When can I get honey from my Flow hive?

I always wanted to be a beekeeper and now with my complete Flow Hive I can save the bees (they need us!!!) and not disturb them when I’m taking their honey and not getting stung!!! My bees will come in a little wooden box with a screen!! And I already got the jars! I live in northern Idaho and my hive comes in December!! When can I get honey??? Do you know?! –Sadie

The Flow hive certainly drives people to excess—both in dollars $$$ and exclamations!!! You might want to save some of each for later. Sure, I have some thoughts on getting started that may help, as long as you understand I have never touched a Flow hive.

What is a Flow hive?

First, a Flow hive is like any other Langstroth hive except it has a special kind of honey super that holds the Flow frames. A honey super is a place where bees store honey. The box below it, called a brood box, is where the queen bee makes her nest and lays her eggs. It is the place where the adult bees care for the young. It also contains honey and pollen.

If the bees store extra honey in a hive—more than they need for winter—the beekeeper can harvest the surplus. You say in your e-mail you want to help save the bees. If so, you must be careful not to take too much honey from them.

When can you take the honey?

When you first start your new colony, you should leave the honey super, Flow frames, and mason jars in storage; you won’t need them anytime soon.

I don’t mean to sound discouraging, but a package of bees started on brand new woodenware in Idaho is not likely to yield surplus honey the first year. Now listen up: I didn’t say impossible, just unlikely. You may not be able to crank your Flow until the summer of 2017.

I’m not making this up. The harvest you saw in the video came from an established thriving hive. The Flow frames that were tested in both the US and Canada were placed on established thriving hives. According to Kim Flottum in his book The Backyard Beekeeper (p. 94), “Your first-year colony probably won’t have a harvestable amount of honey before late summer, if then.” Dewey Caron in Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping (p. 166) writes, “Package bee colonies seldom produce a honey surplus the first season.”

How can that be? First of all, packages of bees are usually shipped to the northern areas in April, so they’ve already missed part of the nectar season. Your bees in a box will include a mated queen and perhaps 10,000 other bees. When you put these bees into your new hive, they won’t feel at home right away. There is no furniture nor any pictures on the wall. No cradles in the nursery nor shelves in the pantry. It’s just another wooden box, only bigger than the one they just left.

First they build a home

At first, the worker bees will start to build combs so the queen has a place to lay her eggs. They work fast, and if they have plenty to eat, the bees may have some small combs by the next day. As soon as space is available, the queen will begin to lay.

A queen can lay 2000 eggs per day, but not until she has a place to put them. She may have room for only 50 or 100 eggs on the first couple of days, more as time goes on. Assuming all goes well, these eggs will hatch into adult bees three weeks later. In the meantime, your colony is getting smaller because some of the original bees will die while doing their chores or collecting nectar. Remember, your average worker bee lives a mere four to six weeks during spring and summer.

I know this is hard to picture, but it takes a while for a package of bees to get started. Besides building the nursery area, they also have to build the storage combs and tend to the young. All this takes tremendous amounts of food, food which they have to collect.

Remember your bees arrived late in the spring, took a week or so to settle, and then waited three weeks for the first batch of new bees to hatch. Now it’s mid-May or later and your colony may still be decreasing in total numbers of bees even though the nectar flow is in full swing.

Also, even if your bees fill the entire brood box with brood, honey, and pollen, you may want to add a second brood box so your bees have enough room for winter stores. This decision is partly based on local conditions. I highly recommend you talk to beekeepers in your area to learn what works best. In Idaho, I suspect that most beekeepers use a double deep for overwintering. Ask around.

Nectar flows

Being new to this, you probably don’t know when nectar is readily available in your area. Most areas in North America have a lot of nectar in spring, a period of little or no nectar in the heat of the summer, and then another, although lesser, flow in autumn.

If the population of your hive isn’t large by the end of spring, the colony will be lucky to collect what it needs for the following winter, let alone provide any excess. Because of this, many beekeepers feed sugar syrup to their packages to get them going. Some feed packages straight through the first summer. But be warned: If you put the Flow frames on while feeding your bees, syrup—not honey—will fill the mason jars. Remember, bees cannot change syrup into honey.

Speeding up the process

If you are really eager to turn the Flow crank, you could speed up the process by buying a nuc instead of a package. A nuc is a small colony on drawn combs with a laying queen and brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae that are in the process of growing). Nucs (nucleus colonies) are often available locally from other beekeepers and they give you a head start. A nuc is more expensive than a package, but compared to the price of a complete Flow, it is trivial. You simply take the frames from the nuc and put them directly into your brood box.

You might also be able to buy an entire overwintered colony. If you join a beekeeping club, you can ask around and see if someone is willing to sell a complete hive.

Starting with a nuc or complete colony will give you a much better chance of getting honey your first year. Moving to a southern state or Hawaii may help as well. Still, with bees, there are no guarantees. Your local climate and weather, the health of your bees, swarms, diseases, and your own management decisions will all affect the outcome.

Business as usual

I’m going to stop here because this is a lot for a newbee to absorb. The point, though, is that starting a new colony in a Flow hive is no different than starting a new colony in any other hive. Sometimes we get lucky and can super a new hive and get honey the first year. Most times it doesn’t work that way, and if we harvest more than we should, our bees suffer.

Since you are eager to begin, why not start a colony this year? Buy a nuc, if you can, and a standard Langstroth hive. No you can’t use your Flow frames this year because you don’t have them yet, but with your current plan, you probably won’t be able to use them next year either.

Beekeeping is not a walk in the park: it is life changing. If you learn how to keep bees before your Flow frames arrive, the benefit to you and your bees will be enormous.


Related Posts:

Should you go with the Flow?

Final thoughts on Flow

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A letter to sticky-fingered beekeepers

Last week I was notified by a friend that a post of mine was sent to the membership of his local beekeeping club after the title, source, and author name were stripped. Legally, there is a name for this behavior: it’s called “theft.” Taking something that belongs to another without permission is stealing.

This bee club is not unique. Anyone who publishes on the internet is well aware of the scoundrels and lowlifes who take whatever they want. Usually the material pops up someplace where you least expect it. Sometimes it is stripped of ownership information, and sometimes the works are actually attributed to others. I’ve had my entire feed redirected to another bee blog. My photos appear everywhere. Right now, pictures of my homemade top-bar hive are being used to advertise someone else’s business. There is little we bloggers can do about it.

What is hurtful about this particular instance is the post they chose. In a way, posts about how to build a frame or how to mix sugar syrup are kind of standard and hardly worth defending as original. But this post, “The iterative method of swarm capture” was personal. It relays antics my husband and I performed while trying to hive a stubborn swarm. Because it is a unique story, only I could have written it. It is my story.

For some reason, people believe that because the internet is huge and impersonal, no one will ever notice. Maybe in some disciplines that is true. But the beekeeping world is amazingly small: someone always knows someone who knows someone.

Last fall I was enrolled in one of the online beekeeping courses offered by the University of Montana. Part of the course involved answering questions and posting them so the other students could see and discuss the answers. About half way through the course, I was shocked to see a student use as his answer a block of text taken straight from my blog. I recognized my writing instantly.

Now this person owns more hives than I own worker bees—no exaggeration. And yet he felt compelled to copy an answer from the internet rather than write it out himself. Instead of reporting him, I wrote and told him to knock it off. His answer amazed me. He said, “I thought that paragraph was worded better than what I had written . . . .”

Worded better? Seriously? I spent my life learning to write, but not so some lazy-brained beekeeper could save himself the trouble. I agonize over every word and where to place it. To me, writing is a labor of love. Writing for beekeepers is one way I have of giving back—a way of paying forward what others have given me.

Each year I get dozens of requests to reprint my stories and photos, or to use them in books, magazines, slide shows, and posters. I am honored by these requests. I have never said no to a single one. I would be equally happy to provide my work to this beekeeping group—even now—and I certainly would allow the dude with a gazillion hives to use a direct quote. You don’t have to steal what I produce; I will give it to you.

The internet has changed our lives because it makes information easy to share and simple to find. The material on the net—at least the stuff worth reading—is written by people who care and who put their hearts into their work. But I can tell you from experience that the thieves make it harder for the producers to find the motivation.


Video: Oxalic acid trickling

Here is a great little video that shows how to apply an oxalic acid trickle. It features Bee Craft Deputy Editor, Margaret Cowley (UK). She has the coolest little plastic squirt bottle that dispenses exactly 5 ml of the solution at a time. She just squeezes the bottle until the upper chamber is full, then she applies the measured amount into a seam of bees. After each seam, she refills the chamber and repeats.

The treatment is being applied on a December day with temperatures around 42-43 degrees F in a hive with one brood chamber and a super for winter. She treats the entire hive in a matter of moments—as fast as she can re-load the dispenser. Also of interest in this four-minute video is the cat and the woodpecker netting. (I love cats and never heard of woodpecker netting!)

Then too, Margaret cracks me up. As she trickles the solution, a little bee pops up between the frames and Margaret interrupts her narration to say, “hello.” So cute.

Be sure to enjoy.


How to make a straw-bale pollinator garden

Straw bale gardens are unique. They fit anywhere, support your plants, provide ample space for roots, suppress weeds, and raise your garden up off the ground where it is easier to reach. Plus, if you have bad things in your garden soil, like nematodes or potato scab, straw bales can provide a clean slate. And all of this comes without the expense of potting soil or an enormous planter.

In addition, things like slugs and snails don’t like crawling up the sides of a straw bale, cats are unlikely to mistake them for a litter box, and moles don’t excavate through them. And I repeat: weeds are almost nonexistent. Yay. I’ve even covered the soggy part of my garden with straw bales: the water seeps up, the roots go down, everyone is happy.

Last week I learned more about syringes than I ever wanted to know. Similarly, when I started researching straw bale gardens, I learned a heap about bales. Although I’ve been buying straw for twenty years, until last week I had no idea bales have a cut side and folded side. If you don’t operate a baler, how would you know?

Anyway, I became fascinated by the vegetables people are growing in straw and thought, why not a pollinator garden? So here I’m going to share what I know about straw bale gardening, and throughout the spring and summer I will post photos of my bee garden . . . assuming it all works. If anyone tries this, be sure to send photos of your garden and bugs along with photos of your sunflowers.

Buying the bales

  1. First, make sure you buy straw and not hay. Hay is full of seeds, and seeds are not good for your garden. Most often, straw is composed of fully-ripened wheat stems. The grains have already been harvested and the straw is a by-product.
  2. Straw bales vary in weight and size according to the baler that was used, but generally they are heavy. I can’t lift a 90-pound bale, but I can lift one end and usually unload my truck and get them where they need to be. It’s a matter of leveraging, dragging, pushing, and swearing. Better yet, snag a friend to help.

Positioning the bales

  1. It is tempting to place the bales in a way that yields the greatest surface area, but you must resist. You should arrange the bales so that the baling twine runs parallel to the ground.
  2. However, before you do step 1, you need to examine the two sides that are not tied. One side will have folded stems and one side will have cut stems. The cut side goes up.
  3. Do not cut the baling twine.
  4. If you are placing the bales in an area where vigorous perennials may push their way through the straw, arrange a layer or two of cardboard under the bales. Cardboard acts as a weed barrier long enough to discourage the perennials, but it will eventually compost and disappear.

Conditioning the bales

  1. Straw bales must be conditioned before they can be used. If you plant directly into a new bale, the straw will begin to compost as soon as it gets wet and the heat will kill anything you plant.
  2. The easiest way to condition is to buy bales in the fall and let them sit outside all winter.
  3. If you’re in a hurry (like me) you can condition them in a couple of weeks by sprinkling them with a high-nitrogen fertilizer and watering it in. Organic gardeners can use blood meal or feather meal.
  4. Simply sprinkle the fertilizer over the cut surface of the bale. The fertilizer will work its way down through the bale, in and between the hollow stems.
  5. The nitrogen encourages the growth of soil organisms which hastens the composting of the straw. In no time, the bales will get extremely hot. If you want, you can stick a thermometer into the bale to monitor the temperature. Once the temperature drops to ambient, you can begin planting.

Planting the bales

  1. Straw, even if fully composted, may be lacking in nutrients. Many gardeners sprinkle a layer of compost or potting mix over the bale and work it in a little, although others do not.
  2. Alternatively (or in addition) you can dig holes in the straw and fill the holes with compost before planting your seeds or seedlings. (Digging holes is much easier if you remembered to place the cut side up.)

Pollinator paradise

  1. The plants you select will depend on your local area, but remember heirlooms usually provide the most pollen and nectar, and bees love blue, white, and yellow blooms. You can plant seeds or starts.
  2. Make sure any plants you purchase have not been treated with pesticide.
  3. Go heavy on late summer and fall flowering plants: these are the ones in short supply.
  4. Check the HBS Plant Lists to see what plants have been successful for other bee lovers in your area.
  5. Provide a water source with stepping stones for the bees: marbles in a shallow pie dish works great.

Watch them grow

  1. Water the garden as necessary. You will find that the bales retain moisture while providing good drainage—perfect conditions for healthy roots.
  2. Provide compost or fertilizer as needed.
  3. Have your camera ready.

My plan is to make a two-bale pollinator garden right beside the lemon queen sunflowers. For those of you who use straw bales for windbreaks around your winter hives, you are almost there. All you have to do is plant.


Straw bales with baling twine parallel to the ground. Once the bales are conditioned, you just dig holes in the straw and plant. I plan to add some compost to each hole.
The cut side of a straw bale.
The folded side of a straw bale.
A male Osmia lignaria shows interest in the project. © Rusty Burlew.


How to apply an oxalic acid dribble

Oxalic acid as a Varroa treatment first caught my attention two years ago when beekeeper Mark Luterra showed me a photo of his bottom tray after treatment. What an incredible display of dead bodies! I was intrigued.

Later, I followed up with some research, mainly from Randy at ScientificBeekeeping.com. From him I devised a treatment plan that is simple, inexpensive, and works well.

But first, what is oxalic acid? Basically it is an organic (carbon-containing) compound that is found in nature. A number of foods we eat are rich with oxalic acid, including spinach, swiss chard, rhubarb, beet greens, kale, sorrel, and chocolate. In fact, there is much speculation that the “spinach effect”—that weird mouth feeling some people get after eating spinach—is actually caused by oxalic acid. And we’ve all heard that rhubarb leaves are poison. The reason? Oxalic acid.

Since oxalic acid is found in nature, and because it is a normal component of honey, oxalic acid is considered a “natural” treatment. In fact, even Certified Naturally Grown beekeeping allows the use of oxalic acid for the treatment of Varroa. Oxalic acid is commonly sold as “wood bleach” and can be found in hardware and paint stores. The type I use can be found here: Savogran 10501 Wood Bleach.

However, oxalic acid in the form that works to kill mites is a potent acid and care must be taken to avoid causing harm to your bees and yourself if you decide to use it. You should begin by reading the new draft label so you know how to handle the acid and how to protect yourself from splashes and spills.


Oxalic acid can be applied as a dribble, a spray, or as or a vapor. Since I am a hobby beekeeper with a small number of hives, I prefer the dribble. Personally, I don’t want to buy, clean, or store vaporizers or sprayers, so I’m happy with a box of disposable syringes that I bought online for the purpose. The KISS method works for me, especially in this case.

If you use the dribble method, you will need a canister of wood bleach, a syringe that holds at least 50 ml, a small scale that can measure in grams, a standard measuring cup, sugar, water, and a non-reactive container for mixing. Your wood bleach should be between 95 and 100 percent pure. If you don’t know, you can search the web for the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for your particular brand and it will tell you.

According to the new EPA label, you need to mix 35 grams of oxalic acid dihydrate crystals into one liter of 1:1 syrup. (This is the same as Randy Oliver’s weak solution, and the one I’ve been using.) You can make a liter of syrup by using 600 ml of water and 600 grams of table sugar.

Time of application

  1. Because oxalic acid will not kill Varroa in capped brood, I like to apply oxalic acid at times when little or no brood is present but before it is crazy cold outside. For me, this is late fall.
  2. Treating once per year is enough because this system knocks Varroa down to almost nothing.

Prepare solution

  1. Measure 600 ml of hot water into a non-reactive container.
  2. Add 35 grams of oxalic dihydrate crystals (wood bleach) into the hot water. Stir but do not shake.
  3. When the crystals are dissolved, add the 600 grams of sugar. Stir until dissolved.

Apply the solution

  1. Smoke your bees down between the frames.
  2. Dip the end of your syringe into the medicated syrup and pull back the plunger, filling the syringe to the 50 ml mark.
  3. Starting at one end of the frames, dribble 5 ml of the solution along a seam that contains bees. (I like to start at the far end and dribble toward me.)
  4. Once you have dribbled 5 ml, you must go on to a new seam. (A seam is the space between two frames or the space between a frame and a sidewall.)
  5. After each seam of bees gets 5 ml of solution, you are done.
  6. In any case, you cannot go over 50 ml per colony. If the hive has more than 10 seams, dribble where the most bees are. Alternately, you can give less than 5 ml per seam and do more than 10 seams, but you cannot go over 5 ml in any one seam or 50 ml total per colony.

Dribble practice

I strongly suggest that you practice dribbling with plain syrup in advance. The first time I did a test, I squirt syrup half way across the room. Seriously, it takes a little skill to get the hang of moving the syringe along the seam while gently pressing the plunger. Also, practice reading the graduations. My syringes are marked 10, 20, 30 and so on with five divisions between each one, so five ml is 2.5 divisions. I use this type of syringe: Syringe 60cc Luer Lock Tip Sterile (Pack of 10).

Be sure to use 1:1 syrup for your trial runs because plain water behaves differently. I also recommend putting 5 ml (1 teaspoon) of syrup in a dish so you can see what it looks like.

Once you get a feel for it, you will find that moving quickly along the seam is easier than moving slowly. Also, watching the drip end seems to be easier than watching the graduations once you learn how fast it comes out. Five ml doesn’t seem like much when it’s whiskey, but this stuff is different.

So there you have my method. If you want to use a vaporizer or sprayer, I strongly suggest you read the label and Randy’s site for the best information.


"CSIRO ScienceImage 7306 A European honey bee prepupa with varroa mites" by CSIRO. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CSIRO_ScienceImage_7306_A_European_honey_bee_prepupa_with_varroa_mites.jpg#/media/File:CSIRO_ScienceImage_7306_A_European_honey_bee_prepupa_with_varroa_mites.jpg
“CSIRO ScienceImage 7306 A European honey bee prepupa with varroa mites” by CSIRO. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CSIRO_ScienceImage_7306_A_European_honey_bee_prepupa_with_varroa_mites.jpg

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