

A healthy, vigourous queen should lay solid sheets of brood. If they are spotty “shotgun” patterns, examine carefully for disease. Shotgun brood pattern can also be from a poor queen, a queen infected with Nosema, or Varroasis. Sometimes a new queen or new nuc may display a shotgun pattern, but within a couple of weeks you should see solid sheets of brood. If the shotgun pattern persists, pull the alarm bell!

Also check that you have new eggs in the hive. When you do not, find that queen. Is she missing? Or is she not laying? Why isn’t she laying? Maybe a swarm is about to go off. Maybe she failed to mate successfully and is infertile. Figure it out.

Check the brood cappings. Is most of the capped brood smooth worker brood? Or is your queen laying only raised drone brood, indicating she failed to mate (fertilized eggs make worker bees, unfertilized eggs make drone bees). An infertile queen needs to be replaced. Note that her hive cannot raise a replacement queen from drone eggs!


Examine the Adult Bees

Are your bees all plump, normal body proportions, bustling happily about? Or do you see deformed wings (indicating Deformed Wing Virus, vectored by Varroa mites), stumpy bodies, tiny wizened bees,  or black, greasy bees?? Are they wandering about looking dazed, unable to fly (possible tracheal mite infection), or are they trembling constantly (possible Israeli Paralysis virus, also mite-vectored)?

Always be on top of the Varroa mite situation. Not only are they deadly on their own, unchecked, but they vector a host of diseases.

If the adults look unusual or wrong, then something probably is wrong! Get to the bottom of the issue immediately.

Deformed wing virus on stunted bee.
Deformed wing virus on stunted bee.

Examine the Hive

Do you see fecal streaking on the exterior of the hive, or on the interior? That is abnormal and indicates temporary dysentery at best (contaminated/fermented feed somewhere??) and pesticide poisoning or Nosema apis at worst. You need to medicate for Nosema immediately and hope that works.

Is there mold and/or dead bees in the combs, and/or wax moths? If there is, reduce the hive size to make sure “the colony fits the hive” ie. they have a home size they can keep clean, warm and patrolled. Make sure they are healthy, and that the hive is dry and ventilated.

Prevent Robbing

Remember that strong hives, particularly in a nectar dearth, will attack weak hives, stealing their honey. Reduced entrances and robbing screens are the answer here. If robbing is in progress, completely shut the hive being robbed, make necessary changes and hope the robber bees do not return next day. Move the robbed hive if necessary.

Wasps will rob out hives, eating eggs, larvae, adults (all good protein sources for baby wasps) as well as the nectar and honey. This is common in late summer, when wasp populations are at their peak and raising queens to overwinter.

Be careful, particularly in a nectar dearth, not to spill feed or honey in the beeyard, which can set off a robbing frenzy, or feed from open feeders (ditto, and also a disease transfer station!), or leave honey filled hives open (invites hungry robbers in). Do not leave undefended honey supers in the beeyard: they will be robbed in a twinkling.

If a hive has been robbed, check the next day (when things have settled down) to ensure the queen was not killed in the raid.

Evaluate the Vigour of the Colony

Always ask yourself if the hive is as vigourous as it should be for the time of year. Is the queen laying properly, is the hive building in spring and remaining as strong as it was a month ago? Or is it stalling out and/or dwindling for some reason. It could be you have a failing queen, or Nosema ceranae loose in the hive. You could have a sick hive, or one being predated by skunks at night (they love to eat bees!). Maybe it’s honey bound and there is no room for your queen to lay.

Any colony that is not bringing in pollen when others are, is failing to store nectar and honey, or is quiet at the door (little bee traffic, particularly when nearby hives have lots), or is failing to take a syrup feed (especially if other hives are taking it well) has a problem.

If you colony is not doing well, there has to be a reason. Find it.


There are an abundance of books and web based information pages to help you identify and remediate your hive issues. It also helps to join a good local bee club, and find a few older more experienced beekeepers as mentors. Take a bee course, as that guarantees an instant mentor! Go online and ask questions (include photos if possible) on bee forums. There is lots and lots of support out there.

Note that in the USA, several universities offer online courses leading to the Master Beekeeper certification.



Exam Notes 3: Swarm Control and Making Nucs



Swarms will set up in the oddest places…but usually they are up in a tree somewhere. Within reach, we hope!

Swarms are the natural way bee colonies reproduce. Sensing the nectar and pollen bounties of spring, the increased crowding in the hive as the first rounds of brood hatch, and the shrinking brood area as brood and nectar vie for cell space, swarm preparations begin.

The workers decide to construct one to many queen cells. These elongated, peanut shaped structures hang off the face or bottom edge of the frames, and the larvae inside are lavishly fed royal jelly until they cap (on Day 7/8 post laying). Once the queen cells start to cap over, their queen larvae spinning their cocoons and metamorphosing into queen bees, the old queen leaves the hive with roughly half of the hive population (all ages), and as much honey as they can carry in their guts.

The resulting swarm erupts from the hive, then settles onto a perch nearby. They can remain there for up to several days, while the older scout bees fly out to find suitable homes. They are looking for:

  1. a roughly 40 litre cavity
  2. preferably 15′ or so off the ground
  3. preferably with a 15 cm, east facing opening
  4. preferably containing old brood comb

But alas few swarm colonies will survive the next winter, as they will be overcome by mites even if they can build up a colony that is large enough and well provisioned enough to endure the cold season.

Swarms are extremely docile. The bees’ tummies are stuffed with honey and so they cannot easily sting. They are collected by simply shaking them into a suitable container, then are taken to a hive and dumped inside. You can ensure a swarm stays in the hive you choose by giving them a frame of brood. Honey bees are very, very reluctant to abandon  brood. Although recent research indicates they are most “invested” in capped brood, I like to give them a frame of brood in all stages if I can. Just covering all the bases…

Because they are now without stores, a swarm colony is fed nectar and protein patties until it is putting up its own honey. This ensures healthy brood and new bees right from the start.

Swarms may be leaving hives crashing from disease, stress or pests. So watch any caught swarm carefully as it may need treatment. Quarantine them in a remote yard if you can.

Swarm control generally consists of:

  1. making sure there is always space for the queen to lay (open brood nest) by adding frames of empty drawn comb or waxed foundation to the brood area
  2. adding another deep super once the existing super(s) are 80% drawn and full
  3. maintaining young queens in the hive (under 2 years of age)
  4. maintaining good ventilation in the hive (rising CO2 levels from crowding are a spur to swarming)
  5. splitting if the queen suddenly reduces her rate of lay (in preparation to swarm) or queen cells appear
  6. **note that when a nectar flow is imminent, you must put on honey supers, more than you think the bees will need. Failing to do so forces house bees to store the incoming nectar anywhere they can, including the broodnest. If the broodnest becomes “nectar bound”, that will trigger swarming. So super for honey early and often, ensuring that one empty honey super is over the broodnest at all times during a nectar flow!!!

In the spring, the swarm impulse is mercilessly strong. So inspecting carefully every 7-10 days is essential or you risk a swarm going off.

NOTE: a queen cell can be started the minute you close up the hive after an inspection and in theory, the swarm can go off within 7 days, ie. as soon as the queen cells is capped and before you do your next inspection!!!! If you want to prevent swarms, inspect often.

Signs a hive has swarmed are:

  1. no queen in the hive!
  2. no eggs (or young open brood) in the hive
  3. queen cups with eggs in them or queen cells in the hive
  4. bees seem skittish and agitated
  5. you may hear “the queenless roar”
  6. lots of empty cells, polished and waiting for the next queen to start laying

When a swarm leaves, your hive population is halved, and your colony will be broodless from the time the old queen stops laying until the new queen comes into lay. That can be 3 to 4 weeks! More if the colony decides to let the new queen swarm off as well, which it will do if it hatches multiple fine queens and has a healthy population. If swarming happens in the lead up to the nectar flow, your hive will be seriously reduced in size, low on mature foragers, and will not be able to put up good amounts of honey.

So for honey producers, swarm control is the main focus of spring management!

There are many methods of splitting as swarm control. Which you use depends on your beekeeping goals.

Making Nucs (nucleus colonies)

It is always good to have a few nucs coming along in the apiary to cover off queen and colony losses. Here is one great nuc box design.

A nuc generally consists of:

  1. two frames of stores (honey and bee bread)
  2. three frames of brood, including eggs and capped brood
  3. a fertile, laying queen under 2 years of age

There are special boxes manufactured for this purpose (they work really well as swarm gathering boxes too!), boxes imaginatively named “nucleus (nuc) boxes”:


Nucs can help with swarm control (taking excess population out of the main hive, along with the old queen or queen cells), can serve as nurseries for new queens, can serve as a place to hold the old queen while a hive requeens itself, and is generally a reservoir offering a small colony for sale or for adding to a queenless colony in your own apiary.

Worker bees and brood can also be put into a nuc box, without the queen, and layered via the newspaper method onto a hive needing a boost.

It is always handy to have a few empty nuc boxes on hand. You never know when you will need one for a swarm call!

Making queens and new colonies is my favourite part of beekeeping. Left to myself I would run all nucs and devote all my time to queen and colony production. There are many methods for raising queens. For our small apiary the easiest and best method is to take the old queen out into a nuc with a small support staff and feed them both syrup and protein supplement. They will cook along nicely with HRH safe and sound while the main colony goes into panic mode and raises a new crop of queen cells.

The main colony has more bees and resources to pour into those queen cells, and since queen quality is largely a function of queen larval nutrition, the main colony can raise very well fed queens. As extra insurance I also feed the main colony while they are raising the new queen cells.

I find that queens that come out of this method are big, fat and sassy.…good producers.

You can go into the hive once the queen cells are a couple of days from emergence and, if there are 5 or more, I would leave at least three of the largest to give the bees some choice in who they choose to emerge and survive. The bees will back the queen they feel is best, and they are seldom wrong.

Harvested mature queen cells can be put into waiting, queenless nucs to emerge and mate.

There are all kinds of approaches to queen rearing, but if you want a batch of queens, try this method for the small apiary:





Exam Notes 2: The Three Horsemen

the-four-horsemen-of-the-apocalypse-1937I am not entirely joking when I say there are Three Horsemen of the Bee Apocalypse. I think honey bee populations worldwide are balanced on a knife’s edge. Here in Canada, there appear to be no more truly feral colonies, ie. colonies that survive in the wild, without any help from a beekeeper, and which overwinter successfully. This means if managed (kept) colonies of bees fail, there will be NO honey bees in Canada. Period.

And the main reason kept colonies may fail are the Three Horsemen:

  1. Varroa destructor mites
  2. Vanishing and degraded forage opportunities
  3. Pesticides and other field sprays

Varroa destructor Mites

Varroa are alas, fiendishly successful at parasitizing honey bees. Not only do they suck the hemolymph (insect blood), of both adults and larvae, weakening the adults and damaging the pupating baby bees, Varroa vector (carry to) the bees a host of serious viruses, and our twin nemeses the foulbroods AFB and EFB. There just isn’t any good news for bees once the Varroa arrive.

Worse, they breed up much more rapidly than the honey bees and can evolve quickly, thanks to their biology and reproductive strategies, to become resistant to whatever selective pressures we place upon them. They quickly evolved resistance to the first few miticides used, and in spite of aggressive treatment programs, mite infestation is a universal experience of honey bees. We just can’t seem to get rid of them no matter what we do.

Even small mite loads have a big negative effect on the bees’ ability to generate a honey crop, or overwinter successfully. And because mites reproduce exponentially, they will, over time, completely overwhelm a colony. Brood fail to hatch, viruses (most notably Deformed Wing Virus) abound, EFB and AFB appear, and the colony collapses and dies.

There are many ways to attack the Varroa mites, from the use of “hard” chemicals in the hive, in the form of the medications fluvalinate, coumaphos, amitraz. In the form of the “soft” treatments: essential oils, formic acid, oxalic acid, hopguard, thymol. And on to the various Integrated Pest Management tricks like screened bottom boards, sacrificial drone brood, icing sugar dusts, grease patties, feed additives (like Honey B Healthy), small cell foundation (on the theory that small cells force bees to hatch faster, reducing or eliminating the reproductive power of Varroa mites), unusual hive types, and breeding up survivor stock.

So far, we can only reduce the impact of Varroa infestation. We cannot eliminate the Varroa. There is a Nobel Prize waiting for the biogengineer who can eradicate Varroa mites.

A large part of the beekeeping year is understanding when to apply mite treatments, allowing a maximum number of healthy bees to hatch out and take their place in the colony.

Principally, we treat (using whatever methods we find comfortable and effective):

  1. in early spring, to ensure the first critical rounds of brood are not infested by overwintering Varroa
  2. after the honey harvest, to ensure the critical winter bees are able to develop Varroa free
  3. in midwinter, when brood is absent or nearly absent from the hives, meaning all the Varroa are out on bees, not hidden under brood cappings, where they are very vulnerable to treatment; which at this time of year is via oxalic acid vapour or dribble.

So successful beekeeping demands that the beekeeper become expert in foiling the mites. Read all you can on the Varroa destructor.

Degraded Forage

The second challenge to honey bee survival is the increasing degradation of quantity and quality of bee forage. We are losing our wild places, we are aggressively managing our roadway verges, parks, home gardens, forests and even our farm fields. There is little tolerance for weedy, flowery pastures or empty lots, and as urban land becomes increasingly expensive, cities are densifying, which means little or no open land on which to grow anything.

Ditto in the farm fields! Now fields are ploughed and managed margin-to-margin, planted with monocultures and aggressively treated with herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and fertilizers. There is no tolerance for weeds or non-productive areas.

Because we are denying Mother Nature any place in which wildflowers can bloom in meaningful quantities, it will take a shift in our culture to make the world a better place for honey bees and all the other pollinators. We have to plant mindfully, creating pollinator pasture out of every possible nook and cranny. We have to encourage homeowners and municipalities to purpose-plant for pollinators: if every garden had one spring flowering heather, one maple tree, dandelions, a catmint plant, mints, dills or borage, sedum, asters, some clovers (so amenable to succession sowing) and Rose of Sharon (hibiscus syriacus) shrubs, there would be a season long abundance for all urban pollinators. And if we could take pride in a front yard planted in a bee pasture mix, pretty unmown grasses spangled with pollinator friendly flowers, entire cities would be pollinator paradises.

Think of all the space you see taken up with lawn grass or field grasses, replanted with an enduring bee pasture mix!

Bees are little more than flying guts. They need season long, varied pollen and nectar sources to fuel all the activities of the hive. Hungry bees, or bees forced (as pollination bees are) to eat a severely limited diet, are stunted, stressed and prone to disease and parasitization. Poor nutrition makes them vulnerable.

Poor or scarce feed also put enormous pressure on the honey bee to fly vast distances (for a bee) and in the process out-compete the many and valuable native pollinators (many of whom have short flight ranges). If we plant more forage, we help all pollinators.

The beekeeper can, if s/he is fortunate, purpose plant for their bees. Failing that, you can seek apiary locations that are favourable…acres of blackberries being one option. You can enrich your local community by “donating” bee pasture seed and bee plants to all unclaimed/idle lands, lobbying for more pollinator patches in your community.


Pesticides and Field Sprays

All field sprays, and pesticides in particular, have effects on bees. Even sprays applied to non-bee forage crops drift onto nearby hedgerows, blanketing the wildflowers there with things that harm the bees. Field sprays can out and out kill the bees that feed upon sprayed nectar plants, or have devastating, long lasting, sublethal effects ie. deformed or weak brood, reduced drone fertility, or memory impairment in foragers, who then cannot find existing forage or their way home.

Herbicides kill all plants: check the margins of sprayed fields and you often see the blackberries or hedgerow plants killed by herbicide drift, depleting an already scarce bee forage resource.

Farmers use these sprays to reduce the labour cost of bringing a crop to market. We need to shift our agricultural practices toward the organic, coming up with innovative ways to garden and farm efficiently and organically.

The beekeeper can educate both farmers and consumers to go organic (if people don’t buy what they spray, they won’t spray it any more!!!), and plant pollinator strips in all fields, and bee pasture in all fallow fields.

Be aware that biofuel is largely corn based. Large swathes of corn monoculture are very bad for bees! The corn seed is neonicotinoid coated, causing lethal and sublethal issues in colonies near fields. And the land is being occupied by a plant of little use to bees (they will gather some corn pollen but it is not a preferred pollen due to its low nutritional profile). And the large tracts sown in corn, like the almond orchards, mean there is no season long forage within a reasonable flight range for honey bees or other pollinators, driving down their numbers and diversity. The remedy here would be requiring all biofuel fields to be organic, and to include strips of pollinator pasture.

Ditto the other killer monoculture in our world, soybeans. Soybeans are a major component of animal feed, so limiting meat consumption is also one way to help honey bees and pollinators.