Bjorn Apiaries

Just Bad Beekeeping

Urban legend, repeated comments that originated from unknown sources, old timer advice, and just stuff that's bad advice......What we try to do is explain why some things you hear, might not be good for your bees.


Even with the best beekeeping books written today, you find more and more information they contain will be found to be outdated as time passes. Just as a book written 50 years ago has information found today as being incorrect or bad advice, the same will happen with the books written today. We just don't always know ahead of time which parts will be wrong. Keep that in mind as you read any book, website, or blog. There are many things we do not know about bees. And what we find out tomorrow will probably hit us over the head without us even knowing it.

The old saying in beekeeping, is "Ask 10 beekeepers the same question, and you will get 11 different answers". But does that mean all 11 replies are correct? There seems to be the attitude that every beekeeper is entitled to their opinion, somehow suggesting that each beekeeper's opinion is as worthy as the next. And what many beginner beekeepers are left with, is a host of different paths for them to experience, many times resulting in failure. Failures experienced by many beekeepers before them. But when someone points out less then ideal advice, such as found on blogs, forums, or websites that are put out there by beekeepers with little experience, then those pointing out flaws are deemed as negative or pessimistic. Throw in the attitude that each beekeeper is correct, based on "location" or some cliche' saying as "What works for me, might not work for the next next", then there is no wonder why so many beekeepers are confused and frustrated. And some groups of beekeepers would rather talk only of the positives of their particular beekeeping style, never mentioning the negative side which is always there. So we are left with a fluffy little "feel good" world, where each beekeeper is left to their own success or failure, where everyone is correct in their advice. And suggesting that some advice is just wrong, is seen as a bad thing. We don't live in that world. We live in reality. And if you have questions about something you feel is questionable, let us know. We will be happy to give you sound advice and both sides of the issue. Thank you. 

Do bees "heat" the hive?


"The cluster does not heat the hive, only the cluster" Have you heard this one yet? Probably so. But is it correct? In our opinion and experience, no. While bees probably do not create heat just to warm the air around themselves, they do create enough heat to maintain cluster temperatures. Bees certainly spend less energy heating the cluster if the surrounding temperature is warmer as compared to colder temps. And bees without doubt understand thermal regulation, control, and react to the benefits of trapped heat within the hive.  

Thermal imagining allows us to see the hive in the dead of winter. What this imaging shows us is that the heat above the cluster is far warmer than the temperature below the cluster. Taking into account the mere fact that heat raises, does not instantly suggest that the bees do anything special to heat the air inside the colony. But you should consider how the bees take advantage of this trapped heat in their natural movement within the hive.

Bees backfill the comb in an established colony from the top down. They build comb when starting a new colony from the top down. And bees start winter at the bottom of the hive, and work their way towards the top, ending up in later winter in the upper half of the hive. And so bees benefit from trapped heat in the upper chamber of the hive, at a time when late winter brood cycles begin. What a fantastic use of heat and dynamics within the hive. Bees even will go to the warm side (sunny side) of a new hive to start drawing comb for newly installed hives in the spring.

So what can a beekeeper do to allow the bees to benefit most from this natural situation? Here are some suggestions:

1) Do not leave on empty boxes, partially filled supers, and other equipment that may create a "dead space" that traps heat where bees will not benefit.

2) Do not use "top entrances". Additional entrances for the summer heat, or even a secondary "upper entrance" in the brood chamber (For ice and other consideration) is a good choice. A beekeeper need to understand that some manipulation of the hives are required since we unnaturally manipulate the colony into much bigger colonies than they would themselves accomplish in nature if left to their own. But once the supers come off and the colony prepares for winter, top entrances just allow a huge amount of heat to escape. Studies have clearly shown that bees do no prefer top entrances. And many times, they will propolis these entrances shut if not for the beekeeper constantly scraping it off.

3) Quit feeding sugar water in cold weather. This allows the bees to store large amounts of syrup in cells that create a moisture situation that is harmful to the bees. And many times the beekeeper constantly breaks the propolis seal time and again, making trapped heat far less than what the bees could benefit the most. Look how many things are being sold in bee magazines to just combat the effects of moisture inside the hive. A feral colony has no moisture issue. And they do just fine. Of course, they do not have a beekeeper force feeding high moisture feed in cold weather.



4) Consider an insulated top for your hives. The r-value of a one inch piece of white pine is 1. You can't get much worse than that. And I can guarantee that the r-value of a feral colony inside a huge tree is much higher than 1. The average beehive we have used over the years is poorly designed and does not create the best environment for bees. Letting the bees to benefit from additional trapped heat can really benefit bees in northern climates. 

Understanding what bees do without a beekeeper around, can really benefit most beekeepers management plans. Meshing what bees desire, with beekeeper goals, and allowing the bees to benefit naturally, is a win-win situation. Usually when you hear a beekeeper suggest that bees "Only heat the cluster" it is part of a larger discussion based on not fully understanding the heat dynamics inside the hive, or some beekeeper management practice that disregards the bees natural instincts.


I don't turn up my heat in my house to heat the house. It's not that my house is cold. I turn the heat on to warm myself. But by providing the best environment (like closing the window and having good insulation), I am spending less energy heating my house, to keep myself warm. The beehive is no different. Bees will spend whatever energy they need too in keeping the cluster warm. And by having trapped heat in the hive, the bees are benefitting from heating this air.


Cutting Out Swarm Cells

Every beekeeper has probably heard the advice of "cutting out queen cells" in attempts to stop swarming. I have heard for years, and even today, beekeepers being told that once you find queen cells in the hive, you should rip them all out to prevent swarming. Cutting out swarm cells is also mentioned in some books.

Reality is, ripping out queen cells many times leaves the hive queenless, as the old queen is already programmed to leave the hive. So what happens is the beekeeper rips out the queen cells, the old queen still swarms, and the beekeeper is left with a hive that is now raising emergency queens from old larvae, or a situation where they have nothing to build from at all.

This old advice of ripping out queens cells to stop swarming does not work, and fails to fully understand what is happening in the hive.

And believe me, I sell many queens every year to beekeeper who have queenless hives, after being told to rip out queen cells.

The better advice, and one that takes into account what is actually happening in the hive would be to remove the old queen along with a few frames of brood. This simulates that a swarm has already issued by having the bee acknowledge the older queen has left, there are fewer bees in the colony, and this all suppresses the continued swarming urge for any afterswarms.

This allows the beekeeper a couple management options....

* If the new queen fails or gets killed, you still have a mated backup queen to put back in the hive.

* Honey production is not lessened from the removal of the queen or a couple frames, as all field bees are still with the original hive.

* You can also lessen further swarming urges, by placing additional supers on the hive at the same time as removing the old queen.

* You can also harvest additional queen cells for nuc building, requeening weak queens in other hives, etc. Or at least limit afterswarms by cutting out all but a few queen cells. (Which I don't really suggest doing)

A beekeeper has many options. And one should understand swarm prevention, and swarm control.

Too many beekeepers fail at adequate swarm prevention (timely supering, young queens, etc.), then fail again with swarm control by archaic advice based on ripping out queen cells after the hive has already decided to swarm.

Shaking Out a Laying Worker Colony

A laying worker colony develops once a queen is not any longer present to inhibit the workers from becoming layers. Since workers that develop into laying worker have never mated, they will never produce anything other than drones.

A queen produces pheromones that inhibit workers from developing their ovaries. Colonies will further inhibit laying workers by the presence of brood, which emits it's own pheromones inhibiting laying workers. Once there is no queen in a colony, and all the brood hatches out, bees will develop into laying workers within 10 days of the last brood hatching. A laying worker colony is for most beekeeper, the worst case scenario which evolved over an extended period of time. 

 A few things are true in regards to a laying worker hive. They include:

* There are normally 10-20 or more laying workers.


* A laying worker colony will not accept an introduced queen.


* A laying colony is not "balanced" with proper bees for normal functions. This includes relying on laying colonies to raise a queen, by placing in a frame of brood. Normal tasks, pheromones, and the ability to feed and care for queen cells may be diminished. 


* The old advice of "shaking out" a laying worker colony fails more times then it succeeds. Laying worker can, and do, fly back to the hive. Shaking out bees promotes a fanning of bees at the entrance and most bees easily find their way back to the colony.


Our advice, and what we do most of the times we find laying worker colonies, is to combine it with a stronger queenright colony. This allows the pheromones of the queen to shut down the laying workers, and allows the resources to be used much more efficiently. After a couple weeks, a much stronger hive can then be split into two hives and a queen can easily be introduced into the queenless split.


Automatic killing of a Swarm Queen


Over the years, I have heard comments that a beekeeper should automatically kill and replace a queen that has been issued with a swarm. The reasoning was always along the lines that by keeping such a queen, you are breeding and perpetuating a "swarm trait". What a misguided and wrong assessment of what really goes on within the hive.


*Swarming is supersedure. Swarming is the replacing of the queen while perpetuating the species through propagation. While pure supersedure does not always involve swarming, swarming always involves supersedure. The queen is being replaced by a younger queen.


You will hear beekeepers comment that swarming is a trait that can be bred out of bees, or at least lowered, while suggesting you should select queens that have been bred for low swarming. And yet not one breeder can be found that markets, promotes, or advertises his queens due to breeding efforts in lowering swarming rates. Fact is, almost all insects (discounting the seven year locust, and a few others) are programmed over the eons to breed, multiply, and propagate their species almost every year. Bees are no exception.


To even attempt to breed this trait out of bees could have negative impacts. Studies have shown that first year queens out produce older queens. They produce more brood, more honey, and fail at a lower rate. In nature, honey bee colonies requeen almost every year. Nature puts it's best chances of survival in the hands of a virgin young queen, while casting out the successful older queen via a swarm, where if left to their own, they die at an extremely high rate. Very few first year colonies build up to survive the first winter. If it were not for beekeepers giving swarms comb, feeding, and helping them, new swarms die at a rate of about 90%.


When a primary swarm is issued, yes, you do get a cast off older queen. However you should remember a few things. She came from a colony that successfully over wintered. This colony was also healthy enough to build up strong enough to swarm. She was not superseded due to health and a condition of failure. She was superseded via swarming, which allows the species to perpetuate, continue another year, and pass along it's best genetics. And to think that some would want to automatically go out and buy a commercial mass produced queen and kill off this swarm queen, is just nuts!


Now do you really know what you get when you catch a swarm. Not really. That is why you as the beekeeper, should monitor the new colony, make sure the queen is what you want, and replace accordingly. But don't replace her due to some misconception of passing on some "swarming trait" that you hear about from time to time. Swarming (and any reference to swarming traits) should be seen as a colony in good health and successful wintering.


Thinking that we as beekeepers should be concentrating our efforts into breeding for bees that do not swarm is misguided. It lacks a full understanding of the benefits of what swarming offers. To think we can meddle with the natural forces of propagation and perpetuation of bees, is just another example of ignorance and arrogance.

Years ago, before varroa mites, nature gave us a wonderful product (queens) by allowing us to keep a queen for several years with no real problems. With today's bacterial, viral, mites, and other problems that are causing huge losses, those days of having three or four year old queens are long passed. It does benefit you to have young queens inside each and every hive. But that does not mean to kill off possibly your best genetics that come your way by the latest swarm you catch. I'll put up most swarm queen against some of the production queens on the market any day. And don't fall for some slick marketing based on the breeder suggesting they breed for lower swarm impulse. I doubt it's validity, and I would question any breeder willing to go down that road.


Controlled swarming via timely splits, utilizing swarm cells, perpetuating your own genetics, and understanding the benefits of swarming, is beneficial. I am not suggesting letting your hives swarm. I am suggesting that advantages can be gained, rather than killing off swarm queens and cutting out swarm cells, and thinking you are passing along negative traits. Keep the swarm queen, use the swarm cells, and know you are benefiting from successful hive and genetics that were worthy enough to swarm in the first place.