Category Archives: Hive management

Honeybees, Beekeepers, and Pesticide Risks

The current Bee Culture magazine (February 2013) contains a very informative article by Dr. Jeff Harris, Research and Apiculture Specialist at Mississippi State University, on the subject of pesticides and managed honeybee colonies. I highly recommend it to beekeepers who are concerned about potential exposure of their hives to pesticides. (Jeff will be one of our special guest speakers at the Bluegrass Beekeeping School in Frankfort, Kentucky on March 9th, 2013.)

There is much discussion these days in the media and among beekeepers concerning pesticides and their link to the increased colony losses that we have suffered in the last decade. Pesticide kills of honey bees is nothing new; Jeff relates a personal story of losing most of his hives to arsenite poisoning when he was a teenage beekeeper. Recently however, increased losses attributed to colony collapse syndrome and the inclusion of pesticides among its possible causes have raised the tempo of the discussion.   Continue reading

Powdered Sugar As a Varroa Control Method

A number of years ago, a method of non-lethal testing for varroa mites on honey bees was developed at the University of Nebraska by entomology professor Dr. Marion Ellis and some of his students. It involved the use of powder sugar in a dust application. They found that when honey bees infested with varroa mites are dusted with a coating of powdered sugar, many of the mites fall off – perhaps as a result of increased grooming by the bees, or maybe because the sugar makes it more difficult for the mites to maintain their grip. Various substances could be used instead, but powdered sugar works well, is cheap and readily available, and is easy for the bees to clean off.

The powdered sugar roll, as it is called, has become a common technique for estimating varroa numbers from a sample of bees. Continue reading

Another Idea for Winter Feeding

In response to several questions, I wrote a post on December 11th about the making and use of bee candy for emergency winter feeding. I wrote about the same topic last year. Last week, when I spoke at the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association’s January meeting in St. Louis, it came up again as a question after my presentation. Obviously, it is a subject of perennial interest.

Yesterday, a friend from St. Louis emailed me concerning the conversation at the meeting there, and included a recipe for making and feeding Sugar Mush, a low moisture sugar/water mixture for use in winter. Another beekeeping friend mentioned a similar method in a phone conversation not long ago. As I said in the December post, the major drawback to winter feeding with sugar syrup is the moisture that it introduces into the hive. Offering bee candy, a solid form of sugar, minimizes this problem, but it takes some practice to master the technique of making it. Some beekeepers may find sugar mush a good compromise. It contains less moisture than syrup, but is easier to make than candy. It is almost like using pure granulated sugar, but the small amount of added water makes it easier for the bees to ingest.

The recipe for the sugar slush provided in the above link recommends feeding in a plastic bag using a rim extension. I see no reason why it could not be offered to a hive using a top feeder or even a division board feeder (which replaces a frame in the brood box). It should not be placed directly on the frames, unless in a bag, due to its slushiness. If you decide to try this method, let me know how it works out.

Bee Candy or Fondant As Winter Feed for Honey Bees

I’m receiving questions about making fondant or bee candy, which is a preferable alternative to feeding liquid syrup during the winter. You’ll find a couple of recipes in a post I wrote last winter. More are available on the web, along with suggests on methods for feeding fondant. Just enter “beekeeping”, and “bee candy” or “fondant”, into a search engine like Google or Yahoo.

Above: candy board, with candy, sitting underneath an empty candy board. After the candy is poured into the board and hardens, it is covered with thin pieces of plywood. (Note the slits to allow the bees access to the candy.) The board containing the candy is turned over when it is placed on hive, directly over the top brood box. The outside dimensions of the candy board are the same as those of a hive body, allowing a telescoping or one piece cover to be placed on top for protection from the weather.

Candy board on top of upper brood box. The outer cover will be placed over the candy board.

Evaluating My Hive During My Recent Inspection

This is a follow-up to a recent post on mid-summer hive inspections. Previously, I discussed how to go about an inspection and what to look for. In this post, I will talk about what I saw during the  inspection and what it means.

During any hive inspection, no matter what the time of year, I’m interested in the following issues:
-Food stores in the hive
-The presence of brood in all stages
-Colony population
-Signs of disease, parasites or pests – this may include taking samples or using other monitoring techniques to spot problems which cannot be assesed by visual inspection alone.

Food stores in the hive
At this point in the season, I am not concerned that hives contain sufficient food stores (honey and/or sugar syrup) for the winter, but rather that they contain enough food to get them through until the fall nectar flow begins later in August. This is the time of year when, in Kentucky and the surrounding region, the nectar flow usually slows to a trickle or a slow drip. However, in central Kentucky at least, the bees seem to be finding nectar in spite of the dry weather. In my apiary the flow is small. Not much was being put into the honey supers (I have now removed all of them), but there is enough to cause the bees to rear more brood than I normally see this time of year. Which is a good thing. While making my recent inspection, I noted stored honey in the brood boxes, which is also good. I would be concerned if there were less than 15 pounds in the brood boxes. A hive at any time of year needs about that much to sustain itself during periods when little or no nectar is coming in – either because floweres fail to produce it during a dry spell, or because extended periods of rain keep the bees from gathering it. Fifteen pounds translates into about 3 deep frames full of honey, so it doesn’t take much.

The presence of brood in all stages                                                                                 What about the queen? In my earlier post on hive inspections, I never mentioned looking for the queen. That’s because the presence of eggs, uncapped brood, and capped brood tells me that she is there whether or not I see her, and much more besides. Abundant, healthy brood in all stages of developement is an indication of of  the general health of the hive.

Healthy capped brood

The cappings on capped brood should be constant in shape and color, and larvae should be a nice, white color. It is very important to learn what healthy brood looks like in order to recognize problems when they appear. A lack of brood may indicate the absence of the queen, an infertile queen, a shortage of food, or health or parasite issues. However, the genetic make-up of some queens causes them to slow down or stop laying during times of low nectar flow. As a result, though I am pleased to see brood and eggs, I do not immediately jump to the conclusion that their absence at this time of year is evidence of a serious problem.It just means that if I’m seeing no brood or seeing a break in the brood rearing cycle (eggs but no brood, or brood without eggs, for example) I need to try to figure out why.

Colony  population
When I open a hive, I also pay attention to the number of bees on the frames. A strong population is a good indicator of the health of a colony, especially when accompanied by ample food stores and brood. Reduced numbers call for an explanation. They could be the result of a current problem such as disease (nosema), or parasites (varroa). They could also be evidence of an earlier problem (such as the loss of a queen) from which the hive has not fully recovered. Late swarms and nucs which haven’t had time to build up exhibit low populations as well.

Signs of disease, parasites or pests?
If sufficient food stores, healthy brood, and a strong population are indications of a healthy hive, what are the signs of a problem? Take note of brood that is not constant in appearance or looks abnormal. Look for holes in abnormal capped brood which can be a sign of a brood disease or varroa mites. The most common health issues that honey bees face are varroa mites and nosema disease.  Nosema disease is common, but is difficult to detect; a lab analysis is required. I suggest that beekeepers collect samples in late summer and send them to a bee lab for testing. The alternative is to treat preventatively. Beekeepers throughout the United States may send honey bee samples to the USDA Bee Lab in Beltsville, Maryland for free testing. Go to their webpage for information. You may also be able to send samples to your state university bee lab. In Kentucky, beekeepers can send samples to Dr. Tom Webster at Kentucky State University – email Dr. Webster ( for information on collecting and mailing samples. Beekeepers in other states should check with their beekeeping university extension program for availability of testing services in their state. Often when samples are sent for nosema testing, varroa tests will be performed at the same time. However, varroa mites can easily be monitored by beekeepers as part of routine hive inspections. While the use of sticky boards is the most accurate sampling technique, other methods can be employed, including powdered sugar rolls, solution washes with soapy water or alcohol, and merely removing pupae with forceps. I consider after Labor Day the best time of the year for varroa treatments. Watch for future posts on monitoring and treating (if required) hives for varroa.

Phil’s latest beekeeping blunder!

I think beekeepers appreciate the fact that I will readily confess to making mistakes, especially with regard to beekeeping. Many times I’ve heard beekeepers reluctantly admit to doing something that caused them problems in the bee yard. They seem relieved when I say, “I did that once” or “let me tell you what I did…”.

Well, I did it again and I even made the same mistake more than once this year. And while not causing any serious damage to a hive, it has caused me (and my bees as well) some inconvenience. Continue reading

Mid-summer Hive Inspections – They are Important

This is part 1 of a two part post; part 2 will follow soon.

It is mid-summer, it is hot, and I for one don’t find opening hives to be much fun this time of year. The bees are sometimes grumpier, but mostly it is just the heat. I work bees in my regular summer work clothes (jeans and a t-shirt) along with a veil, and I find it pretty warm. Consider that many beekeepers, especially newer ones, feeling a need for more protection against stings, suit up head to toe in coveralls. For them, it’s even hotter. Never-the-less, if you have not had a look down in the brood boxes for a while, it is time for a mid-summer inspection.

In a recent post I cautioned beekeepers about robbing behavior by honey bees. It’s important to keep that in mind when opening hives, especially in July and August. Because of the threat of robbing and discomfort from the heat, I keep my summer inspections brief – about five minutes. The object is not to look at every frame thoroughly, but to spend just enough time in the hive to make sure that all is well. Only if I find a problem or cannot assure myself by a quick inspection that the hive is healthy, will I prolong my visit or make a follow-up inspection at a later time. Usually I can learn what I need to know by looking at just a few frames in each brood box. Continue reading

Are Your Bees Hanging Out at the Entrance?

Do your hives have a lot of bees hanging near the entrance? This is a common behavior observed by beekeepers in the summer, especially in July when it is hot and the nectar flow has slowed down.

It is often called bearding and, when observed in July, should not be considered a precursor to swarming. If you are seeing this in your hives and are concerned that they are getting ready to move to a new location, calm down and take a deep breathe. Swarming is not imminent.

 I liken bearding to a human behavior from the days before air conditioning was common. It’s a sweltering Sunday afternoon, your chores are done, and the inside of the house feels like an oven. Where would you hang out? Why, on the front porch, of course. Some observations you can make to confirm that the behavior you’re seeing is bearding: fewer bees on the front of the hive in the cooler hours of morning and evening and on rainy days; more bees on the front of stronger hives. Stronger hives mean more bees, more body heat, and less room inside.

Got Water? (Out for Your Bees)

If you’re reading this from Kentucky or the mid-west, you know it’s dry out there. Here at the home place we have gotten a little rain, but it is still pretty parched. A couple of weeks ago, if you had seen a picture of my bee yard, you might have imagined that it was October – grass brown and fallen leaves on the ground. Of course, if you were standing there in person in the 95°F heat, you would not have been fooled. Since then, we have received a couple of inches of rain. That has been a relief, though I could for more, but at least I am seeing some green in the yard.

I’m also making a real effort to keep water in my “bee waterer”, which is seeing a lot of traffic lately.

If you’re interested, you can view a video clip of my bees at the watering station.

Fortunately, my neighbor across the road doesn’t have a swimming pool up this summer, but I am concerned that my girls are making a nuisance of themselves at someone else’s pool party. Continue reading

Keep an eye on your hives! I speak from experience, a recent one.

There is a real advantage to locating your beeyard close to the house. While I know that sometimes beekeepers need to have their hives in the back 40 or another remote location – kids, pets, neighbors, want them out of sight from thieves or vandals, etc. – there are real advantages to keeping the hives close at hand. I know from personal experience (I used to have an out-yard located several miles away) and I’ve seen it while visiting other beekeepers, if a beekeeper has to gather up beekeeping equipment, load a vehicle and drive to the apiary, the hives will not be checked on as often as they would if they are 100 feet away from the house.

Beekeepers with large numbers of hives have no choice in using out-yards since 15-20 hives is typically the most for one location. But for those of us with less than that number of hives, having them close can be a real advantage. If you are feeding hives or nucs, we have may have a 5-10 minute task if the hives are close, a half hour task if a drive is required. Continue reading