Category Archives: Beekeeping

Beekeeping: Prevent Your Hive from Swarming

Bee swarm

A swarm of bees.

Introduction

Cheeeep cheeeeeep.” That was an unusual noise to hear in a beehive. I had just begun beekeeping at the time, and it seemed that the bees were always doing something new. As I opened the hive I heard the sound again. It sounded like a mouse, but it was April, and I did not expect to see mice in the hive at that time.

During winter, bees will cluster in a tight ball around the combs to keep warm, and mice will often move in to make their nests. But the hive was overflowing with bees on this warm spring day, and it didn’t seem like a mouse would find any comfort in that environment.

As I removed the combs in search of the chirping noise, I saw something I had never seen before. On the side of a comb, the bees had built a one-and-a-half inch long cell, which was round and tapered. Something inside was eating its way out of the cell.

Suddenly the chirping noise began again from within the cell. “Help me out,” it seemed to say. Each time it chirped, worker bees on the comb would come running to the cell. Tearing at the cell, they soon opened it, and a bee much larger than all the others crawled out. It was a queen bee!

While I was still trying to determine what was happening, the bees within the hive seemed to get very excited. They began moving around very quickly. About a minute later, half the bees in the hive, together with the old queen, started flying into the air. For just a moment, they hovered over the hive as if to say, “Goodbye,” and then they flew over the trees and were gone. The bees had just swarmed.

Swarming

Swarming is a honeybee colony’s natural way of producing new colonies. However, as beekeepers, we want to prevent swarming and keep as many bees in our hives as possible. When the hive swarms, it is the older bees that leave—the bees that were bringing in most of the honey. With only young bees left in the hive to take care of a new queen, honey production will decrease, as will your harvest of honey.

Before addressing several methods for swarm prevention, let’s discuss some of the reasons for swarming. This will help us to get a broader perspective on general hive activity and maintenance.

There are two main causes of swarming, both of which are related to the bees’ ability to build comb. First, they will swarm if they have run out of space to build new comb. Secondly, they will swarm if they cannot build comb quickly enough to store the incoming nectar.

In both conditions, the bees will prepare to swarm by building about 15 to 20 queen cells along the edges of the combs. Since the average life span of a queen is two to three years, the building of new queen cells is not a part of normal everyday hive activity. So if you see queen cells in a hive, it is a sure sign that either the queen has died or that the hive is preparing to swarm.

Queen Cells

Queen Cells at Various Stages of Development

After the queen cells have been built, the queen will lay an egg in each cell, which will hatch three days later as larvae. Worker bees feed each larva a high protein substance called royal jelly, and after four days of feeding, the larva spins a cocoon.

Sixteen days after the eggs are laid, the new queens will start rubbing their wings together, which makes the chirping sound mentioned above, and that warns the mother queen that it’s time to leave the hive. The new queens will then chew their way out of the cells. At first the new queens will search through the hive for other queens. When they meet, the queens will fight to determine which one will dominate the hive, and the strongest queen will kill the other queens with a fatal sting.

As soon as the new queens start hatching, the mother queen and approximately half the bees will swarm out of the hive. Initially, they will search for a temporary landing site, such as under the eaves of a house, that offers some protection from wind and rain.

When they land, they will cluster into a ball and will usually spend three to four days at that site. Scout bees will then leave the cluster in search of a place to build a new hive. This could be any number of places, including a birdhouse, an old hot water heater, the eaves of a house or inside a hollow portion of a tree.

Once the scouts have found a suitable location, they will return to the cluster and signal the prospective new location to the other bees. The swarm of bees will then fly to the new location to decide whether it is suitable. If it is, they’ll begin building a new hive. If it’s not found to be suitable, the scouts will be sent out again to repeat the process.

As beekeepers, one of our jobs is to provide the bees with ample space in the hive. In the springtime, when flowers are producing the most nectar, it is especially important to check your hives at least once every two weeks to see how fast the bees are building comb. The bees can build one comb a night if there has been a substantial amount of rain, and if plenty of nectar-producing flowers are blossoming.

If the bees continue at this rate, they will soon run out of room to store the honey that they are bringing in. Then they will begin to make preparations to swarm. As I mentioned earlier, you can tell that a hive is preparing to swarm by the presence of queen cells. If I find queen cells when inspecting my hives, I will remove them by cutting them off of the comb. This will temporarily halt the swarming process, but then I also need to address the reason that they were preparing to swarm in the first place.

How to Prevent Swarming

When I find a hive that has begun preparing to swarm, I will monitor the hive and try to make sure the bees always have enough space to build at least three combs. If the bees start to run out of space in the hive, there are a couple of things I will do.

First, I will harvest the combs that are filled with honey. This immediately creates additional space in the hive. If at this time the bees are still building more queen cells, indicating that they will swarm, then I will remove two or three combs of brood from the thriving hive and place them in a weaker hive—a hive that contains fewer bees and proportionally fewer brood combs and honeycombs. This supplies the weaker hive with more bees and more honey, and can stimulate the queen in that weaker hive to lay more eggs each day, further strengthening the hive. At the same time, this frees up more space in the stronger hive for building comb.

If the bees still exhibit a tendency to swarm, I will next switch the location of the strong hive with that of a weaker hive. Being creatures of habit, bees that have left the hive to forage will return to the place their hive was when they left it. Bees that had been in the stronger hive, will end up in the weaker hive, thus strengthening it while reducing the bee population in the stronger hive.

Conclusion

Sometimes, despite my best efforts my bees have still swarmed. Beekeeping has its challenges. As a beekeeper, I continue to enjoy learning about and discovering the different happenings in the life of a hive.

Related Information

This article was adapted from an article that originally appeared in volume 2, issue #1 of the SustainLife journal.

 

How to Start Your Top Bar Hive

UPDATE
We now have plans and an instructional video on
How to Build Your Own Top Bar Hive
based on the improved top bar hive design discussed in this article.

 

Preparing the hive for the package of bees

Preparing the hive for the package of bees

How to Start Your Top Bar Hive

There are several ways to start your top bar hive. One is to begin by buying a package of bees from a bee supplier. When you order packaged bees, your supplier will set an arrival date, and he will mail the bees to you in time for them to arrive on that date. The bees will be shipped in a wooden box with wire screen on two sides for ventilation, and the package will contain three or four pounds of worker bees and a queen. Each package ships with a can of syrup to feed the bees during transit.

Three-pound package of bees

Three-pound package of bees

Preparing for Arrival

Before your bees arrive, there are several things you need to do to be ready for them.  First, paint your hive, allowing enough time for it to dry thoroughly, and set it in place. When your bees arrive, you will need to have each of the following on hand:

  • Hive tool
  • Pliers
  • Spray bottle of sugar water (recipe below)
  • Bee feeder for feeding sugar water to your bees (recipe below)
  • Sugar water. To make sugar water, mix one cup of sugar with one cup of room-temperature water in a quart jar. You will use sugar water in your spray bottle and in the bee feeder.

Installing a Package of Bees

When your bees arrive, remove ten top bars from the hive, and place the bars next to the hive.  Your hive has one divider board. Place that divider board in the space that had been occupied by the tenth bar.  Since the new bees will have to work to keep the hive warm, it is best not to give them too much space.  Using the spray bottle of sugar water, lightly spray the packaged bees through the screen.  This helps calm them.  Remove the cardboard shipping label that covers the top of the bee package.  With a pair of pliers, remove the can of syrup.  Spray the bees again with sugar water. The queen will be in a queen cage that is hung in the package next to the can of syrup.  Using the hive tool, remove the staples that hold the queen cage in place.

Spraying the bees with sugar water

Spraying the bees with sugar water through the screen.

There are two common types of queen cages.  One is wooden with three sections in it.  Two of the sections will have the queen and a few worker bees. The last section will be filled with sugar candy.  On each end of the cage is a cork.  Remove the cork on the end of the cage that has the candy.  After you have finished setting up your hive, the bees will eat through the candy and release the queen.

Wooden Queen Cage

Wooden queen cage

The second type of queen cage is made of plastic and has a candy-filled tube extending from the bottom of the cage.  On the end of the tube is a cap. Remove the cap.

Plastic queen cage

Plastic queen cage with cap removed

When the bees and queen are packaged, they are taken from many different hives, so the bees are not familiar with the new queen. As the bees eat through the candy, it takes time, and during that time they become accustomed to their new queen.  Take a nail and remove some of the sugar candy. This will help the bees release the queen much more quickly. Next take the queen cage and hang it between two top bars.  Place the two top bars and cage in the hive.

Wooden queen cage in hive

Wooden queen cage hung inside the hive

Plastic queen cage between two bars

Plastic queen cage between two bars

 

Now take the package and begin pouring the bees into the hive. You will need to shake the package several times to remove all the bees that cling to the screen.

Shaking bees from the package into the hive

Shaking bees from the package into the hive

Once the bees are in the hive, spray them lightly with sugar water. This will keep them from flying everywhere. Fill the feeder with sugar water and place it in the entrance of the hive so the bees can access it from inside the hive.  It is best to feed your bees sugar water at least twice a week for the first three weeks. After that, feed them once a week until they fill one comb with honey. This full comb of honey will ensure that the bees have enough food.

Feeder at the entrance of the hive

Feeder at the entrance of the hive

Checking the Hive for the First Time

Check the hive six to seven days after you started it, to make sure the bees were able to release the queen. After removing the hive roof, take your hive tool and remove the top bar that is next to the divider. Then look inside. If the bees have not yet built a comb on the next top bar, slide it toward the divider board. Continue until you see the combs. Carefully remove the first bar with comb.

Brand new comb

Freshly built comb. Handle with care. The comb is very fragile at this stage.

This comb will be very small and fragile. To find out whether the queen is laying and in good health, check the comb that you just removed for the presence of eggs. Look for eggs at the bottom of the cells. Each egg will look like a very small grain of rice. Continue with all the combs. If for some reason there is no sign of eggs, check the queen cage.  If the queen did not get out, you can release her by removing the screen and letting her walk out onto a comb.

The inside of the top bar hive at the end of the first week

The inside of the hive at the end of the first week

The bees will start to build comb very rapidly during the first week, and they will most likely build three to four combs. The second week, there may be as many as seven combs.  It is important to make sure the combs are built straight.  If one comb starts to get crooked, all the combs adjacent to it will be crooked.  It is easy to fix this when the hive is first starting. Take your hive tool and straighten the comb by pressing on it in the direction that it needs to go. You can also rotate the whole bar and comb so the spot that started to get crooked will be adjacent to the straight part of the comb next to it.

It is a good practice not to harvest any honey the first year, even if the hive has extra. The bees need as much honey the first year as possible to make it through the winter.

Related Information:

 

 

Essential Beekeeping Tools

Cap, veil, suit and gloves

Cap, veil, suit and gloves

If you are looking to get started with beekeeping and do not yet have equipment, here are the tools you’ll need:

  • Hive Tool — This is a small, steel pry-bar. Because bees are always producing wax and always waxing the inside of their hive, the parts of the hive get stuck together by the wax.  In the winter, I’ve had Langstroth hives waxed together so well that you could pick up the hive by the lid, and the entire hive would come up in one piece, and these hives weren’t light. The hive tool is what you use to pry the parts of the hive apart so that you can work on and inspect the hive.
  • Smoker — The smoker is a metal cannister you can fill with wood chips, grass and leaves then ignite. It makes smoke in a controlled way.  Whenever bees sense that something is coming to their hive (such as a bear or a beekeeper), they react by putting out an alarm pheromone–a scent that tells all the bees: “Danger is present.”  The smoke masks, or covers up, this alarm pheromone. When getting ready to look inside a hive,  I always use  a smoker, even at times when you could get by without it, because it keeps the bees calm, and that makes it safer–both for them and you.
  • Cap and Veil — The veil protects you from getting stung on the face and neck.  Some beekeepers go without any protective gear, but it’s safer to wear it. In my classes, I always ask students to please wear a veil.
  • Suit — The suit is not essential. I don’t wear one, but many beginning beekeepers will feel more comfortable around their bees if they do.  It’s basically a set of coveralls with a zipper front. Just be aware that it’s not foolproof–you can occasionally get stung, even with a suit, veil and gloves on.
  • Gloves — Beekeeper’s gloves are usually made of leather and cloth. They protect your hands and extend up to the forearm so that if you’re wearing long sleeves, which I recommend, they’ll cover the end of your sleeve well, so that bees don’t crawl in.
  • Bee Brush — When inspecting the combs or harvesting the honey, you can use this brush to gently brush the bees off the comb.

In terms of cost, most of these tools are fairly inexpensive. Smokers will run about $30-40, a veil and cap together are about $22, gloves are around $15 and a bee brush is under $5.  After you’ve gotten a hive, which you can purchase or build yourself, the bees are the biggest expense. A 3 pound package of bees, which is a good size to start with, runs about $110-130. Altogether, you should be able to start your first hive for under $400.

You can click any photo in the gallery below to see a larger view.

Learn More about Beekeeping

To learn more, see our online beekeeping videos or see our classes on beekeeping and other agricultural skills.

An Introduction to the Top Bar Hive

 

UPDATE
We now have plans and an instructional video on
How to Build Your Own Top Bar Hive
based on the improved top bar hive design discussed in this article.

Even if you’ve never kept bees yourself, you’ve probably seen Langstroth hives. Although Langstroths are the most widely used hive among commercial and hobbyist beekeepers, there’s another type of hive.  It offers a number of important advantages, particularly to the homesteader or small-scale beekeeper. This is the top bar hive.

Top bar hive

Top bar bee hive

As a beekeeper and a beekeeping teacher, I have kept both Langstroth and top bar hives for over twelve years and operated them side by side. In this article, I want to describe some of the differences between these two types of hives and show why I think the top bar hive is often the better choice on the homestead.

Langstroth hive

Langstroth hive

The Top Bar Hive

The focus of the top bar hive is on simplicity. It’s a single box hive. Unlike the Langstroth hive, which has multiple different boxes that you add or remove at different times of the year, the top bar hive is completely self-contained. Everything that the bees need to go through their yearly functions is contained in that one box.

The top bar hive differs from the Langstroth both in how the bees build their combs and in how we harvest the honey. Top bar hives have a protective roof. Under that roof, along the top of the hive, are 24 removable wooden bars. (That’s what gives the hive its name.) On each bar hangs a small starter strip, and it’s from there that the bees build their combs.

Langstroth hives, on the other hand, use a wooden frame for each comb. Each frame contains a factory-made foundation, which is a thin piece of wax that has been imprinted on both sides with a series of hexagons, on which the bees will build their cells. The bees will conform their cells to the size of the imprints on the foundation.

comb top bar hive

A comb from the top bar hive

Harvest Your Honey with Household Utensils

When you harvest the honey from a top bar hive, it’s very simple. All you have to do is cut the honey comb off of the starter strip with a kitchen knife, mash it to open up the honey cells and use cheesecloth as a strainer to separate the wax from the honey. The nice thing about this, is you can do it all with very basic kitchen utensils, such as a bowl and a potato masher.

Harvesting honey from the Langstroth hive, on the other hand, requires several specialized tools: a hot knife or capping fork, a capping tank, and an extractor. These tools are expensive, and you’ll only use them for a short time each year while you’re harvesting honey. The rest of the time, they’ll sit idle. To keep bees with Langstroth hives, you’ll need a place to store this equipment, along with the extra hive boxes, and the frames and combs from which you extracted the honey, until you are ready to use them again. Storing the combs also invites a problem with wax moths.

Just the fact that the top bar hive contains everything your bees need for the entire year makes it a lot simpler to manage.

Better Control of the Varroa Mite

Back in the 1950’s, the manufacturers of the foundation material for Langstroth hives began using cell sizes that were slightly larger than what the bees would naturally build. The thinking at the time was that if the cell was larger than normal, the bees would start becoming larger than normal. But that’s not what happened – the bees stayed the same size. So now we have a large cell with a slightly smaller bee in it. Then the varroa mite hit in the 1960’s and 70’s. This mite lays eggs in the cell right about the time that the honeybee larvae is spinning its cocoon. The varroa mite goes through its metamorphosis and develops right along with the honeybee. The larger cell gives the varroa mite just the space that it needs to have a good-sized family. In fact, there will be as many as 3-7 varroa mites in each cell. Varroa mites can be very destructive to a hive, and if you don’t take measures to control them, they can destroy your colony.

The top bar hive helps reduce this whole problem in a very simple but effective way. When the bees build their cells the natural size, which they will do in the top bar hive, they’re just the right size for the developing honeybee. As the honeybee grows, it will fill its cell so completely that often any varroa mites in the cell will die for lack of room. You may still have some varroa mites, but not nearly as many as you’d have in the Langstroth hive, and usually, they won’t be a threat to your colony.

Better Overwintering

Because the top bar hive is horizontal, it holds heat much better than the Langstroth hive, and this makes it easier for the bees to overwinter. During cold weather, bees have to actively work to keep the hive warm. To provide the energy to do so, they consume honey. The Langstroth hive acts almost like a chimney. It is a stack of boxes, and since heat rises, most of the warm air rises to the top. This makes it hard for the bees to keep the lower sections of the Langstroth hive warm.

Improved Top Bar Hive Design

One difficulty we’ve encountered with the top bar hive is that during the hot summers of central Texas, the wax combs will soften in the heat, and they can break under their own weight. To overcome this problem, I’ve worked on the top bar design over the past twelve years to adapt it for our climate. I now have a design that has a shorter, wider comb, which works very well.

Another difficulty, one that beekeepers face each spring, is swarm control.  When a bee hive swarms, it divides in two, and you end up losing half your colony. With this improved top bar hive design, there’s a way to manage the hive that prevents swarming and doubles the size of the pollination force.  We go over this management technique in detail in our hands-on beekeeping workshop.

More Natural Comb Structure

The comb structure inside a top bar hive is very similar to the natural comb structure that honeybees would build in the wild, such as in a log. The queen is free to rotate through the colony and dictate how she wants to build her nest. She can use as much space as she needs to lay her eggs. Usually she’ll use 10-11 combs for brood (sometimes as many as 15). The rest will be available for honey.

inside top bar hive

Inside the top bar hive

In the Langstroth hive, on the other hand, you have to use a queen excluder to keep the queen down in the bottom two boxes because if you don’t, she will lay brood wherever she sees fit, and you’ll end up with combs that have both brood and honey, which would be a problem when it comes time to harvest the honey. Since you’re only giving the queen access to part of the hive, and since this is unnatural to her, you have to monitor how much space she needs, which is difficult to do.

Extra Wax for the Homesteader to Use

In the top bar hive, because you harvest the entire comb when you harvest the honey, you end up with extra wax. A lot of people who learn about the top bar are excited about the prospect of getting extra wax because there are many different uses for it. Every comb will give you about enough wax to make one candle. This may not sound like a lot, but when you’re looking at beekeeping and other homesteading activities from the viewpoint of a larger sustainable lifestyle and culture, the benefits of getting that extra wax are much higher than just returning it back to the bees, as you would in a Langstroth hive.

With the Langstroth hive, when you harvest honey, you cut the wax capping off of the comb with the comb fork or hot knife, and you leave the comb intact, so you’ll barely get a teaspoon of wax per comb. It would take quite a few Langstroth combs to get enough wax to make a candle.

Less Honey Production

The yield on a top bar hive is 3-5 gallons of honey a year versus the Langstroth hive, which will yield 5-10 gallons. For a commercial beekeeper, that’s an important consideration, and Langstroth hives will likely be your best choice, but if you’re looking to get into beekeeping on a smaller scale, as part of a sustainable lifestyle, and without a large investment of time and equipment, you really ought to consider learning more about the top bar hive.

Related Information

This article also appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of the
SustainLife journal.

Beekeeping for Pollination

Honeybee with pollen on its back legs

There are many good reasons to keep bees, but one reason that’s often overlooked is pollination. Although some crops like corn and small grains are pollinated by wind, most crops in your garden or orchard depend on insects for pollination and will not properly produce fruit without it. Examples include tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, okra, onions, watermelon, cantaloupe, blackberries, apples, apricots, strawberries, and many others. Other crops, such as broccoli and cabbage will produce a head without pollination, but they require pollination in order to set seed, so if you’re planning to save seed for next year’s garden, you’ll need pollinators for those crops also.

Cucumbers and squash, depending on the variety, require as many as 8 to 12 visits per flower in order to set fruit properly. Apples need about 8 visits per blossom to produce good quality fruit. In our beekeeping class, I often bring a misshapen apple to the class, one that is large and well developed on one side and small and poorly developed on the other side. When we cut the apple open and look inside, we invariably find that the well developed side contains more seeds than the smaller, poorly developed side because the seeds stimulate the growth of the fruit.

Honeybee on cantaloupe flower

Honeybee on cantaloupe flower

The best way to ensure that your crops are pollinated well is to have a bee hive nearby. Honeybees form large colonies, having 30,000 – 40,000 bees in a single colony during winter and increasing in size during the Spring. Honeybees actively collect and store pollen in their hive because they depend on it as a food source for their young. The way that honeybees collect the pollen makes them especially good pollinators.

Honeybee in the hive with pollen

Honeybee in the hive with pollen

There are several types of wild pollinators, such as mason bees, bumblebees, and butterflies, but none of these are as effective as the honeybee. Mason bees are good pollinators, but they are solitary bees and do not form colonies. This means their workforce in your garden is small compared to a honeybee colony. Bumblebees form colonies, but each bumblebee colony begins with a single queen bee in early Spring and only grows to about 600 bees by its peak later in the year, so although they are an important pollinator, they are less effective than the honeybee. Butterflies tend to mainly feed on sweet nectar producing blossoms, and they do not collect pollen, so although they do contribute to pollination, they have a much smaller effect than honeybees.

If you want your garden and orchard to be pollinated well so that all your plants will set fruit, we recommend having a bee hive on your property. Honeybees often range up to 2 miles or even further in their search for nectar and pollen, but they will concentrate more heavily on the areas closest to the hive.

Beekeeping is not difficult or expensive to get started with. It takes a small amount of time to setup your first hive, and once the hive is established, you will need to check on it every 10-14 days. I tell my students that anyone who can garden can keep a beehive.

If you would like to learn more about beekeeping, we offer a beginning workshop on how to keep bees and a more  advanced hands-on beekeeping and hive management workshop. Together these two beekeeping classes will teach you everything you need to know to get started. We also discuss beekeeping along with other important topics in our 3-day homesteading seminar.