Sometimes it seems like honey bees are incidental to all the other creatures in my hives. Beyond mites and moths, I have flies, spiders, beetles, springtails, and shrews. Sometimes I see frogs, mason bees, slugs, or earthworms. But this week, it’s mice.
Beehives are warm and cozy shelters with plenty of food and entertainment, so it’s really no surprise to find a vast cross section of inhabitants. The mice are especially attracted to my top-bar hive. I opened it three times this week to find mice sitting atop sugar patties, licking their fingers and grinning at me. The traps I’ve set are always sprung, although I can’t tell who is doing the springing, mice or bees. And now that I’ve added pollen patties, both mice and bees have decided to raise families.
A swarm in July
I’m definitely a Langstroth beekeeper, but at one time I wanted a top-bar hive so I could learn about them and answer questions. I have just one, but it is the hive most likely to be surprising, and it’s always the one with mice.
It’s been seven years now since the hive stood empty in my front yard, devoid of bees. The colony I placed in there died the first season and I decided top-bar beekeeping was not for me. I dragged the hive beneath some low-hanging cedar branches so it was out of the way and forgot about it.
I forgot, that is, until one July day when may husband came running into the backyard. “Come quick! You’ve got to see this!”
There, condensing into a molten mass, were thousands of honey bees swarming around the empty hive and flowing into its dark interior. As I watched the bees file in, I remembered the saying, “A swarm in July ain’t worth a fly.” Still, I was glad to have them.
Falling to ruin with the bees inside
Now seven years later, they still live there. Each spring I wonder if they will make it again and so far, so good. But because the hive has been full the whole time, and because I have only one top-bar hive, the structure itself is falling apart.
I keep thinking that when that hive goes empty, I will repair it. At this point, though, it needs more than repair. Some animal ripped out the hardware cloth underneath, and I replaced it with a board riddled with drilled holes. That was five or six years ago. Then the bees decided they no longer liked the opening, and instead they’ve carved a new one on the side, just below the roof. The hooks that once held the roof in place have pulled out because the wood is rotting, and the sliding varroa drawer no longer slides.
Breaking the rules
The hive and its colony break every rule of beekeeping. The hive is under heavy branches that drip with water all winter long. The space where it sits is gloomy and damp and never receives direct sun. In fact, it hasn’t seen the sun in five years. The openings are low, so the bees have to fly close to the ground before flying up, and they can only come and go in one direction because the foliage everywhere else is too thick.
I don’t do anything to the colony except add spring feed. Any book, any club, any beekeeper will explain that you cannot possibly keep bees this way, which is why I take everything with a grain of salt. Not one of my carefully tended Langstroth colonies comes close to this one in age or vitality.
I don’t make regular inspections either. Instead, I open it a couple times of year to take swarm cells or a few thousand workers or maybe some brood. At those times, I cut apart the top bars and look things over. Otherwise, they’re on their own, living by their own rules. They have it wired.
How long will the bees stay nice?
A little over a week ago, I cut some branches away and lifted the lid to deliver a pollen patty. In the “attic” above the top bars, the bees were on one side covering a sugar patty and milling about. The mice were on the other side. They had taken the paper plates that once held sugar cakes and shredded them into confetti and used them to build a nest. One mouse posed on a sugar cake like a hood ornament. Mice and bees seemed completely at ease with each other, something I found annoying. Why will they sting me but invite the mice to dinner?
I’ve set three traps three times but I’ve caught only one mouse so far. I don’t know how else to do it. I’ve flicked them out with a hive tool and plugged the obvious entrances, but without any help from the bees, the mice just come back. I keep thinking that as the colony expands, the bees will chase them away. It was in this very same hive that I found my first mouse skeleton. If I were a mouse, I’d think about that.
Honey Bee Suite
Argh. I hate you. You don’t even MEDICATE them? That is so unfair. I just lost my third colony in two years–which means I’m three for three–all to mites, despite medication (obviously not enough). Colony three was an all-volunteer affair, too. Next you’ll tell me that you have no mites in your top-bar hive. Insert sulky, pouty scowl here.
I’ve thought about that a lot. I do treat the rest of my bees and that probably keeps the mite population lower within my apiary. I’m pretty sure my top-bar hive benefits from those treatments in an indirect way. Honestly, it’s hard to understand.
Ha Rusty I always enjoy reading your writings they are great thanks for all your wonderful stories
Why not place the hive on a metal stand that the mice can’t climb?
Good idea but I’m afraid it would fall apart. It’s in rough shape.
It looks like the bees stung the mouse and I won’t say what else. I don’t see the mouse was welcome the whole time. When could it have left the hive?
Or how did something obvious to that mouse happen?
It could have left any time, I suppose. But maybe it got greedy and overstayed its welcome.
I love this story of your top-bar hive on some ironic/existential level. Maybe the bees will survive despite us. And we know the mice will!
But wait, earthworms?
I found them in the bottom board debris, but how they got there I don’t know.
Or perhaps your mice have bees? You never know, sometimes. I have both Langs and Top Bar Hives, and like them both. Maybe someday I’ll decide between them, just not yet. Really enjoyed the post!
I certainly have renewed faith in top-bar hives because of this colony. There’s something about it that suits the bees (and the mice).
Hmmm, mouse jerky… Just as good as a pollen patty?
Darn, I could have saved you some.
A friend of mine told me a neat trick for catching mice. Use a small marshmallow and impale it on the bait tab on the trap. Then add a little peanut butter on top. When the mouse tries to pull the marshmallow off, well, SNAP!
Sounds like a good idea, but in the hive I’m afraid the bees would go for the marshmallow. But peanut butter might work.
Ha! That’s great. The bees are obviously doing their own great job of genetically selecting for mouse-tolerance and hardiness, and every year produces bees that are even more capable of resisting everything that nature throws at them. Meanwhile, other beekeepers prop up their bees with chemicals and things that select for bees that, well, have to be propped up all the time. Makes me wonder if we shouldn’t just sacrifice colonies that can’t survive varroa on their own and continue to breed bees that don’t need require a lot of human intervention. The only downside is a temporary decline in honey production. The upside is colonies that are more hardy and may eventually produce bumper crops of honey at a lower price of interventions.
OMG what a great story! Thanks. Maybe I will pull out my old one that all the bees died in the first year and put it out somewhere.
Drat it Rusty. Can’t you teach those mice to live a more useful life, send them out in the world building nice little homes for bumble bees instead?
Hey again –
So I’m engrossed by the mouse, and am back staring at him (her) even before you’ve had a chance to reply. I’m asking “Who is the flenser?” and answering myself. It has to be the bees, because beetles or other follow-up foragers would have consumed the innards. Instead the meaty parts — brain and body cavity — remain, and only the loose crumbly bits — skin and hair — have been carted off. Not a typical out-in-the-open carcass. Glen
I’m glad you like my mouse. The teeth fascinate me…so perfect.
If you have only the one top-bar, why are you taking out brood? Also, I guess they are foundationless?
Just curious: plenty of hobbies here between Langs and pregnant goats. I once found a mouse mummy on the bottom screen when moving a hive.
Thanks as always!
Shady Grove Farm
Yes, they are foundationless, so I just cut the comb from the top bar and tie it into a frame. It requires a bit of trimming, but I’ve saved a few hives by boosting them this way. The top-bar colony is huge and makes up the difference in no time.
Hello and thank you! Last year I had my first, thriving top bar hive. It did die in Jan after radical weather change. I believe they starved though there was a lot of honey in the hive. I am going to use it as a bait hive this spring, and am putting a package in a second TB with a plan to add a Minnesota hardy, local queen. It is experimental, but I will keep trying to find a way to make it work. I wish it was as effortless as yours! I love the TB hive. (Our Lang is doing well, going into third year with no human interference with queen change. Plan a divide this spring.) I would love to hear from more TB enthusiasts who are in cold climates.
It doesn’t get tremendously cold here; lows maybe in the high teens and low twenties. But all my Langstroths get feeders and quilts, but my top-bar hives receives nothing special. Truth is, I don’t understand it.
PS: No one talks much about Varroa mites in top bar hives. The belief seems to be that they TB hives are so natural that other aspects of nature aren’t allowed in them…Ours did have some mites going into fall, probably from our Langstroth, so this year we will plan to treat the TB as well.
Does this colony produce swarms each year? If so, then that helps explain the reduced mite problems. Bees in an unmanaged horizontal hive tend to get honey bound very quickly, which leads to early swarming. Just like a feral colony in a hollow tree. The swarming produces a natural brood break. You could stick a division board in the middle of the hive and move the queen to the far side of the board just before swarm season. They might just fill up both halves of the box and keep the mice out.
Yes, this is the discussion we had at dinner last night. The hive swarms about three times a year, which is a great boost to mite control. I usually manage to catch a couple of them, and they make great colonies, but they don’t retain the mite resistance. The hive is 22 bars deep and usually fills to capacity by the beginning of summer.
22 bars is a bit small for easy management. It is probably very close to the optimum size for feral colonies, though.
That depends on the size of the bars. My bars are long and the hive is deep, so each comb is about twice the area of a Langstroth deep frame, so this is a huge hive.
Wow, that is a big top bar. If you lived in a hot climate they would be difficult to handle without breaking. My TBHs take 32 deep frames. They require a lot more manipulation to prevent swarming and keep up honey production compared to a Lang. If it gets cross-combed it is a big mess. When it has happened to me I’ve just let them swarm and try to cut out the snarled comb when the colony is small in the spring.
Yes Rusty, just goes to show the bees don`t need you. You need the bees. At least I do.
Hi Rusty, I’m a relatively new beekeeper, going into my third season. I started the winter with 10 hives. 3 top bar, 6 langstroth, and an old box that a swarm decided to call home. I’ve lost 3 hives this year. 1 got knocked over by a pig that got loose, 1 a late swarm despite feeding, and my best hive with about 40# of honey still in it???? Now back on topic, in December I was checking my hives and flipped the lid off of a top-bar hive to find a rats nest, but just like the picture you posted, the nwr had been reduced to a pile of bones. Keep up the interesting posts!
Hummmm…..Possibly we should all try feeding our colonies a mouse patty in the middle of winter……..
All this talk about mice makes me realize I need to go check my traps again. Not looking forward to it.
The weather up here in the Great White North has turned cold again, back to 10 degrees Fahrenheit so I’m back to worrying about my girls again, no warm weather forecast for at least another week. I added a gallon of 1:1 syrup into a top feeder after reading your article about possible starvation after a warm spell could possibly start the queen laying early.
On another front, I’ve just received a “Flowhive” honey super from Australia, I had it delivered to my parents in Aussie and they shipped it to Canada. Worked out about $200 cheaper than buying from the dealer in the USA, go figure. Will be building a new hive with two deeps and and a medium for brood and the “Flowhive” on top. Will keep you posted on how it works out. Lots of positive stories about the concept.
I enjoyed your story about the mice, I don’t have a family inside my hive but have one living in the insulated space below the hive, I have a mesh bottom board that I leave open and the hive raised about 5 or 6 inches from the ground and this space insulated with two inch styrofoam. Was wondering whether I should take steps to evict them what do you think?
That’s cool. I would love to try a flow super if I could find one cheap, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. Yes, be sure to tell us about your experiences with it.
As long as the mice can’t get to the comb, they probably won’t hurt anything. They will rip a comb apart in no time, so that is the chief concern.
I talked to you last week and I’m a newbie because my first attempt at a top-bar hive also resulted with the bees dying off last summer by July. I find it interesting that a lot of the people who are commenting about their top-bars have had similar first year experiences. Weird. The summer before a friend had a Langstroth hive in my yard which also died before the fall. My husband is telling me not to put the bees in our yard- we live in a village- but to try my friend’s rural setting. She now has 2 Langstroth hives in her yard because her first one swarmed and she caught them. I’m happy to see hers doing so well, but of course was so disappointed about my hive- we both bought our bees from the same place. Everyone around here does Langstroth, but I was most interested in a top-bar and a Warré. Have you ever tried a Warré hive? All the talk about mice makes me cringe; definitely not something I’d welcome seeing in my hive. So no mouseguards for these hives, I’m assuming? Great that your top-bar has been thriving on its own all these years. Do you ever harvest honey from it or just use it for splits? Thanks.
No I’ve never tried a Warre but I’m thinking about it. You can put a mouse guard on a top-bar hive if you want. My hive is so old, I think the mice are getting in somewhere else. And no, I don’t take honey from my top-bar. I just use it as a source of bees.
I don’t hate you any more, Rusty;-) Today I opened up my volunteer hive to clean it out and get ready for new bees next month. It was full of live bees. I’d turned over the top screen to block upper entrances, and reduced the lower entrance to the minimum. During the last few snows, the lower entrance had become blocked enough the girls couldn’t bring out their dead–and the corpses built up so much it blocked the entrance from the inside.
I flipped over the screen top, took out the entrance reducer, and cleaned out all the bee bodies I could reach using a hooked hive tool. My girls are now zooming in and out and visiting the local cherry tree blossoms. I’m chuffed!
I’m still going to get Russians–but only two hive’s worth, not three.
All of that is very good news!
I’m just starting my second year of beekeeping (going from 2 to 4 hives). I was never able to find a mentor so your website has has been very helpful.
I lost the stronger of my initial two hives several weeks ago. It entered this winter very strong with a population too large to reduce to a single brood super. Starting in about December I was often scooping out large numbers of moldy bees from the entrance. I wasn’t sure exactly how much too much was without prior experience.
I’ve been diligent about mite control, winter feeding (drivert) and insulating the attic with burlap (vivaldi board with peaked copper roof).
In dismantling the hive I found a lot of moisture inside in spite of (I believe) good ventilation and insulation. I can’t see where the hive leaks so am trying to figure that out. My guess is the queen died quite a while ago, and the colony slowly followed.
New bees are ordered, but I’d sure like to avoid a repeat episode.
The moisture doesn’t come from the outside; it comes from bee respiration. The more bees, the more moisture. A moisture quilt will fix you up in no time.
I too have had the same experience with a top bar hive. I bought one (from the Sunset magazine staff who made and maintained two for an article and a few years later decided the survivor colony in one was good enough. I bought the empty top bar hive and installed a package of bees in it in April 2013. I have not done anything with it. When I try to inspect once or twice a year, I am always astounded to see paddle upon paddle of nothing but drones brood (a varroa nursery), which the bees use later in the year for honey storage. The colony persists without any “management”. I attribute its survival to breaks in brood rearing following swarming and/or inefficient supersedure but do not know for sure. Since 2009 when I began beekeeping, I have never had a colony able to persist as long as the one in the top bar hive.
Interesting that you have the same situation. My top-bar colony fascinates me, but like you, I don’t know why it has persisted so well. I’ve always chalked it up to frequent swarming, but I sometimes wonder if the single-story configuration has anything to do with it.
I guess mouse is a good source of protein, looking at that one!
I see this topic is dated but maybe you still have the top-bar hive. If it is falling apart why not build a new exterior. In the late spring after your inspections are done on your other hives, take the frames one by 1 and put them in the new hive. Then remove the dilapidated hive, and set the new one in it’s place. If it will be too heavy to move place it as close as you can and move the frames and then get the old broken one out of there. Hopefully you get another 15 years out of the new one. Just get the internal dimensions and build it up and do a swap. One of these winters the snow is going to squish it down and you will lose it. I am thinking of doing a long hive with 2 rows of Lang frames so I can split and steal brood like you do with out the comb cutting and rubber bands.
Yes, that’s on the agenda for this summer. The hive is really bad now, and I’ve got pieces of scrap wood stuck into holes in the roof to keep out (some of) the wind and rain. Some beekeeper, huh?
I am learning so much from you! And I have a question about the bees in our area. We live in an old apple orchard, but the flowers have already turned into small apples. We also live right next to a large mining area. Every evening there are tons of bees that come out and swarm the top of the apple trees right around sunset. They also come up to the house by the porch. When the sun goes down they all leave. They haven’t bothered us yet, but I have small children. Are these aggressive bees? They are only out for about an hour.
Without seeing them, I have no idea what kind of bees they are or even if they are bees, so I can’t comment on aggressiveness. If no flowers are around, the insects might be wasps or something else entirely.
I was checking the hives on a warm (40 degrees-it’s all relative) day in MN, seeing if the bees needed more supplemental food. I opened the last hive and found 4 very healthy mice looking at me. They quickly vanished inside the hive.This had been a very good producing hive last year, but now all the bees were dead-starved. I was depressed for a few hours as I had worked hard on this hive. I found that they had gotten into the vent hole at the top of the hive. I had put mouse guards on early in the fall on the bottom entrance. I then put half in hardware cloth over the holes in the rest of my hives, hope not too late.
My question is, can I still use these frames and comb if I get them cleaned up for the spring? Or should I toss them? (plastic frames), and should I disinfect the boxes, etc? I took it apart the day I saw the mice in there. Thanks!
Mice and bees do not share diseases or parasites. Just reuse the frames. The bees will quickly repair any damage, polish the cells, and you will save them from having to rebuild all that comb.
Thank you Rusty! That’s a relief.
In regards to Steven’s question if there are just droppings the frames will be okay? No need to bleach or wipe down the frames?
All I have ever done is remove the nest and sweep away any hair and droppings. If you want to do more, that is up to you.
Hi Rusty…I have 4 TBHs but the mice can get into the “attic” of only one (not in the bee living area). I use old-fashioned mechanical mice traps set with peanut butter — they’re very efficient. I don’t particularly like to kill mice outside (as opposed to ones in the house) but they can’t stay in the hive. I became more diligent after I opened the gabled roof one time and seven (7!!) startled mice started running in all directions, including a couple towards me. Nope, nope, nope…gotta go.
Hi Rusty, I have mice in the dead of winter. 0 degree temps here so I don’t want to open my hive but want to kick mice out. Should I set a peanut butter trap outside? Any ideas most welcome. Thank you!
I doubt the mice will come out in the cold for peanut butter. After all, they have all the food they need inside the hive. I think you just have to wait for a warm day.
Or, if you have an OA vaporizer, a treatment for “mites” might be in order! Might do your bees a lot of good.
Why don’t you use mouse guards, do they not work.
They work if you get them on early enough.
There are always ways around mouse guards, cracks, knotholes, boxes not aligned properly:
What should l do if I pets?