On Your Marks…

Blackberry buds, May 11, 2015, Richmond, BC

Blackberry buds, May 11, 2015, Richmond, BC

I see the blackberry buds began to set this weekend in the Vancouver, BC, Canada area.

Heads up: we have had an incredibly warm spring, with the perfect mix of rain and sun. The long range forecast for our area is calling for more mixed sun and rain, with two weeks of hot sunshine at the end of May and the beginning of (our usually cold and wet) June.

All signs then, are pointing to an early and copious nectar flow. Get the honey supers on and the bottling line ready!

As if that were not enough bounty, the spring maple and hawthorn flow was unusually high in my area as well. Brood nests plugged up early and unexpectedly with nectar and honey, so I am busy swapping out honey filled deep frames in the broodnest for drawn comb and waxed plastic foundation. Got caught by surprise!

Rethinking the Honey Math

from the "Counting Bees" computer game!

from the “Counting Bees” computer game!

In early 2014 I wrote a post on honey math, and the numbers involved in meeting the dominant nectar flow in our area, which is blackberry bloom, roughly June 15 in average years.

Putting aside the fact that, alas, 2014 was anything but an average year (with endless sun but complete drought in which the blackberries bloomed 2 weeks early, over a shortened bloom period, with little nectar), I was not happy at all with my honey math.

After a wonderful spring build up, hives were putting up queen cells quite early and in big numbers. I hoped that taking the queen cells out in small splits would allow the mother hive to continue to build well toward the nectar flow. But it didn’t work out that way. While some did better than others, I found the spring splits failed to build well, and in general, their making sapped the mother hive of essential momentum.

,Nucs in March from emgoldbeekeepers.com

,Nucs in March from emgoldbeekeepers.com


Lots of reasons.

But the biggest? I made a fundamental error in computing my honey math, which was based on the simple idea that at any one time, the maximum hive population can only be the total that results from “eggs laid per day” x “average lifetime of bees in the hive”. For the purpose of the thought experiment, I used a healthy lay rate of 1500 eggs per day and a worker lifetime of 4-6 weeks. That gives us a maximum colony population of between 42,000 and 63,000 bees at any one time.

To meet the nectar flow on June 15 with a maximum number of foragers and maximum hive population to support those foragers, the queen needs to have been laying (and the hive successfully raising) 1500 eggs a day for 4-6 weeks plus the incubation time of a worker bee egg, which is 21 days, or another three weeks on top of the 4-6. And the youngest possible foragers are going to be 43 days old = 6 weeks.

What I failed to factor in was the ability of the colony to:

1. have a queen at peak lay rate 6-9 weeks before the nectar flow

2. have a population capable of keeping the resulting brood warm, fed and growing

Six weeks before June 15 is May 1st. Nine weeks before June 15 is March 15. The weather here in March is dreadful! It is still quite chilly, although above freezing, and rainy. There won’t be much food out there even on the sunny days (although Red Alders and Big Leaf Maples are going to be starting to bloom). The colony will be expending lots of energy on the simple task of keeping warm, and will have reduced ability to feed well.

If you are starting with a package on March 15, you will have a very different experience than starting with a nuc, even if bee populations are equal. That package must draw comb before the queen can lay, and then once she does begin to lay, there will be a 21 day stall in the population…indeed a fall in the population as older bees in the package pass away…until it can begin building, as is the way of the bee. But the nucleus colony already has brood coming along, as much as it can manage. And while the package is waiting for the new bees to hatch, the nucleus colony is hatching out brood from day 1. The queen may not be at peak laying rate in the nucleus colony, simply because her rate of lay is limited by how much area is available, how much area the bees can keep warm, and how many larvae they can keep fed. But even if she is laying a pallid 250 a day, that nucleus colony is going to arrive at the 21 day mark with 5250 more bees than the package will.

And an overwintered colony will be just that much larger (we hope) than a nucleus colony, and HRH is probably capable of laying at peak rates IF the larvae can be fed. At even 1000 eggs per day, that’s 21,000 more bees than the package will make in the 21 days from March 15, and nearly 15,000 more than the nuc. Ahem.

So my first re-think of the Honey Math is that feeding colonies in early spring, to ensure they always have abundant food with which to keep warm and raise optimal brood, is essential. Overwintered colonies are going to hit the ground running, and I can help them by making sure the queen has lots of room to lay, in spite of the syrup feed coming in. The better care they can take of the queen and their larval sisters, the better my chances of fielding big, strong hives for the nectar flow.

from beemaniacs.com

from beemaniacs.com

Plenty and Grace


It is what we all dream of. Fat, healthy bees literally spilling out of the hive as we pry up the inner cover. Loads of bees. Gobs and gobs of bees!

But we have all opened up the cover to something different. Crushingly different. The empty combs, a few lonely bees wandering about. A tiny, rag-tag court huddled around a bewildered queen, loyal to the (soon to arrive) end.

Your heart sinks, and you ask yourself “what have I done?

I had my share of disappointments this season. Varroasis, caught too late. Queenlessness or swarming, caught too late. The chagrin of realizing I had left a stick of queen lure in a hive that was meant to be raising a queen cell. EFB. Drought and attendant low or vanished nectar flow. Competition from banks of pollination hives. Bad advice, noob thinking. In my first two seasons of beekeeping, we had perfect bee seasons. Nectar and pollen levels were high, the weather perfect. It didn’t matter how inexperienced or unlearned I was, the bees throve. Not this year. It seemed everything that could go wrong, did go wrong!

I was, variously, angry, disappointed, frustrated. I had a lot of thinking to do. Clearly, I had to learn more about what I had done…and what I hadn’t done.

Fortunately, I had decided to tackle the Washington state Journeyman Beekeeper Program. My study group and group mentors were enormously helpful and a rich source of local beekeeping knowledge. I had also come across an interesting local Facebook page, for Miller Compound Bees (run by beekeeper Lauri Miller). I was taken by Lauri’s photographs of bursting hive populations and truly enormous queens.

My hives did not look like that. My queens did not look like that.

One thing immediately became obvious: Lauri runs largely for nuc/queen production = reproduction. And she feeds her hives heavily as a consequence. In study group, we happened to be discussing Spring Management. I had been struggling with the how and why of spring feeding, wary of building the hives up and actually pushing them to swarm….my neighbour is not too happy about swarms. My mentor suggested a few resources to review, and then went on to say:

Janet, I would rather deal with the single problem a big, booming hive presents (swarming), than the host of problems weak and small hives are heir to (disease, pests, robbing, poor reproduction, poor queen raising, poor honey production, poor viability particularly over winter).


That became my lightbulb moment.

A large, well fed, robust colony presents you with options. Good options. Fun options. Options that move you toward your beekeeping goals.

Weak hives don’t. And while you pour time and resources into a struggling hive, you are taking a huge risk with the rest of your beeyard. Is this hive on its knees because of bad genetics? Is the queen just substandard, and her offspring as well? Unable to forage effectively, unable to build up good numbers, subject to stress and disease? If you prop such a colony up, are you fielding lacklustre drones that may mate with your new queens? Are you creating a reservoir of disease and pests that will infect your other colonies? These are serious questions about serious risks.

We also discussed the effect the very dry year was having on our colonies. Our main honey flow, from blackberry, came early and ended quickly with little nectar in the flowers. Once that was done, the colonies began to stall. Nowhere was this as evident as in the new colonies I had made that spring. Nucs that should have been building rapidly under a newly mated queen…weren’t. And the strong, overwintered colonies were flying well, but they were not increasing. The queens were responding to the prolonged dearth by reducing their rate of lay. The hives were light.

My second lightbulb moment came when, in mid August, I realized I had to feed to get the hives up to winter weight. Our typical late summer/fall flow was not going to be enough. And in study group, we were now talking about Fall Management and about putting protein patties on the hives, in spite of the fact the bees were hauling in huge loads of pollen. The general consensus was: if they eat the protein patties, then give them all they want. The bees know what they need, and it was time to make sure the winter bees were being raised up under optimal conditions. Maybe all that pollen coming in was not enough, or not the right type, or was being stored. So supplement and see what happens.

A lot happened. The protein patties disappeared in a twinkling. As did the syrup. Brood suddenly appeared in the hive, the populations started to rebuild. Nucs began expanding again. Comb was being drawn (although we ended the year with a lot of partially drawn/badly drawn frames). It was striking how fast this happened, how much better the bees looked.

The question of how and when to feed is a ticklish one. The proponents of locally adapted bees rightly feel that you should match your bee genetics to your local conditions, running bees that bloom where they are planted, and don’t need extra meds, extra feed, extra time and expense.

But against that you have to stack the issues of Varroa infestation, the overwhelmingly degraded forage opportunities that now prevail, agrisprays (in particular pesticides in the standing waters your bees drink), overpopulation and resultant disease transfer, the effect of truly feral and/or treatment free apiaries on nearby colonies. And my climate has little in common with that of the ancestral homeland of Apis mellifera.

So again, it was time to think and gather information. Another Journeyman study session rolled around. We talked.

We explored the “bloom where you are planted” theme. My Washington state fellow students have access to many lines of American bred bees, many of which are attempting to field bees with meaningful Varroa resistance. Here in Canada, we do not have a very robust bee breeding industry, we have few or no feral populations (to infuse our drone congregation areas with survivor/Varroa resistant bee genes), and we can only import package bees and queens from New Zealand (and those bees, while great foragers, have demonstrated only weak abilities to deal with Varroa). My urban area beeyards are awash in that tide of annually imported New Zealand genes. Unless you take your bees to remote locations, or only hand inseminate your queens, your bees have zero chance of being locally adapted or Varroa resistant.

Let me repeat: in an area where genetic isolation is impossible, and which experiences an annual wash of imported genes, you cannot breed wild mated, locally adapted queens.

And in any case, bees with a reasonably attentive beekeeper do not need to be adapted to the local weather. Honey bees thrive under a wide range, a surprisingly wide range, of biozones. What they cannot weather is Varroa infestation, and starvation. I can’t run survivor bees, because even if I had survivor queens, I have no way to ensure they mate with survivor drones. And I can try to sow extra bee forage about, and encourage my neighbours, municipal government and farmers to sow pollinator patches, but I can’t really do much about the forage available to my honey bees. And every year, banks of pollination hives full of bees I do not tend or monitor for health or pest levels appear in local, nearby berry fields. Which themselves are sprayed often.

But what can I do for my bees? What is possible?

Randy Oliver’s series “Fat Bees” got me thinking.

From David Eyre of The Bee Works, who has a wonderful set of DVD’s and online information pages, I have learned I can minimize swarming while building the hive if I give my bees lots of room to expand their brood nest, keeping it open, and keeping it growing with easily drawn foundation. So next year I will dip all my existing plastic foundation in my own clean beeswax to help out the bees, and start using wax foundation in the wood frames. David’s information on the Nicot method of queen rearing looks like a good fit for my beeyards in 2015.

From Lauri Miller, I have learned that it is good to feed up the bees to ensure you can raise effective, healthy foraging forces who themselves can raise optimal queens. So next year I will feed more freely, and more effectively/strategically. Particularly if, like this year, the weather is dry and the competition from pollination hives intense.

From Grant FC Gillard, who has self published a number of simple, focused beekeeping guides, I have learned that I need to give the bees drawn comb well before the nectar flow, and super wisely to support/maximize available honey production. And that I need to pay much more attention to the nutrition available to developing queens.

From my Journeyman mentors, I have learned I need to hone my spring management skills to prevent swarming while still building those elusive monster hives, how to evaluate my wild mated queens, restocking my hives with the newest, best queens in late summer, and to practice careful Varroa control. Particularly when early season drift off nearby pollination and treatment free hives means I will be getting extra doses of Varroa.

In 2015 I will focus on healthier, fatter, and sassier bees. I will work smarter, and harder! I will reduce the number of hives I am caring for so as to have more time and attention for each. I will control Varroa, choosing the least toxic methods available to me.

All in pursuit of Plenty and Grace.

plenty and grace

Of Bees and Feeding

Bees on a feeder set out for them...

Bees on a feeder set out for them…

“I modified a hummingbird feeder just for bees.

This is an attempt to keep the bees off of the hummingbird feeders. There are 12 ports, each has a piece of a soda straw going into the nectar. A crumpled up piece of soda straw keeps the other bees from pushing them into the nectar.

Bees seem to be rather pushy. If they can not get into a flower, they push. If she pushes another bee into the nectar and drowns her, that’s what happens. Got to be careful that I don’t end up with a bunch of drowned bees.”


This from a web page, and there are many, detailing well meant efforts to help honey bees by feeding them sugar syrup. The feeding is often done, not just to help Mother Nature, but to keep wasps and bees from competing with hummingbirds at hummingbird feeders.

Alas, such feeding is unwise, and bad for the bees.

Sugar syrup does indeed feed the bees, and in cold winter areas, beekeepers feed syrup to their hives in spring and fall to ensure they have calories to keep them warm all winter. But syrup does not a good honey make!

Strictly speaking, it does not make honey at all, if we limit (and I think we should) our definition  of honey to “that which is produced by honey bees from flower nectars”.

Syrup does not have the complex and dense nutritional profile found in flower nectars. Water white syrup honey tastes pallid and sickly sweet to humans, can dilute and ruin the honey crop of your nearby beekeepers, and can cause poor nutrition and dysentery in honey bees.

Putting out syrup for bees will make the bees happy…very happy! It will make every bee within a two mile radius happy, and they will all have a party in your back yard. It will look like a swarm, and act as a disease transfer station, with potentially sick or pest ridden bees sharing germs, viruses and mites just as they do in the California almond orchards at blossom time.

So putting out syrup is not good for bees.

What is good for them, how can you give the little girls a boost?

You can plant flowers, in particular catmint. Catmint is a good mixer in any border, blooms repeatedly over a long period, has beautifully fragrant gray-green foliage, is tough and hardy, and gives bees plenty of nectary goodness.

You can plant a pollinator patch to help all the pollinators out there, thick with dill, fennels, catmint, hardy geraniums, malvas, and mints.

The bees will come, including the sweetly adorable bumblebees, and they will come in civilized numbers and behave themselves.

But how to keep them off the hummingbird feeders? That’s easy: put nectar guards on all the feeder ports or switch over to models where the syrup reservoir is too far from the feeder ports for bees and wasps to reach. Hummingbirds have very long tongues, bees and wasps do not. A good model is pictured below.

Enjoy the birds and the bees!






Cat Jaffee and local women beekeepers work with Caucasian honey bees (Photo: Rebecca Shannon Spicer). From http://gofossilfree.org/how-campaigning-to-divest-from-fossil-fuels-started-with-a-field-of-hungry-bees/

Cat Jaffee and local women beekeepers work with Caucasian honey bees (Photo: Rebecca Shannon Spicer). From http://gofossilfree.org/how-campaigning-to-divest-from-fossil-fuels-started-with-a-field-of-hungry-bees/


Toronto’s Globe and Mail posted an inexplicably tepid article recently, “Pesticides, Pollination and the Bees’ Needs” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/editorials/pesticides-pollination-and-the-bees-needs/article19782564/

Weakly waving a hand and saying, bees in danger….mehhhh…is an odd choice for publication. But I invite you to read it as a stellar example of “The Band Plays On” journalism. The remainder of this blog post is from my comment in the Comments section for that article.

We have, as the Globe and Mail suggests, moved well beyond the identification of Colony Collapse Disorder to a deeper understanding of the phenomenon.

Bee colonies are collapsing worldwide from multiple causes (of which Varroa mite infestation and the ubiquity of neonicotinoid use are the prime factors). But bee declines are still well beyond a sustainable level, and the outlook is far from hopeful, particularly in Canada.

Canada’s bee industry is completely dependent on the import of fresh bee packages yearly from New Zealand, which itself is the last country on earth to remain free enough of pests and diseases to offer a clean source of queens and bees for export. The twin spectres of resistant AFB strains and the Small Hive Beetle arriving in Canada have forced us to keep the border closed to USA bee package imports.

Canada’s loss statistics are much more complex than a single average, with the big pollination operations staggering under the weight of their own bee losses and the increased expense of spring packages. Thanks to continent wide factors that include a hard winter in the east, a persistent drought in the southwest (home of most of the big bee breeding operations in the USA), continuing pressure from massive forage habitat loss, neonicotinoids in crops and groundwaters, Varroa and Nosema, bee package prices nearly doubled this spring from an already obscene level.

More importantly, bee scientists and watchers agree that in most of Canada (the warm winter areas are possibly doing a bit better) there are no feral honeybee colonies left; they simply can’t make it through the winter without assistance. They are too hungry, too diseased, too ridden with pests and pesticides. There is no natural reservoir of honey bees to draw upon in this country.

 The future of honeybees = the ability of beekeepers to earn a sustainable living.

Presently that equation is under extreme threat. Because bees, and specifically the domesticated honey bee, are critical to our agricultural and food system, everyone needs to sit up and take action on this issue. Do you want to help the honey bees, do you like to eat the products of pollination? You don’t have to wait for regulators to wake up: buy organic, because if we don’t buy what they spray, they won’t spray it any longer

Plant season long bee forage in your gardens and on your roofs and balconies, that helps honey bees and the also struggling native bees (which by the way are important but remain relatively poor pollinators for most of our non-native crops). Plant spring flowering heathers, catmint, clovers, dandelions, sunflowers, Joe Pye Weed, herbs, fennels and dills, Phacelia and Echium vulgare. Lobby your local municipality, landowners and garden clubs to plant pollinator corridors, and forage meadows on all fallow lands. Write your governments asking for a ban on neonicotinoids, and also on tank mixes. Grow your own flower and vegetables from seed. Keep bees yourself!

And buy local raw honey, to help keep your local beekeepers in the game.

Photo by iStockphoto.com

Photo by iStockphoto.com



ancient-library-1280x800My post-university room-mate Mario was a quixotic, unpredictable person, lovable but maddening. He had some pretty crazy ideas, but taught me a maxim that has, ever since, informed and shaped my life: any intelligent person with a book can learn to do anything…

Nowhere is this more true than in the art and craft of beekeeping. It pays, and pays in handsome dividends, to read, read, read and ask endless questions. While it is true there remains a steep practical learning curve, that curve is considerably less challenging if you approach it from the standpoint of being well read.

Here in British Columbia, we have the provincial Apiculture department fact sheets.

And through an excellent post from Emily Heath’s Adventures in Beeland comes another set of wonderful fact sheet, these from the UK’s Department of Environment’s BeeBase in the UK.


Honey Math

It's a numbers game...

As a young-in-beekeeper-years beekeeper, my first learning project of 2014 is deciding when to split overwintered, strong hives such that I prevent swarming but do not weaken the original hive in terms of hitting the main June 15-July 15 nectar flow in peak numbers

It would be extra-nice if the split could also aspire to making a bit o’ honey for their doting beekeeper as well.

So while math is not my strong suit, I crunched the following numbers, based on our typical local startup, which is 1 kilo Arataki bee packages (New World Carniolans from New Zealand), which land just before mid-March, and in my experience build up very well, even on bare foundation.

1 kilo of bees = 2.2 lb. = 2.2 x 4000 bees = 8800 bees and a queen per package.

Let us assume the queen is sufficiently discombobulated and in need of comb to lay in for a few days, and at that point lays 1500 eggs per day that all hatch into little worker bees.

March 15 to June 15 is 12 weeks.

1500 eggs per day = 10,500 per week

12 weeks = 126,000 bees – 6 weeks of bees (average life span) = 63,000 bees = maximum hive population at any one time

Max forager force: if bees are old enough to be foragers at 22 days from hatching, and at best live 6 weeks = 42 days, then foragers have an optimistic work lifetime of 20 days.
20 x 1500 maturing per day = a max of 30,000 foragers at any one time per single queen hive.

Even if the hive is 63,000 bees, which I believe is a good sized colony, 16 pounds of bees alone, the 12 week buildup allows for two entire rotations of bees. But can we aspire to two entire hives full of foragers??

Max number of foragers means all bees hatched from 22 days to (22 + 20) days before June 15 are in the hive on June 15. That means laying must be at max (we will use 1500 eggs per day) from:
latest date for foragers laid: June 15 – (22 days + 21 days) = June 15 – 43 days

= May 03 = lay date of youngest foragers on June 15.

earliest date for foragers laid: June 15 – (42 days + 21 days) = June 15 – 63 days

= April 13 = lay date of eldest foragers on June 15.

This leads me to the conclusion…and please correct my math challenged mind if you see I have erred!…that a split made such that it has a laying queen by April 13 would arrive at June 15 just as strong as any decent overwintered colony.

April 13 is a bit early for creating new queens in my locale. I would be lucky I think, to get the bees to raise their own queen from a mid April walk away split. Drones are just appearing, the weather is ok but not predictably perfect…so in my case I think expecting a full honey forager force in mid June is not going to happen for my split.

BUT!!! It does mean that any split made at that time does not impair the mother hive’s ability to face the nectar flow.

So, from this little math exercise, I am thinking, and thinking locally:

1. Don’t make splits off honey hives after April 13.
2. Splits made on or before April 13 can be big splits without hurting the mother hive’s ability to meet the nectar flow.
3. Mid April splits may not raise up a queen successfully on their first try. But you do not want to give them frames of eggs and brood from your honey production hives….therefore, keep at least one strong hive intact, just as a source of frames of eggs and brood for the splits that fail to queen up (that strong hive can be completely split up in late May once it starts throwing its own main season queen cells).
4. Even honey production hives can afford to donate a frame or two of brood and eggs toward split making any time after May 24 as none of that brood will be main season foragers.

Further Considerations:

~Given that the local nectar flow is high for about 3 weeks (the blackberries bloom in flushes), all bees laid from May 03 + 3 weeks = May 24 will be main season foragers. All that brood should be left in the mother hive.

~We know that honeybees will adjust the workforce based on need as well as age-defined categories. I would expect during a big nectar flow like our local June/July blackberry bloom that workers move into forager ranks early?? Something to look into.

~Given that our numerically optimal date for splits is April 13 or earlier, and that our local weather is not optimal for raising queens at that time, if you want max honey production, you could requeen April splits with bought queens (which can be had locally when the NZ packages arrive).

Hoping to have a lively set of thoughts and reflections on my Honey Math in the comments section!!


Green in 2014

I was gobsmacked when, shopping at a reputable bee supply company recently, I asked which colour marking pen I needed for 2014. The clerk sniffed “I’m into Mason Bees.” And turned away.

I was too shocked to say what I should have, which is, “Shall we ask your employer the answer to my question?!”

But I looked it up when I got home and green is the colour for 2014. Here is a table for you, courtesy of http://www.beeinformed.org:

Queen marking colours2014 Green

2015 Blue

2016 White

2017 Yellow

2018 Red

I will post the chart again in 2019!

daintytime ~ Sherri Lynn Wood

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