Overwinter Config

~ Wandering Creek Acres ~

Before you start your hive autopsies, you should first take some time to list how you prepared your hives in the fall for winter.  After each autopsy you can review that configuration and determine how you can make it better for the following year.

Here are my 8 hives that entered the new year alive.

Each was prepared for winter as follows:

Excel - winter config

As an experiment (ok, I’m an engineer and engineers love experiments), I overwintered 3 Nucs to see if I would have greater success in overwintering smaller colonies.

The five hives marked in red died before we reached April; 3/5ths of the 10-frame hives and 2/3rds of the Nucs. (60% and 67%, respectively). So not much of a difference.

Now that I have listed how each hive was winterized, I can easily review the autopsy results as I perform each autopsy and determine how I can improve on my overwintering plan for the coming winter.

As you can see from my overwintering plan for this last year, I do not wrap, how about you?  Do you find that wrapping helps your hives survive the winter?

~ May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places!

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Spring Hive Autopsy

Before you begin an autopsy, you first need to determine what to look for. The things that I look for are:

  1. Size of the cluster when it died
  2. Evidence of moisture in the hive
  3. Evidence of Varroa mites
  4. Evidence of Varroa feces in the cells
  5. Evidence of Dysentery
  6. Evidence of deformed wing virus
  7. The amount of honey stores remaining
  8. Evidence of pests living in the hive

Q1: What is the size of the cluster when it died?

As winter continues, the colony within a hive naturally declines in size. The smaller the colony gets, the more difficult it gets for the colony to keep warm, sometimes reaching the point that it can no longer survive.

In the pictures below, the clusters are too small to survive a cold spell.

Q2: Is there evidence of moisture in the hive?

Moisture in the hive causes bees to become chilled during the winter and chilled bees die.  Moisture in the hive can be caused by 1) the bees themselves, they are living creatures that generate heat and this warm moist air in the hive hits the top and condenses, raining water upon the bees. 2) water pooling up at the bottom, keeping the hive damp, and 3) snow and rain entering the hives.

In these pictures you can see that water has pooled in the bottom tray, that there is snow in with the dead bees and that the wax cappings have started to mold. All evidence that there is moisture in the hive and probably was throughout the winter.

Q3: Is there evidence of Varroa mites?

Excessive amounts of Varroa mites on the bottom board means that your bees had excessive amounts of mites on them. This would have weaken the bees and throughout the winter they sicken and die.

The brown specs in the first picture are the varroa mites that have fallen off the bees.  In 2 of the pictures, I magnified the picture and then circled every varroa mite that I found.  The bottom picture is a close up of varroa, unfortunately a little blurry.

Q4: Is there evidence of Varroa feces in the cells

If you are unable to inspect the fallout of your hive, you can look within the empty cells to see if there is varroa feces lining the walls.  This will appear as white specs on the insides of the cells.

4 varroa feces

Q5: Is there evidence of dysentery?

Dysentery is a sign that the bees are sick. During the winter months bees hold all waste within their bodies, they do not defecate within the hive. On a warm day, when the bees are able to take flight, they will leave the hive to relieve themselves and then return before they become too chilled. When they have dysentery it is evident through brown streaks and spots on the hive and snow.

Dysentery is a sign of a virus passed on from the Varroa mite. This virus makes the bees weak and die.

Q6: Are the bee’s wings deformed?

Deformed wings are caused by a virus that is transmitted to the honeybee by the Varroa mite.

I do not have a picture of this since I’ve only seen this one time during my first year as a beekeeper. Here’s a few pictures of what healthy wings on bees look like:

Q7: How much honey remains?

A warmer than normal winter can cause bees to go through their honey stores quicker than the beekeeper plans.  Also, cold can cause the tight cluster to be unable to move to reach more honey stores.

During inspection of the honey stores, I also take note of where the final cluster was found in relation to these stores.  The 2 frames that are stacked on top of each other, were position in the hive in this way, one on top of the other.  As you can see the small cluster was just below a frame of honey, but there was a small gap between the bees and the honey. The bees did not realize there was honey above. The picture on the right and the bottom shows that the bees had made it to the top of the honey stores, even placing a sugar block above them didn’t help them survive.

Q8: Did pests take up residence and eat the honey and bees? 

Mice is the one pest that I worry about entering my hives in the fall and then living off of the bees and honey frames during the winter. I do not have pictures of this, since I’ve never had mice in my  hives.  I take care to add a mouse guard in the fall to keep them out.

Autopsy conclusion:

Once I have determined the answered for the questions above and take into account the state of the colony/hive when it entered winter, only then can I determine which of the following may have caused the demise of the hive:

  1. Starved bees….. lack of winter stores due to being too cold to move around OR too mild of a winter and the bees ran out of stores.
  2. Moisture in the hive.. may have caused the bees to die.
  3. Varroa mites… possibly sickening and weakening the bees.
  4. Pests….  eating the bees honey stores and causing a decline in bees.
  5. Fall colony too small to survive winter.

What’s Next:

Using this information I can create a plan for the fall, which will hopefully give my colonies a better chance of surviving this coming winter.

I hope this helps you with your hive autopsies. Over the next few weeks I will post the autopsies from 5 of my dead outs and finish with a post detailing my plan for winterizing my hives this coming fall.

Would love to hear how your bees did this winter… please share.

~ May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places!

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Spring Inspection

Early in the year, when the weather permits, it is time to assess which hives survived winter.  For those that did not make it through the long winter, a hive autopsy should be performed to see what you can learn from what remains.

Last fall, I had ten colonies being prepared for winter, 7 in my Carniolan apiary (picture on left) and 3 in my Italian apiary (picture on the right).

Before we even reached December only eight remained. My Italians struggled all summer long, re-queening and one succumbing to laying workers. It was a struggle keeping them alive.  My Carniolan apiary was the opposite, I captured 2 swarms near them and was able to make 3 hives from one that was attempting to swarm.

However, by mid February, 3 more had perished, leaving us with 5.  We are now sitting at the end of March with only 3 hives remaining.  During each of the last 2 cold spells I have lost one additional hive.

Now is the time to perform autopsies on these hives, to see what I can learn from them, and determine what I could have done differently for next year.

Follow me on this journey and learn about hive autopsies and what signs to look for.

~ May all your wandering take you to may wonderful places!

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How to inspect a honey bee package

I remember my first bee order.  I was excited and watched and read everything I could about installing bees into my hive.  The one thing that I never even thought about was if the bees I would pick up were healthy. It wasn’t until I was on my way to pick them up that I started to wonder about what a healthy package should look like.  I wasn’t really sure if I would be able to tell.

As I walked into the room with hundreds of boxes stacked on top of each other, the only thing I could think of, was that I wanted one with lots of bees and one with the screen secure and not leaking bees.

Here are the two packages that I chose:

Bee Package

Each package consisted of a screened wooden box, 1 can of sugar syrup, 1 queen cage with a mated queen, 3# of bees and a wooden lid.  The amount of honey bees is dependent on what is ordered,  typically it’s 2 or 3 pounds of bees.

There’s a few things you should look for, when you get your package, before you pay. Once you pay, they are yours, even if they die within the week.  It is assumed that once they leave the beekeepers property it is in your hands to keep them alive and healthy:

  1. Bees should be in a cluster, as seen in the picture above.
  2. A few dead bees on the bottom is ok – you don’t want the package if there is a thick layer of dead bees on the bottom.
  3. There should be more workers (female bees) than drones (male bees) – drones are just a drain on resources. Drones do no work within the hive and they feed on stored honey or get the nurse bees to feed them.
  4. The screen on the box should be secure on all sides – bees flying around in your car is not always appreciated by your passengers.
  5. Bees should not appear swollen – swollen bees can be an indication that you have sick bees.

Once you have picked up your bees you should immediately install your bees into their new hive.  If you can’t:

  1. Store them in a cool place
  2. If weather is hot you can use a fan to lightly blow air through and around the cage – a sign of them being too hot is that they will no longer be in a cluster.
  3. If too hot, you can mist with water or a weak sugar solution on the screen to help cool them off.

I hope this helps you to choose the right package.

~May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places.



Egg to Bee

Not all honey bee eggs are created equal.  Did you know that the length of time it takes a bee to hatch is dependent on whether it is a worker, drone or a queen?

A queen will hatch in 16 days, a worker in 21 and a drone in 24 days.

Egg life 2

Honey bee eggs are very tiny and look like tiny grains of rice.  At only 1mm in length, they are very difficult to see. The best way to see the eggs during an inspection is to lift the frame up and have the sun shine over your shoulder and into the cells.


After 3 days in the egg stage the egg will hatch into a larva.  The pictures below show larva at different ages.


Once the larva reach the right stage, as determined by the nurse bees, the larva will be capped. Below the nurse bees have begun to cap the larva as noted by the rough edges on the cell.

Larvae being capped

In the picture below, the flat capped brood are worker bees and the bullet shaped cells are drones.  Drone cells are normally found along the edge of the  brood pattern.  The picture on the right is a capped queen cell. The bees build a nice big cell for the queen to fit in.

CappedQueen cell

These pupa shown below are drones which were accidentally ripped out of their cells during a hive inspection.  The bees had created burr comb between the upper and lower box, and when frames were removed the cells were ripped apart.


Once the bees are ready to be hatched, they will eat their way out of the cell. Here are two bees being hatched, one is almost all the way out of its cell, while the other is still deep in its cell, but has removed most of the cap that covers it.


Being able to observe bees in all states of development is a wonderful thing.

~ May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places.



Bee biology 101

A hive is made up of both female and male bees. There is a queen bee (female), worker bees (female) and drones (male).

Can you pick out the queen and the 3 obvious drones from the sea of worker bees in the picture below?


There is normally only 1 queen in a hive. On rare occasions 2 queens can be found, perhaps they give off similar pheromones or they both just hatched. I have never seen more than one queen in my hives.

The queen is produced from a fertilized egg.  The cell in which the queen is raised is much larger than all other cells, for she needs the room to grow.  The purpose of the queen is to lay eggs, to produce more bees with the goal to increase the population of the hive so they can forage for food and nectar. The food and nectar is used to feed the larvae and to store for winter.

The queen lives 3-5 years and will only leave the hive during her mating flights, in the 1st 1-2 weeks of her life, and then again only if the hive decides to swarm.

Here’s the queen magnified and a few tips for identifying her:

  • Large thorax
  • Long pointed abdomen
  • Short wings compared to her size
  • Long legs


There are thousands, up to 10s of thousands of worker bees in a hive.  Since all worker bees are female, they are produced from fertilized eggs, like the queen.  What determines whether an egg develops into a queen vs a worker bee is the food that the nurse bees (worker bees of a certain age) feed them.  Queen bees are fed only royal jelly where worker bees are fed royal jelly during the early stages of development and then a watered down version for the remainder of the time. This change in quality of food causes the worker bees to develop sexually immature and they wont, most of the time, be able to lay eggs like the queen does.

Worker bees do all the work in the hive, they attend to the queen, they attend to the larvae, cleanout the cells in preparation for new eggs, and ultimately mature to the level where they become guard bees and then foragers.  A worker bee typically lives 40 plus days during the summer and lives for months over the winter.

Here’s some of the worker bees magnified and a few tips for identifying them:

  • Smallest of the 3
  • Thousands of them in a colony

Worker Bees

During the summer there can be 100s of drones in a hive, during the winter there is zero to a very few.  Drones have only one purpose, to mate with unfertilized queens.  Therefore they are not needed during the winter and the worker bees kick them out in the fall to die.

The drone is produced from an unfertilized egg.  He can drift from hive to hive, where he enters for food and warmth.

Drones live approximately 90 days, or until they mate with a queen. Once they mate with a queen they die.

Here is a drone magnified and a few tips for identifying them:

  • Bigger than a worker bee
  • Stout body
  • Very big eyes
  • Large head


Now let’s look back at that original picture… here the queen is circled in red, the drones circled in blue, and all around them are the worker bees.

Bee biology

The next time you enter your hives, I hope that this will help you to distinguish between the queen, drones and workers.

~ May all your wandering taking you to many wonderful places.

Carniolans, Italians, Russians

Trying to figure out what type of bees you would like in your apiary?

I did some research before I started beekeeping, so I knew that I wanted to start with either Carniolan or Italian bees.  However, finding bees for sale in my area was a challenge.  I ultimately found a person that was giving both 1st time beekeeper lessons and selling bees.  I was pleased that I could get instruction and purchase bees from the same person.  However I did not have a choice of bee breeds, only Italian.  Italians are a nice breed for first time beekeepers. .

The following year I wanted to try a couple of Nuc hives and was able to get Carniolans.  The Carniolans nucs had queens that were born the year before from Illinois overwintered queens.  I like the idea of getting a queen from stock that can withstand our northern IL/southern WI winters. I too would like to someday overwinter a dozen or so nuc hives for selling in the spring, providing local beekeepers with bees that are raised and overwintered in our cold northern Illinois weather.

Now that I have some experience with both Italian and Carniolan bees, I wanted to spend some time discussing the pros and cons of the Italian, the Carniolan and the Russian honey bee. (I threw in the Russian honey bee since it is available in Wisconsin and someday I might want to consider buying a few hives)

Italian Honey Bee


  • (Apis Mellifera Liguistica)
  • Light golden color
  • Originated from Italy, brought to the US in the mid-1800s by Rev. Langstroth.


  • Gentle, easy to work with
  • Great foragers
  • Longer proboscis (tongue)
  • Tend to keep a high number of workers throughout the summer
  • Less susceptible to European Foulbrood
  • Don’t propolize heavily- My carniolans propolize much more than my Italians.
  • Don’t swarm as much as other types


  • Prone to robbing
  • Can be slow to build in spring
  • Maintain a large brood area and worker population regardless of environmental conditions – risk of early winter starvation
  • Orient by color, so they can drift from hive to hive, leading to low populations in some hives & also spread diseases among hives.


  • Mine have struggled to stay alive. One year I started with 2 Italians vs 2 Carniolans, by fall I had 1 Italian and 7 Carniolans, using the same management techniques. This may have just been due to where the bees came from.
  • Overall, I think this is a good starter bee. They don’t tend to swarm the 1st year, so it’s easier to learn what’s happening in the hive vs. trying to learn and managing swarming tendencies at the same time.

Carniolan Honey Bee


  • (Apis Mellifera Carnica)
  • Dark brown to black in color
  • Originated from northern Europe


  • Good at defending against pests while being gentle to beekeepers
  • Great foragers, will fly on colder temperatures, earlier in AM, later in PM & on cool, wet days
  • Good at building/breaking down workers depending on availability of nectar/pollen
  • Less susceptible to brood pathogens
  • Low use of propolis – I have NOT seen this with my Carniolan bees
  • Workers live up to 12% longer than other breeds
  • Not prone to robbing, so diseases spread more slowly in a Carniolan apiary.
  • Good for populated areas
  • Able to overwinter in smaller numbers


  • More prone to swarming if overcrowded, even in 1st year.
  • Lower ability to thrive in hot summer temps
  • Slow to build up in spring


  • Mine created a lot of propolis, sticking everything together.
  • Aggressive but don’t have a tendency to sting.
  • Swarmed the 1st year I installed as Nucs.
  • I found them harder to manage than my Italians, due to their swarming tendency and how fast they would build up and get overcrowded. I was able to create a total of 7 hives from purchasing 2 Nucs.

Russian Honey Bee


  • (Apis Mellifera fd)
  • Dark brown to black in color
  • Originated in the Primorsky Krai region of Russia (eastern Russia)
  • Imported into the US in 1997 by the USDA’s Honeybee Breeding, Genetics & Physiology Lab in Baton Rouge, Louisiana


  • Do not build populations until pollen is available
  • Able to shut down brood rearing when pollen/nectar is scarce
  • Able to quickly increase brood rearing when pollen/nectar is plentiful.
  • Tend to be resistant to varroa and tracheal mites
  • Maintain active queen cells throughout the brood rearing season – Workers destroy extra queen cells


  • Expensive
  • Hard to find (Sweet Mountain Farm in WI sells them)
  • Smell different than Italian bees, thus more difficult to requeen Italians with a Russian queen.
  • Takes 36 days from the time a queen starts as an egg to the time she starts laying.
  • Hard to locate queen within the hive.


  • I have no personal experience with Russian honey bees

~ May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places!

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DIY Sugar Block Recipe

I checked on my bees today and they are doing great. I’m not sure if my 1 Italian hive has any occupants anymore, I did not hear anything or see any bees near the entrances of the hive.  My 7 Carniolan hives are doing very well.  6 of the 7 are noisy when I listen to them using my stethoscope, but I have 1 hive that is very weak.  I made sure all hives had ample sugar stores, since it will be a couple of weeks before I will be able to take a peak.  We are due for about a week with lows near zero.

Here’s my recipe for making Sugar blocks.


  • 4# of sugar
  • 6 oz of water
  • Few drops of essential oils
    • Lemon grass – mimics the Pheromone scent
    • Spearmint
    • Wintergreen – helps control tracheal mites
    • Tea tree oil


  1. Measure water and mix in essential oils.
  2. Add water to sugar and mix until combined
  3. Using small aluminum pans, divide sugar and pat down.
  4. Place in 250 degrees F oven for 20 min or so.  You just want the sugar partially melted.  Since ovens vary, keep an eye on your sugar so it doesn’t brown.
  5. Remove and let cool.
  6. Use or store until use. – Keep in a sealed container, away from mice.

I place these blocks directly on top of the top frames, with a shim or upside down candy board sitting above to give it the space it needs to be able to close the top securely.

Do you have a recipe that works well for you?  I would love to hear about it.

~ May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places

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Have my bees run out of winter stores?

Being in northern Illinois/ southern Wisconsin, late January or early February is the time to start thinking about this.

I dislike the thought that my bees would make it into the new year only to die of starvation before spring arrives.

Here’s a frame showing what is left of bees that starved and the bottom board with all the bees that fell to the bottom of the hive.  This was a sad sight during my spring hive inspections last year.


Pile of dead bees

A few weeks ago, on a warmish calm day, I took a peak into my hives.  Only lifting the top, a couple of inches along the back edge, to see if the bees had been eating the sugar blocks that I had placed on the top frames in late fall. I found one hive with a softball size area of bees, but sadly they were nowhere near the block of sugar.  I took my hive tool and gently moved the sugar block directly over the bees.

When we have a nice day in February, I will peak in again to see if they need more sugar. Knowing that as time moves closer into spring, prior to any nectar flow, more of my hives will be in need of a sugar block to survive.  Therefore, I am in the process of making a couple of sugar blocks a week.

Two blocks

There are many recipes out there for making sugar blocks where you stir 25# of hot, near boiling melted sugar on the stove.  This does not sound like a good idea to me, so I’ve been searching and experimenting with no cook recipes. However, the problem with recipes that instruct you to mix the water and essential oils into the sugar, pat down into a pan and let dry, is that if they do ever dry they don’t hold their shape.  Then, if you stack them, the ones at the bottom crumble.  At least this is my experience.


While making one of these recipes, I had placed the sugar blocks into my warm oven, which was at 170 degrees, to dry.  My oven must not be very accurate, since it partially melted the sugar in the pan.  (Sugar melts at 185 degrees F).

The partial melting of the sugar held the complete block together when the sugar block cooled. So far I have made 4 blocks with this method, and I have 3 more sitting in my oven now.

Four blocks

Check back later this week for the DIY Sugar Block recipe.

~ May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places.

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DIY hive stand

You can use almost anything as a bee hive stand, as long as it is stable and can handle the weight of multiple hives, such as a pallet, an old coffee table, cinder blocks or something homemade.

In the picture to the left above we are using cinder blocks with a pallet and an old coffee table. In the picture to the right is our DIY stand, from instructions we pulled off the Web. It was very easy to make and low cost.

Material List:

  • One 4″ x 4″ x 10‘ post (for a 18” high stand) or 4”x4”x6’ post (for a 12″ high stand)
  • Three 2″ x 6″ x 8′ boards OR two 2″ x 6″ x 8′ and one 2″ x 6″ x 10′ boards
  • Box of 16 penny nails

Step 1:

  • For an 18” high stand: From the 10’ 4”x4” post cut eight (8) 18-inch legs.
  • For a 12” high stand: From the 6’ 4”x4” post, measure and divide equally into 6 posts.



Step 2:

  • Take 2 of the 2″ x 6″ x 8‘ boards and measure them. Each board can be off by as much as one to two 8ths of an inch, therefore it is important to measure and trim if you deem necessary

Step 3:

  • Using the 16 penny nails, 3 for each leg, secure the 8’ board onto the legs.
  • Note: Picture to the right is what one side will look like when complete.


Step 4:

  • Cut two 20″ pieces from the remaining 2″ x 6″ board.
  • Set the 2 sides up with the legs facing inward and nail the end boards to the legs, using 3 nails per leg.
  • Note: You will now have a stand that is 8’ by 20” by 18” high.


Step 5:

  • Measure the distance between the middle legs. (should be ~17” long)
  • Using the remaining 2″ x 6″ board cut 2 center braces. If you purchased a 10’x2”x6” board then you should have enough to make 3 braces.
  • Attach the center braces using 6 nails per board as shown in the picture to the left.



~ May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places

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