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Nice, now my bees have mice

Sometimes it seems like honey bees are incidental to all the other creatures in my hives. Beyond mites and moths, I have flies, spiders, beetles, springtails, and shrews. Sometimes I see frogs, mason bees, slugs, or earthworms. But this week, it’s mice.

Beehives are warm and cozy shelters with plenty of food and entertainment, so it’s really no surprise to find a vast cross section of inhabitants. The mice are especially attracted to my top-bar hive. I opened it three times this week to find mice sitting atop sugar patties, licking their fingers and grinning at me. The traps I’ve set are always sprung, although I can’t tell who is doing the springing, mice or bees. And now that I’ve added pollen patties, both mice and bees have decided to raise families.

A swarm in July

I’m definitely a Langstroth beekeeper, but at one time I wanted a top-bar hive so I could learn about them and answer questions. I have just one, but it is the hive most likely to be surprising, and it’s always the one with mice.

It’s been seven years now since the hive stood empty in my front yard, devoid of bees. The colony I placed in there died the first season and I decided top-bar beekeeping was not for me. I dragged the hive beneath some low-hanging cedar branches so it was out of the way and forgot about it.

I forgot, that is, until one July day when may husband came running into the backyard. “Come quick! You’ve got to see this!”

There, condensing into a molten mass, were thousands of honey bees swarming around the empty hive and flowing into its dark interior. As I watched the bees file in, I remembered the saying, “A swarm in July ain’t worth a fly.” Still, I was glad to have them.

Falling to ruin with the bees inside

Now seven years later, they still live there. Each spring I wonder if they will make it again and so far, so good. But because the hive has been full the whole time, and because I have only one top-bar hive, the structure itself is falling apart.

I keep thinking that when that hive goes empty, I will repair it. At this point, though, it needs more than repair. Some animal ripped out the hardware cloth underneath, and I replaced it with a board riddled with drilled holes. That was five or six years ago. Then the bees decided they no longer liked the opening, and instead they’ve carved a new one on the side, just below the roof. The hooks that once held the roof in place have pulled out because the wood is rotting, and the sliding varroa drawer no longer slides.

Breaking the rules

The hive and its colony break every rule of beekeeping. The hive is under heavy branches that drip with water all winter long. The space where it sits is gloomy and damp and never receives direct sun. In fact, it hasn’t seen the sun in five years. The openings are low, so the bees have to fly close to the ground before flying up, and they can only come and go in one direction because the foliage everywhere else is too thick.

I don’t do anything to the colony except add spring feed. Any book, any club, any beekeeper will explain that you cannot possibly keep bees this way, which is why I take everything with a grain of salt. Not one of my carefully tended Langstroth colonies comes close to this one in age or vitality.

I don’t make regular inspections either. Instead, I open it a couple times of year to take swarm cells or a few thousand workers or maybe some brood. At those times, I cut apart the top bars and look things over. Otherwise, they’re on their own, living by their own rules. They have it wired.

How long will the bees stay nice?

A little over a week ago, I cut some branches away and lifted the lid to deliver a pollen patty. In the “attic” above the top bars, the bees were on one side covering a sugar patty and milling about. The mice were on the other side. They had taken the paper plates that once held sugar cakes and shredded them into confetti and used them to build a nest. One mouse posed on a sugar cake like a hood ornament. Mice and bees seemed completely at ease with each other, something I found annoying. Why will they sting me but invite the mice to dinner?

I’ve set three traps three times but I’ve caught only one mouse so far. I don’t know how else to do it. I’ve flicked them out with a hive tool and plugged the obvious entrances, but without any help from the bees, the mice just come back. I keep thinking that as the colony expands, the bees will chase them away. It was in this very same hive that I found my first mouse skeleton. If I were a mouse, I’d think about that.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

My bees have mice now, but in 2011 they killed a mouse and left nothing but a skeleton.
This photo from 2011 shows what this colony did to a former resident. I’m hoping they might do the same thing again. © Rusty Burlew.

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Comments

Ivan Van Laningham
Reply

Argh. I hate you. You don’t even MEDICATE them? That is so unfair. I just lost my third colony in two years–which means I’m three for three–all to mites, despite medication (obviously not enough). Colony three was an all-volunteer affair, too. Next you’ll tell me that you have no mites in your top-bar hive. Insert sulky, pouty scowl here.

Rusty
Reply

Ivan,

I’ve thought about that a lot. I do treat the rest of my bees and that probably keeps the mite population lower within my apiary. I’m pretty sure my top-bar hive benefits from those treatments in an indirect way. Honestly, it’s hard to understand.

frances I Moore
Reply

Ha Rusty I always enjoy reading your writings they are great thanks for all your wonderful stories

Bobby
Reply

Why not place the hive on a metal stand that the mice can’t climb?

Rusty
Reply

Bobby,

Good idea but I’m afraid it would fall apart. It’s in rough shape.

Nicholas
Reply

It looks like the bees stung the mouse and I won’t say what else. I don’t see the mouse was welcome the whole time. When could it have left the hive?

Or how did something obvious to that mouse happen?

Rusty
Reply

Nicholas,

It could have left any time, I suppose. But maybe it got greedy and overstayed its welcome.

Chris
Reply

I love this story of your top-bar hive on some ironic/existential level. Maybe the bees will survive despite us. And we know the mice will!

Chris
Reply

But wait, earthworms?

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

I found them in the bottom board debris, but how they got there I don’t know.

Erik
Reply

Or perhaps your mice have bees? You never know, sometimes. I have both Langs and Top Bar Hives, and like them both. Maybe someday I’ll decide between them, just not yet. Really enjoyed the post!

Rusty
Reply

Erik,

I certainly have renewed faith in top-bar hives because of this colony. There’s something about it that suits the bees (and the mice).

Doug
Reply

Hmmm, mouse jerky… Just as good as a pollen patty?

Rusty
Reply

Doug,

Darn, I could have saved you some.

Tracy
Reply

A friend of mine told me a neat trick for catching mice. Use a small marshmallow and impale it on the bait tab on the trap. Then add a little peanut butter on top. When the mouse tries to pull the marshmallow off, well, SNAP!

Rusty
Reply

Tracy,

Sounds like a good idea, but in the hive I’m afraid the bees would go for the marshmallow. But peanut butter might work.

Dave Morris
Reply

Ha! That’s great. The bees are obviously doing their own great job of genetically selecting for mouse-tolerance and hardiness, and every year produces bees that are even more capable of resisting everything that nature throws at them. Meanwhile, other beekeepers prop up their bees with chemicals and things that select for bees that, well, have to be propped up all the time. Makes me wonder if we shouldn’t just sacrifice colonies that can’t survive varroa on their own and continue to breed bees that don’t need require a lot of human intervention. The only downside is a temporary decline in honey production. The upside is colonies that are more hardy and may eventually produce bumper crops of honey at a lower price of interventions.

Cheryl
Reply

OMG what a great story! Thanks. Maybe I will pull out my old one that all the bees died in the first year and put it out somewhere.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Drat it Rusty. Can’t you teach those mice to live a more useful life, send them out in the world building nice little homes for bumble bees instead?
Glen

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Hey again –
So I’m engrossed by the mouse, and am back staring at him (her) even before you’ve had a chance to reply. I’m asking “Who is the flenser?” and answering myself. It has to be the bees, because beetles or other follow-up foragers would have consumed the innards. Instead the meaty parts — brain and body cavity — remain, and only the loose crumbly bits — skin and hair — have been carted off. Not a typical out-in-the-open carcass. Glen

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

I’m glad you like my mouse. The teeth fascinate me…so perfect.

Nancy Ogg
Reply

Rusty,

If you have only the one top-bar, why are you taking out brood? Also, I guess they are foundationless?

Just curious: plenty of hobbies here between Langs and pregnant goats. I once found a mouse mummy on the bottom screen when moving a hive.

Thanks as always!
Nan
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, KY

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

Yes, they are foundationless, so I just cut the comb from the top bar and tie it into a frame. It requires a bit of trimming, but I’ve saved a few hives by boosting them this way. The top-bar colony is huge and makes up the difference in no time.

Margot Rideaux-Crenshw
Reply

Hello and thank you! Last year I had my first, thriving top bar hive. It did die in Jan after radical weather change. I believe they starved though there was a lot of honey in the hive. I am going to use it as a bait hive this spring, and am putting a package in a second TB with a plan to add a Minnesota hardy, local queen. It is experimental, but I will keep trying to find a way to make it work. I wish it was as effortless as yours! I love the TB hive. (Our Lang is doing well, going into third year with no human interference with queen change. Plan a divide this spring.) I would love to hear from more TB enthusiasts who are in cold climates.

Rusty
Reply

Margot,

It doesn’t get tremendously cold here; lows maybe in the high teens and low twenties. But all my Langstroths get feeders and quilts, but my top-bar hives receives nothing special. Truth is, I don’t understand it.

Margot Rideaux-Crenshw
Reply

PS: No one talks much about Varroa mites in top bar hives. The belief seems to be that they TB hives are so natural that other aspects of nature aren’t allowed in them…Ours did have some mites going into fall, probably from our Langstroth, so this year we will plan to treat the TB as well.

Keith
Reply

Does this colony produce swarms each year? If so, then that helps explain the reduced mite problems. Bees in an unmanaged horizontal hive tend to get honey bound very quickly, which leads to early swarming. Just like a feral colony in a hollow tree. The swarming produces a natural brood break. You could stick a division board in the middle of the hive and move the queen to the far side of the board just before swarm season. They might just fill up both halves of the box and keep the mice out.

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

Yes, this is the discussion we had at dinner last night. The hive swarms about three times a year, which is a great boost to mite control. I usually manage to catch a couple of them, and they make great colonies, but they don’t retain the mite resistance. The hive is 22 bars deep and usually fills to capacity by the beginning of summer.

Keith
Reply

22 bars is a bit small for easy management. It is probably very close to the optimum size for feral colonies, though.

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

That depends on the size of the bars. My bars are long and the hive is deep, so each comb is about twice the area of a Langstroth deep frame, so this is a huge hive.

Keith

Wow, that is a big top bar. If you lived in a hot climate they would be difficult to handle without breaking. My TBHs take 32 deep frames. They require a lot more manipulation to prevent swarming and keep up honey production compared to a Lang. If it gets cross-combed it is a big mess. When it has happened to me I’ve just let them swarm and try to cut out the snarled comb when the colony is small in the spring.

Antonio
Reply

Yes Rusty, just goes to show the bees don`t need you. You need the bees. At least I do.

Kevin Bales
Reply

Hi Rusty, I’m a relatively new beekeeper, going into my third season. I started the winter with 10 hives. 3 top bar, 6 langstroth, and an old box that a swarm decided to call home. I’ve lost 3 hives this year. 1 got knocked over by a pig that got loose, 1 a late swarm despite feeding, and my best hive with about 40# of honey still in it???? Now back on topic, in December I was checking my hives and flipped the lid off of a top-bar hive to find a rats nest, but just like the picture you posted, the nwr had been reduced to a pile of bones. Keep up the interesting posts!

Kevin Bales

Wanda
Reply

Hummmm…..Possibly we should all try feeding our colonies a mouse patty in the middle of winter……..

Rusty
Reply

Wanda,

All this talk about mice makes me realize I need to go check my traps again. Not looking forward to it.

Ken A
Reply

Hi Rusty,

The weather up here in the Great White North has turned cold again, back to 10 degrees Fahrenheit so I’m back to worrying about my girls again, no warm weather forecast for at least another week. I added a gallon of 1:1 syrup into a top feeder after reading your article about possible starvation after a warm spell could possibly start the queen laying early.

On another front, I’ve just received a “Flowhive” honey super from Australia, I had it delivered to my parents in Aussie and they shipped it to Canada. Worked out about $200 cheaper than buying from the dealer in the USA, go figure. Will be building a new hive with two deeps and and a medium for brood and the “Flowhive” on top. Will keep you posted on how it works out. Lots of positive stories about the concept.

I enjoyed your story about the mice, I don’t have a family inside my hive but have one living in the insulated space below the hive, I have a mesh bottom board that I leave open and the hive raised about 5 or 6 inches from the ground and this space insulated with two inch styrofoam. Was wondering whether I should take steps to evict them what do you think?

Rusty
Reply

Ken,

That’s cool. I would love to try a flow super if I could find one cheap, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. Yes, be sure to tell us about your experiences with it.

As long as the mice can’t get to the comb, they probably won’t hurt anything. They will rip a comb apart in no time, so that is the chief concern.

Renée
Reply

Rusty,

I talked to you last week and I’m a newbie because my first attempt at a top-bar hive also resulted with the bees dying off last summer by July. I find it interesting that a lot of the people who are commenting about their top-bars have had similar first year experiences. Weird. The summer before a friend had a Langstroth hive in my yard which also died before the fall. My husband is telling me not to put the bees in our yard- we live in a village- but to try my friend’s rural setting. She now has 2 Langstroth hives in her yard because her first one swarmed and she caught them. I’m happy to see hers doing so well, but of course was so disappointed about my hive- we both bought our bees from the same place. Everyone around here does Langstroth, but I was most interested in a top-bar and a Warré. Have you ever tried a Warré hive? All the talk about mice makes me cringe; definitely not something I’d welcome seeing in my hive. So no mouseguards for these hives, I’m assuming? Great that your top-bar has been thriving on its own all these years. Do you ever harvest honey from it or just use it for splits? Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

Renée,

No I’ve never tried a Warre but I’m thinking about it. You can put a mouse guard on a top-bar hive if you want. My hive is so old, I think the mice are getting in somewhere else. And no, I don’t take honey from my top-bar. I just use it as a source of bees.

Ivan Van Laningham
Reply

I don’t hate you any more, Rusty;-) Today I opened up my volunteer hive to clean it out and get ready for new bees next month. It was full of live bees. I’d turned over the top screen to block upper entrances, and reduced the lower entrance to the minimum. During the last few snows, the lower entrance had become blocked enough the girls couldn’t bring out their dead–and the corpses built up so much it blocked the entrance from the inside.

I flipped over the screen top, took out the entrance reducer, and cleaned out all the bee bodies I could reach using a hooked hive tool. My girls are now zooming in and out and visiting the local cherry tree blossoms. I’m chuffed!

I’m still going to get Russians–but only two hive’s worth, not three.

Rusty
Reply

Ivan,

All of that is very good news!

Jerry
Reply

Hi Rusty:

I’m just starting my second year of beekeeping (going from 2 to 4 hives). I was never able to find a mentor so your website has has been very helpful.

I lost the stronger of my initial two hives several weeks ago. It entered this winter very strong with a population too large to reduce to a single brood super. Starting in about December I was often scooping out large numbers of moldy bees from the entrance. I wasn’t sure exactly how much too much was without prior experience.

I’ve been diligent about mite control, winter feeding (drivert) and insulating the attic with burlap (vivaldi board with peaked copper roof).

In dismantling the hive I found a lot of moisture inside in spite of (I believe) good ventilation and insulation. I can’t see where the hive leaks so am trying to figure that out. My guess is the queen died quite a while ago, and the colony slowly followed.

New bees are ordered, but I’d sure like to avoid a repeat episode.

Thank you.

Jerry

Rusty
Reply

Jerry,

The moisture doesn’t come from the outside; it comes from bee respiration. The more bees, the more moisture. A moisture quilt will fix you up in no time.

Karen Peteros
Reply

I too have had the same experience with a top bar hive. I bought one (from the Sunset magazine staff who made and maintained two for an article and a few years later decided the survivor colony in one was good enough. I bought the empty top bar hive and installed a package of bees in it in April 2013. I have not done anything with it. When I try to inspect once or twice a year, I am always astounded to see paddle upon paddle of nothing but drones brood (a varroa nursery), which the bees use later in the year for honey storage. The colony persists without any “management”. I attribute its survival to breaks in brood rearing following swarming and/or inefficient supersedure but do not know for sure. Since 2009 when I began beekeeping, I have never had a colony able to persist as long as the one in the top bar hive.

Rusty
Reply

Hey Karen,

Interesting that you have the same situation. My top-bar colony fascinates me, but like you, I don’t know why it has persisted so well. I’ve always chalked it up to frequent swarming, but I sometimes wonder if the single-story configuration has anything to do with it.

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