Replacing comb influences colony health?

The bee research group in my country, bijen@wur, organized a symposium last month which I didn’t attend. One of the speakers there was bee researcher Dennis van Engelsdorp (weirdly dutch sounding last name, translates to “English village”).  He presented statistical data from a beekeeper survey that suggested that annually replacing to much of the comb (50% or more) negatively influences colony health. Often the idea of replacing comb is to prevent buildup of pesticides and/or pathogens, but it also looks ugly blackish comb. But the data shows that beekeepers who replaced 50% or more of their comb compared to beekeepers who don’t replace any, lose more colonies over winter.

It is unclear what causes this, the survey was not comprehensive enough for any analysis like that but the data is clear. They suggest not to replace more than about 20% of your comb annually. I was aiming to replace about a third of the comb but according to this information I will have to amend that. Apparently reusing comb from old colonies is also not advised as it also caused more winter deaths. The only problem is the lack of additional information in the survey. For instance it is unclear what the origins where of the reused combs. Perhaps the old colony died of disease.

So much is unclear, it wasn’t a study but only a survey. What is clear is that you shouldn’t renew  to much of your combs annually. See the accompanying video for yourself (there is also a link to the web page in its description):

One dead hive after all

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Apparently I was too soon with my celebration that both my hives survived winter. As it would seem that my second colony, which was the weakest by far, didn’t make it after all. There were apparently too few bees to make it through the colder nights since the last time I checked. Beside that the frames on the outside of the hive were filed with mold, quite badly (the first picture above). My parents made the discovery of the passing of the colony today. They also made the pictures. If I have to make an artificial swarm this year I’ll make sure to keep it at my local apiary so I don’t have to make the thirty minute drive to check on my bees in my parents garden. I also wasn’t taught that you could keep an artificial swarm next to the original colony, but you can (when taking the right precautions).

Looking at the top-bars  it doesn’t look good but reading this article (as well as this article from the same source) I gather that mold in a hive in/after winter is not so strange. This second colony had the old queen (from 2010) that I was going to replace this year anyway but loosing the entire colony was not part of the plan. I guess I’ll have to see it as a learning experience, that what I actually should have done is combine the colonies at the end of summer to create one strong one. But I reasoned that if I were to do that I would be left with one colony anyway because my first colony looked to be strong enough to survive winter I was in no real danger of losing that colony. So I gambled the second colony and I lost.

Now the time for questioning my decisions has arrived. What could I have done better? What could I have done to ensure the survival of the second colony. I think the answer to that is most likely that I shouldn’t have placed the hive in a food desert, which my parents home apparently is. There are some gardens in the vicinity, my mothers being one, but I guess they weren’t enough to support a viable colony, most is farmland. The smaller town at bout 3-4 kilometres (2-2,5 miles) apparently was slightly too far and/or didn’t have enough flowers for the bees.

To end on a more positive note; my wife took these pictures bellow in the city where we live. Crocuses are literally all over the place, especially in the parks but also by the roadside. I will visit my city bees in my first hive (to which I should simply refer to as “my hive”, as it now is my only hive) this weekend to do some housekeeping. Select which frames I will scrap this year and which will last for another year, reduce the size of the hive from two to one brood box and see if they need some additional feeding. Then I will leave them to their own devises for about two weeks?

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They survived winter!

Crocus, early pollen source

I went to visit my bees today and both colonies have made it through the winter! As you may remember from this post, I was unsure about the chances of my secondary colony. As long as the end of the winter keeps on being as warm as the first part was all will be well. I expected my primary colony to survive but I actually was expecting the secondary colony to have died, but they didn’t. Admittedly the secondary colony at my parents house are a pity full lot, they seemed to be happy with the sugar syrup I made for them. I’ll take a picture of the simple syrup setup (unintentional alliteration there) if I remember to do so. It’s a very simple setup, just a jar with syrup (1:1, sugar:water) with small holes in the lid placed on top of the  frames in a hole in the top cover (the holes are so small that the surface tension and the low pressure above the syrup keeps it from dripping out). I’m unsure as to what is the best method to provide the bees with extra food, at this time of year with this weather, the sugar syrup was my first inclination but perhaps bee candy/sugar candy/fondant would have been a better choice considering the possibility of fermenting, I’m not completely sure.

Winter has been extremely mild and so far. Last year the weather was lagging two weeks behind in spring now it seems that it will be two weeks early. This winter here in the Netherlands is going into the books as either the third or second warmest winter since they started recording the weather (for meteorologists the winter ends at the end of February). If it hadn’t been so warm I am quite sure my secondary colony would have perished.

I’d say there were between five hundred and a  thousand bees, occupying just one space between the frames in my secondary hive. I can’t wait till the weather warms a little more so I can do some spring cleaning in both hives, they are a mess. The hive at my parents house, what I call my secondary hive, is full of mold and dead bees. From the primary hive I took a frame out, away from where the bees were,  a frame almost directly against the outside of the hive. The outside of that frame had mold on it. So perhaps the honey/syrup inside wasn’t ready yet when the cold weather started or this is just something that can happen.

Mold frame
You can’t really see but this frame is full of mold, when zoomed in you can kind of see it as white and green spots (unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to take this picture myself)

I didn’t want to bother the bees to much so I left the inspection at that. The bees were already going out to forage, so were bees from other hives in the apiary. I didn’t spend much time checking if the bees were returning with pollen, as the crocus is in bloom here as well as the snowdrop. In the short time I did look I couldn’t see any bees returning with pollen. Shortly after the winter solstice the queen will start laying eggs again. Pollen is the most important resource right now because it is needed to feed the new larva, it is the bees only real source of protein. The larva are fed a mix of pollen and nectar called beebread.

Another thing the bees are able to do in this weather, and have most likely already done a number of days ago, is relieve themselves the so called “cleansing flights”. The worker bees don’t defecate inside the hive, so all through the cold weather they will be storing faeces in there intestine waiting for a spot of mild weather, with mild I mean a temperature above 8 degrees (47 Fahrenheit ). When the weather is milder the colony will “en mass” go for a flight outside the hive to take a “cleansing flight”. Imagine how you would feel after not taking a shit for a month or two. As the queen only eats royal jelly which hardly contains any indigestible components she doesn’t have to relieve herself nearly as often and if she does she will do this inside the hive and the worker bees will clean up the mess. Obviously royalty doesn’t have to concern itself with excrement.


PS, in doing some research on beebread I found this article about the possible  influence of bee pollen on osteoporosis and the possible influence of bee pollen on allergies do with it what you will.

Surviving the winter

Krant methode
Newspaper method

Making sure my colonies survive the winter period is, after egg laying workers and a queen-less colony the most stressful thing I have had to deal with. A colony needs to be big enough to have a chance of surviving the winter. During the winter time the bees will congregate into a ball of bees inside the hive. The bees have to keep this ball at a relatively constant temperature of around 18-35ºC (35ºC being an indication that the colony has brood), averaging at about 24ºC, even if the temperature outside gets as low as -15 ºC outside the hive. The bees will only be able to maintain this temperature when there are enough bees. The bees vibrate their flight muscles to generate heat. During winter many, many bees will die, only hives that can sustain this die off will survive.

A beekeeper is supposed to asses his colonies strength in late summer to early fall and decide if he thinks this colony will survive the winter or not. If there is any doubt the beekeeper should combine colonies to create a stronger colony of which he can be sure it will survive winter. A colony should  occupy at least 6 frames in a hive to have any chance of surviving the winter. If a colony doesn’t meet this requirement then the beekeeper should combine this colony with an other weaker colony. As I only have two colony I either combine them or I don’t.

The easy way to combine colonies is by placing a newspaper on top of an open hive box of the one colony and spraying the newspaper with sugar water. Then you place the brood box(es) of the second hive on top. The bees will have to eat through the newspaper to reach each other. The hypothesis is that by chewing through the newspaper they will all smell the same (newspaper ink) and hostility will be averted. You obviously will have to kill one of the two queens, do this a few days before uniting the hives and place the hive that still has it’s queen on top. Just parroting theory here…

As I was reasonably sure my original colony was big enough to survive winter I didn’t unite my two colonies, the colony that was the result of my artificial swarm was borderline big enough. But as I would end up with one colony either way, I chose the selfish option and I kept both colonies separate. I hope to start the next season with two colonies. I’ll be kicking myself if both colonies end up dying, that will be about 150 euro’s down the drain. I now know my original colony is still alive (because of the oxalic acid treatment I had to perform) but it wasn’t as large as I would have liked. And there are still 2 months of possible freezing weather ahead. If I were a religious man I would be praying, but me I’m just hoping for the best.


Winter ready

Feeding tray

Giving back to your bees something like what you’ve been stealing from them throughout the season. That is what you need to do at the end of august, after you are finished treating them against Varroa. Even though I didn’t see a drop of honey from them this year it doesn’t mean I don’t have to help them prepare for the coming winter. They need to have enough food stocked to be able to keep themselves warm throughout the cold period. You do this by feeding your bees with sugar syrup in a ratio of 3 to 2 sugar to water. A colony of bees will need about 15 kilo’s of food storage. Depending on how much honey your colony has left you will need to feed them  up to 15 kilograms of sugar or 20 liters of sugar syrup. You can present you bees this syrup in a few ways. Most often you will use a feeder like shown here on the left (2 liters). The bees will be able to empty a feeder like this in about a day. And they will store the syrup in the frames like they would do the honey. A kilogram of sugar is about the equivalent of a kilogram of honey for the bees and a full brood box comb of honey weighs about 2,5 kg.

But preparing your bees for winter isn’t all about food. You need to make sure your bees have the right amount of room, too much and they will have to use up too much energy to keep warm, too little and they will not have enough room to store all the food they will need during winter.


You can limit the room in the hive by replacing the outside frames with side frames in the hive as shown here on the right. You will also need to limit the opening to the hive to deter mice, move sealed frames to the outside of the hive so frames with winter store that is not jet sealed doesn’t mold, make sure there is enough ventilation so there will be as little condensation as possible.

Making the right decisions when preparing your colony for winter can mean the difference between life and death for an colony and for an inexperienced beekeeper this can bee a stressful time.


Waiting for a queen

En maar wachten
En maar wachten

After making an artificial swarm from my main colony, by taking a portion of the colony and the queen and putting them in a separate temporary hive box, my main colony had to make a new queen. They already had started by making queen cells before I made the artificial swarm, which is a good indication you need to take action or they will do it for you. I removed those queen cells because you want to know when you can expect a new queen. They had comb with new eggs so there was ample opportunity to make a new queen.

A few days after making the artificial swarm and taking the queen I went back to see if they had reacted to the emergency supersedure by making emergency queen cells. The had, I had to go through the entire hive an decide which two queen cells I wanted to keep. I ended up keeping three, you don’t want to keep to many or you still end up getting a swarm because of to many queens hatching, which can happen.

After two weeks I came back to check if the queens cells were empty. They were completely gone, the workers had already cleaned them up. Looking for the queen at this stage is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Normally is tough to find a queen even if she is marked, but a new queen is even more difficult to distinguish from worker bees. So I didn’t even try. It was easier to wait until you find eggs. I thought that little more than a week would be enough time for a new queen to get impregnated and start laying eggs. Apparently that wasn’t, there were no eggs to be found. I found out later that in a larger colony it can take the queen longer to start laying eggs. I got slightly worried then as at that time I thought I was also having trouble with my colony from the artificial swarm, it seemed the workers were laying eggs (more on that later)… So I was in a situation where I thought I had no queens and no eggs, so no opportunity for the creation of new queens. The honeybee season was nearing the end so there was not a lot of time for a new queen to get impregnated as at the end of the season all the drones die.

Just to be on the safe side I got a comb with eggs from a fellow beekeeper to see if the bees would make emergency queen cells on that comb. If they didn’t then I could be quite certain that I had a queen. After a few day I checked and the new comb was free of emergency queen cells so I could be sure I had a new queen, panic averted. Next more panic…


Swarm preventative measures

WP_001406After buying a bee colony which you will probably do in June or July, the important action you most likely will have to perform first is taking swarm preventative measures.

When a colony exceeds a certain number of bees it will want to swarm. If a colony becomes to big it will most likely overheat the hive, which will kill the colony. A colony will swarm irrespective of the amount of room it has. The colony will need a new queen to swarm, worker bees will initiate the swarming by building queen cells. The old queen will take about half the colony and leave the hive to find a suitable place for a new colony.

To prevent loosing half your colony you will have to anticipate the formation of a  swarm by being watchful and notice when the colony begins to make queen cells. When you notice queen cells you can immediately make an artificial swarm. If you’re not quite ready removing the queen cells will give you some time. When you have decided to make an artificial swarm there are a number of ways you can proceed, some methods require more work than others, I’ll cover a few here.

You will need to make a number of decisions when making an artificial swarm. You first decision concerns the old queen, do you keep her with the old colony or will she accompany the artificial swarm. When you put the old queen with the new colony the old colony will need freshly lain eggs (up to 3 days old) with which they can make a new queen. The same thing goes if you keep the old queen with the old colony, the new colony will need freshly lain eggs to create a new queen.

Then you have to choose where you want to place the new colony. If you want to put the new colony close to the old colony all the gathering bees will fly back to the old hive. You have to take that into account when adding bees to the artificial swarm as it will lose many bees to the old hive. The new colony also will need food to last until the younger bees start foraging. Also bees that are to young to forage don’t yet protect the hive, you will have to keep the hive entrance very small to ward of stealing, which bees will do. In time the young bees will be old enough that they will start to protect the entrance and go forage.

When you don’t place the new colony close to the old colony you have to make sure the distance to the old colony is at least 6 kilometers (3.7 miles), that is about as far as honey bees fly when foraging. Placing the hive inside that range will cause many bees to return to the old hive.

Getting a new queen in the old or new colony also takes some doing. When the bees notice that they are queen-less, which happens quite soon after they become queen-less, they will make what is apparently called a emergency supersedure (wiki) by converting a normal worker cell with a young egg into a queen cell and feeding the developing larva royal jelly. As beekeeper you should either remove all but two queen cells or be very attentive or risk an after swarm. The development of a queen takes about 16 days and the egg that occupied the cell that was made into a queen cell could have been as old as 3 days. After 13 days a beekeeper should start listening at the hive, if a queen has hatched you will be able to hear make a noise by vibrating against the comb. The queens still in their cells will do the same in their cells which will sound slightly different. When you notice this you will need to remove the other queen cells to prevent getting an aforementioned after swarm.

Mijn originele moer
My original queen

The new queen will most likely kill the virgin queens in their queen cells for you but just to be on the safe side removing them is best. Normally virgin queens will continue leaving the colony if they decide the colony is still to large. Having one artificial swarm per year is most often enough. Needing a second one is very rare.

An other thing you can do, instead of letting the colonies make their own queen, is introduce a new fertilized queen from a pure breeding line. You can do this to get a colony with more desirable traits, like docility, increased honey production and low swarm tendency. However doing this is something for the more experienced beekeeper, because it can go wrong and the bees may not accept the new queen and kill her.

After a number of generations of queens from a pure line queen the colony will lose the traits associated with the original subspecies of the first queen. They will most likely become more aggressive and the tendency to swarm will increase. Swarm management is one of the most important tasks in beekeeping, only varroa treatments are about as important to the survival of you colony.


New beekeeper

imker cursus
Looking for the queen

Also through my background as a biologist, even though I’m not a entomologist or anything, I am interested in everything animal and science related. Because I keep up with current issues related to the natural world I knew of the plight of the bees, not only the honey bees. Even before I knew this I have been trying for years for my parents to get bees in their garden. Although I know now that wouldn’t have worked without a load of help. As I have been, fruitlessly, trying for a long time I thought it time to take some initiative and research the profession of keeping bees. Together with my mom I went to visit a view day for the north Netherlands beekeeping society. After talking to the beekeepers there we learned that the next year an introductory course would be given in beekeeping.

We decided to enroll for this class. The course started in the beginning of the year in February and would last until the beginning of the fall in October and would end in an exam where we would receive a diploma stating we were beekeepers. Which would not allow us to do anything we would otherwise not be allowed to do except take an “expert” course the next year. We would get 7 theoretical lessons and 10 practical lessons throughout the beekeeping season. We were told to buy a book that would serve as basic course theoretical information. The practical lessons were given at a beekeeping society apiary where the had a number of bee colonies specially for the students, which were….. . As you shouldn’t bother the bees when it’s to cold we started the course with a number of theoretical classes, which lasted longer than anticipated because of the cold weather at the beginning of last year.

The theoretical lessons were slightly dry so to speak, without practical interaction with the bees. It would have been better when the theoretical classes would have been given together with the practical lessons. It would have put the lessons in perspective and made them better to grasp as we could have related the theory with practice.

So started my journey on the road to being an apiarist. The course is only a begining and will not make you an experienced beekeeper but you have to start somewhere. I now continue my journey of learning by letting them teach me what I need to know.