Keeping Records of Your Beekeeping

by Julie Tennis on February 5, 2018

I filled up my first beekeeping journal in December, which got me thinking about record-keeping and how I might improve my system. I’ve been through a few iterations of record keeping systems, but the one I’ve been using the past five years is a mix of short notes and narrative. I record the date, location and hive number, then include notes that pertain to whatever it is I’m checking for that day. Here’s an example of a mid-winter inspection where I was checking colony vitality and stores:

1/23/17: Deep River
1: 46# good cluster, lots of honey, wet lid and shavings (I was testing quilt boxes last winter)
2: 48# lots of honey, tiny cluster, wet lid and shavings
~ both hives have activity on porch

The drawback to this system is that I sometimes forget to record information that could be useful or necessary later. Like many of you, I have a job and a life outside of beekeeping, a life that is sometimes distracting, or which causes me to feel so busy that my hive inspections become a rush job. So I decided to create a checklist that I could use in conjunction with notes to help guide my regular inspections. I haven’t field-tested this form yet – I’m waiting for a day without rain. And I already know that some of the items won’t be applicable at certain times of the year, but I think this could be a useful tool anyway, and I wanted to share it with you.

Here is the Apiary Inspection Checklist I’ll be testing this year. This form was inspired by an Inspection Checklist created by ABC Bees years ago. If you use this form, I’d love to get your feedback! You can share your comments below.

The first things you should record when working with your bees are the date, time, location and weather conditions, i.e., the “metadata.” Metadata are the “data about the data.” They set the context for the rest of the information that you gather, reminding you of the conditions at the time of your observations. When I first started keeping records I thought I would remember everything from one visit to the next. I wasn’t even thinking about how I might use the information ten years down the road. Knowing the time of year, the location of the colonies, and the weather when you were making your observations can tell you so much about the bees – if you keep track of that information over time!

External Inspection (Items you can check without opening the hive.)

Hive Number:     Each column represents a different colony in your apiary.

# of Brood Boxes:      How many boxes are on the colony that are just for them to use?

# of Honey Boxes:      How many boxes are on the colony for the bees to store honey that you will harvest?

Screened Bottom:     Yes or no.

Propped Cover:     I raise or lower one end of the telescoping cover to help with air flow and moisture reduction in the colony. With hives in several locations, it’s helpful to know whether the lids are propped when I’m dealing with hot spells or yellowjackets.

Entrance Reducer:      I generally use this in the winter to help reduce air flow through the hive. Like with the propped cover, it’s nice to be able to glance at my notes rather than have to visit every apiary to find out if I’ve remembered to place or remove entrance reducers.

Weight:     I use a hanging scale to lift the back end of the hive for a weight. This is about half the total weight of the colony. I like to keep track of the weight as a less obtrusive way to monitor honey stores in the winter.

Dead Bees on Porch:     Dead bees on the porch is a normal occurrence, but can give you insight into what’s happening in the hive. Are there pupae on the porch? Is there a trail of wax debris? Are there high numbers of dead bees or just a few? While the space here is for a number, you can use the back side of the data sheet to record notes about specific items on the front. A trail of wax debris generally means the hive is being robbed. Dead pupae could mean brood disease. You can learn a lot about what is going on inside the colony by looking at activity on the outside.

Traffic Volume:     Here is a piece of data that can correspond to the weather data you gathered at the top of the page. Or it might not. But you would expect lots of activity on a warm day, and if the traffic volume is low when the air temperature is high, the bees inside may be having trouble of some kind.

Orientation Flights:      When a cohort of young bees reach foraging age, they will gather, as a group, in front of the hive to orient themselves in space. The flight of orienting bees is relaxed and flowing as they bob up and down outside the hive, mapping the location of their home in their minds. Eventually the bees widen their flight to etch more of the landscape into their mental map. When a large cohort is orienting, it can appear that the colony is swarming. The difference between an orientation flight and swarming is that the orienting bees will remain in front of the hive for several minutes before dispersing. A swarm will form a large cloud after the bees leave the hive.

Bringing in Pollen:      Bringing in pollen is generally an indication that all is well in the hive. This is not always that case – I have seen colonies bringing in and storing pollen even when queenless and having no brood. If you see a colony that is not bringing in pollen when the others are, this is a good indication you should take a look inside to see how the girls are doing.

Aggressive:      Aggressiveness can indicate any number of issues, from a queenless colony to beekeeper incompetence. I look at the totality of the circumstances to decide how to proceed with this information. In general, I note aggressiveness (bees flying right at your face as soon as you open the lid, banana-candy smell, dozens of bees stinging your gloves as soon as you open the inner cover, etc). If the colony is consistently aggressive over two or more visits, I will check the laying pattern and/or search for the queen. If there doesn’t seem to be anything amiss inside the colony, and she’s queenright, I will move the colony to someplace where their aggression won’t interfere with human activities.

Type of Supplement:      Mark here if you’re feeding the bees, and record on the back of the form what you are feeding them. Or you can come up wth your own shorthand for supplements you typically provide, such as P for pollen, SW for sugar water, or F for fondant. Be sure you record a key for your abbreviations so that you can be reminded of them later. You will forget!

# Frames of Adult Bees:     Looking down on the top of your hive, how many of the frames does the cluster encompass?

Drones:     Presence/absence.

Signs of Dysentery?      Are there streaks of bee poop on the outside of the hive?

Internal Inspection

Hive Scent Normal?      Do you notice any “off” or unusual odor? If you can describe it, do so on the back.

Queen Color (if seen):     If you mark your queen, you may want to replace this line item with “Queen Mark.” I don’t paint my bees, so I just keep an informal log of the color of the queen for future comparison.

# Frames Open Brood:     How many frames have open brood in them?

# Frames Capped Brood:     How many frames have capped brood in them? (May overlap with above.)

Total # Frames of Brood:     What are the total number of frames in the colony that contain brood?

% Drone Brood:     What percentage of the total amount of brood is drone brood?

Signs of Brood Disease?     See this pamphlet to learn more about recognizing brood disease.

# Frames Nectar:      How many frames contain mostly open nectar?

# Frames Capped Honey:      How many frames contain mostly capped honey?

# Frames of Pollen:      How many frames contain mostly pollen?

# Empty Frames:     How many frames are empty?

# Queen Cells:     How many queen cells did you find?

# Dead Bees on Bottom:     How many dead bees are on the bottom board? (Feel free to estimate.)

Deformed Wings?      Did you notice any deformed wings while you were in the hive?

Mites?     Did you see any mites while you were in the hive?

Strength of Hive:     What is the general condition of the colony? Strong, Average, or Weak?

That’s a quick overview of the line items of the Apiary Inspection Form I’ll be testing this year. I’d love to hear if you try this form, and how it works for you. Let me know in the comments below.

How to Clean Raw Beeswax

by Julie Tennis on December 16, 2017

I was several years into beekeeping before I learned how to process wax. I had tried it once, early on, and ended up with such a mess in the metal bowl I was using that I just hid the bowl away rather than figure out how to fix it. Now I know that having clean wax to make candles and other products is all about having the right tools.

You will need the following equipment:
• a crockpot
• a slotted spoon
• a heat gun
• a makeshift double-boiler
• a small, fine-mesh metal sieve
• Charmin’s toilet paper
• a second tin can
• an ice cube tray or silicon wax mold

Ideally, you’ll want to have a set of these tools just for processing wax. It is time-consuming to clean wax from these items (except for the heat gun and the bottom pot of your “double-boiler”), and slumgum is very difficult to remove from the crockpot and the top pot of your double-boiler.

(Slumgum is the crud that separates out of the wax. It’s a mix of honey and other impurities cooking into a sticky, frothy brown goo.)

There are three steps to processing wax:
• First Melt – where you remove the large debris, such as cocoons
• Second Melt – where you filter out the small debris
• Third Melt – where you pour the filtered wax into molds

Step One

The first melt occurs in the crockpot. Add three inches of water in the bottom of the pot. Add the raw wax. Turn on the heat. It only takes 15-30 minutes for all the wax to melt, depending on how much you added.

When the wax has melted, use a slotted spoon to scoop out the floating debris – slumgum and old cocoons. These things are difficult to see against the black backdrop of the crockpot, so be patient and take your time. The more crud you get out now the less you have to deal with later. Dump the slumgum into a paper bag (it makes great fire starter). When the slotted spoon becomes too encased, peel off the wax and put it in the pot to remelt, or use the heat gun to melt it back into the pot.

Let the wax cool. The layer of water, in addition to absorbing some of the impurities, will keep the wax suspended from the bottom of the crockpot while it cools. The wax will contract as it cools, usually pulling free from the crockpot walls.

You’ll now have a nice oval of wax which is convenient for storing. There will likely be a small chunks of slumgum and cocoons embedded in the wax, but you can remove those during step two. If you’re going to store your wax, rinse thoroughly under lukewarm water to dislodge any residual honey and loose debris.

Step Two

The second melt occurs in your double-boiler. I use a makeshift double-boiler so I don’t have to worry about ruining a pot. You can use a tin can, just be sure you’ve rigged it up so that it can’t tip over in your pot.

Place two to three inches of water in your bottom pot. Put your tin can in the water and put your wax from Step One into the can. Place the burner on high. Once the water starts to boil, turn the temperature down to medium. The water will remain hot enough to melt the wax without throwing boiling water into the can. Do not leave your wax unattended.

Once the wax is liquefied, line a fine mesh metal sieve with Charmin’s toilet paper and place the sieve over your second can. (My sister tested numerous materials as filters for cleaning wax and found Charmin to be the superior choice.) Place the can on a pot holder or some other insulating device to protect your countertop. Slowly and carefully pour the liquid wax through the filter into the second can. The wax will solidify as you work, clogging up your filter. The heat of the liquid wax that you’re pouring through will help to clear a path, but you can also use the heat gun on its lowest setting to get things flowing again. Be careful not to blow wet wax all over your work space.

Eventually the toilet paper will become clogged with slumgum. Twist up the dry corners of the toilet paper and press down to squeeze the remaining wax out of the slumgum, then toss the used toilet paper into a bag for later use as fire starter. You will likely go through several squares of Charmin before you’re finished filtering the wax.

Step Three

The third melt also occurs in your double-boiler. By the time you’ve finished filtering the wax, the first pours will have started to solidify. Place the can into the hot water of the double-boiler pot to re-melt. When it is sufficiently liquified, pour the clean wax into the squares of an ice cube tray or into your wax or candle mold.

And that’s it – you’ve processed your wax! It’s a time-consuming process but it provides you with another product from the hive that you can use to make candles, lip balm, salve, and numerous other wax-based items.

I’d love to hear what you’re making with wax from your bees – please share resources in the comments below.

So You Want to Be a Beekeeper?

by Julie Tennis on October 29, 2017

When you’re a beekeeper, your friends will ask you to remove bees from all sorts of difficult-to-reach places.

You start early in hopes of getting the honeybee colony removed from the awning before the heat of the day settles in around you like a wet fur coat. But there’s no ladder at the site, and you have to drive 40 minutes round-trip to get yours, so there went the cool morning hours.

Now you’re up on the ladder, which won’t rest flush against the side of the building, so you’re standing with your thigh pressed against the edge of the ladder, torso angled over the side, hoping you don’t shift your weight the wrong way and fall in a heaping mess of beekeeper and honeycomb onto the slate pavers below.

The first sections of comb come out easy. They’re beautiful light yellow and built in parallel sheets that pry easily from the ceiling. Each feels like a chunk of gold as you gingerly slither down the ladder to deposit the treasure into a bucket. “That was so easy,” you think, gazing at the remaining three-quarters of the hive, imagining you’ll be done within the hour.

The next section of comb is gnarled and interwoven. It is well-attached to the ceiling and joists. It doesn’t come out easily. You have to break the comb off in pieces and now honey is leaking out everywhere – all over your gloves, onto your hood, and down the ladder, forming puddles on the ground below. The honey is so thick on your gloves that you have to wipe it off onto your coveralls just so you can grip your hive tool. Spectators pace, just out of reach of the bees, anxious for a chance to sink their teeth into a chunk of raw honeycomb. Sweat drips off your brow, sweat trickles down your back, your armpits feel juicy. There’s nothing you can do about any of it, you’re covered head to toe in protective gear. You resign yourself to being a hot, sticky, sweaty mess.

Hours later you pull the last bit of comb from the cavity and you scrape as much of the leftover wax off the ceiling as possible but your hive tool keeps catching on the damn roofing nails. You give up and spend the next couple of hours pulling bees out of the pounds of honeycomb you’ve piled on top of their new home, a wooden box containing ten frames of wax and comb ready for a queen bee and her workers to start raising the next generation of bees. By the time you wrap up, you’ve been on the ladder for six hours.

You place the new beehive on the awning in hopes that the rest of the bees will move in. They never do. You’ll come back the next morning to gather up the stubborn gals who’ve clustered at the site of their old hive. You’ll scoop them up and dump them into the box. You’ll come back and do this again in the evening. You’ll do it one more time early the next morning and then pack up the box and bees and take them all home.

Now you’re exhausted, over-heated, dehydrated and hungry. You decide to never do a cut out again. It’s no fun removing an established colony out of a space that they’ve chosen to occupy, inadvertently killing hundreds of bees and making one hell of a sticky mess in the process. Sometimes it needs to be done. Sometimes the homeowner just doesn’t want bees around. Sometimes the bees have chosen a nest site poorly, such as in a chimney. But you agree with yourself to never do a cut-out again.

The next day you get a call asking you to remove a colony from a wall.

Honey Primer – Part 2: Out of the Hive, Into the Jar

September 15, 2017

This is the second half of a two-part article about honey. Click here to read how honey is made. Honey is highly-refined flower nectar. Different flowers yield different amounts of nectar – some are generous, some have none at all. On average though, we can say that each flower generally produces less than half a […]

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Honey Primer – Part 1: How Honey is Made

August 29, 2017

Honey is a precious resource, produced by the labor of hundreds of thousands of worker bees. It starts out as nectar, produced by flowers. Honey bees collect this nectar in a special compartment in their digestive tract called the “honey stomach.” While in the honey stomach, the nectar is subject to digestive enzymes which begin […]

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How to Keep Your Bees Out of Your Neighbor’s Pool

July 31, 2017

In the decade I’ve been keeping bees, the only neighbor complaint I’ve heard was when the folks next door had a pool and found “my” bees floating in the water. Honeybees require water for the same reasons we do: to keep their tissues and organs in operating condition, to remove wastes from their body, and […]

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