Diutinus bees

Diutinus is Latin for long-lasting.

Diutinus bees are therefore long-lasting bees. These are the bees that, in temperate regions, maintain the colony through the winter to the warmer days of spring.

I’ve discussed the importance of these bees recently., and I’ve regularly made the case that protecting these ‘long-lived’ bees from the ravages of Varroa-vectored viruses is critical to reduce overwintering colony losses.

Winter is coming …

In most cases the adjective diutinus is replaced with ‘winter’, as in winter bees; it’s a more familiar term and emphasises the time of year these bees are present in the hive. I’ll generally use the terms interchangeably in this post.

Diutinus does not mean winter

From a scientific standpoint, the key feature of these bees is that they can live for up to 8 months, in contrast to the ~30 days a worker bee lives in spring or summer. If you are interested in what induces the production of long-lived bees and the fate of these bees, then the important feature is their longevity … not the season.

Furthermore, a proper understanding of the environmental triggers that induce the production of long-lived bees might mean they could be produced at other times of the season … a point with no obvious practical beekeeping relevance, but one we’ll return to in passing.

It’s worth emphasising that diutinus bees are genetically similar to the spring/summer bees (which for convenience I’ll refer to as ‘summer bees’ for the rest of the post). Despite this similarity, they have unique physiological features that contribute to their ability to thermoregulate the winter cluster for months and to facilitate spring build-up as the season transitions to spring.

What induces the production of winter bees? Is it a single environmental trigger, or a combination of factors? Does summer bee production stop and winter bee production start? What happens at the end of the winter to the winter bees?

Segueing into winter bee production 

The graph below shows the numbers of bees of a particular age present in the hive between the end of August and early December.

Colony age structure from August to December – see text for details

Each distinct colour represents bees reared in a particular 12 day ‘window’. All bees present before the 31st of August are blue. The next 12 day cohort of bees are yellow etc. The area occupied by each colour indicates the number of bees of a particular age cohort.

Note that egg laying (black) is negligible between early October and late November when it restarts.

The graph shows that that there is no abrupt change from production of summer bees to production of winter bees.

For example, about 95% of the blue bees have disappeared by December 1. Of the yellow bees, which first appeared in mid-September, about 33% are present in December. Finally, the majority of the lime coloured bees, that first put in an appearance in early October, are present at the end of December.

The colony does not abruptly stop producing short-lived summer bees on a particular date and switch to generating long-lived ‘diutinus’ winter bees. Instead, as late summer segues into early autumn, fewer short lived bees and more long lived bees are produced. 

Note that each cohort emerge from eggs laid 24 days earlier. The orange cohort emerging from 24/09 to 05/10 were laid within the first two weeks of September. This emphasises the need to treat early to reduce mite levels sufficiently to protect the winter bees.

Winter bees are like nurse bees but different

Before we consider what triggers the production of diutinus bees we need to discuss how they differ from summer bees, both nurses and foragers.

Other than being long-lived what are their characteristics?

Interaction of key physiological factors in nurse (green), forager (red) and winter bees (blue). Colored disks indicate the relative abundance of each factor.

The four key physiological factors to be considered are the levels of juvenile hormone (JH), vitellogenin (Vg) and hemolymph proteins and the size of the hypopharyngeal gland (HPG).

As summer nurse bees transition to foragers the levels of JH increases and Vg decreases. This forms a negative feedback loop; as Vg levels decrease, JH levels increase. Nurse bees have high levels of hemolymph proteins and large HPG, the latter is involved in the production of brood food fed to larvae.

So if that describes the summer nurse bees and foragers, what about the winter bees?

Winter bees resemble nurse bees in having low JH levels, high levels of VG and hemolymph proteins and large HPG’s. 

Winter bees differ from nurse bees in being long lived. A nurse bee will mature into a forager after ~3 weeks. A winter bee will stay in a physiologically similar state for months.

There have also been time course studies of JH and Vg levels through the winter. In these, JH levels decrease rapidly through October and November and are at a minimum in mid-January, before rising steeply in February and March.

As JH levels rise, levels of Vg and hemolymph proteins decrease and the size of the HPG decreases i.e. as winter changes to early spring winter bees transition to foragers.

Now we know what to look for (JH, Vg levels etc) we can return to think about the environmental triggers that cause these changes.

No single trigger

In temperate regions what distinguishes winter from autumn or spring? 

Temperatures are lower in winter.

Daylength (photoperiod) is shorter in winter.

There is less pollen and nectar (forage) available in winter.

Under experimental conditions it’s quite difficult to change one of these variables without altering others. For example, shifting a colony to a cold room (i.e. lowering the ambient temperature to <10°C) leads to a rapid decrease in JH levels (more winter bee-like). However, the cold room was dark, so perhaps it was daylength that induced the change? Alternatively, a secondary consequence of moving the colony is that external forage was no longer available, which could account for the changes observed.

And forage availability will, inevitably, influence brood rearing.

Tricky.

Reducing photoperiod alone does induce some winter bee-like characteristics, such as increases in the protein and lipid content of the fat bodies. It also increases resistance to cold and starvation. It can even cause clustering at elevated (~19°C) temperatures. However, critically, a reduced photoperiod alone does not appear to make the bees long lived. 

Remember also that a reduced photoperiod will limit foraging, so reducing the nutritional status of the colony. This is not insignificant; pollen trapping 2 in the autumn accelerates the production of winter bees.

But again, this may be an indirect effect. Reduced pollen input will lead to a reduction in brood rearing. Feeding pollen to broodless winter colonies induces egg-laying by the queen.

Brood, brood pheromones and ethyl oleate

One of the strongest clues about what factor(s) induces winter bee production comes from studies of free-flying summer colonies from which the brood is removed. In these, the workers rapidly change to physiologically resemble winter bees 3.

How does the presence of brood prevent the generation of diutinus bees?

There are some studies which demonstrate that the micro-climate generated in the colony by the presence of brood – elevated temperature (35°C) and 1.5% CO2 – can influence JH levels. 

However, brood also produces pheromones – imaginately termed brood pheromone – which does all sorts of things in the colony. I’ve discussed brood pheromone previously in the context of laying workers. The brood pheromone inhibits egg laying by worker bees.

Brood pheromone also contributes to a enhancement loop; it induces foraging which results in increased brood rearing and, consequently, the production of more brood pheromone.

One way brood pheromone induces foraging is by speeding the maturation of middle-aged hive bees into foragers. Conversely, when raised in the absence of brood, bees have higher Vg levels, start foraging later and live longer.

But it’s not only brood that produces pheromones.

Workers also produce ethyl oleate, a pheromone that slows the maturation of nurse bees, so reducing their transition to foragers.

A picture is worth a thousand words

All of the above is quite complicated.

Individual factors, both environmental and in the hive, have direct and indirect effects. Experimentally it is difficult to disentangle these. However, Christina Grozinger and colleagues have produced a model which encapsulates much of the above and suggests how the production of winter bees is regulated. 

Proposed model for regulation of production of winter bees.

During autumn there is a reduction in forage available coupled with a reduced daylength and lower environmental temperatures. Consequently, there is less foraging by the colony. 

Since more foragers are present within the hive, the nurse bees are exposed to higher levels of ethyl oleate, so slowing their maturation.

There’s less pollen being brought into the colony (reduced nutrition), so brood production decreases and so does the level of brood pheromone. The reduced levels of brood pheromone also reduces nurse bee maturation.

As shown in the diagram, all of these events are in a feedback loop. The reduction in levels of brood pheromone further reduces the level of foraging … meaning more foragers are ‘at home’, so increasing the effects of ethyl oleate.

All of these events have the effect of retarding worker bee maturation. The workers remain as ‘nurse-like’ long-lived winter bees.

Is that all?

The difference between nurse bees and winter bees is their longevity … or is it?

In the description above, and in most of the experiments conducted to date, the key markers of the levels of JH, Vg and hemolymph proteins, and the size of the HPG, are what has been studied. 

I’d be astounded if there are not many additional changes. 

Comparison of workers and queen bees have shown a large range of epigenetic changes induced by the differences in the diet of young larvae 4. Epigenetic changes are modifications to the genetic material that change gene expression.

I would not be surprised if there were epigenetic changes in winter bees, perhaps induced by alteration of the protein content of their diet as larvae, that influence gene expression and subsequent longevity. Two recent papers suggest that this may indeed happen; the expression of the DNA methyltransferases (the enzymes that cause the epigenetic modifications) differs depending upon the demography of the colony 5 and there are epigenetic changes between the HPG in winter bees and bees in spring 6.

Clearly there is a lot more work required to fully understand the characteristics of winter bees and how they are determined.

Don’t forget …

It’s worth emphasising that the local environment (forage and weather in particular) and the strain of the bees 7 will have an influence on the timing of winter bee production.

Last week I discussed a colony in my bee shed that had very little brood on the 2nd of October (less than one side of one frame). When I checked the colonies last weekend (11th) there were almost no bees flying and no pollen coming in. A colleague checked an adjacent colony on Monday (13th) and reported it was completely broodless. These bees are ‘local mongrels’, selected over several years to suit my beekeeping.

Early autumn colonies

In contrast, my colonies on the west coast are still busy. These are native black bees. On the 14th they were still collecting pollen and were still rearing brood. 

The calendar dates in the second figure (above) are therefore largely irrelevant.

The transition from summer bees to the diutinus winter bees will be happening in your colonies, sooner or later. I suspect it’s already completed in my Fife bees.

Whether genetics or environment has a greater influence on winter bee production remains to be determined. However, I have previously described the good evidence that local bees are better adapted to overwintering colony survival.

To me, this suggests that the two are inextricably linked; locally selected bees are better able to exploit the environment in a timely manner to ensure the colony has the winter bees needed to get the colony through to spring.


 

Late season miscellany

I was struggling for a title for the post this week. It’s really just a rambling discourse on a variety of different and loosely related, or unrelated, topics.

Something for everyone perhaps?

Or nothing for anyone?

Beekeeping myths – bees don’t store fondant’

I only feed fondant in the autumn. I discussed how and why a month ago. Inevitably some people question this practice.

I’ve heard that bees don’t store fondant, don’t they just eat it when needed?

‘X’ (a commercial/old/decorated/opinionated beekeeper) assures me that bees do not store fondant.

Many beekeepers, even experienced beekeepers, seem to be under the impression that bees will not store fondant.

All gone!

So, let’s correct that ‘fact’ for starters, and file it forever where it belongs … in 101 Beekeeping Myths.

I added a single 12.5 kg block of fondant to all my colonies on the 28th of August. I checked them again on the 2nd of October (i.e. exactly 5 weeks later). About 80% had completely emptied the bag of fondant. All that remained was the empty blue plastic ‘husk’.

The few that had not completely emptied the bag were ~75% through it and I expect it to be all gone in a week or so.

Blue plastic ‘husks’ from ~60 kg of fondant.

So where has the fondant gone?

There are only two options 1. They’ve either eaten the fondant and used it to rear new brood, or stored it.

That amount of fondant is far more than they could consume and not rear lots of brood. So, it’s gone somewhere …

The weather has been OK. Bees are still gathering pollen and a small amount of late season nectar. They’ve not been locked away for a month just scoffing the fondant to keep warm.

They have been rearing brood – see below – but in ever-diminishing amounts, so this is unlikely to account for those empty blue bags.

But the biggest giveaway is the fact that the hives are now very heavy and almost every frame is packed solid with stores – again, see below.

The hives are actually very much heavier than they were at the end of August.

There’s not enough late season nectar flow to account for this increase in weight. There are also empty fondant bags on the top bars.

Although correlation does not necessarily imply causation, in this case, it does 😉

Bees do store fondant 2. It’s just sugar, why wouldn’t they?

Wall to wall brood stores

Out of interest I opened a couple of colonies to check the levels of stores and brood.

I only did this on colonies that had finished eating storing the fondant. Assuming the hive is heavy enough I remove the empty bag and the queen excluder from these, prior to closing the hive up for the winter. If they are still underweight I add another half block.

And another … all gone!

A 10-frame colony in the bee shed was typical. This was in a Swienty National poly brood box. These colonies are oriented ‘warm way’ and inspected from the back i.e. the opposite side of the hive to the entrance.

The first six frames were packed with capped stores.

Nothing else.

No brood, no gaps, nothing. Solid, heavy frames of nothing but stores.

The seventh frame had a small patch of eggs, larvae and a few open cells. In total an area no larger than my rather modestly sized mobile phone 3. Other than some pollen, the rest of the frame was filled with stores, again all capped.

Frame eight had a mobile-phone sized patch of sealed brood on both sides of the frame, with the remainder being filled with stores.

The ninth frame looked like the seventh and I didn’t bother checking the last frame in the box as the front face of it looked like it was just packed with stores.

I accept that the far side of that frame could have been a huge sheet of sealed brood, but I doubt it. This colony hadn’t been opened for more than a month, so the brood nest had not been rearranged by my amateur fumbling … it’s just as the bees had arranged it.

So, in total, the colony had less brood (eggs, larvae and capped) than would comfortably fit on a single side of one frame i.e. less than one twentieth of the comb area available to them. The rest, almost every cell, was sealed stores.

On the basis that a capped full National brood frame contains ~2.3 kg of stores 4 then this brood box contained about 22 kg of stores, which should be sufficient to get them through the winter.

Apivar strips

I treated all these colonies with Apivar at the same time as I fed them. Apivar needs to be present for 6-10 weeks, so it is still too soon to remove the strips.

However, it’s worth checking the strips haven’t been propolised up, or got embedded into the comb they’re adjacent to.

Apivar strip on wire hanger

Apivar is a contact miticide. The bees need to walk back and forwards over the strips. Therefore, if parts of the strips are gummed up with propolis, or integrated into comb, the bees will not have access.

Apivar strip partially gummed up with wax and propolis

You may remember that I tried hanging the strips on wire twists this season (see photo), rather than using the integrated plastic ‘spike’ to attach them to the comb. These wire hangers have worked well, for two reasons:

  1. The strips are more or less equidistant between the flanking combs. They are therefore less likely to get integrated into the comb 5, consequently …
  2. They are a lot easier to remove 🙂

I checked all the strips, scraping down any with the hive tool that had been coated with wax or propolis. This should ensure they retain maximal miticidal activity until it is time to remove them 6.

Scraped clean Apivar strip … ready for a couple more weeks of mite killing

And, it’s worth stressing the importance of removing the strips after the treatment period ends. Not doing so leaves ever-reducing levels of Amitraz (the active ingredient) in the hive through the winter … a potential mechanism for selecting Amitraz-resistant mites.

Au revoir and thanks for the memories

Other than removing the Apivar strips in a couple of weeks there’s no more beekeeping to do this year. And that task barely counts as beekeeping … it can be done whatever the weather and takes about 15 seconds.

As stressed above, it is an important task, but it’s not really an opportunity to appreciate the bees very much.

It must be done, whatever the weather.

Last Friday was a lovely warm autumn afternoon. The sun was out, the breeze was gentle and the trees were starting to show their fiery autumn colours. The bees were busy, almost self-absorbed, and were untroubled by my visit. It was a perfect way to wrap up the beekeeping year.

Like Fred commented last week, these last visits to the apiaries are always tinged with melancholy. Even in a year in which I’ve done almost no beekeeping, I’ve enjoyed working with the bees. It’s at this time of the season I realise that it’s a long time until April when I’ll next open a hive.

And, when you think about it, the active part of the season is shorter than the inactive part in northern latitudes 🙁

It was reassuring to see strong, healthy colonies showing no defensiveness or aggression. My split them and let them get on with it approach to queen rearing this season seems to have gone OK. With 2020 queens in most of the colonies I’ll hope (perhaps in vain) for reduced swarming next spring. I’m pretty certain that the colonies that were not requeened this year (under non-ideal conditions) generated more honey because there was no brood break while the new queen got out and mated.

Securely strapped up for the winter.

I’m confident that the colonies have sufficient stores and are all queenright. The mite levels are low – some much lower than others as I will discuss in the future – and the hives are securely strapped up for the winter ahead.

There’s no smoke without fire

And now for something completely different.

I’ve acquired a third main apiary this year and, because of its location, cannot carry equipment back and forwards all the time. I’ve therefore had to duplicate some items.

A little smoker

I didn’t want to shell out £60+ on a yet another Dadant smoker so dug out my first ever smoker from the back of the shed. I think this was originally purchased from Thorne’s, though not by me as I acquired it (at least) second hand, and it’s not listed in their catalogue any longer.

It’s a bit small and it has a tendency to go out, either through running out of fuel or simply because the ‘resting’ airflow is rather poor.

Consequently I often have to relight it.

I’m a big fan of using a blowtorch to light a smoker. If you get an auto-start model they work whatever the weather.

Or, more specifically, whatever the wind.

Trying to relight a recalcitrant smoker on a windy day with matches in the presence of a stroppy colony is not my idea of fun.

Of course, my colonies aren’t stroppy, but if they were going to be it would be when all I had was a box of matches in a strong breeze 😉

Rather than buying an additional blowtorch I instead purchased a kitchen or chef’s blowtorch, designed to produce the perfect crème brûlée. It was a ‘Lightning Deal’ for under £7 from Amazon. Even at full price it’s still only half the price of a cheap DIY blowtorch.

Blowtorch

It’s easy to fill, lights first time and immediately produces a focused blue flame. In contrast, my DIY blowtorch needs to warm up for 30 s. to change from billowing yellow 7 to an intense blue flame.

The chef’s blowtorch is also small enough to fit inside the same box I store/carry smoker fuel in. There is a lock to either prevent inadvertent ignition, or to produce an ‘always on’ flame.

If it survives the adverse environment of my bee bag it will be money well spent.

If not, I’ll make some crème brûlée 😉

There’s no smoke without fuel

Thorne’s had a late summer sale a fortnight or so ago. My order was finally shipped and arrived during a week when I was away and it was raining (two facts that are not unconnected … I’d disappeared to check my bees on the other side of the country where the weather was better).

The order sat outside in the rain and looked rather forlorn when I returned. Nothing was water damaged, not least because of the huge amounts of shredded packing protecting the contents.

Drying tonight

This stuff makes good smoker fuel. You just tear a handful off and stuff it in the smoker. It’s easy to light, smoulders well and doesn’t smell too acrid.

At least, once it’s dry it has all those desirable characteristics.

It’s now laid out drying on top of my canoe in the shed. I’m not even sure how they got so much in the delivery box. It looks like several cubic feet laid out like that, possibly enough for all of next year.

Waxworks

Although I’ve singularly failed to cycle a lot of old dark frames out of my colonies this year, I have managed to accumulate a lot of frames that need melting down. Some are old and dark, others are all drone comb in foundationless frames, and some are from a colony with a dud queen. I’d also accumulated quite a bit of burr or brace comb during my few beekeeping days of the season.

There’s not a lot of wax in most brood frames and the wax you can extract is rather dark. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to trade in for fresh foundation and makes very satisfactory firelighters.

Thorne’s Easi-Steam in action

And, after you extract the wax and clean up the frames you can reuse them. Simply add fresh foundation and you save yourself the drudgery of frame making. Result 😉

Or, if you use foundationless frames, you can just reuse them. Even better 🙂

A couple of years ago I treated myself to a Thorne’s Easi-Steam. I bought it without the steam generator as I already had one from my earlier homemade wax extractor 8. With the help of a mate who is a plumber I got the right sort of brass connectors to fit my steam generator to the Easi-Steam and I was ready to go.

Frames and brace comb ready for extraction

The Easi-Steam consists of a metal roof, a deep lower eke and a mesh and metal floor that needs a solid wooden floor underneath (which isn’t provided). You put it all together, add a brood box (almost) full of frames and fire up the steamer … then watch as the wax drips out into a bucket. ‘Almost’ because the brass connector stands proud and fouls the top bars of the frames 9, so you need to leave a gap.

It works well and leaks less than my homemade extractor. The recovered wax is remelted, cleaned up briefly, refiltered and is then ready for trading in or turning into firelighters.

This is all small scale stuff. With an oil drum, a big heater and an old duvet cover you can do much more, much faster. But I don’t need that capacity, or have the space to store the gear for the 363 days of the year it’s not being used.

The finished product

Here’s some I made earlier

There’s a long winter ahead and I think the time invested in wax extraction is more than justified when I …

  • Return from Thorne’s of Newburgh with 200 sheets of premium foundation having ‘paid’ with a just few kilograms of wax
  • Ignite another pile of felled rhododendron logs with a homemade fire lighter
  • Use the time I would have been making frames to do something more enjoyable 10

 

Preparing for winter

The beekeeping season is fast receding into the distance as the first frosts of autumn appear and, finally, the wasp numbers start to diminish. By now colonies should be heavy with stores, either collected by the bees or provided by the beekeeper.

Winter is coming … be prepared

There is relatively little actual beekeeping to be done this late in the year.

Colonies do not need to be disturbed unnecessarily. They certainly don’t require the usual weekly inspection … they’re not going to swarm, you’ve already applied your miticide of choice and fed them with fondant or syrup 1.

Late queen mating

With temperatures during the day in the low to mid-teens (°C) it is still warm enough to open a colony if you need to.

One of the few reasons I’d open a colony in very late September/early October would be to check if a new queen that had emerged at the end of August had successfully mated. If she had, then all is good. She will continue to lay late into the autumn and should produce sufficient winter bees to get the colony through to the following Spring.

When I lived in the Midlands I would regularly get queens successfully mated in early/mid September. It was pretty dependable, and in good years I’d be actively queen rearing through much of August.

Now, back in Scotland, late queen mating is not something I would want to rely on. I’m certain it happens now and again, but only in very exceptional years.

It’s a tough life being a drone in late August … but not for much longer

This year, many of my colonies turfed their drones out a month ago, and queen mating is not going to happen unless there are plenty of drones about.

A quick peek

It takes just minutes to check whether the queen is mated and laying. Although you don’t need to see the queen, it’s worth using just a whiff of smoke so you have the option of searching for her if needed. If you smoke the colony heavily she’ll end up rushing about or buried under a mass of disturbed bees.

Just a whiff …

You will need to remove the feeder (if using syrup) or the queen excluder and fondant block. Place these aside gently and remember that there are likely to be large numbers of bees adhering to the underside, so balance them on the rim of an upturned roof. This is the time you realise the benefit of using framed rigid wire QE when feeding fondant … removing the block on a flexible plastic QE is a right palaver.

The hive should be busy with bees. Gently remove the dummy board and outer frame. This should be full, or in the process of being filled, with stores. There’s no need to shake the bees off. Just stand it aside out of the way.

‘Guesstimate’ the approximate centre of the brood nest, based upon the density of bees in the seams. Gently lever the frames apart a centimetre or so, then release one of the frames adjacent to the gap you’ve created from its neighbours.

Lift the frame and look for sealed brood, open brood and eggs. By knowing the development cycle of workers bees (3E,5L,13P 2) you can determine approximately when the queen started laying 3.

If she started laying …

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

… if there are no eggs or larvae by very late September I would assume that the queen had failed to mate.

You need to use your judgement here. If the weather was poor in the first half of September, but excellent since then, it remains a distant possibility that she has only just mated and has yet to start laying.

Look carefully for polished cells where the centre of the broodnest should be.

And cross your fingers.

Polished cells are a sign that the nurse bees are preparing the comb for egg laying. However, in my experience, they do this even if the queen remains unmated, so it is not a reliable sign that all is well.

You therefore need to use your judgement and be realistic.

Miracles do happen, but you can’t depend upon them 4.

If the weather has been consistently poor – windy, low temperatures (for queen mating, which really needs ~18-20°C) or wet – then assume the worst and ‘save’ the colony by uniting it with a nearby strong colony.

A colony without a laying queen in late autumn will not survive the winter in any state that will make it a viable colony the following year 5.

In Scotland, I routinely unite colonies that do not have a laying queen at the end of August. As described in the last couple of weeks, I do my final colony checks with feeding and miticide treatment.

I know the chances of a queen getting successfully mated after that are effectively zero.

Quick uniting – air freshener

If you need to unite two colonies quickly, without the usual week long wait while they gently mingle after stacking them separated by a sheet of newspaper, you can use a few squirts of household air freshener.

  • Open the queenright recipient colony, removing the feeder and carefully placing it aside to avoid crushing bees (see above)
  • Find the unmated/unlaying/uncooperative queen in the broodless box and remove her (permanently I’m afraid)
  • Spray the top of the recipient colony with a a few squirts of air freshener
  • Do the same with the underside of the now queenless broodless colony
  • Stack the latter on top of the recipient colony
  • Add the feeder back, again giving a squirt or two of air freshener at the interface to stop the bees from fighting

The air freshener masks the distinctive pheromone ‘smell’ of the two colonies, allowing the bees to mingle without fighting.

That’s it.

Job done.

Caveat emptor

Like everything else on this site, I only write here from direct experience. I have successfully united quite a few colonies like this, though nothing like the number I’ve united using newspaper 6.

Given time and the choice I’d always use newspaper 7.

But this late in the season you might not have time.

A day after uniting with air freshener you can, if needed, revisit the hive and go through the double brood box to reduce it to a single box for the winter.

Does it matter which air freshener you use?

I have no idea.

I use Glade Citrus Sunny Beat as it was the cheapest I could find at the time I needed it 8.

Securing the queenright overwintering colony

If you consult the COLOSS records for overwintering colony losses they include a small percentage that are lost to ‘natural disasters’. COLOSS record queen failures and things like that separately, and – in an earlier paper – they define natural disasters as:

… rather loosely defined, as the causes can be very different in participating countries, including fire, storm, flooding, vandalism, bears, martens, woodpeckers, falling trees, suffocation from snow and many more.

The small percentage (0.1 – ~5%) lost to natural disasters vary from country to country, and from year to year.

What is notable about several of these natural disasters is that they should be avoidable.

If your colonies are strong and queenright, and if you’ve fed and treated them to give them the best chance of surviving the winter, it makes sense to do what you can to avoid these natural disasters.

The hive

I use a combination of polystyrene and cedar hives. Sometimes I even combine the two together in a single hive. The majority of my poly hives are from Abelo or Swienty which, for reasons explained elsewhere, are compatible with all the woodenware I own.

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

I see no difference in the overwintering colony success between poly and cedar hives.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

I’ve only run about 20 colonies for the last decade. That’s ~200 overwintered colonies. If there were wildly different survival rates I would have noticed. Since I haven’t noticed it either means there is no difference or there is a subtle difference but my sample size is too low 9.

All my colonies overwinter on open mesh floors, usually with the Varroa tray removed. The hives in the photo above are being monitored for mite drop in early December following oxalic acid treatment.

DIY insulation over a perspex crownboard

In addition, all of my hives have a 50 mm thick block of Kingspan under the roof, integrated into the roof, or integrated into the crownboard. In the bee shed my hives have no roof, and are just capped with a block of Kingspan over the crownboard.

Look, no roof … but insulation present all year round

Make sure the stack of boxes in the hive are stable and secure. If the apiary is exposed, strap everything together securely. A colony might survive a week or two of summer showers with no roof, but will surely perish if exposed for any length of time to cold, wet winter weather.

Apiary security

It is unlikely that you will visit the apiary much in the winter. Once a fortnight is more than enough.

It might therefore be worth considering whether it is sufficiently secure from the attention of unwanted human visitors. Unfortunately, incidents of vandalism occur throughout the season, but a hive kicked over in midwinter has less chance of being detected quickly.

Or of surviving.

Although it should probably be included within the ‘Varmints’ section below, large animals – cows, deer, elk, bear, rhino, kangaroo 10 – might also inadvertently, or deliberately, overturn a hive.

Apiary gate

Safe and secure

Fences, either a couple of strands of barbed wire, an electric fence or a full-blown razor-wire topped security barrier, are usually sufficient to keep large two and four-legged visitors at bay.

COLOSS mention both falling trees and flooding as natural disasters.

Winter storms can and do wreak havoc in some years, though I always associate the summer with storm-toppled trees because they’re in full leaf and therefore offer more resistance. It’s certainly worth looking to see if trees adjacent to your apiary might threaten the hives.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Flooding appears to be on the increase. I have experienced minor flooding in one of my apiaries. None of the hives were threatened, but it made access inconvenient for weeks at a time. Again, it’s worth imagining the worst and preparing for it.

Hives often float, but not necessarily the right way up 🙁

Varmints

Having dealt with the threat of large animals 11 it’s also worth considering the damage some small animals can do to hives.

The two main culprits are woodpeckers and mice. Both can be a menace once the frosts set in, but rarely before that.

Woodpeckers, and specifically green woodpeckers (yaffles 12), can learn that beehives contain a wonderful bounty of pupae and larvae. It is learned behaviour. Some green woodpeckers never go near hives, others routinely target them.

In Warwickshire, hives needed to be protected from yaffles. Here in Fife the bird is very much less common and I’ve never had any hives targeted.

Wrapped for winter

Wrapped for winter …

Protection is straightforward. If needed, I simply wrap the hives in a single sheet of DPM (damp proof membrane), pinned in place with drawing pins. The bird need to cling onto the vertical side of the hive to easily burrow through to the brood. The DPM stops them doing this. Leaving bits of the roof or sides of the floor exposed is therefore not a problem 13.

Pixie or Dixie?

Pixie or Dixie?

Mice access hives through overly large entrances. I only have problems with the stupidly cavernous maw of my preferred Everynuc. Mice eat pollen and stores, destroy the brood and wee everywhere 🙁  Thoroughly unpleasant.

Everynuc entrance

Open wide …

A standard mouseguard pinned in place throughout the coldest months of the winter prevents them accessing the hive. Alternatively, on a full-sized colony, the kewl-style underfloor entrances are very effective at excluding rodents.

Kewl open mesh floor showing L-shaped entrance slot

Kewl floor entrance …

That’s not the end of winter-related tasks, but it’s just about all you need to do for your colonies before winter proper starts.

There are some midwinter checks that are needed, but we’ll deal with them nearer the time.


Note

We also have pine martens at one of my apiaries. They are reported to vandalise hives and steal honey (and presumably brood) in late winter. Pine martens are incredibly agile and no fence exists that could keep them out. Time will tell whether they are a problem.

In the meantime, here’s one living up to its name, stealing a pine offcut used to slow down the rate at which they empty the squirrel feeder of peanuts 🙂

Long distance beekeeping

This post was originally entitled ‘lockdown beekeeping’. I changed it in the hope that, at some point in the future, we’ve all forgotten lockdown and are back to the ‘old normal‘. Instead, long distance beekeeping, better summarises the topic and might rank better in future Google searches …

But before I start, here’s some general advice …

Don’t do as I do, do as I say (elsewhere on this site 😉 )

I don’t think what I’m going to describe below was anything like ideal. In the end it worked out pretty well, but probably as much from luck as judgement. I’d do it again if I had to, but I’d prefer not to. I don’t think it is a workable solution for effective beekeeping in anything other than exceptional circumstances.

But 2020 has been an exceptional circumstance …

Mid-March madness

It was abundantly clear in very early March that a lockdown was inevitable 1 to restrict the spread of Covid-19. All the numbers were going in the wrong direction and other countries were already imposing quite draconian restrictions to control virus transmission 2.

I had speaking engagements with Oban & District BKA on the 12th and at the SNHBS event at Kinross on the 14th and, on the following day, I disappeared to my bolthole on the remote west coast of Scotland. 

The wild west

I decided to simply abandon the bees in Fife for at least a month while the country came to terms with movement restrictions, supermarket food deliveries, protecting the NHS and ‘working from home’.

On the day I left I checked that colonies were not too light, that the entrances were clear and that the roofs were secure and everything was strapped down.

March is too early to do anything with bees in Fife and my first inspections are usually not until mid/late April in a normal year, and even early May if there’s been a cold Spring. I therefore had a month to plan for the season ahead, with the expectation that I would have to manage the bees with the minimum possible number of visits for the next few months.

Planning

The beekeeping season contains a number of ‘moveable fixtures’.

By that I mean that certain things happen every season, but the time when they happen is not fixed. The timing depends upon the weather which, in turn, influences forage availability. It depends upon the strength of the colony, the location of the apiary and – for all I know – the phase of the moon.

Warm springs can lead to swarming by the end of April. Conversely, cold springs delay events. Dry summers generally put paid to the lime nectar and a protracted June gap can leave colonies starving in the middle of the season.

In the previous post I called these moveable fixtures the unknown knowns.

The variable timing of these moveable fixtures influences colony management by the beekeeper; this includes the spring honey harvest, swarm control and the summer honey harvest. In addition, it includes more mundane things like comb exchange, feeding the colony up for winter and Varroa management.

Bees and beekeeping are influenced by the environment, not the calendar 3.

The UK government imposed a nationwide lockdown on the 23rd of March 2020. Movement restrictions were imposed, including the distance you could travel from where you live.

Exemptions were made for allowed activities and, after lobbying from national associations and others, beekeeping was included as an exempt activity. Notwithstanding this, it was not going to be practical to conduct the usual weekly inspections from April until late July.

First inspections

I returned to Fife to conduct the first inspections in the third week of April. The spring was well advanced and the strong colonies were really booming. The overwintered nucs had built loads of brace comb in the space over the top bars and urgently needed to be moved to a full hive.

Overwintered nuc with brace comb

There were about 20 colonies spread between my two main apiaries. All were checked for space/strength, temper and the presence of a laying, marked and clipped queen 4. I didn’t have time to mollycoddle any weak colonies so these (having checked they were healthy) were united with nearby strong colonies.

Safely back in the hive

In addition, I didn’t have the luxury of time to see if poorly behaved colonies might pick up later in the season. To be frank, I had more colonies than I needed (or could easily cope with). With the need for swarm control looming, I decided to reduce colony numbers by uniting de-queened aggressive colonies with others in the same apiary. There were only a couple of these (identified the previous season and seemingly unimproved after the winter) … but every little bit helps.

United colonies, three supers, strapped up well … 25th April 2020

Finally, with the oil seed rape about to flower, I added three supers to the majority of the colonies. In a normal season these would have been added incrementally as needed. This year I had to assume (or hope) they might need them.

Swarm control

On my return to the west coast the spring was warming up. The primroses were looking fantastic and we had several weeks of outstanding weather.

Primroses – late April 2020

I enjoyed the good weather and spent the time fretting about the timing of swarm control.

My colonies tend to make swarm preparations between mid-May and the first week of June – a good example of a moveable fixture.

A priority this year was not to lose any swarms.

I did not want to inconvenience other beekeepers (or civilians’ 5) with swarms I managed to lose by ineptly doing my beekeeping from the other side of the country.

With most people trying to keep themselves isolated, 30,000 bees moving into a chimney would be a lot more than unwelcome.

Even in a normal year I do my very best not to lose swarms, and this was anything but a normal year.

I therefore decided to conduct pre-emptive swarm control on every colony in the third week of May. ‘Pre-emptive’ meaning that, whether the colonies showed any signs of swarming or not, I’d remove the queen and let them rear another.

Colonies do not swarm every year. Every now and again a strong colony of mine will show no inclination to swarm. These are great … I just pile another super or two on top and am thankful not to have to intervene.

However, strong colonies are more than likely to swarm and I didn’t feel I had the luxury of waiting around to find which wanted to and which didn’t.

A swarm in May (and how I avoided it … )

With the exception of a couple of our research colonies that seemed to be on a ‘go slow’ I treated all my colonies in the same way.

I used the nucleus method of swarm control. I removed the queen and one frame of emerging brood and put them into a 5 frame nuc box with a frame of foundation or drawn comb and a frame of stores. To ensure there were sufficient bees in the box I then shook in another frame of bees before sealing them up for transport.

All the nucs were moved to distant apiaries so there was no risk of bee numbers being depleted as they returned to the original hive.

And then there were three … nucs for pre-emptive swarm control

The parental colonies were left for 6 days and then checked for queen cells.

Ideally this should have been 7 days. By this time there would be no larvae young enough to generate additional queen cells from. However, there was a large storm moving in from the west and it was clear that there would be no possibility of doing any beekeeping while it moved through.

I therefore checked on the sixth day, knocked back all the queen cells, leaving just one good one, and then scarpered back to the west coast (meeting the storm en route).

However, before I disappeared I also checked all the nucs. All were doing fine. There was a good nectar flow and they had already drawn and laid up the frame out I’d given them. I therefore added two foundationless frames flanking the central frame. With frames either side these are usually drawn straight and true.

New comb with queen already laying it up

If you give the bees lots of foundationless frames together, particularly if the hive isn’t perfectly level, they will often make a real mess of drawing the comb out. By interleaving the new frames with those that were already drawn the bees are forced to maintain the required bee space on either side, so usually draw the frame out satisfactorily.

Getting the timing right … at least partly

When I left Fife on the 22nd of May the OSR was in full flower. It would finish sometime in early June.

My next dilemma was to time the following visit for the spring honey harvest. Too soon and the frames wouldn’t be capped. Too late and, being OSR, it might start to crystallise in the comb.

But I also wanted to deal with all the requeening colonies during the same visit and all of the nucs.

I’ve previously discussed the time it takes for a new queen to develop, emerge, mature, mate and start laying. It always takes longer than you’d like. The absolute minimum time is about two weeks, but it usually takes longer. Ideally I wanted to go through all the requeening colonies, find, mark and clip the queens or re-unite (with the nuc) those that had failed.

At the same time, with a strong nectar flow and a strongly laying queen, there was a real risk that the nucs were going to get overcrowded very fast. The longer they were left, the more chance that they would think about swarming.

I employed a number of local spies (beekeeping friends in the area) and queried them repeatedly 6 about the state of the OSR. Shortly after it finished, I returned to take off the spring honey.

A minor catastrophe

It was the 10th of June; this was exactly 20 days since leaving the requeening colonies with a single freshly-sealed queen cell.

I’ve previously mentioned that one of my apiaries is rather exposed to strong westerlies. Despite the wind-reduction netting and the rapidly growing willow hedge, this apiary had been really hammered by the storm on the 22nd/23rd of May.

Nuked nucs

Two nucs had lost their lids and crownboards and a full strapped-up hive had been blown over, denting the fence on its descent but remaining more or less intact.

How is the queen supposed to find the entrance?

The apiary hadn’t been checked since my last visit, so I’m assuming the damage happened during the storm in late May. That being the case, the nucs would have been open to the elements for about 18 days. Amazingly, both still contained laying queens and – despite looking a little the worse for wear – eventually recovered.

In contrast, the strapped up hive was not ‘open to the elements’. It had fallen entrance-first onto the ground. I think a few bees could fly from a gap where the ground didn’t quite block the entrance, but I was more concerned about getting them upright again to check too carefully.

Despite my best efforts I failed to find a queen in this hive. My frames are arranged ‘warm way’, so all the frames had slid together when the hive fell and it’s possible the queen didn’t survive 7.

Spring honey, nucs and queens

The spring honey harvest went well. The OSR frames were mostly capped. Those that weren’t could still be extracted as the honey would not shake out of the frame.

A fat frame of spring honey

It was my best year for spring honey since returning to Scotland in 2015. With the exception of that one big storm the weather had been pretty good and the bees had had ample opportunity to be out foraging.

However, although a few of the colonies had newly mated and laying queens, the majority did not. In most of them I found evidence that there would be a laying queen sometime soon … I usually infer this from the presence of ‘polished’ cells in the centre of the one or two of the central frames in the hive. This gave me confidence that there was likely to be an unmated, or just mated, queen in the box. There’s nothing much to be gained from actually finding her, so I would have to be a bit more patient.

Just as these things cannot be rushed, an overcrowded nuc cannot be ignored.

Almost all the nucs were fast running out of space. I therefore removed 2-3 frames of brood from each and replaced them with fresh frames. I used the frames of brood to boost the honey production colonies that were ‘busy’ requeening.

Mid-June and the foxgloves are in flower

By the 14th of June I was back on the west coast.

Late June rearrangements

I returned a fortnight later for a very busy couple of days of beekeeping.

By this time the summer nectar flow was starting. The nucs, even those ‘weakened’ by removing brood, were busy filling spaces with brace comb.

Comb in feeder

All of the requeening colonies were checked for a laying queen. A handful had failed, disappeared or whatever and now looked queenless. These were requeened by uniting them with a nuc containing the ‘saved’ queen from earlier in the season.

What could be simpler? That’s one of the main attractions of this method of swarm control.

The colonies with the first of the new laying queens were doing really well, with lovely fresh frames of wall-to-wall brood. It’s only after a queen has laid up a full frame or two that you get a proper impression of her quality. I can never properly judge this in the tiny little frames of a mini-mating nuc, so – despite the extra resources (bees, frames, boxes) needed – prefer to get queens mated and laying in hives with full-sized frames.

Good laying pattern

The remaining ‘unused’ nucs were all expanded up to full hives and given a super. All the strong colonies in the apiaries were again given three supers and left to get on with things.

Expanded nucs on the left, production hives on the right

It was a backbreaking few days, particularly because I spent the evenings jarring honey 8, but it left the apiaries in a good state for the summer nectar flow.

Summer honey

The only beekeeping I did in July was on the west coast of Scotland. I moved a couple of nucs up to full hives and, since the heather wasn’t yet in full flower, I gave them each a gallon or so of thin syrup to encourage the bees to draw comb to give the queen space to lay.

Welcome to your new home … nuc ‘promoted’ to hive with contact feeder in place

I finally returned to Fife to take the summer honey off in late August. I’ve recently posted a brief description of clearing supers during Storm Francis so won’t repeat it here.

In four days I removed all the supers and extracted the honey, fed and treated the bees for the winter, and left the colonies strapped up securely for … goodness knows when.

The summer honey harvest was unusual. One of my apiaries did fantastically well, more than the last two seasons combined, and by far my best year since 2015.

The other apiary was just slightly worse than … utterly pathetic.

This second apiary is usually very reliable. The forage in the area has been dependable and, in some years, the lime has yielded very well. However, not this year and, since I wasn’t about, I don’t know why.

I did it my way … but it wasn’t very satisfying

That last paragraph rather neatly sums up the 2020 beekeeping season.

Overall the season must be considered a success; I didn’t lose any swarms, the majority of colonies were requeened successfully, all of the colonies are going into the winter strong, fed and treated, and the overall honey crop was very good.

However, it’s all been done ‘remotely’, both literally and figuratively. I’ve not felt as though I’ve been able to watch the season and the colonies develop together. I don’t feel as though I was ‘in tune’ with what was happening in the hives. I can’t explain why some things worked well and other things – like the apiary with no honey 🙁 – failed miserably.

My notes are perfunctory at best, “+3 supers, Q laying well”, and contain none of the usual asides about what’s happening in the environment. There’s no indication of what was flowering when, whether the year was ‘early’, ‘late’, or ‘about normal’, when the migrant birds arrived or left.

I’ve done less beekeeping this year than in any year in at least a decade. Since I rather like beekeeping, this means it has been a bit of a disappointment. Since I’ve spent less time with the bees, and I’ve been so rushed when I have been working with them, I feel as though I’ve learnt less this year than normal.

What didn’t get done?

With irregular and infrequent visits some things were simply ignored this season.

I did very little Varroa monitoring. With the Apivar strips now in it’s clear that some hives have higher Varroa counts than I’ve seen in the last few years 9. However, not all of them. Some colonies appear to have extremely low mite loads.

We finally managed to check the levels of deformed wing virus in our research colonies quite late in the season once the labs partially reopened. The levels were reassuringly low. This strongly suggests that the mite levels are not yet at a point threatening the health of the colonies.

I’ve singularly failed to do much in the way of brood comb exchange this season. This means I’m going to have to take a bit more care next year to cycle out the old, dark frames and replace them with brand new ones.

Here’s one I did manage to replace

Again, not the end of the world, but ‘bad beekeeping’ all the same.

As I’m putting the finishing words together for this post the government is re-introducing further curfews and restrictions … maybe next year will be more of the same?


 

Trees for bees

The pollen and nectar sources available to bees depend upon the time of the year and the area of the country. The bees will enthusiastically exploit what’s available, but will struggle if there’s a dearth of either.

For much of this year I’ve been living on the remote west coast of Scotland, in an area with a very low population density and an even lower density of beekeepers … by my calculations less than 1 per 25 km2.

It’s very different from Fife (on the east coast of Scotland). It’s warmer and wetter here and there is almost no arable farming. One or two of the crofts on the coast might grow a bit of barley or wheat, but the few fields tend to be used for grazing and hay production. There’s probably no oil seed rape within 50 miles.

And there’s also no Varroa 🙂 … but I’ll discuss that another time.

Trees – in this case providing shelter from the westerlies – and bees

It goes without saying, since I’m spending so much time here, I now have bees here 🙂

Triffids and mad honey

The primary nectar source for honey is heather, which doesn’t yield until August. I have less than zero experience with heather honey – other than on toast – so have a lot to learn.

The land is on the edge of moorland with a mix of larch and scots pine, with a shrubby understorey of birch and some rowan. It’s awash with wildlife; pine marten, eagles, crossbills and the elusive Scottish wildcat 1.

Pine marten raiding the bird table

However, at least until a year or two ago, much of the land was covered in a triffid-like invasive mass of rhododendron. Swathes of the west of Scotland and Ireland are blighted by this shrub which was first introduced as an ornamental plant in the 18th Century.

Rhododendron as far as the eye can see – now cleared and planted with hazel and rowan

I’m biased, but I’d argue that rhododendron has no redeeming features. It seeds itself everywhere and smothers all other groundcover, leaving a near sterile environment. It’s terrible for wildlife. The flowers are briefly showy but not hugely attractive, either to me or to bees – whether wild or managed.

Oh yes, and the nectar produces hallucinogenic honey. I’ve even less experience of this than I do of heather honey … but in this case I have no desire to learn more.

So, I’ve been slowly clearing the rhododendron and replanting the cleared areas.

Trees for Life

A friend who used to keep bees in this are a few years ago commented that there was a shortage of early season pollen, meaning that colonies could sometimes struggle to build up. A colony that fails to build up well early in the season will struggle to reproduce i.e. swarm.

Of course, like most beekeepers, I don’t really want my bees to swarm.

However, I do want my colonies to be strong enough to want to swarm. That way, there will be loads of foragers to exploit the heather from late July. In addition, I’m particularly interested in queen rearing and building my stocks up, and for both these activities I need the colonies to have good access to pollen and nectar … and to be big and strong.

With no agriculture to speak of there are also no pesticides. Perhaps as a consequence of this there are a very large number of bumble bees about. These give me hope that there might actually be sufficient pollen, but more can only be beneficial.

And more will certainly be helpful if I end up with a reasonable number of colonies that could compete with the native bees for environmental resources 2.

I’m therefore busy planting trees in some of the areas cleared of rhododendron. Not quite on the same scale as the Trees for Life rewilding at Dundreggan, but every little bit helps 😉

Why trees?

Partly because they’ll take the longest to grow, so need to go in first, and partly because many of them are excellent sources of early season pollen and nectar.

It’s also the sort of epic-scale ‘gardening’ involving chainsaws and brushcutters, huge bonfires, cubic metres of firewood and lots of digging that I have an affinity for. I don’t have the patience for pricking-out and growing on bedding plants, or weeding the herbaceous border 😉

Native trees

I’m keen to re-plant with native trees and shrubs. I know they’ll do well in this environment and they can be readily sourced, either locally or at little expense.

As will become clear shortly, the ‘expense’ part is a not an insignificant consideration with the grazing pressure from deer in this area.

I’ve initially focused on just six species; alder, hazel, wild cherry (gean), poplar, willow and  blackthorn.

Of these I’ll skip over the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). Although the white spring flowers produce nectar, I chose it to make a spiky hedge and for the distant opportunity of making sloe gin. However, I’m going to have to try again as the bareroot whips I planted last winter have done almost nothing.

Alder

Alder (Alnus glutinosa) produces large amounts of early season pollen. It also thrives in damp ground and we have plenty of that. I’ve planted quite a bit of alder and it’s all doing pretty well. There is already a lot along the banks of nearby streams and in boggy areas at the side of the loch, so I know it will do well in this area. In fact, the few dozen I’ve planted are insignificant in comparison to what’s growing locally, but I wanted to create an area of mixed alder and willow carr 3. I planted 30 cm bareroot whips last winter and those that have survived the deer have doubled or trebled in height.

Alder

Alder, once established, seems reasonably resistant to browsing by deer, presumably because they find it relatively unpalatable. The long-term plan is to coppice the alder – it makes good firewood when properly dried. It has also historically been used to make clogs, but I’ll be cutting it back before it’s grown enough for anything but the tiniest feet.

Hazel

Like alder, hazel (Corylus avellana) is a good source of early season pollen. Most readers will be familiar with the catkins which appear as early as mid-February. The area shown in a picture (above), now cleared of rhododendron, has been planted with hazel. It’s a south-facing slope with thin soil but most seem to be doing OK so far.

Hazel

There are a couple of mature hazel nearby and I managed to find a few seedlings which I transplanted, however the majority went in as bareroot whips.

Hazel is popular with deer and with the red squirrels. The fact I needed to buy barerooted trees probably reflects the fact that the squirrels get most of the nuts, and those that do germinate are then eaten by the deer. It’s a tough life.

Gean

Gean is the Scottish name for the wild cherry (Prunus avium) 4. It flowers in April and is a great source of nectar and pollen for the bees. I’ve only planted a few of these, in scattered groups of three, or along the side of the track. Despite gean not really flourishing in acid, peaty soil they seem to have established well and are already approaching shoulder height. Gean, like rowan 5, is also great for the birds and the thrushes will probably get the majority of the fruit that sets.

Poplar or aspen

Poplar or aspen (Populus tremula) is a favourite of mine. The leaves have pale undersides and are held on long, flattened petioles. As a consequence they flutter in the faintest of breezes and are a wonderful sight, particularly planted against a backdrop of dark brooding conifers.

Poplar or aspen (Populus tremula)

In fact, poplar is so attractive I’d have planted it even if it was of no interest to the bees.

Poplar is wind pollinated and the bees probably only get a little pollen from it. Some species also produce early season sap that is a major component of propolis apparently. Finally, poplar are susceptible to a rust or fungus called Melampsora, and the bees collect the spores if they need protein and there’s no pollen to be found.

Inaccessible aspen

The standard way to propagate poplar is by root cuttings. There is relatively little poplar around here, and none I could have easily grubbed up the roots from. However, after a bit of searching I discovered Eadha Enterprises in Lochwinnoch, near Glasgow. Eadha is derived from the old gaelic word for aspen. They are a social enterprise specialising in aspen production from stocks of known provenance. The cell-grown saplings I received, which are going in this winter, are derived from trees on the Isle of Arran.

Willow

In contrast to the relative difficulty of propagating aspen, you have to try hard not to propagate willow. A foot long, pencil-thick cutting – taken more or less any time of the year – will root very quickly. Even if left in a bucket of water for a fortnight.

Willow cuttings ready for planting

I’ve planted a lot of willow from local trees (probably goat willow, Salix caprea, but they hybridise so freely you can never be certain) and planted it in variously boggy bits of ground, alongside some of the alder. Willow is generally dioecious (male or female) and you need to plant male trees for the pollen. I planted some female as well as they both produce nectar.

Willow male catkins

In addition to just planting them directly, I grew a few on in tubs in potting compost. These developed good root systems and grew better.

Pot grown cutting ready for planting

However, willow is a favourite of deer and the cuttings I’ve planted have periodically been hammered by both red and roe deer.

Sabre planting and oversize cuttings

The obvious way to prevent deer damage is to build a 6 foot high fence but, because of the rocky nature of the ground, this is impractical (which is an easier way of saying eye-wateringly expensive).

If you visit the Scottish highlands you’ll be familiar with the site of small burns cascading down gulleys in the hillside. Often the the sides of the gulleys have dense growth of alder, birch or willow.

This is not just because of the nearby water supply. After all, much of the land receives 2000 mm of rain or more a year.

The other reason the trees are there (and not on the open moor) is that the gulley is steep sided and the trees therefore experience less grazing pressure. You can recapitulate this by so-called sabre planting 6. In this you plant trees of 1m+ height perpendicular on slopes of at least 40°. The slope makes the growing tips less accessible and they gradually grow out and away, straightening up as they do.

I’ve only discovered this strategy recently 7 and will be trying it in a couple of locations.

An alternative strategy, particularly suitable for willow, is to plant ‘cuttings’ that are already too big for the deer to reach the growing tips.

A ‘big’ willow cutting – there’s a game trail 2m from this that’s used every night.

To avoid grazing by red deer this means at least 1.5-1.8 m in height. The technique is almost the same as planting the foot long, pencil-thick cuttings … you just push them into the ground. It’s worth noting that you need to push them a good distance into the ground and stake them. About 50% of the big cuttings I’ve planted have apparently rooted. I’m pretty certain that those that didn’t failed because they were not staked firmly enough. This makes sense … as the leaves sprout they become wind-resistant and gales will quickly damage the developing root system through simple leverage.

Gimme Shelter

I’ve planted trees for bees before. We planted lots of goat willow and mixed hedging around our research apiary in Fife in early 2018. The combination of a major fire in my research institute the following year, and Covid this year, meant that the trees have been just left to get on with it.

Mixed hedging and willow and wildflowers (aka weeds, but the bees don’t know that)

And they have. This was a bare earth bank in February 2018. We still need a windbreak, but even that can probably be dispensed with in a year or so. Not all the trees have thrived, but I’m more than satisfied considering the neglect they received.

Oh deer

Scotland is overrun with deer. A review over 50 years ago stated that the optimum number of red deer the land could maintain was ~60,000. They defined ‘optimum’ in terms of avoiding agricultural damage, while allowing natural regeneration with no necessity for fencing. This would also ensure that there’s enough food for the deer during the winter months.

The current estimate is that there are over 450,000 red deer in Scotland. As a consequence there are many areas with no natural tree regeneration without installing expensive and intrusive fencing. In addition, the deer are often in lousy condition and/or starve to death in hard winters.

If you look carefully you can see a couple more coming down the track. There’s also a beehive in the video above, though it’s tricky to spot.

In addition to red deer we also have a smaller number of roe deer … equally attractive and almost equally destructive.

Don’t get me wrong, I love deer … particularly braised slowly with a good quality, full-bodied red and winter vegetables.

Not beekeeping?

OK, in terms of specifics, not beekeeping. However, I’d argue that beekeepers have a responsibility to maintain and protect their environment. This includes ensuring that their charges do not impact negatively on the native wildlife.

This area is towards the extreme north-west corner of the country and the introduction of a quarter of a million bees (~5 hives) will inevitably impact the pollen and nectar available for the established native pollinating insects.

I could choose to avoid the latter by ‘not beekeeping’, but I’ve instead chosen to try and improve the resources available in the environment. Time will tell if there is a shortage of pollen and if my bees thrive.

If they don’t, at least there will be a bit less bloody rhododendron 😉


Notes

If you’re interested in native trees I thoroughly recommend the Handbook of Scotland’s Trees by Reforesting Scotland. It has lots of good advice about collecting seed and planting, but also has details of uses for trees and folklore. Whilst it focuses on Scotland’s trees (the clue is in the title), most grow elsewhere as well, and it’s packed with information. If you are interested more generally in the history, uses and planting of woodlands it’s probably worth reading all 16,452 pages (a slight exaggeration, but it is a magnum opus) of Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands which is a masterpiece.

 

Winter bee production

There are big changes going on in your colonies at the moment.

The summer foragers that have been working tirelessly over the last few weeks are slowly but surely being replaced. As they die off – whether from old age or by being eaten by the last of the migrating swallows – they are being replaced by the winter bees.

Between August and late November almost the entire population of bees will have changed. The strong colonies you have now (or should have) will contain a totally different workforce by the end of the year.

Forever young

The winter bees are the ones responsible for getting the colony from mid/late autumn through to the following spring. They are sometimes termed diutinus bees from the Latin for “long lived”.

These are the bees that thermoregulate the winter cluster, protecting the queen, and rearing the small amounts of brood during the cold, dark winter to keep the colony ticking over.

Midwinter cluster

A midwinter colony

Physiologically they share some striking similarities with so-called hive or nurse bees 1 early in the summer.

Both hive bees and winter bees have low levels of juvenile hormone (JH) and active hypopharyngeal glands. Both types of bee also have high levels of vitellogenin, high oxidative stress resistance and corpulent little bodies.

But early summer nurse bees mature over a 2-3 week period. Their JH levels increase and vitellogenin levels decrease. This induces additional physiological changes which results in the nurse bee changing into a forager. They sally forth, collecting nectar, pollen and water …

And about three weeks later they’re worn out and die.

Live fast, die young

And this is where winter bees differ. They don’t age.

Or, more accurately, they age   v  e  r  y    s  l  o  w  l  y.

In the hive, winter bees can live for 6 months if needed. Under laboratory conditions they have been recorded as living for up to 9 months.

They effectively stay, as Bob Dylan mumbled, forever young.

Why are winter bees important?

Although not quite eternal youth … staying forever young is useful as their longevity ensures that the colony does not dwindle and perish in the middle of winter.

With little or no nectar or pollen available in the environment the colony reduces brood rearing, and often stops altogether for a period.

But what about the kilograms of stores and cells filled with pollen in the hive? Why can’t they use that?

Whilst both are present, there’s nothing like enough to maintain the usual rate of brood rearing. If they tried the colony would very quickly starve.

Evolution has a very effective way of selecting against such rash behaviour 🙁

If you doubt this, think how quickly hives get dangerously light during the June gap. With no nectar coming in and thousands of hungry (larval) mouths to feed the colony can easily starve to death during a fortnight of poor weather in June.

The winter bees ‘hold the fort’, protecting the queen and rearing small amounts of brood until the days lengthen and the early season pollen and nectars become available again.

And, just as the winter bees look after the viability of the colony, the beekeeper in turn needs to look after the winter bees … we rely on them to get the colony through to spring.

Lots of bees

Can you identify the winter bees?

But before we discuss that, how do you identify and count the winter bees? How can you tell they are present? After all, as the picture above shows 2, all bees look rather similar …

Counting the long lived winter bees

The physiological changes in winter bees, such as the JH and vitellogenin levels, are only identifiable once you’ve done some rather devastating things to the bee. These have the unfortunate side effect of preventing it completing any further bee-type activities 🙁

Even before you subject them to that, their fat little bodies aren’t really sufficiently different to identify them visually.

But what is different is their longevity.

By definition, the diutinus or winter bees are long lived.

Therefore, if you record the date when the bee emerged you can effectively count back and determine how old it is. If it is more than ~6 weeks old then it’s a winter bee.

Or the queen 😉

And, it should be obvious, if you extrapolate back to the time the first long lived bees appear in the hive you will have determined when the colony starts rearing winter bees.

The obvious way to determine the age of a bee is to mark it upon emergence and keep a record of which marks were used when. Some scientists use numbered dots stuck to the thorax, some use combinations of Humbrol-type paint colours.

I’m not aware that anyone has yet used the barcoding system I discussed recently, though it could be used. The winter bee studies I’m aware of pre-date this type of technology.

Actually, some of these studies date back almost 50 years, though the resulting papers were published much more recently.

This is painstaking and mind-numbingly repetitive work and science owes a debt of gratitude to Floyd Harris who conducted many of the studies.

Colony age structure – autumn to winter

Here is some data showing the age structure of a colony transitioning from late summer into autumn and winter. There’s a lot in this graph so bear with me …

Colony age structure from August to December - see text for details

Colony age structure from August to December – see text for details

The graph shows the numbers and ages of bees in the colony.

The ages of the bees is indicated on the vertical axis – with eggs and brood (the youngest) at the bottom, coloured black and brown respectively. The adult bees can be aged between 1 and ~100 days old 3. The number of bees is indicated by the width of the coloured bar at each of the nine 12 day intervals shown.

All of the adult bees present in the hive at the end of August are coloured blue, irrespective of their age. There are a lot of these bees at the end of August and almost all of them have disappeared (died) by mid-November 4.

The remaining colours indicate all the bee that emerge within a particular 12 day interval. For example, all the bees that emerge between the 31st of August and the 12th of September are coloured yellow.  Going by the width (i.e. the numbers of bees of that age) of the yellow bars it’s clear that half to two-thirds of these bees die by mid October, with the rest just getting older gracefully.

But look at the cohort that emerge between the end of September and early October, coloured like this 5. The number of these bees barely changes between emergence and early December. By this time they are 72 days old i.e. an age that most summer bees never achieve.

Brood breaks and climate

In the colony shown above the queen continued laying reduced numbers of eggs – the black bars – until mid-October and then didn’t start again until the end of November. During this period the average age of the bees in the colony increased from ~36 days to ~72 days and the strength of the colony barely changed.

The figure above comes from a BeeCulture article by Floyd Harris. The original data isn’t directly referenced, but I suspect it comes from studies Harris conducted in the late 70’s in Manitoba, some of which was subsequently published in the Journal of Apicultural Research. In addition, Harris co-authored a paper presenting similar data in a different format in Insectes Sociaux which describes the Manitoban climate as having moderate/hot summers and long, cold winters.

My hives in Scotland, or your hives in Devon, or Denmark or wherever, will experience a different climate 6.

However, if you live in a temperate region the overall pattern will be similar. The summer bees will be replaced during the early autumn by a completely new population of winter bees. These maintain the colony through to the following spring.

The dates will be different and the speed of the transition from one population to the other may differ. The timing of the onset of a brood break is likely to also differ.

However, the population changes will be broadly similar.

And, it should be noted, the dates may differ slightly in Manitoba (and everywhere else) from year to year, depending upon temperature and forage availability.

Colony size and overwintering survival

Regular readers might be thinking back to a couple of posts on colony size and overwintering survival from last year.

One measured colony weight, showing that heavier colonies overwintered better 7. A second discussed the better performance of local bees in a Europe-wide study of overwintering survival. In this, I quoted a key sentence from the discussion:

“colonies of local origin had significantly higher numbers of bees than colonies placed outside their area of origin”

I can’t remember when during the season those studies recorded colony size, but I’m well aware that large colonies in the winter survive better.

The colonies that perish first in the winter are the pathetic grapefruit-sized 8 colonies with ageing queens or high pathogen loads.

In contrast, the medicine ball-sized ‘boomers’ go on and on, emerging from the winter strongly and building up rapidly to exploit the early season nectar.

But what the graph above shows is that the bees in a strong colony in late summer are a completely different population from the bees in the colony in midwinter.

The strength of the midwinter colony is determined entirely by when winter bee rearing starts and the laying rate of the queen, although of course both may be indirectly influenced by summer colony strength.

The influence of the queen

Other than this potential indirect influence, it’s possibly irrelevant how large the summer colony is in terms of winter colony size (and hence survival).

After all, even if the summer bees were three times as numerous, their fate is sealed. They are all going to perish six weeks or so after emergence.

Are there ways that beekeepers can influence the size of the overwinter colony to increase its chances of survival?

I wouldn’t pose the question if the answer wasn’t a resounding yes.

It has been known for a long time 9 that older queens stop laying earlier in the autumn than younger queens. As explained above, the longer the queen lays into the autumn the more winter bees are going to be produced.

Mattila et al., 10 looked at the consequences of late season (post summer honey harvest) requeening of colonies. In these they removed the old queen and replaced her with either a new mated or virgin queen, or allowed the colony to requeen naturally.

Using the ’12 day cohort’ populations explained above, the authors looked at when the majority of the winter bees were produced in the colony, and estimated the overall size of the winter colony.

The influence of new queens on winter bee production.

The influence of new queens on winter bee production. Note shift to the right in B, C and D, with new queens.

With the original old queen, 53% of winter bees were produced in the first two cohorts of winter bees. With the requeened colonies 54-64% of the winter bees were produced on average 36 days later, in the third and fourth cohorts of winter bees.

This indicates that young queens produce winter bees later into the autumn.

This is a good thing™.

In addition, though the results were not statistically significant, there was a trend for colonies headed by new queens to have a larger population of bees overwinter.

Perhaps one reason the requeened colonies weren’t significantly larger was that the new queens delay the onset of winter bee rearing. I’ll return to this at the end.

The influence of deformed wing virus (DWV)

Regular readers will know that this topic has been covered extensively, and possibly exhaustively, elsewhere on this site … so I’ll cut to the chase.

DWV is the most important virus of honey bees. When transmitted by Varroa destructor there is unequivocal evidence that it is associated with overwintering colony losses. The reason DWV causes overwintering losses is that it reduces the longevity of the winter bees.

The virus might also reduce the longevity of summer bees but,

  1. there’s so many of them to start with
  2. there’s loads more emerging every day, and
  3. they only survive a few weeks anyway,

that this is probably irrelevant in terms of colony survival.

Dainat et al., (2012) produced compelling evidence showing that DWV reduces the longevity of winter bees 11. The lifespan was reduced by ~20%.

A consequence of this is that the winter bees die off a little faster and the colony shrinks a little more. At some point it crosses a threshold below which it cannot thermoregulate the cluster properly, further limiting the ability of the colony to rear replacement bees (assuming the queen is able to lay at a low rate).

This colony is doomed.

Even if they stagger through to the longer days of spring they contain too few bees to build up fast. They’re not dead … but they’re hardly flourishing.

Winter bees and practical beekeeping

I think there are three ways in which our understanding of the timing of winter bee production should influence practical beekeeping:

Firstly … The obvious take-home message is that winter bees must be protected from the ravages of DWV. The only way to do this is to minimise the mite population in the colony before the winter bee rearing starts.

The logical way to do this is to treat using an approved miticide as soon as practical after the summer honey is removed 12.

I discuss the importance of the timing of this treatment in When to treat?, which remains one of the most-read posts on this site.

Secondly … Avoid use of miticides (or other colony manipulations) that reduce the laying rate of the queen in early autumn.

When I used to live at lower latitudes I would sometimes use Apiguard. This thymol-containing miticide is very effective if used when the temperature is high enough. However, in my experience a significant proportion of queens stop laying when it is being used. Not all, but certainly more than 50%.

I don’t know why some stop and others don’t. Is it genetic? Temperature-dependent?

Whatever the reason, they stop at exactly the time of the season you want them to be laying strongly.

Thirdly … consider requeening colonies with young queens after the summer honey is removed. This delays the onset of winter bee production and results in the new queen laying later into the year. The later start to winter bee production gives more time for miticides to work.

A win-win situation.


 

Weed and feed

Weed and feed is a generic term that describes the treatment of lawns to simultaneously eradicate certain weeds and strengthen the turf.

It seemed an appropriate title for a post on eradicating mites from colonies and feeding the bees up in preparation for the winter ahead.

Arguably these are the two most important activities of the beekeeping year.

Done properly they ensure you’ll still be a beekeeper next year.

Ignored, or done too little and too late, you’ll join the unacceptably large number of beekeepers who lose their colonies during the winter.

They think it’s all over

In Fife, on the east coast of Scotland, my beekeeping season effectively finishes with the midsummer ‘mixed floral’ nectar sources. This is a real mix of lime, blackberry, clover and Heinz nectars 1 … many of which remain to be identified.

There’s no reliable late nectar flow from himalayan balsam around my apiaries are and not enough rosebay willowherb (fireweed) to be worthwhile, though in a good year the bees continue to collect a bit from both into early September.

But by then the honey supers are off and extracted. Anything the bees find after that they’re welcome to.

The contrast with the west of Scotland is very marked. Over there my bees are still out collecting reasonable amounts of late heather nectar, though the peak of the flow is over.

Storing supers

Once the honey supers are extracted they can be returned to the colonies for the bees to clean up prior to storing them overwinter. However, this involves additional trips to the apiary and usually necessitates using the clearer boards again to leave them bee-free before storage.

I used to do this and quite enjoyed the late evening trips back to the apiary with stacks of honey-scented supers. More recently I’ve stopped bothering and instead now store the supers ‘wet’. The main reasons for this are:

  • laziness lack of time
  • unless you’re careful it can encourage robbing, by wasps or bees. You need to return supers to all the colonies in the apiary and if you have the hives open too long it can induce a frenzy of robbing 2
  • the honey-scented supers encourage the bees to move up faster when they’re used the following season

If you do store the supers ‘wet’ make sure the stacked boxes are bee and wasp-tight. Mine go in a shed with a spare roof on the top. If there are any gaps the wasps, bees or ants will find them and it then becomes very messy. 

I know many beekeepers who wrap their supers in clingfilm. Not the 30 cm wide roll you use in the kitchen but the sort of metre wide swathe they used to wrap suitcases in at London Heathrow.

Dated super frames

The drawn super comb is a really valuable resource and can be used again and again, year after year. I usually record the year a frame was built on the top bar. Many are now over a decade old and have probably accommodated at least 80 lb of honey in their lifetime 3.

The timing of late season Varroa management

During the brood rearing season the Varroa levels in the colony will have been rising inexorably. Without intervention the mites will continue to replicate on developing pupae that would otherwise emerge as the all-important overwintering bees. These are critical to get the colony through to the following spring.

When Varroa feeds on a developing pupa it transmits the viruses – primarily deformed wing virus – it acquired from the last bee is fed on. These viruses amplify by about a million-fold within 24-48 hours. Pupae that do not die before eclosion may have developmental defects. Importantly, those that appear normal have a reduced lifespan.

The overwintering bees should live for months, but might only live for weeks if their virus levels are high.

And if enough overwintering bees have high viral loads and die prematurely, the probability is the the colony will perish in the winter.

You therefore need to reduce mite levels before the overwintering bees are exposed to Varroa

The full details and justification are in a previous post logically entitled When to treat?

TL;DR 4late August to early September is the best time to treat to protect the winter bees from the worst of the ravages of mite-transmitted DWV.

Use an appropriate treatment

You need to reduce the mite levels in the colony by at least 90% to protect the winter bees.

To achieve this you need an appropriate miticide used properly. 

I use Apivar

Apivar is an Amitraz-containing miticide. Although there are reports of mite resistance in some commercial apiaries, the pattern is very localised (individual hives within an apiary, which is difficult to understand) and in my view it is currently the best choice.

What are the alternates?

  • MAQS – active ingredient formic acid – poorly tolerated at high temperatures, but can be used with the supers present
  • Apiguard – active ingredient thymol – ineffective at lower temperatures (it needs an ambient temperature of 15°C to work – that’s not going to happen in Scotland in September).
  • Apistan – active ingredient a synthetic pyrethroid – unsuitable as there is widespread resistance in the mite population.

Using Apivar

Apivar treatment is temperature-independent. It cannot be used when the honey supers are present. You simply hang two strips in the hive for 6 to 10 weeks and let them do their work. The bees tolerate it well and, unlike MAQS or Apiguard, I’ve not seen any detrimental effects on the queen who continues to lay … making more of those important winter bees.

Apivar strips

Each strip consists of an amitraz-impregnated piece of plastic tape with a V-shaped tab that can be pushed into the comb to hold it in place. 

This generally works well as the frames are usually not moved much as there’s no need for inspections this late in the season.

Apivar strip pushed into comb

However, the strips can be a little fiddly to remove (or fall off during frame handling) and some of our research colonies will continue to be used for at least another month. I’ve therefore used a short piece of bent wire to hang the strips from in these hives.

Apivar strip on wire hanger

I place the strips in opposite corners of the hive, set two frames in from the sides. 

Apivar, wax and honey contamination

Although Amitraz is not wax soluble 5 there are recent reports on BEE-L that one of its breakdown products are, including one that has some residual miticide activity 6

I therefore try and get all the bees into the brood box before starting treatment (I described nadiring supers with unripe honey last week).

Very rarely I’ll leave the bees with a super of their own unripe honey. Usually this happens when the brood box is already packed with stores and overflowing with bees. In this case I’ll mark the super and melt down the comb next season rather than risking tainting the honey I produce.

I attended a Q&A session by the Scottish Beekeeping Association last month in which the chief bee inspector discussed finding Apivar strips in honey production hives. He described the testing of honey for evidence of miticide contamination and potential subsequent confiscation.

This is clearly something to be avoided.

Remember to record the batch number of Apivar used and note the date in your hive records. I just photograph the packet for convenience. The date is important as the strips must be removed after 6 weeks and before 10 weeks have elapsed. 

It’s finally worth noting that the instructions recommend scraping the strip with a hive tool part way through the period if they are being used for the full ten week course of treatment. The strips usually get propolised into the frame and the scraping ‘reactivates’ them to ensure that the largest possible number of mites are killed off.

And, after all, that’s what they’re being used for.

Apivar is expensive

Well … yes and no.

Yes it feels expensive when walking out of Thorne’s of Newburgh clutching one small foil packet and being £31 poorer. 

But think about it … that packet is sufficient to treat 5 colonies.

Is £6.20 too much to spend on a colony?

My 340 g jars of honey cost more than £6.20 and my productive colonies produce at least one hundred times that amount of honey. 

I don’t think 1% of the honey value is too much to spend on protecting the colony from mites and the viruses they carry.

Mite drop

Varroa killed by the miticide 7 fall to the bottom of the hive. If you have an open mesh floor (OMF) they fall through … onto the ground or the intervening neatly divided Varroa tray, enabling you to easily count them

Varroa trays ...

Varroa trays …

Remember that amitraz, the active ingredient of Apivar, works by direct contact. This is why you place the strips diametrically opposite one another so that as many bees as possible contact them. Unlike Apiguard, it makes no difference whether the Varroa tray is present or not.

It is useful to ‘count the corpses’ to get an idea of the infestation level and the efficacy of the treatment.

I’m going to discuss what you might expect in terms of mite drop in the winter (I need to plot some graphs first). However, this is something you could think about before then … knowing Apivar kills mites in less than three hours after exposure, what do you think the mite drop should look like over the 6-10 weeks of treatment?

Enough weeding, what about feeding?

I treat and feed colonies on the same day.

I also do the final hive inspection of the season. At this I look for evidence of a laying queen, the general health of the colony, the amount of brood present and the level of stores in the brood box. 

If the colony is queenless (how did that happen without me noticing earlier?) I simply unite the colony with a strong, healthy queenright colony. I don’t bother testing it with a frame of eggs … time is of the essence.

It’s too late to get a queen mated (at least in Fife … when I lived in the Midlands I got a few September queen matings but they could not be relied upon) and I rarely, if ever, buy queens.

I only feed with fondant in the autumn.

Convenience food

I described fondant last week as a convenience food

A spade's a spade ...

A spade’s a spade …

I’ve described in detail many of the benefits of fondant in numerous previous posts. Essentially these can be distilled to the following simple points:

  • zero preparation; no syrup spillages in the kitchen, no marital strife.
  • bucket- and feeder-free; no need to carry large volumes of syrup to the apiary and no feeders to store for the remaining 11 months of the year. All you need to feed fondant is a queen excluder and an empty super … and you’ve got those already.
  • easy to store; unopened it keeps for several years 8.
  • super speedy; I can feed a colony, including cutting the block in half, in less than 2 minutes.
  • good for queen and colony; perhaps that’s stretching it a bit. What I mean is that the bees take the fondant down more slowly than syrup, consequently the queen continues to lay uninterrupted as the brood nest does not get backfilled with stores. This is good for the colony as it means the production of more winter bees.
  • an anti-theft device; you can’t spill fondant so there is much less chance of encouraging robbing by neighbouring bees or wasps.
  • useful boxes; the empty boxes are a good size to store or deliver jarred honey in – each will accommodate sixteen 1 lb rounds.

I’ve fed nothing but fondant for about a decade and can see no downsides to its use.

Money, money, money

I’ve never used anything other than commercially purchased “baker’s” fondant … don’t believe the rubbish (about ‘additives’) some of the bee equipment suppliers use to justify their elevated prices.

You should be paying about £1/kg … any more and you’re being robbed. This year (2020) I paid less than 90p/kg.

Do not use the icing fondant sold by supermarkets for Christmas cakes. I’m sure there’s nothing much wrong with it, but – at £2/kg – you’ll soon go bankrupt. 

Tips for feeding fondant

Fondant blocks are easier to slice in half if they are slightly warm.

Use a sharp bread knife and don’t slice your fingers off. 

You can cut the blocks in half in advance in the warmth of your kitchen and then cover the cut faces with clingfilm to prevent them reannealing, but I just do it in the apiary.

Take care with sharp knives … much easier with a slightly warm block of fondant

Alternatively, use a clean spade 9.

Always place the block cut face down on a queen excluder directly over the top bars of the brood frames. With a full block, it’s like opening a book and laying it face down. Do not place it above a crownboard with a hole in it.

You want the bees to have unfettered access to the open face of the fondant block.

Fondant on queen excluder with eke

Ideally, use a framed wire queen excluder.

These are easier to lift off should you need to go into the colony.

Which you don’t 😉

There’s no need to continue inspections this late into the season. Go and enjoy a week or two away in Portugal … or perhaps not 🙁

If you need to store an unused half block of fondant wrap the cut face in clingfilm.

All my colonies get one full block (12.5 kg) and many get a further half block, depending upon my judgement of the level of the stores in the hive.

Insulation

The bees will take the fondant down over 2 – 4 weeks. They do store it, rather than just using it as needed. By late September or early October all that will remain is the blue plastic husk. The photo below is from mid-October. This colony has had a ‘topup’ additional half block after already storing a full block of fondant.

They fancied that fondant

With cooler days and colder nights, you want to reduce heat loss by the colony and minimise the dead space above the bees into which the heat escapes.

Although bees take fondant down at lower temperatures than they do syrup, there’s no point in giving the colony more additional space to heat than they need.

Poly super and fondant ...

Poly super and fondant …

Depending upon the availability of equipment I do one or a combination of the following:

  • use a poly super to provide space for the fondant
  • compress the fondant (use your boot) into as little space as possible and you squeeze it into a 50 mm deep eke, which (conveniently) is the same depth as the rim on my insulated polcarbonate/perspex crownboards 10.
  • use an eke and an inverted perspex crownboard with no need to compress the fondant
  • add a 50 mm thick block of insulation above the crownboard, under the roof (which may also be insulated)

Fondant block under inverted perspex crownboard – insulation block to be added on top is standing at the side

Oh yes … before I forget … completely ignore any advice you might read on using matchsticks to provide ventilation to the hive 11.

They think it’s all over … it is now

That’s the end of the practical beekeeping for the season 🙁

If your colonies are strong and healthy, if the mite levels are low and they have sufficient stores, there’s almost nothing to do now until March 12

Now really is a good time for a beekeeper to take a holiday.

Make a note in your diary on the date you need to remove the Apivar strips

Write up your notes, pour a large glass of Shiraz and make plans for next season 🙂


 

More gentle beekeeping

I’ve done less beekeeping this year than any time in the past decade. The Covid-19 lockdown enforced changes to the way we live and work, meaning my contact with the bees has been ‘big and infrequent’ rather than ‘little and often’. 

‘Big and infrequent’ meaning a day or three of intense activity every month or so. I’ll write about this once the season is over as it has meant that the season has, in many ways, been very unrewarding … 🙁

… but nevertheless quite successful 🙂

23,000 iced buns

With the season winding to a close, now is the time to remove the supers of summer honey and prepare to feed the colonies for winter. 

Which means a couple of days of very heavy lifting.

I buy fondant in bulk as it stores well until it is needed. This year ‘bulk’ meant over 400 kg which, based upon this recipe, is enough for over 23,000 iced ‘finger’ buns 1. That’s too much to fit in my car (fondant or finger buns 😉 ), so entailed two trips and manhandling the boxes twice – from the pallet to the car and from the car to the shed.

Load 1 of 2 … there’s more in the passenger footwell!

During all that lifting and carrying I focus on the thought that fondant has a lower water content than syrup (~78% sugar vs ~60% for syrup) so I need to feed less weight to get the same amount of sugar into the hive.

And there’s no preparation needed or fancy (expensive) feeders to store for the rest of the year. 

As convenience foods go, it’s very convenient.

But after a dozen or two blocks, also very heavy 🙁

Beekeeper’s back

There’s a bittersweet irony to the honey harvest.

The more backbreakingly exhausting it is, the better it is. 

Not so much there’s no gain without pain” as “the more pain, the more gain”.

I have two main apiaries about 15 miles apart in Fife. I checked the hives in the first apiary and was disappointed to find the supers were mostly empty. This is a site which usually has good summer forage. The OSR had yielded well in the spring, but the colonies had then all had pre-emptive splits for swarm control, before being united back prior to the main flow.

Which appears not to have happened 🙁

I put clearers on the hives and returned the following day to collect a pathetically small number of full supers. There were some uncapped and part-filled frames, some of which contained fresh nectar 2 which I pooled together in the smallest number of supers possible.

I placed these above the floor but underneath the brood boxes.

This is termed nadiring, which isn’t actually a real word according to the OED. Nadir means the lowest point, but in the 17th Century (now obsolete and probably only used by beekeepers) nadir meant a point directly beneath an object.

The hope and expectation here is that the bees will find the stores beneath the cluster and move it up into the brood box, prior to me treating and feeding them up for winter.

Quick fix clearer board – hive side

On the same day I placed clearers underneath the (much heavier) supers in my second apiary. Actually, under about half the hives as I don’t have enough clearers for all the hives at once, even with a few Correx and gaffer tape bodged efforts to supplement them (shown above).

Clearing supers

I’ve discussed these clearers previously. With no moving parts and a deep rim on the underside the bees move down quickly. It’s not unusual to find the full 5cm depth full of bees the following morning.

Lots of bees

These bees have to be gently shaken back into the hive before replacing the crownboard and roof. This is easy on a calm, warm day with placid bees, but can be a little traumatic for everyone concerned if those three key ingredients are missing.

More lifting 🙁

Filled supers usually weigh between 37 and 50 lb (17-23 kg) each 3. Therefore, moving a dozen from the hives to the car and the car to the honey warming cabinet involves manually lifting about half a metric tonne. 

And that doesn’t include shaking off the few remaining bees which remain on individual frames. It’s not only my back that aches after this, but my fingers as well. Beekeeping, not such a gentle art as some might think.

I’ve previously noticed that more bees tend to remain in the supers if the colony is queenless.

This year the only queenless colony I found was also honeyless 🙁 

There was no need for the bees to remain in the supers … and no real evidence they’d been there in the first place.

This colony had a late queen mating fail (or perhaps lost on a mating flight) so I’ll unite it with a strong colony at the same time as I feed them and treat them for mites.

There’s obviously no point in feeding and treating before uniting or I’d jeopardise the reputation some beekeepers (including me 😉 ) have for being incredibly mean financially astute.

Lugless …

While shaking bees off one frame a lug broke. It’s a lovely frame of capped lime honey. Not close to show quality but pretty respectable all the same. I could scrape it back to the mid-rib and filter the honey or cobble together some sort of nail in place of the lug so I could spin it in the extractor. Instead I’m going to give it to friends who love honey direct from the comb … I’ll let them work out how to hang or stand it at the breakfast table.

The recovered supers were stacked on my honey warming cabinet set to 40°C. By the time heat losses are taken into account this maintains the supers at about 35°C, making the honey much easier to extract.

I usually rotate the stacks top to bottom and bottom to top a day before extracting. More lifting 🙁

Back in the apiary, the freed up clearers were placed under the supers on the remaining hives for collection the following day.

Storm Francis

Storm Francis only really arrived on the east coast of Scotland on Tuesday. It was windy and wet, but nothing like the pounding west Wales received. 

However, on early Tuesday morning when I arrived at the apiary it was wet.

Very wet.

There are few more demoralising sights than an apiary in really grey, wet and miserable conditions.

It was wetter and more miserable than this photo suggests …

There’s work to do and hives to open. Every single bee is ‘at home’. You know you’re going to get wet. It’s too blustery to use an umbrella and, anyhow, social distancing means there’s no-on there to hold one. 

Cold, clammy and heavy … a wet bee suit

The one saving grace is that the bees were incredibly calm.

I’d like to think they’ve been selectively bred over the years to be placid and well behaved, and that my skills as a beekeeper have been honed to the point where they barely know I’m there.

Hogwash.

It was so wet that they caused as little trouble as possible so that I got the roof back on the hive with the minimal delay 😉

Stings

Joking aside, these bees are calm and well behaved. Despite the flow being effectively over they haven’t become defensive. The majority of the colonies are very strong and they’re not being troubled by wasps, though these are searching out spilt honey and stores wherever possible. 

Our colonies in the bee shed are used for research and used to provide larvae and pupae for experiments. Members of my research team harvest brood when needed and, because they aren’t hugely experienced beekeepers, it’s important that the bees are not stroppy.

During the week I commented to a friend that I didn’t think I’ve been stung all season.

There may have been one of those glancing blows to a nitrile glove, but nothing that actually caused any pain or inconvenience.

Partly this is because I’ve done less beekeeping, but it also reflects repeated replacement of queens from stroppy colonies with selected calmer bees over past seasons. 

Aggressive bees do not collect more nectar. They are a menace to non-beekeepers and thoroughly unpleasant to work with. Fortunately, aggression is a relatively easy trait to select against and you can quickly see an improvement in colonies over just a couple of seasons.

Of course, I spoke too soon …

I lifted the lid on a stack of boxes containing old brood frames for melting down. To my complete surprise and considerable pain, I was greeted by a frenzied blitzkrieg of angry wasps.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang … BANG!

Five stings in less time than it takes to say it.

The final BANG was self inflicted as I hit the side of my head to try and squish a wasp before it burrowed into my ear and stung me.

Partial success … I crushed the wasp, but only after it had stung me on the cartilaginous pinna of my ear 🙁

I don’t know which hurt more … the sting or the blow to the side of my head.

These days I no longer bother setting wasp traps in my apiaries, instead relying on strong colonies (and reduced entrances or kewl floors) for defence. However, I’ve discovered that a strong washing up detergent spray is a good deterrent if wasps are getting into stacks of stored boxes. Spray the stripy blighters, stand back and let it do its work before blocking access with whatever you have to hand 4.

More bittersweet season endings

After about four days of intense beekeeping I’d removed all the supers, extracted the honey, collected the fondant, fed and treated all the colonies.

I’ll deal with feeding and treating next week (if I remember) but now need to rest my weary back and fingers … over the week I estimate I’ve lifted a cumulative total of 1200 kg of fondant and at least the same amount again of supers. 

The hives are now busy chucking out drones so they have fewer mouths to feed over the winter.

It’s a tough life being a drone in late August … but not for much longer

But to end on a more uplifting note, the honey crop was pretty good this summer 🙂


 

The new normal

For many, beekeeping associations provide the bookends that bracket the practical beekeeping season. In meetings during the dark, wet, cold winter months we can at least discuss bees, reminisce about the season just gone or plan for the season ahead.

Usually with tea and biscuits 🙂

Or in the more civilised associations (and a quick plug here for the Fortingall & District BKA) with fantastic homemade cakes 😉

Elderflower lemon drizzle cake

Beekeeping associations, through the training and social events that they organise and the contacts that they enable, provide an important support framework for beekeepers, both new and old.

Training new beekeepers is one important function associations provide, but more experienced beekeepers also benefit from co-operative purchasing schemes for foundation or fondant 1 and – of course – from the winter seminar programmes.

Double whammy

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a double whammy to many associations.

Training events, necessitating flagrant breaches of social distancing during hands-on practical beekeeping demonstrations, are a problem. Many associations delivered the theoretical coursework before lockdown was imposed, but were subsequently unable to provide the practical component of the training for beginners.

It’s difficult to spot the queen from 50 centimetres sometimes, let alone 2 metres.

Returning a marked and clipped queen – tricky to do at arm’s length

The independent first inspections for 2020 beginners are likely to have been a pretty tough challenge for many. Congratulations to those who got through them and the rest of the season with little support.

I’m hearing that some associations have cancelled or postponed all training events for the ’20/’21 winter season.

The imposition of lockdown 2 in March probably had little impact on the ’19/’20 winter seminar programmes, but they’re likely to have a significant impact going forwards.

I give quite a few talks on science and practical beekeeping in most winters. Audiences and venues vary, depending on the association. I’ve talked in drafty church halls to groups of 15, or swanky conference centres to ten times that number.

There is always a good turnout by new beekeepers, or even by those who have yet to start keeping bees.

Not your typical beekeeping audience … or church hall

However, there is generally a gender imbalance, with more men than women attending. And – and I’m afraid there’s no gentler way to write this – there’s an age imbalance as well, with the enthusiastic young ‘uns outnumbered by older, and in some cases old, beekeepers.

Statistics

This age and gender imbalance inevitably make the ’20/’21 winter seminar programmes an endangered species, at least in the format we’ve grown used to over past seasons.

If you look at the statistics for serious Covid-19 cases it is clear that there is a strong bias towards elderly males. There are other biases as well … underlying medical complications and ethnicity also have a major influence, though whether the latter is socio-economic, genetic or due to the presence of comorbidities remains unclear.

All of which means that spending an hour in a drafty church hall listening to a talk on bait hives is probably unwise … not least because the social distancing needed precludes any chance to huddle together for warmth when the one bar electric heater blows a fuse.

Zoom …

In the brave new, socially distanced, world we’re currently inhabiting, drafty church halls and excellent homemade cakes are now just a distant memory. 

Instead we have Teams talks, Demio demonstrations and WebEx webinars. 

And Zoom, but I can’t think of a suitable alliteration to go with Zoom 🙁

For many office-based workers, lockdown resulted in the substitution of boardroom meetings with spare bedroom virtual meetings. 

Hastily repurposed guest bedrooms have become home offices. The combination of IKEA furniture, a reasonably recent laptop and a fast internet connection has enabled ‘business as usual’.

Almost.

All of my meetings – with administrators, colleagues, my research team and students – have been online since late March (and in certain cases since early March).

Academics are used to collaborating globally and so were already familiar with Zoom, Teams or Skype for conference calls and job interviews. These have just continued 3, and been extended to now include all the in-person meetings that used to happen.

One or two colleagues have embraced this expanded use of the technology to have their own ‘green screens’. This allows their head and upper torso to be projected in front of a selected image – of a tropical beach, their favourite golf course or local boozer.

The Maldives … the perfect backdrop for a dull committee meeting

The really professional ones even change out of their pyjamas before calls … 😉

But many beekeepers will be largely unfamiliar with the technology and the advantages it offers … and disadvantages it imposes.

Online beekeeping talks

I’ve both attended and delivered online beekeeping talks. Not a huge number, but enough to have a fair idea of what works and what doesn’t. In addition, I’ve taken part – as audience or presenter – in hundreds of non-beekeeping online events.

For readers who have yet to take part here’s a general guide of what to expect.

The speaker and topic are advertised in advance and those interested in listening/watching register to attend. The talk is hosted by the beekeeping association who provide a ‘chairperson’ or ‘master of ceremonies’. This person has the unenviable task of dealing with the speaker, the technology and the audience. 

And two of these three might do something incomprehensibly stupid … and the internet can break.

On the evening of the talk 4 you login via a website (using a username/password provided on registration) and launch the necessary software to take part in the event.

Eventbrite beekeeping talk

Sometimes this can be through the web browser, but – more usually – it involves downloading and installing software onto your computer. Which might be an issue for some people wanting to take part. Do this in advance of the start time of the talk, not in the last 2 minutes before kickoff.

After an introduction by the chairperson, control of the graphics is usually handed to the speaker who delivers the talk. To avoid awkward ‘noises off’ 5 the chairperson usually mutes all other microphones

Why unenviable?

I previously described the chairpersons role as unenviable.

While the speaker blathers away the chair is probably:

  • dealing with email enquiries about how to launch the software
  • justifying why there isn’t a video of the speaker actually speaking (it’s turned off to save bandwidth), and
  • telling someone that they are the only person unable to hear the presenter. Therefore, it must be their audio output settings that are wrong.

And if that isn’t enough, the chair will be collecting and collating questions during and after the talk, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly.

Finally, it’s not unusual for the chair to also ensure that the talk is recorded so that those who couldn’t download the software or hear the presenter can attempt to listen to it in the future.

That’s a lot to deal with.

Questions and answers

Good talks generate questions.

As a speaker, there’s nothing worse than a talk being met by an echoing wall of silence.

Hello? Is there anybody [out] there? Just nod if you can hear me 6.

Some are points of clarification, others are after elaboration or explanation of a contrary view.

Some questions are nothing whatsoever to do with the talk 😉

They might not even be about beekeeping.

All require an answer of some kind.

And this is where the technology gets in the way of communication. 

Questions from the floor, in which the audience member switches on their microphone, clearly enunciates the question, and turns off the mike returning ‘control’ to the host and speaker cause delays.

Often significant delays. However, even short breaks interrupt good communication – think back to the lag on transatlantic satellite phone calls. 

The speaker asks the question clearly … but omits to turn on the mike.

Or they fail to the turn off the mike, so the entire audience hears the follow up “and I hope he answers quickly as Strictly’s on in a few minutes”.

For a couple of questions this is just about acceptable. For twenty or thirty it is not.

So, the beleaguered chair takes written questions from the audience, collates them, removes duplicates … and then asks the presenter on behalf of the audience.

I refer you back to the word ‘unenviable’. If you take part, cut the chair some slack …

Disadvantages of online talks

Unfortunately a subset of beekeepers who would have attended a gathering on the second Tuesday of the month in the church hall will never attend an online beekeeping talk.

For a start, they might not even own a computer. 

They might – and I have considerable sympathy for this view – mainly attend talks for the craic, the opportunity to catch up with friends and the chance of some homemade lemon drizzle cake.

All of those are good reasons to attend a talk in person … and in the case of lemon drizzle cake I’d say a compelling reason to attend 😉

As a regular speaker at associations I’d add here that the craic and the homemade cake are the parts of the evening I enjoy the most. After all, I’ve heard the talk before. I might even have heard the questions before 😉

None of these more social things are achievable online. Everyone listens in their own little bubble, isolated from the shared experience.

If they can’t bake it’s going to be a long evening 🙁

For others, the technology will continue to be a problem. They can see the pictures but can’t hear the words. Or vice versa. Or worse …

No Zoom for you …

The fact that 190 others don’t have the same problems just makes it a more frustrating and unrewarding experience. Being live, there’s no real chance of resolving these ‘local’ problems without delaying the talk and irritating the rest of the audience.

Over time the numbers unable to handle the technology will reduce.

In some cases it’ll be because they have learned to master it – either by perseverance, or by the beekeeping association providing some sort of training sessions.

In other cases it’ll be because they simply gave up 🙁

Like those who don’t have a computer in the first place, this means online talks are serving a different audience and some association members are likely to be excluded by the switch to online talks.

Advantages of online talks

But it’s not all bad news. I can see some benefits for both the speaker and audience from online presentations.

Associations can invite speakers from anywhere.

They don’t have to be from the same county.

Or the same country.

This broadens the topics that can be covered and provides the opportunity to discover different beekeeping practices from other areas (always remembering that this might simply confuse beginners).

There are some good speakers out there – just look through past programmes for the BBKA, SBA or WBKA Annual Conventions or the National Honey Show.

Associations can ‘share’ speakers by running joint events or inviting neighbouring association members to register.

As a speaker, this means that audiences tend to be larger. Bigger audiences are almost always better 7. Since everyone is logging on, rather than driving across the county to the venue, there’s less chance a spot of bad weather will put people off.

This is a huge advantage for the speaker as well … I’ve regularly talked, answered questions, drunk tea, chatted, eaten lemon drizzle cake, drunk more tea, said my goodbyes and then driven for three hours to get home 8.

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

I’ve also had to cancel talks at relatively short notice due to ‘adverse driving conditions’ – which in Scotland means a bit more than a dusting of snow. 

None of that happens in our brave new digital world.

Is this the new normal?

For the foreseeable future I think it is. The national lockdown is being replaced by local restrictions where virus transmission is increasing. However, school and university students have yet to return and this will likely lead to increased transmission in some areas (in Scotland, we’re already seeing this, though transmission is usually ascribed to “unregulated house parties” rather than within the school 9 ).

A vaccine remains some way off. It’ll be even longer until we have vaccinated a large enough proportion of the population to interrupt transmission.

Or to know how long immunity lasts.

All of which means that indoor social events, like talks about bait hives or swarm control, are likely to be undesirable, unattractive or simply not allowed.

What can we do to improve things?

Delivering a talk online is a very much less rewarding experience than doing so in person.

There’s no ability to properly engage with the audience – no banter, no eye contact, no jokey comments.

You can’t tell whether the old boy in the back row has switched off or just nodded off.

Or perhaps he’s simply cheesed off because he disagrees with everything I’m saying.

You don’t necessarily know who is in the audience – you might know overall numbers, but not whether the local bee inspector or beefarmer is logged on. Knowledge of the audience can influence the way you pitch a talk.

It’s an oddly sterile undertaking. This makes judging the pacing and content of the talk very much more difficult. With a live audience it’s usually possible to tell whether they’re ‘keeping up’ or ‘tuning out’. You can’t do this online.

If the audience is present you can ask questions and get immediate answers … anyone who has heard me talk will know I ask about drifting and ‘how many of your bees are your bees?’. There are ways of doing this online, but it requires familiarity with more software (or additional features of the current software).

Starting materials ...

Practical demonstrations and online presentations – tricky

In the meantime …

  1. Associations can help their members embrace the technology by providing limited training where it is needed. 
  2. Think creatively about topics that can be covered within the limitations of the technology. For example, some of the talks I’ve been to in person have had a practical component. I’ve attended excellent candle dipping and skep making workshops 10. Likewise, I talk about DIY for beekeeping which involves handing round examples of my hastily cobbled together beautifully crafted floors or roofs. These sorts of things might be achievable entirely online, perhaps with more videos. However, preparing these will certainly require a lot more work by the presenter to be effective.
  3. Provide feedback to speakers – what worked and what didn’t work?

Welcome to the new normal … I hope to “see” you online sometime 🙂


Notes

The new normal means “a previously atypical or unfamiliar situation, behaviour, etc., which has become standard, usual, or expected” (OED). Although now associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s usage can be traced back over 200 years. The big increase in usage was in reference to the 2008 financial crisis, and – historically – it is often used in reference to economic events. 

The new normal – Google ngram results

Orientation flights

Part of the reason for the success of honey bees is the division of labour between workers of different ages. Young workers (hive bees) clean the cells, nurse larvae and look after the queen. Older workers are foragers, collecting pollen and nectar (and water) from across the landscape.

To be successful, foragers need to know where to look and how to return.

The ‘where to look’ is partly accounted for by the well-known waggle dance 1.

In this post I’m going to discuss the second component of successful foraging – the homing ability of foragers.

More specifically, I’m going to discuss how the bee first learns about the location of the hive. 

Orientation flights

Bees do not instinctively know where the hive (or the tree they are nesting in for a wild colony) is located. They have to learn this before embarking on foraging trips to collect nectar or pollen.

This learning takes the form of one (or usually several – as we shall see) orientation flights. These enable the bee to memorise the precise location of the hive with relation to geographic landmarks. On subsequent foraging flights the bees use these landmarks to return to the hive.

Orientation flight have a characteristic appearance …

… and are very nicely described in the introduction to a paper by Capaldi and Dyer 2:

An orientation flight at the nest entrance begins as a departing bee turns and hovers back and forth, turning in short arcs, apparently looking at the hive entrance. Then, the bee increases the size of the arcs until, after a few seconds, she flies in circles while ascending to heights of 5–10 metres above the ground. This spiraling flight takes the bee out of sight of human observers. She returns a few minutes later, always without nectar or pollen.

Which I couldn’t have written any better, so have reproduced verbatim.

There are a number of features of the orientation flight that are immediately obvious from this description (which all beekeepers will recognize). These include:

  • A ‘local’ component, in the immediate vicinity of the hive
  • Wider ranging flight at a greater altitude and a longer distance
  • Direct observation does not allow the location, duration or track of these distant flights to be monitored
  • The bee returning from the orientation flight does not bring pollen or nectar with her

Do orientation flights allow orientation?

How do we know that these flights enable the bee to learn where the hive is located?

Early studies conducted by Becker (1958) showed that bees captured after a single orientation flight and then re-released up to 700 metres away from the hive could find their way ‘home’. In contrast, bees that had not gone on an orientation flight before were, by definition, disoriented and did not return to the hive.

However, the percentage that returned after undertaking a single orientation flight was related to the distance of the release point, and was never more than ~60% (at 200 metres). 

In contrast, reorienting older foragers (for example, as happens after moving a hive to a new location) were much better (~90%) at returning to the hive after a single reorientation flight. 

Capaldi and Dyer extended these early studies by Becker to investigate the impact of the visibility of local landmarks on orientation and reorientation, and also measured the speed with which bees returned after being displaced.

Landmarks

These studies showed that a single orientation flight allowed bees to identify the landmarks in the immediate vicinity (100 – 200 m) of the hive. When released from more distant locations, returning flights were faster and more successful (i.e. fewer lost bees) when the bees had sight of the landmarks in the vicinity of the hive.

The hive itself was effectively invisible except at very short ranges. This makes sense for a tree-nesting animal. One tree looks much the same as another 3, but if you learn that the nest is in the tree between the very tall conifer and the long straight hedgerow – two features visible from hundreds of metres distant – then orientation is straightforward.

This suggests that apiaries located near distinctive landscape features may be preferable in terms of increased returning forager rates.

“Distinctive” as far as an orienting worker bee is concerned, which may not be the same as distinctive to the beekeeper of course 😉

Reorienting bees (compared to first flight bees) took longer to explore the environment and were better at returning. Either these bees learn differently (a distinct possibility) or their prior experience in the wider landscape gives them an advantage when the hive is relocated.

Where do you go to my lovely?

The early studies by Becker and those by Dyer and colleagues defined many of the parameters that characterise orientation flights. What they did not do is show where the bees actually go during the orientation flights?

Do they just zoom around randomly?

Do they fly ever-increasing spirals?

Perhaps they perform some sort of grid search, exploring individual landscape features carefully for future reference?

Recent developments with harmonic radar have allowed tracking of individual bees during orientation flights over hundreds of metres. These have provided further insights into the process.

Because harmonic radar is also relevant to other studies of honey bee flight – for example, the impact of neonicotinoids on foraging ability – I’ll digress slightly from orientation flights to describe the technology.

Harmonic radar

Harmonic radar has revolutionised tracking studies of insects in much the same way as GPS tags have provided unique insights into bird migration (or, for that matter, shark migration).

The radar system has two components. The insect is tagged with a tiny antenna attached to a Schottky diode (together termed the transponder). The transmitter/detector is a ground-based scanner that transmits the radar signal. This is used as the energy source by the diode which re-emits a harmonic of the original signal which can then be detected.

Tagged bumble bee (left) and harmonic radar detector (right)

The transponder weighs less than a normal pollen load, though presumably there is some wind resistance from the antenna. In studies of bees with and without transponders fitted the orientation flights were of a similar duration, suggesting any wind resistance didn’t appreciably impact the flying ability of the bee.

Orientation (a-c) and foraging (d) flights monitored by harmonic radar.

 

Orientation flights 4 were taken by bees between 3 and 14 days post-emergence, with the mean onset of foraging being 14 days post-emergence.

Bees took between 1 and 18 orientation flights, though there wasn’t a direct relationship between the number of flights and the age of the bee, suggesting they may learn at different rates.

Initial orientation flights were generally in the immediate vicinity of the hive. Older workers – pre-foraging – ventured further afield. More recent studies have addressed this in greater detail (see below).

Orientation flights were distinctly different from foraging flights. The former were slower and less direct. The ground speed of orienting bees was ~3.6 m/s in contrast to foragers who flew at ~5.6 m/s and, as shown in D above, foraging flights were very much ‘there and back’ straight lines.

Venturing forth …

A more recent study 5 has used harmonic radar to investigate multiple orientation flights by individual bees, effectively analysing how the bee explores the landscape as it ages towards a forager.

This was a remarkable study. It involved addition and subsequent removal of the transponder from 115 individual bees during 184 orientation flights. When the orienting bee returned they recaptured it, removed the transponder and allowed it to reenter the hive. When it reappeared for another orientation flight they reattached the transponder.

Anyone complaining about their inability to mark queens 6 should do this as a training exercise 😉

The scientists also recorded several foraging flights of a smaller number of the same bees, to allow comparison with their behaviour during orientation flights.

Orientation and foraging flights of five individual bees.

Flights were defined as short or long range, but long range orientation flights were still significantly shorter than foraging flights.

  • Short range flights were made in poor weather and familiarised the bees with the immediate vicinity of the hive.
  • Consecutive long range flights reduced in duration as the bees learnt about the immediate hive vicinity i.e. the long range flights included some local exploring at first as well.
  • Orientation flights explored different areas of the landscape, rather than focusing on one sector.
  • Subsequent foraging flights involved areas that the bees may have never visited during orientation flights.
  • Some very long duration foraging flights may involve a degree of exploration, though it’s not clear whether this is truly orientation, or actual scouting activity.

Not all bees performed short and long range flights though early long range lights did involve local exploration as well. 

Ground clues and conclusions

The final part of this study investigated the influence of visual landscape features on orientation flights. This deserves a post in its own right as the techniques are quite involved.

Essentially they generated heat maps of the flights overlaid onto the geography. Using this approach they determined that some features visible from the air e.g. borders between grassland and a track, influenced the direction of flight and hence the orientation flights. 

There are additional studies of the influence of visible landmarks on bee flight which I’ll return to at some point in the future.

Again, like the comment made above about visible landmarks, it suggests to me that apiaries situated near such distinctive features may aid orientation and subsequent homing flights by honey bees.

When you next stand by your hive entrance on a warm, sunny afternoon and watch young workers flying to and fro across the entrance before spiralling up and away out of sight, you’ll know that it is an essential component of their training to be effective foragers.

They don’t forage for long – perhaps three weeks at most – but they are very effective, partly because they know where to return to.


Notes

Where do you go to my lovely? was the title of a rather syrupy (my blog, my opinion! … Apologies if it’s a favourite of yours 😉 ) song by Peter Sarstedt in 1969. It’s notable for some quite clever rhyming lyrics and a particularly dodgy mustache he sports in the YouTube video. (I’m just linking it, rather than embedding just because of the mustache).

It has nothing to do with bees.