Robber bees and chalkbrood management

by Flow Hive 17 min read

Cedar answers your questions about dealing with robbing bees, when and how to set up a new hive, how to manage chalkbrood and dealing with leaking Flow Frames.

Video Transcription



Good morning. Thank you for joining us for live Q & A this morning. We were going to be doing a brood inspection today, but we had a few rain showers, so just now it's not a great time for bees to have their home pulled apart. If it's raining, they really don't like it. So we've decided to skip the brood inspection this week and move straight to just answering your questions.

I harvested 2 frames recently and a day later had a swarm of bees trying to get into the hive. They were unsuccessful as my colony fended them off. What can you do to stop the robbing bees?

With robbing bees, the first thing is identifying. It can get a bit confusing though, because sometimes you can get things like a swarm leaving and a swarm returning again. Sometimes they can do a false swarm. You can usually tell what's going on by the bee numbers. When they, swarm the bee numbers halve, or drop even more. And when they come back, then when you look in the windows, you'd see a lot more bees again. Robber bees come in and instead of going for the entrance, like a returning swarm would, they'll go for every nook and cranny around here, trying to find a way into the hive, but they don't necessarily know where the entrance is. So they're looking for any way in. If you see that kind of erratic behaviour, trying to get in the back here and around here, then that is robbing. And what you need to do in a robbing situation is to give your bees a helping hand by reducing the entrance size. Now we have entrance reducers, but if you don't have one of those, don't worry. You can just use some straw or something like this, and literally push it in the entrance to close it up a bit. Straw can be quite good in this situation, especially if you are not able to come back to the hive immediately. And leave a gap, but only needs to be this wide for a bee to get out. And that'll give the bees the maximum capability to defend their entrance, because it's much less of an area for them to defend. And the straw's quite neat because they will then remove it over time as needed. Also our entrance reducer is good. It narrows it to about this wide, and you can put that on and just make it a bit easier for your colony to protect it. Now, if you still notice they're going crazy and there's big fights and tussles at the front and everything, you can get more extreme and actually cover the whole thing in a bedsheet and put it to the ground. And that'll make it hard for the robbers to find the hive yet your bees in there will be able to find their way out. The main issue with robbing, or what stimulates robbing, is honey being exposed. So make sure you don't have any honey exposed. It's a really bad idea to leave honey out for bees. Now, what happens is they get a taste for collecting honey or robbing honey rather than going to the flowers like they should be. And then what happens is those bees will tend to go and find other hives that might be a bit weak and if they can't defend themselves, they'll get robbed out and die out. And that spreads pathogens around it's all bad. So if you notice robbing, then get on top of it by reducing your entrance is the first point of call.

How much honey should you leave in your hive for bees in the autumn? (Western Australia)

So what I tend to do is you watch what's going on and if they're filling and there's more nectar coming in, then you can take some honey. But if you notice that they're actually hungry, like they are here, then it's a good idea to leave most of it for the bees. So in this situation here, I wouldn't take any honey. You can see they're a bit hungry. They've actually eaten some of the cells of honey away. When you get that checkered pattern where it's completely full and then completely empty, that's a sign that they're hungry and actually decapping it and eating the honey. It's quite different to the look of when they're filling it, which is the nectar spreading out like this in more of an even shape and filling out towards the edges. So here we don't have a nectar flow right now, not a good time to harvest.

Now, if you really wanted to, you could just harvest a little bit and Flow Frames do allow you to do that. You can harvest part of a frame or all of one frame or multiple frames. Now, if you're unsure ask your local beekeepers, get some local knowledge. But also you might just like to take a little bit, leave the rest of the bees. And if you know, there's a dearth coming up, which is a time without nectar and flowers, then leave the honey for the bees. And you might even need to feed them to build up some stores to last them through that time with no flowers. So in the Northern hemisphere, it's now spring. That's very exciting time, but what can happen in those colder regions is your bees might get really enthusiastic and start flying a lot, start laying the eggs, and then there could be a cold snap again. If you get that cold snap again, then it might be a good idea to feed your bees then because they can get into the situation where they use their last bit of supplies and then they don't have anything to go through the next cold snap and could die out. So ask beekeepers in those regions, I'm not an expert.

Our hive is built and sealed and we're getting bees in April. Is there anything else we need to do to prepare the hive for the incoming nuc? (Northwest USA)

Fantastic. So the next thing you need to do is find a location. It's nice to set it up where you are going to want it so that you don't have to go through moving your hive. We've got somevideos about situating a hive, what you need to take into account, things like the flight path. If they're able to fly out the front without bothering anybody. You don't want it to go right into a walkway or something like that, where bees might get in your visitor's hair and then they get stings and so on. So, best to choose a spot away so that the bees can fly up and away without bothering humans or pets. If you've got a dog that you are concerned about hassling the hive and so on. They usually learn pretty quickly when they get a sting on the nose. But if you don't want that, you can put a little picket fence around it for kids or pets. But others also just have them like this in their backyard. So there's probably more to think about, but it sounds like you've put it all together and you've got your finish on it and you're ready to go. So good luck with the next step and make sure you watch our videos. If you're nervous about installing your nuc, get a hand from somebody who's done it before, or even if you've got another beginner, sometimes it's useful just to have somebody else there with you to help you through that process.

Do bees prefer the hive to be in full sun or under shade?

So bees are quite resilient. They can handle full sun or full shade. However, if I had a choice between full sun or full shade, I'd go full sun, just because pathogens like chalkbrood will tend to flourish in a damper, more shady environment. However, in really hot climates some shade in the afternoon in summer would be lovely for your bees.

Trace -

Gosh Cedar, I'm looking at the plants around the hives and thinking why didn't I bring the secateurs? We need to do a bit of gardening. Whenever we have the hives in the garden, it grows like unbelievable.

Cedar -

Yeah it's a particularly amazing year for growing things. It is not so good for people in our area. You may have heard we've had devastating floods here, 40,000 people evacuated and 21 fatalities. Lots of people with their homes that they will not be able to move back into. It's a real disaster. So a lot of our team has been out helping the cleanup process and helping rescue people and so on. And you might have to be a little bit patient with us when it comes to answering your questions that come in with emails and so on, because we're a bit thin on the ground with so many people helping the cleanup effort.

I have a 3/4 super on top of a brood box. Can I block the super from the bees during the canola season?

Generally beekeepers, if they don't want the bees to use the super they'll take the super off. So that's the done thing. I imagine your query is to do with the canola because it goes candied quite quickly. And if honey goes candied in frames, it's hard to get it out, no matter what type of extraction you are doing. Now, what people have found with canola is that the way to deal with it with a Flow Hive is to just harvest early. And that way it doesn't get time to go candied. Now, typically the canola will go candied between taking it off the hive and the processing factory in conventional beekeeping because the temperature drops. But if it's a warm time of year and your bees are keeping the hive warm, it'll be slower to go candid. However, you might want to jump on it and even harvest it while they're still closing the capping on those frames. And that way you're less likely to get into the situation where you've got candied honey that won't actually come out of the hive. Sometimes you can get a partial candy where it'll flow out and it'll be a bit cloudy and it'll leave some sugar crystals in there. Rarely, I haven't seen it, but in some parts of the world, you can get it setting like toffee in the frames, which means you probably just have to leave that for the bees to eat. And hopefully next time they'll replace it with nice liquid honey for you to harvest.

When's a good time to start your beehive? (Georgia, USA)

So the best time would be in the springtime. That's when bees naturally build up. That's when there's an abundance of forage for them. So it's a fantastic time there in the Northern hemisphere to get going. Having said that, there's many areas of the world that have a really long bee season. We have a long season here, but typically we can harvest all year round. We get some good honey flows during the wintertime. So we can start just about any time of year. But as you head into the colder regions with a long winter, then the springtime's the best. You might still be starting in summer, but you're probably not starting in the fall. However, it's always nice to get your equipment, get it prepared. Get your coats on it and get yourself ready for when the flowers are going to come.

I just got a Flow Hive, but I'm not sure if now is a good time to get it set up? (Port Stephen's, NSW, Australia)

So Port Stephens, it's going to be a little bit cool down there. If you are going to set up and start in autumn, then you're best off starting with a going colony that's already robust and has even some stores. So it might be good idea to find a beekeeper that's got a whole going hive that could be transferred into your hive. Because what you need is a bigger colony to go and get some more stores and collect some more flowers in the autumn. Having said that, check with your local beekeepers, perhaps there's a great flow coming up and you could start with a smaller colony as well.

I have had trouble with leaking from my Flow Frames when harvesting. I now take the frames out and harvest them over a tub. Do you have any advice on what's going on there?

There could be a few things going on. So the first bit is make sure the correct slope is on the hive when you are harvesting. If you have a look at the level, it's down here you can see that this actually isn't the right slope, even though it was when we set the hive up. So the front needs lifting, the front legs have sunk in a bit into the garden. So you want that level bubble in the middle. And that's really important because you need that three degree backwards slope for the honey to drain away. The next one is, there is a problem that crops up from when youclose your Flow Frames, you need to make sure all the parts are getting pushed down. So in here you've taken this off and you've put your key in, and you need to make sure you put it in the top and turn it and leave it for a minute or so, so that all of that wax and propolis can move. And all of those cell parts can go down. What happens if they don't quite go down properly is you get a bit of buildup which can restrict the flow next time or even make it so it doesn't open at all. And then you can get quite a bit of spills happening from that. And you can almost tell by putting your key in and turning it to see how much resistance there is. If it's quite resistant to you doing the close, then those parts aren't really bedding down properly.

So there's a few ways to deal with that. One is you take the frame out and you brush off all the bees. You leave a key in the top there, put it in a black plastic bag in the sun and let all of those parts just push down. That works quite well and it'll push back into the correct position as it heats up in the sun. Another one I've heard of people doing is they get a butter knife and just slice that. They'll just pull the frame directly out and just slice down between the moving parts particularly at the bottom. And that can be sort of a quick way to loosen them up and get them pushed down into position again. So have a look at that. You'll see if that is a problem you're getting by the cell shape, it'll sit just a little bit up like that. So look right down the bottom of the comb and make sure it's forming a proper hexagon at the bottom.

Otherwise, depending on the way the bees cap it, the viscosity of the honey, you could get a more liquid honey up top compared to down low. So it's slow to move down low and you'll get some spills. So if you're having trouble with that, it might just be easier to just harvest a couple of frames at a time. So if you do get any spills, it's not a big deal for the bees to deal with. However, if you're getting a lot of spills, then there might be a few things to look at to help with your setup. Now if you've got any more questions, feel free to contact us and we can help you dive deeper into it and see if there's any further things that we can do.

You talked before about feeding the bees. With the Flow Hive, where would you put the feeder?

So with the Flow Hive you can just feed under the roof. There's a few methods. You can take the top cap out and the bees can then have access to that roof area. I've got a video somewhere saying how tomake a quick feeder, and it's basically, you can get a Ziploc bag, fill it full of sugar syrup, poke a few pinhole in it and put it up there in the roof, take the plug out. And the bees can then access that feeder. You can also put a jar upside down with holes in it, an airlock is created and the bees will suck the syrup as they need it out of the pinhole you put. I would recommend going for a bigger jar, but to do that, you'll need to put a spare box if you've got a spare brood box around that jar. And then the lid on top of that in order to house that. Or there's other feeders you can buy to put on hives as well. So that's how you do your feeding. Some people do open feeding where they just feed sugar syrup, just in a drum with some hay on top of it. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that method due to getting the bees in a bit of a frenzy. And also there could be issues with pathogens with open feeders as well.

Is it better to use sugar syrup? Or if you've just got one hive, can you feed their own honey back to them?

If you have collected honey from them, you can, by all means, feed their own honey back to them. But make sure you're not feeding it to a different hive. Some people will freeze a frame or two if they've got spare frames and keep them for a rainy day and put them back into the hive and give them some more food like that. So yeah, you can certainly feed them their own honey back.

I'm going to take the super off for winter. Is it better to shake the bees off into the brood box or onto the ground? Do I need to put the super into a plastic bag over winter?

You're best off shaking the bees all back into the box if you can. Or sometimes you can just shake any bees out the front of the hive and they'll crawl up, nice to lean something up to make it easier for them to crawl back into the hive. And as to getting them off the frames, just take each frame out one by one is usually the easiest way. And then brush with a bee brush or some foliage like this. I just brush those bees off back into the hive. Then the very best way to store them is in a freezer. That stops anything going manky or mouldy or any vermin getting to them. But if you haven't got that, then if the frames are dry, you can just store them in a tub or in a bag to keep things like wax moth from making a bit of a mess of them. But if they do have nectar in them or honey, then you might want to harvest that, wait a few days for the bees to to lick it all up and clean it all out. Like you see this frame here, we've harvested that and they've cleaned it all back up, whistle clean. And that'll be a perfect time to store that frame for winter because if they're left with honey in there, then it's likely to get mould and things happening, unless they're in a freezer.

Have you got any tips to control chalkbrood in the Flow Hive? (Brisbane, Australia)

First of all, grab your hive and move it into the sun, if it's not already. The next thing to do is get your colony back to being strong. A strong colony can usually deal with chalkbrood, kick it all out and it's fine. Next thing to do would be get rid of some of the old comb in here because it's storing a pathogen load. So cycle some of the frame out, if you're using naturally drawn comb, then you can cut the comb right out there in the field, put the frame back in and you can dispose of that comb. So don't leave it out for bees. Re-queening is another thing people do for chalkbrood because genetics are a big part in hygiene. A hygienic hive will clean it out really quickly. And a non-hygienic hive won't leave in there to spread. So there's another thing that some beekeepers swear by and other people say is hocus pocus and that's banana skins. So I actually haven't got around to trying it, but some beekeepers do chop up bananas, just in lines or get the skins, chuck it on top of the brood frames. And it's like putting a stink bomb in the house, or it's like a dog walked in and did its due on your carpet. Not only are the bees going to get rid of that, but they're going to do a spring clean because you just have to. And that's the theory behind it, that it's such a stinky kind of pheromone that mimics one of theirs that they go and do a spring clean and rip out all the chalkbrood. So let me know if you try that and it works for you and we can do some myth-busting as a collective community.

The temperature here is still in the mid to high twenties. Do you think it's too late in the season to let a hive raise their own queen? (Perth, Australia)

No, you'll do fine letting a hive raise their own queen at this time of year, I suspect. But again, local knowledge is good. Personally I've been down helping a beekeeper who the hives got flooded down here and it was a mess to clean up. There's 40 hives that went underwater, some of the colonies survived, but all except for one lost their queen. So the surviving colonies are busy raising multiple queens. So they will happily raise queens when they need to. Now we're only at the start of our autumn. So I dare say in your locality, you might have a nice autumn flow as well.

A lot of the beekeepers that I know reverse their brood boxes this time of year, basically trading the bottom box for the upper box. Do you recommend that?

Interesting. Well with a Flow Hive, you wouldn't do that, although you could. I have experimented with putting the Flow Frames down the bottom, but that's for a different reason, that's just for easier access to your brood frames. They seem to be more enthusiastic to fill the honey up the top though. So we tend to continue with this. In terms of reversing the boxes, the reason why they're doing that is to cycle some frames out. So you're putting more fresh, newer ones down the bottom and the older ones that are being used for brood a lot up the top. And then you can centrifuge them out in the conventional way. And that's one way to cycle brood frame out and make sure that your bees are getting at least a few new brood frames each year to keep their brood nest happy and healthy.

The way I would recommend with the Flow Hive is simply move some of the frames out to the edge over time. So you've got old ones in the middle. There have been multiple cycles of brood. The silks built up, the cells are getting smaller, very dark in colour. It's time to start moving them towards the edge. You put them out there, you wait for the brood to emerge and all you need to do is simply take that frame out. If it's a naturally drawn comb, you just cut it out right then and there onto a tray, take that away, enjoy the comb, put the frame back into the centre and the bees will redraw from that. So that's a good way to go. The other way, which is even easier, is you just take splits in the springtime. So half end up being replaced anyway, and it's a great thing to do for swarm prevention. So that's my favourite method. You just keep taking splits and that keeps freshening up half of your brood frames down the bottom here.

So we're going to wrap it up. Thank you so much for all of your great questions. Let us know what you'd like us to cover next week. Best of luck in the Northern hemisphere with the season to come. An exciting time, the springtime, and if you're here in the Southern hemisphere, just be mindful. It's a very wet time on the east coast of Australia here. Make sure you're trapping those hive beetles, especially if your colonies are weak and what you want to avoid is those pesky little hive beetles taking over your hive. So thank you very much for tuning in and same next week.

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