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Tinkering in the bee yard

My favorite part of beekeeping is tinkering with the hives, trying a crazy idea I heard somewhere, or experimenting with a new piece of equipment. The process of learning, tweaking, and improvising is much more exciting to me than seeing how many pounds of honey I can squeeze from a hive. In some years, all my tampering goes awry and I end up harvesting nothing. In other years, I’m floating in the sweet stuff. But as long as I learn something—good or bad, positive or negative—I consider the season a success.

The time I spend with experimentation is a form of bee zen, an opportunity to be outside with the insects and the flowers and the sky. I often confer with cats—“Should it go this way or that?” I ask—but end up doing things my own way most of the time. The best part is leaving all the technology inside.

How many projects I get to try depends on how many colonies I can overwinter and how strong they are. This past winter came on the heels of severe summer and fall nectar dearths, and my bees have been struggling for months on nothing but sugar and pollen substitute. So far, they are hanging on, but I can feel them getting weaker by the day. Sometimes I feel like they will make it; on other days I wonder how many more rainy days they can take.

Still, I’ve been trying to think positive thoughts and prepare for this year’s try-its. Some are new and some I’ve tried before. My list of projects looks like this, assuming I have enough strong colonies:

  • Double queen hive. This will be my first attempt at a double queen hive. I will be using the technique described by Bill Hesbach of Connecticut. The only difference is that I intend to stack comb honey supers on the double colony instead of extracting supers.
  • Upper entrances in honey supers. I will soon begin drilling upper entrances in my comb honey supers, as described by Anthony Planakis of New York. I’m planning on one entrance for every two supers, at least to start. I may increase that once I see it in action.
  • Temporary comb honey hive. If I can catch a swarm (big if, but I often get three or four) I am going to set up a temporary comb honey producer. The idea is to put a swarm with its queen (she’s likely an older queen) in a shallow box with a single frame of brood to keep it from leaving. On top of the shallow you put a queen excluder and then honey supers. Because swarms are primed to build comb, they should build it and fill it before there is enough brood for the colony to swarm again. As soon as the nectar flow is over, the bees can be combined with another colony and the queen used for another purpose, or not. Timing is everything with this one—it will happen very fast or not at all.
  • Pollen trapping. As I explained earlier, this will be my first year collecting pollen. I intend to freeze it to use as a mid-winter or early spring feeding supplement. I also want to prise apart some of the pellets, peer at the pollen under a microscope, and see if I can learn where it came from.
  • Open-centered dahlias. Every year I experiment with a new plant (new to me, that is) and this year it will be open-centered dahlias, compliments of Ellen Gehling, a Washington beekeeper. According to what I’ve read, the older varieties of open-centered dahlias are extremely attractive to all kinds of pollinators including honey bees. I may plant sunflowers again, too, but they have to be shorter than Lemon Queens; It’s hard to photograph bees from the top of an eight-foot step ladder.
  • Glass jar beekeeping. This one is not new. Last year my bees actually built comb in my mason jars, but they never filled the combs with honey. Just as they started building, the nectar dearth arrived, and I don’t believe a single cell got filled. The jars look cool, but I was disappointed with the results. If enough colonies make it through till spring, I will try again. This one is a wait and see.

So that is my list unless something else turns up within in the next few weeks. What about you? Do you have a special project for the coming year that you want to tell us about?


Bee with me . . .

Are you setting up your first hive and wondering where to put it? The three parties to consider are the bees, the beekeeper, and the public. Check out my thoughts on hive placement at Natural Apiary.

Rusty


Bee on dahlia Ellen Gehling
Open-centered dahlia. © Ellen Gehling.
Honey bees on dahlia
Honey bees on dahlia. Pixabay photo.

Note: this post contains affiliate links.

Comments

richard anstis
Reply

Totally agree. Except of course reading your posts…that’s pretty close to the top too.

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Richard. So sweet.

dgrc
Reply

Our big experiment this year is a top bar hive in a cold northern climate. When we recently discussed this with some Big Name Academic Beekeepers said it couldn’t be done, then they said it never had been done, then they said they said they didn’t know if it ever had been done. We’ll find it not, if it can be done, but can we do it.

The small experiment is extending my hive monitoring gizmos to include more sensors, data logging and transmission over WiFi, and maybe some active environmental controls like vents and fans to reduce dangerously high winter humidity.

Rusty
Reply

How far north are you? I have found that my top-bar hive is the easiest to care for of all my hives, has no trouble overwintering, and always has a huge population. It’s also the hive I never treat, and it’s had the same colony in it for over 6 years. I don’t always agree with Big Name beekeepers, and I think lots of times they have never tried the things they say will never work. I don’t have any electronics in my TBH, I just let it do whatever. I steal from it though. Ever year I take queen cells, brood, workers . . . whatever I need for my other hives.

dgrc
Reply

We’re in a Twin Cities MN suburb. That puts us in USDA Zone 4 with just a little urban heat island help. Last winter I recorded -15°F and 65% relative humidity outside the Langstoth hive and +70°F and 43% RH inside the top deep of three, just under the moisture board. The hive had a waxed cardboard box cover and was out of the wind but otherwise unprotected. I’m not too concerned about the temperature or the assumed poor thermal characteristics of a horizontal top bar hive — I have a cheap homebrew approach to hive monitoring so I’ll know how well one hive handles the weather. I’m more concerned about my limited general experience leading me to make bad decisions.

Eddy Radar
Reply

Big names like Les Crowder and Corwin Bell are all about top bars!

dgrc
Reply

Yup, I ordered my TBH from Corwin Bell. He and the rest of Backyard Hive seem like good, knowledgeable folks.

Kim
Reply

Hi Rusty-
I am new to beekeeping and thank you for your articles and great information!!

Kim

Rich
Reply

Did you intend to “prise” apart, or “pry” apart” some of the pellets?

Rusty
Reply

Rich,

Prise 😉

Laura
Reply

Rusty,
I’m tinkering with the double queen hive and upper entrances this year too, ideas I got from your posts. When you put the super over the center of your two brood chambers, are you going to put a sheet of paper between for a slower introduction or just go for it with a queen excluder?

I thought I was ready to combine my two hives Monday, but when I pushed them up snug together, the SBB weren’t exactly flush and there was a gap under the queen excluder. So I built a stand to hold the two hives level (vs. cinder blocks I thought were leveled).

Rusty
Reply

Laura,

I’m just going to use the excluders. The workers usually don’t go through them until they have a good reason to, and I think that in the meantime they will adjust to the odor of the combined hive. At least, that’s my theory.

My husband built a double hive stand for me. I will post a photo in a few days. If you have a photo of yours, I’d love to see it and post it.

Laura
Reply

I look forward to reading about your experience with it. This morning I moved both hives to the new stand I made, pushed them up next to each other, and put a super over the straddling excluder. The two hives still weren’t perfectly flush, which my husband says is due to loose tolerances in the hive components. But the space is pretty small, so I went with it. Good luck to us both!

Christa Pihl
Reply

I keep two TBH at the Connecticut shoreline. We get nasty cold winds and the hives have survived the last two winters beautifully. They have mesh bottoms which I close during the worst time of the year.

Bill Hesbach
Reply

Good luck with that double queen system, I think you’ll have lots of fun with it. My adventure this year is with high-density poly hives – I purchased three Lyson hives. They’re light and offer year-round insulation, so they should provide some interesting comparisons to conventional thin wooden boxes.

margot
Reply

I am dgrc’s wife. We are near Minneapolis, Mn. After a lot of apprehension about using the top bar here, we are looking forward to this challenge. Our first Lang hive overwintered OK. I don’t think we will be using FANS, but I’ll talk to dgrc at home about that!

Tyrel
Reply

Hi Rusty. I’ve seen you mention examining trapped pollen a few times now, and was wondering if you had a (or several) resource for pollen identification. I too have been interested in this, but wouldn’t have any clue what I’d be looking at. Any suggestions?

Rusty
Reply

Tyrel,

I know some people who help me, but I’ve been thinking about creating a list of sources for pollen i.d. and your comment has got me thinking about it again. I’ll see what I can come up with. There are many databases online with photos, but you need to know the plant first. There is a paperback book called Pollen Identification for Beekeepers that starts at $100. Not very good for most people.

dgrc
Reply

Here’s a potential resource for DIY pollen identification — everything from simple observation to kitchen science to the scanning electron microscope we all have in our basements.

https://u.osu.edu/beelab/files/2014/08/Johnson_Lin_Webinar_081914_handout-1-1z6bl1d.pdf

It would be cool for a group to use a common approach, share data, etc. I could easily imagine a virtual reference collection of pollen samples from known sources prepared using a standard, simple, easy to replicate technique.

Bryan Maryland zone 7
Reply

I built a few long hives this winter. I’m hoping to split off few nucs from them.

Kristi
Reply

Enjoy your site, Rusty!

I normally place swarm traps around my backyard/apiary and catch swarms from the vast wooded areas that surround me. I normally leave a swarm in a trap that’s up in a tree for a few days, until I see pollen going in and am confident that they will accept the box and stay. At this point, I close the trap at night, remove it from the tree, then use the technique you’ve described for moving bees a short distance–which entails closing them up for 2-3 days at a permanent location in my backyard apiary. (During this time I provide ventilation and sugar water to keep everyone comfortable.) After they are opened up and reorient to new location, I’ll give them about a week before I disturb them, at which point, I’ll go in and look for queen, etc, and transfer everyone from swarm trap into a permanent hive body. By this time, almost 2 weeks have passed since their capture.

Rusty, the thought of using a swarm for cut comb honey is interesting, but I need some help visualizing the strategy you plan to use to get a swarm set up with a frame of brood, queen excluder and cut comb honey frames in less than 2 weeks. I would greatly appreciate a brief outline of the steps and timeline you plan to take to get this to work. If I am using swarms caught so close to my apiary, is it possible for me to even try this?

Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Kristi,

I’m in the process or writing detailed instructions for this, but I will try to give you a shortened version.

1. Set up a bottom board, add a queen excluder, and then a shallow box containing frames and foundation.
2. Catch a swarm, but do not give it time to orient. Just catch it and put it in a cardboard box.
3. Take a frame of brood from another hive making sure there is no queen.
4. Cut down the frame to fit the shallow (if necessary) and put it near the center of the shallow box.
5. Dump the swarm into the shallow and add the hive cover. (The excluder and the brood will keep the swarm from leaving.)
6. After a day or two, take the excluder from under the shallow and put it on top of the shallow. (Once they start building a nest, you don’t need the excluder anymore.)
7. Add honey supers.
8. By the time that colony has enough bees to swarm, comb honey season will be over.
9. Once the supers are removed you can set the colony up in a permanent box or combine it with another.

Kristi
Reply

I’ve got the picture now, and am anxious to try this. Rusty, thank you so much! Fun Stuff!

Ken
Reply

I have a friend who got into beekeeping with a little help from me and he built a very nice top bar hive. we populated it with a swarm and it is now in the third year of living bees. This is in S.E. Idaho, at almost 5,000 ft, 100 miles from Yellowstone Park, (which often earns the coldest spot in the nation status). Bees do survive!
Ken

Laura
Reply

Rusty,
I had an epiphany early this morning. I’m setting up to start a woodworking project that will use pocket-hole joinery. My first thought when I woke was, “that would work perfectly for the upper entrance landing!” So I tried it today. Using pocket holes, you only need one piece of wood and the screw holes are on the bottom.

I’m doing my first inspection of my double-queen hive tomorrow. I peeked in the honey super a few days ago and it was almost full already but not capped yet. They started with 7 drawn but empty frames last week.
Happy beekeeping!
Laura

Rusty
Reply

Laura,

That sounds exciting! Pictures? I’m still feeding mine sugar cakes. The rain will just not quit.

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