Our backyard bees get a make-over

Morning, March 21: Snow and ice on the ground. Wintered hives are in two deeps.

First the good news:  They survived.  Then, the reality: Kinda weak.

For the past few days, it’s been mild (15C, or 50F), so my 16-year-old and I did a complete backyard bees make-over. Mind you, looks aren’t everything, but this was a more serious make-over than I get when I drag a brush through my morning hair and teeth. The two-storey wintered hives are now singles, brood repositioned, bottoms emptied of dead bees, frame-feeders filled, pollen supplement smeared over top bars, frame-rests scraped, and honey-frames relocated.

Following, I show how we worked the over-wintered hives, step-by-step. We opened our two hives in turn, completely finishing one before moving on to the next hive.

1) We gently puffed (just a little) smoke into the upper entrances. I wintered in double-deep Langstroths. Hive bodies are polystyrene with R6 insulation (compared to R 0.75 for 3/4-inch wood). There was no exterior insulation, so we didn’t need to unwrap winter insulation material – a task I never liked when I ran my commercial honey farms.

2) The bees wintered with smaller populations than I’d like. All the bees in both hives were in their upper boxes. Daniel removed the hive lid, placing it upside-down, on the ground, near the hive. The lids had bees in them. Those bees stayed on their upside-down lid through the entire process. The upper box (which had the bees, queen, and brood) was placed catty-corner on the inverted lid. This way, no bees were hurt and we could get into the bottom box to examine it. It’s hard to see, but the box on the right is the second chamber, sitting at an angle atop the inverted lid on the ground.

3) We took every frame out of the bottom chamber, separating honey frames from empty ones, leaning the frames against my nearby wooden bench/seat. We scraped a few handfuls of dead bees and debris off the bottom board, making it nice and clean. Don’t panic if it looks like there are a huge number of dead bees (photo, left). Unless, of course, the whole colony is dead. Then, panic is justified. In our case, those dead bees represent natural death over five months and the colonies were actually OK. It looks worse than it is. If you see signs of dysentery (we didn’t), then you need to consider fixing something. After cleaning up the bottom, we placed a frame feeder into the totally empty bottom box which sat atop the nicely cleaned bottom board. I used my hive tool to scrape propolis and wax from the frame rests before putting the feeder into the chamber.

4) The bees and brood were in the upper box, still perched nearby on the inverted cover. Starting from the end frame farthest from the main cluster, Daniel removed that frame. Since it was empty, we set it aside. If it had had some honey, it would have gone into the empty box sitting on the clean bottom board. In this way, we transferred the frames of brood, as well, looking very quickly for any sign of sick brood. (Luckily, there wasn’t any.) In the end, the top box was emptied of all frames, the lower box received all the brood and some frames of honey. By the way, in transferring the brood, we were careful to keep the combs in the same order as they had been, not disturbing the cluster shape. It is still March and the weather is unstable here. We didn’t want to risk splitting the brood nest.

5) We filled the division-board (frame) feeder with syrup that I’d made in the morning from 8 litres of water (which weighs 8 kilograms) and 8 kilos of sugar. By the way, you can use organic sugar, which Costco sells for three-times the price of regular sugar. This is a steep premium, but if you feed ten kilograms (25 lbs) in the spring, it will cost about $20 more than feeding non-organic. I’m just mentioning this because one of the local organic certifiers allows organic sugar to supplement the bees. We also placed a splotch of pollen supplement above the brood nest on the top bars. Again, if you’d like to go organic, you can trap a little pollen and blend it with organic sugar (or some of your own honey from disease-free colonies), along with organic whey and a bit of organic water.

6) We closed the lid on the (now) single-story hive, quickly placed all the extra (mostly empty) combs into the empty deep rim, and Daniel-the-sixteen-year-old hustled everything to the garage where it will wait a few weeks before being placed back on the singles to make them doubles again.

So, both of our backyard colonies survived. One is just fine – it even had sealed brood spanning three frames. The other is really weak – maybe a pound of bees and just a single patch of brood. I’ve ordered a new package which I’ll install over screens above the weak hive, then eventually combine the weak colony and the package. Maybe I’ll have a two-queen colony for a few weeks in the spring, we’ll see.

So, the hives were inspected for disease, cleaned of dead bees and wax bits, fed protein and carbs, and made cozy in singles. The latter step may seem unnecessary, but consolidating the bees in one box when they don’t need two at this time of year (at least here in Calgary) conserves heat and increases the colony’s defences. Some beekeepers will say that small colonies of bees are “less demoralized” than they’d be in a big, hollow, 2-storey hive. That’s bestowing a bit of an anthropomorphic spirit upon the bees, but there might be some truth to it.

Afternoon, March 21: Spring hives are now in single deeps.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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7 Responses to Our backyard bees get a make-over

  1. Ron Young says:

    It surprises me that your boxes are on the ground. I realize they have their own base but still it seems counter intuitive to not have some elevation from ground based eco system and dampness. BTW I read your blog as soon as I see it every time, fascinating and informative, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks, for the kind comments!
      The advantages of having the hives touch the ground are that heat from the earth is warmer than the arctic air that would occupy the space below a hive stand. Also, this keeps the height of the hives lower in the summer when hives here have two deeps and a number of honey supers. Moisture is not a problem in southern Alberta (We have Montana’s climate.) if the location has good air drainage. This spot sits on a south-sloping hillside.


  2. Pat says:

    Hi Ron, newbie here. Why wouldn’t you just make the top box the bottom box instead of transferring all the frames from the top to the bottom? I thoroughly enjoy your blog and read every one. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks for reading, Pat.
      And thanks for the excellent question. Two reasons:
      1) Transferring the frames one at a time forced me to look at each comb, dislodge a few dead bees, inspect for disease, and cull any bad combs. But that could still be done without taking all the frames out of the bottom and moving all the top ones down, though my method forced a close examination of the frames.
      2) This was my first winter with these polystyrene hive bodies. When I bought the setup, the equipment came in bundles of a lid, 2-hive bodies, and a bottom board. The bottom was bolted to one of the hive bodies. I wasn’t sure if I would leave the bees in the same spot all year so I left the bottom bolted to the lower chamber. It’s still bolted on. Rather than releasing it, I’ve left it stuck together, forcing me to move frames rather than reverse boxes.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. valbjerke says:

    I did the same last week – excepting I swapped boxes and left the empty with honey and a few empty frames above and put the candy board back on top. I didn’t think to simply remove the empty and downsize to one chamber. I did slide the insulation blanket back on. On my next hive check I’ll keep that in mind and likely remove the second box – makes sense.


    • Ron Miksha says:

      Here in the cold north, I’m a strong advocate of keeping insulation on (as you did) until around May first. My equipment is made of insulation material, so the colonies will stay warm late into the spring. Single stories might be hard for some beekeepers to re=wrap if they go from doubles to singles, but it might be worth it. Unless the hive is strong, they might not easily reach the candy board if it is above an unpopulated second chamber.

      Liked by 1 person

      • valbjerke says:

        That makes total sense – I’m looking ahead for a warm forecast to go back in. I did put frames of honey from last year in the brood box. When I was in I seen larvae and called brood and watched some bees emerge…..I’m hoping my home invasion didn’t mess all that up.

        Liked by 1 person

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