BEEKEEPING IN THE NORTHEAST - An account of my beekeeping, not a treatise of expertise, but for friends & family who wish to keep bees vicariously through me, and for the occasional apiarist passer-by.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Pitfalls of Ordering Hives Online and Buying Kits

Most beginner beekeepers feel over-whelmed and are grateful for the option of ordering a kit online. Most folks running beekeeping retail operations selling these kits are beekeepers themselves and hope for your success, so these kits are pretty much well thought out; however, if you do not have the wonderful advantage of a beekeeping club's Beeschool and mentor program to guide you in your desire to start beekeeping, listen up.

In our New Hampshire climate, there are important considerations. Florida and Arizona beekeepers look at us sideways when we tell them our bees are confined to their hives for as much as 6 months of winter weather. This is not the norm for the rest of the U.S. and most hive kit producers, especially the one-box hardware store mass-marketed kit makers, are in the dark about such beekeeping challenges. 

Cost: Beekeeping is in no way a cheap hobby, but I've seen displays at hardware stores with mass-marketed kits for way more dollars than the informed beekeeper would need to pay. One box of plastic frames "ready to go" for $175 will not get you through a season. Some promise a lead on bees only to have you call the number to find yourself in a one-year queue.

Plan on about $250 for enough supers (boxes) with all the thoughtful extras like a weighted telescoping cover, notched inner cover, frame assembly kits with beeswax foundation, slatted rack, screened bottom board with a back to stop drafts, appropriate beespace (see below). The one locally made at my shop is $265 with these features and more. The bees themselves run about $150 to $200 depending on your choices in bees and availability.

Plastic frames, for instance, might be fine in the short run, but I personally would not want my bees dependent on them through a long winter's confinement period. Honey bees communicate through their beautiful beeswax hexagons; vibrations, smells, and sounds are important. Studies done in southern or mid-western climates may indicate no difference between plastic and beeswax, but I want my girls to have every advantage possible when over-wintering.

New Hampshire shares few of its growth hardiness zones with other states and bees eat what grows in those hardiness zones in a very short season in this neck of the woods. This is another consideration with several supers being necessary to hold the honey and pollen stores they will need during confinement. Sugar, as well as pollen substitute, are not long term solutions to the nutritional needs of your over-wintering colony.

Here are other things I've had to consider that have helped me keep bees successfully in New Hampshire's unique climate:
  • Langstroth concept or vertical design. Horizontal hives are doable and convenient for the beekeeper, although more hands-on; but clusters in winter do not naturally reach horizontally for food stores.
  • 8 Frame-wide Hives are my choice so colonies can follow the heat of the cluster up in winter without bypassing their honey stores. 10 Frames have been used up here since the beginning of beekeeping-time; but colonies are reportedly smaller going into winter these days. Any experienced beekeeper can keep bees in any kind of hive as honey bees are very accommodating, but my goal is to make things as uncompromising as is natural for the colony being asked to wait out our winters indoors.
  • Moisture-wicking winter set up
  • Brood box protection using a slatted rack as a brood buffer for traffic coming and going as well as providing a hangout for foragers during rain or cold weather.
  • Bee space planned into a hive design varies with manufacturers. Once you invest a substantial amount into hive equipment you should make sure any additional equipment you buy fits with what you have. A common error I see on hive inspections among my shop customers is a brood box with beespace built into both the top and the bottom of the box; when stacked to make up a two-brood box set up, as some breeders of northern bees recommend, the beespace doubles and burr comb complications are the result.
  • Hive width: Ten frame hives have dominated the market because commercial beekeepers can conveniently keep syrup feeders in them on the road to pollination sites. Backyard beekeepers normally do not leave a feeder in the hive all season long. The newer 8 frame designs were made wider than beespace so these feeders could be used with them as well. As a result, backyard beekeepers find 8 frame hives "wonky" or too wide for the frames, but again, bees are very accomodating and will make it work with deeper combs, but is that good for them when held up for winter?
  • My 8 frame hives at my shop are made tight so the frames line up box to box so as not to impede traffic for the bees or encourage burr comb building. This was all brought to my attention by the beekeeper carpenter who makes the hives we sell at my shop. John of NH Bee and Tree Farm custom makes these 13.5-inch hives for my students to accommodate proper beespace for the frames we use built next door in Maine. If you have my hives or want my hive kit, keep this width in mind. The choice is somewhat of a commitment to proper beespace. The hives are made with sustainably harvested pine and can be seen here for details.
  • Painting Your Hive - click here to learn about that important step.
What else? Attend bee school and attend club meetings to help you with your equipment choices. Beekeepers keeping bees in our climate or a similar climate can be found online, if no local school is available. As I write this the COVID-19 virus is responsible for this springs beeschool cancellations but most of us are learning to teach and learn online. I can't stress enough how much trouble and failure can be avoided by working with and learning from other beekeepers. HOWEVER, and this is important, please respect the volunteer mentor. So many seasons teaching I find myself knowing more about my students' bees than I do my own simply because of the time required to respond with support. Do your due diligence where preparation and followthrough are needed.

Thanks for coming by, and good luck this season. It's almost April and the bees are coming!
Athena Contus, Athena's Bees

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Long, Mild Autumns in the Northeast… Why Fall Has Been My Bees' Most Dangerous Time of Year

How many bees are needed to maintain optimal temperatures over winter?
This is very hard to estimate for the beekeeper. It varies by length of
confinement and regional temperatures that also vary.
We are learning new facts about bees all the time but this information from past published research on honey bees has served me well. Corrections always welcome:
3 Important Autumn Temperatures in Northern New England:


  • 64°F: honey bees begin to cluster to keep the queen and themselves warm
  • Nighttime temps: 45-57°F - worker bees cast out drones to protect food reserves
  • 57°F: honey bee family cluster becomes more compact
  • 45°F: Guards may be disabled. Predator insects like wasps are free to assault the hive until the first or second killing frost
  • 23°F  bees generate warmth inside by vibrating their thorax in the cluster
  • 57°F: Too cold to fly from a still start, or “Coma” threshold, however when muscles are “warmed up” can fly in colder temperatures and will try to forage. This can result in great losses in population when as many as 2/3 of a colony's adult bees go out as foragers, flying farther to find food in a barren landscape during short daylight hours with dropping temperatures.
  • In clustering temperatures "Heater bees" crawl inside of empty cells, vibrating their thorax muscles to keep the surrounding cells warm. Empty cells serve a purpose.
  • One single heater bee is thought to have the ability to keep up to 70 adjoining cells warm.
  • 95°F: optimal core temperature.
  • 81°F: average temperature inside of a cluster.
  • 48°F: average temperature exterior shell of cluster.
  • 100°F: highest recorded temperature of a cluster.
How much honey to leave? 60 to 120, depending
on the colony, is my practice.
Thoughts: Mild outside temperatures in autumn + no forage = robbing behaviors and/or dwindling populations when foragers fly farther to find food in a barren landscape during short daylight hours with dropping temperatures. 

The death of honey bee foragers from cold and mowing practices in the country often leads to failed clustering efforts. This sets colonies up for attack from the high wasp populations - and with low native insect populations becoming the norm, wasps are all the more a threat. (For mowing impacts on colony loss see "Apimondia Istanbul - Promoting Bee Friendly Farming Methods - Walter Haefeker".

In my experience, bees protecting brood may not break clusters to protect food reserves from being robbed. Once the adult population has dwindled out the nurse bees stand little if any chance of compensating for their loss or surviving into winter. Often all that is left of a cluster after such events are the queen and a few attendants. To read more on this pheromone driven phenomenon: See Randy Oliver's "Old Bees, Cold Bees, No Bees" Part 1 and Part II."

What can the beekeeper do?
  • Monitor fall colony populations and food reserves. In cold weather this means paying attention to outside activity. Some beekeepers weigh their hives before & after a flow. Research ways to use a scale without being intrusive:
    • Northern healthy honey bees generally consume 10-12 pounds of food a month. 
    • Error on the side of southern honey bee appetites and leave or help your bees create 15 to 20 lbs of food per month for overwintering colonies.
  • Monitor wasp activity. Destroy nests when necessary. Pollinator gardens may help. I seem to be discovering that a garden attracting a diverse pollinator population all season long, near my colonies, results in animals that prey on wasps and wasps not so intent on assaulting my hives.
Ideal temperature-driven behaviors when the nectar and pollen flow are over:
Thermal imaging is great,
but don't rely on these images alone.
Know your colonies.
  • The colony population should be sufficient enough to maintain a core temperature of 95°F with an outer layer of population maintaining a temperature of 48°F. If you can take a peak with a thermal camera, fine, but rely on your familiarity with the colony. When in doubt, and we always are, research combining and overwintering strategies for small clusters.
  • “heater bees” vibrate thorax muscles to raise body temperature 16° higher than normal 111°F. Bees along the outer shell of the cluster remain motionless, conserving energy and acting as a layer of insulation. Don't let motionless fool you into assuming they are dead. Many hives have been dismantled into the snow and cold that may have otherwise survived if the beekeeper only understood the girls' talents and dedication to colony survival.
  • Warmer bees (95F) from the inside of the cluster, tucked into comb cells, continually change places with the colder bees (48°F) along the outer edge of the cluster to allow the colder bees, who have been eating, to warm up and “burn” off respiration. So the girls do not necessarily have their little legs crossed all winter waiting to void. See this very dry but fascinating YouTube from the UK's National Honey Show: Ben Harden.
Thank you for caring enough about your bees to spend time reading such information as your fellow beekeepers can share in blogs. Despite the abundance of information on the web, it has always been the tradition of beekeepers to teach this craft by carefully sharing what they think they've learned when interacting with, and especially keeping alive in our climate, these brilliant and ancient, productive animals.