January 17th – Bees in a Manitoba Winter

How can you even keep bees alive in Canada? How do they survive the cold Manitoba winters? These are questions I often receive on social media from our friends in warmer climates.

Some of our hives sitting out in the first snowfall of the year.

It can get extremely cold here in Manitoba, this winter has been interesting to say the least, for the past 3+ weeks we have had many days with lows below -25C and windchill plummeting to -35C to -45C.

The Manitoba overwinter loss average is about 30-35%. Many beekeepers wrap their hives up with insulation, and cross their fingers all winter in hopes that they will make it through. I cross my fingers all winter as well, but I do things a little differently, I along with some other folks here in Manitoba, keep my bees indoors for the winter. This is not a new concept, bees have been wintered indoors and in cellars, for hundreds of year. But the techniques behind it have been greatly refined, with the rise in technology and ease of networking between beekeepers.

Our bees are heavily fed a sugar water solution going into winter, we want to ensure that they have enough feed to make it through 5.5 -6 months without any forage available. We feed them through pail-top feeders and they back-fill the entire brood nest with feed. Once fully fed they will weigh in at about 80-100lbs, most of this will be consumed before they see daylight again in spring. Once daytime high temperatures are consistently below 10C, we begin moving the bees indoors. This year we did it all in one night, shortly after the photo above was taken, the next day we received about 5 inches of snow, and I was glad not to be digging through snow to get the bees inside.

Hives stacked inside the wintering shed.

Once inside the shed the hives are stacked in rows to allow movement between the rows, and cleanup of spent bees. As the bees age they will leave the hive before they die, every once in a while I will walk the rows with a broom and sweep up the dead to keep things tidy. You can see some spent bees on the floor in the photo above.

A floor fan circulates the air for the time being until I find the time and cash to install ceiling fans. It is important to ensure there is air movement in the building to prevent layering of CO2, I have been told stories of folks who neglected air movement, and every single one of their hives at the bottom of the stack suffocated. I also have a small space heater set up for supplemental heating. Temperature, humidity, and CO2 levels are all monitored.

My preferred Levels are:
CO2: Under 2000ppm
Humidity: 50-60%
Temperature: 4C

Data Monitoring device, It was -29C out when this photo was taken, just prior to turning on supplemental heating

Bees produce a large amount of heat, to cool the shed we have a bathroom fan installed on a cool stat, It is set to draw outside air whenever tempatures rise above 6C. The shed is insulated and will maintain temperature using only the fans down to a low of -20C. As the days warm up in spring this fan will run continuously, and we are eventually forced to move the bees outside, hoping the warm weather will stay.

Anyone of any sized operation can set up an indoor facility, our first wintering shed was a 6’x8′ insulated garden shed, we wintered up to 32 colonies in there using a double nuc system, prior to converting a larger building.

Prior to deciding whether to winter indoors one should ensure their climate is right for the job, the most difficult part of wintering indoors is keeping the shed cool, our winters are great for this as we seldom see temperatures above freezing for about 4 months per year. If you see wild swings from negative to positive temperatures, indoor wintering is not an option you should consider.


July 25th, 2017 – Canola Flow

We have been having issues with our internet connection here at the farm and it now seems to be up and running. Those of you who follow us on Facebook and Instagram, have been getting our updates.

Over the past month, we have come through the main canola bloom, our hives are stacking tall and we are nearly ready for the second extraction. We pulled 18 supers or about 400 lbs of honey for those customers who had pre-ordered from us. The pre-order customers get first dibs the first harvest. We split our hives aggressively in spring and so that first harvest is usually quite small for us.

3 weeks ago many country roads looked like this, the canola bloom is now drying up.

Our next harvest, expected for next weekend should be more than 120 supers, 3-4000lbs is my expectation. We will be extracting this at a local beekeepers extracting facility instead of at home as we have in the past.

We picked up a wholesale contract with Beemaid this season and part of that contract is that our honey will be extracted at a CFIA certified honey house. Though we run a really clean operation, we have not yet been certified, this is the main project I will be focusing on over our 6 month winter. The Beemaid contract blows the door wide open, whatever we can produce they will take and market for us, the only thing holding us back from a rapid expansion is the lack of a facility to extract our own honey at home!

One of the obligations for having a contract is that a minimum of 5000 lbs must be delivered or the contract can be considered voided. I decided to join the waiting list to ensure that I had a shot at a contract for next season, when I expected to be ready for it. Several Beemaid members put in a good word for us, as they thought we would be a good fit for the Co-op. As chance would have it, we were chosen for a contract this season. This sent me scrambling to cover both my local obligation to the customers who have supported us over the last 5 years of growth and always had our back and also to hang onto the contract.

We got lucky, 5 miles from us a quarter section of canola has been reseeded, the fresh bloom began just as the bloom in our other locations began to dry off. We have moved the majority of our hives to this location and will get a double canola crop this season. The hives are stronger which means they will bring in plenty of honey over the next few weeks, which we could not have expected!


Back on the canola bloom! A reseeded field means a double canola honey crop for us this season! We were working on clearing grass and leveling hives in this new spot today.

We moved all the hives in through one evening and early morning, the hives were far too heavy to lift by hand, and I was borrowed a crane truck from my uncle to transport them. My uncle runs a monument company and the crane truck is used to transport and move heavy concrete and stone monuments. It was slow going and there were plenty of stings to go around, but my employee Miguel and I agreed that a double crop was worth 2 uncomfortable days of frustration. We got back to the yard today and leveled the hives, and added space to the ones that were ready for more room.

We like to get out and have fun too. This was our pick to win for the chuckwagon races at the Morris stampede this past weekend, can you guess why?

Very excited to see where we end up over the next few months!

June 24th – Double Nuc Growth Strategy

A little later than I thought I would be getting around to posting this but here it is.

After my last post, many folks have been asking about how I set up and manage my double nucs, for production. I will try to explain it below as clearly as possible, with photo illustrations. One thing to note, keeping multiple colonies in a single hive setup is not an original idea, I have borrowed much of what I do from the techniques of other successful beekeepers, modified to fit to my location, and management strategy. This strategy has been very successful for us, 5 years ago we bought our first 5 hives, we have never purchased another colony of bees since and I believe we are running in the neighborhood of 100 colonies this season! It works and you should try it!

It was raining out so I went into the equipment shed to take photos of the setup, there are no bees in the equipment, but not necessary for our purpose here.

Many were interested  in how I set up my bottom boards. As I am using queen cells in these nucs and mating queens, I have set up my bottom boards to have opposing entrances. Having opposing entrances helps keep mating queens from entering the incorrect nuc after flights, it also reduces drift within the double nuc keeping both colonies exiting their own entrance (for the most part) and supporting their own queen.

Double nuc bottom board with opposing entrances

The bottom board is made of plywood with 2×2 runners underneath to keep it up off the soil, and also easy to pick up.

The double nuc box itself is a regular deep super, without handles on the front or back. A 1/4″ divider is placed into the hive by cutting a 1/4″ wide by 3/8″ deep dado cut, down the center of your front and back panels on the super prior to assembly. Why 3/8″ deep? The frame rests on the front and back of the super are 3/8″ deep, in order to ensure there are no gaps for the queens to get through to the opposite chamber, you want to make sure your divider butts up against the back of the frame rest rather than the inside of the super.

The double nuc super is a regular super without handles on the front or back and a 1/4″ divider down the center

It is very important that the divider is a perfect fit, any gaps, top or bottom or by the frame rests with allow the queens to cross over and render the boxes useless for the double nuc setup.

Through trial and error I have learned that 1/4″ is the best width for the divider, I tried 3/8″ and the frames just sat too tight in the boxes, that extra 1/8″ makes a big difference! I have also noticed that the bees build far less propolis on the frame sidebars of plastic frames. I try to have 3 out of 5 frames in each double nuc side plastic to allow room when pulling frames for inspection, a rolled queen means alot of work wasted.

using plastic frames allows room for frame movement when bees propolize the frames together

My splits are made up with 2 frames of bees and brood and a frame of pollen and honey  for each side of the double nuc box, one can either add a queen cell or a mated queen. With a mated queen I have made up splits with only one frame of brood quite successfully.

Nucs are made up, 2 frames of brood and 1 frame of pollen and honey

You will then close up the hive with 2 separate inner covers, one for each side, I make these simple as they are only on the hive for a few weeks a year. a piece of 5/8″ plywood with a 2″ pail feeder plug. You will want to keep the populations of the 2 hives separated until the queens on both sides have established their nests and filled their side with pheromones. Having these 2 covers allows you to open one side without worry of a queen crossing over from the other while you work.

Having separate inner covers allows you to work in one side without disturbing the other.

Once the flow begins you will pull off the inner covers and insert a queen excluder to keep the queens separated, but allow the hive populations to mingle and work together to store honey above the 2 brood nests. Metal Queen excluders must be placed upside down with the bars runneing parallel to the divider and touching the entire length, otherwise the queen can squeeze under it (I give them a slight bend in the middle to be sure). In my opinion plastic queen excluders are garbage, they warp and don’t lay flat, stay away from these if you want to run 2 colonies in a single box.

Queen excluders are set upside-down to prevent the queens from crossing over the middle divider

You can then run them like a single deep production hive for the rest of the season.

Honey supers are placed above the 2 colonies to be filled

In fall when feeding begins, leave the excluder on the hive and use a regular migratory top or inner cover to feed both colonies with a pail feeder. To winter them in a single you will need them to completely back-fill the brood nest, we feed 5-6 gallons of 2:1 syup in the fall to each double nuc, this is plenty to get them through 5-6 months of winter in the bee shed.

Both colonies are fed in fall with a single hive top pail feeder

If you found this post useful or interesting feel free to let me know and share it with your beekeeping friends on social media!

June 4th – Splitting to Nucs

This past Tuesday we ran into some problems with our first graft, we had an early hatch in the queen cell finisher and lost half of our queen cells. When a virgin queen hatches she goes around the hives and tears down all the other existing cells to claim the hive for herself. Usually there is only one queen per colony, and this is just how nature works, timing is everything when making queens.

hatched and torn queen cells still on the finisher cell bar

So on Wednesday I started again! Many folk get discouraged rather than learning from experiences and pushing past errors and obstacles. If you want to be successful in livestock management you have to accept failures and try again. You don’t become successful by feeling sorry for yourself and not pushing ahead.

Lucky for me, I am afforded a flexible schedule at work and could take Friday off with relatively short notice. One of my beekeeping neighbors, about a 45 minute drive away had 30 cells he made available to me. I picked them up and put in 12 hours of bee work during the day. It was sweltering…. 36C was the high for the day, much warmer under a bee suit!

My splitting technique uses what folks call double nuc colonies, two 5 frame nucs in a regular deep box, I set them up to have opposite facing entrances so the queens don’t accidentally end up in the same hive after mating flights.

A regular deep brood box, split by a 1/4 inch divider will house to production nucs for the remainder of the season and through winter.

I run these double nucs straight through the flow and pull 60-100 lbs of honey off them. They also winter in this setup, sharing heat, improves survival, also if one side fails the other side just becomes a strong nuc.

when splitting I like to use 2 frames of bees and brood and one frame of honey/nectar per new colony. The queen cell is pressed into one of the brood frames to hatch out in the new hive.

The queen cell is pressed into one of the brood frames to hatch out in the new colony

The new hive is then covered with 2 separate inner covers, to keep the colonies from mixing while the queens are bred and the hive builds up in strength. If feed frames are in short supply I have feeder holes drilled in them and a removable plastic plug to use feeder pails.

Within the next 15 days these hives should all have a mated queen and be ready to produce a small honey crop for me to pay their own way.

I have used this technique successfully over the past 4 seasons, and am somewhat proud to be able to say, the 5 original hives I purchased my first year, are the only colonies I have ever purchased. We have split using the double nuc system and this year should have between 125-150 colonies if things go smoothly going forward… This is how you keep bees successfully, make bees and buy equipment, bees can die overnight and will be a complete investment loss if purchased, your equipment will always hold value.

Lets go back to when I said I started again on Wednesday, Several things I changed this time around, I primed the cells with a small amount of water to keep the fresh brood moist and help it float off the grafting pen easier. I also made my cell builder much stronger and congested this time. I took a strong double deep hive and shook all the bees down into a single box, then I shook another 5 frames of nurse bees into the hive, from another strong hive in my yard. You want the bees to plow all of their energy into making excellent queens, the more nurse bees are in the hive, the more the cells will be cared for.

My cell builder colony, during mid day heat. it is more full than it looks in photos

My queen cell frames hold 48 cells on 3 bars. These cells are covered in nurse bees, a good sign!

I had an 80% graft acceptance rate on this run, and they all look amazing! Here are the cells as a result of the changes I made, are they not the most beautiful things you have ever seen?!?

Absolutely gorgeous queen cells, these will make large strong healthy queens!

Lets see if I can get the timing right this time!

May 28th – More Equipment, Split Prep

This past week I rented a trailer to pick up 120 drawn comb supers I had ordered earlier this year. This is a big jump for me as I am now set up to run 150 to 200 colonies, from the 63 we ran at the peak of last season.

These supers though in used condition still have some life left in them, the prior owner wax dipped them before selling, which adds life and value to the equipment.

I have visited the facilities of several producers which run more than 1000 colonies over the past 4 years, and always am in awe of what they have accomplished. This was the largest facility I have been to yet.

Thousands of supers stacked high are just one indication of the passion for beekeeping held by this family run operation

Upon finishing loading the “new to me” honey supers, I was offered a tour of the facility. I know that I need to build something that will pass CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) certification to extract my own product which can be sold at a retail or wholesale level. (I am repeatedly nagged about my progress on this by beekeepers that follow this blog, it is good to know i have their support, and they push me to be the best I can be.) This was a real treat to me, this particular beekeeper also runs a wax rendering facility, which was very interesting to see. I received many ideas, and suggestions for my future facility.

One of the things that makes me proud to be a beekeeper, is the hospitality and, for the most part respect that beekeepers afford one another. We got to talking bees for the next couple hours, and I was invited in to share lunch with the family, after a long drive in, it was not necessary but very much appreciated. I like to invite visiting beekeepers in for a meal or drink as well, and it is nice to see others share that same sense of hospitality. As a Mennonite it is a given, that when you care for someones well-being, you show it by feeding them! 

Another thing that was great to see was even in success, these commercial beekeepers still have that same passion for keeping bees that I currently have. They have poured everything into the well-being of the livestock, and in turn the bees have afforded them a living. Testing and treating for diseases, and monitoring bee health is at the top of the list for nearly every successful beekeeper I know. Healthy bees, make more honey, more honey means more money! It just makes sense to put the health of your bees before profits, because profits follow healthy bees.

The rainy weather has kept me out of the hives for a few days this week, but I was able to get into the hives and ready them for Tuesday’s split. Bees are shaken off the frames of the second brood box into the bottom box, and then a queen excluder is placed between the two. We wish to prevent the existing queen from being on the frames which we will be moving out into the splits.

By shaking down the bees below the excluder, we ensure the queen is in the bottom box, also the nurse bees, which are young and have not yet left the hive will move back up onto the separated brood. These bees will remain on the frames to take care of the new colony when split. Doing this all before the split, I can feel comfortable focusing on only the amount of brood needed and food stores for the new split hives on Tuesday, knowing which boxes have surplus brood, and that I have enough brood available for the splits i have planned. The queen meanwhile will continue laying in the bottom box as if nothing happened, these split colonies should not swarm, and will make a healthy crop of honey for me this season.

Next week I will share info about the split, the equipment I use and my plan for these new hives, hopefully I can get some good photos to help understand the process.

May 20, 2017 – Grafting Queens

Today was grafting day! To stimulate the bees to create queens which are easy to move to new hives, we use a process called grafting. This is the first year that I will be relying completely on our own queen rearing success to attempt a target of 150 colonies going into winter. I have played around with it on a small scale in past years, but did not trust myself to be successful on a large scale. The budget made the decision this season, and I am feeling it is for the best.

Grafting queens

The trick is to pick a strong hive with the traits you want to see in your daughter colonies, the hive I chose overwintered with plenty of stores, low mite counts, no symptoms of brood disease, and was one of the quickest to build up this spring. This brood pattern was the deciding factor:

Wall to wall capped brood make strong colonies!

I use a Chinese grafting tool and JZBZ queen cups to graft into. I like the Chinese tool because it has a plunger on it which allows you to gently slide the larva off the tip and into the cell cup.

The youngest larva will be on the outside edges of the brood frame, I try to pick a frame nearly the full of open brood, which also has eggs on the outside edges. This way it is easier to pick the youngest larva for grafting, the goal is to graft larva that are 1 day old. Grafting larva is a bit of an art-form, once you have the technique you can graft quite quickly while still doing a quality job of it, no need to rush, it is the quality ones that will be accepted by the hive and made into queens. I graft in the passenger seat of my truck. I find grafting from a frame that has the top bar on the side closest to your body positions the cells for more successful grafts, with the chines tool you want to insert the tip along the wall of the cell and once you have the tool all the way in the cell and the plastic tip is under the larva, tilt and pull the larva out of the cell, then used the plunger to gently place it into the queen cup. It is hard to explain in words, but once you have the technique you will be successful at it nearly every try.

I ended up making 48 grafts, which is one frame full, 3 bars with 16 cells per bar. Hopefully there will be high acceptance, as the hives are beginning to boom, and will need to be split in the next couple weeks for sure. I want my bees in boxes not swarming into the trees!


May 5, 2017 – Expanding Brood Nests

The extended period of warm weather has allowed the hives to really expand the brood nests. We have added a second brood box to nearly 75% of the hives to allow them more room to expand.

A hive inspected from the bottom, ready for more space

I add a second brood box to hives once they have at least 8 frames covered in bees, when inspected from the bottom. Top inspections tend to be misleading, I have found that what appears as 8 frames from the top is only 5 frames of bees from the bottom.

I add the additional brood box underneath the existing colony. The idea with this is that the bees will work and prepare the cells for the queen more quickly as they have to pass through the empty box to get up to the existing brood nest with each load of honey and pollen. Also, the bees often build a thick barrier of honey at the top of the brood nest. The queen often doesn’t cross this honey barrier, as she is looking for open cells in her existing brood nest. In my experience, adding the second brood box to the bottom speeds up the brood nest expansion by at least a few days, and I would advise it to anyone wanting to expand quickly for splits, it does involve additional lifting though.

stacks of new equipment ready for paint or wax dipping

We have a bunch of new equipment that we built during the winter, which needs to be painted or wax dipped to protect it from the elements. I have been painting everything thus far but am leaning towards getting this fresh stuff dipped, I have been hearing good things about it, and painting is quite time consuming.

I was going to talk about queen rearing this week, but am still working things out with how I will be setting up my mating nucs, my first round of splits will get a queen cell, but I also plan to use mini mating nucs to be able to add mated queens to freshly made hives in June. This is a new adventure for us, but purchasing queens no longer fits in our budget so we are forced into making our own for our current year expansion. Not that this is a bad thing, as I really believe locally mated queens are better to use than imported.

04/29/2017 – Spring Prep and Odd Jobs

The winds began from the north this morning, and through the course of the afternoon shifted to bring up some warm southern air. Over the past week, I have been working on odd jobs and spring prep here on the farm.

I had planned to get in some bee work today, but I ended up running all over town trying to find items that were no longer available. It is really frustrating to waste weekend time, but this is something you deal with in country life, a trip to town means at least an hour of your day is gone. For those curious it was an insulator fastener for cattle fencing, we used to use them on all our steel fence poles when dad was farming beef, but I guess somewhere along the line they stopped making them available.

The fastener that wasted my day!

Some items that will carry into next week are, cleaning equipment, melting wax, and fixing equipment.

The bees tend to fill comb and propolis into the queen excluder by years end, I will melt it off to give them a clean slate for the current year

I spent the majority of my time at home today working organizing the shed and garage, shifting from winter garage, to summer (knock on wood). I got side tracked and began a working on a project that has been sitting on the to do list for a few years. With my garden tractor I received a pull behind tiller with a blown independent motor. Last year our walk behind tiller gave up but the engine still runs decent, so I have now decided I will try installing it on the tractor tiller. I had originally planned to buy a new motor for it, but anyone who lives in the country knows the money runs out before the projects do. I purchased a few parts for this mid 70s motor off of Jacks Small Engines website. What a good resource, showing all parts available for nearly any small engine, and any aftermarket replacements. Shipping to Canada was steep as it always is but I sent it to the depot in Walhalla, ND for 1/3 of the price.

The mid 70s Briggs Motor I am switching onto my tractor tiller. New air and fuel filter are on the way.

Here a sneak preview on what I expect next weekends blog post will be about:

Mini queen mating nucs


April 22, 2017 – Drawn Comb or Foundation?

I received a question this past week from a new beekeeper asking if he should buy drawn comb to begin his beekeeping adventure, or if he should just drop the bees on foundation?

I have heard and read many stories of how new beekeepers drop their new bee colony onto all fresh foundation and come back a few days later to find that their expensive investment has disappeared, absconded, gone with the wind. This is not to say it doesn’t work, only that risk is increased using this method.

I use drawn comb to start my bees on, and I advise new beekeepers to do the same for at least their brood boxes. Having drawn comb available to the new package, will prompt the queen to begin laying quickly. When there is eggs and brood in a hive it gives the bees something to work for, and they will make it a home.  Your package of bees will already be dealing with it’s fair share of stresses, and one of the largest concern with package bees is they sometimes dwindle quickly. By providing your new bees with comb, you eliminate the waiting period for the queen to start laying while the hive attempts to build comb. I strongly suggest buying a local hive or nuc instead of a package if you are just starting out. Building comb when there is not a honey flow on is not an easy task for the bees, it takes 8 lbs of honey for the hive to draw out one frame of comb.

Top: Very old Brood Frame which needs to be culled Bottom: Fresh comb built last season which has never been laid in

As mentioned in last weeks post, it is a good idea to have a plan in place to rotate out old equipment. In the past few years, I have been running 10 frames in my honey supers and each super was given 4 new frames for the bees to fill out, this was both to introduce new frames into my operation and also because I did not have enough drawn comb. This year I will be switching to 9 frames in each honey super, I will put 2 new frames in each super. I am also adding 2 new frames to the second brood box on each colony. Mark your frames with the year to track them. If you switch out 2 frames per year, your operation will have very few frames older than 5 years.

My second brood boxes have 2 frames of foundation each which the bees will fill out fairly quickly.

I appreciate questions which will allow me to fill space and educate in weeks like this last one, where there is not much excitement to blog about. Any questions you have feel free to message us on Facebook, or email us and I will do my best to help you get the answers you seek.

Not much has happened on the farm over the past week, just checking on the hives to make sure they have enough feed and pollen. Added another half pound of pollen substitute to most of the hives, that should get them through the cold forecast for the next 5 days, which will keep them from foraging on the natural pollen the trees are providing.

April 16, 2017 – Spring Management

Another interesting week…. We had wonderful weather until today when we had some snow coming down. I can’t complain too much, thinking back to the draining springs we have had for the past few years. Overnight temperatures are remaining at or above freezing for April thus far, which is good for the bees while they build up their nests.

The hives have all taken down another pound of bee pro dry pollen substitute and also a pound of 10% pollen patties inside the hive. I opened them all up to assess the stores on Saturday afternoon, many of them required an additional pound of pollen patty. They were very calm and I was able to open and work them without gloves without any stings, a luxury that is not common, as often due to my day job I am working the hives later in the evening, when they become more defensive.

It is interesting to see their feeding pattern as the size of the nest can somewhat be determined by how many frames they are feeding on the patty from.

Many of the hives look as though they will be needing additional space towards the end of next week, weather permitting but some will need an additional 2 weeks after that. The first round of spring brood is now hatching which should help bolster the hive populations and health.

I have also been preparing the additional brood boxes with 2 new frames of foundation for the bees to build out. They are marked with the year and “B” for brood comb. I have been buying in a lot of frames from other beekeepers as I expand my operation, my plan is to rotate these frames out of my operation eventually. Ideally frames would only reach an age of 5 years before being rotated out for fresh comb. Replacing 2 frames from each super is a good management practice and doesn’t slow up production much at all.

We have one hive that I found to be queen-less on inspection today, rather than waste precious time trying to save a doomed hive this early in spring, I shook out the remaining bees in front of a weak hive, and after finding no sign of virus on the frames, will use the honey frames to help the other hives make it to the dandelion flow.