The Hive Mind

Michigan State University recommends before you begin beekeeping, you should at minimum read a book, attend a seminar, be hands-on in a hive, and find a mentor. One of the best things a beginning beekeeper can do is to get a mentor. Work with someone with more experience and knowledge, asking questions, get experience dealing with the surprises that come along with beekeeping.

The learning doesn’t ever stop. This past week, Elly and I went to visit Dan Keane with Wee Bee Farms Honey. Dan has been beekeeping for over 42 years and was trained to inspect for honey bee diseases as the Michigan Department of Agriculture Saginaw Regional Supervisor – Pesticide and Plant Pest Management division. As an advanced beekeeper, he continues trying new things and invited us along to learn. As you will see, even Dan continues his learning.

We went out with Dan and his friend, Bob, and we were able to see how he inspects his hives. His techniques and manner are calm, slow and deliberate. I can see where Elly gets some of her habits (scraping off excess wax) and it is intriguing to see the nuance of Dan using minimal smoke in small puffs to keep his bees calm. His philosophy is “if the bees start bumping, you need to slow down”. This is exactly what it sounds like, when the bees are irritated, they will bump into you long before they sting…it is a warning, just like if a dog growls. An experienced beekeeper learns to recognize these signs. In addition, we also got to see a different approach to looking for evidence that a hive is queen-right, how he selects frames to ‘steal’ for nuc creation and in general how he problem solves issues that become obvious as the inspection proceeds.

Dan inspecting his single deep hive (supers removed), looking for signs of a laying queen and possible frames suitable to remove to make a nuc.

Beehive equipment, when full is extremely heavy!

  • A full 10-frame deep brood box can weigh about 85 lbs
  • 9-frame super full of honey can weigh approximately 50 lbs.
  • 9-frame deep full of honey can weigh approximately 100 lbs.

Hive inspections require you to lift and remove each box so you can look at the health of the hive (is there an active, laying queen, good brood, space for brood AND food?). This becomes a lot for one person to move; Elly and I team lift almost everything.

As a result, based on research he has done into a technique used commonly in Ontario, Dan has moved into using a single deep hive body to house his bees and using supers to add space during the production season. This does mean having thorough preparation procedures for winter survival, but they are easier to move to the blueberry farm and back as a single story. These hives are fed more in the fall to allow them to save their honey reserves for the wintertime. The advantages are also easier inspections with only one 10-frame chamber to go through to search for the queen.

A big challenge that beekeepers have is winter survival of their colonies. Often in the spring, hives that die out have to be repopulated at a cost of $100-$180 each. This is a lot when you have 30 hives like Dan does. An experiment Dan tried last year and is working on this year, is to overwinter nucs. Remember a nuc is a nucleus hive (5 frames in a narrow box). This is usually a space to incubate a colony and encourage growth and queen production until it is strong enough to put into a 10-frame hive. This is how many beekeepers get their hives started or split their hives if they have gotten too populated or are ready to swarm. We made 4 splits this year from the hives at Whiting Forest.

Inspecting for queen emergence and laying in newly created nucs.

Dan began making the nucs in early July – LOTS of them. His intention is to add a second story of 5 frames to these nucs, get each colony built up and overwinter them. These then become his insurance policy; a chance to be able to repopulate any hives that die out with his own bees. His first year, he had 4 out of 14 nucs survive the winter. He is refining his equipment and techniques through networking with other beekeepers, for better success and will start with 15 this year. To overwinter, these hives are pushed up against each other to retain warmth since they are such small spaces. We have decided to experiment at our hives with a two-story nuc to overwinter in case we need them in the spring, so this was a great opportunity to experience this before trying it firsthand. Elly will make two of her own and we will cluster them all together for warmth and feed them a lot in the fall.

Two-story nucs ready to overwinter in 2019

To make a nuc, 2-2 ½ frames of brood and young bees are removed from strong hives and placed in a 5-frame box with some empty frames. All frames are not necessarily from the same hive. To this, Dan adds a queen cell (purchased) or makes sure one of the frames he selects has a queen cell with a maturing queen larva, or eggs provides eggs so that the bees can raise their own queen (this is the option that takes the longest). He doesn’t select frames that are packed full of capped brood and is careful to NOT take the queen from the mother hive. An interesting scenario that popped up as we performed the hive inspections. A particular hive seemed to not have a laying queen. No eggs and only older capped brood. A few swarm cells were present, but some were open. It is a bit nerve racking to not have a queen-right hive. With only one deep box to look through, it didn’t take long to discover an immature queen in the mix. I won’t call her a virgin queen, but her abdomen was much smaller than an actively laying queen so even if she was fertile, she wasn’t quite ready to lay yet. We reassembled that hive gently to let her continue with her mission. These are rare opportunities to see unique happenings in a hive.

Can you find the immature queen in this photo?

 ~Thanks, Dan for having us!