Beginner Beekeeping Q&A - October

by Flow Hive 23 min read

Today’s Livestream Q&A had Cedar answering beginner beekeeping questions , harvesting some honey and related questions, and conducting an inspection of a brand new swarm that was boxed up a week or so before.

Video transcription below

When and how to harvest honey

We had an amazing amount of comments and views, we had 50 million views on our cascade honey harvest video. And last week, we showed you just how we did that. A lot of people are saying, "Oh, that's an impractical way to harvest," and so on. And that is true. So what we're gonna show you today is just how to harvest in the normal fashion. 

Looking into the side window we noticed that the honey was capped and ready to harvest. When the bees put their wax capping over the top of the cells, then the honey is ready to harvest. 

Typically you would wait till there's more honey showing in the back window but we’d like to show you how to harvest anyway; because we're harvesting the edge frame here, we can see that the honey is actually ready to harvest. Normally, you'd wait till you see it capped all the way down the side as well, just to make sure that you're harvesting honey when it's ready, so it'll keep in your cupboard.

Next, you will need the Flow Key that inserts into the frame; after putting the Flow Tube in, and taking out the Operational Slot Cap, and setting up your harvesting shelf, is to insert the key and turn it. 

If you just insert it a little way, turning in segments, it's much easier to turn the handle. Slowly proceed and open another segment, and another, until you’re all the way to the back.

Then just leave it in that vertical position; what's happening inside is the cell parts are moving from this to this. So there's a lot of wax and propolis that the bees make as they wax up all the parts of our Flow Frame invention, and then, store their honey. So, to get that moving, it does take a little bit of pressure. And we're seeing the honey come down the tube already. It's a beautiful thing to watch as the honey flows down the tube and into the jar. Starts off slow at first, and then, it tends to pick up paces. All of those cell lines, in the frame, start draining down to the trough at the bottom and out of the hive.

This was my father (Stuart) and I's (Cedar) invention, and it took us a decade to perfect it, and now it's been out in the world for 5 and a half years. 

It's such a treat to be able to taste all the different flavors that come in in your area. And there's nothing as good as your own honey.

Look at that beautiful honey flowing out. We've got some really deep reddish tones here from the local heathland. And you might even notice some of the globules coming through, and that's a medicinal thixotropic honey. The leptosperm, it's just flowered, it's the Australian Manuka here flowing into the jar as well. Which is a treat, really good for wound care. It's amazing, it's really taken off as a medical product.

Some questions from viewers about honey harvesting:

Cedar, how come we're seeing different colours happening when we're harvesting?

You will certainly get different colours when you're harvesting different frames, and sometimes within the same frame – it's simply because the bees are foraging on different flowers, and each flower has its own particular flavour and colour when it's reduced down to form honey from the nectar. So it's a wonderful thing to have all the different colours and flavours, and even textures, of honey to be able to share and experience that from your surroundings. It's one of the many joys of beekeeping.

Do you need to clean the cells?

If the frames are in the hives, what happens is the bees, they look after them, they wax them all up, they keep them all nice and clean. And you can continue to harvest. 
However, if you take the frames off the hive, and leave them sitting around and a vermin gets into them and so on, you may need to clean them.

If you're in a cold climate, it's often the case that beekeepers will size down their hive for the winter, and take one or more of their honey boxes off (also known as a ‘super’; a box used to collect honey). In the case of a Flow Hive, this has the Flow Frames in it. Thus, if you've taken that off for the winter, you just check that it's not all covered in wax moths and other debris before you put it back on – so you might need to give it a clean then. 

Sometimes you can get a little bit of debris building up in the honey trough area down the bottom. If that happens, you can clean the honey trough with a dishcloth, using the Flow Key to clean it out – however it is very rarely to have to do that. 

Cedar, once the brood is full and providing a good flow on, after adding the super, how long can it take till it's ready to harvest?

Like many things in beekeeping, the answer is it depends. Sometimes, in extreme cases, it can be only a few weeks to harvest, but generally, it's months. And sometimes you won't get any honey stored in a season simply because the flowers didn't flower, the rains didn't come, and so on. 

So, like anything in agriculture, things need to line up to get a good harvest – these are a healthy hive with lots of bees in it and a good nectar flow. When this happens you can see them storing honey very quickly. Typically, there's a season where it comes in more quickly. 

Right now, that's happening in many areas of Australia; we're in our springtime. You can get the situation where you've harvested all of the frames, and then, a couple of weeks later, they're full again. 

Typically, however, you'll harvest some frames, wait some weeks, and then harvest again. Then you might get some months with no harvests – so it really depends.

How to inspect a new swarm 

After catching a swarm, it's a good idea, in the beginning to inspect them often and make sure they're building straight on the foundationless frames. 

The best time to do beekeeping is on a nice calm day, mid-morning to mid-afternoon, on a sunny day. We find that the bees are most calm at that time. 

First thing to do is add a little smoke to the entrance of the hive. Get your smoker going—be careful, a smoker can get hot—you want nice cool smoke. You can even give your hands a little smoke, which masks the pheromones of yourself, or the smells of this mammal that's about to put its hands inside the beehive.

For a little hive, it is enough to put a little bit of smoke into the entrance. A big hive, you might do three good puffs in the entrance. Then, it's ideal to wait a little while before you open the hive. 

Next, if you have a Flow Hive 2, undo the wind screws on the side, which can hold the roof on in strong winds, and take off the roof. Now, what you see next is an inner cover. We kept the plug in; not allowing the bees into the roof cavity – some people do, some people don't.

It's a new swarm that's in the box, it was caught about 3 or 4 weeks ago. Next, when you take off the inner cover, lean it against the entrance in case the queen is on here. As you get used to looking at bees, you can also look for the queen and see if you can see her there. We can't see her there but, in case we've missed her, we just lean the inner cover against the entrance of the hive so that she can walk back in if she needs to. Sometimes she can't actually fly if she's in egg-laying mode.

Now, what we're seeing here is the bees are situated in the brood box. They haven't filled it yet, so this hive isn't ready for the top box (honey super) yet.

We have a click-on frame rest that go on the side of the hive; once you've taken out one frame, you can then move the frames across and that makes it a lot easier. Let's have a look how the bees are going. Wow, look at that. Isn't that just gorgeous? Beautiful fresh white wax. It's white when the wax is being used for the very first time. And it gains colour for yellows and browns, and eventually black, as the impurities build up in the wax over time.

You can see some nectar glistening in the bottom of the cells as the bees are starting to store some honey. It's a wonderful thing. If a bee in the way, just give her a little tickle, and they'll move out of the way – you can see that nectar they're converting into honey in the cells. And it's such an amazing thing, to be able to look in on this world and see how the bees are going, what they're doing, and learn.

If you're not learning something new every time you look in a hive, then you're probably not looking hard enough. It's a wonderful thing just to look in and observe. I can see bees passing nectar from one to the other. I'm keeping an eye out for their communication, their waggle dances. You can even learn to decode the language of the bees and find out how far they're going and in which direction to collect their forage.

So, that's ideal when they're building straight on that comb guide there. There's different ways to do beekeeping; you've probably seen brood frames with foundation, either a plastic sheet or wax foundation and wire. Our brood frames can accommodate wax and wire or plastic foundation. Here at Flow, we tend to like our brood frames to be foundationless – letting the bees hang their comb perfectly naturally.



Checking each frame to see if there is any brood present, which indicates if there is a laying queen. And here we have it, beautiful brood. Look at that. You can see here, the cells look quite different to the honey. Let me just turn this frame around. So, here you've got honey at the top. And then, you've got the brood here. So the brood spin a silk cocoon around themselves, and then, the bees wax over the top of that. So the look is quite different than the honey cells. 

You quickly get used to what brood looks like. It could be darker brown than it is shown there, but this is the first virgin use of this wax. So, over time, it'll build up to be a darker colour, though it's still easy to tell which cells are brood, containing the larva. The larva is going through its amazing process, metamorphosis inside the cells. And if you look down these cells, you can see the grubs that they're feeding before they're in that cocoon phase. It's extremely beautiful to be in here with the bees witnessing them. They're being very friendly here, which is great. Perhaps we didn't need to use any smoke on this hive. 

Okay. So I'm satisfied that there's a laying queen, because I can see young larvae and I can see brood going through its process. And the colonies certainly in good stead, there's a nectar flow on. They will build up and look after them and they'll grow.

Food stores

Okay. Let's take a look at this frame here. Again, we're seeing beautiful brood here. We're also getting pollen. You can see the pollen, in the bottom of the cells, the reds and the oranges that they're bringing in. They're making their bee bread. So, what they do is they fly out and get close to the flowers. Then this amazing static-charge thing happens where pollen grains actually leap off the flowers onto their body and they run around on the flower a bit doing their amazing work as pollinators. 

They scrape all of those pollen grains back to their pollen baskets on their back legs. If you watch the entrance of the hive, you'll see the pollen on the bee's legs. Then they push it down to the bottom of the cells with their heads, add a bit of special sauce, their enzymes, and ferment it into a nice bee-bread. And that's what the young larvae of the worker bee are fed on. Beautiful.

Queen spotting

I'm seeing the queen here, which is cool. I was hoping we would see her. So, see how her abdomen is kind of golden, it's not as stripy.

Another way to spot the queen is that she's often running around on the frame – she moves quite quickly, generally she strides a bit faster than the other bees as she has long legs.

The difference between her and the other bees is that she's quite a bit longer and her abdomen is pointy beyond her wings.  The queen does all of the egg laying in the hive, which is amazing. 

You may even be able to see her laying an egg down a cell – she dips her abdomen into the bottom of the cell. The egg looks like tiny, tiny grains of rice, right in the bottom of the cell. It’s a beautiful thing to follow your queen, and watch her lay eggs, or go about her business.

If it is a cold day, you wouldn't want to hold the young larvae out in the cold air for too long, as they are a bit temperature-sensitive. But on a warm day, it’s no problem just to hold this frame and really observe what the bees are doing. 

How bees communicate to each other

Waggle dances are how the bees communicate with each other. They have an amazing language and that language is actually the same language you'll find across the world. So, bees from here can communicate perfectly well with the same Apis mellifera species from Europe, from America, all over the world. And so, they actually have a hard-coded language that is very intricate and it can tell an amazing amount of information in the dark, in a hive, in amongst sometimes 50,000 crowded bees. So it's extraordinary to think that these insects have actually developed a language.

On a single frame, you may observe bees communicating in all sorts of ways – you may see a round dance, a different sort of dance, or the specific figure-8 dance showing the direction of flowers.

Putting the hive back together 

Push all the frames together, being careful not to squash any bees between these end bars, as the frames come together. Pushing them together is important to maintain the spacings that the bees use between their comb and they want to maintain that. If you leave big gaps between each frame, they're going to build comb there and it will become hard to service your colony.

So make sure to push all the frames together, leaving any space in your hive on either edge; slide all of the frames across, put them in position, and put the extra space on either side.

Having space is great when you're working your hive, but it is important to keep the frames pressed together in the middle once you are done. The inner cover is gonna go back on and the roof will go on top of that. 

Finishing your Flow honey harvest

So you can see, there's a little bit of honey still coming out of the hive. And we could wait till the last drops here are coming out. And if you can, do. If you're getting impatient when it's slowed down to a trickle, you can simply pull the tube out and close it off with this. We've got a little point here that is called the leak-back point, so the remaining honey will go back into the hive for the bees to reuse.

Next thing we're going to do is get the Flow Key, and put it in the top slot. If you have a look here, there's two slots. It's just a simple case of sliding it in; make sure you're going all the way to the back of the hive. You'll feel a knock at the back as it's all the way in. 

Turn that handle again to the 90-degree position – it's not a bad idea to wait 30 seconds or so because what's happening is all of those frame parts are now moving back into line; you don't want them sitting there. If you just gave it a quick turn, it could go down and sit not quite in line. 

Once that's good, you can take that key out and put the little cap back in the top; there's a little reminder here to make sure you've done the cell closure by turning the key in the top slot. If you've forgotten, the little tag will remind you because the cap won't go in. So, the cap should go all the way in like that.

Then it's a simple case of taking the Flow tube out, putting the cap in, and closing the door. With the Flow Honey Harvesting Shelf Brackets in place, the shelf is the rear door to the hive. Remember to put your covers on, you don't want a whole lot of sun getting in the hive. 

Once you’ve closed the cells, you may be able to see the bees already starting their process of uncapping the frames. While the honey is draining, mostly, the capping stays intact; you will be able to observe that the capping is still on the frames and the bees will just go about their business on the frame surface while the honey's drained out from beneath their feet.

Now, the bees will get in there and start ripping off that capping. They'll recycle the wax, cover all the Flow Frame parts, and the whole process starts again. It's quite a win that the bees can actually recycle that capping, reuse it, and you don't have to do any of that uncapping process that we once had to do in the conventional honey harvesting fashion.

Your questions answered, so you can get started in this beautiful pursuit of looking after bees and collecting your own honey.

Can you beekeep in a residential area and what space requirements are needed for the hive?

A: The wonderful thing about beekeeping is it's very small space required. If you look at the footprint on a standard Flow Hive 2 6 Frame, it doesn't take up a lot of space. 

You do need a little bit of room out the front for the bees to make a flight path. If you put it right up against a fence where the bees are flying in and out of their entrance, then what you'll find is that bees will tend to race out and double back in that direction. 

We have video, "Situating Your Hive", that can help take you through the process of deciding where to put it. 

The main thing is you want to make sure that the bee's flight path isn't going to be right where people are walking, otherwise the bees will likely crash into you, get stuck in your hair, and you're more likely to get stung. Ensure the entrance is not where people normally walk and be. 

People keep beehives on their balconies, in the city, they keep them on their rooftops, they keep them in their urban backyards. In cold climates, in hot, and snow. The versatility of the honeybee and where you can keep them is incredible.

How much sunlight do beehives need? The spot I have marked out for a hive doesn’t receive a lot of sunlight.

A: Bees can thrive in full sun or full shade. If  you have a choice, it would be better to go for some sunshine, at least for part of the day. 

If you're in a kind of cold-wet environment and the bees are not getting any sun at all, then it just can be more likely for pathogens, such as chalkbrood, to build up in your hive. So a little bit of sun can assist your bees to keep happy and healthy. 

But if you haven't got the choice, you can still keep these in full shade as well.

Is a Flow Hive a good hive to get started with?

A: Absolutely. Half of our now over 70,000 Flow Hive customers in 130 different countries are brand new to beekeeping. 

What we've done to help all of you that are new to beekeeping is, one, be here for you to answer questions, but also we've developed a really in-depth online course that's able to take you from knowing nothing at all right through to a deep knowledge and even a scientific knowledge of beekeeping. Check it out at 50% of profits go to advocating for bees and other pollinators, as well as for habitat for them. We’ve included a free 1 month trial, if you want to get a taster, have a look at what's involved in beekeeping.

In terms of the Flow Hive itself, there's a bit less of a learning curve than conventional beekeeping because you don't need to learn all of that pulling the frames out, taking to the processing shed, cutting the capping off, putting them in a centrifuge, buying the centrifuge, spinning out all the frames, filtering the honey to get your product. Instead, you simply turn the handle and the honey comes out. So it's become very popular with new beekeepers because it really is simplifying what used to be a long task of harvesting in the conventional fashion. 

Should you use a smoker every time you open a hive?

A: It depends. As you get more experience in beekeeping, you might choose not to use a smoker sometimes. But when you're beginning, I think it's a really good idea to use your smoker. Make sure you're well protected. Wear your gloves. And as you gain experience, you can start making those calls of perhaps not using the smoke.

What's it like becoming a beekeeper?

A: It's a hard question for me to answer because I've grown up keeping bees and it's just been, you know, a normal thing to have a beehive and go and collect honey and get in your bee suit. But I find it wonderful. And certainly watching my children who are now 5.5 and almost 3, watching them get excited about it, putting their bee suits on and getting into the hive and's a wonderful thing for any age, whether the old or the young or the in between. And, you know, they say, "If you want to be happy for a little while, you could take up drinking. If you wanna be happy for a longer time, you know, for many years, you could fall in love. But if you wanna be happy forever, you can take up beekeeping."

 – Cedar

Where to go now if I am a beginner beekeeper?

A: If you want jump straight into a learning curve, have a look at – we've got amazing videos to take you from knowing nothing at all right, through to a deep knowledge in beekeeping, the kinds of things you'll expect. And we're here on Facebook Live every week to answer questions live as well. Thank you very much for tuning in :-)

I've just built my first flow hive and I'm waiting for my nuc. Question, do you keep the hive at a 3-degree slope all the time or just when you harvest? I'm a bit worried about rain coming into the entrance. So, when you transfer the nuc into the brood box, do you reduce the entrance at all?

A: Great questions – it sounds like you're getting some good advice from beekeepers, if you don't know that...or perhaps you're already a beekeeper yourself and you're thinking about the differences between the flow hive and conventional hives. Now, let's address the first one which is the slope; the reason why we want a slope is so the honey can flow out and into your jar. Now, true, you could only slope it when the honey harvest, if you want to, but we've chosen to just keep it sloped all the time. Because we've got a screened bottom board, water can't build up in your hive. It'll go straight through the screen and, either into the tray, if you've got the tray in, or straight through and onto the ground. So, if you do get extreme rain blowing in the entrance, it won't actually build up inside your hive.

We've also put a sloped landing board to minimise that, and then, another slope, as water enters the hive. So we get less rain coming into the hive and causing issues. Typically, beekeepers, in conventional fashion, would slope it the other way with a solid bottom board.

Then, the reason why it's better to keep it sloped back all the time is because, right back here, there's a leak-back point [inaudible 00:11:18]. So, you can even see it working here. Sometimes, depending on how the bees have sealed it up, or perhaps you've done a harvest and there's a little bit of honey left still slowly coming through, there's a little gap here – the remaining honey can drain back into the hive. And that only works correctly if there's a backward slope on the hive. We recommend keeping it sloped backwards at 3-degree all the time. On the Flow Hive 2, we put a level to help you find that slope; when the bubble is in the middle, it's got the right backwards slope. If you're using the Classic model, then you'll need to make sure you put the whole hive on a level surface, and then, the slope is built into the landing board. 

Speaking of bottom boards, will you sell the base board for catching beetles and mites separately? I already had my brood box, and then, bought the flow super separate.

A: Yes is the answer. We're pretty swamped with orders and things at the moment, we're trying to get that together for you now in terms of packing up. We're manufacturing locally here and we're getting that for you. So, hopefully, you'll see that available soon.

How long do the Flow Frames last?

A: We've got Flow Frames on our hive that are now beyond the 6-year mark and still working perfectly. 

Now, if you do have any problems with your Flow Frames, get in touch. We want this product to be a very long-lasting product. It is new to the world, so we're still learning about it. And so, we can't say that it's going to last 20 years but we certainly hope that it does. 

If you have any issues, get in contact with us and we'll look after you.

How do the boxes not move out of alignment?

A: That's a great question and the answer is sometimes they do. But typically, what happens is the bees stick all of the hive parts together. This is how it's been done forever is the boxes, just plonk on top, but it's often a beginner beekeeping question that asks, "Hang on, how can that stay there?" It's because the bees use their propolis, which is their glue, and they stick everything together. So, pretty soon it's stuck. Sometimes, you can get it wandering a little bit.

My bees are kicking out the handsome drones here in Southern California. Why are the drones hanging around? Why don't they go find a queen to mate with? They have beautiful colouring, hygienic calm genetics, they should be passing those on.

A: Drones are the male bees, for those that are new to beekeeping. The workers are female and they do all of the work, so there's one queen in the hive who lays the eggs, and then, most of the bees are the worker bees. And then, there could be up to 50,000 of them, and then, there might be 600 or so drones that will go on flights each day hoping to mate with the queen.

It's sad to see the young handsome drones just cast out for the winter. It's interesting. The only way we can explain it is to say the hive sort of operates like a collective mind. It's not so much about the individual bee in a beehive, it's about the survival of the collective; if the bees are worried about their honey stores for the winter, if there might not be enough, they'll actually rip off the drones' wings and kick them out of the hive so they can't come back in because they're not going to be doing much over the winter time. They're actually just hanging around hoping to mate with a queen one day and they're not going to do that in the winter. 

So they're not actually needed for the hive and they're only going to eat honey – if honey’s scarce, too bad for the drones; it's all about the survival of the whole colony itself. 

How can you tell drones from the queen and worker bees?

A: Drones have bigger eyes that touch together in the middle, they look like a big fluffy teddy bear compared to the other bees which are a bit more elegant in shape. So that's a male bee, and they don't have stingers.

How do bees create wax?

A: Bees use the carbon source of the sugars they've collected from flowers. So it takes a certain amount of flower nectar being converted into honey, and then they convert that honey into wax. So they're amazing alchemists, as they convert those carbon chains in the sugars into wax. 

What do the bees waggle dances mean?

A: Some waggle dances are just a grooming waggle where they're just giving a bit of a waggle saying, "Hey, come and give me a bit of grooming," there it goes again. But if it was going around in a circle or figure-8, that would be telling us really interesting information about the flowers and how far away they are.

What does the queen eat?

A: Generally, the queen herself gets fed by the worker bees (however bees will also be bees and break all the rules in the bee book – the other day we were watching a queen feed herself) and she gets fed honey. So, the store's in the hive for the adult bees, including the queen. And that's what they mainly eat. The pollen, bee bread is mainly for their young larvae, so honey is their carbohydrate source. That allows them to have so much energy. If you were to do a relay, if you've got a strong hive with 50,000 bees in it and you added up all the bee-flights in a day, it could be a couple of times around the world. And that's all powered on honey, which is extraordinary.

Every time I try and put my super on my beehive, bees would be pulling out baby bees and throwing them out in the ground. Why is that?

A: That's some unusual behaviour and probably not linked to putting the super on so much, unless you're in a really cold climate and there's not enough bees to keep the brood warm. 

There's a number of reasons why young bees, before they're formed, will be thrown out of the hive. Typically this is because they're damaged in some way, so have a look for hive beetle larvae. If you're in an area that has those little black beetles, they can lay in the frames, the young larvae can worm their way and actually damage the brood, in which case the bees will pull them out and eject them from the hive. 

There could be other reasons as well. So have a good look at the frames and just make sure that's not going to be an ongoing pattern. Often the bees will get over it, whatever they're doing, and continue working. If it continues to be an issue, then get some help from an experienced beekeeper to have a closer look at the frames and see what is going on with your brood.

How long has this brood been in this box?

A: It's been about 3 or 4 weeks now since we caught this swarm. And it was a small swarm so they're going slow. Sometimes you can catch a swarm and it will fill all of these frames within 3 or 4 days, which is amazing to see how fast they can work if they're a big colony with the nectar flow at the ready for them to go and get that nectar and convert it into wax.

When's the best time to put the top box on? What do you have to look for?

A: The best time to put your top box (honey super) on is when all of these frames are filled out; when the wax in each comb is drawn out until it's filled and there's lots of bees in your bottom box (brood). That's the time to put your Flow super on top. In a warm-temperate climate, you could put it on earlier. In the colder climates, do make sure the bees have filled the frames first. You don't want a large area for the bees to keep warm if you don't have to.

Is marking a queen recommended practice?" And what is that for people who don't know?

A: If you have a look at a queen, she's got a thorax with a shiny back plate. And that's an exoskeleton, so it doesn't harm the bee to put a mark from a paint-marker pen right on her back plate. 

Beekeepers will typically do that so it's easier to identify where the queen is on the frame – makes it a bit easier to find her. 

Often, they will use a colour code to identify the year; for example, this year's colour is blue. What that'll mean is, next year, you can go, "That's the queen from last year," and it's good to know how long your queen's been living for. She can live for up to 6 years, laying up to 2,000 eggs a day – which is extraordinary! She needs to do that in a big colony in order to keep up with the turnover of bees. These workers, when they're foraging hard, might only live for 4 to 6 weeks. So a lot of eggs need to be laid every day to replace those bees.

I have a spare brood box and wanted to try and create a split with my hive. How do I do that and what do I have to have to be able to do that?

A: Taking a split is a wonderful thing to do, especially in the springtime when the bees are really building up. If you don't, and your bees are building up, they may split themselves and swarm. Which, if you're around to catch them, great, but otherwise, you could lose half your bees if you're in an urban environment. They could jump over the fence next door, which may or may not be great, depending on your neighbours. So, taking a split is my favourite thing to do in the springtime to alleviate the congestion in the hive, which then alleviates the swarming tendency.

You can view how to do a split here, which we conducted on Facebook Live a while ago.

On there are video tutorials which will take you through step-by-step on how to do hive splits and everything else in beekeeping.

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