Synopsis of a beekeeping year

I help direct a group of beekeepers at an urban educational farm in SE Portland.  We have several hives going, and made a real effort last season to keep fairly consistent hive logs.  In January I transcribed all the logs and then wrote up a synopsis for the group.  It was very very interesting and educational, so I thought I would post here for any lurking beekeepers to enjoy.  This is a long and technical post, so it may not be for everyone.  For the rest of you, my two home hives were flying last weekend and they feel nice and heavy, and…we have a new batch of baby bunnies.  I will post pics as soon as they get to the super fuzzy adorable stage (next week).

Some Terms and Definitions for the uninitiated:

Nuc.  Shorthand for a 5 frame mini or nucleus hive.  Often purchased in the spring by beekeepers to start a new colony.

TBH.  Top Bar Hive.  A simple type of hive (usually with a horizontal orientation) that has neither frames nor foundation.

Warre Hive.  A vertically oriented type of top bar hive, named for its french inventor Abbe Warre.

AFB.  American Foul Brood, a bacterial disease of honeybee brood. Very serious and easily spread among colonies.

Chalkbrood.  A fungal disease of honeybee brood.  An otherwise healthy colony can usually overcome this.

K wing.  A wing deformity caused by a virus.  Usually indicates a a heavy Varroa mite load.

bee with deformed wing virus

Varroa Mite.  A mite that parasitizes honeybee brood and adults by sucking the bees blood.

Tracheal Mite.  A microscopic parasite that lives in the breathing tubes of honeybees.

Nosema.  A microsporidian that parasitizes the gut of adult honeybees.  Two types:  N. apis causes severe diarrhea.  N. ceranae weakens the foragers causing them to die in the field.  The undernourished colony soon follows.

Walk away split.  A way of making increase:  Take a frame of eggs, two frames of brood and two frames of honey and pollen and put them in a nuc box.  Shake in some nurse bees, double check that you have not also taken the queen, and then walk away.  In four weeks, check to see that you have a new laying queen.

The Zenger Farm apiary is a mix of hive types and we also have sourced bees from caught swarms and locally sourced commercial nucs.  Two small swarms (one queenless) were combined in a Langstroth hive, the other 2 swarms went into a Horizontal Top Bar hive and a Warre.  4 hives were started with the commercial nucs.  1 hive was made up of the tiny remnants of two colonies that was all we had left at the end of last winter.  In 2010, we did no mite treatments of any kind, nor did we feed the bees consistently over winter.  In 2011 we decided to do mite counts, give all the hives powdered sugar treatments (except the TBH), feed grease patties with Honey Bee Healthy in fall and spring, and keep better records.  We also sent bees from one hive to an OSU lab to be tested for tracheal mites and nosema spores.

I grouped the hives by source for easier comparison:  Hives are Langstroth with regular frames and foundation unless otherwise indicated.


The Commercial Nucs

Hive #1   installed 4/12/11  Did not survive.

Had funny moldy smell.  Some bees with Kwing.  Found AFB and burned colony 5/21/11.

Hive #3  installed 4/12/11  Best producer of honey in 2011.

Cranky temperament.  Good brood pattern.  Some bees with K wing.

4/30 /11 second deep added

5/26/11 2 supers added

8/27/11 harvested 2 ½ supers of honey.

Ended up feeding back 5 frames of honey from Hive #6, which the bees transferred to deeps between 9/24 and  10/29 after scoring.  (The danger of a late honey harvest).  Still alive, feeding Drivert as of 1/21/11.

Hive # 6  installed 4/12/11 Only hive with chalkbrood in 2011.  Also tested this hive for tracheal mites and nosema.

Smaller population, spotty brood pattern.  Probably superseded its queen between 4/12 and 5/21.

5/26/11 second deep added

7/12/11 added super.

9/22/11 5 ½ frames filled with honey removed and fed to #3.

Chalkbrood seen 7/20.

Bees from this hive were tested for tracheal mites and nosema.  The bees tested had an average of 1,000,000 nosema spores, but no tracheal mites.

Still alive, feeding drivert as of 1/21/12.

1/31/12 A fair pile of dead bees at entrance.  Other hive entrances seemed clear.

Hive #7  Installed 5/26/11 (replacement nuc for #1)  Did not survive.

Poor brood pattern but could be due to weather, populous.

6/25/11  second deep added

7/12/11  added super

8/27/11 removed one super, no record of amount of honey harvested.

Feisty bees.  9/24/11 Very high Varroa count:  250 mites over 2 days.

1/21/11 Possible dead out, reason yet to be determined.

The survivors of 2010

Hive #4  Combined remains of 2 hives from 2010.

6/15/11  Added second deep

7/12/11  Added super

8/27/11  Harvested full super, should have added a second!

1/3/12  Hive felt very heavy, was very active.  Currently our strongest hive.

1/21/11  Still alive, feeding drivert.



swarm ready for capture...or adoption I should say



The Caught Swarms


Hive #2  The Warre Hive

7/12/11  Installed swarm in single hive box.

8/26/11 box filled with comb.  No honey harvest from a colony this small and late.

1/21/11  Still alive, feeding fondant

Hive #5 

5/5/11 Swarm hived in Nuc

5/10/11 combined with queenless second swarm in hive deep

5/26/11  Added second deep

6/25/11  added super, although second deep was only ½ drawn out.

8/27/11  3 super frames full, 2 others drawn.   Later remarks suggest honey was fed back to the colony, but unclear.

1/21/12  still alive, feeding fondant

Hive #9  The top bar hive with observation window

5/3/11 (this is a rough guess)  Robust swarm installed in empty top bar hive.

5/26/11  Swarm has built out 10 combs.

6/25/11 16 bars built out.  Crosscombed.  Attempted to move entrances from center of hive to end.

2/5/12  Can see the cluster through the window and they are still alive.  Will attempt to feed some fondant from below.

This has been the almost zero management hive, along with the Warre.  No honey harvest the first year.

Laura’s synopsis of 2011:

Nucs pros and cons:

Our success rate with the commercial nucs was 50% as of January 21st.  I would suggest we try to find another source of locally produced nucs for future purchases.  Every purchased nuc showed showed signs of at least one of the following: K-wing virus (indicates heavy mite loads), AFB, Chalkbrood, high nosema spore counts (#6) and very high Varroa mite counts (#7).  That said, our best honey producer was Hive #3, which gave us 2 ½ supers of honey.  Of course, we ended up feeding a half super back and are feeding sugar now.

Honey Harvest:

We waited to harvest honey until late August, due to the weird weather year we had and the slightly delayed honey flow.  However, waiting this long to harvest made it harder for the bees to backfill their deeps with honey in time for winter, which is one of the reasons we think we are light and feeding now.  Our best producer was Hive #3, a commercial nuc.  The second best producer was probably Hive #4, our hive of survivors of 2010.  Third best was probably Hive #7, although the records are unclear, I am assuming we harvested that fully capped super.  We need to be more precise in our documentation of honey harvest, and we should really harvest in late July to give the bees enough time to backfill the deeps for winter.  No signs of disease were noted in either the survivor hive #4 or the caught swarms #2 warre, #5 lang and #9 TBH (which doesn’t guarantee they weren’t there).  All of those colonies are still alive as of 1/21/11, but we are not out of the winter woods yet.  We will have a better sense of survival rates in April.  We also fed back honey from a hive with Chalkbrood (#6) to a hive without Chalkbrood (#3) possibly spreading the disease.

Mite counts and sugar treatments:

We should also do our mite counts and powdered sugar treatments in August, not September.  We want to knock back mite loads well before the population starts to decline in the fall, which will also give the bees a healthier workforce to backfill the deeps for winter in August.  We should try to do mite counts on all the hives and take notes on what those counts are.  It would be good to compare the nucs with the swarms, and the foundationless bees with those on foundation.  Some hives aren’t set up for easy mite counting (the warre and the tbh).  One of the reasons the caught swarms were fairly disease free (as far as we know, we only tested #6 for nosema and tracheal mites, for example) is that swarming breaks the Varroa mite breeding cycle, giving the bees a leg up on the mites for a season.  Mites increase stress which makes all the other diseases we saw more prevalent, and DWV (K-wing virus) is introduced to the bees from Varroa.  So it will be interesting to compare the swarms versus the nucs over several beekeeping seasons.  If our bees make it through to April this will be something to track.

Things I learned:

Things of note that popped out for me:  the nuc with the best initial brood pattern (#3) was our biggest honey producer.  This record also makes clear how much faster nucs can build up compared to swarms (even swarms on drawn comb).  Package bees should be comparable to swarms.  Swarms that are starting from scratch and building natural comb are of course basically left behind the first season and except for some rare cases unable to produce any honey for harvest.  Losing a queen also knocks a colony back significantly….compare the honey harvest from #5 (caught swarm installed 5/5/11) and #6 (nucleus that superseded its queen sometime in late April or early May).  They are basically the same.

Things I would change or try in 2012:

Things I would be interested in trying in 2012, assuming we carry most of our colonies through the late winter:

Find another source for local nucs

Harvest honey in late July, not late August, keeping better records.

Also I would add 2 supers to the strong hives, not just one.

Mite counts and treatments (if we so choose) in early August, not September, keeping better records.

Making up nucs or walk away splits in the spring (April) to reduce swarming and possibly raise funds….ideally from hive #4, maybe also #3 and #7.

Starting to transition at least one Lang to natural comb (in the deeps).

Raising our own queens in mating nucs in August.

Comparing mite loads between hives that came from nucs vs swarms

“ “ “ between colonies on natural comb vs foundation


7 thoughts on “Synopsis of a beekeeping year

  1. Deb Weyrich-Cody

    Hi Spud Lust, I’ve only just found your blog, so please forgive my duplication of anything you may have already covered.
    Your record keeping idea is a great way to indentify seasonal trends and tendencies for each hive and from one yard to the next.
    Here’s a little info I have gleaned that you may find helpful…
    1) Swarms, according to another beekeeper who’s (at least) third generation, should always be installed with foundation frames only, so that any disease spores they’ve brought from the old hive will be buried and immobilised in wax-building instead of remaining active in honey stores; as often times, the reason a hive will swarm out is to abandon a disease ridden location.
    2) Adding on supers should only be done as needed by each individual hive. Sometimes they’d rather build upward and not necessarily fill a super from one side to the other. It’s a fine balance to know when to add on: empty space on the outside two frames is good for air circulation (and proper hive ventilation is crucial to hive health), but too much spreading out will result in inadequate winter stores, inability to maintain a nice tight (warm) cluster around the queen and result in starvation or require feeding of zero nutrient sugar syrup (humans can never begin to duplicate the complex food value of the bees’ own honey supply).
    (Hope this helps, Deb in Ontario, Canada; )

    1. Deb Weyrich-Cody

      Oh, when I said “foundation”, I meant real wax, not plastic; as bees have survived and thrived quite nicely DIT (Doing It Themselves) and don’t seem to like plastic very much; )

      1. Deb Weyrich-Cody

        And that “funny moldy smell” you mentioned (this is one of the reasons hands-on mentoring is SO important) is the distinct odour of American Foul Brood.
        AFB is preventable, but so very contagious and not repairable once a hive is contaminated. The further spread of this infection can only be prevented by burning the hive(s) as they stand.
        Much as I hate to use antibiotics on bees, it’s far better than spreading always lethal AFB spores and part of what I meant by good hive health being directly linked to good ventilation… Moisture/damp conditions create a perfect environment for mould and spores – a dry hive is a healthy hive. (Here’s one fellow with some very interesting ideas.)

      2. spudlust Post author

        Thanks for your interest Deb! Yes, we quickly learned what the moldy smell was…(books describe AFB as ‘foul smelling’ which makes me think of smelly dead animal on the side of the road, not moldy). Our approach has been zero tolerance with AFB, we are small enough that we can afford to do that versus treating all our hives with antibiotics. So we burned that colony, which was hard to do but felt like the right choice. Our bees are on an organic farm so we are limited in what we can treat with, and prophylactic antibiotic treatments are not really part of our beekeeping ethos. I do agree with Dee Lusby, that AFB spores are probably present in small quantities in all hives. We built a shed to help keep the bees dry, it is a real issue here in W. Oregon.

    2. spudlust Post author

      Deb, I have to agreeably disagree with the notion that most swarms are diseased and should be started on foundation, (although that is an interesting theory, that disease spores can be ‘buried’ in wax….is there any scientific study of that?). If I caught a colony that I knew came from a hive that had swarmed out, I would think that that approach made good sense (if it is indeed true that bees can immobilize spores in wax), and I would also replace the frames in the old hive the bees swarmed out of and flame the boxes before putting new bees into it. But most colonies swarm I would argue, because they are healthy, robust and have the numbers to do so. It is the bees primary purpose after all (albeit usually not the beekeepers) to procreate. Swarming also has the great advantage of breaking the varroa mite breeding cycle, giving the bees a leg up on the mites for a time, so it may be one of the best defenses in the bee’s arsenal against the long list of pathogens and parasites they are currently fighting. I do very much appreciate you checking out my blog and your input…our group is a collection of folks with a broad range of experience, from 20 plus years to none, natural comb top bar hive keepers and honey harvesting langstroth runners. We are all figuring things out and learning from each other as we go, but we share a common goal of minimally invasive techniques and treatments to produce locally adapted survivor stock bees that do well in our climate with little or no medication. We use caught swarms as a way of stacking the deck in our favor genetically, both by increasing diversity and by starting with bees that we know have survived at least one full season in our climate. We may also end up with bees that swarm more readily, whether we think that is a good or a bad thing is currently under debate within the group. This is what I love about the bees, there is so much to learn always! Hope you and your bees are well! cheers,

  2. Deb Weyrich-Cody

    This method, as I mentioned was passed to me from a third generation beekeeper with two hundred hives and, to me at least, is a logical concept… As moulds require moisture to develop and, as wax is waterproof: therefore, when forced to use the honey carried from the old hive to draw comb in the new, contaminants will be deposited (and immobilised) in the newly constructed comb.
    Re AFB: once a hive has it, there is no other choice but to burn it and its contents completely and, as far as I know prevention is the only way to avoid AFB. The only chance, other than pretreatment with Oxytetracyclin, (and this is only a theory on my part) is to have healthy bees with excellent immune systems, in a dry, well-ventilated hive space and hopefully avoid getting sick in the first place.
    I like your idea for greater genetic diversity. To me, the push for bee breeding toward calm, quiet, docile hives goes against the drive to survive which is directly linked with more aggressive hive protection and higher honey production. (You can’t have one without the other; )
    There’s an old joke that says, “If you ask 20 Beekeepers a question, you’ll get 30 different answers.” We all need to share, both success and failure, in order to fight the problems assaulting our bees.
    Bee well, Deb

  3. spudlust Post author

    It may make sense with molds, but AFB is a bacterium….I also agree that it makes sense logically, but my observations would also indicate that the world is flat. Not that I doubt the wisdom and the vast experience of the person you are citing, but that vast experience is still anecdotal, unless this person has done some real rigorous controlled experiments. That said, definitely an approach I would consider using if I suspected the swarm of disease.
    I have always heard “ask 12 beekeepers, and you will get 13 answers”. Sounds like beekeepers in where you are have even more diverse opinions!


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