Strong hives = live hives

Science and beekeeping make for interesting contrasts and can be awkward bedfellows 1.

Science is based upon observation of tested single variables. multiple repeats and statistical analysis. It builds on what has gone before but has accepted processes to challenge well-established theories. Some of the greatest advances are made by young researchers willing to test – and subsequently overturn – established dogma.

Over the last three generations science – both how we do it and what we understand – has changed almost beyond recognition.

In contrast, beekeeping is steeped in history, has multiple variables – climate, forage, ability – and very small sample sizes. It tends to be taught by the most experienced, passing down established – though often not rigorously tested 🙁 – methods 2.

As a consequence our beekeeping has barely changed over the last three decades. Established dogma tends to stay established.

Local bees are better adapted to local conditions

So let’s look in a little more detail at one of these established ‘facts’ … that locally reared bees are better adapted to local conditions.

The suggestion here is that locally reared bees, because they’re ‘better adapted’ (whatever that means) are more likely to flourish when the going is good, and more likely to survive when the going gets tough.

Furthermore, the implication is that they’re more likely to do better in that environment than bees reared elsewhere (and that are therefore adapted to a different environment).

This sounds like common sense.

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

As Brexit looms and the never-ending supply of early-season Greek or Slovenian queens disappears perhaps it’s also fortunate, rather than just being common sense.

But, as a scientist, I’ve spent a career questioning things.

Every time I read the “locally adapted bees survive better (or perform better, or whatever better)” 3 two questions pop into my head …

  1. What’s local?
  2. How did they prove – or how would I test – this?

Spoiler alert

There is evidence that local bees show adaptive changes to their local environment. There is also evidence that local bees do better in their local environment.

Formally, I don’t think scientists have demonstrated that the former explains the latter. This might seem trivial, but it does mean that our understanding is still incomplete.

However, I’m not going to discuss any of these things today – but I will in the future.

Instead I’m going to deal with those two questions that pop into my head.

If we tackle those I think we’ll be better placed to address that dogmatic statement that local bees are better adapted to local conditions in due course.

But perhaps we’ll first discover that other things are more important?

What’s local?

I live most of the time in central Fife. It’s a reasonably dry, relatively cool, largely arable part of the UK with a beekeeping season that lasts about 5 months (from first to last inspections).

Are my (fabulous 😉 ) locally bred queens adapted for central Fife, or the east of Scotland, or perhaps north-west maritime Europe, or Europe?

Where have all my young girls gone?

What a beauty

Would these locally adapted bees do better here (in Fife) than bees raised in the foothills of the Cairngorms, or the Midlands, or Devon or East Anglia … or Portugal?

If you measure the environment you’ll find there’s significant overlap in terms of the climate, the temperature, the forage, the day length (or a hundred other determinants) with other regions of the UK.

The temperature or rainfall extremes we experience in central Fife aren’t significantly different to those in the Midlands. The season duration is different (because of latitude), but I had lots of short seasons in the Midlands due to cool springs and early autumns.

Local is an ill-defined and subjective term.

But there are differences of course. Are Ardnamurchan bees better able to cope with the rain (and the fantastic scenery) than Fife bees? Are Fife bees better able to exploit arable crops than those foraging on the heather and Atlantic rainforests that cloak the hills in the far west of Scotland?

I don’t know 🙁

And there’s something else I don’t know

I also don’t know how I would meaningfully test this.

Just thinking about these types of experiments makes me nervous. Think of the year to year variation – in weather, forage etc. – compounded by the hive to hive variation.

Then multiply that by the variation between beekeepers.

This last one is a biggy. Two beekeepers of differing abilities will experience very different levels of success – quantified in terms of honey yield or hives that survive for example – in the same season and environment.

Doing a study large enough to be statistically relevant without having such enormous variation that the results are essentially meaningless is tricky.

What a nightmare.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to a paper earlier this year by Maryann Frazier and Christina Grozinger from Penn State University.

Ask the question in a different way

The title of the paper tells you most of what you need to know about the study.

Colony size, rather than geographic origin of stocks, predicts overwintering success in honey bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) in the northeastern United States. 4

But don’t stop reading … let’s look in a bit more detail at what they did.

They approached the question (that local bees are better adapted) from a slightly different angle.

Essentially the question they asked was “Does the geographic origin of the bees influence the overwintering survival of bees in a temperate region?”

This question is easier to answer.

They defined the parameters of the experiment a bit more clearly. For example:

  • Rather than looking at several regions they just studied bees in one area  – Pennsylvania (the temperate region in the title of the paper).
  • The bees came from four sources; two were from a hot geographic region of the USA and two from a cold region.
  • They scored ‘doing better’ only in terms of overwintering survival.

By simplifying the question they could reduce some of the variables. They could therefore increase the quantification of the parameters (colony weight, strength/size etc.) that might influence the ‘doing better’.

And in doing so, they came up with an answer.

The study

Sixty colonies were established in three apiaries in Pennsylvania. Two of the apiaries (A & B) were within 1 mile of each other, with the third (C) about 15 miles away. Colonies were generally established from packages 5, to which a queen was introduced from one of four different queen breeders.

Two of the queen breeders were from southern USA (Texas or Florida) and two from northern USA (Vermont and West Virginia 6.

The authors used microsatellite analysis to confirm that the queens – after introduction – headed genetically distinct colonies by midsummer 7.

So far, so good …

They then used standard beekeeping methods to manage the colonies – regular inspections, Varroa treatments as appropriate, feeding them up for winter etc.

They scored colonies for a variety of ‘parameters’; net weight, frames of brood, adult bees and stores.

Four queens failed before winter.

And then they overwintered the remaining 56 colonies …

The results

… of which only 39 survived until April 🙁

39/56 sounds a pretty catastrophic loss to me but it’s actually about the same (~30%) as the average winter losses reported each year in the USA.

So, did the ‘cold-adapted’ 8 Vermont queens survive and prosper? Did the ‘Southern Belles’ 9 from Texas all perish in the cold Pennsylvanian winter?

No.

That’s no to both questions.

There was no significant difference in survival of colonies headed by queens from the north or the south.

The geographic ‘origin’ of the bees did not determine colony survival.

They may have been ‘locally adapted’ (to Vermont, or Texas or wherever) and they were certainly genetically distinct, but it made no difference to whether the colony perished or not in Pennsylvania.

So if the source of the queen didn’t influence things, what did?

Weighty matters

This is the key figure from the paper.

Overwintering success is significantly associated with colony weight.

The heavier a colony was in October, the more likely that the colony survived until April.

The left hand panel shows the probability of a colony surviving (vertical axis, solid line) plotted against the net weight of the colony.

Below about 30 kg colony survival dropped significantly.

The right hand panel shows that net weight alone was not the only determinant. This plots colonies ranked by weight (vertical axis) and indicates whether they survived or not. An underweight (i.e. under 30 kg) colony in apiary C was much more likely to survive than a similar weight colony from the other two apiaries.

Allee, Allee 10

The heavier the colony, the greater the chance it survived. Furthermore, it wasn’t simply the amount of stores available.

Heavier colonies were also larger colonies.

This indicates a so-called Allee effect 11 which is a positive correlation between population density and individual fitness.

This has been shown before for honey bees (and other social insects). For bees we know that the larger the winter cluster the better they are able to maintain the correct overwintering temperature. These large clusters show lower per capita honey consumption to maintain the same temperature when compared to small clusters.

However, in addition to not running out of stores (due to more frugal usage) 12, large colonies will also be better able to rear brood in early spring … ‘it takes bees to make bees’.

Taken together these results demonstrate that colony size and weight, rather than geographic adaptation, is probably the most important determinant of overwintering colony survival.

Disease interlude

These studies were conducted in 2013 (and published in 2019 … a feature of some of my science 🙁 ). In the previous year the authors set up a similar study but did not manage Varroa levels.

Under these conditions only 12% of the colonies survived.

There’s a lesson there I think 😉

This disastrous 2012 study used the same queen breeders to source their queens (from Texas, Florida, West Virgina and Vermont). Some of these queens were described and sold as ‘Varroa-resistant’.

There was no difference in survival (or, more accurately, death) rates between colonies headed by queens described as ‘Varroa-resistant’ or not.

Another lesson perhaps?

Is there a geographic component to Varroa-resistance? Are Varroa-resistant Vermont colonies only actually resistant to mites from Vermont?

Or their viruses? 13

OK, we’re getting distracted … let’s return to apiary C.

Forage diversity and abundance is also important

Colonies in apiary C survived better at lower overall net weights than colonies from other apiaries. In addition, average colony weights were higher in apiary C than in the other two apiaries.

Apiary location significantly affected colony weight and survival.

And the abundance and range of nectar sources was significantly different between the three apiaries used in this study, with colonies from apiary C – located in a less forested and more agricultural area – surviving better.

The proportion of land cover/land use types surrounding apiaries.

The authors suggest that the forage diversity and abundance around apiary C increased the size of the colonies (by boosting brood rearing, adult longevity and colony growth) and that it was this larger adult population, rather than colony weight per se, that was important.

Are we getting the message?

This is the second time in a month that I’ve discussed the importance of strong colonies.

A few weeks ago I discussed how strong colonies are more profitable because they generate a surplus of honey or bees, both of which are valuable.

In this post I show that the primary determinant of overwintering success is the strength and weight of the colony. The source of the queen – whether from the balmy south or the frosty north – had no significant influence on colony survival.

This doesn’t mean local bees aren’t better adapted to local conditions. That wasn’t what was being tested.

However, it does suggest that other things that may be as important, or perhaps more important.

The take home message from this study is keep strong colonies in a forage-rich environment.

In a future post I’ll discuss the evidence that local bees are better adapted … and I’ll make the suggestion that some of these adaptations might be explained because the local genotype actually produces stronger colonies 😉


Note

This was originally published with the title Correlates of winter survival on 8/11/2019 but a hamster running amok in the server meant that the email to those registered to receive announcements of new posts was never sent. Rather than let the post disappear into digital oblivion – as the take home message is an important one – I’m re-posting it again.

With apologies to those who read the original …

Spotty brood ≠ failing queen

I thought I’d discuss real beekeeping this week, rather than struggle with the high finance of honey sales or grapple with the monetary or health consequences of leaving supers on the hive.

After all, the autumn equinox has been and gone and most of us won’t see bees for several months 🙁

We need a reminder of what we’re missing.

Beekeeping provides lots of sensory pleasures – the smell of propolis on your fingers, the taste of honey when extracting, the sound of a full hive ‘humming’ as it dries stored nectar … and the sight of a frame packed, wall-to-wall, with sealed brood.

Brood frame with a good laying pattern

This is a sight welcomed by all beekeepers.

Nearly every cell within the laid up part of the frame is capped. All must therefore have been laid within ~12 days of each other (because that’s the length of time a worker cell is capped for).

However, the queen usually lays in concentric rings from the middle of the frame. Therefore, if you gently uncap a cell every inch or so from the centre of the frame outwards, you’ll see the oldest brood is in the centre and the most recently capped is at the periphery.

It’s even more reassuring if the age difference between the oldest and the youngest pupae is significantly less than 12 days. Hint … look at the eye development and colouration.

This shows that the queen was sufficiently fecund to lay up the entire frame in just a few days.

What are these lines of empty cells?

But sometimes, particularly on newly drawn comb, you’ll see lines of cells which the queen has studiously avoided laying up.

That'll do nicely

That’ll do nicely …

It’s pretty obvious that these are the supporting wires for the sheet of foundation. Until the frame has been used for a few brood cycles these cells are often avoided.

I don’t know why.

It doesn’t seem to be that the wire is exposed at the closed end of the cell. I suspect that either the workers don’t ‘prepare’ the cell properly for the queen – because they can detect something odd about the cell – or the queen can tell that there’s something awry.

However, after a few brood cycles it’s business as usual and the entire frame is used.

Good laying pattern ...

Good laying pattern …

All of these laid up frames contain a few apparently empty cells. There are perhaps four reasons why these exist:

  • Workers failed to prepare the cell properly for the queen to lay in
  • The queen simply failed to lay an egg in the cell
  • An egg was laid but it failed to hatch
  • The egg hatched but the larvae perished

Actually, there’s a fifth … the cell may have been missed (for whatever reason) but the queen laid in it later and so it now contains a developing larva, yet to be capped.

What are all these empty cells?

But sometimes a brood frame looks very different.

Worker brood 1 is present across the entire frame but there are a very large number of missed cells.

Patchy brood pattern

Patchy brood & QC’s …

Note: Ignore the queen cells on this frame! It was the only one I could find with a poor brood pattern.

This type of patchy or spotty brood pattern is often taken as a sign of a failing queen.

Perhaps she’s poorly mated and many of the eggs are unfertilised (but they should develop into drone brood)?

Maybe she or the brood are diseased, either reducing her fecundity or the survival and development of the larvae?

Sometimes spotty brood is taken as a sign of inbreeding or poor queen mating.

Whatever the cause, colonies producing frames like that shown above are clearly going to be less strong than those towards the top of the page 2.

So, if the queen is failing, it’s time to requeen the colony …

Right?

Perhaps, perhaps not …

Which brings me to an interesting paper published by Marla Spivak and colleagues published in Insects earlier this year 3.

This was a very simple and straightfoward study. There were three objectives, which were to:

  • Determine if brood pattern was a reliable indicator of queen quality
  • Identify colony-level measures associated with poor brood pattern colonies
  • Examine the change in brood pattern after queens were exchanged into a colony with the opposite brood pattern (e.g. move a ‘failing queen’ into a colony with a good brood pattern)

If you are squeamish look away now.

Inevitably, measuring some of the variables relating to queen quality and mating success involve sacrificing the queen, dissecting her and counting ‘stuff’ … like viable sperm in the spermathecae.

Unpleasant, particularly for the queen(s) in question, but a necessary part of the study.

However, in the long run it might save some queens, so it may have been a worthwhile sacrifice … so, on with the story.

Queen-level variables in ‘good’ and ‘poor’ queens

By queen level variables I mean things about the queen that could be measured – and that differ – between queens with a good laying pattern or a poor laying pattern.

Surprisingly, good and poor queens were essentially indistinguishable in terms of sperm counts, sperm viability, body size or weight.

Poor queens i.e. those generating a spotty brood pattern, weren’t small queens, or poorly mated queens. They were also not more likely to have fewer than 3 million sperm in the spermathecae (a threshold for poorly mated queens in earlier studies).

Furthermore, the queens had no statistical differences in pathogen presence or load (i.e. amount), including viruses (DWV, Lake Sinai Virus, IAPV or BQCV), Nosema or trypanosomes (Crithidia). 

Hmmm … puzzling.

Colony-level variables

So if the queens did not differ, perhaps colonies with spotty brood patterns had other characteristics that distinguished them from colonies with good brood patterns?

Spivak and colleagues measured pathogen presence and amount in both the good-brood and poor-brood colonies.

Again, no statistical differences.

So what happens when queens laying poor-brood patterns are put into a good-brood pattern hive?

And vice versa …

Queen exchange studies

This was the most striking part of the study. The scientists exchanged queens between colonies with poor-brood and good-brood and then monitored the change in quality of the brood pattern 4.

Importantly, they monitored brood quality 21 days after queen exchange. I’ll return to this shortly.

Changes in sealed brood pattern after queen exchange

Queen from good-brood colonies showed a slight decrease in brood pattern quality (but not so much that they’d be considered to now generate poor brood patterns).

However, surprisingly, queens from poor-brood colonies exhibited a greater improvement in brood quality (+11.6% ± 9.9% more sealed cells) than the loss observed in the reverse exchange (-8.0% ± 10.9% fewer sealed cells).

These results indicate that the colony environment has a statistically significant impact on the sealed brood pattern.

Admittedly, a 10-20% increase (improvement) in the sealed brood pattern on the last frame photograph (above) might still not qualify as a ‘good brood pattern’ queen, but it would certainly be an improvement.

Matched and mismatched workers

Since exchanged queens were monitored just 21 days after moving them all the workers in the receiving hive were laid – and so genetically related to – the previous queen.

The authors acknowledge this and comment that it would be interesting to extend the period until surveying the hive to see if ‘matched’ workers reverted to the poor brood pattern (assuming that was what the queen originally laid).

This and a host of other questions remain unanswered and will undoubtedly form the basis of future studies.

The authors conclude that “Brood pattern alone was an insufficient proxy of queen quality. In future studies, it is important to define the specific symptoms of queen failure being studied in order to address issues in queen health.”

Notwithstanding the improvements seen in some brood patterns I suspect they would be insufficient to justify not replacing an underperforming queen … when considering the issue as a practical beekeeper i.e. there may be improvements but they were much less than could be achieved by replacing the queen from a known and reliable source.

But it might be worth thinking twice about this …

Insufficient storage space

In closing it’s worth noting that I’ve seen spotty or incomplete brood patterns when there’s a very strong nectar flow on and the colony is short of super storage space.

Under these conditions the bees start to backfill the brood box, taking up cells that the queen would lay in.

Usually this is resolved just by adding another super or two.

If there remains any doubt (about the queen) and you’ve provided more supers you can determine the quality of the laying pattern by putting a new frame of drawn comb into the brood nest.

The queen should lay this up in a day or two if she’s “firing on all cylinders”.

In which case, definitely keep her 🙂


 

Website malfunction

The Apiarist is updated every Friday.

Regular as clockwork … except for one Wednesday in May when I pushed the ‘Publish’ button too soon 🙄

However, we’ve had technical issues and I think email subscribers have not been receiving announcements of new posts.

Regular as clockwork

As a consequence of the large number of subscribers who receive ‘new post’ announcements, visitor numbers peak on a Friday evening, remain high over the weekend and then tail off through the rest of the week.

Or they did until ~12 days ago when parts of the site were upgraded and email announcements to subscribers appear to have stopped altogether (I’m a subscriber 1 and I belatedly realised I didn’t get the ‘new post’ announcement). Consequently visitor numbers have flatlined … 🙁

Where have all my young girls gone?

What a beauty

Hopefully this post corrects things … this is what has appeared since the glitch:

  • On Friday 18th October I posted Matchstick miscellany – this is a comment on the recommendation to provide ventilation to hives over the winter. I think the advice is wrong and I explain why.
  • On Friday 25th October I posted Income and outgoings – this is a follow-up to a recent post on beekeeping economics. In this most recent post I describe how to significantly increase profits from beekeeping … by reducing your outgoings and increasing your income.

Please have a read if you’ve not seen these … and apologies for the dual posting if you have 2.

David


 

 

Income and outgoings

I discussed beekeeping economics a couple of weeks ago.

I used some potentially questionable survey data on hive numbers, winter losses, honey yields and pricing, together with ‘off the shelf’ costs for frames, sugar and miticides.

Even ignoring the costs of travel and depreciation on equipment the ‘profit’ was not substantial.

Actually, it was just £102 per colony.

Consider the hard work involved, the heavy lifting, the vagaries of the weather and the amount of honey given away to friends and family.

You are not going to get rich fast (or at all) and the Maldives will have to remain a dream.

What a fantastic beekeeping year that was …

Most of us 1 keep bees for pleasure. However, a small profit from our endeavours can’t do any harm, and may actually do some good.

It might pay for a “sorry I was late back from the apiary … again” crate of beer/bunch of flowers 2 or for the new smoker to replace the one you reversed the car over.

Smoker still life

Smoker

So how do you fund the purchase of a crate of beer/bunch of flowers and a new smoker?

How do you increase the profit per colony from that rather paltry £100 to something a little more substantial?

It’s clear that to do this you need to reduce your outgoings and increase your income.

Income and outgoings

I’m going to restrict myself to the same range of outgoing costs and sources of income to those I covered on beekeeping economics.

I’m ignoring most equipment costs, depreciation, petrol, honey gifts to friends etc. All these reduce ‘profit’.

Here is the summary table presented earlier. Remember, this is for a four hive apiary, per annum 3.

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 40.00
Miticides 38.00
Food 26.00
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 63.00 550.00
Nucleus colony 15.00 40.00
Sub totals 182.00 590.00
Profit 408.00

Cutting your food costs

Not a whole lot of leeway here I’m afraid.

Granulated sugar is probably the least expensive way of feeding your bees for the winter. Other than shopping around for the best price there’s not much option to reduce your outgoings.

However, before buying sugar it’s always worth asking your local supermarket for any spoilt or damaged packets. Supermarkets are under pressure to reduce waste and can usually be persuaded to support something as environmentally-friendly as local bees.

It costs nothing to ask.

Many beekeeping associations will arrange bulk purchases of either Ambrosia-type invert syrup or fondant. I’ll comment more extensively on this later.

Cutting your medicine costs

There are even fewer opportunities for savings if you want to use VMD-approved miticides.

I’ve discussed miticide costs extensively in the past. The figures are now a bit dated (and they omitted Apivar which was not available off-prescription at the time). However, it remains broadly true that the annual cost per hive is about the same as a jar of honey 4.

If you’re using Api-Bioxal for midwinter trickling remember that you can safely dilute it to a final concentration of 3.2% (w/v), rather than that recommended on the label. Historically the UK has used oxalic acid at 3.2% and there’s no increase in efficacy at the higher strength. Full details are provided on the preparation of oxalic acid elsewhere.

At 3.2% w/v a 35g “10 hive” pack of Api-Bioxal will treat 15 hives.

There … at £11.95 a packet I’ve just slashed your midwinter treatment costs from £1.20 a hive to  80p.

Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves 😉

Frames and foundation

First quality ‘off the shelf’ frames with foundation cost about £3 each. Obviously it makes sense to shop around and/or buy in bulk.

However, much more substantial savings are possible if you do three things:

  • re-use frames after steaming and sterilising
  • use second quality frames bought on supplier ‘sale days’
  • use foundationless frames

If you nail and glue frames during construction they usually survive at least a couple of trips through a steam wax extractor. Yes, there’s some work involved in cleaning them up afterwards, but it’s no more work than building new frames each year.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

Second quality frames are sold in packs of 50 for about £37.50 5. Of the hundreds I’ve used I’ve had few (~2% or less) that were unusable due to knots, shakes, splits or other weaknesses.

Foundationless frames take a bit longer to build and you have additional expenditure on bamboo or wire/nylon. However, this outlay is insignificant when compared with the saving made on foundation.

Remember that foundationless frames built with bamboo supports can go through a steam wax extractor and be put back into service. Don’t use wax starter strips. Use lollipop sticks or tongue depressors fixed with waterproof wood glue.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

Purchased premium foundation is lovely stuff but freshly drawn comb on a foundationless frame is even better. Contamination-free, robust once fully drawn and much easier to clean from the frame when it eventually goes through the steamer.

Taken together – re-use, second quality and foundationless – I calculate that frames cost me ~25p each. This equates to a saving of £36.75 over a year 6. Remember also that additional outlay on brood frames is needed to produce nucleus colonies (see below) where the savings would be £13.75 per nuc produced.

That’s more like it 🙂

A co-operative association intermission

Beekeeping associations often have co-operative purchasing schemes. Bulk purchasing reduces both individual item costs and (often substantial) P&P costs. These schemes are often organised to pass on the majority of the discount and retain a small amount of the savings for association activities.

The larger the association the greater the savings that can be made, and there’s no reason why neighbouring associations or regional groupings cannot act together.

Yes, of course, it takes some organisation. If your association doesn’t have such a scheme either find one that does or set up your own.

My beekeeping alma mater (Warwick and Leamington Beekeepers) offered excellent discounts on jars, honey buckets, foundation, Ambrosia, fondant and gloves … and probably a load of other things I didn’t take advantage of when I was a member 7.

Products of the hive

That’s enough about outlay, what about income?

Honey bees make honey and bees.

Both are very valuable.

You can maximise income in two ways.

You can make more of either (or both) or you can sell them at a higher price.

You might even be able to achieve both.

I’ll deal with these in reverse order …

Maximising the prices of honey and bees

I’ve discussed honey pricing recently. If you’re producing a unique, high quality, well packaged product (and if you’re not, you should be) you need to price it accordingly.

More local honey

That’s not the £4 a pound charged for the imported, blended, filtered, pasteurised, uniform, dull, available-by-the-tonne-anywhere rubbish stuff sold by the supermarkets.

Look in the delicatessens and local artisan outlets … you might be surprised.

£10 a pound is not unreasonable.

£10 a pound is readily achievable.

But let’s not be greedy, let’s assume a very conservative £7.50 a pound.

Local honey

At £7.50/lb the average UK yield of 25lb of honey per hive equates to £687 (for the four hives) after paying out £63 for jars and labels 8

Two factors contribute to the price you can realise for bees (which, for this exercise, means nucleus colonies):

  1. Timing – to maximise the price you need to sell when demand is the highest and supply is limited. This means early in the season. You therefore must overwinter nucs and ensure they are strong and healthy in mid-late April. Four to six weeks later there’s a glut of bees available as colonies start swarm preparation … prices drop precipitously. Nucs are easy to overwinter with a little TLC.
  2. Quality – with a small number of colonies it is not easy to improve your stocks. However, by judicious replacement of poorly-performing queens/colonies you should be able to produce perfectly acceptable bees for sale. Don’t try selling bad bees – chalkbrood-riddled, poorly behaved, patchy brood or diseased (high Varroa, overt DWV etc.).

If you are selling one or more nucs you should expect to allow them to be inspected before the sale. Just like honey tasting, nothing is more convincing than trying the product.

Maximising the amount of honey and bees

All other things being equal 9 stronger colonies will produce more honey and generate more ‘spare’ nucs.

Compare a productive commercial colony and an unproductive amateur colony at the height of the season. What’s the difference?

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

The productive colony is on a double brood box underneath three or four full or rapidly filling supers. There are 16+ frames of brood and the beekeeper has already split off a nuc for swarm control.

In contrast, the unproductive colony has about seven frames of brood in a single brood box topped by an underwhelmingly light super. There’s little chance of producing a spare nuc this season … or much honey.

But at least they might not swarm 🙂 10

Generating these strong colonies requires good genetics and good beekeeping.

With further good management the productive colony could produce another couple of supers of late-season honey and at least one more nuc for overwintering.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

How does that help the bank balance?

Let’s assume an ambitious-but-not-entirely-unrealistic one nuc per colony and 75lb of honey per annum in total (being sold at £175 per nuc and £7.50 a pound for honey). Honey ‘profit’ for the four colonies in our hypothetical apiary works out at £2061 11 with a further £700 for the sale of four nucs at £175 each 12.

That works out at a very much more impressive £690 per colony.

Minimising losses

But wait, surely we have to use some of those valuable nucs to make up for the 25% overwintering colony losses that the average UK beekeeper experiences?

No we don’t 🙂

If you have the beekeeping skills to manage strong colonies you almost certainly also have below average overwintering losses.

And that’s because strong colonies are, almost by definition, healthy colonies which have low mite and virus levels. And, as we’ve seen time and time again, low virus levels means reduced winter losses.

This minimises the need for nucs to maintain overall colony numbers and so maximises the nucs for sale 🙂

For the sake of finishing this already overly long post, let’s assume overwintering colony losses are 12.5% (because it makes the maths easier … 10% or lower is readily achievable) rather than the 25% national average.

That being the case, for our four hive hypothetical apiary, we’ll need one replacement nuc every two years. Therefore, over a four year period we might generate 16 nucs and use just 2 of them to replace lost colonies.

Kerching!

Here are the figures for our hypothetical four colony apiary. These assume good bees, good beekeeping, low winter losses, good forage, good weather and a following wind.

I’ve assumed savings are being made where possible on frames and foundation, but also increased the number of frames (and miticides) needed to reflect colony size and strength.

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 7.50 13
Miticides 76.00 14
Food 52.00 15
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 189.00 16 2250.00 17
Nucleus colony 5.00 18 612.50 19
Sub totals 329.50 2862.50
Profit 2533.00

Per colony the overall profit is £633/annum (cf £102/colony/annum for an ‘average’ hive and beekeeper).

These figures are not unrealistic (though they’re not necessarily typical either).

They won’t be achieved every year. They are dependent upon good forage, good weather and having the beekeeping skills needed to maintain strong healthy colonies.

They might be exceeded in some years. With good forage and a good season 100+ pounds of honey per colony can be achieved.

You have no control over the weather 20, but you can influence the other two factors. You can place your bees on better forage and you can continuously try and improve your skills as a beekeeper.

And learning how to maintain (and keep!) really strong healthy productive colonies is demonstrably a very valuable skill to acquire.

E & OE

Just like in the previous article, I’ve made all sorts of assumptions and cut all sorts of corners.

Managing big strong double-brood colonies producing a nuc each every year and topped by at least three supers inevitably means investing in lots more brood boxes, supers and nuc boxes 21.

It also means a lot more work.

Extracting and jarring hundreds of pounds of honey takes time. It also benefits from some automation … an extractor, a creamer, settling tanks, a honey processing room, a warm room for supers etc.

But that lot is not needed for our well-managed four hive hypothetical apiary.

The other things I’ve deliberately omitted are alternative ways of managing colonies for profit. For example, as suggested by Calum in a previous comment, propolis is a very valuable product of the hive. You can split a strong colony very hard to generate 6-10 nucs (but no honey). You can rear queens (very easily) and you can sell wax.

You could even produce Royal Jelly …

And it’s that endless variety and options that make beekeeping so fascinating.


 

 

Matchstick miscellany

White propolis

What is propolis for?

Why, when you go to open a hive that you’ve not visited for some time, is the crownboard invariably stuck down with propolis?

Are the bees trying to stop you looking in? Do they think a thin bead of propolis is defence against a well-aimed hive tool?

Of course not.

What they are doing is sealing up every tiny nook and cranny, every gap and interstice.

You might think the crownboard is a snug fit.

The bees don’t.

Even the brand new, smooth, flat plastic interface between an Abelo crownboard and brood box get glued together within days.

Every fissure through which wasps 1 could gain access or heat could escape or water enter or whatever is gummed shut with a liberal helping of propolis.

Propolis is of course also antibacterial and has a host of other great properties, but for the purpose of this post I’m restricting myself to its use as a sort of “No Nonsense Decorators Caulk” of the bee world 2.

Mind the gap

Additional evidence that bees really do ‘mind the gap’ is easy to find if you use crownboards with holes in them.

Not the great gaping opening(s) designed to accommodate a porter bee escape (I’ll return to these shortly), but instead something like the ventilated disks in the grossly over-engineered Abelo poly crownboards.

Abelo poly National crownboard ...

Abelo poly National crownboard …

Here’s a brand new one, just out of the packing, with all the little fiddly ventilated plastic disks and poly plugs to cover them.

And this is what one of those ventilated holes looks like after a few weeks use …

Exhibit A … ventilated hole in an Abelo crownboard

And the same thing applies to wire mesh screens when I use split boards as crownboards (because I’ve run out … even of the 25p polythene ones).

Split board

Split board …

Which end up looking like this …

Exhibit B … are you getting the message?

Matchsticks … don’t try this at home

I’m an increasingly irregular visitor and even less frequent contributor to the online beekeeping discussion forums. On one 3 there’s a perennial discussion thread around this time of year concerning matchsticks.

Matchless matches

Essentially the discussion starts with a question or comment on the need for matchsticks as spacers to separate the crownboard from the brood box during the winter.

You’ll find this advice in many beekeeping books going back more than half a century and you’ll hear it in many ‘Start beekeeping’ winter courses … often taught by beekeepers who learned their beekeeping half a century ago.

In many cases the online forum discussion is started by a recommendation in the monthly BBKA 4 newsletter, or another online forum or Facebook group (again often BBKA-based).

The subsequent ‘discussion’ is generally nothing of the sort. The advice is (in my view rightly) criticised but as much or more effort goes into bashing the BBKA as evidencing why the advice is wrong.

I’m not here to bash the BBKA and I’ve already provided the unequivocal evidence why it’s wrong.

Much better use …

If you provide a narrow space or gap over the top of the colony they will try and seal the gap closed with propolis.

So don’t.

If you want to use matchsticks in the winter … build a model of Notre Dame instead. The bees will appreciate it more.

What are the bees telling you?

The speed with which bees seal up gaps and crevices tells you that that they ‘prefer’ not to have have these types of spaces overhead.

I’m using the word ‘prefer’ here in place of some convoluted justification around evolutionary selection of traits that benefit the long-term survival of the colony and maintenance/transmission of the genes in the environment.

They seal the gaps because to not do so, over eons, is detrimental to Apis mellifera. Not necessarily to that colony per se, but to the species.

Whether they do it to reduce robbing, to stop draughts or rain entering or to prevent the loss of warm air is, in many ways, irrelevant.

Do beekeepers really know better than millions of years of evolution?

No.

The “I always used matchsticks and my bees do well” justification

Is so deeply flawed it barely deserves contradicting.

But since I’m here, I will.

Bees have a fantastic ability to survive and even flourish despite the most cackhanded fumbling by beekeepers 5.

Just because your bees overwintered successfully with a gaping void in the crownboard does not mean they need that gaping void to survive 6.

Observe what the bees do and apply it to your beekeeping.

But what about crownboards with a big hole in for a porter bee escape? The bees don’t block those with propolis.

No, they don’t. But that’s still not justification to leave a void above the cluster. Bees seal gaps smaller than ‘bee space’ (say 8-9 mm) with propolis.

Perhaps they don’t seal up these large holes in the crownboard because the ‘triggers’ that make them seal smaller gaps aren’t present.

As an aside, I wonder if they deploy guard bees to defend these large holes above the cluster? 7

But back to the matchsticks; these create a gap significantly less than 8mm and the bees clearly demonstrate – each and every time you crack open the crownboard – that this is far from optimal.

I’m not going to get into the chimney effect, lost heat, holes in trees, water ingress, draughts etc.

Whether it’s a good idea to ventilate the winter cluster, to get rid of excess humidity or anything else, the evidence is compelling 8the bees would rather you didn’t.

Winter preparation miscellany

The two propolis-adorned crownboard pictures above were taken during an apiary visit in mid-October. I was opening hives for the final time this year. It was 12-13°C and bees were flying, bringing back pollen I presumed was largely from the ivy flowering nearby.

They fancied that fondant

Most had finished their final half block of fondant. The empty wrapper, eke and QE 9 were removed.

Others still had fondant left. In this case I bodily lifted off the QE, fondant and eke/super to give me access to the brood box.

Unfinished fondant

If you feed fondant above a QE you can balance it on an eke or empty super, so avoiding crushing the hundreds of bees clustered underneath the fondant 10

And the reason I needed access to the brood box was to recover the Apivar strips.

If the strip is fixed near the top of the frame this takes just seconds and a small amount of dexterity with a suitable hive tool.

The strips also have a small hole top and centre allowing them to be hung between frames on a matchstick.

But I don’t have matchsticks in the apiary 😉 so instead use the spike to fix them in the comb.

Apivar strips should not be left in for longer than the approved treatment period (6 – 10 weeks; these went in on the 28th of August, so are being removed after 7 weeks). This is important to avoid the reduced levels of amitraz in the ageing strips selecting for Apivar-resistant mites.

The few colonies I checked more thoroughly had little or no brood. All boxes were reassuringly heavy.

I saw a single drone amongst the dozen or so colonies I opened. Not long for this world I fear.

Since there was still pollen coming in I delayed fitting mouseguards to the colonies that need them.

I’ll deal with that once the frosts start 11.

Not long now 🙁


 

Beekeeping economics

You are not going to make a million being a beekeeper. Or even a fraction of that.

I know a couple of beekeepers who have all the trappings of wealth … the big house, the big car with the personal number plate, the holiday place in France and the beesuit with no smoker-induced holes in the veil.

Neither of them made their money beekeeping.

Anyone aboard Murray?

I’ve met a few of the large commercial beekeepers here and abroad, operations with 500 to 1000 times the number of hives I’ve got.

None of them seemed to have yachts or Ferraris.

Or any free time to enjoy them if they had 😉

If you want to have a lot of money when you finally lose your last hive tool you probably need to start with lots more 1.

But the vast majority of beekeepers aren’t commercial. Most are hobbyists.

A hobby that (sometimes) makes a profit

In the UK there are ~25,000 beekeepers. Of these, the Bee Farmers Association represent the interests of the ~400 commercial beekeeping businesses.

Over 98% of UK beekeepers therefore do not consider themselves as commercial. These amateur or hobby beekeepers have on average 3-5 hives each, according to relatively recent surveys. Most probably have just one or two, with a few having more 2.

It’s worth emphasising (again) that it is always better to have more than one colony. The small increase in work involved – the apiary visits, the inspections, extracting all that honey 😉 – is more than justified by the experience and resilience it brings to your beekeeping.

Two are better than one …

For the remainder of the post I’m going to consider a (hypothetical) beekeeper with four colonies.

What are the costs involved in running four colonies and how much ‘profit’ might be expected?

Inevitably, this is going to be very, very approximate.

I’m going to make a load of assumptions, some loosely based on real data. I’ll discuss some of the more important assumptions where appropriate.

I’m also going to ignore a load of variables that would be little more than guesstimates anyway e.g. petrol costs to get to your apiary 3, the purchase of additional hive hardware or rent for the apiary.

Why four hives?

I’ve chosen four hives for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s a small enough number you could house them in a small(ish) suburban garden and, wherever they’re sited, they will not exploit all the forage in range.

Abelo poly hives

Abelo poly hives on wooden pallets

Secondly, it’s a manageable number for one beekeeper with a full time job and lots of other commitments. However, it’s not so many you have to buy an electric extractor or build a honey-processing room 4.

Finally, some expenses are for items sold in multiples e.g. frames or miticides, and it saves me having to slice’n’dice every outgoing cost too much.

This hypothetical four hive beekeeper also, very sensibly, belongs to her local association. She therefore has access to the shared equipment (e.g. a honey extractor) that the association owns.

The costs of starting beekeeping

I’ve covered this before and will just summarise it here.

I reckon the minimum outlay is a bit less than £500. This covers the purchase of two hives (Thorne’s Bees on a Budget @ £160 for a complete hive, two supers, frames, foundation etc.), a good quality beesuit (perhaps another £100) together with the peripheral, but nevertheless essential, smoker, hive tool and gloves. It does not cover the cost of bees.

Two hives really should be considered the minimum. Even if you only start with one colony, swarm control or colony splits in your second year will necessitate the purchase of a second hive.

So, for the purpose of these back of an envelope calculations I’ll assume our hypothetical beekeeper has already spent about £1000 on starting up and then doubling up the numbers of hives.

Cedar or polystyrene hives should last more than 25 years. I’m not going to work out the depreciation on this initial outlay 5.

So, let’s get back on track.

In an average year, what is the expenditure and potential income from these four hives.

Expenditure

The outgoing costs are associated with maintaining a good environment for the bees, minimising disease and ensuring they have sufficient food for the winter (or during a nectar dearth).

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

The first annual expense is the replacement of ~30% of the brood comb every season. This is necessary to reduce the pathogen load in the hive and to replace the old, black comb with fresh new comb.

Frames and the foundation to go in them are generally bought in 10’s or 50’s. With four hives (assuming Nationals) that means you need a fraction over 13 new frames a season. First quality frames bought in 10’s, together with premium quality foundation 6, work out at £2.99 each i.e. ~£40 for the year.

To control mites you need to use miticides 7. For the purpose of this exercise we’ll assume our beekeeper chooses to use Apivar in the autumn. This costs £31 for 5 hive treatments 8 and is required once per year. In midwinter our beekeeper wisely chooses to use an oxalic acid trickle as well, knowing that – while the colony is broodless – the mites are easier to slay. £13 buys you a ten-hive (35 g) pack of Api-Bioxal 9 which has a shelf-life of more than a year, so for one year the expense is £6.50 (which for convenience I’ve rounded up to £7).

Food is essentially sugar in some form or another. A single colony needs 10-20 kg of stores for the winter (depending – very much – upon the strain of bee, the harshness of the winter etc.). You therefore need to feed about 12.5 litres of heavy syrup (2:1 by weight, sugar to water) which weighs about 16kg (and finally generates ~14 kg of stores) and contains about 10 kg of sugar. Tesco sell granulated sugar for 64p per kilogram. So, for four colonies, our beekeeper needs to purchase ~£26 of granulated sugar.

Remember two of those figures in particular – 14 kg of stores and the 10 kg of sugar that needs to be purchased to make them 10.

Expenditure totals

In total, four hives are likely to cost about £104 to maintain per year.

Yes, I know I’ve omitted all sorts of things such as stimulative feeding in the spring, replacement super frames and hive tools. I’ve not costed in the honey buckets or any number of other ‘odds and sods’ like replacement Posca pens for queen marking. Let’s keep this simple 🙂

The essentials work out at a little over £25 per hive.

But wait … there is something I’ve omitted.

Not expenditure per se, but losses that have to be made good to ensure that our beekeeper still has 4 colonies in subsequent seasons.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

These are the ‘losses’ due to colonies dying overwinter or during the season. I think these should be included because they are the reality for most beekeepers. On average ~20-25% of colonies are lost each season. Not by everyone (which I’ll cover in a follow-up article on economies in beekeeping) of course, but winter losses are so common for most beekeepers that they need to be factored in – either by making increase or by avoiding losing them in the first place.

Enough on these hidden costs, what about the the income?

Products of the hive

Bees, as well as providing critical ecosystem services (pollination) and being fascinating animals, also produce very valuable products.

The best known and most obvious product is of course honey. However, the products of the hive also includes wax, propolis and Royal Jelly.

Local honey

I’m going to ignore everything but the honey. Royal Jelly and propolis are too specialised for the sort of ‘average beekeeper’ we’re considering and four hives produce relatively small amounts of wax each year.

There’s an additional product of the hive … bees. Don’t forget these as they can be the most valuable product made in any quantity.

You can sell complete hives, small nucleus colonies (nucs) and mated queen bees 11. For convenience I’m going to assume the only ‘live’ product of the hive our beekeeper might sell is a five frame nuc if they have one spare. What’s more, I’m going to assume that our beekeeper either recoups the cost of the box or has it returned (but pays £15 for the frames and foundation in the nuc).

So, how much honey and how many bees?

Income from honey

The average honey yield in 2018 in the UK was ~31 lb per hive.

2018 was a very good season.

The annual BBKA survey of 2017 showed the average that year was ~24 lb per hive.

Yields vary year by year and according to where you keep bees. The 2010 figure was ~31 lb, 2012 was a measly 8 lb per hive and 2014 was ~31 lb. I can’t find a record of the 2016 figure (but haven’t looked too hard).

Yields are higher in the south and lower in the north.

I’m going to err on the slightly generous side and assume that the honey yield per hive is 25 lb and that our hypothetical beekeeper therefore generates 100 lb of honey per year.

More local honey

As we saw last week, honey prices vary considerably across the country.  For the purposes of these calculations we can use the BBKA survey which showed that ~56% of beekeepers sold honey at an average price of £5.49 per lb (cf. £5.67 in 2017).

And here’s the first dilemma … did the 44% of beekeepers who did not sell honey not have any honey to sell?

How does this affect the average per hive?

Or did they simply give everything away?

Or just eat it themselves 😉

The annual BBKA surveys are not ideal datasets to base these calculations on. They are voluntary and self-selecting. Perhaps the 23,000 beekeepers who did not complete the survey 12 produced 150 lb per colony.

No, I don’t think so either.

I’m going to make the assumption that the average yield per hive was 25 lb and that our beekeeper chooses to sell her honey at an average price of £5.50.

So the gross income from honey is £550 13.

However, selling this honey requires packaging – jars, labels etc. Like everything else, costs vary, but 12 oz hexagonal honey jars plus lids from C Wynne Jones cost ~39p each, with a standard custom label and a plain anti-tamper label adding a further 10p per jar.  Therefore to sell that 100 lb of honey our beekeeper will have an outlay of £63, reducing the net income to £487.

Income from bees

A strong hive in a good year should be able to produce both bees and honey. With good beekeeping, good forage and good weather it is possible to generate a super or two of honey and a nuc colony for sale or to make increase.

However, you can’t produce large amounts of both from a single hive … it’s an either or situation if you want to maximise your production of honey or nucs.

I’m not aware of any good statistics on nuc production by amateur beekeepers (or even poor statistics). My assumption – justified below – is that the majority of beekeepers produce few, if any, surplus nucs.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Why do I think that?

Firstly, nuc and package imports from overseas are very high. Demand is enormous and is clearly not met by local supply 14. Secondly, winter losses (25%, discussed above) need to be made good. I presume that this is what many/most nucs are used for.

If they’re produced at all.

There are some major gaps in the available information meaning that the next bit is a guesstimate with a capital G.

For the purpose of this exercise I’m going to assume that our hypothetical beekeeper produces one nuc per year that it is used to compensate for overwintering losses, thereby keeping colony numbers stable.

In addition, she generates one surplus nuc every four years for sale.

I’ve chosen four years as it’s approximately every four years that there is a ‘good bee season’ giving high yields of honey and the opportunity for good queen mating and surplus nuc production.

This surplus nuc is sold locally for £175 which, after subtraction of £15 for the frames, leaves an annual profit from bees of £40 (£160 every 4 years).

Income totals and overall ‘profit’

That was all a bit turgid wasn’t it?

Here are the final figures. Remember, this is for a four hive apiary, per annum (4 year average).

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 40.00
Miticides 38.00
Food 26.00
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 63.00 550.00
Nucleus colony 15.00 40.00
Sub totals 182.00 590.00
Profit 408.00

Experienced beekeepers reading this far 15 will appreciate some of the assumptions that have been made. There are many.

They’ll also probably disagree with half of the figures quoted, considering them too high.

And with the other half, considering them too low.

They’ll certainly consider the average ‘profit’ per hive per year is underestimated.

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

But remember, our hypothetical beekeeper is based upon the average productivity and number of hives reported in the BBKA annual surveys.

As you will probably realise, a limited amount of travel to and from the apiary, or to shops/markets to sell honey, very quickly eats into the rather measly £102 “profit” per hive.

Observations

I think there are two key things worth noting immediately:

  1. Miticide treatments cost ~£7.50 per hive per annum. Even at the rather derisory £5.50/lb honey price quoted, this is still less than one and a half jars of honey. It is false economy to not treat colonies for Varroa infestation. If you compare the cost of the treatment vs. the ‘value’ of a replacement nuc to make up losses (£175) it further emphasises how unwise it is to ignore the mites.
  2. Some beekeepers leave a super or two at the end of the season ‘for the bees’. This is also false economy if you want to have any profit. The ~14 kg of stores (honey) needed will be replaced with a heavy syrup feed containing 10 kg of granulated sugar. At £5.50 per pound this honey could be sold for ~£170 16. The granulated sugar costs about £6.40. Do the maths, as they say. There is no compelling (or even vaguely convincing) evidence that bees overwinter more successfully on honey rather than after a granulated sugar feed. None 17.

Summary

This article highlights some of the major expenses involved in beekeeping. Where possible I’ve based the figures on a hypothetical ‘average’ beekeeper with an average number of hives.

I’ve assumed that all outgoing costs were at list price from large suppliers (and excluded shipping costs).

I’ve left out the almost invaluable pleasure you get from working with the bees to produce lovely delicious local honey (or wax, or propolis, or bees or queens).

Do not underestimate this 🙂 Many – and I’m one – would keep some bees simply for this pleasure and the odd jar of honey.

No one is going to get rich quickly on £100 per hive per year 18. However, the purpose of this post was to provide a framework to consider where potential cost savings can be made. In addition, it will allow me to emphasise the benefits, to the bees and the beekeeper (and potentially her bank balance), of strong, healthy, highly productive colonies rather than the ‘average’ 25% colony losses per autumn with less than a full super per hive honey … which is then sold for less than it’s worth.

But that’s for another time …


Colophon

Beekeeping economics as in “The management of private or domestic finances; (also) financial position.” which is distinct from economy in beekeeping (which I will cover in a later post) meaning “The careful management of resources; sparingness”.

Honey pricing

The best way to start beekeeping is to learn by example.

Join an association, go to a Beginning beekeeping’ course over the winter and browse the catalogues.

Get a mentor, buy a nuc of well-behaved local bees in May/June and enjoy yourself.

And talk beekeeping with other beekeepers.

Ask questions, lots of them

In case you’ve not noticed, if there’s enough tea and digestives available, beekeepers can talk a lot. Ask three beekeepers a question and you’ll get at least five answers 1.

They’ll talk about swarming and queen rearing, about how imports are ruining beekeeping and about hive designs.

They’ll discuss how imported queens head calm and productive colonies and why ‘brood and a half’ is the solution to most beekeeping problems 2.

Some will enthusiastically talk about half-assed DIY ‘solutions’ to barely existent problems or why comparisons between treatment-free beekeeping and anti-vaxxers is unfair 3.

Local honey

They’ll talk about anything, agreeing and disagreeing in equal measure.

Well, not quite anything

The observant tyro will notice that there are a few topics on which experienced beekeepers are a bit less opinionated or, er, helpful.

Could you help me requeen my ‘colony of sociopaths’ this weekend?

Can you give me the phone number of the farmer with 40 acres of borage?

How did you prepare that prizewinning wax block for the annual honey show?

How much do you charge for your honey?

And not just unhelpful … they can be downright evasive.

Healthy competition

Topics like these are where beekeeping becomes a competitive pastime (except for the requeening one, which is simply self-preservation).

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We want the best forage for our bees so that colonies are strong and healthy. We want good nectar sources so that supers are heavy and numerous. We want to win ‘Best in Show’ so we can add the magic words ‘Prizewinning local honey’ to our labels which – for some at least – means we’ll be able to charge a premium for our honey.

Vulture

And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.

But think back to when you were a beginner.

That first year you had a real surplus of honey 4.

After the circling vultures of friends and family had had a jar or two for their porridge/tea/toast or acne 5. After you’ve sold half a dozen jars at the village fete, or to colleagues at work.

When you’ve actually got quite a few jars left over you’d like to sell ‘at the door’, or through an excellent local organic cafe or outstanding artisan cheese shop 6.

How much do you charge for your honey?

Firstly, if you’re in precisely this situation, don’t expect any simple answers here.

But also don’t necessarily expect any straight answer from your beekeeping colleagues.

Assuming you’re not actually dependent upon the income, in a way it doesn’t really matter what you charge. As long as you recoup your costs – jars, labels, petrol, Apivar, fondant etc. – you’ll have a hobby that pays for itself and gives you enjoyment 7.

That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

You can’t really ask for any more than that.

Except you can.

If you charge £3 a pound and cover your costs you might be able to charge £4.50 a pound and buy a new hive tool.

Or hive.

In your dreams

Or something totally unrelated to beekeeping that you’ve always wanted.

Like a Harley Davidson Softail Fat Boy 😉

Or you could charge £9 a pound and have a busman’s holiday in New Zealand every winter with the Manuka honey farmers.

Or you could charge £12.50 a pound … and sell virtually none of it because the beekeeper down the road is only charging £3 and you can buy *&%$£’s Everyday Essentials honey for 99p 8.

Tricky.

What is the competition?

Not inexpensive

With few exceptions, supermarket honey is cheap. Where there are exceptions it’s because the honey is either inexpensive … or exorbitantly priced Manuka.

Cheap and inexpensive aren’t the same thing at all. The former is produced down to a price, like the jar mentioned above priced just below the psychologically important £1 threshold.

I’d bet that any almost honey produced by a local beekeeper, whatever the forage available, however poorly it had been filtered or presented, would be better than most of these cheap supermarket honeys.

I should note in passing that any comments I make here assume the honey is actually honey (it’s not corn syrup for example) and that it’s not fermenting and hasn’t been overheated during preparation. The first of these regularly occur in the millions of tons of ‘honey’ traded globally each year, whereas the other two are more likely to be problems encountered – or caused – by inexperienced amateur beekeepers.

The inexpensive supermarket honey is (usually) bought and sold in bulk, blended, often nicely labelled and attractively packaged. It’s perfectly good honey. It’ll probably taste OK and it might sell for £3 to £4 for 340 g.

The exorbitantly priced Manuka honey is an oddity. It might well be fake and it tastes pretty awful in my view. It’s a marketing triumph of hype over substance.

So is £4 a jar the baseline?

It depends upon the size of the jar 😉

It also depends upon the effort you are prepared to make on the bottling, labelling and marketing 9.

But you’re not bottling, labelling and marketing bulk produced, blended, imported ‘Produce of EU and non EU countries’.

What you have is a far, far more valuable product than that.

You’ve had complete control over its production from start to finish – from siting the hives, through extracting, storage and jarring.

Local apiary, mid-July 2018

The provenance of the honey is without question.

There’s very few products sitting on supermarket shelves that you could say that about.

It’s very rare. This doesn’t in itself make it valuable. After all,  Ebola is thankfully very rare in the UK. However, for some people (actually many people) buying something that’s not available in every supermarket across the country is a distinct plus point.

It’s rare and its availability is limited because it’s local honey. You’ve not got 5,000 colonies spread over half a dozen postcodes in the county 10. There aren’t barrels of the same stuff in warehouses across the country 11.

What you’ve got is a few buckets of mixed floral honey from about 9 square miles (at most, probably significantly less) of the countryside around your apiary.

Known provenance

And local honey should attract a premium price.

Many people want to buy local produce and eat local food. Their definition of local and the one I use above may not align perfectly. For me, local might be the two shallow valleys and the arable farmland my bees forage in.

For the potential buyer, ‘local’ might be anything within Fife (about 500 square miles).

And Fife has a population of about a third of a million people. Which is a lot of potential customers wanting ‘local’ honey. Which means demand should or could be high.

Which, in turn, increases the price you could sell your honey for.

So, I reckon that £4 a jar is about the lowest amount you should charge.

If you can find small enough jars 😉

The £10 ceiling

But what about slightly larger jars? After all, small jars are a pain to fill. How much can you realistically charge for a one pound (454 g) jar of honey?

At the moment the upper limit seems to be about a tenner.

If you look at ‘high-end’ outlets selling good quality local produce you’ll find that there appears to be an upper price limit of about £10.

Remember that this price includes a shop markup of perhaps 20-30%. After all, they have staff, rent, insurance and other costs to cover.

Which perhaps finally gets near the answer to How much do you (or can I) charge for honey?’

Go and look in local outlets and see what they are charging for truly local honey. Not the (perfectly fine quality) honey from the larger regional suppliers (this isn’t local, it’s regional at best and, more likely, national), but the stuff from individuals within 10-15 miles or so.

Take off the guesstimated markup and that’s a reasonable guide to the price 12.

What?

There isn’t any on the shelves?

This can only mean one of three things:

  • They’ve already sold out because demand is so high = opportunity 🙂
  • There aren’t any local beekeepers selling local honey = opportunity 🙂
  • The shopkeeper has yet to realise the benefits of selling local honey = (yes, you guessed it) opportunity 🙂

I’m going to return to this topic several times over the winter.

In the meantime, back to the borage and that prizewinning wax block …

Oh dear, I’ve just reached 1500 words which is my (oft-ignored) self-imposed cutoff for waffle each week.

Those subjects will have to wait 😉


 

Quick fixes

Honey bees are remarkably resilient creatures.

As beekeepers we blunder around the hive on a weekly basis trying to ensure they don’t leave us for pastures new.

The custodians of the environment fill it with chemicals and replace those pastures with acres of distinctly bee-unfriendly monoculture.

Rather too much arable …

And, to add insult to injury, we crowd hives together and move bees with little consideration of the gallimaufry of pests and diseases we are helping to transmit.

Yet, despite this, colony numbers worldwide are increasing 1. This reflects the popularity of beekeeping, the value of honey as a commodity and the important use of honey bees to provide ‘ecosystem services’ (largely pollination) for agriculture.

Home is where the hive is

So, considering all the problems bees face when they’re out and about gathering nectar and pollen, the least we can do is provide them with well-built, watertight, secure and draught-free accommodation.

And, most of the time we do.

The quality of most commercial 2 hives these days is generally excellent. Independent manufacturers and the big national suppliers all sell very good beehives.

Even the flat-packed, second or third quality stuff you fill your car boot with on the annual ‘sale days’ is more than adequate.

You build it, you fill it with bees and they thrive.

They overwinter well, they build up strongly in the spring, you make some early splits to increase stocks and avert swarming.

They continue to thrive. It’s turning into a bumper season. You run out of supers during the strong spring nectar flows.

And then the swarming begins … and you run out of brood boxes (you’ve already run out of supers), crown boards, roofs etc.

This is when you discover all sorts of quick fixes that the bees cope just fine with. These allow you to continue beekeeping through periods with too many bees and too little equipment.

I’m going to use mostly pictures rather than lots of words. This is not an exhaustive list and it’s not restricted to the May and June swarming frenzy.

I’m sure many readers have their own solutions to short-term (or long-term) beekeeping problems. Feel free to post them in the comments section.

Hive stands

Abelo hives on pallet. Note entrances face in opposite directions.

Wooden pallets work fine as hive stands, as do stacked car tyres, or even simply stacking one hive on top of another (which saves a roof). If doing the latter it can help (the bees, but not necessarily the beekeeper) to have the entrances pointing in opposite directions.

Floors

You don’t need a fancy open mesh floor with an adjustable entrance. A sheet of Correx and some strips of softwood can be perfectly adequate.

Inside ...

Cheapy, cheapy floor … when you’ve run out of everything else.

And if you’re really running short of kit drill a hole through the sidewall of an eke and place it on the roof of another hive i.e. no floor at all.

It’s critical the hole is about the diameter of the cork from a good bottle of red wine. This is essential. For obvious reasons … you do want to use it as an eke again sometime in the future 😉

Boxes

Two stacked supers are a bit deeper than a single brood box (National hive). If you haven’t run out of supers (yet … you will) they make a perfectly adequate substitute.

Under offer ...

Two stacked supers, in this case set up as a bait hive. Note also the hive stand. And the roof.

Half of my bait hives are built from two supers.

As an aside, if you want to unite bees from these Paradise/Modern Beekeeping poly hives (see photo above) over the top of a standard National brood box, you’ll need a thin, wide shim to avoid bee-sized holes at the junction.

Shim

Shim …

This shim wrecks the ‘bee space’ but it’s only in use for a few days so it isn’t a problem 3.

Which, in a way, is the definition of the sort of quick fix I’m describing here … something that’s pressed into service for a relatively short period of time and that works satisfactorily, though perhaps not perfectly.

And is often still in use years later 😉

Crownboards

That’ll be 25p please

Poly crownboard ...

Poly crownboard …

… though a (well washed) fertiliser sack works just as well and is even cheaper.

Roofs

Might not be necessary at all if you stack another hive on top (see above).

However, if they are then Correx roofs take some beating.

Correx in the frost ...

Correx in the frost …

Literally.

These cost about £1.50 each to make, take minutes to build and are fully weathertight 4. I’ve got several that are over 5 years old and still going strong.

Not a quick enough fix for you?

Planting tray roof …

My bait hives were popular this year and I caught two swarms on successive days to a hive in the same location. I used an upturned planting tray for the roof of one of the bait hives and the bees didn’t seem to mind at all.

Incoming! from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

Clearer boards

Having planned to reduce my colony numbers this year I singularly failed to do anything of the sort.

I therefore ran out of clearer boards when I came to harvest the summer honey 5. I could have made multiple trips to the apiary but solved it with a quick fix.

Undaunted, a combination of some 4 cm ekes, a sheet or two of Correx (of course), a bit of gaffer tape (what else), a ‘lozenge’ escape or two, a Stanley knife and the inevitable half a dozen Band-Aids … and voila!

Quick fix clearer board – super side

Quick fix clearer board – hive side

These worked just fine and can be disassembled in minutes should I need the ekes again.

I’d bet good money they are used again next year …

etc.

To me, one of the great attractions of beekeeping is that it is an inherently practical occupation. In addition to the pleasure of working with the bees to produce a delicious, high quality and valuable product, you often need to use practical skill and ingenuity – coupled with Correx and gaffer tape – to solve day-to-day problems on the way.

For example, if you’re moving hives any distance it’s important they are well ventilated and that the frames don’t slide about with the consequent risk of crushing bees 6.

Travel screen mesh and eke

Travel screen mesh and eke …

Fibreglass net insect screening makes an ideal travel screen and is easily held in place with staples (in most poly hives) or an eke and a couple of stout straps.

And to stop the frames from sliding about a block or two of closed cell foam wedged between the hive wall and the dummy board is ideal.

Foam block ...

Foam block …

This type of closed cell foam is regularly supplied in packing material and is well worth saving if you find any. It’s the perfect example of a ‘quick fix’ that solves a problem at little or no cost.

Of course , you can never have too much gaffer tape. A quick fix to wasp problems until you find the errant entrance block.

Gaffer tape … remember to cover the sticky bit on the reverse to protect the bees.

And finally … you can never have too many straps to hold hives together or hold roofs down.

But you can often have too few.

Batten down the hatches … too few straps and fondant to the rescue

This photo was taken on the 14th of June, 2018. It looks balmy, but the windspeed was approaching 50 mph. I’d arrived to find some roofs already off 7 and too few straps to hold everything down.

There are two quick fixes in the picture. On the left a wooden plank holds the middle hive down with straps holding it (and the roofs on the flanking hives) in place. On the right, 25kg of fondant was press-ganged into service.


 

Crime doesn’t pay

At least, sometimes it doesn’t.

In particular, the crime of robbery can have unintended and catastrophic consequences.

The Varroa mite was introduced to England in 1992. Since then it has spread throughout most of the UK.

Inevitably some of this spread has been through the activities of beekeepers physically relocating colonies from one site to another.

However, it is also very clear that mites can move from colony to colony through one or more routes.

Last week I described the indirect transmission of a mite ‘left’ by one bee on something in the environment – like a flower – and how it could climb onto the back of another passing bee from a different colony.

Mite transmission routes

As a consequence colony to colony transmission could occur. Remember that a single mite (assuming she is a mated female, which are the only type of phoretic mites) is sufficient to infest a mite-free hive.

However, this indirect route is unlikely to be very efficient. It depends upon a range of rather infrequent or inefficient events 1. In fact, I’m unaware of any formal proof that this mechanism is of any real relevance in inter-hive transmission.

Just because it could happened does not mean it does happen … and just because it does happen doesn’t mean it’s a significant route for mite transmission.

This week we’ll look at the direct transmission routes of drifting and robbing. This is timely as:

  • The early autumn (i.e. now) is the most important time of year for direct transmission.
  • Thomas Seeley has recently published a comparative study of the two processes 2. As usual it is a simple and rather elegant set of experiments based upon clear hypotheses.

Studying phoretic mite transmission routes

There have been several previous studies of mite transmission.

Usually these involve a ‘bait’ or ‘acceptor’ hive that is continuously treated with miticides. Once the initial mite infestation is cleared any new dead mites appearing on the tray underneath the open mesh floor must have been introduced from outside the hive.

All perfectly logical and a satisfactory way of studying mite acquisition.

However, this is not a practical way of distinguishing between mites acquired passively through drifting, with those acquired actively by robbing.

  • Drifting being the process by which bees originating from other (donor) hives arrive at and enter the acceptor hive.
  • Robbing being the process by which bees from the acceptor hive force entry into a donor hive to steal stores.

To achieve this Peck and Seeley established a donor apiary containing three heavily mite-infested hives of yellow bees (headed by Italian queens). These are labelled MDC (mite donor ccolony) A, B and C in the figure below. This apiary was situated in a largely bee-free area.

They then introduced six mite-free receptor colonies (MRC) to the area. Three were located to the east of the donor hives, at 0.5m, 50m and 300m distance. Three more were located – at the same distances – to the west of the donor apiary. These hives contained dark-coloured bees headed by Carniolan queens.

Apiary setup containing mite donor colonies (MDR) and location of mite receptor colonies (MRC).

Peck and Seeley monitored mite acquisition by the acceptor hives over time, fighting and robbing dynamics, drifting workers (and drones) and colony survival.

Test a simple hypothesis

The underlying hypothesis on the relative importance of robbing or drifting for mite acquisition was this:

If drifting is the primary mechanism of mite transmission you would expect to see a gradual increase of mites in acceptor colonies. Since it is mainly bees on orientation flights that drift (and assuming the egg laying rate of the queen is constant) this gradual acquisition of motes would be expected to occur at a constant rate.

Conversely, if robbing is the primary mechanism of mite transmission from mite-infested to mite-free colonies you would expect to see a sudden increase in mite number in the acceptor hives. This would coincide with the onset of robbing.

Graphically this could (at enormous personal expense and sacrifice) be represented like this.

Mite acquisition by drifting (dashed line) or robbing (solid line) over time (t) – hypothesis.

X indicates the time at which the mite-free acceptor colonies are introduced to the environment containing the mite-riddled donor hives.

These studies were conducted in late summer/early autumn at Ithaca in New York State (latitude 42° N). The MDC’s were established with high mite loads (1-3 mites/300 bees in mid-May) and moved to the donor apiary in mid-August. At the same time the MRC’s were moved to their experimental locations. Colonies were then monitored throughout the autumn (fall) and into the winter.

So what happened?

Simplistically, the three mite donor colonies (MDC … remember?) all collapsed and died between early October and early November. In addition, by mid-February the following year four of the six MRC’s had also died.

In every case, colony death was attributed to mites and mite-transmitted viruses. For example, there was no evidence for starvation, queen failure or moisture damage.

But ‘counting the corpses‘ doesn’t tell us anything about how the mites were acquired by the acceptor colonies, or whether worker drifting and/or robbing was implicated. For this we need to look in more detail at the results.

Mite counts

Mite counts in donor (A) and receptor (B, C) colonies.

There’s a lot of detail in this figure. In donor colonies (A, top panel) phoretic mite counts increased through August and September, dropping precipitously from mid/late September.

This drop neatly coincided with the onset of fighting at colony entrances (black dotted and dashed vertical lines). The fact that yellow and black bees were fighting is clear evidence that these donor colonies were being robbed, with the robbing intensity peaking at the end of September (black dashed line). I’ll return to robbing below.

In the receptor colonies the significant increase in mite numbers (B and C) coincided with a) the onset of robbing and b) the drop in mite numbers in the donor colonies.

Phoretic mite numbers in receptor colonies then dropped to intermediate levels in October before rising again towards the end of the year.

The authors do loads of statistical analysis – one-way ANOVA’s, post-hoc Wilcoxon Signed-Rank tests and all the rest 3 and the data, despite involving relatively small numbers of colonies and observations, is pretty compelling.

Robbery

So this looks like robbing is the route by which mites are transmitted.

A policeman would still want to demonstrate the criminal was at the scene of the crime.

Just because the robbing bees were dark doesn’t ‘prove’ they were the Carniolans from the MRC’s 4. Peck and Seeley used a 400+ year old ‘trick’ to investigate this.

To identify the source of the robbers the authors dusted all the bees at the hive entrance with powdered sugar. They did this on a day of intense robbing and then monitored the hive entrances of the MRC’s. When tested, 1-2% of the returning bees had evidence of sugar dusting.

Returning robbers were identified at all the MRC’s. Numbers (percentages) were small, but there appeared to be no significant differences between nearby and distant MRC’s..

Drifting workers and drones

The evidence above suggests that robbing is a major cause of mite acquisition during the autumn.

However, it does not exclude drifting from also contributing to the process. Since the bees in the MDC and MRC were different colours this could also be monitored.

Yellow bees recorded at the entrances of the dark bee mite receptor colonies.

Before the onset of significant robbing (mid-September) relatively few yellow bees had drifted to the mite receptor colonies (~1-2% of bees at the entrances of the MRC’s). The intense robbing in late September coincided with with a significant increase in yellow bees drifting to the MRC’s.

Drifting over at least 50 metres was observed, with ~6% of workers entering the MRC’s being derived from the MDC’s.

If you refer back to the phoretic mite load in the donor colonies by late September (15-25%, see above) it suggests that perhaps 1% of all 5 the bees entering the mite receptor colonies may have been carrying mites.

And this is in addition to the returning robbers carrying an extra payload.

Since the drones were also distinctively coloured, their drifting could also be recorded.

Drones drifted bi-directionally. Between 12 and 22% of drones at hive entrances were of a different colour morph to the workers in the colony. Over 90% of this drone drifting was over short distances, with fewer than 1% of drones at the receptor colonies 50 or 300 m away from the donor apiary being yellow.

Discussion and conclusions

This was a simple and elegant experiment. It provides compelling evidence that robbing of weak, collapsing colonies is likely to be the primary source of mite acquisition in late summer/early autumn.

It also demonstrates that drifting, particularly over short distances, is likely to contribute significant levels of mite transmission before robbing in earnest starts. However, once collapsing colonies are subjected to intense robbing this become the predominant route of mite transmission.

There were a few surprises in the paper (in my view).

One of the characteristics of colonies being intensely robbed is the maelstrom of bees fighting at the hive entrance. This is not a few bees having a stramash 6 on the landing board. Instead it involves hundreds of bees fighting until the robbed colony is depleted of guards and the robbers move in mob handed.

As a beekeeper it’s a rather distressing sight (and must be much worse for the overwhelmed guards … ).

I was therefore surprised that only 1-2% of the bees returning to the mite receptor colonies carried evidence (dusted sugar) that they’d been involved in robbing. Of course, this could still be very many bees if the robbing colonies were very strong. Nevertheless, it still seemed like a small proportion to me.

It’s long been known that mites and viruses kill colonies. However, notice how quickly they kill the mite receptor colonies in these studies.

The MRC’s were established in May with very low mite numbers. By the start of the experiment (mid-August) they had <1% phoretic mites. By the following spring two thirds of them were dead after they had acquired mites by robbing (and drifting) from nearby collapsing colonies 7.

It doesn’t take long

The science and practical beekeeping

This paper confirms and reinforces several previous studies, and provides additional evidence of the importance of robbing in mite transmission.

What does this mean for practical beekeeping?

It suggests that the late-season colonies bulging with hungry bees that are likely to initiate robbing are perhaps most at risk of acquiring mites from nearby collapsing colonies.

This is ironic as most beekeepers put emphasis on having strong colonies going into the winter for good overwintering success. Two-thirds of the colonies that did the robbing died overwinter.

The paper emphasises the impact of hive separation. Drifting of drones and workers was predominantly over short distances, at least until the robbing frenzy started.

This suggests that colonies closely situated within an apiary are ‘at risk’ should one of them have high mite levels (irrespective of the level of robbing).

If you treat with a miticide, treat all co-located colonies.

However, drifting over 300 m was also observed. This implies that apiaries need to be well separated. If your neighbour has bees in the next field they are at risk if you don’t minimise your mite levels … or vice versa of course.

And this robbing occurred over at least 300 m and has been reported to occur over longer distances 8. This again emphasises both the need to separate apiaries and to treat all colonies in a geographic area coordinately.

Most beekeepers are aware of strategies to reduce robbing i.e. to stop colonies being robbed. This includes keeping strong colonies, reduced entrances or entrance screens.

But how do you stop a strong colony from robbing nearby weak colonies?

Does feeding early help?

I don’t know, but it’s perhaps worth considering. I don’t see how it could be harmful.

I feed within a few days of the summer honey supers coming off. I don’t bother waiting for the bees to exploit local late season forage. They might anyway, but I give them a huge lump of fondant to keep them occupied.

Do my colonies benefit, not only from the fondant, but also from a reduced need to rob nearby weak colonies?

Who knows?

But it’s an interesting thought …

Note there’s an additional route of mite transmission not covered in this or the last post. If you transfer frames of brood from a mite-infested to a low mite colony – for example, to strengthen a colony in preparation for winter – you also transfer the mites. Be careful.


Colophon

The idiom “Crime doesn’t pay” was, at one time, the motto of the FBI and was popularised by the cartoon character Dick Tracy.

Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run used the quote “I think crime pays. The hours are good, you travel a lot.”

Flower mites

Where do all those pesky mites come from that transmit pathogenic viruses in and between colonies?

Unless you are fortunate enough to live in the remote north west of Scotland 1 or the Isle of Man then bees, whether managed or feral, in your area have the parasitic mite Varroa destructor.

And if you take a mite-free colony from, say, north west Scotland and stick it in a field in Shropshire 2 it will, sooner or later, become mite-infested.

Sooner rather than later.

In our studies we see mite infestation (capped drone pupae with associated mites) within a few days of moving mite-free colonies to out apiaries.

Where did these mites originate and how did they get there?

Direct or indirect? Active or passive?

They don’t walk there.

Mites are blind and have no directional abilities over long distances.

Essentially therefore there are just two routes, both involving the host honey bee 3.

Direct, in which phoretic mites are transferred on honey bees between colonies, or indirect, in which they are transferred via something that isn’t a bee in the environment.

Like a flower.

Mite transmission routes

With an infested hive (the Donor) and a mite-free hive (the Acceptor 4) the direct routes involve the well-established processes of drifting and robbing.

As far as the acceptor hive is concerned, drifting is a passive process. The bees just arrive at the entrance and are allowed access.

In contrast, robbing is an active process by the acceptor hive. The foragers that rampage around pillaging weak colonies bring the phoretic mites back with them.

There have been two recent papers that have considered the relative importance of these routes and, in the case of indirect transmission, whether there is evidence that it can occur.

Both papers are from Thomas Seeley and colleagues at Cornell University. Seeley conducts simple and elegant experiments and, apart perhaps for the statistics, both papers are pretty readable, even without a scientific background.

I’ll deal with indirect transmission here and return to drifting and robbing in the future.

Say it with flowers … send her a mite

There is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that horizontal transmission via flowers may occur. This includes evidence that mites can survive on flowers for several days (in the absence of bees). If ‘presented’ with live or dead bees these mites could then climb onto the bee.

But clambering aboard a dead bee held in a pair of tweezers is very different from boarding a live bee making a transient visit to a flower.

Like this.

This short video is by David Peck, the lead author on a 2016 manuscript on acquisition of mites by bees visiting flowers 5. The paper is open access and freely available so I’ll cut to the chase and just present the key details.

The mites and bees came from the same colony. Mites were harvested by sugar roll and placed on flower petals. Different flower species were baited with the same anise-flavoured sugar solution to make them equally attractive to foraging bees.

Video recording of bee visits enabled the scientists to determine whether the mite attached to a bee, if it was subsequently groomed off (in the vicinity of the flower) and how long any interaction took. The latter was measured in bee seconds i.e. the cumulative number of seconds a bee was present before the mite attached.

Mite transmission to bees from flowers

In 43 independent tests, using a total of three different flower species, every mite successfully managed to clamber onto a visiting bee. Of these, 41 left the flower with the bee (the two that didn’t fell off or were groomed by the bee).

Speed and efficiency

It took on average just two minutes of bee visits for the mite to climb aboard. In one test the mite successfully attached in just 2 seconds.

About 50% of the mites attached after the first contact with a bee. The average number of contacts needed was just over two (usually to the same bee).

We’ve all watched bees visiting flowers. They approach, orientate, land, take off again, reorientate, land again. Sometimes they walk across the inflorescence.

That’s all it takes.

The mites didn’t move about the flower much. They didn’t chase the bee around the flower. None moved more than 1 cm.

They simply waited for the bee to come close enough.

Mites haven’t got eyes but they have exquisitely sensitive chemosensory receptors on their forelegs (not four legs, they have eight 😉 ). They use these to detect the approaching bee and are then nimble enough to embark, as the video above shows.

Mites on daisy (Bellis sp.) or speedwell (Veronica sp.) relocated to a bee much more rapidly than those placed on an Echinacea flower. It’s not clear why – the flowers are larger on Echinacea so perhaps it’s something to do with the way a bee interacts with these when foraging?

Case proven m’lud?

Mites are transferred between colonies via flowers … it’s a fact.

Not quite.

What this study shows was that mites on flowers can readily attach to a visiting bee.

Specifically to a visiting bee from the same hive that the mite was ‘harvested’ from for the experiments.

Mites absorb the cuticular hydrocarbon profile of their host hive i.e. they smell like the bees do. Perhaps they were less readily detected by the visiting mite-free bee? Would they transfer to bees from a foreign colony less efficiently?

Conversely, host-parasite theory would suggest that the mite would have evolved mechanisms to preferentially infest ‘foreign’ visiting bees 6. At least they should if this route provided a suitable selective pressure, which would involve it providing an advantage to the mite (over other routes like robbing or drifting, for example). This remains to be tested.

But there’s something else missing until we can be certain that mites are transferred indirectly between colonies via flowers.

Have you ever seen a flower with a mite on it?

I haven’t either.

Which of course doesn’t help support or refute a role for flowers in mite transmission.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

A limited survey of flowers around apiaries also failed to detect Varroa 7 which is as little help as our own observations (see above).

So we’re left with half a story. Mites can transfer (quite efficiently) from flowers to bees. What we don’t know is whether – or how – they get from infested bees to the flower in the first place.

And if they do, whether it happens frequently enough to be of any real relevance as a mite transmission route between hives.

Next week I’ll revisit robbing and drifting as mite transmission routes to discuss some recent studies looking at their relative importance.

One last thing … one of the co-authors of the 2016 study described above is Michael L. Smith. In 2014 he published the honey bee sting pain index. I’m pleased to see he’s moved on to less painful scientific studies 🙂


Colophon

Flour mite (c) Joel Mills

The flour mite (Acarus siro), a distant relative of Varroa destructor, is a contaminant of grain and – unsurprisingly – flour which “acquires a sickly sweet smell and becomes unpalatable”.

Which isn’t a huge recommendation for Mimolette cheese. This cheese originates from Lille in France. It has a grey crust and an orange(ish) flesh, looking a bit like a cantaloupe. The crust hardens over time.

The appearance, the hardening (?) and certainly the flavour of the crust is due to the addition of flour mites (aka cheese mites) which are intentionally introduced during production of the cheese. Yummy.