honey bees at a Langstroth hive entrance

2021 Catch Up: Beekeeping Decisions

by Beth

Honey bees were such a big part of our last year that I’m breaking this update into 3 parts. This post is about beekeeping decisions. Part 2 is about honey bee swarms, and part 3 is about harvesting honey and rendering beeswax.

Honey bees still mystify humans, even after 10,000 years of using them for wax and honey, so in beekeeping, there’s always an exception, a different approach, or a rule to be broken. Every decision has pros and cons that might not be realized for months, so it makes sense to start this update series with background about decisions that carried us into 2021.

2020 Decisions That Set the Stage for Beekeeping in 2021

We brought home our first 2 honey bee colonies in April 2020, purchased as 5-frame nucs, short for “nucleus colonies” and pronounced nukes. Nucs are young colonies with a laying queen, worker bees, and brood (baby bees). Like most beekeepers, we decided to house the colonies in Langstroth hives, those standard hives made of stacks of boxes. Here’s a picture from our “Bee Day” installing the nucs (when you pick up your bees, everybody says, “Happy Bee Day!”).

The colonies grew slowly. Winds were high. Rain diluted big nectar flows in April and early May, like holly and poplar. One colony split and swarmed within a month.

With the help of a mentor, we caught that swarm and set it up as our 3rd colony, which proceeded to throw little swarms so often we called it Swarmolina. By the end of the nectar flows in the summer, 2 hives only had 1 full honey super each. The third hive (the nuc that didn’t throw a major swarm) had 3 supers of honey.

We could’ve harvested honey from the tall hive. Our mentor advised us to take at least a few frames. But we decided not to, wanting to leave the colonies all the honey they’d managed to make. Bees eat honey during cold months for energy to keep the hive warm. They also need the fuel to start rebuilding their population in preparation for spring, a process that evidently starts at the winter solstice, even with the coldest months of the year still ahead.

Many beginning beekeepers overwinter Langstroth hives with just 2 boxes: one, big “brood box” on the bottom, where the colony raises new bees, and a smaller box of honey frames on top, called a “honey super.” General wisdom says a single super is enough for a hive to survive winter. But on that tallest hive, we figured the extra food would mean a better chance of coming into 2021 strong. The downside? No honey for us, but we were fine delaying the gratification – and the hard work of a honey harvest – if it meant a good hive-survival rate.

More advanced beekeepers are known to try a variety of configurations of Langstroth boxes to overwinter bees, but leaving 2 extra supers on a hive in the winter usually isn’t one of them. Some think it’s harder for the bees to keep a tall stack of boxes warm. The bees solve this by migrating upward through the hive boxes over the winter months and may end up raising brood in the honey supers. Having baby bees in upper boxes complicates all kinds of beekeeping things, from hive inspections to harvesting honey to mite treatments. Did we make a bad decision?

The Results Are In: Spring 2021

On March 14, 2021, the weather was sunny and warm enough not to chill (i.e., kill) the bees. We opened the hives for the first inspection of the year, breath held. All 3 colonies survived! They were small but busy rebuilding.

They had moved plenty of brood up into the supers. Some beekeepers will immediately start shuffling boxes the force the bees to move brood back to the bottom box. Not wanting to interrupt their colony building, we opted for a wait-and-see approach. There’s a belief out there that bees only move the colony up through the hive, never down. Our mentor shook his head at that one and said we were fine to wait and see. Sure enough, as the weather warmed up, the bees moved all baby bee cells back down to the brood boxes and filled the honey supers with only honey. It took until late spring, but since we wouldn’t harvest honey or treat for mites until the end of the summer, it was no problem.

Back to that first 2021 inspection: the tall hive didn’t finish all the extra honey over the winter. Since all the colonies had shrunk to roughly the same size over the winter, we shared the tall hive’s surplus with the other hives. Some say this makes bees less motivated to gather nectar to make new honey, but we didn’t find it slowed them down. In fact, it may have helped fuel comb-building in the early weeks of spring. Bees have to consume a lot of honey to produce comb, like 6-8 pounds of honey for every pound of comb. Here they are in March, a week after the first inspection, looking busy:

The surplus honey meant we didn’t have to feed sugar water, which many do to augment early spring nectar flows. Sugar can reduce the impact of nectar shortages if spring rains come at bad times for bees, but sugar doesn’t contain the miraculous range of enzymes and good bacteria bees pack into their honey.

According to the bees, 2021 was a good year for nectar anyway. At one point, we were adding a super a week for more space to make honey.

apiary with 3 hives in summer

By June 2021, we had expanded to 6 hives, and half of them had so many honey supers they were taller than me. It’s safe to say that 2021 was a success for honey production. Whether that was the extra winter honey stores, good weather for bees, both, or something else, we’ll never know. We didn’t expect the success and, once again, ended up in the beginning beekeeper’s frenzy of building (Chris) and painting (me) bee boxes. Most of my farm clothes are now partly bee-box colored.

apiary with 3 hives in summer

Wait, back up. How did we expand from 3 hives to 6? Swarms! 2021 was the year we discovered the unbridled glee of swarm season.

For bee swarm videos and details about the rush of catching honey bee swarms, buzz over to part 2.

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