In Support of the Draft

Vented SuperMy guess if you were able to talk to a bee, they would be a big supporters of drafts. Not the military kind, but the cooling kind.

You see, while it’s cold in the winter and they huddle in the hive to keep their queen warm, they also have to deal with the summer’s heat and the humidity. The brood nest needs to be kept a constant 94F, and that’s easy to do in the summer until temperature outside the hive gets hot. While humans find a place with air conditioning, the bees need to resort to other methods. When this happens, they cool the hive by fanning the entrance, creating a draft. The draft carries away the humidity, and that lowers the surface temperature in the same way that a breeze does with your sweat. The bees know how the basic principle of a swamp cooler works, and they figured it out millions of years before we did. Smart little buggers.

So to help my bees handle the heat this summer, I am building, and thus experimenting with, a short, stubby box that has vent holes around it, often referred to as a “vented super”. So that the bees don’t have to defend the holes from intruders, and am going to put some screen over the holes to allow only air to pass though. By placing this box on top of the inner cover, the vent holes provide a place for warm air to rise up and out of the hive. Plus, it creates some cross ventilation from the horizontal nature of a breeze across and through the vent holes.

Of course, this will be a summer add-on, and will be removed in the fall. New England winters can get cold, and I don’t want the poor workers struggling to keep their queen warm as they wonder who left the screen door open.

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The Socialists in My Backyard

Yeah, I’m OK with the Socialists in my backyard.

To be candid, I’m more than OK with it, I put them there, I’m giving them free room and board, and I hope they stay. Thousands of Socialists in my backyard, and I’m helping them out. I must being going insane.

Honey bees are socialists – every single damn one of them – and I’m fascinated by it. I’m fascinated because I can’t imagine what it’s like to live as part of a collective; always working in complete harmony with the thousands of others around you. You never want more or less than you have, being perfectly content to take your assigned place, and work you entire life until you die – all for the good of the colony.

Call me a capitalist pig, but I just can’t see wanting that little from life, and working tirelessly for the good of the whole and nothing else. Hey, I think a little pro-bono work is an important part of one’s life, but this kind of selflessness stuns me. I’m not referring to the selflessness of giving of yourself as you would to your family or your community. It’s more of having no “self” – or no sense of self. I need to know I’m an individual, and have control over my own destiny. I need to have a sense of “self”.

But honey bees are different creatures than humans. They don’t operate as individuals. They don’t have a concept of self, just of the colony. It shouldn’t be so hard for me to grasp this. Nature has quite of few of these creatures; ants included. But yet, I struggle to think of their lives. So meaningless to me, but I am sure, full of purpose to them. They start working moments after being born, and for 90% of the hive that are workers, they die on the job, flying until their wings disintegrate.

I have grown to have great respect for them. For their tireless work. For their sense of duty to the colony. And for their lack of “self” that allows the colony to exist. I respect them, I am fascinated by them, but I don’t want to be them.

To each their own.

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Polystyrene Hives – Your Kidding, Right?

For many years now, some beekeepers have been using hives made from polystyrene. The compound is lightweight, rigid, and is a pretty good insulator – all good things for a hive. But it’s styrofoam. The stuff that the crappy little coffee cups and the containers from McDonald’s food comes in. The stuff that won’t biodegrade. The stuff that’s made from petrochemicals – yeah, sludge from the bottom of oil barrels. I’m sure I’d be thrilled to live in a home made of it…

Now I’m an “organic beekeeper”. Whatever that officially means I don’t know, but to me it means doing everything I can to keep human-made products away from the hive. Now let me be clear, I use wooden hives and parts that are made by humans, so I’m not that hard core. I use a metal hive tool, and I’m quite sure my bee jacket isn’t 100% cotton, but I try hard to make sure that my bees aren’t exposed to more chemicals than they have to be, so I focus on keeping the hive all wooden, with a little steel (nails and screen) where needed.

So when I read about polystyrene hives, and the inevitable trouble beekeepers have with them, I am just shocked that they still exist. Somewhere in my semi-logical mind I would have thought they would have faded out like a bad fashion trend. Something that beekeepers could look back on and say “Remember when we used those polystyrene hives? Yeah, what were we thinking? {laughter}…”

If you’re thinking of getting into beekeeping, please start with wood and not plastic. If you’re afraid of deforestation, buy scrap wood – mostly it’s free. I’ve build all of my additional hive parts out of scrap wood. Their cheap to make, and didn’t hurt the environment. Plastic is just so… Yuck.

Wood is natural, and the bees love it. I mean, it’s wood – what’s not to love?

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It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Humidity

In the winter, people make a big deal about sealing up their hives. “The bees will freeze!” is often the battle cry. “You don’t know how cold it get’s on my property” is another one. As much as I hear this, I just have to smile. Like the old weather adage says, “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” silly!

An experienced beek will tell you, bees almost never freeze to death in a hive. Bees are amazingly good at keeping the queen and her eggs an impressive 94F, even when temperatures outside the hive are sub-zero for weeks at a time. However, the one thing they can’t tolerate is moisture which is another way of saying very high humidity.

Bees, just like any other animal, breath out warm, humid air. But unlike other animals, bees do it packed together, in an enclosed space. Not having enough ventilation in the hive simply to let out the humidity causes it to build up and condense on the inner cover as water. As it condenses, it forms drops of water that cling to the inner cover, randomly dropping onto the colony like bombs from an air raid, killing bees with each drop. Since the humidity can’t escape, more water drops form from the bees’ breath, and the cycle continues until the hive is decimated. Death from your own breath – what a way to go.

The only way to avoid humidity build up, besides asking the bees not to breath in the hive, is to allow the humidity to escape. Since human-built Langstroth hives often have an entrance on the bottom, holes are usually used towards the top of the hive to allow the humidity to escape. This occurs because of the “chimney” method which allows air to flow in through the bottom of the hive, be heated by the inside of the hive, and want to rise out the top of the hive, thus carrying the humidity out with it. And a dry hive is a happy hive. Well, OK, a dry, well fed hive with a laying queen and attentive workers is a happy hive. But I digress…

So all the fuss about sealing up your hive, wrapping it in tar paper, putting a heater underneath it; it’s all well intentioned, but misguided. If you take steps to make sure the hive is dry, the bees will keep it warm enough. Let them do what they naturally do best. Your job is simply to be a a benevolent landlord. Give them a nice place to live, and they’ll do the rest. It’s what they do; they’re bees.

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Spreading the Love of Bees

My brother-in-law just started beekeeping last weekend. He’s been interested for some time, but last summer he came to visit, saw my hive, and clearly started thinking about it. A year later, he’s got a hive, a nuc, and he’s off and running.

Beekeeping is a funny hobby. It’s about helping bees flourish and learning about them while you do it. And it’s about keeping the knowledge and the love of bees flourishing too. So when a beekeeper can help another one along, it’s like the colony dividing and swarming, flourishing in another location.

So in a way, maybe I’ve done my first walk-away-split and I didn’t even realize it.

If nothing else, there’s more bees in the world, and in today’s environment, that a very, very good thing.

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Review: Mann Lake HD620 – A Good Hive Tool

I’m a guy, and that means I like tools. It doesn’t mean I’m any good with them, it just means I’m genetically disposed to like them. So to that end, I’m going to start the occasional review about tools and equipment I use in my backyard apiary.

With beekeeping, there are dozens of tools and hundreds of products. I was advised by some smart beekeepers not to buy too much in the beginning, and be wary of any tool or device that wasn’t simple enough to build myself. Sage advice in an industry that’s always trying to reinvent what already works.

If you’re only going to have one tool to work a hive, and let’s face it, as a backyard beekeeper you only need one, get a tool with a flat blade on one side and a “J” hook on the other.

The Mann Lake HD620 is flat blade and hook hive tool that’s comparable to the infamous Maxant HT-2-MS tool. Mann Lake’s is about $15, and colored red and silver so you won’t lose it.The wedge end if sharp enough to pry apart hive seams sealed with propolis, and the hook on the end is just perfect for lifting out frames that are impossibly awkward to lift with a gloved hand. While there are subtle differences between this and the Maxant tool, I think for the backyard beekeeper there is no difference.

And when you lose yours, even though it’s bright red, this one ships from Amazon Prime and is delivered the next day. ‘Nuff said.

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Correcting Crazy Comb

Yesterday, I had one of those surreal experiences as a beekeeper that makes this crazy hobby worth it.

From my last post, you know the bees have started to build comb into a new box on top of their brood nest. While I’m thrilled they are doing this, the comb in they brood nest below is so tangled that it’s hard to do an inspection – all my fault. Of course, as I was warned, the bees would want to continue that mess into additional boxes. Unsurprisingly, my inspection for the new box yesterday revealed mounds of crazy comb. Following the sage advice of beekeeping guru Micheal Bush, I cleaned up the mess before it got worse.

Crazy CombNow as an adult, I’ve never been afraid of bees, but a “cleanup”, means doing what no sane human should attempt – reaching into a hive with unprotected hands, and over the course of 30 minutes, bending comb into a position that the bees never intended, all while the bees crawl over your hands, and over their precious comb you are bending.

Yeah, it seemed like a really good way to get stung to me too.

So as I headed off to the hive, I said to my wife “OK, off to get stung”, fully preparing to be used as a pin cushion by a bunch of guard bees that were convinced I was there to wreck their home. Which is exactly what I was about to do. Sort of.

Over the next half hour, I carefully pulled out each frame, examined its twisted comb, and went to work untangling it. If the comb was close to being aligned with the frame, I slowly bent it back into place. Even in the 60F weather today, this new comb was pliable and sticky. Some comb was so far off track that I couldn’t bend it back, so I cut it out with the awkward skill of a pre-med student, re-attaching it to the frame by simply pressing an edge of the comb against the frame. The bees must have been laughing in unison at my awkward attempt to adhere their comb to the frame, something they do with ease and efficiency. Within 15 seconds of me pressing a chunk of comb against the top of a frame, a cluster of bees would descend on it, replacing my sloppy duct-tape-like repair job with nature’s perfected wax glue – their spit and fresh wax.

As I marveled at their intricate work, I continued to be amazed at how they accepted what I was doing. I had my unprotected hands in their hive, covered only by thin, cheap latex gloves I use for messy jobs in the garage. I was practically begging them to sting me. But they didn’t. Thousands of bees dealt with my pulling out each frame, ripping some of their comb in the process, pulling, cutting and repositioning wax they had all decided was best installed they way they wanted. I was an intruder, plundering their house and giving them nothing in return, and yet I wasn’t stung. Not once.

Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of guard bees bumping my head every few seconds. They didn’t like me being there, but for some reason, they tolerated it. And because they did, I walked away from the event without a single sting.

Today I felt more in tune with the colony than I ever have. It felt, dare I say it, a little like I was involved in animal husbandry – farming if you will. Like I was taking care of these little creatures as a Shepard would do to his flock. I wasn’t witnessing it from afar, changing their environment and seeing what happens like some giant “black box” experiment. I was in the hive with them, working on the comb. And as awkward as my movements were, they accepted me as a foreign worker, just there for a few minutes, but still, part of the overall team.

I am humbled. Tonight, as I sip my wine, I will raise a toast to the bees that have accepted me, as I have learned to accept them.


Tips for Straightening Out Comb

  • Bring a sharp knife, and if possible something to heat it with. A heated knife would have cut the comb cleaner. Your hive tool is great for loosening the boxes, but is much too dull to cut comb without damaging it.
  • Don’t use your bare hands. Wear latex gloves as your hands will get wax, propolis, and even some honey on them. The gloves make the cleanup easier.
  • Bring another box that’s the exact size of the one you are cleaning, and place it on top of the hive outer cover to shield it form the ground. As you clean each frame, place the cleaned frame in the new box. This will leave more and more room in the original box for you to do your work, and will keep most of the bees out of your way. When done, swap the boxes, thus putting the frames back in place. With this method,  you only have to disturb the frames once.
  • Bring a small bowl from the kitchen. Some chunks of wax will fall off and not be worth attaching, especially if they are the size of quarter and filled with honey. Bring them back to the kitchen as a treat for a job well done.
  • If the comb takes up more than 1/3 of the frame, you may want to use rubber bands placed top-to-bottom around the frame which gives the comb something to lean against until the bees shore it up again. I don’t like the idea of rubber in my hive, so consider using some thick, clean string and thumbtacks to keep it in place.
Categories: Bees, Spring | 4 Comments

Potato Chip Comb

Potato Chip CombNow I know bees do what they want. This is the nature of, well, nature. You can’t make a colony do anything – you have to give them an easier path to do what you want, and hope for the best. But bees are bees, and sometimes they do weird stuff. I’ve seen crazy comb where the bees build comb at sometimes 90 degree angles to what it logical in the frame. But what is logical to a human, is certainly not logical to a bee. And when the spring build up comes around, and they start building like there’s no tomorrow, strange things happens.


And so, without further ado, I present to you, Potato Chip Comb.

Note the way the frames are positioned – left to right. They didn’t just build at 90 degrees. They built at 90, then decided to change direction and built in the opposite direction, bending back on itself, and making a potato chip shape. You just can’t make this stuff up…

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Winter Loss Survey 2012 – 2013: Preliminary Results

Each year The Bee Informed Partnership works with the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and produces one of the best reports on how managed bee colonies (not the feral ones) are doing. 6,287 beekeepers were surveyed who are running 599,610 colonies or about 22.9% of the 2.62 million colonies in the US.

While the final results are not tallied, they are now estimating that individual beekeepers said they lost 45.1% of their colonies over last winter. So, looking at each beekeeper, almost half of their colonies died – 19.8% more than last year.

Looking at the losses across all beekeepers, not just individuals, 31.1% of all managed honey bee colonies in the United States were lost during the 2012/2013 winter. This is an increase of 9.2% over last year. Clearly CCD is getting worse.

Beekeepers are not shocked, but are certainly saddened. We all knew the news was going to be bad, but there was hope that somehow the anecdotal evidence we heard was going to be proved wrong.

For me, this just strengthens my resolve to raise genetically tougher queens. I can’t reverse the 31.1% losses across the country, but I can do my part to help the ones I have control over. Think Globally, Act Locally. Maybe beekeepers should adopt that mantra too.

The full report is available at

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Raising Nucs

I recently took and advanced beekeeping class from Dean Stiglitz of Bee Unto Others and the book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping. It was a great class, and I came away with lots of questions answered, and as with any good teacher, my mind full of followup questions well after the class.

One topic Dean covered extensively as raising your own queens. This seemed to me to be a mythical task, but Dean explained the various methods, and got me thinking “I can do this”. And so, with bit of trepidation, I plan on trying this year.

While there are many ways of raising queens, most of them focus on the sale of queens by professional beekeepers, and thus focus on raising the most queens at once, even if the method is more difficult. For my uses, I’m interested in just raising a single queen, or two if I get gutsy, so the method I’ll be choosing is a much simpler one – a walk-away split.

A walk-away split involves splitting a colony in two, and letting the new part without a queen raise a new queen on its own. It sounds pretty simple, but it’s filled with risk to both the new colony as well as the old. By splitting the existing colony, you are halving its resources. What was a healthy hive before the split now has half the workers, half the brood, etc. So the trick here is to pick a healthy hive to split, and do it in the spring when they have the summer to recover.  If it’s a good summer, both the old colony the new will recover, building up the resources they need to both be strong enough to survive the upcoming winter. Bees do this all the time on their own – they swarm – splitting the colony into two.

And now the bad news. It is possible with a walk-away split to kill both the new colony and the old by weakening them both. Time the split wrong and you kill both, ending up with one less colony instead of one more.

But, if I pull it off, I will have a locally mated, organically raised queen, which is about as strong of a stock as you can come by. And these days, the bees need to be as genetically healthy as they can.

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