Live Q&A with Pete at the Flow Hive apiary

by Flow Hive 17 min read

Cedar is on holiday, so Pete took over live streaming duties for today. He talked about pollen, swarming and gave some great tips on inspecting your hive.

Video Transcription

Hi, how's it going? My name's Pete. I'm filling in for Cedar today, who's taking a well-earned holiday. It's wintertime here, it's about the middle of winter. It's a little bit cold to do any beekeeping work this morning. It's around about 13 degrees Celsius or around 55 Fahrenheit. We have super mild winters here and the bees are flying the whole time. But you might be in the Northern hemisphere summertime, maybe you're in the middle of a flow, maybe your bees are cranking and you’re taking honey at the moment. Our bees aren't really getting anything, so they're just on scraps. So we leave them alone, pretty much. Bees spend a lot of energy to keep their hive nice and warm. And if we were to crack a hive at the moment, number one, the bees would probably be really stingy. But also they'd take a lot of energy to get their colony back up to working temperature. 

So as you can see, the bees are still flying. We can check out the entrance and we can usually see there's still some pollen coming in. And a way to tell that your hive is healthy just from the outside, is that you want to look for a population coming in and out. And if you see in the entranceway, there's a lot of bees gathered in there ready to fly or coming back in. And you want to look for little spots of pollen on the bees’ legs, in their little pollen baskets on their back legs. And if you see a lot of pollen coming in, then you know that you have a healthy queen that's rearing brood. Because the amount of pollen coming in is crucial to the amount of brood that's getting reared inside the hive. So that can be a really great indicator of a healthy colony. 

What should you look out for when observing your hive from the outside?

Well, if you've got a Flow Hive 2, a great way to tell is by looking at the tray. I mentioned the entrance before, so that's the first thing you could check and then you can check the windows and the tray. First of all, I would check the side window and you can tell how your population is. So you can see there are no bees in this super at the moment, so they'd be all down here clustered in the brood box. But you can tell they've got plenty of food here. Then we can check the rear window and see there's a little bit of honey. There's not much on the side there, but there is around the other side, so the bees probably ate out these sections. 

And then a great way to tell whether you've got pests and things proliferating is by getting out the tray. So we've put oil in this tray and you can see it hasn't been checked for maybe a month or so and it's just a little bit mouldy. We've had a lot of rain here, so we'll just clean this out. But you can see we have a lot of hive beetles in this area. And the great thing about having a screen bottom board in the Flow Hive is that the bees can chase the hive beetles down. And the hive beetles end up in this tray and drown in the pool. It's just normal cooking oil, any kind of vegetable does the trick. The beetles are actually attracted to it as well, they’re attracted to the smell of the veggie oil. So they'll head down and they'll actually drown. 

Sometimes you can see wax moth in here as well. The wax moth grubs will sometimes pupate in the tray. And that's not such an issue as long as they're not inside the hive. So that's a really good indicator. You can see sometimes in the trays, what colour pollen is coming in as well. Little random bits of pollen will get knocked off the bees’ legs or the bees will drop it and you can also see that in the tray. That can be a good way to tell whether the bees are bringing in much pollen.

How many different colours of pollen would you like to see coming into a hive?

I’m not necessarily sure that it's really that dependent on different colours. Obviously it'd be great to have as many colours as possible coming in because you know then your bees have a varied and balanced diet. That is a really great thing to see. But particularly in times of dearth or no flow, the bees are surviving on whatever they can and I've been seeing them scrapping around on weeds and stuff like that. When there's no strong flow on, you'd probably typically see only one or two colours of pollen coming in. When you check your hives, it’s great if you can see a lot of different coloured pollen being stored in the cells and being fermented into bee bread.

Do bees tend to collect more pollen in colder climates? And do I need to worry about excess pollen collection being stored in my Flow super? 

If you're getting pollen in your Flow super, that's not a usual occurrence. Usually the bees will store their pollen around their brood. So there seems usually to be an interface. If you think of a brood frame, your wooden brood frame, usually the queen lays a semicircle of brood. And around that semicircle is usually a little strip of pollen and then a strip of honey. And so the interface between the honey, pollen and brood is quite important. So if the bees are putting pollen in your Flow super, there might be something funny going on there. Perhaps your queen has got up into the super. Are you seeing brood up in your super? You might want to check that. If that is the case and your queen has somehow got up above your queen excluder you may need to go in and find her and put her back down underneath the excluder.

The pollen is what stimulates the gland called the hypopharyngeal gland. And that is what bees make royal jelly with. It's a very important food for brood. So that's why the pollen is close to the brood. So that's why they generally don't put the pollen up in the honey super above the queen excluder where the queen isn't laying. Excess pollen is usually not a problem. You usually want as much pollen as possible as the bees bring in. Generally, the bees will know, the bees seem to tailor everything to their needs and to the season. I was watching a YouTube clip of Randy Oliver who runs, and his research was saying that with bees, everything depends on the pollen coming in. So they will actually tailor the amount of brood laid to the amount of pollen that they have in their brood box at the time. So if they've got heaps of pollen coming in, they know, “there's lots of food, we can lay plenty of brood” or vice versa. So excess pollen, I don't think it would be a problem. But if you are seeing it in your honey super then you may want to look into it, that might be an issue.

How do you know whether you should be feeding your bees or not?

That's a really good question. If you've got your Flow super on, obviously this one's got a good population up in the super and a lot of honey. It’s always a great idea to leave honey for the bees for times with no nectar flow. So we’re now in wintertime, and we know that there's not going to be much around for the bees, so we leave as much honey as we can for them. If you are in a really cold climate, you'll probably have to feed your bees over the wintertime. Commercial beekeepers feed their bees a lot of the time. And they do it actually to get their bees ready for the honey flow coming into spring. So they'll actually feed up their bees on sugar water to stimulate brood rearing, to get their bees in the most healthy state. They want to have plenty of brood, plenty of bees ready for that flow.

If your bees have a low population, if you go in and check them and you pull up the inner cover and take the super off and you're only seeing a couple of bees on top of the brood frames, then maybe you've got a low population. You might need to check what's going on in there. If you have one or two frames of honey in your brood box, then you probably don't need to feed. It just depends on what's going on outside and the season around you. Rainfall can play a big part in that as well. If you have prolonged rainfall, the flowers will probably shut down and you might need to consider feeding. Also if the bees are flying, that can be an indicator that you want to pay attention to. See if your bees are actually flying a lot. We talked about pollen, whether pollen's coming in or not coming in. You may need to think about feeding sugar water then. If the bees aren't flying, they're usually clustered and eating honey. 

How long should you feed a new nuc for when starting in the springtime?

It depends where you are your climate and whether there's a flow on. Paying a lot of attention to the flowers and the trees, the bees in the flowers around you, knowing what those bees are on at the time. But when you have a nuc, it is a good idea to feed, just to give them the best chance at a good start. Around here, personally I don't bother, because generally in springtime there's a lot of strong flows on. But when you get a nuc, if you feed sugar water, it gives them a really good chance to get going. 

What you can do is look inside your nuc after a little while and see if you get open nectar in the cells. That’s a good indicator of knowing that the bees are actually foraging on nectar. So if you look at your frames and you can see the shiny uncapped nectar then you know, okay, they're bringing plenty in and I don't necessarily need to feed. Keep checking your bees, getting a feel for how much food they need in terms of their colony size is something that can take a little bit of time. But also paying attention to the flowers around you can take a little bit of time as well. So it might take a season or two. But if in doubt you can just keep feeding and the bees will either take the sugar water or they won't. They always prefer to forage nectar over taking the sugar. So you can just keep the sugar up and if they take it, they take it. If they don't, they don't. That's a pretty easy kind of way to do it.

How can you tell whether your colony is getting ready to swarm or whether they're just bearding? 

So hot weather can make a colony beard. So we're talking about bearding, not talking about my beard, but we're talking about the way the bees come out and congregate on the front of the box. They'll often droop off here in a big kind of clump as well. And they climb up the side of the box and for a new beekeeper, it can look really strange and you don't know what's actually happening. So in hot weather, more bodies inside the hive create more heat. And as I said before, bees use a lot of energy to keep their hive the correct temperature, which is around 34 Celsius. The bees move themselves outside to have less body heat inside the hive. And they'll actually cluster on the front of the box or underneath the landing board in order to cool their hive, as opposed to swarming. 

So swarming can look like a lot of bees are gathered at the front of the hive and are flying around in a way that looks willy-nilly to us, but obviously they have a plan. So sometimes when bees are bearding, a new beekeeper can think, “what's going on, y bees aren't inside, they're swarming.” But often it's not the case and it's usually just due to a hot day. It can be related to the swarming when the population of a colony gets too big. So if you do find your bees are bearding and it's not particularly hot, then you might want to think about some sort of management so that they don't swarm. It can be an indicator that the bees will swarm in the near future. So you might want to think aboutsplitting or adding another box to contain that extra population. 

We get a kind of an early spring here so spring management is pretty important. At the moment, it's a good time for us to be building boxes and building brood frames and making sure we've got plenty of equipment ready for when spring hits. And we need to start adding supers to our colonies and splitting our colonies so we don't get swarms going off and landing in trees and hopefully not landing and going into neighbours’ walls, things like that. I actually do a lot of bee removals from people's walls and rooves and a lot of different places. Which is great fun, but it's also very challenging and it requires cutting walls open and pulling rooms apart. And it can be really quite damaging to people's houses. If it was up to me, I'd love to have a beehive in my wall, but a lot of people don't like it.

If your bees swarm and you don't have another hive, what can you do?

There's not really much you can do. You can catch them in a cardboard box and try and get them into another hive as quickly as possible. That is if they've swarmed and they’re in a tree or sitting somewhere and you can actually catch them. If they're gone, they're gone I guess. And it's like a learning experience for next season where you can split before they swarm next time. But swarming does happen. Sometimes you can do all the spring management possible and the bees will still swarm. That can be a very, very hard impulse to stop because it is the bees way of reproducing their whole colony. So if you think of the colony as a superorganism, that's the organism’s way of reproducing itself. So if you don't have another hive, like I said, you can just catch them in a cardboard box and go and beg a brood box from your neighbour or go and quickly buy one from the store. 

Why is the most beekeeping equipment white?

There's the thought that bees don't like black colour because they think it's a bear. So beekeeping suits and veils and stuff are all white because if it was a dark colour, bees would think it was a bear and start stinging the beekeeper. There's also a theory that the contrast is the thing that the bees don't like. So if you have something light and something dark then the bees will go for that point of contrast. With bee boxes, it's also a heat thing. So the white paint, as opposed to dark paint, keeps the hive a little cooler. I've often seen commercial guys paint their colonies silver because it's meant to reflect the light and reflect the heat off better than a white box. And it's definitely better than a darker colour for dealing with the heat. But the white beesuits get really dirty and you end up with a kind of black looking beesuit in the end anyway.

I think my bees hate me. I blame the beekeeper that sold them to me. What can I do to get my revenge?

I'm not sure. What would you do? Go and steal his bees? No, I don't think your bees hate you. I think having a really calm attitude around your bees can really, really help. And I think maybe the mindset that “my bees hate me” could be contributing to the problem. So if you get stung, it's just the life of a beekeeper, it just happens. I've got a friend who, if the bees are really aggressive one time when he goes in here, he uses little pushpins and puts a red pushpin in his hive every time they're aggressive. Next time, if he goes in and they're aggressive, he puts another red pushpin, and it's basically three strikes and they're out. So if they get three pushpins he'll requeen them and get those new genetics in. 

If you get a queen from a queen breeder, that can be a really good way to calm down an aggressive colony. So if you think about it, the queen is the mother of all the bees in the colony. So if that queen has aggressive traits in her genetics, then the bees in the colony will be aggressive. But bees live for around about six weeks in kind of peak season. So if you requeen a colony, after six weeks, every bee in that colony will have new genetics. And hopefully, the new queen’s genetics will be calm and non-aggressive, so you should be able to see a change within around six weeks. So that can be a really good way to calm your hive. But if you have an aggressive hive, if you can be as calm as possible, then that can really help. And I'm not sure what you can do to get revenge.

Do you have any tips for someone who is nervous about inspecting the hive for the first time?

Have your smoker really well lit. Make sure that it's going and it's not going to go out because having a lit smoker can really be a difference between getting very nervous and freaking out or just being okay. The smoker can really be your friend with calming bees and moving them and making sure that they're not in the air and making you nervous. And another thing is bees in the air, it’s not necessarily bees that are stinging. So a lot of the time people, people can get very nervous with a lot of bees around, it can be quite an overwhelming sort of energy. But it doesn't necessarily mean that the bees are aggressive. It just means that they're flying. So that's a really good thing to keep in mind. 

Make sure you're suited up well, make sure you have your gloves on and the gloves are attached at the wrist, with no way for the bees to get in. Put your pants over your boots, make sure your veil is really zipped up. And make sure you don't have things that are going to stress you out elsewhere, like your kid or your dog or whatever it is, make sure you can really focus on that hive. People say not to use a lot of smoke and I would kind of agree with that, but if you're a beginner and starting out, just use as much smoke as you like. I also like personally to smoke myself. So if bees are going for me, I'll usually smoke myself. I'll just hold my breath and close my eyes and smoke myself. And that actually sort of seems to take me out of the equation a little bit, I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it takes my scent away or it just kind of disorients the bees that are going for me. So if bees are really kind of circling you and going for you, that can be a good thing to do.

And another really good tip is just everything really slow and gentle. People say, get in and out really quick. And that is also kind of true, you've got to find a balance there, of just going very, very slowly but being kind of efficient with your work. The other thing too is that if you get nervous and if you feel really overwhelmed, just close the beehive up and walk away and do it another time. But make sure you do it another time and don't get so overwhelmed that you never do it again then. But make sure you just close the beehive up. You can always walk away and come back later when the bees are more calm. 

Do it on a really sunny day when it's not very cold. So over 20 degrees Celsius (20 Fahrenheit). In the middle of the day, that's when all the foragers will be out already flying and the foragers are the older bees, they're the ones that are going to be the most defensive of the hive. So they're going to be the stingy ones basically. So if they're all out foraging doing their thing, you're less likely to get the overwhelming kind of stingy vibe going on and you'll just get mostly house bees and nurse bees at home. Also, wind upsets bees, so don't do it on a windy day. Don't do it on a cloudy day, pick a day with nice full sun. Obviously there are exceptions to those, but if you're a beginner beekeeper and you can kind of become a little bit nervous doing it, those are the best conditions for you. 

If you've got a swimming pool in your backyard, would that be a problem for your beehive? 

Yeah, it can be. It’s not necessarily a problem for your beehive because they might use the swimming pool to collect water. Bees seem to prefer either dirty water or pool water to freshwater because it's apparently got more minerals in it than clear water. So it can just be a problem for people swimming and getting stung while they’re swimming because bees will go to the pool. One way to hopefully help that is just to set up a water source really close to the colony within view of the colony and hope that they'll go there. So a good thing to do is just get a birdbath or a large pot and fill it with water. And what I usually do is just chuck a log in there. Or if you've got a birdbath, just put a whole bunch of stones in it. You need some material there so bees can land on it. Bees can't scoop water on the wing like a swallow does, they have to land and actually suck the water up. They suck water into their honey stomachs and bring it back to the colony. 

The forager bees take on the job of water-collecting bees and that's all they'll do all day. So they go from hive to water source and back again. And interestingly, if you've got a log in your big pot of water, you can watch the bees. They won't actually go to the water. They will actually suck up the water that's in the timber. So the water leaks into the log and they'll put their proboscis into the timber and suck the water that's leaked into the timber. So hopefully that works. It's not guaranteed to work, because bees like pool water, unfortunately. But it's good if it's your pool and not your neighbour's pool.

My super is nearly full. Should I harvest now or wait until spring? (Southeast Queensland, Australia)

Good question. It's often a thing that you can kind of struggle with to weigh up. What I like to do with that is, in this season right now, I wait and see. So I wait and see what's happening with your super. I would just wait until it's full. And then what I like to do is take one frame and see what the bees do. Whether the bees start filling it up again, or whether it remains empty. If they fill it straight back up again, you know you are totally fine to take more honey, and you could take three, four frames even as long as they fill it back up again. But if you're in southeast Queensland, that's not very far from where we are here. And you may have a flow on, I'm not really sure not. So what I would do is just wait, just wait another month or so. You usually get quite an early spring there and quite an early spring flow. So you’ll probably find that once that hits, then you can start. And just do that little experiment, take a frame and see what happens, see what the bees do, whether they start filling it or not.

Can you naturally let the hive replace the queen or is it best to replace her yourself? 

Absolutely, you can naturally let the hive replace the queen. It's an easy way to go. It depends on what you want to do though. If you're trying to get new, perhaps calm genetics, or more productive genetics into your colony, then maybe you want to consider getting a queen from a breeder. But if you're happy just to let the bees do their thing, then absolutely. You just let them reproduce. It's a perfectly natural process. So the bees will supersede an old queen who's failing and they'll make a lot of queen cells. And those queens will fight once they emerge and one will survive. And then she'll go out to mate with several drones and she'll come back and start laying eggs. And sometimes the bees will let the old queen live, but they'll shuffle her into a corner somewhere like old grandma. But sometimes they'll ball her up and actually kill her. And there’ll just be the one new dominant queen in the hive. So it just depends on really what you want to do and what you're trying to accomplish with your hive. 

Thanks so much for tuning in guys and hopefully see you next week. Check for in-depth training material where we cover a lot of these topics in more detail.

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