Our “Newbee Questions, Expert Answers” series, takes the questions of a curious, fascinated, worried, perplexed and sometimes downright confused “newbee” and provides expert responses.
In this edition…
Mark's hive is thriving. His queen is active and the hive is getting heavier by the day. He's starting to look ahead at what the summer brings and Ron has some advice.
Mark: I am really eager to make sure my bees don’t swarm. Right now I have a single box and my bees have comb on 7-8 frames. So, I put another box on top. I think I did this in time, because they are still there! But then it crossed my mind – what is the harm in installing the second box too early, even if they still have space in the lower box?
Ron: You should add the next box when the bees are using 70 percent of the frames, so adding a box when you did was just about right.
There’s really no harm in adding a box early. If you do so the bees will move up and likely not make use of all the space available in the first box. If you were to add, say, four or five boxes, the bees would “chimney” right up the middle of the boxes to the top, making use of only a few frames in the middle of each box.
Mark: I am not looking for any honey yield in this first year. So, I am not using a queen excluder. But next year I’d be interested in some honey. If I don’t install a queen excluder does all the brood get mixed in with the honey on the upper boxes?
Ron: It could, but I prefer to let the bees decide what to do. This usually only happens in the middle frames where the brood nest is and later in the season the bees will often fill the cells with honey after the brood has hatched. So I never worry about it. The frames on the outside of the box will almost always be honey and you can take honey from different boxes as long as you leave enough for the bees. Keep in mind a queen excluder is a barrier and it makes the bees work that much harder.
Queen excluders are sometimes referred to as honey excluders.
Mark: If beekeepers worry so much whether their bees have enough honey reserves for the winter, why isn’t it possible to just buy a box of frames with honey already on them? Is it important that the honey actually be produced by the bees?
Ron: Question 1 - I’m sure if you checked around you could probably find a box of frames filled with honey for sale. I’m also sure you probably wouldn’t want to pay the asking price and it would likely be more than a new package of bees!
Question 2 – I’m still looking for that other illusive insect that produces honey. Until then, yes, the honey needs to be produced by the bees. Seriously, you should not feed store bought honey to your bees. The majority of commercial honey is heated to 180 degrees to avoid crystallization. Under these temperatures the fructose breaks down and produces hydroxymethylfurfural which is toxic to bees. If you have a hive that is entering winter short of honey you can borrow honey from another hive or feed the bees a fondant.
Mark: Is there such a thing as a “hive heater” for the winter?
Ron: I’ve never seen one, possibly because I’ve never looked for one, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was such a contraption out there. Except in extreme circumstances there really wouldn’t be a need for one. Healthy bees deal with cold temps quite well and my own hives survive sub-zero temps every winter. A healthy colony with sufficient winter stores only needs to be insulated or sheltered from wind. Be careful if wrapping your hives as they need to breathe so the water vapor the bees produce can escape.
Mark: Why don’t Langstroth boxes have “viewing windows”, as is so popular on Warre and Top Bar? Seems like it would be really cool!
Ron: Some do, but they are not particularly common. That may simply be because the original design didn’t have one. I have seen a few with windows, but they were made by the beekeeper.
Mark: My bees took virtually nothing from my feeder for a week or so. So, when I installed my second box I removed the feeder. Then, of course, we had two days of cold and wet weather. Now I am wondering whether they need a feeder again. Since they seem pretty established can I assume they don’t need a feeder for the rest of the summer?
Ron: Your bees prefer real nectar over honey syrup and once they find sufficient local sources of nectar they will usually quit taking the sugar water. Unless the short cold spell took away the nectar flow it’s unlikely you would need to resume feeding.
Mark: I spotted my queen moving over some pretty white comb. As I watched her, I noticed that she just seemed to be moving around, never hovering over any cell to lay an egg. Is that OK?
Ron: She’s probably just shy! More than likely she is just searching for where she will lay next. If you are finding eggs in the hive all should be well.
Mark: When I inspect my hive, I am not sure how precise I need to be in placing the frames back in same order? For example, if I take a frame that is near the center and end up with it being near the outside after my inspection is that a problem?
Ron: A frame from the center is likely to be full of brood. Nurse bee won’t leave the brood, but if it gets cold and the bees cluster into a tight ball the brood you left on the outside of the hive box could be left uncovered and die. The frames should always be put back in the same order you found them.
Mark: What about if I turn the frame around to look at the other side but forget to switch it back around the same way when I place it back in the hive. Is that a problem?
Ron: Let’s assume there was brood on the inside of the frame and stores on the other side. When it’s put back in the hive turned around the brood will likely still be OK, but you’ve just created a lot of work for the bees. Most likely they will remove the stores from the side of the frame that’s now facing to the inside and move them to another place in the hive.
Mark: I have had my hive for about six weeks now. I decided to “flip” my entrance reducer to the smallest opening (an inch or two) to the next opening (maybe 5-6 inches). But it was a complete guess on my part. Are there any specific signs I should have looked for first?
Ron: If your new colony is growing you will see the foraging bees stacking up at the entrance trying to get in when they return from the field. The small opening won’t be large enough to accommodate the increasing numbers. Normally, by the time the colony grows to that point the weather is getting warm and the hive may not be ventilated well enough.
On a warm and sunny day you might see bees lined up across the front of the entrance “fanning” to cool the hive, but they are unable to do their job effectively because the opening to the hive is mostly closed.