Winter Bee Hives Losses and Lessons

I have now gone though all my hives. My  last post was about what that entailed. This post is about the results, what I saw for good and for bad, and the result of an experiment.

The Overall Results

This is the answer to the question everyone asks: Over winter hive failure was 14%.

This isn’t to say that every hive is looking absolutely brilliant. Some do, some don’t.

Reasons For Deaths

I’m happy to say that queen failure was the primary cause. “Happy?” you might ask. Well, it sure beats varroa, or nosema, or starvation. Certainly no hive starved, but I’ll get to that in a second.

The “alive but not brilliant” I would attribute to our winter weather (warm and wet) combined with an experiment I tried.

Queen Failure The Percentages:

About 50% of the queens that failed had been purposefully bred in 2014. By that I mean either I bred them or I purchased them in 2014.

30% of the queen failures were in hives whose California purchased queens had been installed in 2014.   I’m not very impressed by their short-lived lives. I have gotten accustomed to hives that keep going for years (spoiled, I know). But California has been having rough times with drought, so that could be a factor.

The other 20% of the queen failures were hives that had been going for between three to five years. I think I can assume they were not the original queens, but their daughters and their daughters’ daughters. So their line had a good run, and they attempted supercedures at particularly bad times (warm, but wet winter with little to no drones around).

Queen Replacement at Brookfield Farm

I do not replace queens on a time schedule. I replace queens only when I see that they are failing. Interestingly, this failure is often preceded by me seeing the queen quite easily.

My queen choices are towards dark bees: Russians, Ferals, New World Caniolans and Hybrid-crosses of these. I figure that a hive of good dark bees is going to start getting their precious queen to safety – away from opening tops and moving frames – as soon as they can. If the queen is just hanging about, I put this down to the bees not caring to protect her and move her away from the disturbance (me), so she’s running out of steam.

In the winter, usually October to March, I do not open hives and thus do not see the bees. Should a queen, and hive, begin to fail, they will do so without my seeing the action.

There is an option of simply requeening with new queens every fall. But over the years, I have seen so many new queens fail, that I’m not willing to eliminate what seems to be a good queen on the chance something will go wrong in the winter.

Hives Weakend By Seemda

I did get a few hives impacted by  Seemda – I think it affects a lot of beekeepers.   You know Seemda: It “Seemed A” Good Idea At The Time.  Sometimes innovations work; sometimes they are a really bad idea.

This year’s Seemda was the removal of my little squares of insulation that sit on top of the burlap that’s on top of the top bars inside what I call the “collar.” The collar’s 2-inch-tall “box”, with the upper entrance, that sits beneath the lid

Bee Hive Insulation on top bars

Insulation Over The Burlap











The insulation does not fill then entire space, leaving room for bees and airflow.  A very old post explains more (by the way I no longer wrap hives, which is shown in that post – I stopped wrapping after a successful experiment a few years back.).

Opening the top of an overwintering hive

Moving insulation & burlap to see the top bars.









A Brookfield Farm bee hive collar with top entrance & insulation

Collar & Insulation









Lately I got to thinking “Is it doing anything at all? Or is it just making me feel good?” Well, I can tell you how it affects my hives.

Affect of Insulation on Brookfield Farm Hives

In hives that are in the wide-open spaces with lots of sky (we don’t always have sun, just non-rain days), the hives did fine without them. No more and no less well than when they had insulation.

In hives that get more shade, it was a different situation: hives were damp, often with fungus. The bees all hunkered down in the lower boxes (I over winter in 4 westerns normally). But the clusters were smaller and weak. The sides of the boxes were very damp and many had white fungus.

Conclusion: Keep the insulation in areas with a higher percentage of shade.

No One Starved

Not only did the majority of hives come though with a good supply of honey remaining in February, but some had an entire box left. I had to shift frames around so that those bees would not get honey bound.

 An Odd Observation

As I was shutting up the hives for winter about five hives had such a high level of brood that I left them with five boxes. Bottom box has pollen, then two boxes full of brood (high numbers for my bees), then a fourth of honey/brood, and a box of honey.

In all cases, the queens failed. Queen cells were built – but of course the wet weather and lack of drones meant that the queens and hives were doomed.


I think that the presence of that much brood so late in the season may be a queen’s last “hurrah”. So when I see this, I think I’ll move some brood into nucs that have enough bees to cover the extras, and put a small over wintering nuc on top of the overly enthusiastic queen’s hive.

What’s Happening Now

I’m on to supering those that need supers, and feeding, with frames of honey from the queen failures, those that need honey. I’ll post more about that next week. That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey in Maple Falls, Washington.

This weekend we’ll be at the Seattle Fremont Market, but not at the Ballard Market. I’ll be back at the Ballard Market on April 5. I’m having an enforced week off due to cataract surgery. A whole new world – or at least one with a different focal length – is opening up for me….

How did your bees come though the winter – or what are you doing to prepare your bees for the dark days to come in the southern portion of our world. And has anyone else seen this “tons of brood from a failing queen thing?” It was new to me…..

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Checking and Manipulating Hives in late winter

The sun finally broke out, temperatures went into the low 50F’s so I finally got out to the hives to check them for honey stores, a bit of hive manipulation, and to put in their essential oil patties.

The sun was somewhat expected – we normally get a few weeks of sunny weather in February. Temperatures in the 50F’s at this time of year are completely new to this area – but as we all know with the weather: Expect the Unexpected. I figure the weather will probably shift back to wet and dismal in March and possibly April, so the February sun is a good time to check the hives.

At this writing, I’ve not gone through all my hives, but I’ve covered all but one of the up river yards. These are in the low mountains that lie along the Nooksack River northwest of Mt. Baker.  (You’ll find the photos after the to-do lists).

Bee Hive Check / Manipulation Sequence:

1) Check hive for honey – if low hand out some honey, either in frames or on newspaper

2) Check bees’ condition

3) Clean bottom boards

4) Open up the hive (Move boxes and frames around without breaking up brood and pollen)

  • Brood box(es) to bottom of stack
  • Empty Bottom box (filled by the bees with pollen during the year) moved up and frames mixed with honey frames to keep bees from being honey bound

5) Remove any empty frames that are older than 5 years and replace with newer frames

6) Put in Essential Oil patty

7) If deadout, figure out why.

8) Load up and head for next yard (loading up: not the fun part)

9) Off-load the truck (really not the fun part)


Bee Hive Check: What I’m Looking For

So simple, in concept. But it takes time. I like to examine the hives to look at:

1) Which phenotypes have come through the winter (tends to be the darkest)

2) What the honey and pollen consumption has been

3) What, if any, pollen and nectar are coming in

4) Numbers of over wintered daughters and drones (if present)

5) Queen performance (to select breeder queens and assess last year’s queens):

Amount of brood laid

Brood patterns, including egg to sealed brood ration (I don’t count, I just estimate)

6) Diseases or pests or general problems


Bee Hive Check In Pictures

My bee yards vary in locations from flat lands near the Nooksack River to rolling ridges. This one has an honorary “bee dog” – totally fearless of bees. I’ve never had a dog bring me sticks to play fetch with bees flying.

Bee yard in Washington rural mountains

Bee Yard and “Bee Dog”









The first examination is just looking down.
Two views have been coming up this year:


Frames of honey with honeybees

Honey & Bees









And Bees:

Honey bees cover frames in a bee hive

Lots of happy bees










I do leave a lot of honey on hives (about 70 pounds for the strong “adult” hives), because there won’t be any strong nectar flow in my up river areas for another two months. So I like to see the honey.

The downside is that they can get honey bound.

Bee hive top bars covered in honeybees

A nice late winter sight




Bee hive frames with bees

Bees top to bottom

Opening Up The Bee Hives

Which means time to move boxes and frames around.

Bee hive disassembled during winter check up at Brookfield Farm

Waiting for reassembly









The brood and pollen frames move as a group.

While the stack of boxes are separated, this is the magic moment to clean up

Clean the Bottom Screens

The bees were last tidied up in September during harvest. A lot of bees have been born, worked, and died in that time. Most are on the bottom – it’s too cold to go cleaning up the hive in winter, so they fall to the bottom.

Dead honeybees cover a hive's bottom screen

Before Cleaning












Bottom Screen of a bee hive after cleaning

All Cleaned Up









All my hives are on open bottom screens year round. This helps keep the hive dry as the decomposing bodies “leak” down though the screen. I have not found any detrimental effects of having the screens open all year (although I did bite finger nails the first time I tried this).

The bees, of course, are momentarily confused. “Hey, when we left there was a hive behind this ‘door’.”

Honey bees gather at a hiveless site

Where’s the Hive?









But confusion passes as the brood box is set on the screen.


Bee Hive Manipulation

The entire brood box, usually with pollen, moves into a new, lower, position in the stack.

If stores are low, honey frames are added on either side of the area (usually positions 1,2, 9 and 10)

Thoughout the process I’m always being aware that the queen can be anywhere – easy does it.

Usually, there’s a second brood box, which is placed on top of the first. The “sealed brood” box gets position number two, because as they emerge, they will leave room for more eggs.

honey bees on sealed brood

Bees on Brood









This tends to leave me with two boxes: one empty and one of honey. I over winter in 4 boxes (3 on nucs) the winter bottom box is filled with pollen, so by February only empty frames are left.


Drawn, empty, frames of comb from a bee hive

Empty Comb









These are interspersed with the combs of honey

honey bees on a frame of honey

Bees on Honey









The combined open comb and solid frames of honey are placed in the third box – if the hive is large enough to need a fourth box it is added – with frames of honey interspersed with the open comb.

Painted honey bee hives

Rebuilt and Ready for Spring












Then I’m done…and move on to do it again at the next yard.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees and Honey in Maple Falls, Washington.  How are your bees looking coming into spring or heading into fall (that old hemisphere thing).  Having seen and heard from beekeepers back east, my hopes are that your bees are happily weathering these days in tight clusters.

It has been mentioned that I should end with where you can find us in the “real world”.  I am at Seattle’s Ballard Farmers Market every Sunday these days (some days away for festivals) and Ian, aka the husband, can be found at Seattle’s Fremont Sunday Market on Sundays.  Come by and visit if you’re in the area.


Posted in 1 Beekeeping, 4 Hive Components, 8 Brookfield Farm & Bees, 9 Brookfield Farm Bee Yards | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Making Bee Patties at Brookfield Farm

Twice a year my bees get some essential oils in their diets. The aim is for general health, to strengthen their immune systems and to combat varroa mites, from the inside. Before I go any further, let me say there is no science involved in any of this. It all makes sense to me. I take supplements; the bees take supplements. The oils I use and the amounts have been derived though researching what other beekeepers use and experiments (aka: “that seemed to work”, when all went well or “well, it seemed a good idea at the time,” when all went wrong).


Good-bye Syrup – Hello Patties

Until fall of 2014 I had always used cane sugar syrup to deliver the oils.  The bees got their supplements in 2 ½-gallon servings of syrup delivered one to two weeks apart (however long it took them to consume the syrup). This always worried me a bit because I was adding liquid to the hive. Now, in some areas that is fine, and might even be good, but I live in the northwest corner of Washington state – land of rain. Here in Maple Falls, we can get 67 inches of rain in a “normal” year.   We’ve had years where it rained for 6 weeks straight during the height of flower bloom. A friend calls the area “nosema central.” So adding water to hives that are already facing the challenge of a wet environment troubled me.

Then a friend and brilliant beekeeper, Clyde Caldwell, came across some research that showed liquid feed could aid and abet nosema. Then I got really worried. In the meantime,  beekeeper  Stan Kolesnikov ,  had been having great success with bee essential oil patties.   Thus the experiment began.

Fall Patties:

They seem to be working. There are lots of bees about. Now, I don’t open my hives in January – it’s usually snowy and cold. Even though weather’s gone weird and I’m writing this outside on a 47F day, I still don’t want to pull the hives apart. But this odd warm weather has a lot of bees flying. A popped a few tops to peak at the top bars, and no sign of nosema,  even where the bees had moved to the top boxes.

Spring Patties

On to phase two of patties over syrup: I spent part of the other day making bee goo – most people would say “patties”, but I do this in a big pot and then measure it out in the field – every hive gets 2.5 oz of goo. If I get inspired maybe I’ll make patties out of it, but I bet I won’t.

The Recipe for Spring 2015

The following makes 4 pounds of bee goo – which would be about 25 patties.
I can easily mix 4 pounds at a time at present. I need to buy some bigger pots/bowls.

For 4 pounds of goo or 25 essential oil patties at 2.5 oz per hive(1/2 pound left over):

3 Pounds of Cane Sugar

  • If chunky – grind in blender

1 Pound Solid Shortening

Essential Oils:

  • Spearmint             5.75 teaspoons
  • Thyme                        5.75 teaspoons
  • Tea Tree            3.75 teaspoons
  • Lemon Grass             7.5 teaspoons

3 Tablespoons Honey

1 Tablespoon Vinegar

4 Tablespoons Nozevit

Notes and Pictures:

The Sugar

  • Cane Sugar because beet sugar in the US is now GMO
  • I put this through a blender – Because all my sugar has solidified into solid 50 lb blocks (such fun).
  • It does make the sugar fluffier.
Sugar before bleding

Before : Chunky sugar

Sugar in a small grinder

After : Smooth Sugar

Sugar being poured

Pouring Cane Sugar

The Essential Oils

  • I put these in next, mixing with a spoon as I go
  • I would mix with a hand blender – if I owned one.
Stirring essential oils and sugar for honeybee patties

Mixing It Up

 The Honey

  • Was in an on-line recipe and sounded good
  • I used honey from my own hives

The Vinegar

  • Based on the amount per pound of sugar that I was using in the syrups
  • Because vinegar brings sugar closer to the pH of honey and is thus makes it easier for bees to digest the sugar.
  • The suggested vinegar is white vinegar, but I used organic apple cider in this case – I have it on hand for the goats – that’s another non-bee story). Again basing the amount on the amount I had been using per hive in syrups.

 The Nozevit

  • I added in Nozevit – mainly because I had tried some in the syrup in the past– it did no harm, and although tests did not impress me.
  • I like to mix this into the sugar last because I can see it disperse (I can’t see the oils)

The Shortening

  • I used Organic Palm Oil Shortening
  • I can get it at my local Coop and I like to use organic when I can afford it
  • It’s a smaller amount than many patty recipes, but bees don’t eat shortening, so as little as possible is good, I think.
  • I mix this by hand – mashing until all the chunks are gone (see “if I had a hand blender” note above – or sing it to “If I Had A Hammer”….)
Palm Oil Shortening being weighted

Organic Palm Oil Shortening

The End Result

  • It should hold together in a huge “patty”
  • I could make little patties from this point, but I usually measure in the field. It’s a time thing.
Essential Oil pattie mix for bee patties

Bee Goo Done


How I figured the Amounts

1) I took the amount of each oil that each hive would have gotten from 1 gallon of syrup.

2) I took all the amounts of sugar and shortening (organic palm oil in this case) that were suggested for each hive by different on-line sources.   Last fall I settled on the 2.5 oz/hive amount.

3) Vinegar and Nozevit were based on amounts per hive from the syrups I had made

3) I figured how much sugar/shortening/oils/etc. per hive – multiplied by 83 (the hives I have)

Awaiting February Sun

Now it’s made and in a pot. February is just around the corner and if the temperatures stay up, I’ll go around the hives and put in the “patties”. I’ve also got about 2 gallons of crystallized honey from my hives standing by in case any of the hives are low on stores.

The quick top-bar peek showed the hives had lots of honey left. But then I leave about 70 pounds of honey on my big hives and 50 pounds on my over wintering nucs each year. Because no matter how good (or bad) our bee feed is, it’s never as good as honey for the bees.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, in Maple Falls, Washington. Where I’m writing this outside at the farm! Hey, it’s usually snowing and cold right now. Today is 47F and sunny – go figure.

What preparations are you all making for the coming bee season, or for shutting down hives for the coming winter – in the southern portion of our planet? Any and all suggestions about bee patties are welcome – as I say, it’s not science, just gleaned though reading what others have done, and what has worked and what has failed.

Posted in 1 Beekeeping, 2 Diseases/Pests/Treatments | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Barn Cats / Hive Cats : Indispensable

Barn Cats – I could not run the farm or the bees without them. They keep the mice out of the barn with its myriad of places for mice to live and thrive. They patrol the bee yard, to help keep mice out of the hives (and keep kitties healthy with nice, fresh protein).

Cat inspecting beehive mouse guard

Anubus checking the mouse guard









Mice cute, destructive animals.

Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen of Mouse

Mouse (Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen – wikipedia commons)








Mice love barns and stored bee equipment, especially where they can chew and burrow into the nice insulating wax frames for winter. Mice also love beehives with bees in them.If one doesn’t get the hive mouse guards up in time, the little “darlings” slide in and make themselves at home, especially when the bees are in cluster and don’t battle as fervently.

I’m happy to say it’s been years since I have seen mice at Brookfield Farm, except dead ones.

Cats Help At Brookfield Farm

I have cats; every one of them is neutered. I consider them coworkers, not pets. Some coworkers you hang out with, others you nod to in passing. They have the large livestock guard dogs to protect them – the dogs like some of them and tolerate others.

Livestock Guard Dog - Bee Hive Guard Cat

Livestock Guard Dog and Hive Guard Cat – A Team Effort









The cats also have a kibble feeder in the barn, just in case the mouse population diminishes at any time. Their home base is 24 by 40-foot barn and hayloft, but they can be seen roaming different parts of the farm.

Some of the cats are sweet cats that sit on your lap, OK; they demand to sit on your lap (they are cats). Some are friendly, but not Mr. or Ms. Cuddles. On the other extreme we have the “HUMANS!!!! RUN!!!!” neutered feral cats.


FERALS – you got to love them, even if you can’t touch them.

These latter make the barn their home base. When I go into the loft, where I keep boxes, frames, and tools there is often a frantic scrambling behind the woodenware as what I call the “Stealth Family” scrambles to move to the far end of the barn before the dreaded human gets too near.

The Stealths are a group of six feral rapidly growing kittens from the same litter. I picked them up at Creatures’ Comfort, a local no-kill shelter in Bellingham.

I wanted kittens because we found that the older barn cats (three of them at this time) will accept kittens, but will drive away adult cats. Feral or barn kittens have the added benefit that, hopefully, their mom would have imparted survival skills to them as well as a taste for wild forage – mice.

The plan seems to work. I’ve not seen live mice in ages at the farm. I do find dead mice. Happily, I do not find dead birds and our farm is filled with the trills of song birds that you can see perching on the branches of cedars, alders, and maples.


Let’s Face It: Cats Kill: They are predators

Yes cats do kill. A study by Scott Loss at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Washington, which assessed the research on predation by domestic cats, found that in the U.S. cats kill up to:

3.7 billion birds a year. (from 30 to 47 birds per cat a year)
20.7 billion mice and other small mammals each year. (from 177 to 299 pests a year)

Mind you, the American Bird Conservancy estimates windows in the U.S. kill up to 1 billion birds each year.

Cars takeout up to 340 million birds, according to researcher Scott Loss of Oklahoma State University, who worked in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Cats: A compromise on four legs throughout history

Cats came to live with humans over 9,000 years ago.

"Egypte louvre 058" by Guillaume Blanchard - Guillaume Blanchard. Licensed under CC BY-SA 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Cat Statue – Louvre Image by Guillaume Blanchard – Guillaume Blanchard.Wikimedia Commons -









It is assumed they showed up to eat mice, which were attracted to the grains that humans were starting to harvest and store.   Humans had grains, then humans had mice, then cats ate the mice, then cats allowed themselves to hang out around people. It’s a long established relationship that kept humans’ food relatively mouse free for centuries.

Sadly, like most things in life, cats represent a compromise. They kill birds, but they kill more rodents, including mice.

Without cats farms would be overrun with mice. A female mouse can produce up to 60 babies a year. Each mouse is destruction on tiny feet. In Nebraska alone, it is estimated that mice cause 20 million dollars in damage every year to feeds and buildings.

An alternative to cats is poisons – that alternative I cannot abide. The main poison is warfarin, which stops the blood from clotting. A slow death that can take 24 to 48 hours. Other animals can also eat the poison with disastrous results.   . At least with cats the mice have a chance and death comes more quickly.

I like cats. I don’t like poisons.

A Few Cat – Family Portraits

(none of these names are passwords or test answers, I write them too often)

The cats, from cuddly to feral live long lives here. This blog is in tribute to two cats who have recently passed away (thus the new “trainee” kittens): Mack The Knife (Mackie) and Aunt Agatha (Aggie)

Mack (the Knife) 15 years at passing

Barn Cat - Mack The Knife

Mack The Knife












When I met him as a cute kitten, he sank his teeth into my hand, thus the name

Aggie: 18 years at passing

Barn Cat Agathat 2011










Named for the indomitable Aunt Agatha of the PG Wodehouse series

Angst 19 years at passing

Existential Angst - the cat

Existential Angst









Full name: Existential Angst – named for a spoken line a film I shot a long time ago. Went from alleys to rural foothills to the farm – a tough lady.

Current crop of “mentor” barn cats – all litter mates:


Barn Cat : Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, WA

She does love a nice mouse











Gris-Gris (which “protects the wearer from evil or brings luck“)

Kitten walks between beehives

GrisGris checks the hives









Anubus (the Egyptian God who “ushered souls into the afterlife” – fitting, eh?)

Cat inspecting beehive mouse guard

Anubus checking the mouse guard









There have been many over the last 25 years we’ve been at Brookfield Farm – all good workers, all loved, and all indispensable to being able to farm and keep bees.   Plus I learned how to play Mack The Knife on the Ukulele. He never appreciated it – cats, what can I say.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls Washington – In the world of bees and honey: the bees pop out periodically in this very odd winter here (47F! in January), look around realize nothing’s in bloom and head back in.  Honey: We’re now at Seattle’s Fremont Market and Ballard Farmers Market every Sunday – if you’re in Seattle, stop on by.






Posted in 1 Beekeeping, 9 Brookfield Farm Bee Yards | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Honeybee Food Foraging : Where? Why? How Far?

I get asked a lot at market: how do you know that the bees actually went to “that” honey. “That” honey may be Buckwheat, Alfalfa/Wildflower, Fireweed/Wildflower, or Wildflowers of particular regions in Washington State.  Really it is all about flight distance, desirability, and availability.


How Beekeepers Figure The Honey Source
(without laboratory tests)

Honeybee with lots of pollen : Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, Maple Falls, WA

Honeybee On Dandelion










  • Bees tend to fly about 2.5 miles from the hive
  • Bees have been known to go to 7 miles, but few are ever found beyond 4 miles from the hive. The further they travel, the energy they use begins to be greater than the energy they get from the distant forage.
  • Bees tend to eat what’s right in front of them In that way, they’re rather like us: there is undoubtedly a great Indian restaurant in Seattle (2.5 hours away), but I tend to head down to Bellingham (45 minutes away).
  • Bees will fly further if the immediate forage isn’t their favorite: not enough nectar, pollen, or protein – bees tend to over-fly alfalfa because they apparently never been not all that keen on alfalfa (even before the advent of 21st century agriculture).

Bees check out plants by sight and smell, but it’s way different from ours: large swatches of color are easier to see than a single brilliant plant, and smells can tickle their “toes” and legs.

Mono-Floral Honeys

These are the ones that might say “Buckwheat” or “Fireweed” or “Chamisa”

This means that the primary floral source for that honey was the flower on the label.

There are probably a few other flowers in the honey but factors can override the lesser flowers including:

Rabbit Brush (aka Chamisa)

Chamisa (aka Rabbit Brush)


  • Other flowers are so minimal their nectar is diluted under the primary flower.
  • Other flowers are so light you’re not going to taste them (buckwheat honey covers any light honey)
  • Very few flowers are in bloom at the same time in the area (Big Leaf Maple and Fireweed are types here)













Bees, Beekeepers, Farmers, And Pesticides

Beekeepers and farmers consider another aspect of foraging distance to be equally, and potentially, more important. This is the distance of the hives from pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.

Pesticide Application by machine

Pesticide Application
(courtesy of wikipedia commons)



Bee-Harmful Pesticide Avoidance Distances

How far away do hives need to be from a potentially harmful location?

  • This location may be fields using neonicotides (banned in the EU and in some areas in the US, but still used in abundance US agriculture), or an area sprayed with other pesticides, fungicides or herbicides, that are harmful to honeybees.
  • This harm from these poisons may be immediate, as in the bees are sprayed and they die. The harm can also be pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in stored pollen and nectar. In these instances, the bees die when they eat these tainted stores later in the year.

Total Pesticide Avoidance Distances:

Beekeepers may be in search of stands of untreated bee forage. The mileage between a seemingly pristine meadow and sprayed crops can be critical. The 2.5 mileage the bees fly from their hive is an average – so some bees may be foraging further – into areas of pesticides.

Separation of GMO from non-GMO crops and wild plants:

  • Farmers who want to keep their seed crops free of Genetically Modified genes can see all pollinators as a benefit or a problem.   Cross pollination by foraging bees hauling pollen from a GMO plant to a similar, but non-GMO plant can cause havoc, and potentially destroy non-GMO’s farmers’ operations.

In all of the above cases, hives would have to be in the center of about 25 square mile pesticide-free area to be pretty sure they are not going to encounter harmful chemicals.

To be absolutely certain that the hives and/or fields are isolated from pesticides and/or GMO pollen that distance expands to 196 square miles.

How Far Honeybees Might Fly: The Math

Place a hive in the center of a square Draw a 2.5 mile line “east” and another “west” : you get a 5 miles.

Do it again north and south to get 5 miles

2.5 + 2.5 = 5 miles
5  X   5 =   25 square miles

You could knock off a little on the four corners because it really should be a circle

But some bees fly further – up to seven miles:

This gives 14 miles per side or 196 square miles. Depressing isn’t it? Not the math, the distance – if you’re trying to get as close to a “pure” varietal honey or get away from agriculture.

How Do We Know How Far Honeybees Fly?

Back in the 1920’s J.W. Eckert conducted a three-year study on bees foraging in Wyoming. The area had “islands” of irrigated areas – there was little to no forage beyond the irrigation. The bees were placed at increasing distances from the forage, and then monitored for honey and pollen collection. The results, published in 1933, were incredibly specific:

Honeybees Flying:

  • 1 mile   covered over   2,000 acres (about 3 square miles)
  • 2 miles covered over   8,600 acres (about 13.5 square miles)
  • 3 miles covered over 18,092 acres (about 28 square miles)
  • 4 miles covered over 32,166 acres (about 50 square miles)

60 years later, in 2008, in their research entitled “Crop Pollination” Hoopingarner and Waller came up with slightly different numbers: their honeybees could cover 12,000 acres during flights reaching 2.5 miles from their hives. Their bees also flew 5 to 8 miles to collect forage they found attractive.

It’s all down to flight distance and the attractiveness of the forage to the bees – a bit of working knowledge, observation and the hard work by researchers and scientists.

Reading Honeybee Research Can Be Fun

An aside: I like research and enjoy reading the papers that result from scientific studies, but at times it seems like translating.

“Optimal foraging theory predicts that animals will behave in such a manner as to maximize their energy intake (benefit) with the minimal output of energy (cost).”

Simply Stated: Animals want food that gives them more energy than they used to get the food.

I can so relate.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees and Honey here is chilly, but not snowy – I’m happy to say – Maple Falls, Washington.  The bees here are all in cluster although they all popped out about a week ago when we had an unseasonably warm day of 50F – break out the bathing suits….



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How Do Honeybees Smell?

Scent means a lot to bees.   They use their sense of smell to check queen quality, sort out friend from foe, locate their hive or new hive after swarming, and find forage. Their sense is so acute that they can they can catch a scent while in flight.

Bees are able to detect scents with their mouths, antennae and tips of their legs (tarsi). In all these areas bees have sensilla: tiny, hair-shaped organs that incorporate receptor nerve cells.


Sensilla under an electron microscope

Sensilla under an electron microscope








They have 170 of these odor receptors in their antenna; double the number that mosquitoes have, according to a 2006 paper published in the journal Genome Research.


When it comes to food, bees’ legs play the biggest role. Receptors in the tarsi and the tarsomeres allow bees to tsense both salt and sweetness, according to a study by Dr. Gabriela de Brito Sanchez, researcher, University of Toulouse, and Dr. Martin Giurfa, Director of the Research Center on Animal Cognition, in University of Toulouse, France.

Apparently sweetness is in the “claws” – at the tips of the legs.

Electron microscope image of bee tarsi

Bee’s “Claw” or Tarsi
(image courtesy of de Brito Sanchez et al. / Frontiers in Neuroscience)










Salt sensors lie further up on the legs on the tarsomeres.

Drawing of a honeybee leg

It’s in the legs    (image courtesy of Canadian Journal of Arthropods)










“The claw’s [the tip of the legs] sense of taste allows workers to detect nectar immediately when they land on flowers. Also, bees hovering over water ponds can promptly detect the presence of salts in water through the tarsomeres of their hanging legs,” writes Dr. Giurfa.


Bees’ sense of smell is a wondrous thing, but humans are again throwing more problems in the bees’ path.


Diesel fumes can mess with bees’ odor detectors.

Diesel Truck Fumes

The air we all breath (image courtesy of MedPage Today)








English scientists published a study in Scientific Reports  which demonstrated that elements of diesel fumes, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, are masking the scent of flowers. Tracey Newman, a neuroscientist at the University of Southampton. “The [effect of diesel fumes on flower scent] could have serious detrimental effects on the number of honeybee colonies and pollination activity.”


Chemical diagram for neonicoinoids

Neonics courtesy of the National Academy of Sciences








Researchers Sally Williamson and Geraldine Wright showed in a 2013 study that these much  used and now notorious chemicals lessen the ability of honeybees to distinguish odors and to learn new scents.  This, in turn, adds to the memory loss in honeybees associated with these substances.



We humans may well be messing with the bees ability to smell, but we also depend on their ability to detect odors, and not just for pollination and honey. Like other animals, bees can be trained to relate a smell to a food rewards


The Stealthy Insect Sensor Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory has trained bees to detect bombs. Researchers trained bees to link the smell of sugar syrup to the smell of bomb ingredients. When a bee detected sugar or explosives, she extended her “tongue” (proboscis)


Cancer patients may soon breath into a glass ball with bees in it.

Bees detect disease in creation of Susana Soares

Designer Soares’ Glass with bees courtesy of Susana Soares








A Portuguese designer, Susana Soares, created a glass dome with two chambers. A small area is the “diagnostic space”; the larger area is where bees are placed during the test. “People exhale into the smaller chamber, and the bees rush into it if they detect on the breath the odor that they were trained to target,” writes Soares.

The bees train quickly, according to Soares. In ten minutes her bees area able to detect forms of early stage cancer, tuberculosis and diabetes.


I cannot write a post on “how do bees smell” without caving into the obvious. I just have to say it: honeybees smell nice. The odor of a healthy hive in summer is a wondrous thing. To me the scent brings thoughts of blue skies, light clouds, cedar branches bending on ridges above slopes of flowers – and honey and a healthy hive. That’s how bees smell.

That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey in Maple Falls, Washington. A side note is that I’ll be giving a talk on Honeybees at the Mt. Vernon, WA, library on November 20 at 6pm. It’s the basics: from bee reproduction to the hazards bees face to honey.



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How Much Honey Per Hive?

“How much honey did you get this year?” is a questioned often asked by beekeepers of each other. “How much honey do you get per hive?” is a similar question asked by customers and folks contemplating going into beekeeping.

The first question I hate. It’s a bit too much like a competition. How far can you throw? How much can you lift? It all depends on a lot of factors, so comparisons between beekeepers are at best silly.

The second question: “How much honey can you (or did you) get per hive?” is a good one.

The answer will still depend on a lot of variables.


  • Weather (Rain? Drought?)
  • Temperature (Too hot, too cold?)
  • Hive placement (some locations look good, but turn out bad)
  • Hive moments (pollination can supply honey, but some plants produce little nectar)
  • Diseases
  • Pests
  • Pesticide exposure
  • Competition (a nice bee yard will take less if a lot of pollinating hives are dropped near-by)
  • How much honey one leaves for the bees (a very important question)

But it is nice to know the average in your area, and what other beekeepers are going though.


Eastern Washington State burned this year. Not just in the sense of burning hot temperature. It actually burned – for weeks. Rain has been scare there in the past few years (as with many places in the US and world-wide). This year was horrid. Wildflowers did not produce nectar – they need water for that. One commercial beekeeper I know found that over half of his hives did not have honey in them.

Think about your business. What affect would if have on your income if you could only produce half of what you create, be it widgets or proposals or bees or honey. To say the situation is troublesome is an understatement.


Western Washington did OK this year. When it’s “dry” here, that means we might get a few weeks of clear weather in between rainstorms. Which means that the drought’s effect in the northwest corner of the state was to produce a remarkably good honey harvest this year.

Washington State Map with Cascades highlighted

The range runs north-south (courtesy of


I have two friends, Ron Babcock and Pat Ray, who have been beekeepers in Western Washington State for over 20 years.

Beekeepers Ron and LaVonne Babcock, Arlington WA

Ron and LaVonne Babcock, Beekeepers

Beekeeper Pat Ray and some of his queen cells

Pat Ray holding queen cells he grafted







I asked each of them how much honey they figured they would get from a west Washington hive in an “average” year. Each one promptly said a study had shown the state average is 30 pounds of honey per hive.

Bear in mind that average is for the state of Washington. The majority of Washington’s honey is produced east of the Cascade Range, a drier area than our wet area lodged between the Salish Sea and the towering mountains.

Ron mused a bit on the 30-pounds-per-hive average, adding that could be used as a guide “ if it’s all letter perfect – but you can’t count on that. No diseases, no vandal knocking over your hives. It’s farming and dealing with Mother Nature…rain, contents of the soil, the temperature that some plants produce at and some don’t produce.”


Robert Niles, the editor of the Skagit Valley Beekeepers Association  newsletter ran a voluntary survey of members this year about how much honey they got (my hated question) and about how much per hive (the question I like.)

Skagit Valley is in the county just south of Whatcom County, where I live and keep bees. Skagit Valley is about 50 miles south of the Canadian border and stretches from Puget Sound to the high Cascade mountain range. It has agricultural areas, river valleys, cities, towns, and high mountains. The Association has beekeepers from a range of these areas.

Beekeeper Ray begins to put honey supers on Some of Bruce Bowen's hives

Pat Ray in Skagit Valley bee yard







Robert asked members to volunteer how much honey they harvested from their hives and how much honey they averaged per hive. All reporting would be anonymous.

A number of beekeepers supplied the answer to “How Much Honey Did You Get”. You know my view on this without knowing hive numbers, but here’s what Robert found: “the median [was] 35 pounds and the most common harvest reports being between 30-35 pounds of honey.”

Seven members supplied the more important question: “How Much Honey Per Hive”.

The lowest was 5 pounds-per-hive, the highest 62 pounds-per-hive.

“The average was just over 29 pounds per hive (with the outliers removed, the average still was close at 27 pounds per hive).” Robert reported in the newsletter. “The median being 25 pounds and with the sample being so small, the mode isn’t figured in.”

Chart Survey of honey per hive in Skagit Valley, WA 2014

Responses to SVBA’s Editor Robert Niles Honey-Per-Hive Question



I took an average of 18 pounds from each of my hives. This is an average: some hives delivered nearly 80 pounds of honey; some delivered none.   Often these were in the same bee yard – every hive is unique, some have better foragers, some decide to replace their queen or swarm in the middle of a honey flow (a good moment for them – lots of food; a lousy moment for the beekeeper – little honey for harvest).

I could have taken more, according to all “bee wisdom”, but I leave a lot of honey on my hives: 70 pounds for each full hive; 50 for smaller hives. We have some long winters here.

Snow covered bee hives at Brookfield Farm, Maple Falls, WA

Winter Bee Hives at Brookfield Farm









The smaller hives are often nucs that were started earlier in the year. By fall they have enough bees to over winter, but have often not put up enough stores. We do not see nectar in my area from October to March (that is if it does not rain throughout March).

The extra honey for these hives is pulled from the honey I’ve harvested for sale. I would rather harvest less, but give the bees real honey and not feed syrup (I do good syrup, but it’s not honey). Diseases can be passed between hives this way, but I am willing to take that risk to give a smaller hive honey for the winter instead of feed.

In the spring, I sometimes have to rearrange frames of honey because the bees have clustered in a manner that they are missing their stores, but at least it’s still honey.


The bees are still buzzing around, but there are few flowers in bloom here. The rains have arrived (always after October 13 for some reason). The hives are pretty much shut down for the winter.   Me? Well, I’ve got boxes and frames to make and stain. Frames to wire. Salves to make. As with most beekeepers in this area, the work never really ends, it just changes to inside work as we stare out at the hives and hope that all is well with the bees until we see them in the spring.

Bee hives at Brookfield Farm Bees and Honey, WA

Brookfield Farm Hives in the spring








That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees And Honey, in Maple Falls, Washington. How did

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