Do Bees Get Grumpy?

Do bees have bad days? Do they get angry? Irritable? Even vindictive?

I don’t know any beekeeper who doubts that bees get grumpy. My bees don’t like wet weather or having their honey taken.

After my spring honey harvest, one extremely pissed off girl chased me for three days until she finally caught me and stung me under my eye. I looked like Popeye for a week.

According to the December 26, 2011 issue of Scientific American, some scientists now believe that bees actually do experience something resembling emotions.

Using simple behavioral tests, Melissa Bateson and her colleagues at Newcastle University in England showed that honeybees under stress tend to be pessimistic, a conclusion few beekeepers would dispute.

Another reason to let our bees be bees and do what they want to, not what we want them to do.

Mouse Guards

Mouse Guards (Photo courtesy of The Beginner Beekeeper Page)

No, that’s not the type of Mouse Guard I’m talking about, although they might come in handy as well!

A Mouse Guard is a handy metal device that prevents the Mouse Family from taking up residence in your hive. Mice are bad house guests and make a huge mess. They build nests by eating part of the comb of several frames and filling the holes with grass.

In early fall, mice will enter a hive and mark it with their scent. Once a hive is marked, the mice will return in late fall and hide out until winter. Mice can fit into the large hole of a standard entrance reducer. Small mice can fit into holes the size of a dime.

If you check your bottom board during the winter and find a large number of  wings and legs, there is a good chance you have a mouse. If temperatures are extremely low, you may not be able to remove the mouse until spring.

A Mouse Guard is essential if your hives aren’t on the roof. Well, maybe you need one on the roof, too…

You can buy a mouse guard from any beekeeping supplier, or you can make your own.

I ordered my Mouse Guard from Mann Lake. It cost $4.95.

If you want to make your own Mouse Guard, simply cut hardware cloth (metal screen) the width of your entrance and about 7″ tall.

Cut one of the 7″ sides smooth. This will be the bottom. Cut the other side with the small metal bits sticking out. They are sharp, so watch out.

Bend the metal screen into a U, about 3″ from the smooth side. Angle the top spikes facing up, about an inch in from the end.

Mouse Guard side view

Mouse Guard Side View

Insert the guard into your hive with the exposed sharp points sticking up.  It should be a tight fit, but not dig into the wood.

Mice will not be able to pass through the metal screen, but your bees will. The sharp points on the top will help keep skunks and other pests away.

The Garden Hive Groweth

I hived my Italian bees on Saturday, May 12, the day before Mother’s Day.

It’s been 11 days, and the bees have drawn out comb in 5 of the 8 frames.  I don’t like to crowd my bees, so it was time to add another medium super.



I’ll add at least one more medium super, and probably two, to accommodate the growing colony. I would be surprised if I harvest any honey at all from this hive this year.

I did a very quick inspection and found Queen Cups along the top quarter of a few frames.

Queen Cup

This may or may not mean something.

Since the cups are at the top of the frames, their presence may mean that the workers are considering replacing Queen Maria Amalia. If they are, the Queen will lay an egg in the cup, and the workers will begin raising a new Queen.

The Queen Cup will then become a Queen Cell, which looks like a peanut.

Queen Cell

I’m not too worried about Queen Maria Amalia though. It’s not unusual for bees to make Queen Cups, and even Queen Cells, this time of year. Some beekeepers consider them a normal part of the “hive furniture.”

I won’t open the hive again until the weekend after next. It’s good to let the bees do their thing with as little disturbance as possible!

My English Cottage Garden Hive

Deb Weyrich-Cody, a very knowledgeable reader of this blog, sent me a friendly email with a concern about my new English Cottage Garden Hive set-up. She was rightly concerned that my “rattan” hive stand was not sturdy enough to support a hive full of brood and honey.

She made me realize that I needed to explain the set-up in more detail, lest someone out there make a tragic mistake because of poor communication on my part.

Deb writes:

I love your wicker hive-stand and it makes a gorgeous accent piece in your beautiful garden but, well I’m not sure how long you’ve had your bees and there are probably a few things you should know (before it’s too late)…

Your brood box won’t be terribly heavy at this point, however once it’s packed full of brood, nurse bees, pollen and honey and then add honey supers on top of that; the weight will increase exponentially.  A shallow honey super can weigh 50-75 lbs, while a full depth super like your brood box can weigh up to 100lbs and I know that you don’t want to even contemplate the havoc that would result if your beautiful wicker stand were to collapse.

Deb is exactly right, if in fact my hive stand was real wicker. It’s not.

Pier One Hive Stand

It’s an  all-weather ottoman of synthetic rattan over a durable iron frame.  It’s fully capable of supporting a heavy hive. I found it at Pier One.

So, if you want to copy my look, PLEASE don’t use real rattan, or if you do, make sure it is fully supported from below with bricks or a concrete block.

Also, my hive is not a traditional 10 frame Langstroth set-up. It’s an 8 frame “English Garden Hive” from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, and I’m using all medium boxes. I specifically chose this set-up so that I will be able to lift full boxes by myself.

I also think it looks wonderful!!

And many thanks to Deb for bringing her concerns to my attention. I would hate to be the cause of a beekeeping debacle out there!!

My New Little Garden Hive!

Well, the hiving of my Italians couldn’t have gone more smoothly!  No stings or any other type of bad mojo!!

I wanted to wait until my yard guys came and mowed, but both my bees and I were getting anxious!  It’s supposed to rain tomorrow and it was already getting cloudy. I decided to go ahead and install the package at 4:30 pm EST.

I used the Michael Bush method of hiving a package. I don’t spray the bees with sugar syrup and I don’t smoke them. I wear my full bee suit and make sure I have a big bottle of Chardonnay chilling in the fridge for afterwards!!

I dumped all the bees in the bottom of a medium super and then opened the Queen cage and put her down there too. I’ll retrieve the cage when I open up the hive again in three or four days.

Then I carefully placed all of the frames in the super, making sure they were close together. I use a hive top feeder, so that went on next, along with sugar syrup.

I don’t use an excluder and I don’t close up the hive. I’ll use an entrance reducer until they get settled and the colony gets strong enough to defend itself from robbing insects.

That’s it!  They were gentle and cooperative, as advertised!  I love them!!

Now it’s Chardonnay time!!

My Totally Unscientific Theory

Bees in a wall give us a good picture of the hives bees will create if left to their own devices. When bees want to expand, they don’t go upwards. They go sideways and down.

Bees in a Wall

Bees in the Wall

I have been assured that bees in walls do in fact swarm.  However, it is indisputable that they create huge colonies and impressive comb structures notwithstanding.

The first axiom of my totally unscientific theory is that the nature of Langstroth hives causes bees to swarm before they would swarm in the wild.

The Langstroth hive is designed for the convenience of the beekeeper, not the bees.  Bees are forced to build comb in the size and shape of the frame, not the way they would build comb in nature.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the bees must draw out comb in most of the frames before the next box of frames is placed on top. Things are fine as long as the colony is relatively small. That may be the reason swarms are rarely a problem in the first year.

But there’s a point when the colony is poised to expand exponentially. This is usually in the Spring of the second or third year.

The second axiom of my totally unscientific theory is that bees know when their colony is going to explode long before we do. As far as the bees know, there’s not enough room in the hive to contain the new bees and never will be.  So swarm preparations begin.

If my theory is correct, what should we do? Start adding extra room now, when breeding is just beginning. I’m going to test my theory this Spring and report back on the results.

My Horrible Secret

I overwintered in triple deep hives. Twice.

It happened by accident. I ran out of shallow supers and used a deep instead. When fall rolled around, I was busy and didn’t harvest my honey. (I couldn’t have lifted that top deep anyway…) The next year I did the same thing.

My bees have done so well the past two winters, I thought about writing a post about it.

But when I consulted my Bee books, I realized I’d done something horribly wrong. I decided to keep it to myself.

Then yesterday, I received an email that rocked my world. I wasn’t the only one!  Other beekeepers out there had discovered that their bees overwintered well in triple deep hives. Maybe even better!

Rusty of The Bee Suite said:
This post is a follow-up to “Rethinking the triple deep hive” that I ran earlier in the week. One reader asked me to expand on the comment, “The triple-deep nests were more-or-less in a column rather than a sphere. Hive inspections showed the brood nests spanning all three boxes in the very center.”

I made that observation last October when I was getting ready for winter. In the double-deep hives, the bees were generally in a sphere in the bottom box. I say “sphere” because the clusters were seven to eight frames wide and as deep as the deep frames–okay, a slightly flattened sphere, although in some cases the nest extended into the upper box for a few inches.

In the triple deeps, however, I found the clusters in the center of the middle box and extending both into the lower boxes and the upper boxes. The clusters in these hives were in what appeared to be a column about five frames wide in the center box, and three to four frames wide in the upper and lower boxes. These were definitely long and narrow nests, as opposed to spherical nests.

The configuration in the triple deeps irritated me at the time. Since I normally overwinter in double deeps, I had planned to take one brood box off each of the triple hives. But when I got in there, I saw no easy way to winnow it down to two with destroying at least part of each nest. So I just left them that way and, of course, they were the ones that survived the winter.

Scott Famous, a beekeeper from Pennsylvania, wrote in with several interesting observations. Scott overwinters in two deeps and a medium. He says,

. . . I have had clusters survive in that amount of space that were no bigger than a softball. . . . I think it’s just an insulation factor . . . because they’re always smack dab in the middle.   I believe that staying in the middle of those boxes keeps them in “dead air” space better than anything smaller, and thereby allows them the least amount of draft and loss of cluster heat. . . . While the bees do benefit from a certain amount of air exchange, keeping it fresh, WITHOUT any drafts is just as important. Bees need “still air” in their boxes, in winter, with very little exchange, and NO DRAFTS.

I firmly believe it’s all about a balancing act of adequate air exchange, with NO fast moving air. . . . The combs/frames provide the perfect baffles against that type of air flow, while still letting the chimney effect of the cluster heat very slowly “pull” from the fresh air at the bottom, and ever-so-gently refresh the available air supply without active loss of cluster heat. . . .

It is very true that full combs of honey and pollen are very dense and have a high heat capacity. A high heat capacity means that their temperature will not fluctuate rapidly along with the outside temperature. So while the outside temps may rise and fall willy-nilly, the temperature of the full combs will remain much more constant.

If, as Scott points out, you can overwinter a softball-size cluster in a large hive, it stands to reason that all the extra honey is acting not only as a food source, but as insulating material.

The part I haven’t reconciled in my own mind is that a higher chimney has a greater draft. So, in theory at least, a taller hive will have more draft then a shorter one. And more air flow through the hive would remove more heat from the cluster. Yet, people consistently say that tall hives overwinter better. There are clearly factors here that I haven’t considered. If you have a theory, please chime in.


It’s good to know that I’m not alone in this. And I’m not planning on changing anytime soon.

The Fortnumization Project – Painting the Hive

Things were going well!

I found the perfect shade of  eau de nil to paint the hive wooden ware. It is virtually indistinguishable from the color of the Fortnum & Mason Hives. It is a pale aquamarine, almost white.

Eau de Nil Painted Hive Stand

But after a few hours of painting, things weren’t progressing well.

I’m not talking about the fact that painting is really boring. Now I know where the expression “like watching paint dry” comes from.

I’m not even talking about the fact that both my cat and my dog have eau de nil-colored splotches on them. I’m sure those will come off eventually.

It’s the fact that after three coats of paint, I could still see wood grain. Very un-Fortnumy.

Visible Wood Grain

So I did a little online research on painting beehives.  And guess what? It’s best to slap a couple of coats of primer on first!!

Not only will the paint look better, but it will protect your wooden ware better too!

No wonder my other hive is not looking  so beautiful these days…

So, if you need me, I’ll be painting…

Exploring the Mysteries of the Langstroth Hive, Part IV. The Final Chapter!

Langstroth Hive

We are now at the Hive Body aka Brood Chamber.

Bee boxes come in six basic sizes:

Large aka “deeps” or “brood boxes” – comes in 2 widths – 10 frame and 8 frame.

Medium aka “Illinois” or “western” – comes in 2 widths – 10 frame and 8 frame.

Small aka “honey super” or “shallow” – comes in 2 widths – 10 frame and 8 frame.

Of course there are other sizes and varieties of boxes, e.g. “super shallows” and “section supers” like the one pictured in the diagram. But I’m sticking to the basics here.

Old School beekeepers use the Large 10 frame box as their Hive Body/Brood Chamber.  They usually stack another Large box on top of the first one as their colony grows in size.

There’s only one problem.  When a Large 10 frame box is full of brood and honey, it is HEAAAVVYY!!  I’m talking 90 pounds of heavy!

My first hive is totally Old School.  Two large boxes on the bottom, with two medium boxes on top of those used as honey supers.

Can I lift those bottom boxes? Sure, when I’m powered by adrenaline because I’m terrified all my bees are going to die if I don’t get the hive back together! Like those stories of people lifting cars…

I learned my lesson the hard way. My second hive is going to be made up entirely of Medium 8 frame boxes. I’ve heard them called “lady boxes.”  Sounds good to me!!

Next we arrive at the Queen Excluder, possibly the most controversial piece of equipment on the hive.  The point of an excluder is to keep the Queen from laying eggs in the honey supers, thus keeping baby bees out of the honey you harvest.  Most beekeepers I know regard them with disdain, including Bee Guru Michael Bush. I tried an excluder once, but never again. My worker bees hated it.  My advice? Toss it.

Next we come to the Inner Cover.  I understand that this is an essential part of the hive, but I forgot to put mine on last year and my bees are fine.  I recommend using one, however.

FINALLY, we arrive at the Outer or Telescoping Cover. A very essential part of the hive.  And now it comes in an attractive English Garden Style!

English Garden Hive Cover

I hope this series has unraveled some of the Mysteries of the Langstroth Hive.  Now on to some gardening topics!!

Some Creative Langstroth Hives!

Exploring the Mysteries of the Langstroth Hive, Part III

The Langstroth Hive

We’ve covered the Elevated Hive Stand and the Hive Stand.  That brings us to the Bottom Board.

The Bottom Board is an essential part of the hive.  It comes in two versions, standard and screened.  A screened bottom board improves ventilation and is helpful when monitoring pests.

The Entrance Cleat or Entrance Reducer.

This wooden doohickey limits access to the hive. It’s only used with new hives, in the wintertime, or if your hive is being robbed by other insects. I don’t use one.

The Mouse Guard.

It’s not on the diagram, but it’s essential in the winter if your hives aren’t on the roof. Well, maybe you need one on the roof,too.

It’s a handy metal device that prevents the Mouse Family from taking up residence in your hive. (It’s also the name of a popular Graphic Novel!)

Mouse Guard

Mouse Guard

Next comes the Slatted Rack. Oops, that’s not on the diagram either! Good thing it’s optional…

It is, like it sounds, a slatted rack. It goes above the bottom board. It’s supposed to help air circulation and improve brood pattern.  Some beekeepers swear by it. I have one, but I haven’t put it together yet…

Slatted Rack - Helps Air Circulation & Improves Brood Pattern

Okay, now we’re up to the Hive Body, and the discussion of box sizes. That gets really confusing. I’m going to save that for Exploring the Mysteries of the Langstroth Hive, Part IV.  The Final Chapter. 

Interesting Hive of the Day...