Beekeeping Q & A with Stu Anderson

by Flow Hive 30 min read

Stuart took over livestream duties today. He'd planned to do a brood inspection, but the weather changed after he opened the hive, so he closed it up again after a quick check of a single frame. Stu talked about the need for beekeepers to be vigilant in checking for Varroa mites, and explained how to think of a bee colony as a single organism. Questions ranged from swarm prevention, to reducing a hive from 2 brood boxes to one, to the use of queen excluders. Enjoy, and happy beekeeping!



Video Transcription

Welcome to Flow’s Facebook live. I'm Stuart, and usually you see Cedar here, my son, and I think most of you watching will know that Cedar and I were the inventors of the Flow Hive. And now we're just so pleased that it's formed into a vibrant Australian company and we're sending beehives all over the world. So today we're just going to chat, respond to your questions. So if you already have some beekeeping questions whatever you like please send them in now. And Tracy will pass them on to us. 

And we're going to open up a hive just to have a look, inspect it for health. It's sort of the end of summer for us now in Australia and the Department of Primary Industries is encouraging us to inspect for health, but also to do the sugar shake. And some of you might know about the sugar shake, you certainly will if you're from overseas. Australia is one of the few countries that doesn't have the Varroa mite. It’s a nasty beast and it decimated bee populations when it hit Europe and America, well a long time ago now. It hasn't gotten into Australia because of the great efforts of both volunteer beekeepers and the Department of Primary Industries and some big beekeeping organisations that have pounced on the possibility of swarms coming in, or swarms that have actually come in with some types of Varroa mite on them. And so as beekeepers in Australia should be ever grateful for the efforts by both government and non-government, to stop the Varroa mite from coming into the country. 

So the Department of Primary Industries is encouraging beekeepers in Australia this month to not only do an inspection, but do a sugar shake to see if you do have the mite. It's incredibly unlikely, but not a bad thing to learn how to do. You can go, which is our educational beekeeping site where you'll find a couple of demonstrations of the sugar shake. And also if you're Australian, you can go into theDepartment of Primary Industries siteand find your way to beekeeping, and you'll also see a good video there by a fellow called Mark on doing a sugar shake. 

So that's also that you know, we keep an eye on our bees and our health. And in these times of COVID, we've sort of realised that biosecurity being careful about our hygiene and so on is a really, really important part of our health and of course of bee's health. 

It's a little bit windy today. We've got southeasterly coming in. It's a warm wind, it's not chilling and cold, but nevertheless, the bees won't like being open today. And so just in case I've got a suit, I don't usually wear gloves, but of course, you should, if you feel at all nervous about being stung. The thing about working with bees is just to be calm and deliberate and steady. And the bees somehow respond to that. Of course you get hives, just like you get people, that get annoyed very, very easily. That's part of getting to know your hives. This particular hive, other people have been taking care of it, I don't know it. So we're going to be finding out as we go. 

So the first thing to do I've lit the smoker already. And in the process I used a blowtorch as part of the bio-security regime. I've heated the hive tool up to the point where nothing could survive, the wax all melts and so on. And it was just as a hygiene measure. So when I use this tool with this hive, I won't be transmitting the possibility of little diseases from other hives that this tool has worked on. 

So I've done that. I've given them a preliminary little puff of smoke in the front entrance. And so that was a minute ago. And so now, wow, we found ants in the top. All right. It doesn't really matter. Ants don't really bother us. And time to put my veil on, I always forget. I don't mind being stung these days and I'm one of the majority of people for whom stings get less and less of a problem. For some people, they get worse and you've got to be very, very careful.

Opening hive

And Stone's going to help me lift this and we’re going to try to leave the queen excluder on the base. It doesn't always work.And this is a trick that we keep forgetting to tell you, is that the front window becomes a handle once you've taken the cover off. Thanks Stone. Some of you might remember a Facebook live I did a couple of years ago where you could see, I just twitched my back. 

Because the queen excluder is still on, We know the queen is down below there somewhere. We haven't lifted it off. If the queen excluder did lift with it, there's a slight risk that the queen would have been lifted off with the super. It's very unlikely, but she could be there in, which case she could drop off. And because she's heavy with eggs, she can't fly very easily or maybe not at all, and it will be very difficult for her to crawl back into the hive. So you can lose your queen if you're not careful. 

So now I'm going to just gently run this tool around, just to loosen up the queen excluder. You can choose whether to use a queen excluder or not. That's entirely up to you, most beekeepers do. And it is nice to know that the queen is where she’s supposed to be. If you don't use an excluder, she could be up just poking around in the super, just for fun or possibly even laying eggs. She’s very unlikely to lay eggs in the Flow Frames. They're the wrong size and depth for either drone or worker brood. But if you trap her up there, which we've of course done by mistake, she will lay eggs. She will lay eggs in the Flow Frames if that's the only option she's got. 

You can see a drone crawling around, a couple of them and the worker bees having a look. So we're just making sure our queen isn't there. Let's just say hello to these ones. And so by now, I found out they're calm. I'll shake them off the queen excluder. This is another little test of calmness. And they'll find their way back because all of these worker bees and the drones will have done an orientation flight just in case, I guess, something like this happens to the hive and they suddenly find themselves outside without meaning to. Even though the early roles they take on in their lives are all inside the hive, being a nurse and cleaning and so on. They still know how to find the hive and find the entrance because they've done their orientation flight, which beginners can easily mistake for swarming. 

The colony as superorganism

One of the lovely things is, here we are deep in an insect colony. This is not only their home, but really their whole being is here, when you think about that. Of course we've taken the top box off, so normally there'd be another 20,000 bees where my hands are waving around. And while there are all these individual bees, they all also act sort of as one, particularly in swarming times and in terms of gathering the nectar and so on.

And so you can see this whole group of bees as one organism. And in that case, while there might be 40 or 50,000 or more individuals, really, you think about them as one thing. And so if it's one animal, it weighs as much as a large cat, for example, or a small dog. And every day that organism can spread itself out over square kilometres of countryside. 

We’ve just got some wind and so on blowing in. Maybe we should just pull one frame out while we're here. But, it's starting to really get blowy and it's going to rain in a moment. I'm sorry about that. 

I can see the bees are starting to go, “we don't like this.” There's a couple of little warning buzzers. So we're going to put the top box back on. I don't know if you saw them, some bees just went quickly to my hand and buzzed off. And they were warning flights. Sometimes they just come in and, and sting you, but well-behaved hives will give you that warning. They'll fly around your face with a more agitated buzz or they'll sort buzz your hand. 

I'll just check the weight of this, whether it's okay for me. Can you do one end, Trace? We'll put them on a bit of a diagonal. There we go. So they’ll be happy again, now that they're snug. 

We've brushed the ants off and we had foliage. We do have ant traps on their legs, but we let the plants go up against the hive and the ants take that route onto the hive. So we've brushed that foliage away. The ant caps on the legs should work. 

Now, what was I talking about before? I just got a bit worried about closing them up, cause they're not happy and you might as well, if you can close them up when they're starting to show signs of agitation. So I'm just locking the roof on because it's windy. So we've got these screws that screw in and lock this down onto the hive.

Oh yes. I was talking about the way a colony of bees you can think of is its own animal. And it's spreading itself out for kilometres and kilometres every day. It’s gathering nectar, gathering pollen and bringing that into the hive and processing that in the afternoon and evening and well into the night. The next day, that animal spreads itself out again, all over the surrounding countryside again, bringing in the nectar and the pollen. And so if you think about a colony like that, it starts to give you a different idea of how to care for bees and so on, their personality, what they're going to be need. 

Rain and signs of starving

Like for example we've had a lot of rain here and you'll notice that on the first sunny day, bang, the bees are out there. But what we found is that with most flowers, the nectar has been washed out by the rain and then the following day, the plants haven't replaced it. So nevertheless, the bees do go out and they look active. So if you go to the front of your hive and are just hanging around, watching the activity on the landing board there, they are being busy after days of not being able to do much because of the rain, but they probably won't be bringing much in on the first day after rain.

And therefore if it rains again the next day, and then they're busy the next day, you as a beekeeper might see them being busy every second day, but that busy-ness isn't bringing in any food. So beekeepers have known their colonies to starve in conditions like that, that it looks like they're busy, it looks like they're out there, but they're actually not bringing much in. 

And so the classic look of starving is, if I pulled out those frames, whether it was a Flow Frame or one of the brood frames on the edge of the hive, if I pulled that out and, and saw that there wasn't much honey, and there were lots and lots of bees with their bottoms up and their heads down in there drinking, lots of them. They're really, really hungry. They're looking for the last bits of nutrient that they can find you've got to feed them or they'll die. So just off and on rainy weather, I've just thought about that because that's what we've had here recently. It's another thing to watch out for, for your bees.

So while I was doing other things, I was pulling out a frame. I just looked and it was a very healthy looking frame. The brood was a lovely nut-brown colour. It had no little holes in it that is the classic sign of American foulbrood. It was evenly laid all the way through, so you know the queen is very, very productive, she's not laying in bits and pieces. It just looked very, very healthy. And although this is the end of our season, autumn or fall in this area of Australia, it's coastal and we actually get food coming through all winter. So the bees somehow know that. So they're keeping a healthy amount of brood. They're going to keep their numbers up. They're not going to condense themselves for winter here, because after all of this rain, the local paperbacks, Melaleuca will be flowering hopefully. And that brings in a lot of beautiful honey. The bees sort of intuit that I think. And so they're keeping their brood numbers strong

Beekeeping Questions

What's your opinion on cutting the queen’s wings?

We don't do it and I've never done it. And the purpose for cutting the queen's wings is to inhibit swarming, because it is the old queen that will take off with a swarm. And so if she can't fly, then she can't take off. As usual in beekeeping, there are different opinions about this and one opinion is, if the old queen can't fly, then they'll just lay a new queen that will fly out. Really that's a personal choice of the beekeeper and they should just have a look at the pros and cons for themselves and decide what suits them. 

If you're really having a lot of trouble with swarming, it might be more useful to replace the queen and requeen the hive with good stock. It's amazing what a difference that does. And if you compare amateurs and professionals, in terms of beekeeping, one thing that that professionals always will do is, at least every two years, often every year they'll replace the queen with good quality stock, really good quality. They pay top price for their queens because then they know they're going to get the maximum harvest, the best hygiene and the best-behaved bees. But amateurs like me will leave a hive year after year after year until suddenly they're just getting so cranky, you get around to requeening them because of that. 

So if you're having trouble with swarming, which we did here. Quite a few of the hives in this apiary were swarms. So when you catch a swarm, in a way you've selected for a colony that is more likely to swarm. And that's what we found after a year or two, we found, wow, these bees are swarming so easily, it became a real hassle. And I don't think clipping the queen's wings would have helped. They were just determined. And so yeah, from my point of view, requeening is the best way to go around it. And good queen breeders will have bred stock that’s not so inclined to swarm. 

I’ve heard that baby lavender helps to eliminate Varroa. Is this true?

Very unlikely, because I've never heard of that. And we do have some lavender planted here and bees love lavender. And there's apiaries in the UK that I've visited that are all about producing lavender honey. And I've never heard them say,  “we don't get Varroa because of the lavender.” So I doubt it. Having said that, herb's and having a variety of herbs planted near your hive is a good thing. 

What is the average lifespan of the honeybee?

Well, it's five or six weeks during the season, because the female worker bees will be going through all of their different roles. While they're working in the hive, that doesn't wear them out so much, but the final couple of weeks of their lives is foraging. And then they're just working really, really hard. From our point of view, it looks like hard, hard work. Of course we don't know if there's some sort of joy in it for them, there quite possibly is because they are just so energetic. Like once I accidentally put a piece of wood in front of an entrance and the bees coming out were so enthusiastic that they were just slamming into it and then flying off because they just were so keen to get out there and get that nectar. 

So that final forging phase wears them out. And bees that are hibernating, particularly in colder climates where they're not going out for months and months at a time, they'll last all of that time, they won't die as a colony. The worker bees will last all through the hibernating winter and therefore live for months, but usually the foraging wears them out. 

Again, that links to what I'm talking about it's worth thinking about the colony as its own super organism, because if you start worrying about workers not lasting very long and wearing themselves out, you're missing what bees are. You've got to think that they're thinking about the health of their whole colony of themselves as an entity and their DNA that they share in that hive. They're not thinking about the individual so much. Of course they'll care for each other because at the end of all, the healthy individuals make for a healthy hive. But it's the healthy hives that is the entity. 

What methods do you use to try and prevent swarming?

I was just talking about swarming before and the method we used most recently was replacing the queens in this apiary here, because the colonies were inclined to swarm very, very easily. So good breeding is the first step I would say. After that, it's inspecting the hive, particularly in the spring, but also in this time I've found you can get late swarms as well. And you're sort of judging that by the amount of nectar coming in and so on, but particularly in early spring and the flow's coming on and the bees can say, wow, it's time where we can really build up our numbers and split in two, maybe split in four. And so then you're regularly inspecting. 

Generally when you see the queen cells, it's a healthy hive and, and they're getting ready to swarm cause you see queen cells. You can scrape them off, but that's a little bit of a losing battle because once they're making queens they're in that mindset. I’m thinking of an analogy of trying to tell a toddler not to scream when they've been stung by a bee or something, they're in that mindset, they're going to cry for a while. They're going to swarm. 

So splitting the hive is the best way. So when you split a hive, depending on the method, that gives the hive the sense that it has swarmed. The colony would split in half and suddenly there's a lot of room because there's half the number of bees in the original box. And so a split is one of the most common ways that we sort of avoid swarming.

Avoiding swarming is really more critical in sort of city areas rather than rural where we are, because a swarm will scare your neighbours. And so I encourage those of you that have Flow Hives on verandas and rooftops and your balcony, 15 floors up, then you really do have to be onto it. And that for me, would be keeping an eye on your numbers. And as soon as it's starting to look like they’re building numbers, before even queen cells, that's when you split. Then you're going to either have two hives or give some bees away or even sell them. 

Do I need to buy bees, or will they set up in the Flow Hive themselves?

We have known bees to fly into an empty Flow Hive, it's happened, but it's incredibly rare and you certainly can't count on it. It'd be like someone dropping a lottery ticket into your box and then winning, it was something like that. So we encourage all people that are just beginning beekeepers to learn beekeeping from locals. Join a club, find a beekeeper that's local, and you'll find a bee supplier that's local as well. Even buying your bees is a way to connect with someone that can teach you about local conditions. 

Because just before I was talking about this being a coastal area where you can get a bit of nectar flow all year, whereas I live 15 minutes inland and it goes very, very quiet in the winter. So it's different beekeeping just because of that. It can be different beekeeping up on the table lands because they don't have the beetles problem that we have here. So you've got to learn from locals and find out about your local conditions. 

And then I’ve If you want to do a beekeeping course, I'd really encourage that. And you're going to get the answer to that question and many, many others, but yes, you can buy packages of bees that you put in a box that you already have. Or you can even buy what's called a nuc or a nucleus, which already has the bees on frames that you lift into the box. So those packages and those nucs are going to cost you hundreds of dollars, as far as I know, a couple of hundred, something like that.

If you want them for free, then you should connect with your club or people that are collecting swarms. And you're likely to get them for free. Then you've got bees that you don't know in terms of their pedigree and so on. And you should learn about requeening pretty quickly. There's so much to say about getting bees and even finding reputable suppliers as well, because some of our customers have had the unfortunate experience of buying bees and they've already had a disease. It's really, really sad. And so once again, people in the club will tell you where the best place to go is. So yeah, there's lots and lots to learn. And unfortunately bees don't just land in a Flow Hive if you set it up in the garden. However, you can learn about bait hives. Usually you haul them up into trees and they will catch swarms. And that's a talk for another day, I think.

When is the best time to buy a nuc or package? (Eastern Victoria, Australia)

I guess it depends whereabouts you are in the world. And so generally the best time is early spring because then the nectar is going to be flowing and your colony will get established and if it's early enough spring in your area, if there's plenty of nectar, then you will get some honey that year. If you wait till the middle of summer, they'll get established and all of that. They'll be okay and then go into the quieter period of the year, depending on the climate that you live in. And so you won't get honey that first year. You can't really do it in autumn and winter, well you can, but it's just harder. You'll have to feed them and so on.

I have 2 brood boxes and a super on my hive, and I would like to reduce it to a single brood box. I had the two brood boxes for swarm prevention. What’s the best way to reduce back to a single brood box? Can I do it now or should I wait until Spring? (Sydney, Australia)

You need to inspect it and see how much of those two brood boxes is the colony inhabiting. If they're strong and they're inhabiting those two boxes, you'd be destroying a lot of brood, of eggs and the little larvae to try and reduce it down to one box. And so you wouldn't want to do that. If those two brood boxes are full of bees and full of brood and honey around them, they’ll put their honey around the brood area to give it thermal stability, then you might as well just leave it like that. And maybe it'll have another box or a half a box on top to get them through the winter, depending again, on your climate, because there might be enough nectar coming in just to keep them ticking over.

However, if you open them up and find, yeah, there's only really six or seven actual frames with brood in them and the rest are half empty and so on, then yes, you may want to condense them down to one box. All the brood filled frames and the ones with a fair bit of honey in them into one box. If you've got fairly empty comb frames, you know, for the rest of them. 

So it's a bit of a tricky thing. I'm speculating and it's a little bit hard to say. And again, I would have, perhaps you have a mate who's a good beekeeper, or you're a part of a club and you can get some advice because people in your area will know what the winter's bringing in that might determine the answer to your question as well.

And how much simpler is it collecting honey from the Flow Hive compared to a traditional hive?

That's what Flow is all about. It's so easy and it's such a pleasure to get honey from a Flow Hive. It's a minute or two's work in total, as well as some waiting. But in actual doing something it's only a minute or two, and then watching that lovely honey flow out. Whereas you compare that with what I used to do, as a beekeeper and most people still do. For an amateur with one, two, three, four hives, it can be a weekend of sticky work, you know, getting your honey. By the time you're cleaned up, and by the time you've bought flowers for your partner, who's complained about the sticky floors and sticky doorknobs! It's just such an experience. 

Having said that, you still have to look after your bees, just like we did there, take the super off, inspect the brood and get to know the health of them. But the honey harvesting is just easy with a Flow Hive. And that's what Cedar and I designed it for, it’s a bit easier for the bees and easier for you. 

Is it easy to clean the Flow Hives and do we need to clean them? 

On the outside it depends what finish you've put on it. And if it is a clear oil type of thing, then you may be using oxygen bleach if a bit of mould comes up. On the inside, the bees keep it clean. The basic answer is you don't need to do anything. Let's show the tubes here. Sometimes when you're going to harvest a Flow Frame, you'll notice it's a little bit grubby in there. So it's really easy to get a long Flow key, put a tea towel or a strip of cloth on it, maybe dampened and push it up into there and just to clean out if it's gungy. You can see with that one, it’s not.

The frames themselves, the bees will keep clean. So we're going to have a look here, see what they look like now. They're all capped with honey. So we'll just see how the flow is, if that paperback honey comes on, then we'd harvest that to make room. Then the bees would clean up all of the sticky honey that's left now, repair the cells and start filling them with nectar and honey again. So that's the marvellous thing. 

I have left Flow Frames just lying outside. Usually if you've bought yourself a Flow Hive, you're unlikely to do that, but because I experiment and so just left some outside to their own devices, not in a beehive, they will get mouldy. Then I've tried bleach and pressure cleaners and things, and nothing's entirely satisfactory in terms of cleaning them. And having said that the bees will cover every surface of the Flow Frames. Even if there's some old gunge, they'll cover it with their new wax and then wax up all the cracks and so on. So really you can leave the inside for the bees to look after is the quick answer to that question.

Another thing when you're selecting bees, if you're buying a queen to requeen your hive or you're buying a nuc or package of bees to just ask about the various qualities of the queen and that being a hygienic colony is an important part. So some bees are messier than others and the cleaner ones, you're gonna have less problem with diseases.

How often would you check your brood boxes?

In Australia as a general rule in the spring time when it's all happening, the advice is every 10 days now. So that really means, well, I'm probably going to get round to it once a week or else once every two weeks. The more you get to know your bees and the more you get to know, even just looking at the back here and looking at what's happening at the front, at the entrance, looking in the sides, the less you'll need to open it, because you can see their health. 

Of course, you'll look out. If you just walk past the entrance of your beehive, you may see a whole lot of dead bees outside one or two is standard, but you might see a few dozen white grubs, which is an indication perhaps that the bees have got chalkbrood or that the beetles have got in or something like that.So you're looking out for signs like that, in which case you will open them up and find out what's going on straight away. And so the more experienced you get the less pressure you need to feel about doing it regularly because you can see the health of your hive from the outside. 

So for beginners and people that are new to it, why not do it every week? Do it on a calm, warm day. If you can, do it when you're feeling calm and enjoy going in, don't make it hard work. Do it as a pleasure, be curious. Because the more you do it, the more your eyes will get to know what you should be looking for. You'll start spotting that queen and that's always fun. So I'd encourage you to do it more often if you're a beginner, because you're going to learn about your bees sooner. And because you'll build that confidence to go straight into a beehive and have bees all over your hands more quickly.

What are your thoughts on using the polystyrene hives and then putting a Flow Hive on top?

Yeah, you can do that. When Cedar and I first were building the Flow Frames before it went to market and all of that business, we thought people would buy just the frames and they would adapt them to their own hives. And so they would get out of the saw and cut the wooden boxes or cut the styrofoam boxes and fit the Flow Frames to whatever they had, because that's what we would have done. But we were proved wrong, like in many ways. 

And so, yes, I encourage you to do that. There's a few things to look out for. You'll have to figure out if you're putting Flow Frames in a styrofoam box and I've done this, and my brother has done this in Canberra, you need to figure out how the metal strap at the base of the back, that fits underneath the Flow Frames, how that's going to fix to the styrofoam. And that's probably the trickiest bit of it all, but it's a little bit of design involved. And we have instructions for converting wooden boxes and standard boxes on our site, so that might help. 

And if your question was saying, can I have a styrofoam brood box and then a standard wooden Flow super on top? Definitely you can. You'll just have to look at the way they’re made. Sometimes the plastic and the styrofoam boxes have a funny sort of, what we call it in Australia  a rebate and what they call in America or a rabbit. And that is sort of a multilevel surface around the edge of the top. And so before you go and put bees in it, try it, just see how does a wooden box fit on it? It should fit in terms of size, but does it slide around and not really locate itself? Well, in which case maybe you could be ingenious with some pins or some guides of some sort so that it does stay on and not slip off to the side. But no problem about mixing and matching your boxes, styrofoam, plastic, wooden, all different sorts, bees don't care.

If you catch a swarm, do you recommend replacing the queen? If so why, and when would be the best time to do it?

The quick answer is yes, but the longer answer is catch a swarm and watch them for the first month or two. How vigorous are they? Are they building honey stocks? Is the queen laying well? Are they quite calm? If they basically seem really, really healthy, you might decide, “no, I’ll keep them. I think they're okay.” The risk you take, which is a risk that we had to deal with here in this apiary, is that they were a swarm and therefore they will have reasonably strong swarming genes in their tendency. And so you’ll be working a little bit harder to stop them swarming again. So it depends.

Maybe you put them in the box, they do look healthy and so on, but they're a bit cranky, you know. Even on a calm day, someone walking out the front of the hive can get buzzed or even stung. And so in that case, you'd replace the queen. It's just a hassle having cranky hives. And then, you know, I've got two hives side by side, one's incredibly productive and one hive’s looking healthy enough, but they’ve just never built up any honey at all. And so, you know, it's about time we got around to requeening. Generally, we would say yes, because you don't know what you've got. But if you're patient, you can just look at what you've got and assess it and say, she's pretty good. And and so you'll, you'll keep it for a season or two.


And is part of it too because when the bees have swarmed, how do you know how old your queen actually is?

Well, that's right. That's a good point Trace. If it's one of the first swarms of the season, then it will be the old queen. And so she will have already been at least a year old if not older. Therefore you'll see that she's not as good a layer as a new queen. So that's just getting to know, comparing your swarm with other hives and knowing what the standard would be for your area in terms of laying in and vigour and so on.

How far from the front of the hive is a good distance for walking?

Well I was visiting a friend in Italy, I don't want to big-up myself. This is a while ago, but he's a beekeeping friend. And he had a group of hives up a hill 50 metres away. And they would come zooming for us as we walked that far away. And he said, “Oh, I don't even know which it is, but I'm going to have to get round to requeen it.” So the hives were together, he couldn't tell from which these aggressive bees were coming, but they would come a long way. So it all depends. 

And so there's these hives here, like this one was quite gentle. I can stand at the front here. And if you watch what happens, the bees coming in will just sort of bank up.They'll get confused behind me saying “what's happened? There's something in the way of my entrance. I thought I was going to fly straight down to the landing board and now I can't.” And none of them are agitated at all. I sort of knew that because we just opened them up and they got upset after a while when the clouds came over and it got then it got windier. But basically I know that this colony here has a mild disposition.

So if your colony is well-bred, you can stand very close as I am here, and it's no problem. But the more they swarm and the more you've left them year after year without requeening, the more likely they are to be aggressive. And it wouldn't matter who was walking past three or four metres away, they could still decide to sting first and ask questions later.

I want to remove the queen excluder for winter, but I’ve heard the queen might lay drones into the Flow Frames. And I heard that those drones won't be able to get back down into the brood box in Spring. Is this correct? (Melbourne, Australia)

I run some of my house without excluders and some of them with an excluder, so I'm just a hopeless case of, can't decide what I'm doing. So the advantage of an excluder is that you know where the queen is, she's down in the bottom box and she's definitely not up in the top box. So she won't be laying up there. And of course the worker bees won't be laying there unless the hive goes queenless. The queen is emitting a pheromone all the time that tells the worker bee she's there. And not only tells them that she's there, it inhibits them from laying eggs. If she dies and the hive goes queenless, the worker bees will start laying eggs. They can only lay drones.

And that means your worker bees will lay drones wherever they feel like. They're not experienced layers, so they will lay drones in the Flow Frames because they can get up into them. And they lay drones down below. So that's even with a queen excluder in. 

If your queen excluder is out, generally the Flow Frames are designed to not be attractive to lay in for either drones and particularly not for workers. And so the queen will tend to stay in the bottom. The bottom area of a hive is where bees will put brood if they can. And they'll tend to put their honey on top, even in the wild. So it's mimicking the natural ways bees go about things and the queen will generally be there. 

But if you don't have an excluder and you pull it apart and you're looking for her, she could still be in the top, just having a little bit of a wander and a look around. So you've got more frames to look through to find her. She's still more likely to be in the bottom, you'd check that first. And if you don't find her after going through the brood frames a couple of times, maybe you've got to look through the top as well. And even then just sometimes you just don't find her. So that's one disadvantage.

The advantage of not having an excluder according to some beekeepers is that the bees travel much more freely between the bottom of the top box and therefore they're more productive. They don't have to squeeze through the excluder. The excluders we sell with Flow Hives are the black plastic ones. And if you look at them, they don't have a sharp edge on the hole. And so you can get sharp edged plastic, which I wouldn't recommend, and you can get sharp-edged metal excluders, so the bees are squeezing past that, it's a tight fit. I particularly like the barred metal ones personally, I like those. But either the rounded edge plastic or the stainless ones made of bars so that they're all rounded edge. So that's the main disadvantage of an excluder, plus that's another little bit of kit to mess around with. The disadvantage is, some beekeepers feel it slows the bees up in their movement around the hive when they're depositing honey.

There's just so many different ways to go about this. Some bee beekeepers put an entrance in the top of the super for the Summertime when the foraging bees can just come straight to the top entrance, instead of starting at the bottom of working their way up. There's so many things to play with. And so for me, if someone is unsure about excluder or not excluder, I would generally say, use an excluder and then when you're ready, experiment without it. Particularly if you've got two or three hives, then try one without an excluder and see what you think, see how the bees behave.

Generally, you'll only get brood in the Flow Frames when a hive has gone queenless. The queen won't lay brood up there either. Really it doesn't suit her. She wants to lay down here. So in that case, what you were saying about the drones being stuck in the top, you've got a queen excluder, but the hive has gone queenless and the worker bees are laying drone brood all over the place, including the Flow Frames. And yes, if you don't open it up and let them out, those drones will be stuck in the top and they'll die in there because they're too big and fat to get through the queen excluder. But it's easy to prop up the edge if you want to let them out. And then some beekeepers will say, “well, why let out drones from a hive that isn't fantastic stock, that are going to be up there mating with Queens?” And so you can get into layers and layers of complexity with bees!

Does the positioning of the hive matter, can it just be positioned however you want?

It matters for afew different reasons. from the base point of view. From the bees’ point of view, it’s best if the entrance isn't facing cold prevailing winds, in other words, you don't want it so that cold winds are blowing into the entrance. So in the Southern hemisphere, we tend to face them East or North of the sun. And in the Northern hemisphere, it's probably South or East. But that depends if it's in a backyard and so on. So that's the main consideration from the bees point of view is that the entrance isn't really windy and the winds are blowing in. You've got to think about snow as well. If your beehives get covered in snow, then maybe it needs to be higher up off the ground. 

Then there's the human point of view. You don't want to put your bees right next to a place where people are walking all the time, because they just might be cranky that particular day. And they'll sting someone going past. So you don't want to situate it so that it's near where humans are. And then there's another consideration, which is a sort of funny one, and that is that bees poop. And when they poo, it's like a pollen coloured poo. It's usually orange, a little orange dot. And so if you put your beehive near a clothesline, for example, where your neighbour loves to hang his or her white sheets, you're going to be spotting them, making them polkadot sheets. It won't go down well. So away from the clotheslines, away from your neighbours’ white car parked in the driveway. If they've been shut up for the winter or whatever, their first few flights they'll poo a lot. It's very, very noticeable. Because they've been holding on all winter. Amazing, aren't they? 

You might be in an area where you want to keep it discreet. You've got a neighbour who, even though you've given them honey and so on, they're still alarmed about the idea of bees. So you don't want to show off that the bees are there to remind them every day that there's these scary things there, you know? And so maybe they're in a spot that you just sort of don't see them. My brother keeps some of his bees, and my son, up on a garage roof, a carport roof, and that's lovely.

The bees don't need to be near the flowers. The bees will fly two, three, four more kilometres to get to their food. So you don't need to have them right next to your lavender or whatever. So just to remember that, having them up on a 15 storey balcony with apparently nothing around doesn't tend to worry the bees, they'll find the flowers. So don't let that get in your way. Don't feel like they have to be in nature because they'll survive, you know, in the eaves of the house.

When should you requeen your hive?

I'm not sure if that means how often, or what time of year. Professionals will requeen in very early spring, depending on once again, the season and so on, so that the new queen and the new stock is ready. So when you think about what happens, the queen has to get accustomed to the hive, it can take a few days. Then she lays the eggs, and then you've got a three week wait before those eggs hatch. And then that those eggs hatch into bees. And they've got at least two weeks of roles within the hive before they become foragers. So if you're looking for vigorous foraging, then you want to requeen at least two months before your strong honey flow is on. 

But amateurs don't need to think about that. You're not commercial, you're not trying to extract every drop of honey out of the hives and so on. So just early spring is good enough, but you can really at any time, except probably not the winter depending on your climate. Here, because we have a very, very mild winter and there's a bit of a flow coming on, we could requeen in the winter. You should, as I've said before, get advice from local beekeepers about that.

Trace - 

Fantastic Stu, well, you've answered so many questions and I think people will be happy to see your smiling face. 

Yeah, it's lovely to be doing this again. I just get busy doing other stuff. Happy beekeeping everyone. Don't see opening your bee hive as a chore, see it as something that's fun. And just enjoy that sense of being intimate with creatures that really are so different from you.

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