A no competition, competition

Unless you’re in an unseasonably warm part of the country, mid-April is usually early enough to put out your bait hives. This year, because of the unusually cold snap in the last week or so, it might still be a bit early. However, colonies are developing well and as soon as the weather properly warms up they will start thinking about swarming.

Regular readers, look away now

I’ve written a lot about bait hives in previous years. Anyone who assiduously follows this site and – unlike me 😉 – remembers what’s been written before can skip ahead to the next section.

But for those who need an aide memoire

The purpose of a bait hive is to attract a swarm that you (surely not?) or someone else has temporarily misplaced i.e. lost 1. When a colony swarms it settles in a temporary bivouac from which the scout bees fly to survey the area for a suitable new nest site.

The two stage process of swarming

The scout bees have very particular requirements.

They’re looking for cavities of about 40 litres volume with a small, clearly visible, south facing, entrance near the base.

Evolution and fussy house hunters

Bees have evolved to nest in trees – not quaint cartoon churches as shown above – and cavities in trees come in all shapes and sizes.

This is why they don’t care what shape the cavity is. However, cavities with small entrances are easier to defend, which is why they prefer them 2.

In addition, bees favour cavities situated more than 5 metres above ground level. Again, this makes evolutionary sense. It’s not just Winnie the Pooh that likes honey. The higher up a tree they nest, the less likely they would be detected by a bear 3 on the ground. And if the nest remains undetected (or unreachable by a climbing bear) there’s a chance the colony will thrive and reproduce (swarm) to pass on the ‘high altitude’ nest site preference gene.

And if you’ve evolved to nest in a tree cavity in a wood filled with other trees, it again makes evolutionary sense for the entrance to be clearly visible. If it wasn’t, bees on their orientation flights would inevitably get confused (and therefore lost).

Finally, bees have a strong preference for cavities that smell … of bees.

A cavity that’s already heavily propolised, or contains used drawn comb, offers distinct advantages to the incoming swarm. They will have less work to do and so more chance of building up before winter arrives.

The ideal bait hive

And you can reproduce these requirements by offering a used single brood box National hive with a solid floor and an entrance reducing block in place … facing south and situated well off the ground.

I discussed the evolutionary selection pressures that have shaped the preference for a 40 litre box rather than that convenient spare nuc box I’m repeatedly asked about a smaller box a few weeks ago.

In that post I also discussed why I ignore the preference for bait hives located 5 metres above the ground:

  • I want to be able to watch scout bee activity. This is tricky if they’re a long way off the ground 4.
  • It’s a lot safer retrieving a bait hive from a hive stand at knee level than it is when climbing a ladder. I usually move occupied bait hives late in the evening (when the bees are all in residence) and prefer not to do this balanced precariously on top of a ladder.
  • And – though not listed last time – my knee level bait hives are sufficiently successful I don’t need to increase their attractiveness. I don’t doubt they’d be more efficient located at altitude 5 but they work well enough that I don’t  feel the need to risk altitude sickness or a broken leg …

But, what I’ve not really discussed before is the location where bait hives should be sited and the importance of appreciating the ‘competitive‘ aspects of bait hives.

Natural competition

When you place a bait hive in the environment, whether it’s in your garden or the corner of a field or 5 metres up an oak tree 6, you are providing a potential nest site that will be judged in competition with other natural sites in the area.

And ‘the area’ is probably about 25 square kilometres.

If you struggle to visualize that then it’s the area covered by this circle centred on the roof of Fortnum & Mason’s, where there are some hives. London Zoo to Battersea Power Station and the Round Pond to Southwark Bridge … a large area 7.

Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London … scout bee range (in theory at least)

Scout bees survey over 3 km from their nest site, though swarms rarely relocate that far 8.

Why don’t they move ‘that far’?

Again, evolution may have selected bees that choose not to move away from the environment in which the swarming colony has flourished and built up strongly enough to be able to swarm.

Scout bees find nests, they don’t survey the available forage around those nests. So it makes sense to stay in the general area where forage is proven to be good enough (to allow swarming).

However, I suspect a compelling reason that swarms don’t move far from their original nest site is that there are plenty of alternative nest sites available.

Church towers 9, roof spaces, chimneys, tree cavities 10, compost bins, abandoned sheds etc.

Choices, choices

Think about the environment near your hives. Whether urban or rural, there are bound to be thousands of potential cavities within 3 km.

Some will be too small, some will be poorly defendable 11 and some will be unsuitable for other reasons.

But there are very likely to be some that are ideal, or pretty close to it.

Mature woodland and older man made environments are likely to have ample choices.

Occupied bait hive

Occupied bait hive …

And then there’s your lonely bait hive.

Chance in a million?

How can it possibly compete with all those natural cavities in the environment?

Bait hive ...

Bait hive …

The first thing to do is to ensure it adheres as close as is practically possible (and safely achievable) to the idealised requirements determined by Martin Lindauer, Thomas Seeley and others.

  • a 40 litre cavity = National brood box 
  • a small entrance of 10-15cm2 = entrance block, solid floor
  • south facing
  • shaded but in full view
  • over 5m above ground level 12
  • smelling of bees = one old, dark comb against the sidewall (no stores!)

Secondly, locate it within ~500 metres of your own apiary (to hopefully re-capture your own ‘lost’ swarms 13 ) or, more speculatively, anywhere in an environment in which there are other managed or feral colonies.

Which does not mean over the fence from another beekeeper’s apiary!

Be courteous … don’t poach 🙂

The density of bees throughout much of the UK is very high. Look at Beebase to see the numbers of apiaries within 10 km of your own. When I lived in Warwickshire it was ~180-220, in Fife it was ~35-40 14.

In the talks I’ve given on bait hives this winter – where I customise the presentation to the audience location – few areas with active BKAs have under 100 apiaries within 10 km of their teaching apiary.

In both Fife or Warwickshire I never failed to attract swarms to bait hives in my garden every single year … and in several years up to three swarms to a single bait hive location.

And, with one or two exceptions, these weren’t swarms I had lost 15.

The density of managed colonies in the UK means that a suitable bait hive just about anywhere stands a chance of being occupied.

So, that’s how to win the competition with the natural nest sites that are available.

No competition

But do not put out multiple bait hives in one area.

I have recently re-read an old paper by Thomas Seeley and Kirk Visscher on quorum sensing by scout bees. Quorum sensing is a term for a decision making process where enough bees agree on the same choice, rather than the majority.

Seeley and Visscher (2004) Quorum sensing experiment

Like many good experiments it has an elegant simplicity.

They reasoned that if you provided a bivouacked swarm with a choice of suitable nest sites it would reduce the numbers of scouts that favoured each nest site, and in doing so, would increase the time to reach a decision as to which was best.

And it does.

More potential nest sites leads to an increase in time taken to reach a decision

Unsurprisingly, with more nest box sites to choose between, the scout bees per box were reduced in number (top panel), dancing to advertise preferred nest sites was delayed (second panel), and piping – the ‘prepare for take-off’ signal (third panel) for the bivouacked swarm – was also delayed.

I’ll discuss how this favours a quorum sensing mechanism (and some other aspects of the study) if and when I get time in the future.

For the moment the key take home message is ‘more choice = slower decision making’ by the swarm.

And, if you delay the decision making, there’s a chance it’ll start raining, or the swarm will be collected by another beekeeper … or they’ll opt to move into the old tower of that quaint cartoon church.

One area?

I started the last subsection with the sentence ‘But don’t put out multiple bait hives in one area’.

What is one area?

I was being deliberately vague because I don’t know the answer.

Since I don’t know where the bees might come from 16, I don’t know what’s within range of the bivouacked swarm.

Widely separated bait hives (black) are likely to be within reach of more swarms than clustered bait hives (white)

In practical terms this means I space my bait hives at least 500 metres apart. Widely separated bait hives are likely to be within reach of more swarms than clustered bait hives.

More importantly, clustered bait hives are likely to lead to competition between scout bees from the same swarm, resulting in reduced scout bee attention..

Until recently I’ve not kept bees in my garden. I would always place a bait hive in the garden and one near my out apiaries. With permission, I’d locate them in other places as well.

Having moved, I now have much more space and have bees in the ‘garden’. When my bait hives go out 17 they will be placed in likely spots on opposite sides of our bit of scrubby wooded hillside 18 .

But what’s a likely spot?

Ley lines

And if you thought that last bit was slightly vague … brace yourself.

Over the years I’ve noticed that some bait hive locations are much more successful than others.

Under offer ...

Under offer …

My tiny courtyard garden in Fife was a magnet for swarms. I placed a bait hive in a warm corner of the garden on the day we moved in, and within 10 days a swarm had arrived.

Planting tray roof …

Every year, without fail, multiple swarms would occupy bait hives 19 in that corner of the garden. I even had two swarms competing for one bait hive in 2019.

A sheltered south-east facing hedgerow in Warwickshire was equally effective.

Bait hive

Smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises

As was a south-west facing spot sheltered next to my greenhouse in a previous garden.

Des Res?

Des Res?

But other locations have been far less successful.

Of course, this is a positive reinforcement exercise. I’m more likely to site a bait hive in a location I’ve previously been successful in.

But what else might account for this differential success rate? And can it be exploited in the rational location of bait hives?

Is it, as some suggest, that bait hives work best when they are located at the intersection of ley lines? This, and the possibility of creating Varroa-resistant bees by exploiting geopathic stress lines, surely deserves a post of its own 20.

Call me sceptical

However, as a scientist – and knowing others have been more than a little sceptical about the existence of ley lines – I think there’s a more prosaic explanation.

Without exception, my most successful sites for bait hives have been well sheltered to the north, and – in most cases – to the north-east and north-west directions as well.

For example, the bait hive is situated on the south face of a wall running east-west (Under offer, above), or in a corner sheltered to the north and east (Planting tray roof, above), or facing south-east in a very dense hedgerow running north-east to south-west (Smelling faintly etc., above), or sheltered by surrounding walls or outhouses but with a clear entrance facing south-west (Des res?, above).

And … since I’ve been aware of this for at least five years, and probably subconsciously aware of it for much longer, that’s exactly the type of location I choose to site my bait hives.

Which is, of course, another example of positive reinforcement 🙂

However, it works for me. I choose sites that are well sheltered to the sides and back of the bait hive, and I try and orientate the bait hive to face south (ish).

At knee level 😉

Give it a try.


 

First impressions

There’s always a slight feeling of trepidation when I lift a roof for the first hive inspection of the season.

What’s in the box?

Is the colony going to be thriving or just hanging on?

I know they’ve got sufficient stores and that the bees have been flying on good days, but that’s not the same as the reassurance that comes from finding 3-4 frames of brood in all stages, well-tempered bees, and a marked queen with a good laying pattern.

Iffy weather

It takes bees to make bees, the saying goes. The colony cannot rear large slabs of brood without large numbers of nurse bees to feed them and clean them and cap the cells.

After a midwinter brood break (which we get, but you may not if you live further south than my 56°N) the queen lays a small patch of eggs which eventually develop and emerge. Over the next few weeks the amount of brood slowly but inexorably increases. The numbers of new bees in the hive increases.

But remember that the total number of bees in the hive is actually still decreasing as the winter bees continue to die off.

And, although brood rearing can (and does) continue like this for weeks – through January and February at least – it needs the better weather, warmer temperatures and early forage to really start ramping up.

So the further north your bees are, the later in the season that things get going.

Unlike last year, the weather this spring has been decidedly ‘mixed’. I barely saw a bee until the penultimate day of February and, with average temperatures of ~6.5°C March wasn’t a whole lot better.

And since then it’s got colder …

I’m writing this after four days of ‘sunny periods’. These sunny periods were interspersed with snow, hail and bitingly cold northerly winds.

Sunny periods … but 4°C with squally snow showers being driven down the Sound of Mull

Although the average temperature is under 5°C the bees are busy foraging when the sun is out. I spent some time yesterday trying to (unsuccessfully) photograph pollen-laden foragers returning to the hive in a snow shower.

Shirtsleeve weather

The usual advice is to not rush the first hive inspection. Wait until it’s a warm spring day. Often it’s recommended to choose a day with ‘shirtsleeve weather’.

Which here might mean July … 🙁

Actually, that’s a bit harsh. We often have excellent weather in late April through until early June.

However, this is my first season with bees on the west coast and I was very keen to see how they were progressing. I also wanted to remove the nadired super and check the levels of pollen.

It certainly wasn’t shirtsleeve weather, but I needed no more than one fleece under my beesuit and I haven’t had to wear long johns since mid-March 😉

Ribes ...

Ribes …

The other advice you’ll often hear is that a good time to conduct the first inspection is when the ornamental currant (Ribes sanguineum) is flowering.

Treat this advice 1 with some caution. In St Andrews there’s a large amount of these flowering currants near the bus station that would always be in full bloom by mid/late March, whatever the weather.

We have no Ribes on the west coast. If we had, the deer would eat them all.

But we did have an unseasonably warm day on the first of the month.

So I had a quick look.

Very disturbing

A hive inspection inevitably disturbs the colony.

However gentle you are the activities of the bees are interrupted, the humidity of the hive changes and the temperature decreases.

The odours and pheromones, so critical for the organised functioning of the colony are also affected.

For these reasons alone there must be a good reason to inspect a colony.

And that’s before you consider the increased opportunities for robbing 2, potential damage to the queen, or a myriad of other reasons.

But none of this means that hive inspections should not be conducted if and when they are needed.

What it does mean is that you need to have a plan in mind when conducting a hive inspection. In addition, you need to have all the things you might need close to hand, and have a mental checklist (your hands will be full) of the order you’re going to execute the plan.

All of which sounds very contrived.

It doesn’t need to be.

What you don’t want to be doing is realising half way through the inspection that you need a clearer board … and it’s at home in the shed 3. Or that your queen has been superseded and the new queen needs to be marked … with the non-existent Posca pen which you lost at the end of last season 🙁

Be prepared

So, although I was only having a ‘quick look’ I did make sure I had everything I needed before I removed the hive roof. This included a:

  • smoker with sufficient fuel to last the duration
  • clearer board to allow the simple removal of the nadired super
  • queen marking kit and snips
  • hive tool with a wide blade to clear the floor
  • spare frame or two
  • pollen pattie 4
  • wrapped fondant block ‘just in case’ 5

All this needs to be close to hand but not so close you trip over it. The roof of an adjacent hive is as good a place as any for the small stuff.

Since I was going to rearrange the boxes I kept space immediately adjacent to the hive free to give me room to work.

Ready, steady … Go!

The hives I inspected were single brood Nationals with a nadired 6 super containing (or not containing?) honey from last season.

Nadired super and single National poly hive

Immediately over the top bars of the frames was the remnants of a block of fondant in a ‘carry out’ food container, with the headspace over the hive provided by one of my inverted deep-rimmed perspex crownboards. This was topped by a block of insulation and the roof 7.

The colonies were installed in these hives from 5 frame nucs in July last year. They had built up reasonably well and collected a half super of heather honey.

However, most of the old, dark frames from the nuc were still in the box as I’d not managed to finish rotating them out of the hive before the season ended.

Corpses and accumulated debris

I removed the roof and the insulation. I then lifted both the nadired super and the brood box together and carefully moved them aside.

This gave me access to the floor.

Sometimes the floor is clear at this time in the spring. At other times you can find a thick accumulation of corpses, or a scattering of mummified larvae with chalkbrood.

Rarely you’ll find a dead mouse … or a live one 8. It’s not at all unusual to find slugs in the hive. These appear to particularly like the damp environment underneath the frame lugs in Abelo poly hives.

Old floors …

Old floors …

Usually I’d choose to replace the floor with a recently cleaned one.

One spare is all you need. You place the new floor down, complete the inspection, close the hive and then scrape clean and blowtorch the old floor before using it as a replacement for the next hive in the apiary.

However, despite my careful planning (!) I had no spares as they were all back in the bee shed, 150 miles away. D’oh! At least I was aware of this before I started which is why I’d made sure I had a wide-bladed hive tool with me.

I scraped the floor clean of a few bee corpses and checked that the entrance channel was clear before putting the floor back in its original location.

I gently separated the brood box from the nadired super. During this process I checked the amount of bees in the super, making an immediate judgement whether the brood nest extended that far down in the hive.

Had the super contained a lot of bees (and therefore potentially brood) there would be a risk that the queen was also ‘down below’. This would have necessitated a quick rethink.

As it was, the super had just a couple of hundred bees in it and it was clear – just by looking down the seams between the frames – that there was no brood present.

It was safe to proceed.

Elbow room and the queen

Only now did I remove the crownboard, lifting one edge first and giving the bees a gentle puff from the smoker to encourage them to stay put.

I removed the fondant block and left it nearby. The bees would return to the hive unaided, or I’d shake the last few in before closing the hive.

The colony inspection was brief and focused. The first few frames contained no bees and so were ignored. Other than the outer dark frame – see below – they weren’t even removed from the hive.

Ready for inspection

I quickly and carefully went through the frames occupied by bees, checking for:

  • sufficient stores (there were still stores on some of the frames I’d not lifted from the hive as well)
  • levels of pollen
  • brood in all stages – eggs, larvae and sealed brood
  • the queen (was she the same I’d last seen in the box over 7 months ago?)

which took no more than a minute for each of the 4-5 frames. Each frame was lifted, inspected on each side and – with one exception – replaced in the same position it had come from.

The brood nest was off-centre, pushed up against one of the side walls of the hive. This isn’t unusual with poly hives as they are so well insulated. However, it means that expansion of the brood nest can only go in one direction.

Giving them a little more elbow room

So, the exception was a frame, with some stores but mainly nice empty comb. I placed this between the brood nest and the side wall of the hive. This gives the expanding colony the option of growing in two directions.

Later in the season, when it’s warmer and the colony is growing faster, you can expand the brood nest further. However, this early in the year 9 just giving them the option to go in either direction is a start.

Marked, laying queen

The marked, clipped queen was easy to spot. I managed to disturb her while laying an egg which you can just see at the tip of her abdomen in the picture inset above.

Replacement of dark frames

Unfortunately the queen was laying up one of the old dark frames in the hive. I couldn’t therefore move this to the outside of the brood nest, but made a mental note to in a month or so.

On the opposite side of the hive were a couple of old dark frames that had been largely cleared of stores.

Old dark frames rotated out of the hive and replaced

These were removed and replaced with new frames. In a few weeks I’ll move these close to the centre of the hive. With abundant spring nectar, and warmth, they will draw fresh comb for the expanding brood nest.

Both the frames above show slight signs of mould. This isn’t unusual to see on frames at the end of the winter, and is generally nothing to worry about. The hive is a humid environment and the outer frames often get very little attention from the bees.

Emptying the super

The super contained a few hundred bees. It also clearly contained a bit of residual honey.

On a warm day I might have simply shaken the bees out. Quick and easy and all over in a single visit. However, it was not warm and this would have been even more disruptive. I therefore added a clearer board and placed the super on top of that. I replaced the crown board, the roof and strapped everything up securely.

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

The warmth and odours of the hive quickly draw the bees down to join their nest mates, leaving the super empty. This was removed the following day.

The super still had a bit of capped honey in it, as well as a frame or two of uncapped ‘nectar’.

This wasn’t fresh nectar. There’s precious little about at the moment and any the bees are collecting is being secreted around and above the brood nest so that it’s immediately available. Remember, this super had been underneath the brood box since mid-September.

Much of the nectar could be shaken out of these frames. I assume it was uncapped from last year and that it has absorbed moisture from the atmosphere 10. It didn’t have the wet bubbly, yeasty smell and appearance that fermenting stores have … presumably because it’s been too cold 🙁

Thriving or just hanging on?

The two colonies I inspected were doing OK.

More brood than I’d feared, but less than I’d hoped for.

Beekeeping is greatly influenced by the climate, the geography and the local flora. This was my first west coast spring inspection, so there’s lots new to me. It feels like a colder spring than 2020, but I didn’t have bees here then, so have nothing to compare it with.

Once the spring migrants start arriving I’ll have a better idea how it compares.

All of which emphasises the importance of the final part of the inspection. Writing up the hive records. Comparison of notes about both the bees and the environment will, over time, mean I have a much better idea of what’s happening when. And whether the colonies are doing well or badly considering the state of the season.

Black throated diver (Gavia arctica) in full summer breeding plumage

The sand martens are already here, and there are black throated divers on the hill loch. I expect blackcap, cuckoos and wheatear in the next 7-10 days. Much longer than that and it will officially be a cold, late spring.

I’ll be checking my east coast colonies, including half a dozen that have luxuriated in the bee shed overwinter, in the next fortnight or so.

Fife has been warmer and drier, so I expect those colonies to be further advanced.

I hope I’m not too late 🙁


 

Lost and found

It was the Welsh Beekeepers’ Convention last weekend 1.

This is a convention I’ve previously enjoyed attending. I remember strolling through the daffodil-filled Builth Wells Showground in lovely spring sunshine to visit the trade show.

And I remember staggering back to the car, laden with items that were:

  • too inexpensive (not cheap … there’s a difference 😉 ) to ignore,
  • exactly what I’d been searching for, or
  • essential. 

Some items qualified on all three criteria, so I’d bought two of them 🙁

And then ‘at the death’ I did a quick trip again around the trade stands buying a few things I’d spotted and dismissed earlier as not absolutely essential, not inexpensive enough or not quite what I’d been looking for.

It would be another year until the next convention … it would have been rude not to 🙂

None of these things were big ticket items.

Although I’m naturally drawn to the gleaming stainless steel extractors, the settling tanks and the wax separators, I’m a small-scale beekeeper and cannot justify (or afford) these sorts of luxuries.

Instead I browse the ‘show specials’ bin, the remaindered items and the shop soiled or ex-demo stock.

And, like a moth to a candle, anything to do with queen rearing.

Non, je ne regrette rien … but

All this purchased ‘stuff’ takes up space.

Normally this isn’t a problem. It migrates from the car to the workshop to the bee bag

Or just as far as the workshop.

Or – I’m ashamed to say – it’s forgotten for years and discovered in the glove compartment when I’m searching for something else entirely.

But I’ve just moved house. 

And when you move house you have to pack everything and, worse, unpack everything and find somewhere for it to be stored 2.

And it became very clear, very quickly, that I had a large amount of beekeeping essentials that were anything but essential. You could tell this because they were still wrapped, still had the price-tags attached, or were otherwise very obviously unused.

And, it turns out, it wasn’t clear how to use some of them … or even what they were used for.

Which begs the question ‘Why did you buy it in the first place?’

I know this because I was asked it.

Several times 😉

So I’ve had a clear out.

Some of the things I unearthed were essential, or at least very useful.

Others were useful, but might be improved upon for this season.

And a soberingly large number of items were now – and in retrospect never had been – any use whatsoever 🙁

The Why did I ever buy that? category

I’m actually going to ignore most of the stuff in this category. Other than teaching me a bit more wallet-control there’s little to learn from it. Also, the stuff with the price tags still attached is a rather pointed reminder that I should increase the price of my honey or risk penury. 

Ventilated queen cages and two spirit levels

Strange oversize ventilated queen cages. These are a bit weird. They have a fixed mesh side and a twist open cover. Inside is a rather ugly plastic queen cup and the other end has a loose-fitting plug. I have no idea how to use these, or even what they are really for. Discarded.

In the same box were two small spirit levels. These are invaluable if you use foundationless frames because the hive needs to be level to get the comb drawn vertically. Most smartphones have a spirit level function, but these are a bit more propolis-resistant and were put into the bee bag … where they should have been in the first place. I’d lost them.

Plastic bits

I have a suspicion these rather lurid plastic bits are from Paradise Honey hives. If so, the boxes have been in use for about a decade (mainly as bait hives) without needing whatever function they provided. They’ve gone for recycling …

Plastic frame runners

These plastic frame runners should be in the Why did I buy so many? category. I suspect they were inexpensive (or, in this case, cheap). You can’t flame them with a blowtorch 3 but they are resistant to acetic acid 4. I use a couple each year when upgrading the feeder on poly Everynucs. I’ve kept them as I’m sure they’ll come in”.

The ‘Big mistake’ category

Castellated frame spacers are an abomination. I know because I tried them and abandoned them. But, to emphasise what a failure they were I kept them as a reminder … periodically cutting myself on the sharp corners as I rummaged through the box of bits they were in, looking for something else.

Just say no

Rather than just try them on a super or two, I fitted them to a dozen or more. They do exactly what they’re supposed to; they keep the super frames separated by a set amount.

The problem is they provide no flexibility to space the frames by different amounts. Your super can only be fitted with 8, 9, 10 or 11 frames. With brand new frames I routinely fit 11 in a super until they’re drawn out. But as the nectar flow continues I remove a frame or two, usually ending up with 9 frames per super. 

More honey, less wax … and a convenient extractor-full of frames per super.

I now just manually separate and arrange the frames and the bees helpfully propolise them in place. At £2.04 a pair (there are some with the price sticker still attached) it wasn’t a cripplingly expensive mistake … but it was a mistake. 

Crack pipes and queen marking cages

The final entry in the this ‘mistake’ category are the budget versions of queen marking cages. The budget ones are the two unused looking ones in the middle of the photo above. These work, but less well than the full-fat non-budget version (clearly used, on the left) mainly because they have a coarse inflexible plastic mesh covering them, making marking the queen difficult and clipping her wing nearly impossible.

I now prefer the turn and mark cage … and discovered an unused one (on the right, above) in my spring cleaning.

Handheld queen marking cage

Handheld queen marking cage

The ‘crack pipes’ are what Thorne’s call a plastic queen catcher 5. These actually work pretty well but were replaced by my index finger and thumb several years ago.

Useful discoveries

Not everything I found was an ill-considered purchase or a mistake.

Thankfully 😉

Ratchet straps … tamed for now

I discovered a spaghetti-like mess of ratchet straps and tidied them up with some reusable zip ties. These straps work well when new, or if well maintained. However, there are too many moving parts for my liking and they often eventually fail. They are excellent when transporting hives and allow the hive to be strapped together and attached to something immovable in the van. 

Standard hive straps

Better still, I found some standard hive straps. With no moving parts these are essentially infallible if you can remember how to use them properly 6. Unlike ratchet straps they have the additional benefit of laying completely flat against the side of the hive when in use. This makes stacking hives together much easier.

These four hive straps look almost unused and I suspect they arrived on nucs I collected some time ago … so technically weren’t a purchase in the first place. Lost and now found 🙂

Apinaut queen marking kit

The final item in this category of ‘useful discoveries’ was an Apinaut queen marking kit. These are quite clever. Instead of marking the queen with a Posca water-based pen (or Tippex), you glue a small numbered metal disc to the top of her thorax.

The kit contains the glue, a set of coloured and numbered discs and a pen with a magnetic tip. Rather than chasing the queen around the frame trying to pick her up by the wings you simply use the magnetic pen. By retracting the magnetic tip you can then ‘drop’ or place the queen wherever you want 7

This was an impulse purchase which I’d lost. And forgotten. I rediscovered it, still in the bag it was supplied in, at the bottom of a box containing the components for ~200 frames. D’oh!

Queen introduction cages

Amongst all the queen rearing paraphernalia 8 I’ve collected were a number of items that are used quite often.

I usually use JzBz queen cages for introducing queens to queenless colonies as I inherited a bucketload 9 of them many years ago.

However, with very valuable queens or very unreceptive colonies 10 I prefer to use these Nicot queen introduction cages. These cages are about 13 cm square, with a short plastic leg at each corner that can be pushed into the comb. There is a cap on the front that can be removed to introduce the queen to the cage.

Nicot queen introduction cages

The idea with these is that you fix them over a patch of emerging brood and introduce a mated queen whose acceptance is guaranteed 11 by the newly emerged bees. After a few days the queen has often laid up the empty cells under the cage and has usually been ‘released’ by workers burrowing under the edge of the cage.

The problem is that there’s a tendency to lose the legs and the cap for the cage (I’ve lost one or both for all those above … so these should be in the ‘Lost and lost’ category). I therefore improvise, using a small square of silver foil-backed adhesive tape in place of the cap and strapping the cage to the frame with a couple of elastic bands.

Mini-nucs for queen mating

I’ve got a dozen or so Kieler mini-nucs which I sometimes use for queen mating. These are small top bar hives that are primed with a few hundred bees and a ripe queen cell. I’ve not used these mini-nucs for about three years, but hope to again this season … so the next two finds were most welcome.

Kieler mini-nuc top bar frames and starter strips

The first was a box of Kieler mini-nuc frame bars, some with a small strip of foundation carefully glued in place with melted wax. Except many of the wax strips had become unattached or been damaged 🙁

This year I’ll try using the wooden tongue depressor starter strips I use in my foundationless frames. I see no reason why these won’t work for mini-nucs as well, and they’d have the advantage of being a lot more robust.

Kieler mini-nuc frame feeders

Kieler mini-nucs are supplied with a polystyrene feeder that occupies one third of the hive volume. That’s an awful lot of food for four tiny isosceles trapezoids of brood. I prefer to replace the poly feeder with a small fondant-filled frame feeder. This only takes one sixth of the hive volume and works very well. I was therefore pleased to find half a dozen well-used frame feeders built to my usual high standards and exacting tolerances 😉 12

Queenless colonies

When a colony is suspected of being queenless (and lacks any eggs or young larvae) the normal advice is to donate a frame of eggs from another colony. If queen cells are produced on the introduced frame the colony is queenless.

Is the colony queenless?

You might not have a frame of eggs to spare, or want to transfer an entire frame from another colony. Instead, these Nicot queen cell cups glued to a small aluminium tab can be used. You graft day old larvae into two or three of these cups and insert them, open end down, near the centre of the brood nest. The aluminium tab (butchered with only minor blood loss from a soft drink can) holds the cell cup in place.

If the colony is queenless they will start to draw out queen cells from the cup.

Conversely, if the larvae in the cup is ignored they are queenright … stop worrying 🙂

Unless, of course, the grafted larvae are duds 🙁

To use this trick – which isn’t my idea 13 – you need to be good enough at grafting to be certain that >50% of the larvae grafted would be accepted in a queenless colony. With a little practice that’s easy enough to achieve.

Putting the cleaning into spring cleaning

The final things unearthed during my tidying was a lot of queen rearing cups, cup holders, cell bar supports and cages.

The cups – the same as shown in the picture above – are usually supplied in 100’s or 500’s and cost a penny each. I use them only once.

Nicot cup holders in the bath

The cup holders, cell bar supports and cages 14 – you need one of each per queen cell – often end up encrusted with wax or propolis. They’re not expensive (~75p for one complete set) but they can easily be reused.

Nicot queen cell protection cages being washed

I simply soak them in very hot water with some mild detergent and then rinse them really well. Most of the wax and propolis is removed.

If you’re worried about the smell of detergent lingering and inhibiting queen rearing you can add the cell bar frame to the hive 24-48 hours before grafting. To be absolutely certain it gets lots of attention from the bees in the hive ‘paint’ it with some sugar syrup. The bees will clean this off and it will then be ready for use.

After a few happy hours sorting through boxes I feel better prepared for the season ahead. I now have a much better idea what I’ve got and where it is.

I’ve also usefully freed up some more space for future conventions 😉

And I know I’ll never need to purchase another rhombus escape 🙁


 

 

Quick thinking & second thoughts

I gave my last talk of the winter season on Tuesday to a lovely group at Chalfont Beekeepers Society. The talk 1 was all about nest site selection and how we can exploit it when setting out bait hives to capture swarms.

It’s an enjoyable talk 2 as it includes a mix of science, DIY and practical beekeeping.

Nest sites, bait hives and evolution

The science would be familiar to anyone who has read Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley. This describes his studies of the features considered important by the scout bees in their search for a new nest site 3.

Under offer ...

Under offer …

The most important of these are:

  • a 40 litre cavity (shape unimportant)
  • a small entrance of 10-15cm2
  • south facing
  • shaded but in full view
  • over 5m above ground level
  • smelling of bees

All of which can easily be replicated using a National brood box with a solid floor. Or two stacked supers.

And – before you ask – a spare nuc box is too small to be optimal.

That doesn’t mean it won’t work as a bait hive, just that it won’t work as well as one with a volume of 40 litres 4.

Evolution has shaped the nest site selection process of honey bees. They have evolved to preferentially occupy cavities of about 40 litres.

Presumably, colonies choosing to occupy a smaller space (or those that didn’t choose a larger space 5 ) were restricted in the amount of brood they could raise, the consequent strength of the colony and the weight of stores they could lay down for the winter.

Get these things wrong and it doesn’t end well 🙁

A swarm occupying a nuc box-sized cavity would either outgrow it before the end of the season, potentially triggering another round of swarming, or fail to store sufficient honey.

Or both.

Over thousands of colonies and thousands of years, swarms from colonies with genetics that chose smaller cavities would tend to do less well. In good years they might do OK, but in bad winters they would inevitably perish.

Bait hive compromises

If you set out a nuc box as a bait hive, you’re probably not intending to leave the swarm in that box.

But the bees don’t know that. Their choices have been crafted over millenia to give them the best chance of survival.

All other things being equal they are less likely to occupy a nuc box than a National brood box.

Another day, another bait hive, another swarm …

For this reason I don’t use nuc boxes as bait hives.

However, I don’t recapitulate all the features the scout bees look for in a ‘des res’.

I studiously ignore the fact that bees prefer to occupy nest sites that are more than 5 metres above ground level.

This is a pragmatic compromise I’m prepared to make for reasons of convenience, safety and enjoyment.

Bees have probably evolved to favour nest sites more than 5 metres above ground level to avoid attention from bears. The fact that there are no bears in Britain, and haven’t been since the Middle Ages 6, is irrelevant.

The preference for high altitude nest sites was ‘baked into’ the genetics of honey bees over the millenia before we hunted bears 7 to extinction.

However, I ignore it for the following reasons:

  • convenience – I usually move occupied bait hives within 48 hours of a swarm arriving. It’s easier to do this from a knee height hive stand than from a roof ladder.
  • safety – I often move the bait hive late in the evening. Rather than risk disturbing a virgin queen on her mating or orientation flights (assuming it’s a cast that has occupied the bait hive) I move them late in the day. In the ‘bad old days’ when I often didn’t return from the office until late, this was sometimes in the semi-dark. Easy and safe to do at knee height … appreciably less so at the top of a ladder.
  • enjoyment – I can see the scout bees going about their business at a hive near ground level without having to get the binoculars out. Their behaviour is fascinating. If you’ve not watched them I thoroughly recommend it.

Scout bee activity

The swarming of honey bees is a biphasic process. In the first phase the colony swarms and forms a temporary bivouac nearby to the original nest site.

The two stage process of swarming

The scout bees search an area ~25 km2 around the bivouacked swarm for suitable nest sites. They communicate the quality and location of new nest sites by performing a waggle dance on the surface of the bivouac.

Once sufficient scouts have been convinced of the suitability of one of the identified nest sites the second phase of swarming – the relocation of the swarm – takes place.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

However, logic dictates that the scout bees are likely to have already identified several potential new nest sites, even before the colony swarms and clusters in a bivouac.

There are only a few hundred scout bees in the swarmed colony, perhaps 2-3% of the swarm.

Could just a few hundred scouts both survey the area and reach a quorum decision on the best location within a reasonable length of time?

What’s a reasonable length of time?

The bivouacked swarm contains a significant amount of honey stores (40% by weight) but does not forage. It’s also exposed to the elements. If finding sites and reaching a decision on the best nest site isn’t completed within a few days the swarm may perish.

Which is why I think that scout bees are active well before the colony actually swarms.

Early warning systems

If scout bees are active before a colony swarms they could be expected to find and scrutinize my bait hive(s).

If I see them doing this I’m forewarned that a colony within ~3 km (the radius over which scout bees operate) is potentially making swarm preparations.

Since I’ll always have a bait hive or two within 3 km of my own apiaries I’ll check these hives at the earliest opportunity, looking for recently started queen cells.

Whether they’re my colonies or not, it’s always worth knowing that swarming activity has started. Within a particular geographic area, with similar weather and forage, there’s usually a distinct swarming period.

If it’s not one of my colonies then it soon might be 😉

So, in addition to just having the enjoyment of watching the scout bees at work, a clearly visible – ground level – bait hive provides a useful early warning system that swarming activity has, or soon will, start.

Questions and answers

Although talking about swarms and bait hives is enjoyable, as I’ve written before, the part of the talk I enjoy the most is the question and answer session.

And Tuesday was no exception.

I explained previously that the Q&A sessions are enjoyable and helpful:

Enjoyable, because I’m directly answering a question that was presumably asked because someone wanted or needed to know the answer 8.

Helpful, because over time these will drive the evolution of the talk so that it better explains things for more of the audience.

Actually, there’s another reason in addition to these … it’s a challenge.

A caffeine-fueled Q&A Zoom session

It’s fun to be ‘put on the spot’ and have to come up with a reasonable answer.

Many questions are rather predictable.

That’s not a criticism. It simply reflects the normal range of topics that the audience either feels comfortable asking about, or are interested in. Sometimes even a seemingly ‘left field’ question, when re-phrased, is one for which there is a standard answer. The skill in this instance is deciphering the question and doing the re-phrasing.

But sometimes there are questions that make you think afresh about a topic, or they force you to think about something you’ve never considered before.

And there was one of those on Tuesday which involved biphasic swarming and scout bee activity.

Do all swarms bivouac?

That wasn’t the question, but it’s an abbreviated form of the question.

I think the original wording was something like:

Do all swarms cluster in a bivouac or do some go directly from the original hive/location to the new nest site?

And I didn’t know the answer.

I could have made a trite joke 9 about not observing this because my own colonies swarm so infrequently 🙄

I could have simply answered “I don’t know”.

Brutally honest, 100% accurate and unchallengeable 10.

But it’s an interesting question and it deserved better than that.

So, thinking about it, I gave the following answer.

I didn’t know, but thought it would be unlikely. For a swarm to relocate directly from the original nest site the scout bees would need to have already reached a quorum decision on the best location. To do this they would need to have found the new nest site (which wouldn’t be a problem) and then communicate it to other scout bees, so that they could – in turn – find the site. Since this communication involves the waggle dance it would, by definition, occur within the original hive. Lots of foragers will also be waggle dancing about good patches of pollen and nectar so I thought there would be confusion … perhaps they always need to form a bivouac on which the scout bees can dance? Which explains why I think it’s unlikely.

In a Zoom talk you can’t ponder too long before giving an answer or the audience will assume the internet has crashed and they’ll drift off to make tea 11.

An attentive beekeeping audience … I’d better think fast or look stupid

You therefore tend to mentally throw together a few relevant facts and assemble a reasonable answer quite quickly.

And then you spend the rest of the week thinking about it in more detail …

Second thoughts

I still don’t know the answer to the question Do all swarms bivouac?”, but I now realise my answer made some assumptions which might be wrong.

I’ll come to these in a minute, but first let me address the question again with the help of the people who actually did the work.

I’ve briefly looked back through the relevant literature by Seeley and Lindauer and cannot find any mention of swarms relocating without going via a bivouac. I may well have missed something, it wouldn’t be the first time 12.

However, their studies are a little self-selecting and may have overlooked swarms that behaved like this.

Both were primarily interested in the waggle dance and the decision making process, they therefore needed to be able to observe it … most easily this is on the surface of the bivouac.

Martin Lindauer mainly studied colonies that had naturally swarmed, naming them after the location of the bivouac, and then studied the waggle dancing on the surface of the clustered swarm. In contrast, Tom Seeley created swarms by caging the queen and adding thousands of very well fed bees.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

So, what were the assumptions I made?

There were two and they both relate to confusion between waggle dancing foragers and scout bees.

  1. Swarming usually occurs during a strong nectar flow. Therefore there are likely to be lots of waggle dancing foragers in the hive at the same time the scouts are trying to persuade each other – using their own fundamentally similar – waggle dances.
  2. Bees ‘watching’ are unable to distinguish between scouts bees and foragers.

So, what’s wrong with these assumptions?

A noisy, smelly dance floor

Foragers perform the waggle dance on the ‘dance floor’. This is an area of vertical comb near the hive entrance. It’s position is not fixed and can move – further into the hive if the weather is cold, or even out onto a landing board (outside the hive) in very hot weather 13.

So, although the dance floor occupied by foragers isn’t immovable, it is defined. There’s lots of other regions of the comb that scouts could use for their communication i.e. there could be spatial separation between the forager and scout bee waggle dances.

Secondly, foragers provide both directional and olfactory clues about the identity and location of good sources of pollen and nectar. In addition to two alkanes and two alkenes produced by dancing foragers 14 they also carry back scents “acquired from the environment at or en route to the floral food source” which are presumed to aid foragers recruited by the waggle dancer to pinpoint the food source.

Importantly, non-dancing returning foragers do not produce these alkanes and alkenes. Perhaps the dancing scouts don’t either?

A dancing scout would also lack specific scents from a food source.

Therefore, at least theoretically, there’s probably a good chance that scout bees could communicate within the hive. Using spatially distant dances and a unique combination of olfactory clues (or their absence) scouts may well be able to recruit other scouts to check likely new nest sites.

All of which would support my view that bait hives provide a useful early warning system for colonies that are in the very earliest stages of swarm preparations … rather than just an indicator that there’s a bivouacked swarm in the vicinity.

But?

All this of course then begs the question … if the scout bees can communicate within the hive, why does the swarm need to bivouac at all?

The bivouac must be a risky stage in the already precarious process of swarming. 80% of wild swarms perish. At the very least it’s subject to the vagaries of the weather. Surely it would be advantageous to stay within the warm, dry hive until a new nest site is identified?

Apple blossom ...

Apple blossom … and signs that a bivouacked swarm perished here

This suggests to me that the bivouac serves additional purposes within the swarming process. A couple of possibilities come to mind:

  • the gravity-independent, sun-orientated waggle dancing 15 on the surface of the bivouac may be a key part of the decision making process, not possible (for reasons that are unclear to me) within the confines of the hive.
  • the bivouac acts to temporally coordinate the swarm. A swarm takes quite a long time to settle at the bivouac. Many bees leave the hive during the excitement of swarming but not all settle in the bivouac. Perhaps it acts as a sorting mechanism to bring together all the bees that are going to relocate, separate from those remaining in the swarmed colony?

Clearly this requires a bit more thought and research.

If your association invites me to discuss swarms and bait hives next winter I might even have an answer.

But, as with so many things to do with bees, knowing that answer will only spawn additional questions 😉


 

Swarm control and elusive queens

Many beekeepers struggle to routinely find the queen, particularly in a very busy colony.

For 90% of the beekeeping season whether you find the queen or not is irrelevant … you can tell if she’s present because there are eggs in the colony (so she must have laid them in the last 3 days) and, often, because the colony is well-tempered.

That should be sufficient.

Whenever I do routine inspections I like to see the queen, but I don’t look for her. If the colony:

  1. is calm and well-behaved
  2. is bringing pollen in
  3. contains no sealed queen cells, and
  4. contains eggs

then I’m 99% certain there is a queen present and everything is OK 1.

Individually, each of those observations isn’t a certain way of determining the queen status of the colony, but together they’re pretty-much a nailed-on certainty.

Not finding the queen

Notwithstanding the surety these four signs provide about the presence of the queen, they still don’t help you (or me 😉 ) find her.

And, for a few colony manipulations, it’s really helpful to find the queen. Indeed, for some it is essential.

I’m not going to discuss ways to help find the queen as I’ve written about it before and refer you there for starters.

The two obvious times it helps to know exactly where the queen are:

  • when you are removing frames, brood and bees from the colony – for example, when making up nucleus colonies
  • during swarm control

Frankly, you probably shouldn’t be doing the first of these if you don’t know where the queen is. There’s a real risk of leaving the parental colony queenless, which is probably not your intention.

Swarm control

The post today is going to deal with the second situation. How do you conduct swarm control when you don’t have a Scooby 2 where the queen is in the colony?

Swarm control is the term used to describe the colony manipulations that a beekeeper conducts to prevent the loss of a swarm. It is usually started after attempts at swarm prevention (e.g. supering early to provide more space) have clearly not worked.

You can tell the swarm prevention has not worked because the colony has started to produce queen cells … don’t panic.

This seemed like a logical post for this time of the season … and for another Covid-blighted spring. Beginners who started last year, or who will be getting their first bees this year, might well have to conduct swarm control without the benefit of a mentor.

And it’s beginners who are most likely to be unable to find the queen in an overflowing colony. These of course are the colonies that are most likely to swarm and – because of their ability to collect lots of honey – the very colonies you want not to swarm 😉

Swarm control when you can find the queen

All of the methods of swarm control I’ve previously discussed here have involved hive manipulations that require the location of the queen to be known:

  • The Pagden artificial swarm – the queen is left in the original location and is joined by all the flying bees. The brood and hive bees end up rearing a new queen.
  • The vertical split – the same as the Pagden artificial swarm, except conducted vertically rather than horizontally. Uses less equipment and more muscle.
  • The nucleus method – a nuc colony is established with the queen, some bees and brood. The parental colony is left to rear a new queen. Very reliable in my experience.

If you’re the type of beekeeper who can routinely find the queen, relatively quickly, however crowded or bad tempered the colony is, however short of time …

… in a downpour.

Congratulations. Apply here. No need to read any further 😉

But, for the rest of us …

Queens and bees

If you think about the contents of a colony it can be divided into three components:

  1. Queen
  2. Brood in all stages (eggs, larvae, pupae; abbreviated to BIAS) and the nurse or ‘hive’ bees
  3. Flying bees – the foraging workforce

Of these, only one is a ‘viable’ entity on its own.

The queen needs bees to feed her, build comb and rear the larvae that hatch from the eggs she lays. The foragers need a queen to lay eggs. Neither alone is viable, by which I mean ‘has the ability to develop into a full colony’.

In contrast, the combination of nurse bees and brood, in particular the eggs and very young larvae, does have the potential to create a complete colony.

I’ve discussed this concept before under the title Superorganism potential.

Swarms, splits and superorganisms

Swarms, splits and superorganisms

Although neither the queen or flying bees alone have any long-term potential to create a new colony, together they can.

Both the Pagden and vertical split exploit this potential by separating the queen and flying bees from ‘all the rest’. It’s similar, but not identical to what happens when a colony swarms 3.

Loads of bees … and there’s a queen in there somewhere!

The method described below is a slight modification of the Pagden artificial swarm.

It exploits the fact that the flying bees return to their original location with unerring accuracy 4.

It couples this with the ‘Get out of jail free’ ability of bees to rear a new queen from eggs or very young larvae if they are queenless.

Together they make swarm control straightforward when you can’t find or don’t know where the queen is.

Or when you don’t have the time or patience or enthusiasm to find her 😉

So, let’s move from generalities to specifics …

During a routine inspection of a colony in late May 5 you find unsealed queen cells. The colony is strong and you’ve not seen the queen for weeks. Or ever. She’s not marked or clipped. There are eggs, larvae and sealed brood in abundance.

Stage 1 – preparation

  1. Check the colony again for any sealed queen cells. If you find any you should assume that the colony has probably already swarmed 6. If there are no sealed queen cells continue …
  2. Beg, borrow or steal a new floor, brood box, crownboard and roof. While you’re at it, scrounge or build 11 new frames. Of course, I expect all readers of this site are better prepared than me that. You will have spares close to hand – in the apiary shed, or the back of the beemobile, or you can quickly disassemble a nearby bait hive. Congratulations … I hope you’re feeling very smug 😉
  3. Move the soon-to-swarm colony (which I’ll term the old colony in the old hive from now on) away from its original location. Most advice suggests more than a metre. I prefer to move the old hive further away (e.g. to the other side of the apiary). You want to ensure that bees flying from the old hive relocate to the new hive. If you’re short of space at all it helps to rotate the old hive entrance to face in a different direction.
  4. Place the new floor and new brood box in the original location. Make sure the entrance faces the same way as it did when the old hive was in the original location.

You’ll notice that returning foragers will start to enter the new hive almost as soon as you place the floor and brood box in place.

Stage 1 – provision the new hive with eggs and larvae

  1. Remove the roof, crownboard, supers and queen excluder from the old hive and place them gently aside.
  2. Transfer one frame containing eggs and young larvae from the old hive to the new hive.
  3. It is imperative that the selected frame has no queen cells on it. Carefully inspect the frame for queen cells. If you find any, knock them off using your hive tool or fingers. The ability to judge which of the two hives contains the queen at the next inspection is dependent upon there being no queen cells at this stage.
  4. Place the selected frame in the middle of the new hive.
  5. Fill the remainder of the new hive with new frames.
  6. Add the queen excluder to the new hive 7.
  7. Add the supers to the new hive. Close the new hive by adding a crownboard and roof. See the note below about feeding this colony.
  8. Add a new frame to the gap now present in the old hive 8. Replace the crownboard and roof.
  9. Go and make a cup of tea … all done for today.

    Swarm control when you cannot find the queen – stage 1

I’ve assumed that the colony you are manipulating has supers present. If it did not, and particularly if there’s no nectar flow, you will need to feed the colony in the new hive. This ensures that the bees can build comb … which they’ll need to do if the queen is present.

You now leave the colonies for 7 days and then check them again to determine which contained the queen …

Stage 2 – 7 days later – the new hive

Inspect the new hive and look for queen cells on the frame you transferred from the old hive in stage 1(ii) (above). This hive will be much busier now as all of the flying bees from the old hive will have relocated to it

The new hive contains no queen cells

If there are no queen cells on the brood frame you introduced it is almost certain that the queen is in the new hive (see upper panel A in the diagram below). Look carefully on the frames of adjacent drawn comb for the presence of eggs. If so, you can be certain that the queen is in the new hive. Close the hive and let them get on with things.

The new hive does contain queen cells

If there are queen cells on the frame you transferred from the old hive then the queen is almost certainly not in the new hive (see lower panel B in the diagram below).

Because they are queenless and you provided them with a frame containing eggs and very young larvae they have started to produce a new queen … or queens.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

You want to make sure they only produce one new queen.

There will be no more eggs or larvae young enough to start more queen cells. Many of the queen cells will be capped.

Ideally, select an unsealed queen cell that contains a big fat larva sitting in a deep bed of Royal jelly (a ‘charged’ cell). Mark the top of the frame with a pin (if you’re organised) or pen (if you’re less organised) or a hive tool (if you’re me 😉 ). Knock off all the capped cells, just leaving the one you have marked.

Be gentle with this frame. Don’t shake it, don’t drop it etc.

Swarm control when you cannot find the queen – 7 days later

Close the hive up and let the queen emerge and mate and start laying. This will take at least 17 days or so, and often longer.

Stage 2 – 7 days later – the old hive

Inspect the old hive and look for queen cells. This hive will be much less busy as most of the flying bees will have been ‘bled off’ returning to their original location (and boosting the population in the new hive).

The old hive contains no queen cells

With a much reduced population of workers – and if the queen is present – the bees will no longer need the queen cells, so will almost certainly have torn them down and destroyed them (see lower panel B in the diagram above).

If you carefully look through this hive you should find eggs and very young larvae present. These ‘prove’ that there is a queen present, even if you still cannot find her. Where else could the eggs have come from?

Close the hive up and let them get on with things.

The old hive does contain queen cells

Despite the reduced worker population, if this hive does not contain the queen the bees will be busy rearing a replacement … or three.

There will be no more eggs or larvae young enough to start more queen cells. Many of the queen cells will be capped.

Ideally, select an unsealed queen cell. Mark the top of the frame with a pin 9. Knock off all the capped cells, just leaving the one you have marked.

The goal is the leave one charged queen cell only.

If all the cells are capped don’t worry. The bees are very unlikely to have chosen a ‘dud’. Choose a nice looking cell somewhere near the centre of the brood nest and destroy the others.

She’s gone …

Make a note in your diary/notebook and expect to wait 17-21 days until this queen is out and mated and laying (or possibly a bit longer). Other than perhaps checking the new queen has emerged there’s no need to disturb the colony in the meantime (and lots to be lost if you do interfere and disturb the virgin queen).

It’s as simple as that … what could possibly go wrong?

I’ve very rarely had to implement swarm control when I can’t find the queen. Usually I’ll just look a bit harder and find her eventually.

However, there are times when knowing what you need to do if you really cannot find her – because the hive is full of uncapped swarm cells and it’s raining hard, or the bees are going postal and you want to be anywhere but in this apiary next to the open hive – is very useful.

Are there any embellishments that might be worth considering?

If the old hive has very little comb with eggs and young larvae you need to ensure that both the old and the new hives have sufficient to draw new queen cells. This is rarely a problem, but be aware that this method only works if both old and new hives have the resources to rear a new queen should they need to.

On the contrary, if there’s ample eggs/larvae you could transfer a couple of frames to the new hive … remembering that there’s also then an increased chance you will also be transferring the elusive queen.

If the old hive is left with ample eggs and larvae you can safely knock back all the queen cells during stage 1. They will only then produce new cells if the queen is not present. This makes deciphering what’s going on at 7 days that much easier.

When I say 7 days, I mean 7 days … not 9, or when it stops raining or when you’ve got some spare time in the future 😉

A queen in a cell capped on the day you complete stage 1 will emerge 9 days later. On the off chance that the bees are queenright but do not tear the unwanted cells down you want to avoid this happening.

Finally, if there’s a dearth of nectar and no filled/partially filled supers on the colonies, you may need to feed them to avoid starvation.

Keep a close eye on them, but don’t interfere unless you have to.


 

Waiting

Beekeepers will be familiar with the strange distortion of time that occurs during the season. The months with the shortest days appear to drag on interminably. In contrast, the long days of summer whizz by in a flurry of activity 1.

Beekeepers timewarp – perceived month length in blue and actual day length in red.

This is due to the indirect influence of latitude on our bees.

In winter, they’re largely inactive … and so are we, and time drags.

In summer, they’re busy foraging and breeding and reproducing (swarming) and foraging more and robbing … and we’re running around like headless chickens 2 trying to keep up. 

A spring swarm in a skep

Not always successfully 🙁

Latitude

The UK is a small country. The distance between the extremities – Jersey 3 and the Shetlands (both islands, some distance from the mainland 4 ) – is only about 800 miles, or a bit less than the long diagonal across California.

Nevertheless, this has a profound effect on daylength and temperature … and therefore on the bees.

On the winter solstice the day length in Jersey is about 8 hr 11 min. On the Shetlands it’s less than 5 hr 50 min. But that is reversed by the summer solstice. The longest day on the Shetlands is over 2.5 hours longer than the 16 hr 14 min that the poor crepuscular folk in Jersey enjoy 5.

For convenience, let’s assume that bees need an average maximum temperature of 10°C to fly freely 6. That being the case, bees in St Helier, Jersey, might fly for 9 months of the year, whereas those in Lerwick, Shetland, fly for less than 6 months of the year 7

Think back to those headless chickens. All of that “foraging and breeding and reproducing (swarming) and foraging more and robbing is being squeezed into about one third less time in Lerwick than in St Helier.

The winters are not fundamentally different. But the transition to spring happens much earlier in the south.

All of which makes this time of the year hard going for those of us living at northern latitudes … which, in a roundabout way, was what I was pondering while I stared at a depressingly inactive entrance to one of my colonies a fortnight or so ago. 

Ignore Twitter

For a few days Twitter had been littered with short videos of bees piling into hive entrances laden with pollen.

Helpful comments like “Girls are very busy today” or “15°C today and all colonies flying well” accompanied the videos.

I was ankle deep in snow and we’d recently had overnight temperatures below -14°C.

No flying today

Bees from one of my colonies on the west coast had been out on cleansing flights 8 but the other was suspiciously quiet. 

Obviously it was quiet when there was snow on the ground, but this situation continued as the weather warmed and the snow disappeared.

Despite a reasonable amount of experience in keeping bees in Scotland, and an awareness that the Twitter posts might have been from a beekeeper in St Helier, I was starting to get concerned about this second colony 9.

I knew there were live bees in the box as it has a clear crownboard. I could remove the roof and block of insulation and see the bees. However, the bees appeared to still be clustered and, having added a tray under the open mesh floor, there was little evidence of brood emerging.

In contrast, the other colony was flying well, collecting pollen and the cluster was largely dispersed.

Worrying times.

Fretting

Perhaps they’ve gone queenless?

Do queenless colonies tend not to break cluster as early in the season?

Do they not have any need to collect pollen because there’s no brood to be reared?

That’s scuppered my queen rearing plans for the season ahead … is it too late to order a couple more nucs?

Is it too early in the season to unite them and at least use the surviving bees?

Should I have a quick look in the centre of the cluster?

Should I wait until tomorrow when the weather is looking a little better? 10

Waiting

This went on for the better part of a week. The weather was not great, but was steadily improving. I was working outside much of the day.

The flying colony continued to fly. There was ample evidence they were rearing brood. 

The non-flying colony just sat there and sulked 🙁

And then, on the penultimate day of February, out they came …

What a relief …

The day was no warmer than the preceding one, it was certainly no sunnier. If anything it was actually a bit worse. 

But the bees came out as though someone had uncorked a bottle 🙂

First a couple around midday, then a dozen or two by 1pm and finally reaching a few hundred by 2pm (just after the picture above was taken 11 ).

Almost all the flying bees appeared to be taking orientation flights. Only a very few were collecting pollen.

And from that point on it’s been a case of ‘normal service is resumed’.

The colonies have continued to fly on the good less bad days. Both colonies are busy with the gorse pollen. Both – by the look of the trays under the OMF 12 – are rearing reasonable amounts of brood. 

Why the sulking?

Both my west coast colonies were obtained from the same source, though I know the queens are from different lineages. I suspect the fact that one was flying well before the other simply reflects differences in their genetics.

It’s notable that after the first day or two of strong flying activity, both colonies have quietened down significantly. The proportion of bees taking orientation flights compared with foragers has decreased significantly.

I interpret that burst of flying activity as a mix of new bees taking their first flights and older bees reorienting after a long period confined to the hive.

I’m no longer worried that the queen failed in midwinter 🙂

Patience, young grasshopper

This trivial example is just one of many where the beekeeper has to wait for the bees.

You can’t rush them.

They will go at their own pace and, usually (or possibly even, almost always) it will work out OK.

I was concerned about that apparently inactive colony. Had I intervened I would have done more harm than good. 

Since there was little I could do that would constructively help the situation I simply had to wait.

Which made me think about other examples where waiting is usually the best policy in beekeeping.

Queen rearing

I’ve given a couple of talks recently on queen rearing and am already well-advanced with my own plans for the season.

Queen rearing involves several key events, all of which must more or less coincide. The colony (and other colonies in the region) must have sexually mature drones present. There really needs to be a good nectar flow to ensure the developing queens are well nourished. Finally, the weather must be suitable for queen mating.

Again, you can’t rush these things. You might have no influence on them at all …

The swarm in the skep (above) was captured on the last day of April 2019. It was an unusually early spring in Scotland and the earliest swarm I’ve seen since 2015. 

The bees had judged that conditions were right. There were reasonable numbers of drones about and the weather remained pretty good for at least the first half of May. The swarm was a prime swarm, and I fully expect that the virgin queen that emerged in the originating colony got successfully mated 13.

OSR ... can you believe it?!

Late April 2016 … OSR and snow

In contrast, three years earlier the conditions at the end of April are shown above. Colonies contained few drones and swarming first occurred in late May.

Under these conditions, starting queen rearing is a pointless exercise. The colonies aren’t ready, the environment is hostile and there is probably insufficient nectar being collected. 

It pays to wait.

Queen mating

Anyone who has kept bees for a year or two will be familiar with the often interminable wait while a virgin queen gets mated.

Assuming a colony swarms on the day that the developing queen cell(s) is capped 14, the queen that follows her must emerge, mature, go on her mating flight(s) and then start laying.

My calculations are that this takes an absolute minimum of 14 days.

For the first seven days the new queen is pupating, she then emerges and matures for 5-6 days before going on one (or more) mating flights. After mating it then takes a further 2-3 days before she starts laying.

I’ve not looked through my records but cannot remember it ever taking 14 days. In reality, even with ideal conditions, at least 17-18 days is more usual and 21 days is not at all uncommon.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

It’s worth remembering that there’s a time window within which the queen must mate. This opens 5-6 days after emergence (when she becomes sexually mature) and closes at 26-33 days after emergence, after which time she’s too old to dependably mate well.

A variety of factors can influence the speed with which the queen gets mated. 

Bad weather is the most obvious. If the weather is poor (rain, cool, very windy etc.) she won’t venture forth. For Scottish beekeepers, there’s a nice study by Gavin Ramsay 15 of the total number of ‘good’ queen mating days we enjoy in our brief summers … it can be very few indeed.

Queens mate faster from smaller hives. Queens in mini-nucs mate faster than those in 5-frame nucs which, in turn, mate faster than those in full hives. 

And, as far as the beekeeper is concerned, these few days drag by very slowly 16

There’s nothing to be gained by checking and re-checking. There’s potentially a lot to be lost if you get in the way of a queen returning from a mating flight.

Just wait … and more often than not it will all be just fine.

Enthusiastic beginners

The final example where there’s a benefit from waiting is for the beginner beekeeper getting their very first colony 17.

They’ve attended a winter ‘Introduction to beekeeping’ course, they’ve read and re-read the Thorne’s catalogue (and ordered loads of stuff they don’t need) and they are desperate to start keeping bees.

I know the feeling, I was exactly the same when I started.

Every year I get requests for nucs in March, or “as soon as possible” or “so I can install them in the hive at Easter”.

The commercial suppliers offer bees early in the season, often from April onwards. 

Or did, before the ban on imports, though some still do.

But in my opinion I think there are real benefits from waiting until a little later in the season.

In the absence of imported packages or nucs, there are only two sources of nuc colonies early in the season:

  • Overwintered nucs. These are usually in very short supply and therefore command a significant price premium. The queen will be from the previous year … not in itself a major problem, though they are probably more likely to swarm than a nuc headed by a current year queen.
  • Bees in a box headed by a queen that was imported. The proportion of bees in the box related to the queen depends upon the time that has elapsed since the queen was added to the box. Think about the timing of brood development … it takes three weeks from adding the queen to have any adult bees related to her. It takes six weeks or more to re-populate the box.

I think the price premium of an overwintered nuc is justified because they have already successfully overwintered. However, a similar box of bees would be perhaps half the price two months later 18.

It’s an expensive way to start if things go wrong.

What could possibly go wrong?

An overwintered nuc will probably build up very fast, perhaps outstripping the skills (or confidence) of the tyro beekeeper. 

If the weather is bad the new beekeeper potentially has a large, poorly-tempered, colony to manage. It’s daunting enough for some beginners doing their first few inspections, but if they’re struggling with a fast-expanding colony – potentially already making swarm preparations – on cool or wet days, then it can become a bit of a chore.

Or worse.

A few stings, a bee or two in the veil and the beekeeper gets a bad fright. The next inspection is missed or delayed. The colony inevitably swarms as the weather picks up.

Suddenly 75% of their £300 investment has disappeared over the fence 19 and they’re left with a hive full of queen cells.

In contrast, the beginner who starts with a nuc later in the season, headed by a ‘this years’ queen, avoids all those problems. 

The new queen is pumping out the pheromones and there’s very little chance the colony will swarm. They’ve arrived in late May or early June, the weather is perfect and the bees are wonderfully calm. 

They still build up at quite a pace, surprising the beginner. They’ve drawn out all the comb in a full brood box within a fortnight and will need a super just about in time for the summer nectar flow.

Beginners often open their colonies too frequently. They dabble, they fuss, they make little tweaks and adjustments. 

My first ever colony – late May. I still feel guilty about that first queen 🙁

Sometimes – like I did with my first colony – they inadvertently crush the queen during a particularly cack handed colony inspection.

D’oh!

It’s still early in the season so mated queens are difficult to get. Pinching a frame of young brood from another colony weakens it at a critical time in its build up, and leaves the beekeeper reliant on excellent weather to get a new queen mated 20.

Altogether not ideal.

So beginners should wait. By all means attend the apiary sessions or tag along with an experienced beekeeper during April and May. You’ll learn a lot.

The wait will do you and, indirectly, the bees good.

At the very least it’s great preparation for the waiting you’ll do for queens to get mated, or for a colonies to start flying well next spring 😉


 

Brexit and beekeeping

The ‘oven ready’ deal the government struck with the EU in the dying hours of 2020 was a bit less à la carte and a bit more table d’hôte.

The worst of the predictions of empty supermarket shelves and the conversion of Essex into a 3500 km2 lorry park have not materialised 1.

But there are other things that haven’t or won’t appear.

And one of those things is bees.

Bee imports

There is a long history of bee imports into the UK, dating back at least a century. In recent years the number of imports has markedly increased, at least partially reflecting the increasing popularity of beekeeping. 

Going up! Imports of queens, nucs and packages to the UK, 2007-2020 (National Bee Unit data)

Queens are imported in cages, usually with a few attendant workers to keep them company. Nucs are small sized colonies, containing a queen, bees and brood on frames. 

Packages are the ‘new kid on the block’ (in the UK) with up to 2500 per year being imported after 2013. Packages are queenless boxes of bees, containing no frames or brood.

Empty boxes after installing packages of bees

They are usually supplied in a mesh-sided box together with a queen. The bees are placed into a hive with frames of foundation and the queen is added in an introduction cage. They are fed with a gallon to two of syrup to encourage them to draw comb.

Installing a package of bees

It’s a very convenient way to purchase bees and avoids at least some of the risk of importing diseases 2. It’s also less expensive. This presumably reflects both the absence of frame/foundation and the need for a box to contain the frames.

But, post-Brexit, importation of packages or nucs from EU countries is no longer allowed. You are also not allowed to import full colonies (small numbers of these were imported each year, but insufficient to justify adding them to the graph above).

Queen imports are still allowed.

Why are were so many bees imported?

The simple answer is ‘demand’.

Bees can be reared inexpensively in warmer climates, such as southern Italy or Greece. The earlier start to the season in these regions means that queens, nucs or packages can be ready in March to meet the early season demand by UK beekeepers.

If you want a nuc with a laying queen in March or April in the UK you have two choices; a) buy imported bees, or b) prepare or purchase an overwintered nuc.

I don’t have data for the month by month breakdown of queen imports. I suspect many of these are also to meet the early season demand, either by adding them to an imported package (see above) or for adding to workers/brood reared and overwintered in a UK hive that’s split early in the season to create nucleus colonies.

Some importers would sell the latter on as ‘locally reared bees’. They are … sort of. Except for the queen who of course determines the properties of all the bees in the subsequent brood 🙁

An example of being “economical with the truth” perhaps?

Imported queens were also available throughout the season to replace those lost for any number of reasons (swarming, poor mating, failed supersedure, DLQ’s, or – my speciality – ham-fisted beekeeping) or to make increase.

And to put these imports into numerical context … there are about 45,000 ‘hobby’ beekeepers in the UK and perhaps 200+ bee farmers. Of the ~250,000 hives in the UK, about 40,000 are managed by bee farmers.

What are the likely consequences of the import ban?

I think there are likely to be at least four consequences from the ban on the importation of nucs and packages to the UK from the EU:

  1. Early season nucs (whatever the source) will be more expensive than in previous years. At the very least there will be a shortfall of ~2000 nucs or packages. Assuming demand remains the same – and there seems no reason that it won’t, and a realistic chance that it will actually increase – then this will push up the price of overwintered nucs, and the price of nucs assembled from an imported queen and some ‘local’ bees. I’ve seen lots of nucs offered in the £250-300 range already this year.
  2. An increase in imports from New Zealand. KBS (and perhaps others) have imported New Zealand queens for several years. If economically viable this trade could increase 3.
  3. Some importers may try and bypass the ban by importing to Northern Ireland, ‘staging’ the bees there and then importing them onwards to the UK. The legality of this appears dubious, though the fact it was being considered reflects that this part of the ‘oven ready’ Brexit deal was not even table d’hôte and more like good old-fashioned fudge.
  4. Potentially, a post-Covid increase in bee smuggling. This has probably always gone on in a limited way. Presumably, with contacts in France or Italy, it would be easy enough to smuggle across a couple of nucs in the boot of the car. However, with increased border checks and potential delays, I (thankfully) don’t see a way that this could be economically viable on a large scale.

Is that all?

There may be other consequences, but those are the ones that first came to mind.

Of the four, I expect #1 is a nailed-on certainty, #2 is a possibility, #3 is an outside possibility but is already banned under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol which specifically prohibits using Northern Ireland as a backdoor from Europe, and #4 happens and will continue, but is small-scale.

Of course, some, all or none of this ban may be revised as the EU and UK continue to wrangle over the details of the post-Withdrawal Agreement. Even as I write this the UK has extended the grace period for Irish sea border checks (or ‘broken international law’ according to the EU). 

This website is supposed to be a politics-free zone 4 … so let’s get back to safer territory.

Why is early season demand so high?

It seems likely that there are three reasons for this early season demand:

  1. Commercial beekeepers needing to increase colony numbers to provide pollination services or for honey production. Despite commercials comprising only ~0.4% of UK beekeepers, they manage ~16% of UK hives. On average a commercial operation runs 200 hives in comparison to less than 5 for hobby beekeepers. For some, their business model may have relied upon the (relatively) inexpensive supply of early-season bees.
  2. Replacing winter losses by either commercial or amateur beekeepers. The three hives you had in the autumn have been slashed to one, through poor Varroa management, lousy queen mating or a flood of biblical proportions. With just one remaining hive you need lots of things to go right to repopulate your apiary. Or you could just buy them in.
  3. New beekeepers, desperate to start beekeeping after attending training courses through the long, dark, cold, wet winter. And who can blame them? 

For the rest of the post I’m going to focus on amateur or hobby beekeeping. I don’t know enough about how commercial operations work. Whilst I have considerable sympathy if this change in the law prevents bee farmers fulfilling pollination or honey production contracts, I also question how sensible it is to depend upon imports as the UK extricates itself from the European Union.

Whatever arrangement we finally reached it was always going to be somewhere in between the Armageddon predicted by ‘Project Fear’ and the ‘Unicorns and sunlit uplands’ promised by the Brexiteers.

Where are those sunlit uplands?

And that had been obvious for years.

I have less sympathy for those who sell on imported bees to meet demand from existing or new beekeepers. This is because I think beekeeping (at least at the hobbyist level) can, and should, be sustainable.

Sustainable beekeeping

I would define sustainable beekeeping as the self-sufficiency that is achieved by:

  • Managing your stocks in a way to minimise winter losses
  • Rearing queens during the season to requeen your own colonies when needed (because colonies with young queens produce brood later into the autumn, so maximising winter bee production) and to …
  • Overwinter nucleus colonies to make up for any winter losses, or for sale in the following spring

All of these things make sound economic sense. 

More importantly, I think achieving this level of self-sufficiency involves learning a few basic skills as a beekeeper that not only improve your beekeeping but are also interesting and enjoyable.

I’ve previously discussed the Goldilocks Principle and beekeeping, the optimum number of colonies to keep considering your interest and enthusiasm for bees and the time you have available for your beekeeping.

It’s somewhere between 2 and a very large number. 

For me, it’s a dozen or so, though for years I’ve run up to double that number for our research, and for spares, and because I’ve reached the point where it’s easy to generate more colonies (and because I’m a lousy judge of the limited time I have available 🙁 ).

Two is better than one, because one colony can dwindle, can misbehave or can go awry, and without a colony to compare it with you might be none the wiser that nothing is wrong. Two colonies also means you can always use larvae from one to rescue the other if it goes queenless.

And with just two colonies you can easily practise sustainable beekeeping. You are no longer dependent on an importer having a £30 mass-produced queen spare.

What’s wrong with imported bees?

The usual reason given by beekeepers opposed to imports is the risk of also importing pathogens.

Varroa is cited as an example of what has happened. 

Tropilaelaps or small hive beetle are given as reasons for what might happen.

And then there are usually some vague statements about ‘viruses’. 

There’s good scientific evidence that the current global distribution of DWV is a result of beekeepers moving colonies about.

More recently, we have collaborated on a study that has demonstrated an association between honey bee queen imports and outbreaks of chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV). An important point to emphasise here is that the direction of CBPV transmission is not yet clear from our studies. The imported queens might be bringing CBPV in with them. Alternatively, the ‘clean’ imported queens (and their progeny) may be very susceptible to CBPV circulating in ‘dirty’ UK bees. Time will tell.

However, whilst the international trade in plants and animals has regularly, albeit inadvertently, introduced devastating diseases e.g. Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (ash dieback), I think there are two even more compelling reasons why importation of bees is detrimental.

  1. Local bees are better adapted to the environment in which they were reared and consequently have increased overwintering success rates.
  2. I believe that inexpensive imported bees are detrimental to the quality of UK beekeeping.

I’ve discussed both these topics previously. However, I intend to return to them again this year. This is partly because in this brave new post-Brexit world we now inhabit the landscape has changed.

At least some imports are no longer allowed. The price of nucs will increase. Some/many of these available early in the season will be thrown together from overwintered UK colonies and an imported queen.

These are not local bees and they will not provide the benefits that local bees should bring.

Bad beekeeping and bee imports

If imported queens cost £500 each 5 there would be hundreds of reasons to learn how to rear your own queens. 

But most beekeepers don’t …

Although many beekeepers practise ‘passive’ queen rearing e.g. during swarm control, it offers little flexibility or opportunity to rear queens outside the normal swarming season, or to improve your stocks.

In contrast, ‘active’ queen rearing i.e. selection of the best colonies to rear several queens from, is probably practised by less than 20% of beekeepers.

This does not need to involve grafting, instrumental insemination or rows of brightly coloured mini-nucs. It does not need any large financial outlay, or huge numbers of colonies to start with.

But it does need attention to detail, an understanding of – or a willingness to learn – the development cycle of queens, and an ability to judge the qualities of your bees.

Essentially what it involves is slightly better beekeeping.

But, the availability of Italian, Greek or Maltese queens for £20 each acts as a disincentive.

Why learn all that difficult ‘stuff’ if you can simply enter your credit card details and wait for the postie?

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

And similar arguments apply to overwintering nucleus colonies. This requires careful judgement of colony strength through late summer, and the weight of the nuc over the winter.

It’s not rocket science or brain surgery or Fermat’s Last Theorem … but it does require a little application and attention.

But, why bother if you can simply wield your “flexible friend” 6 in March and replace any lost colonies with imported packages for £125 each?

Rant over

Actually, it wasn’t really a rant. 

My own beekeeping has been sustainable for a decade. I’ve bought in queens or nucs of dark native or near-native bees from specialist UK breeders a few times. I have used these to improve my stocks and sold or gifted spare/excess nucs to beginners.

I’ve caught a lot of swarms in bait hives and used the best to improve my bees, and the remainder to strengthen other colonies.

The photographs of packages (above) are of colonies we have used for relatively short-term scientific research. 

I’m going to be doing a lot of queen rearing this season. Assuming that goes well, I then expect to overwinter more nucs than usual next winter. 

I then hope that the bee import ban remains in place for long enough until I can sell all these nucs for an obscene profit which I will use to purchase a queen rearing operation in Malta. 😉

And I’m going to write about it here.


Notes

BBKA statement made a day or two after this post appeared. The BBKA and other national associations are concerned about the potential import of Small Hive Beetle (SHB) into the UK via Northern Ireland. Whilst I still think this breaches the Northern Ireland Protocol, it doesn’t mean it won’t be attempted (and there’s at least one importer offering bees via this route). It’s not clear that the NI authorities have the manpower to inspect thousands of packages.

It’s worth noting that SHB was introduced to southern Italy in 2014 and remains established there. The most recent epidemiological report shows that it was detected as late as October 2020 in sentinel apiaries and is also established in natural colonies.

With a single exception – see below – every country into which SHB has been imported has failed to eradicate it. As I wrote in November 2014:

“Once here it is unlikely that we will be able to eradicate SHB. The USA failed, Hawaii failed, Australia failed, Canada failed and it looks almost certain that Italy has failed.”

And Italy has failed.

The one exception was a single import to a single apiary in the UK. Notably, the illegal import was of queens, not nucs or packages. Eradication involved the destruction of the colonies, the ploughing up of the apiary and the entire area being drenched in insecticide.

The bare necessities

It’s that time of the season when the increasingly bloated Thorne’s catalogue crashes onto the doormat.

The timing is impeccable.

Through the long winter, experienced beekeepers have busied themselves with the unpleasant jobs ignored all last season; the painting and decorating, the tax return, tidying the loft or even gardening.

There’s only so much procrastination you (or I) can get away with …

More recently, if they’re like me, they will have been planning for the season ahead.

What didn’t work last year and needs to be changed? Which new method worked well and should be used on more colonies this year?

A different queen rearing strategy? A simpler method of swarm control?

Not enough frames, foundation, hive tools or labels?

Thank goodness, here’s the Thorne’s catalogue to save the day 😉

Like lambs to the slaughter

And, if you thought the Thorne’s catalogue was tempting for the experienced, imagine how it is viewed by a beginner.

They’ve spent the winter doing nothing but dream about balmy spring days with the bees 1.

The six week ‘Beginning beekeeping’ course will soon be over and they must be ready for the season ahead.

They’ve promised honey to all their friends and family … and that’s not going to happen unless they’re properly equipped.

Thank goodness, here’s the Thorne’s catalogue to save the day 😉

Getting started

I started beekeeping with secondhand everything … hive, smoker, hive tool, beesuit, feeders, the lot. It was all reasonable quality equipment and was being sold because a beginner had reacted badly to a couple of stings and decided beekeeping was not for them.

My original smoker

I’m still using most of the kit.

The hive was a Thorne’s ‘Bees on a budget’ offering. It is made of cedar, but is paler and lighter (and frankly less good) than western red cedar boxes. It had been stained a weird red colour, so is still obvious in my – now mountainous 2 – stack of green-stained cedar and painted poly boxes.

More of a problem was that the supers had been assembled incorrectly and the beespace was all over the place. I pulled them apart and reassembled them.

It was probably the best £125 I’ve ever spent 3 … firstly because it was a very fair price for some barely-used kit, and secondly because it got me started with a hobby obsession that has engrossed me ever since.

Lots of people don’t find beekeeping engrossing 4.

Most who start, give up.

Usually sooner rather than later.

You simply need to look at the number trained every winter.

My alma mater BKA (Warwick and Leamington beekeepers) trained about 40 new beekeepers a year from 2012 to 2020, but their membership grew by only ~120 during that period. 

It’s a bargain … but caveat emptor

If you’re starting beekeeping this year take advantage of this high ‘drop-out’ rate. Buy some little-used equipment from a trusted source e.g. someone who trained in a previous year with the association … rather than from a dodgy bloke down at the allotment.

Equipment can carry diseases which is why I stressed a ‘trusted source’.

Even if you know something about the source and history of the kit, clean it thoroughly.

Flame a cedar box with a blowtorch, ensuring you get into all the nooks and crannies. Soak and scrub poly boxes with a strong soda solution.

Treat hive tools and smokers with soda in the same way.

Wash the beesuit thoroughly.

And throw away any gauntlet-type leather or faux-leather gloves. I’ll return to these later …

And, while you’re at it, discard any used frames and comb. 

Beekeeping is an expensive hobby

If you don’t buy secondhand, the necessary equipment can be expensive.

And that’s before you get any bees.

I’ve seen plenty of 5 frame nucleus colonies being offered for £240-300 this year. Because of the Brexit import ban nucs are likely to be in short supply, particularly early in the season 5.

Which means that the hive, suit, tools and bees might cost the best part of £750 … on top of the training course.

That’s a significant outlay.

And remember, for reasons explained elsewhere, it is always better to have two colonies. 

With one colony you have no ‘internal controls’ – to use science-speak.

Is it bad tempered because it’s queenless, or simply because a strong nectar flow has stopped? If both hives are tetchy it’s likely to be the latter as you’re unlikely to ‘lose’ two queens simultaneously. With one colony, the loss of a queen can be terminal, with two it can almost always be easily rescued.

So … two complete hives, two nucleus colonies, frames, foundation, beesuit, tools etc. … which together will cost well over £1000.

And that’s before you consider the additional equipment you will need for swarm control.

And you will need it 🙁

The non-essentials

What do you need and what is superfluous?

Don’t be led by what’s in the ‘basic kit’ offered by beekeeping suppliers.

After all … their business is selling you stuff. 

For example, most ‘kits for beginners’ I’ve seen include gauntlet-type gloves and a bee brush.

You won’t need a bee brush; you can either shake the bees off the frame, or use a tuft of grass or a large feather.

Gauntlets are an abomination.

They are impossible to clean and provide zero manual dexterity. Because you have no sense of touch you’ll inevitably crush bees. You’ll get stung, but will feel nothing as the gloves are so thick and protective.

Good?

No, bad. 

The sting pheromone will soak into the glove and you’ll get stung more. You’ll have to wash the gloves every time you use them, so they’ll get cracked and hard so making handling frames even more difficult.

Not only are gauntlet-type leather gloves non-essential, I think they’re actually a serious impediment to new beekeepers. They provide the impression of safety and protection, but in practice prevent the safe and gentle handling of bees.

Kimberly-Clark Purple Nitrile-Xtra … perfect, long-cuff nitriles for beekeeping.

Instead use easy-to-clean (or disposable) long-cuff nitrile gloves. Add a thin pair of Marigold-type washing up gloves over the top if you need some additional confidence for your first few forays into a hive.

Boring boxes

A hive (or two) is essential. Your choice should be based upon what the local association members use. I would strongly suggest you don’t go off piste until you know what you’re doing.

If everyone around you uses National hives, don’t buy a Warré. 

As soon as you use something ‘a bit weird’ (with apologies to Warré hive users) you’re stuck if you need a frame of eggs to rescue a queenless hive.

Or you want to sell an overwintered nuc.

You are at an immediately disadvantage. 

By all means try these things after a season or two … but when you’re starting out it pays to be boring and mainstream and vanilla.

Which isn’t easy as the Thorne’s catalogue lists a lot of different hive types – National, 14×12, Dadant, Commercial, Langstroth, WBC, Warré, Layens, Smith, Drayton, Rose … at anything from £160 to – gasp – £700. 

Some of these are compatible, others are not. 

The association apiary is not filled with Layens’ hives, so don’t buy one as your starter hive. 

For swarm control, I’d recommend buying a compatible polystyrene nucleus hive. This enables one of the easiest and most foolproof methods of swarm control, which has the advantage of needing the least additional equipment.

A reputable supplier, or – even better – local beekeeper, should be able to provide your first nucleus colony in a suitable nucleus box.

The additional £30-50 is an excellent investment.

Polystyrene hives are used increasingly and are generally very good quality. Again, compatibility is essential. Avoid anything that you cannot mix with other boxes like the plague … like overhanging lips or rebates.

Do as I say, don’t do as I did 😉

And you’ll need frames … lots of frames.

The horizontals

The boring boxes are topped, tailed and separated with the horizontal bits of the hive – the roof, floor and the queen excluder. 

Roofs and floors can be made cheaply and easily if you need them. Crownboards can be as simple as a sheet of thick polythene, or something more complicated.

It’s likely that these things will all be with the hive you buy … but if they’ve gone missing it’s not a dealbreaker if you’re buying secondhand. Just offer a bit less.

Plastic queen excluders can be purchased from about £4.

Framed wire QE ...

Framed wire QE …

However, I’d strongly advise buying (or building) a framed wire queen excluder. These are more expensive, but far better in use. Their integral beespace means they are much easier to place back on the brood box, particularly if the colony is really strong.

Investing for the future

Framed wire QE’s are 3-5 times the price of the plastic alternatives. That’s a substantial additional cost. However, it’s one that will more than repay the investment over subsequent years … in terms of fewer crushed bees, easier colony inspections and more enjoyable beekeeping.

Of course, it’ll only repay the investment if you keep on beekeeping … but I’d argue you’re more likely to do so if your colony inspections are easier and you crush fewer bees 😉

There are a few other things where items can be purchased relatively cheaply (or perhaps inexpensively might be a better word here), but that – over time – benefit from spending a bit more.

The three most obvious (to me at least) are the hive tool, the beesuit and the smoker.

Hive tools

I know beekeepers who use an old screwdriver as a hive tool. They work, though the box edges are a bit tatty.

For years I used Thorne’s ‘budget’ claw hive tools (second from the left in the picture below), always purchased for £2 at conventions or during the winter sales.

Hive tools ...

Hive tools …

I owned better quality hive tools – like the ‘Frontier-type’ German-made hive tool (second from the right, above) – but found them too big and heavy. They were also inconvenient to pick up as they lie flat on a surface. 

More recently I’ve purchased a few of the non-budget claw-type hive tools. These look very similar to the one above (again, second from the left) but are made of much better quality stainless steel and have an excellent sharp edge and strong claw. They were over six times the price, but fit my hand nicely and should last a lifetime until I lose them 6.

Hive tools are a very personal item.  Some offer more leverage than others, some suit smaller (or larger) hands, some are comfortable, others awkward.

Pre-Covid you could try a range of hive tools at any association apiary session to find what feels right. Those days will return … but in the meantime you either have to stick with your first choice or buy a few over time and decide what works best.

You’ll lose them in the long grass anyway 😉

The smoker

I’ve discussed smokers before and so won’t go into too much detail. 

Like hive tools, there are good and poor quality smokers. Unlike hive tools (which all more or less do the job intended) some smokers work very poorly.

My original smoker (pictured above) is still used now and again. However, it’s too small for extended use and needs work to keep it going.

Dadant smoker

Dadant smoker …

I now use Dadant smokers and – when I next reverse over one in the car – will again (!) replace it with another Dadant smoker. 

The large Dadant smoker is outstanding and the smaller one (which is still not very small) is just very, very, very good.

Smoker still life

Smoker

These are easy to light, they stay lit and they just keep on working. 

I’m not recommending these as a necessary initial outlay … but if and when you need to replace your smoker they are a very worthwhile investment.

And, while we’re at it, I’d recommend a box to store the smoker in safely.

After prolonged use smokers get very hot. You either:

  • dump them in the back of the car and risk a major conflagration while driving back from the apiary
  • wait until they cool sufficiently to avoid a fire, but risk a later conflagration when you arrive home so late your dinner is ruined (since you prefer to spend all your time with your bees”)
  • stick them in a smoker box and avoid the risk of conflagrations of any sort 😉
An ideal Christmas gift for a beekeeper

An ideal Christmas gift for a beekeeper

Again, perhaps not essential, but not far off …

Beesuits

There are some pretty fancy beesuits available these days. Ventilated, multi-coloured, stingproof … or even all three together.

When you’re starting beekeeping, the really important thing about a beesuit is that it provides you with the protection you need to gain confidence when working with bees.

The stingproof ones tend to look very bulky 7. I’ve never used one or even tried one on, but I presume they don’t impair your movement too much.

The only beesuits I’ve ever used are by BBwear. These, and the not quite separated-at-birth BJ Sherriff, make excellent beesuits for UK beekeepers. 

Their products are a bit more expensive than the budget offerings from eBay or those sold with ‘start beekeeping’ kits. However, the investment is probably worthwhile. Ask your association whether they can arrange a group purchase – you can usually negotiate a worthwhile discount. 

Both companies will also repair the beesuits as they, inevitably, get worn or torn, so your are essentially purchasing something that should last a decade or more.

My full suit (A BBwear deluxe suit) is approaching 15 years old and needs some repairs, but has lots of life in it yet. I supplemented it with a deluxe jacket which I wear for 75% of my beekeeping.

Neither is stingproof. 

If I’m getting stung through the suit it’s because the colony has lousy genetics and urgently needs a new queen, or I’m being sloppy or hamfisted in my colony manipulations … or it’s raining hard and I really shouldn’t be opening the colony anyway.

Of course, none of these things ever happen 😉

In an emergency I can always wear a fleece under the beesuit to provide additional protection.

But what about … ?

The overweight Thorne’s catalogue lists a further 23,759 other ‘useful’, essential’, ‘practical’, ‘convenient’, ‘clever, ‘helpful’, ‘beneficial’, ‘functional’ or ‘serviceable’ items almost none of which are needed when first starting beekeeping.

And some of which are never needed … ever.

But what about a … 

  • one handed queen catcher?  Check the ends of your arms … do you have 5 digits on each? You therefore have a one handed queen catcher already built in. You need to be able to find the queen first. And, with luck, the one in the nuc you purchase will already be marked.
  • mouseguard?  Some floors don’t need mouseguards at all. Those that do, don’t need them until November which is a very long way off. 
  • fancy multifunctional floor or crownboard?  Purchased with all the add-ons these cost more than a standard hive. They might be useful, but they tie you into a particular format which may, or may not, be available in subsequent years. I’d recommend waiting until either a) you decide to build your own, or b) you realise you don’t need them anyway 😉
  • combi brush?  Er, no 8

Enjoy all 94 pages of the Thorne’s catalogue.

Read it and re-read it. 

But save your money until you better understand what you really need.

As I said before … Do as I say, don’t do as I did 😉

Buy the bare necessities and, if possible, invest in quality items that will last you for years.

Even if your beekeeping doesn’t last for years, they’ll have a better resale value 9.

And if you carry on beekeeping – which, of course, I hope you do – those bare necessities will be your trusty companions through season after season, making them exceptional value for money.

Except for the hive tool you lose midsummer in the long grass 🙁


Notes

Other catalogues are available … online, even if not in print. My Thorne’s catalogues arrived this week and, until recently, I lived 10 minutes from Thorne’s of Scotland. If I’d lived in York I’d have offered the same advice but substituted Abelo for Thorne’s throughout.

Creamed honey

Which of these is the odd one out?

Comb honey, chunk honey, baker’s honey, creamed honey, blossom honey, borage honey, Scottish honey, honeydew honey?

Anyone?

Reserved descriptions

Honey that is for sale needs to be labelled properly.

I don’t intend to discuss the labelling regulations as, a) they may be different here in Scotland to wherever you live, b) they’re a bit of a minefield, and c) if revised this page would quickly become out of date.

However, logicall, honey that is for sale needs to have a label that includes the word ‘honey’.

Makes sense so far 😉

In addition, there are a number of reserved descriptions such as comb honey, borage honey, Scottish honey that are allowed.

These reserved descriptions may be only used ‘where the product meets the definition’.

So, you can only use the words ‘comb honey‘ when the honey is sold wholly or partly in the comb. You can only use the reserved description ‘borage honey‘ if the honey is primarily made from nectar collected from borage etc.

Similarly, the honey must be collected entirely within a certain geographic area to be named after the area.

The odd one out is ‘creamed honey‘.

My understanding is that this used to be allowed 1 but is no longer an acceptable reserved description. It’s certainly not listed as such on the Trading Standards website 2.

It’s no longer acceptable because honey doesn’t contain cream.

Creamed honey

I think this is disappointing … after all, creamed honey never contained cream as far as I’m aware.

Instead the description was meant to indicate the smooth consistency of the product, the ‘melt on your tongue’ creamy texture.

Soft set (spring) local honey

Why should food names and labels be literal? After all, we eat hot dogs and sweetbreads 3.

When I last checked these weren’t made from dogs … or bread 4.

But it was clearly too confusing for some, so – inevitably – the word ‘creamed’ was banned from use as a reserved description on honey labels 🙁

But creamed has another meaning.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes the following definition of ‘creamed’ …

To deal with vigorously and with success, esp. to beat or thrash; to defeat heavily, as in sporting contexts; to ruin or wreck (a motor vehicle, etc.). colloquial (originally U.S.).

… the usage of which dates back to 1929.

And this is a perfect description of an easy way to produce a really high quality honey from coarse- and fast-granulating nectars like oil seed rape.

Oil seed rape (OSR)

For many beekeepers OSR provides a bumper early season honey harvest. The honey is extracted in late May or early June, allowed to set and then processed for sale.

Anyone who has bees near OSR will know that the honey, without processing, is spoonbendingly 5 hard.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

To make it spreadable (and saleable) I usually use a version of the Dyce method for producing soft set honey.

Frankly, this is a bit of a palaver 6.

Soft set honey

You need to completely melt the honey, cool it to 34°C, seed it with a honey with a suitable fine crystal structure, mix it thoroughly and then allow it to set at ~13°C with very regular stirring.

This whole process takes several days.

It’s not constant work and it’s not particularly hard work, but it is all a bit protracted. Done properly it produces honey with a good texture that sells well … and is outstanding on crumpets.

All gone … soft set honey from OSR

There are other ways of achieving this … such as buying an automated machine which does all the intermittent stirring for you.

At a price … perhaps £2500 with full temperature control.

But I don’t want to produce 50 or 100 kg of honey at a time. And I don’t want yet another piece of equipment sitting around taking up valuable space.

Like the majority of the 45,000 beekeepers in the UK, I produce nothing like the quantities of honey to justify this commercial-scale equipment.

And, like the majority of those 45,000 beekeepers, I don’t want to spend all of my time producing honey to pay for this sort of equipment. I want to rear some queens, walk in the hills, go sailing or drink coffee on the patio.

Frosting in soft set honey

Furthermore, in my experience soft set honey can show significant batch-to-batch variation in terms of its tendency to develop frosting in the jar. Some batches never show frosting, others develop the unsightly appearance (that has no influence on the flavour) within a week or two.

Honey with frosting

Honey with frosting

In my experience, I and third party sellers are more concerned about the unsightly appearance than the customers are.

I want to produce a honey that tastes and looks good.

The shopkeeper wants a honey that they know is going to sell well.

It’s not entirely clear to me what causes frosting. Some has the distribution and appearance that suggests minute bubbles have risen through the honey, getting trapped under the shoulders of the jar.

At other times it looks as though the honey has contracted slightly, pulling away from the sidewalls of the jar.

The example above is particularly unsightly and looks very like the honey is re-crystallising again, losing the ‘melt on your tongue’ crystal structure for something altogether coarser. Whatever, they went back to the furthest recesses of the cupboard where I found them 😉

Creaming honey

There’s another way to generate a fine crystal structure from a coarsely crystallised honey.

You cream it … in the OED sense of the word:

You vigorously beat it … 

Which neatly brings me to the Rapido / Rasant Honey Creamer.

Rapido / Rasant honey creamer

A few months ago Calum – who regularly submits insightful comments to posts on this site – recommended this honey creamer for processing oil seed rape honey (OSR). Calum called it the Rapido. It’s produced by Germerott Bienentechnik and they appear to call it the ‘Rasant‘ (and have what looks like a second variant available since I purchased mine).

The Rapido is a stainless steel paddle that is used to vigorously beat the honey. It’s about 9 cm in diameter and is securely mounted on a 60 cm shaft. The non-honey end of the shaft is hexagonal and can therefore be secured in the chuck of a powerful drill.

The instructions indicated a 1000 W drill was required, or – with a different fitting at the non-honey end of the shaft – you can use a plasterers mixer 7.

And it works a treat:

This is a 30 lb bucket of honey converted from coarsely crystallised to a beautifully fine crystal structure in a little under four minutes.

Usage

It’s not quite as quick as I’ve described as you still need to pre-warm the honey and allow time for it to settle.

Here’s the full process I’ve used for about four buckets (~60 kg) of OSR honey in the last month.

  1. Warm the bucket in a honey warming cabinet at 30-33°C. It must be warmed right through, so leave for at least 12-15 hours.
  2. Remove any surface scum if there is any. The majority of my buckets don’t have any, so this can be skipped. My set OSR honey has already been through a coarse and fine stainless steel filters during extraction.
  3. Starting slowly as shown above, mix with the Rapido. Make sure all the honey is mixed, which may involve pushing the non-rotating paddle down the sidewalls of the bucket to loosen it slightly 8.
  4. Continue mixing for 3-4 minutes until the honey is the consistency shown at the end of the video.
  5. Pour into a bucket with tap.
  6. Return to the honey warming cabinet at 30-33°C for a further 12-15 hours to allow bubbles to settle out (or is that rise out?). I’m not certain this stage is needed … but since it involves me doing nothing it’s easy to do.
  7. Jar the honey.
  8. Allow to cool. Add labels.
  9. Sell the honey and wait for the plaudits and repeat custom 🙂 It will happen.

Once the resulting honey cools it has a wonderful texture – easy to spoon and spread, but does not drip off the spoon.

Just perfect for crumpets or homemade bread 🙂

This really is honey that has been ‘creamed’ … beaten vigorously and with success.

I’d like to end with a “big shout out” (as the young people say) to Calum for the recommendation in the first place.

Thanks mate 🙂


Notes

A shorter post than usual this week as I’m moving house 9. I’m writing this when I should be packing boxes … or trying to find things I now need that were packed into boxes yesterday. Assuming things have gone to plan I’m no longer a permanent resident of Fife (though I’ll continue to work there) and now live in the wild west 🙂

Germerott Bienentechnik don’t have a UK distributor for the Rasant honey creamer (I know, because I’ve chatted with them about it) so it needs to be purchased direct from Germany. It costs ~€50 but is quite heavy so shipping costs are high. Post-Brexit there may also be additional taxes involved 🙁

UPDATE (23/2/21) As indicated in the comments below, Thorne’s now appear to be selling this as a honey churner … at least it looks identical to me. I’ve also been in contact with Werner and Klaus at Bienentechnik and they are happy to take your order and can be contacted on info@bienentechnik.com. Inevitably, there may be some post-Brexit shipping issues to overcome 🙁

Finally, there’s always a demand for raw honey. Although I still wouldn’t call this honey ‘raw‘, I can claim honestly that it’s not been heated to temperatures higher than would naturally occur in the hive. Some customers will prefer this.

The danger zone

… your bees are entering it about now.

I had hoped to start this post with a pretty picture of a row of colourful hives topped with a foot or more of snow. It would have been an easy picture to take … we’ve certainly got the snow.

And this was before we had a load more snow in the afternoon …

It would have been an easy picture to take … had I been able to get to the apiary 🙁

I’m writing this in central Fife. We’ve had the heaviest snowfall I’ve seen here in 6 years (well over a foot) and the roads are just about impassable. Why risk a shunt for a pretty picture?

Little snow, big snow. Big snow, little snow.

So here’s one taken earlier in the winter.

So what’s all this about the danger zone?

The danger zone

Bees that are rearing brood in the winter use stores at twice the rate when compared with bees that are not rearing brood.

How do we know this?

Clayton Farrar (1904 – 1970) was Professor of Entomology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He retired from his role as chief of the USDA Laboratories in Beekeeping in 1963. He’s well known (at least within certain beekeeping circles) for promoting two-queen honey production hives.

However, he also conducted lots of other studies on honey bees. Some of these were on the importance of pollen for brood rearing. Studies back in the 1930’s showed that when pollen was unavailable, brood rearing ceased.

Farrar compared the winter weight loss by colonies that were starved of pollen and those which had ample pollen. Those starved of pollen used their stores up only 50% as fast as those busy rearing brood.

Why do they use more stores?

I’ve recently discussed the winter cluster. In that post I made the point that the temperature of the winter cluster is carefully regulated.

In the absence of brood rearing, the core temperature of the cluster is about 18°C.

However, at that temperature honey bee development cannot happen 1.

When brood rearing the colony must raise the temperature of the core of the cluster to ~35°C.

The bees in the cluster achieve this elevation of temperature by isometric flexing of their flight muscles.

And they need energy to do this work … energy in the form of sugar stores.

Biphasic stores use

What this means is that as a colony transitions from a broodless (which may or may not occur, depending upon your latitude, climate, temperature 2 ) winter period to rearing brood, they start consuming the stores faster.

You can see this clearly in the right hand side of this graph from a paper from Tom Seeley, presented in his excellent book The Lives of Bees. This shows the winter weight change through two and a bit seasons. I’ve marked the approximate position of the winter solstice with a black arrow and mid-February (i.e. about now) with a red arrow.

Colony weight (top) and weekly weight change (lower).

Just focus on the 1928/83 winter as this most clearly shows an inflexion point in the rate of stores usage (we know it’s stores being used as it’s midwinter, so there’s no forage available).

The colony transitions from a maintenance rate to a brood rearing rate and the slope of the weight loss line steepens.

You can also see the same thing happening in the 80/81 and 81/82 winters, though it’s less obvious.

My colonies started rearing brood soon after the winter solstice. Yours might have not had a brood break at all.

However, in both cases the colony is likely to be rearing more brood now than it was 5-6 weeks ago.

Therefore it will be using more stores now … and so there’s an increased chance of the colony running out of stores.

It’s also appreciably colder over much of the UK now than it was a few weeks ago. We’ve had temperatures as low as -12°C this week, meaning the bees need to maintain a 49°C temperature differential to protect the developing brood in the hive.

This means that – all other things being equal – the colony will be using even more stores now than they were a month ago to maintain the same critical core temperature of the cluster for brood rearing.

Duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun… duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun …

That’s a rather poor attempt at spelling out the opening few bars of the Jaws theme 😉

The danger zone is in the late winter or early spring.

The colony must rear more brood to become strong enough to reproduce (swarm) in late April to early June.

And, from a beekeeping perspective, they must rear more brood to become a strong enough colony to properly exploit oil seed rape and other early nectars for the spring honey crop.

But there’s no forage available and/or it’s too cold to venture out for early nectar.

Snowdrops and gorse are flowering … somewhere over there

So the danger is that they starve to death 🙁

I’ve recently discussed determining whether your colony is rearing brood (and it will almost certainly have started by now, even if it’s taking a brief temporary break when the temperature plummeted) and also given an overview of ‘hefting’ hives and monitoring colony weight.

Fondant topups

If the colony feels light, or your records suggest it is dangerously light, you urgently need add a readily available (to the bees, if not to you) and easy to access source of sugar.

Syrup is not suitable at this time of the year. Even with lots of insulation, the space above the crownboard is a pretty chilly environment. A bucket of syrup placed there is likely to be simply ignored … at least until the ambient temperature has increased.

By which time it might be too late.

If the colony feels light they need stores now, not when it warms up (though they’ll also need stores then … if they survive that long).

Fondant is the stuff to use.

I’ve written extensively about it previously and I buy it by the pallet load. It stores perfectly for months or years, so I always have it available. I use it for almost all my bee feeding.

Fondant mountain ...

Fondant mountain …

You can also make it relatively easily 3.

Fondant is ~80% sugar. It’s also malleable but semi-solid … a bit like plasticine.

But it tastes appreciably better 😉

I’ve found the best way to provide fondant is in transparent (or at least translucent) shallow food containers.

Waste not, want not

In the photo above the clear(ish) ones are much better than the brown or green ones. Better still are the double-area ones you buy chicken breasts in 4. These are wide but shallow and can accommodate at least 2 kg of fondant.

Where to place the fondant

I stressed that the fondant must be easy to access by the bees.

There’s no point in adding it if they don’t have immediate access to it.

And if it’s -8°C outside the bees are not going to be wandering around looking for food … any that leave the cluster will soon get chilled, become torpid and perish.

You therefore need to put the fondant directly in contact with the bees.

Often the advice is to provide the fondant over the hole in the crownboard.

However, consider the this diagram.

Plan view of fondant above the feed hole in a crownboard

If your bees form a large cluster – like A above – they are in contact with the fondant that has been placed directly above the central feed hole in the crownboard.

And, if they stay there, all will be OK.

But what about the smaller cluster (B)?

These bees don’t have direct access. If the weather is cold enough and the space above the crownboard is badly insulated the fondant might as well have been left in the packet.

In the shed 🙁

I therefore add the fondant under the crownboard.

Fondant block ...

Fondant block …

I place the fondant block, inverted, covering part of the cluster. They can immediately access it and they will soon use it if they need it.

Time for another?

Time for another?

The photo above shows why clear or translucent containers are preferable – you can easily tell how much of the fondant remains.

In the photos above the cluster is located approximately centrally within the brood box. However, think back to the colony I discussed a fortnight ago. In that, the cluster was tight up against the polystyrene side wall of the hive, some distance from a central hole in the crownboard (if mine had a central hole 😉 ).

Headspace

These plastic food containers are about 5 cm deep. Filled to the brim they can hold about 1.2 kg of fondant. That might well not be enough … hence my preference for the larger containers.

Or just use two of them …

Fondant absorbs moisture from the environment, softening the surface. With the fondant directly in contact with the top bars of the frames and the bees, this softened fondant is readily used.

I made the mistake once of wrapping the fondant in clingfilm and providing a hole for the bees to access it. Over time they drag the shredded clingfilm down into the hive, incorporating it into brace comb.

It makes a right mess. Avoid clingfilm.

If you are concerned about sloppy fondant dribbling down onto the cluster (something I’ve noticed a couple of times with either very weak colonies or in very damp environments) you can cover the face of the block with a sheet of plastic. Cut a 2 cm square hole in this and place it over the centre of the cluster.

And how do you accommodate this 5 cm block of fondant under the crownboard?

You can use a 5 cm deep eke, with your normal crownboard on top.

Alternatively, you can build crownboards that have a single bee space on one side and an integral ‘eke’, in the form of a 5 cm deep rim, on the other.

Perspex crownboard with integrated insulation

I built a few of these many years ago, with perspex and an inbuilt block of ‘Kingspan’ insulation. They work really well.

When you need the headspace – for example for a block of fondant – you simply invert the crownboard and place the insulation on top, under the roof.

What, no fondant?

If you haven’t got any fondant, don’t despair.

But also don’t delay while you try and source some fondant.

Fondant is sugar after all, and everyone should be able to get sugar.

Despite having a mountain of fondant squirreled away, I still keep a few bags of granulated sugar ‘just in case’.

Emergency rations

Cut a 2 x 2 cm hole in the front of bag of sugar and add about a half teacup full of water. Let it soak in for a few minutes. Add less than you think is needed … you can always add a bit more.

You want to dampen the sugar, not dissolve it. The aim is to be able to invert the bag directly over the cluster 5.

So do that as soon as you can.

Bees need water to be able to ‘eat’ granulated sugar, so dampening it helps both keep it in the bag and saves them doing extra work collecting condensation from the hive walls.

And, just to avoid any ambiguity, only used white granulated sugar.

It takes bees to make bees … and honey

Colonies that are strong early in the season are better able to exploit the spring nectar, including that from oil seed rape.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Spring in a Warwickshire apiary …

Some beekeepers feed their colonies thin syrup (1:1 w/v) in early spring to boost brood rearing in time to have booming colonies ready for the rape.

I’ve not done this, or ever felt I really needed to. However, I’m not commercial and do not rely on the honey harvest to feed the family, pay the kids’ school fees or fuel the Porsche.

And, other than feeding the family, I don’t know any commercial beekeepers who rely on honey sales for those other things either 6.

Usually the combination of young queens, low Varroa levels and ample autumn feeding produces colonies strong enough for my beekeeping in the spring.

Rapidly expanding colonies in March and early April require good amounts of brood to be reared during the dark winter days in January and February. After all, you cannot rear lots of bees without having lots of bees available to do the brood rearing.

This is an area where it is beneficial to have young queens heading the colony. These lay later into the autumn, resulting in more winter bees.

If these bees are healthy and well fed the colony should have a flying start to the following season, if you’ll excuse the pun.

But check them nevertheless as they enter ‘the danger zone’.

As you add your third or fourth super to a hive in early May, think back to that cold, wet day three months earlier when you gave them an extra block of fondant … and give yourself a pat on the back 😉


Notes

I finally managed to get out a couple of days after it stopped snowing.

Hives in the snow

The two hives on the right have a 4 mm thick Correx roof, directly on top of a 5 cm thick block of Kingspan. Going by the amount of snow still sitting on top of these hives they’re not losing too much heat through the roof 🙂

The Danger Zone was a song by Kenny Loggins that featured in the 1986 movie Top Gun. In retrospect, it’s a pretty cheesy movie. However, 35 years ago it was the first VHS videotape I purchased. It had a Dolby soundtrack and, played loud through the stereo speakers while sitting close to the TV (to get that ‘widescreen’ cinema feeling) it sounded pretty good 😉

I do not often listen to Kenny Loggins but when I do, so do my neighbors …