questions and answers

The dogma daze of beekeeping, part 1

Lots of good questions land in my inbox instead of the comments section, so I’ve decided to take a selection of these and answer them here. You may leave a comment or question below, or you may leave a question on the Contact Me page. Either way, I will try to answer them.

Dogma: a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds. A fixed belief  that people are expected to accept without any doubts.

Daze: a state of confusion or bewilderment resulting from a lack of clarity

The propolis seal

At a Portland Urban Beekeepers’ meeting last month Dewey Caron recommended that one of the things you can do to prevent excess moisture build-up in the hive is to “break the propolis seal” between the top box and the cover so that moist air can escape. At about the same time, in a discussion on a Warré site, someone reacted to a suggestion to open up a very weak hive to assess population, brood and stores by stating that the propolis seal must never be disturbed under any circumstances. Left to their own the bees know what to do (I assume that means they know how to die if they run out of stores).

I’m wondering what your take on breaking the seal is—actually I can guess, but it would be interesting to read your thought process in a blog entry. Just a thought…and thanks for the great site! —Ken


Yes, you know my answer. Beekeepers actually have to do something now and then, and excuses like “You mustn’t break the propolis seal” are excuses to avoid work. How ridiculous is that? It’s like saying, “My car is nearly out of fuel, but the drive to the station will use even more, so I’ll just hope I don’t run out.”

To improve a situation, we often need to first make it worse. Just like it’s better to burn a little extra fuel to prevent running dry, it’s better to let in a little cold air to prevent starvation. Why is that so hard to understand?

Hope doesn’t cut it. I was once sailing with a certain relative. An erratic wind came up and I was having serious trouble keeping the little boat from capsizing. No matter what I said, I couldn’t get my passenger to shift her weight to the windward side. She hoped we wouldn’t capsize, but she wasn’t willing to do anything about it.

It seems to me that beekeepers who latch onto old-boy dogma are happy to find an excuse to sit motionless and hope. You hope you don’t capsize. Hope you don’t run out of fuel. Hope the bees don’t die.

Furthermore, most of the “advice” you hear doesn’t make any sense. A healthy colony of honey bees can withstand a brief opening in winter. If the colony is not healthy, it’s your job as their keeper to help. Most likely, that will require opening the hive.

Although I side with Dr. Caron on this one, the real question here is not whether breaking the propolis seal will solve the moisture problem, or whether breaking the propolis seal will doom your colony. The real question is how can we get beekeepers to think logically. How can we convince beekeepers to apply their general life knowledge to beekeeping problems? And how can we get their BS detectors spit-shined and polished?

Rude neighbors

We have rude neighbors that insist on setting off fireworks. We are considering bee hives but I am concerned they will be disturbed by this, and I don’t want to bring the hives to this house if the situation will be bad for them. Can you tell me if they will be ok? —Maria


I wouldn’t worry about the fireworks. My colonies have weathered many Fourth of July celebrations in a fireworks-crazed neighborhood. However, I wonder if having honey bees is the best choice for you.

You refer to your “rude” neighbors.” But think about it. Who will be the rude neighbor once you get bees?

What happens when your bees poop on their lawn furniture, stain the siding of their house, or mar the finish on their car? What happens when your bees drink from their pool, scare the kids, and sting the delivery boy? Or what happens when your swarm lands on their back porch? Who’s the rude neighbor then?

Honey bees shouldn’t be used as a weapon, and if you already have a neighbor problem, a hive of bees is bound to make it worse. If you can’t work it out in advance, at least keep quiet about the fireworks.

Heavy syrup

I have a question about making fall syrup for the bees. I have read that for heavy syrup, the ratio of water to sugar should be 2.5 quarts of water to 10 pounds of sugar. Most recipes state to boil the water, remove the pot from the heat and then mix in the sugar to prevent caramelization. However, no matter what I do, even pulling the water off the burner and then waiting a minute or two, the syrup always has a caramel color to it, which from what I understand is bad for bees. How can I make my own syrup without caramelizing my syrup? Thank you! —Melissa


It’s sad that people say things like it “should be” 2.5 quarts of water to 10 pounds of sugar. Says who? I say it “can be” but it doesn’t “have to be.” What you are describing is a recipe for 2:1 syrup. It is commonly used for fall feed and is fine for bees, but don’t get hung up on the numbers. It’s a lot easier to dissolve the sugar with just a little more water, which is what I recommend.

If you dump the sugar in boiling water that has been removed from the heat, it will not caramelize. Sugar dissolved in water has a tannish color that has nothing to do with caramelization.

A quick Google search reveals that sucrose begins to caramelize somewhere between 320 to 340 degrees F. If you dump room temperature sugar (say 65 degrees F) into boiling water (212 degrees F) you are nowhere near the 320 degree mark.

That said, if you heat sugar, it begins to produce hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) at fairly low temperatures. HMF can be toxic to bees, especially if they eat lots of it. For that reason, I prefer heating the water as little as possible—just enough to get your sugar dissolved. Alternatively, just feed them granulated sugar. My favorite winter feed is the no-cook candy board.

Bee feces on the outside of my house

Hello! I enjoy reading all about bees as I have always been fascinating about them. I don’t raise bees, however, and had bees in and around the eves of my house. There is a spray-like yellow sticky substance sprayed across various parts of the house and I MUST find out how to wash it off. It doesn’t strike me as something that would work with just soap and water, but I don’t want to do damage to the side of my painted house. Is there anything you can suggest? I am without ideas! Thank you in advance for your time. —Viji


Bee feces can be tough. Adult honey bees eat mostly nectar, honey, and a bit of pollen, so their feces is different than that of a bird or mammal. It tends to be sticky and it can stain. My husband has found that soaking it works best for removing it from cars and lawn furniture. Wet it thoroughly and don’t let it dry out for at least 30 minutes. Then wipe it with a wet rag. When the stuff rehydrates, it seems to release a lot easier. If your siding is porous, it may be extremely difficult to remove.

No varroa the first year

My mentor said I don’t have to worry about mites the first year and I didn’t get my bees until May. But now I see deformed wings and lots of dead bees and I’m wondering what that came from. Do other things cause deformed wings? What should I do? Thanks in advance. —James


The very first thing to do is get a new mentor. Whoever said you don’t need to worry about varroa mites in your first year is seriously behind the times. That advice may have worked twenty years ago, but it doesn’t work now. At the very least, you need to monitor for mites so you know where you stand. Without information, you can’t make good decisions.

Deformed wing virus was around before varroa mites and it can spread within a colony without them, but it rarely does so. If you are seeing bees with deformed wings, you almost certainly have varroa mites. Even if you treat immediately, there is a good chance the colony won’t make it.

Cornstarch in Powdered Sugar

I’ve been told that the cornstarch in powdered sugar will kill my bees, but I can’t find pure powdered sugar anywhere. What can I do? —Edward


Bees eat all kinds of indigestible things, including the husks of pollen grains. This material goes through the bee in the same way it goes through any other animal. The bee digests and absorbs what it can before passing the rest.

The small amount of corn starch in powdered sugar will do no harm to your bees. This is one of these popular ideas that doesn’t have a foundation in fact. And really, how much powdered sugar do you intend to feed them? Usually, beekeepers use powdered sugar to dust for mites, monitor for mites, or sometimes to deliver some type of treatment, but it is seldom used as a long-term diet. If you were going to feed powdered sugar as their only wintertime feed over many months of no-fly days, then it might—maybe—be a problem. Otherwise, don’t worry about it.

Honey Bee Suite

The dogma daze of beekeeping: questions and answers.

The dogma daze of beekeeping: questions and answers.


  • When I break the propolize seal (and who doesn’t?), I use mud to fill in the cracks between my supers. Sometimes anyway.

    I understand how new beekeepers worry about everything, like new parents run to the doctor every time their baby get a pimple, because I was like that too. But if there’s anything to relax about, it’s mixing syrup. Why does THAT have be complicated? I know people who cook up syrup on their stove in giant batches and make a mess of their kitchen every time they do it. Then I show them how I make syrup by mixng white sugar with cold water from my garden hose in a big bucket, and they don’t believe it actually works because some little dictator in their beekeeping assocation told them sugar should always be dissolved in hot water, and they can’t seem to deviate from what they were told. Because thinking is hard? Ugh.

  • Powdered sugar is very easy to make – just put regular sugar in a blender and run it for a minute or two. The cornstarch in store bought powdered sugar is an anti caking agent, so don’t make more than you need in the blender. Even stored in a sealed plastic container it will form lumps.

  • Hi, Rusty,

    How very sensible: I plan to share it at our next meeting.

    One of our club presidents said if you have to break the propolis seal in cooler weather, just wrap duct tape snugly around the join between the boxes. How hard could that be?

    Thanks for everything
    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth KY

    “There are no un-sacred places on Earth, only sacred places and desecrated places.” – Wendell Berry

    • Nancy,

      I find that you can put a rock on the lid. The weight combined with the heat from the cluster reseals propolis quite quickly. A ratchet strap works well also.

  • I would suggest that one of the least understood aspects of a modern hive is the role and value of propolis, and our selective breeding of bees for low propolis levels (for the benefit of a beekeeper) has been an error some are beginning to rectify.

    What Dewey said in Portland is that ‘ONE of the things” is to break the seal. So what about considering other options to increase ventilation without disturbing the seal? eg. drilling a 3/4″ hole in the upper box (or in a shim above the inner cover) and screening it to prevent the bees using it as an entrance?

    A really useful topic for you to consider in future article might be some of the current research on propolis, not least by Marla Spivak.

    • Robynne,

      I already wrote the “really useful” article about propolis. You can find it in this month’s American Bee Journal.

      The above post has nothing to do with the value of propolis; rather it has to do with the value of helping a colony that needs help.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I read your article on propolis in ABJ and learned a lot. One question, do you rough up your boxes like you talked about? How do you do it?

    • Aurelia,

      Yes. I didn’t used to, but after reading Tom Seeley’s work, I began doing it. The real value of roughing up the interior is the bees build an entire “propolis envelope,” not just seals in the joints. The antimicrobial property of propolis is what makes it so valuable, and you can extend that with a propolis envelope, much like the bees do in natural nests. Milled lumber that is really smooth doesn’t encourage the deposition of propolis, so roughing up the inner surface is a way to counter that.

      I’ve been using a carpenter’s rasp, but Vivien Hight and her husband, makers of the Valkyrie Long Hives, use coarse sandpaper. That sounds a lot easier than what I’m doing.

      • I’ve been roughing up the insides of my supers after listening to a few online lectures about the propolis envelope. I’ve been using a honey scraper, which doesn’t really work. Coarse sandpaper — of course.

        Simplicity is the foundation of genius. I’m learning a lot from this post.

      • I used a grinder with a twisted wire wheel. Did both of my horizontal hives in 15 minutes. Really brings out the grain in the wood and a rough sawn texture.

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