Expanding your apiary

by Flow Hive 22 min read

Today Cedar talked about how and why you might want to expand your apiary and add more colonies. He also harvested a big, beautiful jar of honey. Some of the other topics covered today include: drone-laying queens, water content in honey and how much bees work to produce the delicious honey. Sweet!



Expanding Your Apiary

The topic of the day is going to be expanding your apiary - how and why. Look at that honey dribbling into the jar. It's a beautiful thing. And it smells like a very floral honey today. It's light in color, and around here, the notes of the honey when it's light are often the floral bursts of the flowers. 

Look at all of those bees standing on that comb surface. That's the frame that the honey is harvesting from and look at the bees haven't even noticed the honey draining out from beneath there. 

I could sit here and watch honey flow out of a hive all day. I'm going to have to have a taste just because I can, where it is. That's the wild quince honey, or Guioa, which is a local rain forest tree. And the floral notes are so pronounced that some people don't even like this honey, because it just has such a, a pungent, floral taste of flowers. But I love it. It's awesome. 

So expanding your apiary - how and why. Now, if you have a look here, we've got a number of hives and bees are incredible. They tend to build up as time goes on. So as they build up and get busy in the hive, then they want to multiply. They multiply in a variety of ways. They can multiply by swarming and that's their natural tendency. Or if you get ahead of the curve, you can do what's called a split and take some bees from this hive and start a new hive from the bees from this one.

So what that means as a beekeeper is this natural expansion of your apiary. And if you don't want the bees as they naturally expand, then somebody else probably will. So it goes without saying with beekeeping that there's this tendency of your apiary expanding. 

Let's just discuss today, how and why. So why would you want to expand? Beekeeping can be incredibly addictive. If you open your hive and stare at the amazing world of bees, you quickly start this learning curve and you're learning. This fascination comes in and with the fascination comes “I want to see more of what's going on in a hive. So I want to look after more bees.”

So naturally what people tend to do is they start with one or two hives. Then the next season, they might have four hives and so on. But there's a few things to consider when expanding your apiary. One is why you're doing it. Perhaps you are just fascinated and you want to see a lot more bees, you want to look after a lot more bees and you want the amazing effects of pollination in your area. And perhaps you just want to share honey around and share it with your neighbors and friends. Or perhaps you want to build up to the point where you're selling honey. And some people with the Flow Hive are paying off their hive in the first season, because they're getting enough honey to do that.

If you've got a conventional hive model, there's lots of different beehives in the world and you should try all different ones and find out what works for you. In a conventional fashion, you're building up and there's a point where you're going to have to pay off your equipment. So if you're going for conventional spinning, you might have purchased a conventional extractor. You need to go through the process of pulling the frames out, putting them into that extractor. So there'll be a certain number of hives before the economics works out so that you're actually making money from buying all of that equipment and running those hives. 

The Flow Hive is a little bit different because it's got all the extraction gear in the hive. So you can just sell honey from having one or two hives and build up that way. 

Harvesting in the rain

We're getting a little bit of rain here, so it might just cover up the honey jar that's coming. And I also noticed that one bee got interested, which sometimes happens and it's jumped into the jar. So I'm going to pull that out again. So sometimes the bees will get interested. If you see that it's a good idea to cover up your jar of honey.

Have a look at these bees around the corner here. So that's the frame I’ve just harvested from, and look at that. Isn't that beautiful. The capping  is still sitting there on the comb surface like drum skins under the bees’ feet. And they're going: “hang on a second, the honey’s strained out from beneath my feet here, I’d better start  uncapping that cell”. Then the whole process of waxing up the cells starts again. It's a wonderful thing.

So to cover up the honey, you can use just a simple wrap like this. This is a honeybee wrap. So it's got wax on cloth and you simply can wrap it over the top of the jar like this, and that'll keep the rain out. And also any bees that might get interested in the honey. 

So it's natural that you start off with one or two hives and end up with four the next year. Now it's a good idea for that expansion to happen along with your knowledge as it grows. So the rule of thumb is double or triple your apiary size each year, if you're planning on expanding. But perhaps don’t go beyond that because your knowledge needs to grow with that expansion. And you don't want to have big learning curves on a massive scale. So, it's normal just to say: “okay, I'm going to split these two hives and next year I'll have four. Then the next year I'll have eight.” And so on.

When you get this synergy between a good, healthy colony, lots of bees in your hive, and a lot of nectar in the flowers. Sometimes you get the flowers so heavy with nectar, they're hanging to the ground and the bees go after that. And it's incredible to watch how fast they can replenish the honey you’ve harvested. And sometimes in a week, the frames you've harvested are full again and away you go. And of course you get the converse where you may not get honey in a season. Beekeeping is an agricultural pursuit and it needs the rains, it needs the flowers, it needs everything to line up in order to get a really good honey crop. So that's something to consider when you're making your decisions about expanding your apiary is why you're doing it. And if you're doing it for commercial reasons, you need to factor in the honey seasons and make sure on a good year that you're putting away some funds to prop up a year that's not so good.

Look at that. We've actually got some beautiful examples of the bees eating honey in the frames. And if you look at this, it tells you a story, and the story that it's currently telling is the bees are a little bit hungry, and you can tell that by the way there's capped cells all the way down and suddenly some missing ones that are missing all the way. So the bees are uncapping the honey and eating it and consuming it for raising food and keeping themselves alive. That's what's the honey is for, right? But lucky for us, they often make more than they need. And we can share in some of the loot.

We’ve got a bit of rain coming in, but that's one nice thing. Actually, you can harvest in the rain with a Flow Hive. It's something you wouldn't really be doing in the conventional fashion. I used to do a lot of harvesting and selling honey through the shops from conventional Langstroth hives. And when it would start to rain, your bees would get pretty upset about the whole process. So you wouldn't be harvesting honey in the rain, but you can harvest from a Flow Hive in the rain no problem. 

And look at that. We've got a beautiful big jar of honey. We've got about 3kg (6.5 lbs) of honey from that frame. And it looks like a nice low moisture content. And we thought it would be because looking in the side window, you've got a lot of capping all over the frame surface there. And the bees are just starting to notice that the honey is drained out from beneath their feet. And you can see them, some of them starting to chew away at that capping. And over the next few days, they will have taken off that capping and rebuilt those cells. And the process starts again. That is a beautiful jar of honey.

Beekeeping Questions

Why does my honey taste sour?

There's a few reasons why honey could be sour. Sometimes it's the flowers. I was tasting a sweet and sour honey yesterday, and that's simply the flower source that the bees are going for. Other times it could be sour because there's some fermentation that's occurred. The water content is too high. Sometimes the bees will even have the water content too high in the frame of the hive. Other times, you've harvested a bit too early and the honey is not quite right. The moisture content is too high and it'll start the fermentation process on the shelf. And is that a sour flavor? It could be considered a little bit sour. 

My brood box is full and there’s a lot of bees in the super and on the front of the hive. Should I add another brood box?

So there's a few options there. Your bees are expanding, they're right around the entrance. Sometimes you'll even see them on a hot evening, covering the whole front of the hive all the way up to the roof and you go: “wow, what a lot of bees.” 

So that's a really good sign of a healthy colony. There's a few options for you there. You can either add more boxes or you could take a split. Now you could still take a split this time of year, we're in our summer here. If you want to add more boxes, you can either add another brood box, which is the ones where the queen is laying her eggs or another super. Like we've done here with a double super on this hive.

So there's two honey collection boxes and either one's okay, beekeepers will have their different opinions on why. So find out as much as you can and make your decision on whether to add another brood box or another super. 

But what I tend to do mostly is take a split because it's always nice to expand. I run about 40 colonies at home and the numbers get low each year when I tend to supply people with bees. Then the numbers get low. So I take more splits to replenish it. And I keep it around about 40 hives. Taking splits is my preferred option. The more colonies, the better, in my opinion.

If my bees swarm, do I lose the whole colony?

So if they swarm, typically half the bees take off and they push the old queen out of the hive and the hive raises a new queen. And while that works most of the time in terms of the bees raising their own queen, sometimes they don't. So you can get into issues where your hive ends up queenless, and then they'll slowly dwindle away, unless you rectify the situation.

That's where your beekeeping comes in. First to notice that that's going on and also to fix the problem when you notice that they are queenless. But most of the time, if they do swarm, hopefully you can catch that swarm. Sometimes you do all of your spring swarm prevention, but they swarm anyway because the genetics is such that they really want to divide. And hopefully you can catch them. But if you don't, either way you need to look after the parent colony and make sure that the numbers are strong enough to keep hive beetles at bay, if you've got hive beetles in your area. Also just make sure that it's queened right, and queened right is the term for a hive that has got a laying queen.

Do you look back on inventing the flow hive and wish that 3D printing was around at that time for your prototype design?

I certainly do wish 3D printing was more advanced when we were prototyping. One of our very first successful prototypes was from a 3D printed piece of comb. But it was a piece of comb just this big. And it cost over $2,000 for that amount of 3D printing. So it's nice that 3D printing has come down in price for inventors and prototyping. It's an amazing tool. It’s still hard to get good enough quality for the bees to like it. So you end up doing a lot to those 3D prints in order for the bees to actually use them.

Will Flow Hive release any new products in 2021?

We're always innovating and always trying to improve. So if you've got suggestions, put them in the comments, let us know, write to us. And the idea is we keep improving as we go. So watch this space and hopefully we will have some improvements that you’ll like as time goes on.

Do the bees still have an opportunity to form their own wax comb aside from the pre-built comb?

Absolutely. So in the bottom box here, or if you're using multiple brood boxes, it could be more than one box here. You've got wood and wax frames just as it's always been. We tend to do naturally drawn comb, which means we just supply a wooden frame and the bees draw their comb in the perfectly natural way they've always done it, whether they're in a tree hollow or wherever they are. So the bees just do the natural thing down below, and then our invention box six down on top. And suddenly when the bees are happy and are built up to the point of where it's time for the bees to need more area, then they move up and start storing honey in the Flow Frames.

How do you treat for mites going into colder weather with the Flow Hive? Many products state: do not use with the honey supers. Do you remove the Flow super and replace it with a Langstroth one?

We're really lucky that we don't have the Varroa mite here in Australia. And we're one of the only continents left, I believe without the Varroa mite. It's a bit of effort and there's various different management plans for many months, ranging from genetics to look after the problem, right through to various different chemicals to help reduce those mites. And beekeepers will often use a mix of the two. 

I'm no expert in Varroa because we don't have it here. What I would suggest is asking the beekeepers in your country what their management practise is. Go to TheBeekeeper.org, which is an online course designed to take you from square one right through to a deep scientific knowledge and competence in beekeeping. So have a look at that. We have experts from around the world chiming in, helping to teach you about things like Varroa.

Fred Dunn's also got some great information on Varroa, if you want to look up his YouTube channel.

Have you experienced the queen turning into a drone-laying queen?

Have I experienced that? It's hard to tell. I'd say I have not recently. If the queen runs out of sperm, she only mates in the first week or two of her life, and that's enough genetic material to last a lifetime of laying and she might live up to six years. But if that runs out, then she can only lay unfertilized eggs. And those unfertilized eggs will be males or drones. Drones don't collect nectar. They don't collect pollen. They don't do jobs in the hive. So the whole hive turns into kind of like a shared house when you've got a whole lot of males in a shared house, things just kind of disintegrate into decay and you have to start again. 

If you've had that issue where you've got a drone layer, you will need to replace the queen. More commonly the issue is you don't have a queen at all and the workers start laying eggs. If the hive has been queenless for weeks, then the workers may start laying eggs and they lay unfertilized eggs and they're drones as well. So that's most commonly the reason why I ended up with a whole lot of drones and the worker brood diminishing to none. Either way, you'll need to rectify the situation by getting your hive queened right again, and making sure you have a laying queen in your hive.

Do I need a new queen for a split, or is a queen cell enough?

So a queen cell is enough. So there's a whole lot of different ways you can go about taking a split. You can buy a queen from a queen breeder. You can do what's called a walkaway split, where you get a frame that's got eggs on it, bee eggs down in the cells. They look like tiny little grains of rice. You put them into your new box without a queen. And the bees that are there with those frames can raise a queen by feeding the young larva royal jelly for its entire 11 days of the larval stage. 

Another way as you said, is if you notice a queen cell on a frame and that queen cell is capped, you've got a queen that's about to emerge sometime in the next seven days or so. So you can put that frame into a new hive. And that's a great way to start with. It’ll give that colony a jumpstart for a new queen when she emerges. It could be a number of weeks before she's laying, because she's got to go through the mating ritual. And also if the weather is not good, she might not fly and do that. So if you put that frame into a new hive to take a split, it might be three weeks or so before you're noticing the eggs down those cells. So you might need to be patient.

What is the best product to protect your hive for longevity?

So if you're wanting to keep wood looking like this beautiful natural wood tones here, then I would recommend the Western Red Cedar wood, because it naturally resists the mildew. It naturally will resist rot and you can keep it looking good like this outdoors. However, you'll need to give it some TLC every six to 12 months, rub it back, give it another oil. Because wood is trying to turn back into the earth outdoors, and it will grey and decay eventually without a bit of TLC. 

So your options are oils like this or outdoor house paints that are made to resist the harsh elements. And you can go either way. If you choose to oil your hive, the decking products are built for outdoors. The ones you put on your deck to keep it really sealed in the outdoor environment will last the longest. However, they are tainted with often a tint which is designed to stop the UV greying the timber. This doesn't have the tint in it. So this will eventually go grey after some years. So some things to consider there. I really liked these natural tones of the wood without the tint, but it won't last as long as a good decking product.

If you're choosing our Araucaria model then you'll need to paint it. You can see some nice examples of painted hives further up the row. And you can have a lot of fun painting your hives. 

Any tips for a new beekeeper?

The first thing I would say is, if you're feeling a bit nervous, a bit uncomfortable about it, get some help. Even if it's from a friend who's only just started recently, it just helps to have somebody else there as you go about your first episode of installing your bees. It also depends a little bit on your method of installing your bees. You may go for buying a nuc, which is probably the easiest way to go. And that I would recommend as a great way to start. Buy a nucleus, which is a little hive that's got just four or five brood frames in it, complete with bees, with brood, with some honey stores and a laying queen. It's basically a little beehive and all you need to do is get in your bee suit, get out your smoker, transfer those frames into your brood box, look after them and they'll grow.

So that's a good tip. People learn in all different ways. Some people will tend just to jump in and just learn as they go. Other people want to do a lot of study. If you want to do a lot of study and learning prior to getting your bees and installing them, then that's a great thing to do. You can have a look at TheBeekeeper.org, which is an online course we’ve put together with experts from all over the world. 

Or you could go to a local bee club. You could do a hands-on course learning about bees. And all of those things are wonderful things to do. We also got a lot of content on our YouTube and Facebook where you can do a lot of learning as well. And of course, I'm here most weeks to answer your questions.

Do you plan to make biodegradable Flow Frames?

That is a great question, and of course it really suits our values to have a product that is completely biodegradable. And we hope that one day we will. But it's the balance between wanting a real long-lasting product. We want our frames to outlast all the woodware in your hive. And to do that, the bioproducts at the moment that we are testing, we still don't have confidence that we're going to get a really long-lasting product. Because as you say, they're made to be able to biodegrade. There's also issues with temperature and shrinkage in some of the bio-plastics we tested and sometimes your frames are exposed to high temperatures. So all of these things we are looking into, and hopefully one day we'll be able to offer a completely biodegradable product.

The honey super is heavy to lift. Can I remove individual frames?

Absolutely, some people do that. If you are alone,  if you don't have help to lift your hive and you're not strong enough to lift the full honey super. Especially if you've got the larger size box, the 10-frame Langstroth, or we call it a7 Frame Flow Hive because Flow Frames are wider. So as you say, you can simply smoke the bees and take a few of the frames out, or all of the frames if you want to lessen the load. and your bees will be fine with that, depending on the genetics, actually a lot of bees are fine with that. You take the frames out and that'll make the box very light to lift off, and you can go about your inspections from there.

What is the best way to lift the honey super? 

You take the roof off first, and that'll just make it a little bit lighter and you can use this area here (the inspection window at front of the super) as a handle. It's a really good, generous handle. Some beekeepers wonder what we're doing, how come we don't have a handle. All you need to do is take this cover off and you've got a really nice handle there. The best way to lift a hive is always keeping the weight close to you. There's a handle on the back end and after you've freed the box up just by cracking it with your hive tool, you can then lean it back towards you and hold your core. And if you have something already at height to put it onto, then it's easier on the body because all you're doing is leaning back a bit, moving and resting again. Having said that if you've got back issues and things like that, do get some help, make sure you don't strain yourself. Or you can take the frames out one by one.

I've experienced three swarms in the last three days, all from the same hive. On opening the hive, I found eight queen cells. I got rid of seven and kept one. I could not find the new queen anywhere. I replaced three full frames with empty ones to give more room. Any other suggestions?

Wow. That's incredible. Well done for getting in there and working all of that out. And sometimes you get really swarmy genetics, and we've had that here at the office. We've actually been doing some requeening to reduce the swarm tendency. If they really have a high tendency to swarm, then it can just become a little bit of a management issue. Especially if you're in suburbia, you don't want bees hopping the fence too many times. Jars of honey always sweeten up the relationship, but it depends on your neighbors on that one.

Generally beekeepers try to manage the swarming tendencies. And if you find, like you have, that the bees are just really building up and dividing and swarming multiple times, then it could be a good idea to buy in queens of known genetics. And then you'll find that problem will go away. Sometimes beekeepers will use colonies like that to create a whole lot of splits. They're breeding up really fast. They're breeding Queens really fast. You can really expand your apiary quickly, and then they'll go back and change the queens for known genetics later, if they don't want that swarming tendency to continue.

How can I reduce the water content of the honey in a Flow Hive?

The humidity in the honey is controlled by the bees. So there's probably a fair bit to this topic, but I'll just cover it broadly and then I'll go into the conventions in beekeeping. Basically nectar starts off with 95% water content or so. The bees then bring that back into the hive and they need to reduce that down to usually around 18%, sometimes to 16%. Sometimes the bees are a bit lazy on it, and they'll have it closer to 20%. Now, if it's around that 20% or above range, it could start to ferment, even in the frames in the hive, which in a really humid climate, you can see that happening sometimes. Most of the time, if they've capped it, the bees have decided that it's going to keep for a long time. And it'll also keep for a long time in your jar, on the shelf.

However, what commercial Beekeepers tend to do is they'll do a lot of blending of honey. They'll blend honey that might have 22% moisture content with honey that's got 16% moisture content to get it to 18% moisture content, which is acceptable for sale. So on a commercial scale, they really want to make sure they're not having jars of honey that are hitting the supermarket shelf that are going to change in any way. So then they go through pasteurization, which means that it's really unlikely to go candied in the jar, destroying a lot of the health benefits of honey. And also blending to make sure you have that moisture content so fermentation won't occur. 

Now as a Flow Hive honey producer, you're probably producing honey on more of a boutique level. And while you could go to blending honey, it's much nicer to just fill jars from specific frames and enjoy the different flavors that come in and even market that to your customers. That's a single frame honey filling your jar, you can taste the difference. You get different colors and different flavors for your customers to enjoy. 

Having said that, on occasion you could get the moisture content too high in the jar. And you still might need to go through a blending procedure. And if you are selling a lot of honey, then you should get a portable refractometer, which is a little device. You put a drop of honey on it, and you can tell the moisture content. And if the moisture content is too high, then you can blend it with some other honey that you've perhaps already harvested where the moisture content is low. Or you could use that honey for making mead, or you could go through a procedure of reducing the moisture content, that’s a bigger scale. There are honey dehydrating machines and so on that you could either make or buy. but generally on a boutique level, you wouldn't be going to that scale.

How do I keep the ants away from the Flow Hive? 

If you have a look at the leg bolts on the Flow Hive 2, you can see there's room here to make an ant barrier. So one thing you can simply do is put a bit of grease on the leg bolt here. You might really extend them out a little bit further, and that will create an ant barrier. Then what you need to do is make sure any foliage that is touching the hive is pulled away. The ants will quite quickly, walk up the foliage and onto the hive If you haven’t cut them off. Now, other people make little water moats by putting the feet in a bowl of water. You could also do that. I find if you if you, if you provide a bit of a barrier, when you brush them away a few times, the problem goes away. Now you find ants that get behind the window covers here, that can be unsightly, but it's not actually a problem for the bees. The bees will keep the area inside the hive free of ants.

How long do Flow Frames last? 

We're hoping they will last a very long time. And if you've had any issues do get in contact with us. We do want them to last a very long time. We have frames in my apiary that were made well before launch from 2015 and they're still going today. So that bodes well for a very long-lasting product. But of course it's a new invention and we don't know. But what I will say is if you do have any issues, get in contact and we'll look after you.

Can you start a hive with a queen and a few workers?

You need a bit of a critical mass in order to do all of the jobs in a hive. For building comb, they have to excrete wax from their wax glands and do their amazing job of forming the honeycomb with their mandibles. And that then creates a space for the queen to lay. Once you've got larvae, there needs to be enough honey and pollen. So you'll need a critical mass, like one frame that's got some honey on it, and a laying queen and enough bees to cover those frame surfaces, would be a minimum in order to take a split. Usually, beekeepers are splitting by taking at least three frames from a hive complete with the bees on those frames as well. 

Can you explain a little more about just how hard the bees have to work to bring in that much honey in a week?

Bees are the most extraordinary little insects, these honeybees. There's nothing else on the planet quite like it. A hive like this could visit 50 million flowers in a day. Think about that, tiny little bees, each one flying kilometres to get the honey and back again. If you add up all of that bee flight, it's a couple of times around the world. It just really is extraordinary. And the bees only last four to six weeks when they're foraging like that. So a single bee will only produce a quarter of a teaspoon of honey in its foraging efforts in its lifetime. But together with 50,000 bees in a hive, they can produce an amazing amount of honey and also pollinate an amazing amount of flowers.

Thank you very much for tuning in. We'll be back next week with another great topic, hopefully a little less rain. The idea is we're trying to drop those barriers and help you become a beekeeper and help you look after the bees the best you can. Of course, if you want a flying start, have a look at TheBeekeeper.org. We've got a lot of training material made to take you from square square one, right through to a deep scientific knowledge of beekeeping, and a lot of really practical videos to help you in beekeeping. 

We better take that jar of honey away before the rain gets into it. Look at that, isn't it a wonderful thing. I will just close the frame now. So to finish the harvesting process, all we need to do is insert the tool in the top slot there, and then turn it again. And what you find is all of the parts of the Flow Frame are now going back together. The bees haven't noticed that either, because it's all happening from beneath their feet. We can then take out this honey tube. Actually, I'll get the little cap ready. There's still more honey to flow out and you could leave it, but there's so much there that this jar might overflow. So we don't want to let that jar overflow. So we're going to take that tube right out, put the cap back in, and then one neat thing you can do with a jar of honey like this is rest the tube right on top of the jar and the remaining honey will go back into the jar. 

Thank you very much for watching. Isn't that a beautiful jar of honey harvested in the rain.

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