Beginner Beekeeping - February
In this week’s beginner beekeeping Q & A, Cedar answered a range of beekeeping questions while harvesting a frame of honey. The questions ranged from topics such as the effect of pesticides on bees, to beekeeping in winter, to dealing with honey spills in your Flow Hive. There were plenty of other interesting questions covered too, including our online beekeeping course.
Welcome to our beekeeping Q & A. This is the time where you ask all your silly questions. Sometimes as a beginner beekeeper you might be a bit afraid to ask questions because you'll be shot down out there on the interweb. But really, here is a safe place, ask away! There’s no such thing as a silly question, we all started off as beginner beekeepers once.
So fire away. And hopefully, I can help answer some of your questions and get you started in the amazing world of beekeeping. So put those questions In the comments below, and we'll get to answering those.
Checking the Flow Frames
While you're thinking of your questions, let's just have a look at this beehive and see if there is any honey to harvest. So we’ll have a look in this window, and you can see it's a little bit patchy. You can see the bees have been doing a wonderful job of filling cells with honey, but they're not all full yet. So each one of these little stripes here is a cross-section view of the frame. And this is part of my father and I's invention, the Flow Hive and the Flow Frame. And you can see this beautiful view of the cells filling up. Now, typically the extremities of the hive, being the outside edges of the frame, is where they will fill. That means when you're seeing this full, then the honey's generally full all the way through the frame.
Sometimes you get into the situation where they start eating honey from the center. But for the purpose of understanding this, when this is all full, that's when it's time to harvest. You can even see them starting to put capping on that outside of some of these cells. When you really check it, it means they're getting a bit hungry and they're actually eating some of the honey away from the extremities of the frame.
So it's this beautiful story that the windows tell you of what's going on in your hive. And it really changes on a daily basis. So the bees are bringing in nectar from up to a 10km (6mile) radius, and they're bringing all of that back into your hive and drying it out, condensing it from 95% moisture content down to below 20% moisture content, adding their special sauce, their enzymes, and creating the beautiful thing we call honey.
Now here, you can see that the honey's almost ready. So typically we would wait a little bit longer. But if you have a look around in the side window to check for capping, which is the wax capping they put over the top of the cells. When the honey is ready, when that moisture content is low enough for the honey to keep on the shelf, it's like the sealing lid on a preserving jar. They're going, “it's ready, it'll keep”. So they'll put the wax cap on. That means it will also in your jar on your shelf. So that's when it's time to harvest.
Now we can see that it's capped on the side. So if we were getting impatient, we could actually just take a little bit of honey. And if we're unsure, the Flow Frames allow us to just harvest a bit and leave the rest for the bees if you wish. So that's what we might do today because it's a wonderful thing just to show you how it works.
I'm pulling out these little caps. I'm going to show you just how easy it is to harvest honey with a Flow Hive. What I'm going to do, if I want to harvest a little bit of honey, I'll put this key in just a little way and I'll turn that like that. And what's happening now is the honey’s draining down through channels that form inside and out of the tube. You can actually see it draining out of the tube right now, already in, into the jar. And it's a beautiful thing to watch honey as it flows directly out of your hive, zero processing, ready for the table. Have a look, there's little globules in it as well. That's the medicinal properties of the Leptospermum, it’s like the Australian Manuka, good for wound care. It's got amazing healing properties. I love it when I see those globules coming out and I know that that medicinal property is present in the honey.
Beginner Beekeeping Questions
My Flow Frames are a bit moldy and are not producing much honey. Do I need to wash the Flow Frames?
Bees are generally great at keeping it clean in the hive when they expand to the point when there's enough bees in the hive and the nectar flow is good enough, they will fix that up and they will clean those cells, polish them nicely and start the process of filling the cells with honey. Having said that, the propolis can build up, the wax and propolis that the bees use all around the hive. It can start to look a little bit grubby on the back of the frame after some time. So that is normal, but if you're getting a lot of mold, then it's a sign that your colony is a little bit weak and they're not really filling the whole hive.
You might want to do a brood inspection, make sure your colony’s okay. Make sure you're getting a good brood pattern and lots of emerging bees. And ideally, if you're not getting that, that real virile queen laying lots of eggs, you might need to swap out the queen and get more bees going into a hive to really fill the box.
Sometimes the queen can get a little bit old, she can live up to six years and she might really start slowing down. So the difference between one hive and another hive can be really the difference between amazing amounts of produce refilling the hive really quick, and one that really just doesn't quite get enough to share the honey with you as well. So check in on your hive. If you have look at last week's video, we were doing that first brood inspection. Make sure you've got a nice amount of brood. And if so, the bees should really build up and you'll get a bigger population to really work the frames out to the edges.
My neighbor is spraying chemicals. Can it harm my bees?
So there are issues that can be created. You can have what's called pesticide kills where farmers spray when they're not supposed to, in foraging hours. Typically they're supposed to spray so there's enough time for the active ingredients to subside so that foragers don't get a load of active insecticide.
So delivering jars of honey and some gentle encouragement is always a good way to go. It's really important that as beekeepers, we tackle the issue of insecticide and really make sure that it's been minimized and used responsibly. I would definitely approach them, ask about what they're doing. Explain that you're a beekeeper. Everybody agrees that we need to save the bees. So often farmers are quite amendable to change their practices to support the little insects that we all depend on.
How hard is it to get started becoming a beekeeper?
People learn in all sorts of different ways. Some people just like to jump right in there, so they'll just order the bits and pieces. They'll get their hive, they'll put it together and just learn as they go. Other people like to do a whole of research first, even do a bee course and so on. So it doesn't matter which way you go, as long as you're putting in the effort into learning. And it's only when you look after your bees that you get the beautiful reward of honey.
I really recommend also jumping on TheBeekeeper.org and doing the online bee course. We’ve got experts from all around the world contributing to it. It’s an initiative we started and it’s also a fundraiser. There’s lots of high-quality training content designed to bring you from square one to a deep scientific knowledge in beekeeping. And lots of people are really, really enjoying doing that course. And it's fast-tracking them from a person who has a beehive to somebody who's a really knowledgeable beekeeper.
What is the difference between an 8-frame and a 10-frame hive?
So 8-frame, 10-frame is something that's definitely debated in beekeeping. There's a bit of a shift towards the 8-frame size hive, which is called a Flow 6. The reason why it's called a Flow 6 is because you can count the Flow Frames across here, we've got six of them.
Now in the brood nest, the frames are narrower. So you've got eight brood frames in the brood box below. And in the larger size hive that we also have available, there's 10 brood frames in the box below. So it's a Langstroth 8 or Langstroth 10 are the two main sizes in the world of Langstroth hives. So the differences between them are the 8-frame, or Flay 6, is a little bit lighter to lift this box off to do your brood inspection. So that's probably the advantage.
The 10-frame bigger size, also called Flow 7, is just a bit of an advantage because you've got a bit more honey storage, you've got a few more brood frames. They can store a bit of honey below as well. They can build up a slightly bigger brood nest. So people in the colder climates with a shorter honey season tend to go for the larger size. And you'll find that across most areas, the colder places prefer the bigger hives. So that's probably the consideration. There's a bit more honey to survive the winter a bit bigger brood box to build up in a hurry when the season is compressed, where everything's flowering in a shorter time.
Is the Flow Hive suitable for beginners?
Absolutely, about half of our beekeepers are brand new to beekeeping. And there's certainly less of a learning curve when it comes to harvesting your honey. As you can see here, we turned the handle, beautiful honey came out ready for the table. There’s less equipment, you need less space. You don't need that honey processing area taking up space in your laundry or garage and the centrifugal extractor or the press or whatever way you're going to do it. It's simply all contained in a hive like this in your garden.
So it's very popular amongst the beginner beekeepers, and we've developed an incredible amount of training material to support beginner beekeepers as well. So the whole idea is we're making beekeeping easier. We're doing that by making the honey harvesting easier. We're doing that by making extra features like windows on the hive for you to understand and learn. And also the pest management tray below, the adjustable legs, the levels, and things like that, just to try and continue to make, not only the honey harvesting easier, but beekeeping easier as well.
What direction should the hive face?
The hive doesn't need to face a particular way. Commercial beekeepers typically try and give their bees a bit of a headstart by facing their hive towards a bit of morning sun to shine in the entrance. But they’re after that extra percent in production, we don't really need that.
There are other concerns that will jump up the order of priority. Like whether you have a pathway there or where the flight path is. Bees typically fly straight out of the hive and out that way, if they can, whether that's going to bother people or pets or neighbors. So those things come into play more so than whether you get morning sunlight in the hive. So don't worry too much about which way you face it. If you want to know more about that, on TheBeekeeper.org we do have videos to show you about situating your hive and making sure you're looking at all of the things necessary to place your hive in the best orientation and get it set up.
When can I add an extra brood box or super?
So you could add extra brood boxes or you could add supers. But basically, the idea is when you've got stackable style hives, like the Flow Hives and conventional Langstroth hives, you wait till the brood box is nice and full with bees. And they're even starting to build comb on top of the frames in the brood box. And there they've finished filling out all of the brood frames. The brood frames are just a wooden frame. I'll show you what that looks like, courtesy of Hilary's nice pictures here. She's got these nice cards available, Hillary Kearney.
So in the brood box are frames like this, this one's actually been in a super, or perhaps it's from the edge because it's mainly honey. But if you've got the frames like that in the brood box, and they're finished drawing them out like this, then it's time to add your super. If they're still empty frames, then wait a bit longer. Simply making the size of their house right for the numbers of bees so it's a bit easier for them to look after it.
My hive is ready and I have ordered bees. What is the next step?
Very exciting. Okay. Now the next step is putting the bees into your hive. When your bees arrive, then you're going to need your smoker. You're going to need a suit and wear your gloves. The first time, if you're feeling overwhelmed with it, do get some help. Even if it's from somebody who's only recently started, it's just nice to have a friend with you. We've got videos showing you how to install your bees into your hive.
And the nucleus is probably the easiest way to go. You can also start with a package of bees and you could also do a hive split. But you've ordered the bees, so it's probably a nucleus, which is an already going little mini-hive with five of those brood frames in the bottom, the queen laying eggs, there’s already brood in there. Everything that's in this hive, but just smaller.
And all you need to do is get out your smoker and you'd be set, transfer them into your brood box, put the lid back on, look after them and they'll grow. So that's a wonderful thing. And it'll be amazing for you to experience that. One tip is, make sure you put all your brood frames together and leave the excess space on either side. You don't want to leave gaps in the middle. Bees are really quite specific about their spacings within the hive. So you want to push the frames together, keep the spacings right, and they'll build comb that's straighter.
I did a split a few weeks ago. The colony has grown and there's a new, mated queen that is laying eggs. When should I move it from the nuc box to the brood box?
So the time to move it into the brood box is when they’ve filled out all of the frames and they're looking nice and busy with bees. So fantastic, well done on, on taking a split and that's amazing. And once they filled out all the frames and they're looking quite busy with bees, then by all means, go ahead, set up your brood box and transfer them, add the extra frames, and that will give them some extra space to expand into. One tip when they're in that nucleus-size hive, make sure they don't get too hot. Sometimes the nucleus boxes can melt down in the harsh Australian sun. So give them some shade, however you can, when they're in that little mini starter hive.
Is it too late in the season to make a split? (Newcastle, Australia)
I think here in Australia you could certainly still do splits. The summer still has plenty of the season to go in Newcastle. You probably get honey flows most of the winter as well, which is amazing, and so you could go ahead and split. If you're in other areas you could still split in summer, but probably not in the autumn time. So if you've got a hive busy with bees, when you open the side windows, it's hard to see the frames, then it’s a good idea to take a split. Alleviate some of that pressure inside the hive. And you'll also get another colony. If you don't want another hive then somebody else will.
Should I add beeswax to the Flow Frames before adding the super to the hive?
It's not necessary and it's something I don't do. However you can, if you want to. What I do, which is a bit easier if you're getting impatient with the bees and they're not getting in there and starting to work on the Flow Frames yet, is just scrape some wax or brood comb from the top of your brood frames. There should be some there if your hive is indeed ready to super. Mash that into the frame surface with your hive too, you won't damage it. You can put it in the window so you can watch it. It gives the bees some wax to recycle and reuse and start waxing up the Flow Frame parts. And that's a wonderful thing to watch through the side window. And it will give your bees a bit of a jump start on the Flow Frames.
However, the recipe for getting them really to fill the Flow Frames for that first time is lots of bees in the box. When you open the side windows, you should see lots of bees and that, coinciding with nectar in a lot of flowers in the area. And when those two things line up, you'll get honey very quickly filling your Flow Frames. But if it's a bit slow, then it'll be a bit slow to see activity. And it could be a bit of a patience game.
Honey Harvesting Questions
Why are my Flow Frames on the outside filled, but the ones on the inside are empty?
There's a few reasons why that could happen. One is, if the bees get hungry, they'll do the opposite of the filling process. So when filling, they start in the center and move out towards the extremities of the hive, to the corners, to the edges. And when they're hungry, they typically start with what's closest, right above the brood nest. So they can continue to feed the baby larvae. They need about a frame of honey to raise a frame of brood. So when they get hungry, they will eat out of the center, right above the brood nest and that's possibly what's happening.
If you keep an eye on what's happening through these windows, you start to gauge what the windows look like and what that means in terms of the bees and whether they're bringing in honey or whether they're hungry and eating honey. When you start to see it, really check it where there were full cells and there they've uncapped them and started to eat them out. It's not a perfect example of that, but you can see how it looks closer to this section here, but all the way down when they’re t filling it all evenly and it's expanding out. And when they’re a bit hungry you’ll have full cells and empty cells, full cells, empty cells. So when you start to see them getting a bit hungry, then you might assume that they're also eating the middle frames above the brood nest.
So by all means, get in there and look at the visuals of what's on the outside of the hive. Pop the lid, take a frame out and see how that compares to the inside of the hive. And after a while, you'll build up the knowledge of really understanding what's going on and when you're likely to have nice full frames of honey. It doesn't matter too much if you mess it up, it just means you might get some honey with some higher moisture content. Or you might not get a full frame’s worth of honey in your jar.
If it's a bit liquid in the jar, it's not the end of the world. It just means you'll have to consume it more quickly. Or keep it in the fridge, it'll last longer. Or it might start to ferment and turn into honey mead, which is another thing you can do if you've harvested a bit early.
So there's a little bit of background. As you learn, you'll start to really gauge. The typical beekeeping thing is just lifting the back of the hive and if it's heavy, the box is ready and the commercial beekeepers will take that box back for processing. So there's all sorts of methods, but with the windows, it certainly does help.
There is a lot of honey leaking out of my Flow frames when I harvest. Is this a problem? Will the bees eat it? Will it help if I don’t put the key the whole way in?
There’s a few reasons why you might get honey spills, depending on a whole bunch of factors. One is the way the bees cap the cells. If they've got a situation where they've bolted out at the top and it's quite indented at the bottom, that's when you're more likely to get spills down the face of the comb.
The other one is if you've got different viscosities in there. Let's say you've got some honey that's thicker down the bottom and more runny up the top. Then it'll be trying to find a pathway, but the honey down the bottom will be going slower and you can get some spills from that. So it's, it's a little bit hard to tell whether you might get some spills.
Generally, the bees just clean it all up, and it's not an issue. But if you're getting excessive spills, if you're getting like liters of honey in the tray at the bottom, then there could be something wrong with your setup. And by all means, get in touch and we'll help talk you through and troubleshoot.
But one of them is the slope of the hive is quite important. The Flow Hive 2 has the level bubble right on the side there. So you want that level bubble in the middle, and that gives you the three-degree backward slope, which is the right harvesting angle. And that's important. Otherwise, you will get a lot of honey spilling inside the hive. The other one is the side to side level. You don't want it at too much of a tilt. It can handle a little bit, but not too much of a tilt. And that's on the level of the back. You want that one central as well. So adjust the adjustable legs till you've got it set up right.
I'm just going to have to change that jar of honey. I did insert the key a little bit further because the honey's coming out beautifully. I thought, “why not continue to fill up some beautiful jars of honey?” And harvesting just a bit at a time, even though I'm doing that today, it’s something I rarely do. I haven't found that that reduces spilling.
Even though you see this trough area becoming quite full. I haven't seen it in all my testing that the honey is actually flowing out of the cells because the trough is too full. So as long as we've got that slope, you should be able to harvest the frame all in one go, if you're strong enough. Normally, you do it in segments a little bit anyway, just because it's a bit easier to turn that key.
Is it normal for the honey to be so runny when you harvest?
It is quite a warm day here. Now, the temperature really affects the viscosity and it's you'll have to put it on the shelf and let it cool down before you can judge how runny it is. I'm looking at that now and that actually looks quite okay, as far as moisture contents go. It's very warm, and you can see it looks a bit liquid. But when it cools down it’ll be below that 20% moisture range.
If you aren't selling honey commercially, a good idea to get what's called a refractometer. Which is a little device, you can put a bit of honey on, and it'll give you a reading of the moisture content. And that just means you can be certain that the honey will keep on the shelf if your moisture content is down around that 18% mark.
Have you ever thought of adding some frames into the roof cavity to harvest honeycomb?
You certainly can. There are a few things you could do there. So under the roof here is a plug which you can pull out of the inner cover. You could then put even a glass Tupperware container or glass baking dish over the top, and you could enjoy the process of watching your bees move up there and start to build honeycomb. While you could just pull the plug out and let them build honeycomb in the roof, it's a bit more to clean up than if you contain them in a smaller area that you can actually lift off. So that's one thing you do.
You can even do a small jar like that, or typically the flat wide type of jars. You could add a whole other brood box, although it wouldn't be called a brood box anymore, it'd be called a super for them to build honeycomb on top.
People often put what's called an ideal or a smaller size box of frames just for honeycomb collection. And they'll put that right on top as well. So there’s lots of things you can do. If you don't want to do that, you can simply take a frame from a brood box and it typically will have honey and no brood in it, but do check, and you can harvest honey that way. Or you could cut some of the honeycomb out of one of the edge frames right in the field and put the frame straight back in for the bees to reuse. So a few options there for honeycomb collection.
Do you need to leave the Flow key in when harvesting?
The answer is no, but it's a good idea to leave it in for some time. Because if you imagine what's happening inside the honeycomb here, inside the Flow Frame, there are all of these parts, and they've got to move like this. Now they're waxed up, they’re propolised up. And depending on the ratios of wax and propolis that the bees use, sometimes it's quite hard. So what we've done is built some spring into the mechanism. So when it's really firm, the parts will actually flex a bit and when they flex, it's maintaining that force to really move that wax and it can move quite slowly and eventually let go. So if you find it's quite hard to turn the key, then leave it in there for a bit longer. And that'll just mean that all of the parts of the Flow Frames will lift. So generally we do, but if it's easy like that, and you notice that it's just easy to turn, then all the parts have lifted. So you can take that out and move along to the next frame.
I'm going to complete harvesting this frame because the honey is coming out so beautifully and I can't help it. So there we go. I'll put the key all the way in now, all the way to the back and I've turned it and we'll see more honey flowing out and that stream really picking back up again.
Do you check the Flow Frames before, or do you just know now that they're actually ready to harvest?
If you come and have a look at this side window, we did check it beforehand. And the reason why I chose an edge frame is I could tell it was capped already. Even though the end frame view wasn't showing that it was capped, I had a look and said “well, this frame is really capped, I can clearly see it.” So I chose the side frame.
If you're not seeing the fully capped view in the end frame, then typically you wait a bit longer. But if you can see it capped on the side, then you could jump in there and harvest it anyway. It was an interesting view of the side window there because what we're seeing is the bees standing on top of the capping. The honey has drained out from beneath their feet and they're starting to do their job of chewing away that capping. And the whole process will start again. But basically, the bees were just standing on top of the capping as honey drained out beneath their feet, going about their business. Very minimal disturbance to the bees for us to harvest all of these channels.
Beekeeping in winter
Do the bees hibernate in the Flow Hive as they do in regular hives?
So the process of bees in those cold winter areas is they'll form a ball inside the hive. And that ball will move through the hive as they consume the honey. They consume their honey to warm themselves up. They disconnect their wing muscles and they vibrate in order to create heat and keep themselves warm. They need honey to do that. So once they've finished all the honey off in the lower box, they'll move up through the hive to the next box.
So for that reason, in those cold times, if you've decided to leave the Flow super on through the winter for them to consume the honey, you need to take out the excluder. The queen excluder is the grid between these two boxes that stops your queen from being able to move up and lay in your honey boxes or honey supers.
So you could go either way there. Some people will leave the honey in the Flow super over winter for the bees to consume and take out the excluder. Others will take the Flow super off, store it in a nice cold area to overwinter it, and put it back on in the springtime. In those cold areas, they might be adding another brood box or another conventional super, just to store a bit more honey.
I'm just being told the jar is just about to overflow, which it is. The stream is now slowing down to a trickle and that's jar number six. We're moving on to jar number seven, getting some nice harvest out of this frame here today. Look at that. Hardly be able to put the lid on that one. It's a beautiful thing. The honey's amazing.
I kept bees in a warm climate, but I moved to a colder one. What effect will this have on beekeeping?
The colder climate generally means you get longer winters without forage. So as with any beehive, doesn't matter whether it's a Flow Hive or a conventional hive, really it's about surviving the winter. The bees store their honey to live through those times where there's not much forage, not much nectar for them. And in those cold places, depending on how cold they are, you'll need enough honey stores.
In extreme places, you might need two boxes of honey in order to get them through the winter. Now that's extreme. Typically a lot of beekeepers will just make sure they've got a box mostly full for their hive to survive a long, cold winter. Here in the subtropical area of Australia, they get quite a lot of forage through winter, so we don't have to worry about that.
But that's probably what you'll find is it's a little bit more effort and a bit more thinking and planning to make sure your bees have enough stored honey to get through the winter. And if they don't, you'll need to feed them some sugar syrup. So they can top up their stores ideally prior to winter. But if you leave it too late, it's still better to feed them even over winter than letting them starve. So I'm not an expert in that because we don't have the long cold winters here, but plenty of beekeepers will be that you can ask.
Can I leave the super on all through winter? (Sydney, Australia)
If you're in Sydney, I'd probably leave it on all winter. We leave ours on up here in Byron Bay for winter. Especially if you're close to the coast, you'll often get some good honey flows through the winter as well. And here we can continue harvesting occasionally all through the winter time as well. So it really depends on whereabouts you are in the world. But in Sydney check with your local beekeepers. But I dare say you could leave your super on and even harvest a little bit in the winter time.
Harvesting wrap up
I'm going to show you how to finish the process of harvesting. It's quite simple. All I'm going to do is get this key here, insert it into the top slot. You'll see in there there's two slots. Into the top one, push it all the way. It's important to make sure you feel that knock at the back as the key is all the way to it.
You can just turn it all in one go like that, and it’s a good idea to leave it just 30 seconds or so. Because what's happening is all of those parts are now moving back into the cell formed position. The bees will start waxing them up, filling them with nectar, and the whole process will start again. It's quite extraordinary.
So you can then take the key out. Your little cap, that goes back in the top. And if you've forgotten to reset the frame, we've put a reminder here, it's hard to put the cap in as this tab will hit the lifted part. So if you can't get your cap in, you might have forgotten to actually reset your frames to cell formed position.
Next, you’ll be doing a bit of a hot-swap of this tube. Now we could either let the last remaining bits drain into the jar, or we could just leave the rest to go back for the bees. And we've put a little leak back point here. The tube clears that out nicely for you, so you don't have to think about it. And all I'm going to do is pull this tube out and put this in before that honey starts flowing everywhere.
And pretty soon you're going to see the bees’ tongues. In fact, I'm already starting to see them licking in this area here as they start consuming the last remaining bits of honey. You see their little red tongues. It might be a little bit hard to see there, as the bees are going to lick up the last bits of honey.
Hopefully your trough ends up nice and clean. Sometimes as you can see over here, there's a bit of a buildup of honey. Now, what happens is that little leak back point we designed can block up. And one easy way to unblock that is just to twist this around like that. And often that'll break it, but if it doesn't, you can pull the cap out and just use the end of your Flow key or a stick or something just to clean that up. Ideally, you want honey not to build up in that area.
With the last jar, you can rest the tube on like that so the remaining honey can drain into your jar. Don't leave honey out like that. You don't want to promote robbing in your apiary. So make sure you clean up any honey and any honey spills. The covers then go back on and away you go. Thank you very much for tuning in and watching today and for all your fantastic questions, let us know what you'd like us to cover next week. And we'll be back with another interesting show and help everybody learn beekeeping.
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