Spring 2017 Swarm Report

The persistent cold and rainy spring in central NY has marginalized a lot of the field activity of the bees. Still, in between drops, there are winter survivor colonies that are making honey from a fairly abundant stream of flora. And the swarm season persists as well, the result of many genetic and biological impulses, despite the odd weather. During the little breaks of sunshine and warmth colonies with queen cells on board are eager to cast out their offerings. Twice I’ve seen swarms emerge, then within minutes cast an after-swarm as well. I think it is prudent for beekeepers to be prepared to gather swarms during this swarm season. I predict it will be intense and persist longer than usual.

I enjoy catching swarms to retain my best use of these productive farm animals. While I increase my colony numbers I appreciate the healthful brood break they undergo while I admire their amazing vitality. Swarms are hard working and generally healthy bees, ready to build comb and begin brooding, storing nectar and pollen. An example of learning from Nature this is a characteristic that we can replicate when we produce nucleus colonies. The trick is to capture the swarm. Many are lost while we’re unaware, or they land in some high branch, then fly off into the World and they are lost as apiary workers. I appease myself the swarm has improved the health of the colony. If we’re lucky we’ll find them in one of our bait boxes and can return them to the apiary after all.

Last evening I discovered this swarm in a favorite swarm tree next to our Problem Child Apiary. Enjoy this video produced by Jimmy, my visiting Swiss brother-in-law .

Upcoming Educational Events

Cornell University’s Master Beekeeping Certificate Program.

A 15 month online study course, with final exams conducted at the lab, is offered by the Dyce Lab for Honey Bee Studies.

While earning the Master Beekeeper certificate, students of this course will gain the skills needed to keep bees healthy and productive year after year. While gaining a deeper understanding of honeybees, Master Beekeepers become a resource for new beekeepers, participate in honey bee research and outreach.

Beekeepers should have three or more years experience with bees. For information see the Dyce Lab website.

Queen Rearing Workshop 2017

Under professional leadership this year, the 2017 queen workshop holds great promise. With the expertise of Brian Evans, queen breeder for Kutik Farms, participants will learn the fine points and methods of raising breeder queens, grafting larvae, assessing queen cells and managing mating yards.

Visiting New Zealand queen breeder, Craig Olds of Ruby Bay Queens, will add guidance and perspectives from “down under.”

The teaching staff also includes Dyce Lab’s Dr. Scott McArt, Research Scientist and Emma Mullen, Honey Bee Extension Associate.

Support staff include Finger Lakes Beekeeper Club members George Myers, Cole Tucker and myself, David Hopkins.

The workshop involves lectures, small group discussion and hands-on activity in the lab and apiary. Participants should bring protective gear for working with the bees.

Workshop dates include:

Saturday, June 10: primary topics include Honey Bee Reproductive Biology and Grafting.

Saturday, June 17: topics include Assessing Queen Cells and Establishing Mating Nucs.

Participants can opt to join mid-week work sessions to prepare breeder queens, feed bees, organize colonies for grafting and set up mating nucs. These activities will be as needed. Preparatory work will begin on June 3. Apiary clean-up will be on June 24.
Cost of the Workshop is $200. Discounts of 10% will apply to beekeeper club members.

For more information and pre-registration contact Dr. Scott McArt by email.

Pollinator Protection Initiatives

Honeybee populations endure health challenges, a reduction of available floral pasture and and ongoing exposure to farm, garden and lawn chemicals. There are things we can do that help the bees and all the pollinators that are critical. Cornell University is home to many programs relating to these conditions. To learn more please study this website.

Cornell Cooperative Extension Services offer insight into being involved in many ways.

Cornell’s Danforth Lab is dedicated to pollinators in agricultural and natural settings. The project includes numerous opportunities with higher education, research and community outreach activities

Danforth Lab Technician and outreach worker Maria van Dyke will speak and show slides at Danby’s Town Hall in May. Please check back for the date, to be determined soon.


A log hive in the garden

I’m gratified to know that apiculture is generally good. Here’s what I mean.

Small-scale beekeeping improves gardening and farming all over the world. As a reminder there is a “Kenyan top bar hive” in the garden. These hives were developed to help Peace Corps workers teach low cost apiculture. There is also a traditional Kenyan log hive hanging on our garden fence. It’s a gift from our brother-in-law who has worked many years in Kenya on projects for community development and poverty remediation. We populated the hive with a 3 pound package of Italian bees from Georgia.

Watch a video tour of our log hive.

In the rest of this post I explain three types of hives and their considerations. 

The Kenyan Trapezoidal Box Hive

A Kenyan top bar hive in a Sky Barn Apiary.
A Kenyan top bar hive in a Sky Barn Apiary.

Interestingly the traditional log hive complements another top bar hive in our bee yard that is also known as Kenyan. The trapezoidal shaped box hive was developed to enable Peace Corp workers to teach beekeeping with horizontal combs that can be removed and replaced for brood inspection and harvesting honey. Compared to the expensive, and more efficient Langstroth hives, top bar hives and bee gums can be built with various dimensions and with salvaged materials. With such hives people can have an apiary with small investments.

Top Bar Hives

An Hexagonal Warre top bar hive in a Sky Barn Apiary.
An Hexagonal Warre top bar hive in a Sky Barn Apiary.

Top bar hives are popular among people who value hives with free-built combs. I’m among them. I use some empty frames where the bees can build free-built combs in our Langstroth hives. I’ve had mixed success with the horizontally arranged top bar hives. I think they’re most suitable for tropical locations. In our 4-season northern location it seems important to house bees in a vertical cavity where the bees can follow their heat upwards as they consume honey through the winter. Because of this I believe the Warre style hive is a better top bar method in most of North America.

Log Hives

See it in Action!

A Kenyan log hive in a honey flow at Sky Barn Apiaries.

Log hives, aka “bee gums”, have also been part of historical American beekeeping. Keeping bees is not indigenous in North America and apiculture was developed with grassroots methods. Honeybees were introduced in 1622 from Europe.

If a hollow log has the colony requirements for size, location and entrance factors, a swarm of bees placed in it will build combs, raise young and produce honey.

Our log hive has removable entrance plates on both ends. It is currently about 2/3 full and has honeycombs that can be removed for the kitchen at any time. On the south end the honey is stored. When we remove a comb of honey for the kitchen it is cut from the log and removed through this end. On the north end the bees have established their primary entrance and the brood is located there. When we examine the brood, we remove combs from this end. When brood combs are removed for inspection they are handled carefully. After examining the brood pattern and conditions, or sampling for varroa infestation, the combs are carefully replaced in the hive so the bees can repair and reattach them.

Fresh dripping honeycomb on a plate is always a treat. Eaten with it’s wax and pollen it is truly a whole food, nourishing, satisfying and very popular. Sadly, I provide comb honey for only a fraction of my customer’s requests.

As always, contact me if you have any questions or want to talk honeybees. 

Springtime Chores, Upcoming Workshops, and Notes on Weather.

Springtime chores in the bees have taken me away from the desk but I have a number of things to share; an upcoming workshop, the arrival of nucs and new flowers, and a free pdf about native pollinators. There’s a few other springtime notes as well. 

Early Spring

The warm onset of spring in mid-March was comfortable, but worrisome for being so early. The first spring bee yard chores began as the bees flew and found some early pollen in willows and aspen. Then the progress of the bloom was slowed by cold and rain that persisted into mid-May. Our bee club Queen Rearing Workshop was set back a week. A second cancellation was also considered but the weather broke into warm fair weather for the few critical hours of that day’s apiary work.

Queen Rearing

The queen project is a collective learning workshop with about a dozen people. The method taught is a grafting method. I find that grafting is a learned and practiced skill. Takes time and effort.  I’m fond of simpler methods that use larvae in the comb to raise queen cells. I want to select bees to be the queen mothers of queens, and to raise enough of them for re-queening.

Sign up today for my email list to get the workshop announcement.

The workshop was sponsored by the Finger Lakes Beekeepers Club, an organization that is well designed to support beekeepers with every level of experience. Please visit the website to learn about the activities of the club. http://flbeeclub.com/


The spring nucs arrived in mid-April and are now well established in single 10-frame deeps. They can soon go into outyards and be set up as doubles for honey production. The package bees are in 5-frame nucs and still need some time to get established. In a week or so I will move them to outyards with single 10-frame deeps.

First flowers

The dandelions have been great and now apples have their first open flowers. It’s wonderful to see plenty of pollinators in the apple bloom and, truth be told, the native bees are better at getting into the apples in cool weather.  Here’s an overview of many native pollinators:

Bee basicsBee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees

By Beatriz Moisset, Ph.D. & Stephen Buchmann, Ph.D.

USDA Forest Service & Pollinator Partnership Publication

Download Here


More flowers on the way

I’m looking forward to more good spring flora like locust, brambles and roses, then the clovers and basswood as summer begins. I think the bees are in good condition for harvesting this year. The colonies are getting bigger, brood-filled combs are more abundant and there have been swarms.  And I’ve destroyed some swarm cells.

Varroa Management

I believe that a critical key to success is good varroa management. I vow to test for varroa more frequently than ever, then to test after treatment as well. I plan to use special combs for drone cell removal.

Meanwhile I will continue improving the stock of the Sky Barn bees by selecting colonies that survive our winters with little or no treatment. These are the preferred bees for queen-rearing and dividing colonies.

Upcoming workshop of the NY Bee Wellness Program

By the way, there is an upcoming workshop of the NY Bee Wellness Program, to be held at the Dyce Lab, August 5-7. Click Here for more information and to register.

A featured instructor is Randy Oliver of Scientific Beekeeping.

Spring Preparations

I was at the Geneva Bee Conference last weekend. It was a dense, content-rich conference, very informative. Key Speakers were Tom Seeley and Mike Palmer. Here are my take-home lessons of the day:

Quiet winter clusters are preferred to active ones. With a smaller cluster that is less prone to buzzing about, energy is conserved and the colony can make it through winter with less honey.

Hives should be spaced out in the apiary wherever possible. Using wild hives as a model and noting that they are about ½ mile apart, they avoid the transfer of disease and pests. It also helps if they are placed irregularly, not in tidy straight lines like in a big apiary. This reduces  innocent drifting from hive to hive and disease transmission is discouraged.

Hives should be elevated however much possible to help prevent pest damage. In nature they like to be up about 15’ but mice, ants, skunks are discouraged with only a few inches. I put most of our bees on pallets. They give some air circulation, help keep weeds out a bit and give this idea a start. A few are on big upended concrete blocks with a big concrete tile. That’s a great answer but expensive. I like to spread wood chips around to help keep down weeds.

Strong hives more easily resolve disease issues. Beekeeper can boost the populations with brood and bees from supportive nucleus colonies. Besides helping solve health issues, it’s easier to raise large queen cells and gather large honey crops.

Swarming is a good thing. It interrupts the brood cycle of varroa as well as the bees. This forces varroa to be among the bees of the hive. Bees with good hygienic traits can then clean house. The beekeeper can also intervene at this time to apply varroacides with greater impact. At Sky Barn Apiaries we use various biological varroa treaments like thymol, hopguard and oxalic acid.

Beekeepers are well served by making nucs to use for support colonies and for re-queening with desirable support nucs made with preferred breeding stock. Re-queening becomes a simple operation of removing an old queen and giving the hive brood and bees with a new queen.

The loss of genetic diversity in honeybees seems to be associated with poor health. There has been a significant reduction of diversity in the last decade. It seems prudent to continually add varieties of different stock to a beekeepers breeding strategy.

As I survey my winter losses and survivors I have learned a lot that is summed up in this article.


Many people at the Conference talked of their experience being part of an epidemic of queen loss that was high the last couple years. I had trouble with numerous queens last summer too. I wouldn’t be surprised if queen troubles go on into winter. And I believe it is much more involved than experiences with nosema ceranae.

It’s still early, but to date our bees have survived about 50%. They’re mostly good strong ones. Of the dead, most died while there was still very much honey. This indicates disease, and most likely varroa-carried viruses. I did not sample for varroa often enough and I’ve yet to take an after-treatment assessment sample. I think that should become routine.

A good number of my dead bees likely had nosema apis, which is not the same, but is often associated with dysentery feces on the combs. I’ve assumed the nosema that caused my summer deaths was n.ceranae, but I have now learned it can also kill hives in winter. So I’ve sent more samples to the Beltsville Bee Lab. The Beltsville reports usually include a few potentially fatal infestations that seem more deadly with synchronicity, the presence of varroa with nosema and chalkbrood, for example.

A few colonies died from starvation and the combs were empty. I think these were all struggling from getting emergency measures too late. I’m learning that bees begin building populations of winter bees in late summer/early fall, when the bees actually need to be in good health condition for the winter. It seems futile to put summer bees into winter with much less than a lab-type controlled environment, temp, light, and feed, like in a greenhouse. It might be easiest to take them to Florida, part of some success in days-gone-by, though also very stressful when my bees picked up American Foul Brood, the biggest, baddest contagious disease of bees.

There has been some robbing of the dead hives since we’ve had temps over 55. Robbing can be a vector of disease. It follows the demise of a hive that may have contagious pathogens. Robbing seldom happens under 50 on a fair, high pressure barometer day. Robbing doesn’t cause the demise around here. Perhaps with other species like Africans, there are incidents of extreme defensiveness, perhaps aggression, when they can rob a fairly strong colony to death. Those too are likely a stressed colony, diseased and too weak to provide enough guards. The problem with robbers is that disease organisms can be picked up and brought back to their colony.

Note: It is increasingly possible that African bees arrive in NY on trucks with a migratory operation, packages or nucleus colonies.

There is a lot to learn about the health of honeybees.  It changes and continues with new pathogens arriving on the scene. Coming out of winter and assessing losses is a time of acute concern for the health of our bees.

Planting for Pollinators

Each year at Sky Barn Apiaries we seed more plants that are preferred by pollinators, not only honeybees, but all the bees, moths and butterflies, and birds.


Last winter we noticed chickadees feeding on the seed heads of Monarda. In the summertime this is a long-lived flower that provides for bees, hummingbirds, hummingbird moths, zebra swallowtails, and many other species. Monarda is in the mint family and spreads intensively via the rhizomes of a substantial root system. It’s interesting there’s something going on with the mints and honeybees. We harvest and dry the red monarda blossoms as a colorful and healthful addition to the herbal tea blends in our pantry.

Monarda is closely related to the lower growing Bergamot which is similarly cultivated. I’ve had success planting pots of both these plants in weedy areas where I’ve been pulling the grasses and golden-rod to allow milkweed to spread.

Clover Varieties

Each year I plant more seeds and more varieties of clover. Walking the perimeter of fields, mostly where coarse grasses and goldenrod grows, I hand broadcast clover seeds. Throwing it into the open areas of grasses I think this is how Mother Nature lays it down. I can add to the effort. I often mix a blend of Alsike, White Dutch and Red Clover to go into these areas. Other times I will use both yellow and white varieties of Sweet Clover.

I’m very gratified a year or two later when I see these plants emerge and bloom then become covered by foraging bees. After they bloom and set seed, I hand gather seeds to broadcast in new target areas. What tickles me is that my area of concern is huge, two or more miles radius around each apiary. As do the bees I concentrate on the closer areas first. There seems to be never-ending opportunities to improve the habitat in this way. What tickles me even more is that I see the result coming from the honey tank, a growing harvest of mild light clover honeys.


Milkweed is favored by monarchs, and honeybees and other insects also seem to think it’s very delicious. Interestingly, I think young milkweed pods make a delicious steamed vegetable.


The other plants I like to add to the pollinator protection plantings are plants that bees use for their self-medication. Most notably in my mind is thyme which is associated with varroa control. I’ve begun to split established plants and to bring some starters into the plant room for winter propagation. There are another dozen or so new thyme plants ready for the garden as soon as the soil warms to 50 or so. Other plants in this realm include all the mints like peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint which are favorites for tea as well. Also oregano and hyssop are favored by the bees. And though we have no culinary use for the purple New England Aster, the bees use it to make honey, and probably for pollen, while it has a long bloom period that lasts beyond the frost dates.

As well as providing flora for pollinators I use cover crops to improve the health and tilth of my gardens. Summertime is wonderful for planting buckwheat which is a favorite of bees, and many people’s favorite variety of honey. It is very dark and strong. Buckwheat is useful for getting some control of weeds. It even overpowers quack grass. When it is tilled the soil has gained friability as well.

Planting for pollinators is a realm where I am eager to help anyone who approaches me. Please feel free. I can share numerous resources as well as seeds and ideas.


News and Views from the Bee Yard

A mild winter seems to be coming to an end earlier than ever. We’ve been able to see some of the bees flying recently. Sadly, but not surprisingly, we’ve also seen some silent hives with bees not flying.

In December, barely a couple months after the bees were packed up for winter, I heard of the first losses from my neighbor Eric, across the valley. He had been very happy about some nucleus colonies he made in June 2015. They became well populated and produced a small surplus of honey. He did not sample for varroa, thinking there is no need with fresh nucs. This might be the weak link in this history.

He also delayed removing the surplus honey because it was uncapped. Later it granulated and extracting was difficult. Basically, I’d consider his situation as Nearly Perfect. What happened?

Peter, once an apiary inspector, will look at the situation soon. Eric will prepare his notes and photos for the April 17th dead-out clinic.

In September and October I fed and drenched the Sky Barn bees with sugar syrup as a mode to administer essential oils. I use a recipe for a mix similar to Dadant’s Honey Bee Healthy, but with some additional oils. Lavender has been indicated as potentially helpful with nosema ceranae. Thyme is associated with varroa control. Spearmint, peppermint and wintergreen and lemon grass. I later gave them a drench of nozevit with syrup. In December I gave some hives a drench with oxalic acid.

Additional information for this and upcoming posts:

  • Doing an autopsy of dead hives
  • Preparing samples for lab analysis at the USDA Beltsville Lab
  • Feeding and Medicating Bees

Anything you’d like to know? Signup on my list to get updates, and stay in touch? I’d love to hear from you.

Winter at Sky Barn Apiaries

The Winter Solstice and Holidays have passed and the bees are tucked away to endure cold temperatures that are likely in January, February and March. They were “put to bed” ahead of schedule this year and in very good condition. All of the hives were medicated with various essential oils that show promise in helping the bees manage varroa mites and nosema disease, two serious health threats in beekeeping. The colonies are heavy with honey and have been wrapped and insulated. We’re optimistic that they will have successful late winter brood rearing and will emerge with vigor for the first spring bloom.

Meanwhile we are using the winter to muse about new developments for 2016 and improved management in the apiaries. It is a constant work in progress.