The bees in winter.

This is my first winter keeping bees, and it has been fairly mild so far. We just got our first significant snowfall on the weekend, and the bees were flying as recently as December 16th. Still, I do start to wonder what’s going on in there. How do I know they’re ok?

Now that we have some snow-cover, there are some pretty cool signs that they are doing just fine. Bees survive the winter by clustering together and eating the honey they’ve stored to generate heat. A lot of heat. As the snow was starting to fall, you could see a couple of hot spots on the hive covers. Perhaps I should slap some insulation on them, but for now I even have an idea how much honey they’ve eaten because they haven’t had to move back into the hive much at all.

Later on, with more snow down, Marjorie is still cooking. Lili’s cover is propped up just a touch, so the snow isn’t melting off it quite as quickly.

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Odds and ends from 2010.

I’m still glad I decided to use a top-bar hive instead of conventional equipment. I’m still fine-tuning my design, but over all I’m happy with how my boxes worked out. The original frames that came with the nucs are still inside. I hope to start swapping them with top bars in the spring. The bees kept their brood nest on those frames last year, so I have to be careful not to disrupt them too much.

Eventually, the bees gave up drinking from the garden hose, even in drier weather. I’m not sure why they were fascinated with it in the first place, or where they got their water afterwards. I kept their Boardman feeders full of water all summer, but they never seemed to make much use of them. I wonder what they will do this year.

Marjorie kept bearding all summer no matter how much room I gave her, but she never swarmed. I think Lili must have swarmed at some point because though she started off as the stronger of the backyard hives, she seemed to fall behind Marjorie for a while before catching back up again. I never saw a swarm leave, but it could have happened while I was at work.

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A bloghaver, not a blogkeeper.

It’s often said that there are more beehavers than beekeepers. I’m not sure which of those labels best applied to me in 2010. Of the three hives that I started from nucs in the spring, two are thriving in my backyard, and the one I set up across town is no more. None of them had much help from me, though Lili and Marjorie certainly had more attention (only because I can watch them from my kitchen window).

Poor Latifah. Latifah died of neglect. It was brought to my attention that her hive was being overrun by ants. By the time I got over there, there wasn’t much to save. I don’t know if the ants invaded and overwhelmed the colony, or if they were just scavenging an already dying hive. I do think that if I had been paying attention I could have done more before it was too late.

I plan on being a more active beekeeper in 2011, and a more active blogkeeper as well. I spent a lot of time watching the landing boards in 2010, but very little time actually inside the hives. So while I don’t want to disrupt the girls too much, I need to make myself a schedule and stick to it. Is a full hive inspection twice a month too much? Too little? I’ll find out. You should see more posts too. One post per hive-visit as a minimum. A blog still seems like a good way to keep track of my observations.

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What to do about Marjorie?

On Saturday Monday, I added a bunch of top bars to Marjorie’s box. Even in the rain, her girls had been coating the outside of the hive, two or three layers of bees thick, and I took this bearding to mean that they were desperate for more room.

Last night, in the rain, they were doing it again. Maybe they just really like it out there, but I find that hard to believe. I don’t like seeing it. What are they trying to tell me?

I think the plan now is to add a single top bar to the front of the hive. That should give them some more room around the brood nest without disrupting things too much. If that doesn’t work, I’m not sure what else to try.

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Updates from the back yard.

So, here’s the post I promised for the weekend, just a little bit late.

It seems I wasn’t the only one working long hours last week. The girls must have been busy during that heat wave. Lili and Marjory were both bearding up the front of their boxes, even at night in the downpour of rain we had after the heat, so I knew they were running out of room. I was really worried one or the other would swarm before I could make some more room for them.

Monday evening, the rain held off long enough for me to get a few more top bars to each of them. I didn’t look through their combs at all, but when I moved the division boards back I could see that they had used up just about all the space available to them, and were capping honey on the back comb that was visible.

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It’s good to be home.

Hi folks, sorry for no post in a while. I’ve been out of town all week, working 14 hour days. That doesn’t leave much time for blogging. I’m back now though, so you can expect a post or two over the weekend.

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Moving Marjorie.

It had been some time since I looked in on Lili and Marjorie, and I’ll admit it’s because I was a little intimidated. Since they shared one long box, working on either one of them meant having both colonies open simultaneously, and I got stung on both temples last time I opened them. So I decided to separate them and built Marjorie her own box.

Moving MarjorieI was worried about how I was going to get the bees to reorient to the new box when the old one would still be sitting in the same yard, but that didn’t turn out to be any problem at all. Though Marjorie’s entrance faces north-east, her girls’ main flight path has always been to the south. As soon as I put the new box down beside the old one, returning foragers started entering as they flew around the corner. It was really remarkable to see so much excitement at the new box even before I had opened the old one.

Though the move started well, I wasn’t as pleased with how it progressed. Dennis Murrell says comb correction is easiest when done early and often, and clearly I had waited just a little too long. Marjorie’s girls had built lots of beautiful white comb, but I was clumsy and tore a fair bit of it. What they’ve built on my top bars is nice and straight, but many of the lobes of wax they built on the old frames was crooked or off-center. I didn’t have the heart to scrape off all the offending comb as Dennis recommends. Probably a mistake–it’s only going to tear again next time I have a look at them, but I fit it in to the new box as best as I could.

Now I’m worried about Queen Marjorie herself. I didn’t spot her during the move, but much of the mangled comb was brood comb. She was definitely laying well when I opened the box. Let’s just hope she didn’t get squished before I closed it.

I didn’t have enough time to look through Lili’s combs on Sunday, and I imagine they are in the same state. I had to get across town because I’d promised Latifah’s host that we would have a look through that hive before the end of the day. But that’s something for another post.

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Stolen bees.

Photo from

Photo from

Someone has been stealing bees in Nova Scotia near Amherst, about two hours drive from here. Nine hives since May. Makes me angry just thinking about it.

Interestingly though, the stolen bees seem to be some kind of bumble bee, or other “alternative” pollinator. The Chronicle Herald article describes the hives as “about the size of a case of photocopy paper and is divided into four sections, each with 1,200 bees.” Much smaller than honey bee colonies. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I didn’t know any of the commercial pollinators in Nova Scotia were using anything other than honey bees.

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A visit with the Halifax Honey Bee Society.

Last Wednesday I went on my first outing with the Halifax Honey Bee Society. If you live in this city, and you’re interested in bees, you really should get in touch with this group. They have a hand full of their own hives hosted in appropriately secluded yards through out the city. You can learn first hand without owning your own bees. Or, if you do have bees of your own, you should come out and talk with fellow enthusiasts and share what you know.

We spent some time putting together frames with wax foundation. Securing the foundation is fiddly work and while I’m glad to help, I’m also glad I don’t have to do this for my own hives. I remember Dad putting frames together at the kitchen table when he had hives. Perhaps it gets easier with practice. (I was busy nailing and forgot to take pictures of the production. Maybe next time.)

Queen cellSoon we were looking through one of the hives. Nicole and Katherine conducted the inspection. It was really nice to be around knowledgeable bee keepers. Despite all the reading I’ve done over the years, there’s no substitute for practical experience. For instance, I’d never seen a queen cell before, and now that I have, I can stop worrying every time I see the bulging cap of a drone cell. As you can see in this picture, there is absolutely no mistaking the two. The queen cell actually is the size, shape, and texture of a peanut shell, and those capped cells to the right of it are probably drone.

Here’s my new friend Jen, holding a frame of bees for the first time. If you click on the photo for a closer look, you can see honey shining in the cells, and all the bees have their heads buried in the comb. We’d given them a fair bit of smoke by this point, so they were sucking back as much of the sweet stuff as they could carry. One never knows when a fire alarm might be the real thing.

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Thirsty bees.

Thirsty bees.When I got home from work today, I could hear the buzz coming from my flower garden. So many bees! But they weren’t paying much attention to the flowers–the flowers aren’t even blooming in that section yet. They were drinking water from droplets on the leaves and from the nearby hose! This is exactly what I was trying to avoid by giving them Boardman feeders full of water. Maybe that’s not enough. At least they are drinking from my own hose and not bothering the neighbours–or are they? I  don’t understand it. It rained today and the grass was still wet. Why focus on the hose?

Toni of City Bees Blogspot posted about this phenomenon in March. She says the theory is that bees look for trace nutrients from dirty water. The hose is fairly clean though, isn’t it?

I’m not sure what I can do about this, but I definitely think it’s a problem. For now, I’m going to try point more holes in the lids of the mason jars that I use in the feeders. I sure hope our letter carrier doesn’t mind bees, because he has to walk right past the hose to get to our mail slot.

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