Autumn cleaning

Over the last fortnight, despite some occasional warm and sunny days, the autumn has made its presence known. 

Flaming autumn aspen

The aspen down the road are a stunning colour at this time of the year. Although I’ve planted a couple of dozen, they’re still not more than thigh-high and it will be quite a few years until they can match the display shown above.

Almost overnight hundreds of redwing have arrived from Scandinavia and many of the rowan have already been stripped bare 1.

In Fife, the leaden skies are filled with skeins of geese forming raggedy V’s as they fly in from the North Sea. It’s an evocative sight … it reminds me of my first weeks as an undergraduate student at Dundee University half a lifetime ago

And it also emphasises that the beekeeping season is over.

Of course, there will be jobs to do in the winter, but the bees are pretty much on their own for at least the next five months.

Apivar

The final essential task of the season for me is to remove the Apivar strips that went into the hives in August. Initially the strips were placed on either side of the – still large – brood nest. A few weeks ago I removed the strips, scraped them free of propolis and wax and re-inserted them around the, now shrunken, brood nest.

Mid-autumn and time for the Apivar strips to be removed

You can just about see them in the photo above, flanking the four central frames.

It is important to remove the strips. Although Apivar has a relatively short half-life, some residual activity will remain. If you leave them in the hive any surviving Varroa – and there will be survivors 2 – will continue to reproduce in the presence of trace levels of amitraz, the active ingredient in Apivar. 

With reduced – and possibly borderline for killing – levels of amitraz present, these are ideal conditions in which resistance may develop. Although this has been reported it does not appear to be widespread. 

Therefore, to ensure that Apivar remains an effective miticide it is important to remove any remaining strips before the winter.

Your next adventure in Glenrothes awaits!

Tragic isn’t it?

That’s the subject line on the emails I receive from Travelodge where I stay when I’m doing my beekeeping in Fife. 

Have you ever been to Glenrothes?

‘Adventure’ isn’t the word most people associate with Glenrothes. 

Good morning Glenrothes

GetMeOuttaHere is. 

This is a town where every third car being driven late at night has a raucous exhaust, lowered shocks, tinted windows and a spoiler. The drive-in queue for McDonald’s sounds like the pit lane at the Indianapolis 500 and there are more donuts in the car park than in the fast food outlets 3.

But none of that usually bothers me as, by the time I get to the hotel, I’ll have been driving for 5 hours and will have spent about the same amount of time inspecting colonies or lifting cleared supers. I may also have squeezed in a couple of hours of meetings at work.

The environment might be noisy, but the beds are comfortable. 

But visits in late autumn are a bit different.

No colonies to inspect, no grafting to do, no nucs to check for mated queens and no supers to remove.

All I need to do is gently lift a few crownboards and pull out the Apivar strips now that treatment is complete.

So, what do I do for the rest of the day?

Long range weather forecasting

Is that an oxymoron?

I book my trips to Fife to fit in with what the bees need. To make the hotel affordable I book many weeks in advance.

I therefore put up with whatever the weather throws at me. Usually it works out OK.

Furthermore, as regular reader know, several hives are in a bee shed, so the weather is largely irrelevant.

But ~60% of them are outside.

And Monday was really wet. 

Having driven for four hours through increasingly heavy rain – stopping en route to make a honey delivery – I fortified myself with a cappuccino and excellent almond croissant from Taste, the best independent coffee shop in St Andrews 4.

Essential fortifications

I then sat in the shed enjoying my late breakfast listening to the rain hammering on the roof.

I needed something to occupy me until either:

  • the rain stopped
  • it got so late in the day that I’d just have to open the hives and remove the strips anyway

And the obvious thing to do was a bit of spring autumn cleaning. 

During the season the bee shed is used on a daily or weekly basis depending upon the experiments underway. In addition, we have a storage shed on the same site and a number of additional hives in the same apiary. I also do most of my queen rearing in this apiary (the bee shed provides a near-perfect environment for grafting), distributing the nucs to other apiaries for mating.

And all that beekeeping tends to leave a bit of a mess. At least, it does where I’m involved.

Super job

For the last couple of years I’ve not bothered returning the extracted supers to the hives for the bees to recover the last of the honey.

Instead I’ve just stacked them ‘wet’ in the shed, protected from wasps, mice and robbing bees, by covering the top of the stack with a well-fitting roof.

Or a snug-fitting crownboard and a badly fitting roof.

Stacked ‘wet’ supers

Experience has taught me that the floor of the shed isn’t level and/or has gaps between the planking. Rather than seal all these gaps I simply stand the stack of boxes on the sort of closed cell foam sheeting used for packing furniture, or – when I run out – on double thicknesses of cardboard 5. This stops the wasps, ants and bees from getting access. 

So I started by tidying the stacks of supers. Inevitably this necessitated moving them first, sweeping the floor clean, laying out the foam/cardboard and then restacking them. There’s not enough space in the shed to move ~60 supers so they went out in the rain.

So I got wet 🙁

Floors, roofs, boards, unidentifiable objects and wax moth

Once they were back I could turn my attention to the other side of the storage shed which houses spare roofs, nuc feeders, floors, boards (split, crown, surf, Morris, Snelgrove etc. 6 ), a breeding colony of queen excluders 7 and a motley collection of other items that:

  • might come in useful
  • don’t logically belong anywhere else
  • appear valuable and/or difficult to make … but I don’t know what they are
  • are essential and were needed several times in the season … but I’d lost them 🙁

Sorting this lot out took another hour or two, and involved a further soaking as I needed to clear the space before I could refill the space.

Early on in the process … 

Is beekeeping the largest volume hobby?

… and when at least partial order had been restored …

Floors from Abelo, Pete Little and some homemade abominations

I also found several brood boxes full of drawn comb or sealed stores.

Excellent 🙂

And I found a nuc box lurking in the far corner containing comb riddled with wax moth 🙁

Wax moth larvae and damage

Aargh!

DiPel DF

Wax moth are something I’ve largely avoided or ignored for most of the last decade. The cold winters in Scotland seem to keep their numbers down.

Not this time … 

All of the infested frames were bagged up for burning at the earliest opportunity. The remaining brood frames were treated with DiPel DF, a suspension of Bacillus thuringiensis kustaki spores and toxins. If ingested by the larvae of wax moths, the δ-endotoxin component dissolves in the alkaline environment of the gut, is activated following cleavage by gut proteases and then ‘punches’ a hole through the gut wall.

Ouch.

And the spores germinate, allowing the bacteria to grow inside the larva.

As I wrote in a post several years ago about this treatment:

This isn’t good for the moth larva. Not good at all. Actually, it’s probably a rather grisly end for the moth but, having seen the damage they can do to stored comb, my sympathy is rather limited.

DiPel DF is non-toxic for bees.

DiPel DF

I’ve not had problems with wax moth infesting supers stored ‘wet’ … they’re after the old cocoons and other rubbish that accumulates in brood frames.

Vita used to sell a product called B401 – also a suspension of Bacillus thuringiensis spores and proteins – which was withdrawn from sale in 2019. Despite assurances that a replacement – imaginatively labelled B402 – would be available ‘soon’ it appears to only currently be sold in the US.

Out with the old … and the not fit for purpose

I was on a roll … 

All this organisation meant I discovered things that I’d lost … like a small stack of contact feeders hiding in the corner that had not been used this season as I hadn’t done any shook swarms.

There they are! Contact feeders lurking shyly in the furthest corner (unlike those brazen frame feeders at the front)

I also found some mini-nucs I’d built for queen mating almost 10 years ago. They were made of ply and housed a tri-fold full-size brood frame (you can now buy these, but couldn’t when I built them). 

Tri-fold brood frame

However, the ply was starting to delaminate and it was pretty clear that they wouldn’t survive a Scottish summer season so they were unceremoniously binned.

And I finally bit the bullet and got rid of all my XP Plus queen excluders. These were bought from Thorne’s a few years ago and had been used only when I ran out of everything else.

In principle they are a good idea. A white plastic queen excluder with bee space on the underside provided by a raised rim and a series of small X-shaped spacers that stand on the top bars.

XP Plus queen excluder (the plus must mean ‘plus warp’)

However, in practice, they’re rubbish. They were the ‘ugly’ in my 2017 description of queen excluders that included the phrase ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’.  

They warp really badly. The photo above – if anything – obscures the warp because the QE is not being held flat. When you place them under a super the centre bows up and contacts the underside of the super frames.

Rubbish. 

Out they went.

The little things

There’s something rather poignant about the death throes of the beekeeping season. It can end with a bang as autumn storms roll in, or it can end in a protracted stutter as intermittent good days allow the bees to forage late into October. 

Of course, it’s au revoir 8 and not a final goodbye

It forms such a large part of my life for six months of the year that little things found during the clear-out bring back a flood of memories …

Nicot cup and (partly squidged) queen cell amongst the debris on the shed floor

A Nicot cup and vacated queen cell reminded me what a good queen rearing season we’d had on the east coast. Although the first round of grafting was a near-total failure, successive rounds were excellent, and queen mating was very successful. One of the best seasons in memory 9.

Coffee stirrer … or AFB test kit

Not all the memories were good ones though. I received one of the dreaded ‘AFB alert’ warnings for the apiary and spent a very long couple of days checking every cell on every brood frame in every colony, and testing any that looked suspicious.

I don’t take sugar, and the coffee stirrer shown above is provided in the AFB LFD kit to lift the dodgy-looking larva into a tube for analysis. Everything looked clear, but it gave me a few very stressful days.

And … after all that tidying, and repeated trips to the industrial-scale bins, it finally stopped raining.

Finally … some practical beekeeping

I fired up the smoker and quickly, but gently, removed all the Apivar strips. The crownboards on all the hives were very firmly stuck down with propolis and the bees, although calm, weren’t exactly overjoyed to see me.

Autumn still life – smoker, hive tool, Varroa trays and Apivar strips

I still had another apiary to visit. With rain threatening there wasn’t time to monitor the level of brood present so I slipped cleaned Varroa trays under the hives. This will allow me to inspect both residual mite drop and look for the presence of the characteristic biscuit-coloured cappings when brood is uncapped.

And then, after about half an hour of practical beekeeping, I set off back to the west coast as the rain started again.

The Moidart hills – An Stac, Rois-Bheinn and Sgùrr na Ba Glaise

Two days later the Moidart hills had their first dusting of snow.

It’s official, autumn is here and the beekeeping season is over.


 

Footnotes

  1. Though weirdly some haven’t been touched at all. I wonder if rowan berries ripen at different rates on different trees?
  2. The best you can hope for is about 95% efficacy following the autumn treatment.
  3. With apologies if you actually live in Glenrothes …
  4. Independent is superfluous here … it is, but it’s also the best.
  5. The double thickness has enough ‘give’ in it to accommodate the contours of the floor.
  6. OK, not surfboards, I just put that there to see if you were paying attention.
  7. There seem to be more there every time I look.
  8. I think we’re still allowed to use French phrases where there’s no elegant English equivalent.
  9. Though, increasingly, that’s not saying much.

24 thoughts on “Autumn cleaning

  1. David Parker

    I think you (and we) have earned a bit of a rest after a seesaw season of beekeeping. I thought I might replace a hive tool or two (where do they go to hide?) and I noticed that you preferred a cheap version of the Thorne’s claw hive tool? Well, Thorne’s are selling there’s off at £2 so be quick – but save one for me!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi David

      Fill yer boots as they say … I’ve invested in the up-market version of the same design …

      Fancy hive tool

      … I made a big online order from Thorne’s sometime last year and was sent half a dozen of these. If truth be told, I don’t know whether I ordered the cheap ones and they sent me these by mistake, or whether – because I wasn’t wearing my reading glasses, or just chose by shape rather than price – I ordered the wrong ones. I’d like to think it was the former. I suspect it was the latter.

      I hadn’t mentioned the upgrading of my hive tool in case any readers thought I was earning too much from the lucrative sponsorship deals that support this site 😉

      Anyway, I’ve admitted it now. And they are rather nice.

      I still have a lot of the “£2 at the conventions” variants and happily use them as well. I’ve not gone all posh.

      If you want to easily find your missing hive tools get the lawnmower out. You can’t fail. However, when successful, you might need another lawnmower 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Dani Akrigg

    That’s a really good clear out. Very satisfying. I’ve stored all my supers wet for 12 years and never had waxmoth. It’s a huge time saver. I put a thin Paynes plastic crownboard ( bought loads one year in the sales) every three supers, just in case. They are stacked up in the shed at the bottom of the garden.
    I can’t get into my bee room in the garage so I best get going.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Dani

      The clear out does provide a good deal of satisfaction. It also made me realise just how much I’ve got that I don’t use … even in a busy season. This becomes obvious when I started to standardise on particular designs for the floor, crownboard and roof. Lots of the ‘one offs’ or the ‘actually not really compatible’ just sit unused in the shed. At some point I’m going to have to decide whether to keep the Paradise boxes I now only use as bait hives.

      My long-term plans don’t include expanding colony numbers so I’m going to gradually get rid of the stuff that’s barely if ever used. The nucs I sold this season were sold in poly nuc boxes and I’ve still got about 20 or 30 stacked up outside the shed.

      Just while going through the comments one of my BKA’s has announced their equipment sale … D’oh! It’s a week away and everything is on the other side of the country.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    1. Joe Mc Donald

      The bees were still bringing pollen today
      Here in county Wicklow Ireland,David.
      The weather is a bit grey but still kinda
      Warm and the is coming just in showers.
      Really like your musings on all things bees
      Regards Joe

      Reply
      1. David Post author

        Hi Joe

        Small amounts of pollen still being collected here … which I assume is ivy. However, it’s only ~10°C today with a strong easterly bringing lots of rain, so I doubt they’ll be out and about. Your climate is probably similar to ours … ‘mainly dry’. Except when it’s not 😉

        Cheers
        David

        Reply
  3. Josh

    Another great read!

    We’re at the peak of spring here in New Zealand (lack of gear meant I missed an opportunity to harvest a swarm, newbeek mistake) and I just succeeded with my first vertical split using the advice/recipe in some much earlier posts of yours. Quite chuffed to see that new queen trotting around.

    Thanks again for the great posts & have a good off season.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Josh

      You can always – at a pinch – drop a swarm into a cardboard box. It’s also always useful to have a straw skep handy. However, best of all in my experience, is a lightweight, single piece (i.e. no removable floor), nuc box, the bigger, the better. I use butchered Paynes boxes that were originally sold with an integrated feeder. I cut this out with a breadknife (and a significant loss of blood) and then end up with a very useful eight-frame box. There’s rarely a swarm that won’t fit into one of these.

      Butchered Paynes nuc box

      Great to hear that the vertical split is working for you. It’s a really convenient way of doing swarm control. If you simply want to requeen you can always just remove the older queen and unite the boxes. It also saves on equipment.

      Have a good summer (he wrote, trying to hide his jealousy).

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Elizabeth Hutchings

    This year, for the first time, I shall be storing wet supers. Not planned but the bees didn’t clean them out for me this time but seemed to put more in, even though they were above a crown board. When I put them back on next season will the bees clean them out first or just add to what is there? (You’re a little unkind to Glenrothes – roundabout capitol of Scotland. Someone has to live there!)

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Elizabeth

      I can’t say I’ve ever checked. If you put them on and there’s no nectar flow they’ll probably scavenge any remnants, but if there’s a flow they’ll be filled anyway. Other than analysing the honey (or, more accurately, pollen in the honey) in the cells I’m not sure how I’d determine whether they first emptied and cleaned a cell before refilling it.

      I thought I was being quite kind to Glenrothes 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. Archie McLellan

    Hi David, great read. Thanks for it . Quick question: how your pronunciation of these Gaelic place names coming along?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Archie

      It’s just phonetic isn’t it?

      The three in the pic are actually relatively straightforward … once I’ve referred to the walkhighlands website which has useful pronunciation MP3 links 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Alan Jones

    Hi David,
    Don’t waste your sympathy on wax moth suffering !! I am plagued with them, I always store my supers wet and ratchet strap the stacks down hard but still they get in. This year I have bought a second hand chest freezer {£10 ) I was hoping to put complete supers in but they were 25mm to big . However I can stack 125 frames in there and I blow torch the boxes before reloading the supers and strapping down, I look forward to see what happens next year
    Enjoy your winter off
    Alan

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Alan

      Don’t worry … I don’t lose any sleep about either mites or wax moth. I’ve not had problems with wet supers and don’t take any more care with them than I described above – stack ’em up and make sure the top and bottom are reasonably well sealed (plus gaffer tape for any obvious gaps mid-stack). However, saying that, I’ve not started the winter with an infestation level as high as I found last week. We’ll see what things look like next March. The sheds are unheated so a really hard, cold winter would help hold things back.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. Mandy Stewart

    Hi David
    Really disappointed to read how little you think of Glenrothes based on visits to a Travelodge. Like many other successful other beekeepers in this area, I find that the bees have fantastic forage and that Glenrothes has much to offer us all. Next time you are in the area, our local beekeeping association members would be delighted to show you round I am sure.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Mandy

      I’m sure parts of Glenrothes are – like much of Fife – absolutely lovely. But I don’t get to see those parts. The parts I see are as I described … concrete, fast food outlets, roundabouts and ‘boy racers’ (of which Glenrothes does appear to have an overabundance). Until recently I’d have expected the numbers of roadworks to slow down the boy racers, but they never seemed to. However, now the roadworks (on he A92) are mostly gone they can go even faster for even further.

      I’m beginning to sound like a grumpy old man. Apologies, and for judging Glenrothes so harshly. If it’s any consolation, I do like the late-night discounts in the bakery section of Morrisons 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  8. Janice Johnson

    My look forward to read every week during the bee season, put me bees ‘to bed’ last week but they have other ideas, harvesting ivy as we speak 🥺

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Janice

      Good to know … thank you 🙂

      Worth remembering that I write outside the bee season as well 😉

      The ivy appears to have been unusually good this year. Even here in Scotland they managed to exploit it. Usually it’s too cold/windy/wet by the time the ivy flowers for the bees to do much with it. Mine are still bringing ivy pollen in even though it got no higher than ~10°C today (and we had 15 mm of rain).

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  9. Dorothie Jones

    This is very familiar!
    For various reasons, we have to move our club teaching apiary from it’s current location, where it has been for a number of years, to a new one several miles away.
    Quite apart from the hassle of moving the hives, this has entailed the dreaded clearing of ‘the shed!’
    A lot of delving into the darkest corners where no-one has been for yonks, plus a lot of accumulated ‘useful’ clutter.
    With more than one person trying to sort this out, there has been a lot of ‘discussion’ about what to throw and what to keep! One person’s useful item is another’s rubbish!!
    However everything is now cleaned and boxed up and ready to go, although we have still failed to find several hive tools gone missing in the apiary or shed over the years. Maybe they will appear in some archaeological dig in a hundred years time!!!
    I wonder how long it will take for the new shed to fill up again?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Dorothie

      I’d have thought it was almost hopeless trying to clear a shed with a committee-full of people. Even on my own I have a tendency to deliberate rather too long than is healthy. Some things take seconds to make a decision about, others are discarded and subsequently ‘rescued’ from the bin/bonfire at the last minute. I always find myself giving certain things the benefit of the doubt. I have half a dozen poly nuc boxes split down the middle into 2 x 3 framers … I never liked them. The queens always seem to sneak over the division somehow. I’ve not used them for 5 years and should just chuck them out.

      However, at least I know I should chuck them out. If there was a committee with me I’m sure someone would say “Oh, I’ll have a go with those next season … let’s keep them”.

      And in answer to your final question … about a blink of an eye. My first shed was 12 x 8. I then added a 16 x 8 and used the first for storage. Both are crowded. I now also have a 16 x 10 which is bulging at the sides.

      Whatever the Tardis is … my shed is the exact opposite. Looks big on the outside, but is very cramped once you enter 🙁

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Dorothie Jones

        Yes. Our latest ‘discussion’ is about moving the original shed (still robust enough and with plenty of life left in it) or investing in a shiny new and much larger one.
        I know what my feelings are (the old shed is already too small etc etc) but others are mindful of the fact that the current shed is still perfectly serviceable. Plus we don’t want to leave it behind either!
        Maybe 2 sheds is the way to go? Decisions, decisions!!
        Have a good winter
        Dorothie

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          No question about it … move the undersized one and invest in a bigger one. You’ll still run out of space 😉

          As an aside, take care dismantling the old one before moving it. They often don’t go together quite as well as they should. My ‘old’ shed acquired a few wasp-shaped gaps that needed sealing after moving it.

          Cheers
          David

          Reply

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