Which bees are the best?

Bees can develop rapidly in spring, or slowly, or in between. Carnica bees (Carniolans) are usually known to develop rapidly in spring, while black bees (A. m. mellifera, AMM) usually develops slowly. If the bees are developing quickly, they eat more food as they make more brood. It is brood that requires a lot of food, both for feeding the young and for keeping brood temperature in the hive.
Carnica bees usually start brooding early and strong. Mostly they react quickly to availability of fresh pollen, especially later in summer when chilly weather keep them inside the hive and brooding thus is greatly reduced. The AMM bees are often adapted to a late honey flow and weak early flows. The late heather flow in the Nordic countries has been involved in forming this bee. The yellow Italian bees come from a warmer climate where it may be smaller weaker honey flows during a long time of the season. They often tend to breed most of the time the whole year long. Therefore, there have been management methods of beekeepers in Sweden to handle this. For example, to hinder the bees brooding in winter by wintering them in one box only with ten frames of Swedish standard frames (366 x 222 mm). Then they let the bees fill the box with as much sugar solution that they can, thus leaving very little space left for brood. Such a small box full of Italian bees should not be well insulated. But if the colony is not very strong, a good insulation is necessary in our climate.
A cold spring like this in 2017 is a hard test for the bees and the beekeeper. It may not have been such a cold spring since temperatures began to be measured in Sweden, probably since the mid 18 hundreds.

Which bees are then the best?

For survival of the bees, they obviously should develop slowly in spring, and have no or very very little brood in winter. Thus they are more able to economize with the food so that it lasts until they can collect more fresh nectar from flowers in nature. They must also be resistant to diseases that can create difficulties when spring is cold and long, especially nosema.
But a beekeeper who wants a little better honeycrop than just 10-15 kg in average, and is trying to make a living from his bees must have a little different goal for his bees. This beekeeper needs a bee that can be wintered stronger than just on one box of smaller frames. It shouldn’t breed in winter. But it should develop strong in spring, if there is food enough.

I prefer the Langstroth length of the frame, to get strong colonies. The frame height can be anyone of the available options. The goal is as strong a colony as possible going into winter, with plenty of food. Preferably at least a box on top full of feed.
Large amounts of food are not needed for wintering, but for making brood coming spring. Where I live, with my bees, brooding begins in smaller amounts in late winter and increases at the beginning of March. Later in March the queen lays a lot, especially after the main cleansing flight that normally takes place later in March.
A year like this, the amount of brood will vary in line with the ability for the bees to fly out of the hive and get water for the brood. Bee types differ in ability of flying at lower temperatures. The beekeeper must ensure that there are always at least 2 frames with capped food so that the bees can make brood without risking running out of food. (Italian bees, unfortunately, often breed strongly with almost no food left, which is very risky for the bees, with starvation as the result.)

 A few days ago temperature was 8-10 °C. Many colonies was more or less packed in the first super above the queen excluder. They got two more supers if they were more packed, one more supers if they were less packed. Today 18 May it is summer. The picture shows colonies in an apiary before they were supered a few days ago.

In order to be able to get a crop from early honey flows, the bees must be strong enough to fill at least one super above the queen excluder (one box more than expected room for the broodnest of the queen) and a second for the development of the strength of the bees, when the first early flow begins, which usually is from winter rape.
A long cold spring like this means you have to check the bees frequently to ensure they have food enough. The best is to give the bees capped food combs. I get them from my stock of capped food combs which I established in November removing some outer food combs from heavy hives in which the bee strength was smaller. Those combs were replaced with insulation dummy combs. Food combs can also come from colonies that have died during winter. Combs that have been heavily defecated on and can not be cleaned are not used. A few spots of defecation a strong colony can handle. Another option when food combs are not available is sugar fondant. The last option is sugar solution. It will can cause the colonies to make too much brood.
Especially a spring like this you see a difference in the bee colonies. There are those who have bred too much and used up too much food. And there are those that responded too much to the cold periods and stopped brooding almost altogether. And then there are the perfect ones that did not need extra food but still developed continously and developed enough good strength, albeit not the very strongest. Then there are those which developed very well but needed some extra food combs. The two last types of bees are those that should be favored when selecting for breeders. First priority is though of course Varroa resistance.

Food control again, soon increase

A month ago I did the first food control after winter. Spring was then still cold then in the beginning of March. A number of dead colonies were brought home. I divided the combs in three groups, food combs, empty combs still usable and combs to recycle the wax from.

Some colonies needed food combs. Those I had taken in autumn from colonies with more than they needed and space that could be decreased by taking out a few outer combs in the top box and inserting insulation “dummy” combs.

Now a month later I did a second food check. Some colonies needed food. A few more were dead. Another few will probably die in a couple of weeks. The winter losses will arrive at about 10 %. Previous years the winter losses have been about 15 %. Those years about 30 % of the survivors barely survived and gave no crop. And they got their queens shifted later in the season. This year those 30 % will be 10 %, a better figure. Also the quality of the breeder queens have been better concerning the years they havn’t needed any treatment. And the VSH value is better, Varroa Sensitive Hygien.

Spring15-10 This looks like an ideal colony. Three boxes completely full of bees. It’s heavy, but not as heavy as last fall. There is some room left. I can estimate the weight when lifting the hive a little on both sides. Experience helps here. This colony did not get any super now, even though it had so many bees. They will manage well until it gets one in 1-2 weeks. The next round to the apiaries will be with the car filled with supers and also some food combs that probably will be needed.

Spring15-13 This is also a very good colony, a split from last year wintered on two boxes. Full of bees, plenty of food, but space left for nectar and larvae. They will get their third box in a week or two.

Spring15-16 A colony that was more insulated with insulation combs in both boxes. It responded by making brood in late February and March almost using up their food. It’s interesting a smaller colony with a fresh queen can respond in such a way to develop their strength in off season like this. An insulation comb was removed from the light weight side and a comb empty of food had their bees shaken off. The colony was given two combs full of food. On the other more weighty side of the colony, the bees had one full comb of food. That’s the minimum I want for a colony, three combs of food (about 5 kg ≈11 pounds). This colony is the result of a queenless split last year, which failed to make themself a queen. It was united with a split, that had a new laying queen, that was too small to be able to survive winter on their own. This situation probably triggered the more heavily brooding in spite of the smaller size, maybe a survival instinct as the colony had many old bees to start with that probably wouldn’t make it through winter. They had to be replaced in some way.

Spring16-5 This colony is weakened, the bees sitting close to a insulation comb to keep themselves warm. The bees are covering two full shallows in the top box. They had enough food. Already in November they had started to go down in strength. That’s why several combs were removed and replaced with insulation combs. I could have removed the bottom box, but that will probably be done at the next visit. This colony is questionable if it will survive. Does it has it Nosema and/or virus problems? Next visit will tell.

Spring16-8a This colony is almost full of bees on three boxes and it is very heavy, as heavy as last fall. It has barely used any food or has collected a lot of willow nectar. The truth is probably a bit of both. The colony has built much new wax on inner cover plastic sheet. It’s too cold (8C=46F) to open up and replace a number of combs with empty drawn ones. The quickest and easiest way is to add a super above an excluder (or without an excluder), which was done.

Some colonies now in early April got an increase super. In a way it wasn’t needed as the weather still was to cold to really trigger the swarming instinct. But if the boxes of the colony are filled with bees and they either are empty of food or heavy as lead indicating no space left, then they got a box. Five colonies out of about 150 got it. The next round to the apiaries will be focused on increase and the car will be filled with supers with empty drawn 4.9 mm cell size combs. This will happen in 1-2 weeks after this visit.

I’m fascinated how small my bees actually are now!

Bedding down


I live on 59 degrees north and 15 degrees east in Sweden. It can be quite cold in winter and bees can’t usually leave the hive a single time from about November until about middle of March, sometimes late in April.

I use single walled wooden boxes for the hives (no insulation) with no wrapping for winter, so the colonies need to be strong to winter well and be able to get a crop from the winter rape in May. No top ventilation. But bottom ventilation, through the entrance and through netting in the back corners of the bottom board.

I use square shallow boxes for 12-13 frames (depending on center to center distance) (frames 448×137 mm) throughout the hive, no other frame size. It works surprisingly well one may think. One square shallow box has the same volume as one medium, 10 frame (Illinois–3/4-Langstroth, 448×159 mm frames). Two square shallows correspond to a 12-frame modified dadant or jumbo box (448×286 mm frames). I normally use three square shallow boxes for winter (and as brood nest in summer with excluder) with the top third box full of or with a lot of honey, complementing with sucrose solution in August/September adding up to about 30 kg of food (65 pounds[lb]).

Smaller colonies get dummy insulation as outer frames, after combs filled with food are removed in late autumn. They may get the entrance somewhat reduced. These colonies are mostly wintered on two square shallows (with somewhat less honey and total food). The smaller colonies the more insulation they get to winter well.

After feeding sugar in September, temperature is low enough in October or November to keep the bees inside all day and clustered together tightly. Now the old bees have died off and left the winter bees for taking the colony through winter. The cluster is reduced as a result of this and also as a result of temperature compressing the bees together to keep them from loosing heat. Egglaying has normally stopped a couple of months earlier with my bees.

This situation didn’t occur this year due to relatively mild weather, as last year, until late November, with then steady temperature just above freezing. I then checked all colonies concerning strength and removed some outer frames replacing them with insulation dummy frames of compact polystyrene. Some smaller colonies had already been reduced this way in August in both upper and lower boxes. At this point only the upper box get outer frames removed. I have a plastic sheet covering the top and lift up and folded somewhat at one side at a time to help the colony keep warmth when working. The bees are usually calm and don’t move much if I work fast.


In August all three boxes are full of bees on all combs. When sitting in winter cluster in November in average this year they are sitting tight filling up about 7 frame gaps in about two boxes, in the middle box and somewhat in the lower and upper ones. Or lower down or higher up.  A colony with 8 filled gaps will not get any comb removed. 7 gaps 1-2 removed, 6 gaps 2-3 removed, 5 gaps 3-5 removed.

The smallest cluster now have 4 gaps with tightly clustered bees (with three insulation frames on each side of six combs in the upper box) and the strongest are filling 10 gaps. Watch out in early spring! Such colonies will hopefully need a super very early in spring!

Light colored bees don’t normally behave like this, they brood longer in autumn, wait longer clustering tightly, and start earlier brooding considerably in late winter.

My bees don’t use all this food for winter, they use maybe 5-8 kg (11-18 pounds). But with a good amount of honey they start heavily brooding in early March before even having made the cleansing flight after winter. Then they need the food! If they don’t have enough food you have to feed them. If feeding them sugar solution, which is common, the bees might react in easier develop swarming preparation.

The removed food combs are stored mouse tight and used for those colonies developing fast in spring and need more food. Some colonies have used too much food during winter and spring. They are not stronger than those that wait until March brooding, they might actually develop backwards due to nosema problems. Such colonies are requeened later. In second half of May I start making splits and nucs. These stored food combs are a gift.

With a good amount of food in late winter/early spring the bees “dare” to make a lot of brood. When May comes they already are filling (almost) a couple of supers above the excluder with bees and are ready to fill them with honey!


Prepared for winter

Prep smal

It’s been a very busy time for some time now. From about August 5 to August 25 all supers above queen excluder are harvested and honey extracted, the third removal for the season.

Prep tymol

Those colonies showing wingless bees on the hardboard in front of the  entrance have got one piece (about 4 grams) with thymol. On the next round those colonies in need of reducing the space for winter have gotten rid of the lowest shallow box, or/and outer combs taken out and insulation dummy frames instead.

Prep reduce

The smaller cluster the more insulation. Normal strong colonies no insulation. During the same round the weights of the colonies are estimated, and then follows estimation of how much feeding with sucrose solution is needed to take the colonies to the first good flow next year (not just through winter).

Prep feeder1

Topfeeders are put on and feeding done through a couple of weeks. Feeders are opened to let the bees clean them for me.

Prep feeder2

Then they are taken home for storage. Another round to check the strenght and eventual more thymol and more reducing of the space. In both cases just a few colonies.

Yesterday I was done. Relaxing for a few days. Now is the time to go through the notes and summarize the season.

First increase, the first apiary

A couple of days ago I started for the new season, to check colonies for need of food and for increase of space for bees and brood. I want to give you some glimpses.

I checked four apiaries that afternoon. In the first one I have 7 colonies.

  • Colony 1: It wintered on three 12 frame shallow boxes. All colonies always have a lot of food for winter (most important so they have enough food for brood in spring and early summer). This colony for a couple of years have needed in my eyes too much thymol due to wingless bees. So I decided to split it and give the two parts a mature queencell. When I split a bad colony I keep the split (which is made including the queen, the two upper brood boxes) in the same apiary moving it to another place. It will this lose its field bees and it will be easy to find the queen and take her away. The split is colony 6 in this apiary. 2012 colony 1 needed 20 grams of thymol (to be compared with the at least 50 grams needed for unselected bees for varroa resistance). 2013 it needed still 15 grams in spite of the new queen, broodless period and a very big split taken. And the need came later in season so I wondered how to interpret this need. The virus probably was hanging around and making life miserable for the bees. The colony shrank in size in autumn, but kept the three boxes though quite some combs in the upper box were exchanged with insulation/dummy combs. I was a little worried for it. But now it made me happy. They are healthy with capped brood and increasing strenght of bees. They got the upper third box filled with combs, three of them foundation and one food. The queen is a daughter of the interesting queen H137, which had zero varroa infestation in the brood last year.
  • Colony 2: It was a walkaway split last year from a colony about 4 km (2,5 miles) from this apiary. The third upper box taken without the queen. Thus it normally gets enough brood and food in that box, but without the queen. I shake all bees in that box down below and put the queen excluder on box two. I put the third back, for a quarter of to half an hour, and then take it on a new closed bottom (with the cover) and move it to another apiary. Also the way I takes it, it gets almost too strong, so I put another empty box with some food and drawn combs underneath it at the new place. The split made a new queen and grew enough, but barely enough, to be wintered on three boxes. It needed no thymol last year as a split. The third box was now filled up with combs of which three were foundation and one food. They looked very nice. Now the mother colony though didn’t look as fine this spring. I saw no wingless bees in that one, but it had had problems during winter and I had to take away the bottom box. It has been weaker and weaker all winter. Still it is not too weak and it had capped brood. I will give the mother colony 5 grams of thymol soon enough. This daughter colony no 2 in this apiary I will keep my eyes on for eventual need of thymol.
  • Colony 3: This colony needed thymol early in the season and it didn’t grow well, so I took the queen away and gave it a mature queen cell in the middle of the summer. The colony grew well and wintered about the same size as the two mentioned. It was given combs the same way, but I was almost giving it a fourth box, the first above the queen excluder, but I concluded it can be done at the next visit. The mother queen to the queen is H109, which also is the mother to H137. H109 was old last year and began laying 50 % drones early in the season so I said good bye to her.
  • Colony 4: This apiary was not a very good one last year. This colony 4 was the only one that gave a good crop in this apiary. Some years are like that. But instead this one gave me a crop for at least two, 130 kg with 23 kg left for winter (280 pounds + 50 pounds). And I used no thymol last year and none the year before, which was the walkaway split year. The mother colony (to this colony) 4 km away didn’t need any thymol either last year. But I hesitate using it for breeding as this apiary is one of the apiaries at the edge of the area with Elgon bees. Thus the queen may have been mated to non-Elgon drones. Should I care? And the colony uses a little too much food during winter. Temper is not the best, but quite okey. The queen is related to H109 and H137 but not close. It was full of bees on three boxes and got a super above the excluder with some foundation and three combes of food as it had very little food left.
  • Colony 5: This is a walkaway split from a colony 4 km away. The mother colony actually is a walkaway split from Colony 4 above, though not mated in the other colony but in this apiary. And now another generation and mating in this same apiary. Could it be part of the explanation why this colony did not winter well and is very weak and showing wingless bees already now. The mother colony 4 km away didn’t need any thymol last year and has wintered well. I plan to combine this weak colony with another very weak colony from another apiary close by and give it 2-3 grams of thymol as soon as possible.
  • Colony 6: This is the split from colony 1 in this apiary made last year. It needed just a little thymol, but much less than the part left as colony 1. It has a queen that is a daughter of S120, the swarm from the wall of the dog training center that had VSH-index of 50 % last year. It looks very nice. Got increase combs as colony 1, 2 and 3 to fill up the upper box no 3.
  • Colony 7: This is a walkaway split from the apaiary 4 km away. The mother line is Kefuss, but that is now many generations back. But still some characteristics of this influence can be seen. Very little food used during winter, late spring build up, but quick when it has started, good honey crop in combination with Elgon. The temper is not the best. They want to swarm more. It is a little behind the others (1, 2, 3 and 6 to compare with) in development, but is coming fine. No thymol was used last year. And the mother colony didn’t need any either. Though the mother colony (in the other apiary 4 km away) defecated a little on the front of the hive.

Spring after winter in Indiana

Larry from Indiana wrote me March 30 about spring approaching at his side of the globe on about 39° latitude:

Mother Nature continues to exact her winter revenge in the Midwest USA. Once again rain mixed with snow dominates the day. I have yet to see foragers returning with pollen in my northern (40° N) yards this year. The local growing degree days are at only 36% of that of the same period last year and have increased only so slightly in the last 2 1/2 weeks.

Tomorrow’s forecast is a calm and sunny 12° C so on this rainy morning, despite leaving ample amounts of honey on my colonies last fall, I began preparation to feed my emergency rations of honey (my own) and MegaBee supplement. I will check each colony tomorrow and feed as needed..

Larry's beefeedF

Larry, you’ve had a severe winter, while we here in Sweden on (59° latitude where I live) have had an unusually mild one, only real winter in the latter part of January though bees have been confined to the hives without cleansing flights for four months, instead of five. Here bees have normally plenty of stores. I never feed pollen collected the year before or pollen substitutes. Enough good quality pollen normally comes in, especially when willow starts to bloom.