Responsibilities

In draughty church halls the length and breadth of the country potential apiarists are just starting their “Beginning beekeeping” courses run by local associations. The content of these courses varies a bit but usually contains (in no particular order):

  • The Beekeeping Year
  • The hive and/or beekeeping equipment
  • The life cycle of the honey bee
  • Colony inspections
  • Pests and diseases
  • Swarm prevention and control
  • Products of the hive

I’ve seen these courses from both sides. I took one before I started beekeeping and I’ve subsequently taught on them.

Although I’m not convinced the seven topics above are the optimal way to cover the basics of beekeeping (perhaps that’s something for a future post?), I am a strong supporter of the need to educate new beekeepers.

Theory and practice

You can learn some of the theoretical aspects of beekeeping on dark winter evenings. In my experience a liberal supply of tea and digestives hugely helps this learning process 😉

However, beekeeping is essentially a practical subject and any responsible association will offer apiary-based training sessions once the season starts. A good association will run these throughout the season, enabling beginners to experience all aspects of the beekeeping year.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

If they don’t, they should (both run them and run them through the season).

The reason is simple … ‘hands on’ with the bees is a much better way of appreciating some of the most important characteristics of the colony. It’s strength and temperament, the rate at which it’s developing, the levels of stores etc.

But all this takes time. A couple of early-season apiary sessions might be held on cool evenings in failing light, or dodging Spring weekend showers. This means that ‘hive time’ is often restricted and beginners only get a small snapshot of the beekeeping season.

Curb your enthusiasm

Inevitably, many new beekeepers are desperate to get their own bees as soon as possible. After all, the season has started and there are kilograms of nectar out there waiting to be collected and converted into delicious honey for friends and family.

Demand for overwintered nucs is very high (usually significantly outstripping supply, meaning a considerable price premium) and a purchased colony, which should be strong and building up fast, becomes the property of someone who potentially has yet to see an open hive.

The seasonal nature of the hobby and the way we train beginners creates a very steep learning curve for new beekeepers 1. Almost as soon as they’re out of the classroom (or draughty church hall) they’re faced with the start of their first swarm season.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Their inevitable – and completely understandable – enthusiasm to start practical beekeeping reaches a crescendo at a time when they are singularly poorly equipped to manage the colony 2.

What’s missing?

The emphasis on the theory and practical aspects of beekeeping is understandable. There’s a lot to learn in a relatively short time.

However, this focus on the practicalities often overlooks emphasising the responsibilities of beekeepers.

In the frenetic early-season enthusiasm to ‘become a beekeeper’ these might seem unimportant, superfluous or entirely obvious.

But they’re not.

Oil seed rape (OSR) ...

Oil seed rape (OSR) …

Later in the season the colony can become bad tempered, unmanageably large or ignored. Some or all of these happen with new (and not-so-new) beekeepers. The OSR goes over and colonies get stroppy, April’s 5-frame nuc “explodes” to occupy a towering double brood monstrosity or a new-found enthusiasm for dahlias or crown green bowls becomes all-consuming.

Bees? What bees? Have you seen my dahlias?

Bees? What bees? Have you seen my dahlias?

This is when the responsibilities of beekeepers become really important.

What are the responsibilities of beekeepers?

As I see it, as beekeepers we have responsibilities to:

  • The general public
  • Other beekeepers
  • The bees 3

As I stated above, these might seem entirely obvious. However, every year new beekeepers start with the best of intentions but some have a near-total lack of awareness of what these responsibilities are (or mean).

The general public

The combination of calm bees, careful handling and appropriate protective clothing means that bees essentially pose no risk to the beekeeper.

However, strange as it may seem to a beekeeper, some people are terrified of bees (mellisophobics). Others, due to adverse allergic reactions (anaphylactic shock), may have their lives endangered by bee stings. Finally – and thankfully by far the largest group – are the remainder of the public who should never feel bothered or threatened by our bees, whether we consider this a rational response or not.

What does this mean in terms of practical beekeeping? I think it can be distilled to just three points:

  1. Keep calm bees
  2. Keep bees and the public well-separated
  3. Restrict beekeeping activities to times when the public are not inconvenienced

The first point is sensible, whether or not there’s anyone else around. It makes beekeeping a much more relaxing and rewarding experience.

The second point involves either keeping bees in unfrequented locations (infinitely preferable) or ensuring that bees are forced to fly up and away from the hives (by suitable screening) and well-away from passers-by.

The final point is the most inconvenient, but also the most important. If there are members of the public around who might be bothered by your bees – walkers strolling across the field towards your apiary, kids playing in the garden next door – don’t open the hives.

My apiaries have generally been in large rural gardens, private farmland and very well screened. I’ve also kept bees in urban environments, with no problems from the neighbours. However, I have always maintained out apiaries to move my bees to should they exhibit poor temper. Additionally, I’d only conduct inspections when the adjacent gardens were empty … meaning inspections were often carried out in sub-optimal weather or late in the evening.

Finally, while many beekeepers consider the sight of a swarm is one of the truly great sights of beekeeping, this isn’t a sentiment shared by most non-beekeepers.

Swarm on a swing ... not ideal if it's in the next door garden

Swarm on a swing … not ideal if it’s in the next door garden

Keep non-swarmy bees, clip the queen and keep a bait hive prepared to lure any swarms that do emerge.

Other beekeepers

The responsibilities beekeepers have to other beekeepers are probably restricted to:

  1. Courtesy
  2. Disease

The first is straightforward. Don’t do things that negatively impact other beekeepers 4. For example, don’t plonk two dozen hives over the fence from an established apiary, unless you’ve first discussed it with the beekeeper and you’re both happy that the local forage is sufficient.

And, of course, don’t steal hives or colonies 5.

Disease is perhaps less obvious and more insidious. The health of your bees influences the health of other colonies in the area. Over short distances bees drift from one hive to another. Over much longer distances strong colonies can rob weaker colonies.

All these bee exchanges also move the parasites and diseases they carry between hives. This includes VarroaNosema, a panoply of pathogenic viruses and European and American foulbrood.

Of these, the foulbroods are statutory notifiable diseases and beekeepers are legally required to report suspected diseased colonies under the Bee Diseases and Pests Control Order 2006 (and amendments). Responsible beekeepers will register their apiaries on the National Bee Unit’s Beebase so they are notified of local outbreaks, and so the bee inspectors can check their colonies if there is a nearby outbreak.

National Bee Unit Beebase

National Bee Unit Beebase

Whilst not notifiable, the remaining parasites and pathogens are also best avoided … and certainly should not be foisted upon other local beekeepers.

If your colony is weak, disease-riddled and poorly managed it may get robbed-out by other local strong colonies. In doing so, your bees will transfer (some of) the pathogen load to the stronger colony.

That is irresponsible beekeeping.

US beekeepers use the term ‘mite bomb’ to refer to an unmanaged, Varroa-riddled, collapsing colony that introduces significantly higher mite levels to local strong colonies as it’s robbed. This is more extreme, but not dissimilar, to beekeepers that treat with miticides far too late in the season. Their colonies retain high mite levels and can spread them to nearby hives. One way to avoid this is to coordinately treat mites in the same geographic area.

The bees

Bees may or may not be classified as livestock. The standard definition 6 of “domestic animals kept on a farm for use or profit; esp. cattle, sheep, and pigs” is perhaps a little restrictive 7 so lets accept for the moment that they are livestock.

If you keep livestock you usually need to register them and vaccinate them, and you always need to look after their health, feed and transport them properly and generally take responsibility for them.

If you don’t look after their welfare you may be prosecuted.

Of course, bees are invertebrates, not mammals or animals with backbones. Legally invertebrates are not usually considered as animals in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 8 which defines the law on animal welfare.

But all these definitions are a distraction.

In my view, if you keep bees you have a responsibility to look after them properly.

Even if this isn’t a legal requirement, its a moral responsibility.

This responsibility to your bees includes – but is not restricted to – preventing and treating them for disease when appropriate and ensuring they have sufficient stores going into winter (and during periods with no nectar).

If you can’t do this perhaps take up crown green bowls instead.

Blimey, this is all getting a bit heavy isn’t it?

Bees are not ‘fit and forget’.

Actually, they’re quite the opposite.

Proper management means that there are certain things that must be done at a particular time. This includes treating for mites at the end of the summer honey season, feeding the colony up for winter and swarm prevention and control.

If you work abroad for April and May or if you holiday on the Maldives for six weeks every autumn you’re unlikely to become a successful beekeeper.

Powder blue surgeonfish, Maldives

Bees? What bees? They’ll be OK …

And you’re certainly unlikely to be a responsible beekeeper.

You might start with bees, but you’re unlikely to keep them …

What prompted this post? A combination of things … cabin fever and online discussion forum posts from beekeepers puzzling why their colonies all died (no mite treatment, ever) or starved (no feeding before winter) or hadn’t been inspected in the last 15 months (“I’ve been busy”).

It’s going to be a long winter … 9


 

2018 in retrospect

How was 2018 for you?

It was a good year here in Fife, with more of everything; more snow, more colonies, more honey (much more honey 🙂 ), more sheds, more wasps, more swarms and more dead Varroa.

Actually, the ‘more dead mites’ isn’t quite correct but I’ll return to that later.

The Beast from the East

There’s not much to say about the winter, but as we moved from February into March Storm Emma (also called the Beast from the East) arrived. The wind whipped the snow across the Howe of Fife (the largely flat centre of the county), dumping large drifts whenever it eddied over hedges or buildings. I had to dig us out of the house and the road from the village was impassable for 2-3 days.

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

The colonies were all snug, if not warm, and weathered the storm without mishap. The reality is that if colonies are properly prepared for winter there’s almost nothing to do – or nothing you can do – until the weather picks up again in the Spring.

During the early part of the year I finished preparing our new bee shed. The bees were installed at the very end of March, soon followed by installation of a solar lighting system.

As I write this (early December 2018) the old apiary site has recently been bulldozed flat to make way for a new road. The contractors felled most of the beautiful trees in the well-established arboretum that surrounded the apiary.

All that’s left now is a muddy, ugly scar across the landscape waiting to be tarmac’d. Every time I drive past the line from The Last Resort by The Eagles, Some rich men come and raped the land”, comes to mind.

That’s progress 🙁

On a slightly brighter note, we did save the original shed and it’s recently been reassembled on the new apiary site. This will provide some much needed storage space. The new shed is bigger, but still a bit cramped when used for storage, work and bees.

In like a lion, out like a lamb

Well, almost. March continued cold but the weather had picked up by mid-April. I’d lost just two colonies in the winter, both due to failed queens. By the third week of April I’d started inspections 1 and colonies were all looking pretty good.

The weather got better and better, the oil seed rape (OSR) flowered and the bees started hammering it. Only one of my apiaries had OSR in range and they did really well.

Capped honey super frame ...

Capped honey super frame …

By the middle of June the OSR was over and the honey was all extracted. The high glucose content of OSR nectar means it crystallises fast and very hard. It needs to be extracted before this happens in the frames. Some find OSR honey rather bland or an acquired taste. However, I’ve just processed the first couple of buckets into soft set honey and it’s excellent on toast.

The June gap

In terms of beekeeping it was non-stop. June was frantically busy. Even before the the Spring honey was off the crowded colonies had started to make preparations for swarming.

Just as the bees were preparing to move house I was also busy moving into a new house. It was manic. As fast as I put split boards into colonies more queen cells would appear. I started to run out of frames and brood boxes. I managed to hold some colonies back by slicing out great slabs of drone comb. This takes just a few seconds using foundationless frames and gives the bees something to do rather than make swarm preparations.

And in between all this I was interminably packing, driving and unpacking rental vans doing my own move.

I know I lost a couple of swarms – from about 20 colonies in total 2 – which left me feeling a bit guilty. At least they left with very low Varroa levels so, for a time at least, they would not contribute to the mite levels in the local environment. To ‘compensate’ for colonies that might establish themselves somewhere unwanted I donned my beesuit and destroyed a huge wasps nest in a neighbours roof space.

I also gratefully received a good-sized swarm in a bait hive.

The ‘June gap’ refers to the dearth of nectar that often occurs at this time of year. This year – despite excellent weather – was no exception. I didn’t feed colonies but many around me did. A few were a bit light but were OK until the summer flow started … which it did in late June or early July.

The flow must go on

Lime, blackberry, clover, rosebay willow herb and goodness knows what else. It was excellent. Coupled with continued good weather, hives got taller and taller as more supers were added. I ran out of supers altogether.

With lots of nectar and great weather for inspections it was my best beekeeping year since I moved back to Scotland.

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

The good weather also aided queen mating which helped with requeening and preparing nucs for overwintering. About 75% of my colonies were requeened this year, almost all through splits of one type of another.

And then it was all over

The flow eventually stopped and the extraction was interminable. Not that I’m complaining. Super after super after super looked like this:

Ready to extract

Ready to extract …

Wasps were a big problem in late summer. I lost a queenless colony and a nuc to the stripey blighters. Amazingly I managed to save the queen from the nuc 3 and she’s now heading a strong colony through the winter.

After a fortnight or so tidying, stock-taking (uniting colonies, cleaning cleared supers, making up a few additional nucs) and ‘final’ inspections it was time to start Varroa treatment and feeding colonies up for winter.

I’ve deliberately finished the season with fewer colonies than I started, but with more overwintering nucleus colonies for sale or making up losses. The absence of a work/life balance means I want to reduce my personal colony numbers by about a third for the next couple of years (to ~10), with another 6-8 overwintering for work. I’ll still be busy 🙁

Mite news

Mite levels have been extraordinarily low this season. For work we uncapped many hundreds to low thousands of individual pupae 4 and found no more than half a dozen mites all season. We’ve seen no evidence of DWV symptoms and irregular mite counts on the Varroa trays have yielded very low numbers.

All colonies were treated by sublimation with an oxalic acid-containing treatment in early September, with three applications at five day intervals. The mite drop was so low (<200 from eight colonies in total in one apiary) that I was concerned that the treatment had failed. I therefore followed it up with Apivar strips in half the colonies. One or two additional dead mites appeared, but that was all.

So, not more dead Varroa, but probably a much greater proportion of the mite population were killed.

The Apiarist in 2018

This is the 300th post over the last five years. Yes, I’m surprised as well. I missed only one Friday when my hosting service was either not hosting or not providing a service 🙁

A few weeks ago I moved the site to a cloud-based virtual server (Amazon LightSail) which, to me at least 5 appears faster and more stable. Processor load is 10% what it was and page response times seem much better. Tell me if it isn’t.

Unique visitor numbers and page reads continue to increase year on year with both up ~33% on last year. What is particularly reassuring is that articles I’ve written on disease management now feature as the most read over the course of the year (though several were written in previous years). The ‘top five’ are:

  1. When to treat? – the importance of correctly timing the early autumn Varroa treatment.
  2. Feeding fondant – quicker, easier and possibly better for the bees.
  3. Oxalic acid preparation – making Api-Bioxal solution properly for trickle treating.
  4. Vertical splits and making increase – manipulations for swarm control and expansion.
  5. Making soft set honey – making all that OSR honey look good and sell well.
"When to treat" monthly page views

“When to treat” monthly page views (5/2/16 to 13/12/18)

The composite page on ‘Equipment‘ also featured amongst this top five, but takes visitors off to all sorts of articles on bee sheds, DIY and hive reviews.

And the future …

This post is already too long. I’ve just checked and see I have 55 posts with working titles and scrawled notes in my drafts folder 6. That suggests there’s likely to be something written next year.

Until then … Happy New Year 


 

Know your enemy

What less appropriate time is there, as we enter the festive season of goodwill, to provide a brief account of the incestuous and disease-riddled life cycle of the Varroa mite?

Happy Christmas 🙂

Scanning electron micrograph of Varroa destructor

Scanning electron micrograph of Varroa destructor

Varroa is the biggest enemy of bees, beekeepers and beekeeping. During the replication cycle the mite transfers a smorgasbord of viruses to developing pupae. One of these viruses, deformed wing virus (DWV), although well-tolerated in the absence of Varroa 1replicates to devastatingly high levels and is pathogenic when transferred by the mite.

Without colony management methods to control Varroa, mite and virus replication will eventually kill the colony.

I’ve written extensively on ways to control Varroa. Most of these have focused on early autumn and midwinter treatment regimes. However, next season I’m hoping to discuss some alternative strategies and will need to reference aspects of the life cycle of Varroa … hence this post.

What is Varroa?

Varroa destructor is a distant relative of spiders, both being members of the class Arachnida … the joint-legged invertebrates (arthropods). It was originally (and remains) an external parasite (ectoparasite) of Apis cerana (the Eastern honey bee) and – following cross-species transfer a century or so ago – Apis mellifera, ‘our’ Western honey bee.

Apis cerana, having co-evolved with Varroa, has a number of strategies to minimise the detrimental consequences of being parasitised by the mite.

Apis mellifera doesn’t. Simple as that 2.

One hundred years is the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms and, whilst there are bees that have partial solutions – largely behavioural (small colonies and very swarmy) – they’re probably unable to collect meaningful amounts of honey 3.

Varroa-resistant honey bees will probably evolve (as much as anything is predictable in evolution) but not in my time as a beekeeper … or possibly not until Voyager 2 leaves the Oort Cloud 4.

And there’s no guarantee they’ll be any use whatsoever for beekeeping …

The replication cycle of Varroa

Varroa has no free-living stage during the life-cycle. The adult mated female mite exhibits two distinct phases during the life-cycle. It has a phoretic phase on adult bees and a reproductive phase within sealed (‘capped’) worker and drone brood cells. Male mites only ever exist within sealed brood cells.

I’m going to discuss phoretic mites in a separate post. I’ll concentrate here on the replication cycle.

The mated female mite enters a cell 15-50 hours before brood capping. Drone brood is chosen preferentially (at ~10-fold greater rates than worker brood) and entered earlier. Depending upon the time of the season and the levels of mites and brood, up to 70-90% of mites in the colony occupy capped cells.

The first egg is laid ~70 hours after cell capping. This egg is unfertilized and develops into a haploid male mite. Subsequent eggs are fertilised, diploid, and so develop into female mites. These are laid at ~30 hour intervals.

The replication cycle of Varroa

The replication cycle of Varroa

Worker and drone brood take different times to develop. Therefore a typical reproductive cycle involves five eggs being laid in worker brood and six in drone brood. Not all of these eggs mature, their development being curtailed by the bee emerging as an adult.

There are all sorts of developmental stages involved in getting from an egg to a mature unfertilised mite, but these are not important in terms of the overall outcome. Mite-geeks love this sort of detail 5, but we need to cut to the chase …

Keeping it in the family

The foundress ‘mother’ mite and her progeny all share a single feeding hole through the cuticle of the developing pupa.

What a lovely scene of family ‘togetherness’. 

Male and female mites take 6.6 and 5.8 days respectively to develop to sexual maturity. Therefore the male mite reaches sexual maturity before the first of his sisters.

He then lurks around the attractive-sounding “faecal accumulation site” and mates with each of the (sister) females in turn.

What a little charmer 😉

Male mites are short lived and the eclosion of the adult worker or drone curtails further mating activity, releasing the foundress mite and the mated mature daughters 6.

Reproductive rate (mites per cell)

The three day difference in the duration of worker and drone development means that more mites are produced from drone cells than worker cells. Depending on conditions the reproductive rate is 1.3 – 1.45 in worker brood and 2.2 – 2.6 in drone brood.

Remember that the foundress is also released from the cell. She can go on to initiate one or two further reproductive cycles (or up to 7 in vitro). Consequently, the average yield of mature, mated female mites from worker and drone cells is a fraction over 2 and 3 respectively.

Before entering a fresh cell containing a late stage (5th instar) larva the newly-mated mites need to mature. They do this during the phoretic phase which lasts 5-11 days. Therefore the full replication cycle of the mite probably takes a minimum of about 17 days.

Exponential growth

Two to three mites per infested cell doesn’t sound very much. However, under ideal conditions this leads to exponential growth of the mite population in the colony. Assuming 10 reproductive cycles in 6 months, a single mite would generate a population of >1,000 in worker brood and >59,000 in drone brood 7.

Fortunately (for our bees, not for the mites), ideal conditions don’t actually occur in reality.

Lots of things contribute to the reduction in reproductive potential. For example, only 60% of male mites achieve sexual maturity due to developmental mortality, drone brood is only available at certain times in the season, brood breaks interrupt the availability of any suitable brood and grooming helps rid adult bees of phoretic mites.

Out, damn'd mite ...

Out, damn’d mite …

However, these reductions aren’t enough. Without proper management mite levels still reach dangerously high levels, threatening the long-term viability of the colony.

In the next few months I will discuss some additional opportunities for reducing the mite population.

In the meantime, as we reach the winter solstice, colonies in temperate regions may well be broodless and – as emphasised last week – this is an ideal time to apply a midwinter oxalic acid-containing treatment. This will effectively reduce mite levels for the start of the coming season.

Happy Christmas … unless you’re a mite 😉


Colophon

Today is the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere. This is actually the precise time when the Earth’s Northern pole has its maximum tilt away from the Sun. However, the term is usually used for the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest period of night. In Fife, sunrise is at 08.44 and sunset at 15.37, meaning the day length is 6 hours and 53 minutes long.

With increasing day length queens will start laying again … but there’s a long way to go until winter is over.

 

Convenience or laziness?

It’s cold and dark and all is quiet in the apiary. Hives appear somnolent. Colonies are clustered 1 and, other than the odd corpse or two on the landing board, I’ve not seen a bee for at least a fortnight.

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

Based upon previous experience I suspect colonies are – or very soon will be – broodless. I usually reckon that the first extended (2-3 weeks) period of cold weather 2 in the winter is the most likely time for the colony to be broodless.

In 2016/17 this was the first week in December.

In 2017/18 it was just a day or two later.

In both instances, when the hives were checked, they had no brood.

What’s all this about being broodless?

If a colony is broodless there are no capped cells in which the Varroa mite can ‘hide’. As a consequence it’s an ideal time to apply a miticide like a trickled solution of Api-Bioxal 3.

There are very good reasons why a midwinter OA treatment is necessary, particularly if you treated early enough in the autumn to protect the overwintering workers from the ravages of Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). High DWV levels reduce the lifespan of bees and contribute to many (possibly most) winter colony losses. I’ve even suggested here that “isolation starvation” might actually be due to Varroa-transmitted viral disease.

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Early autumn treatment protects the winter bees but also leaves the long autumn for the residual mites to continue replicating.

And there will be residual mites. No treatment is 100% effective.

So, paradoxically, if you treated early enough in the autumn to really help protect the winter bees, your mite levels will be higher at the end of the year.

Which also means they’ll be higher at the beginning of next year.

Not a good start to the 2019 season 🙁

Convenience or laziness?

Many beekeepers, for convenience, laziness or historical precedent, choose to apply the winter OA treatment between Christmas and New Year. I suspect that this is often too late. If the queen starts laying again around the winter solstice there will be sealed brood – and therefore unreachable Varroa – by the end of the month.

I’d prefer to have a cold and damp afternoon in the apiary slaughtering Varroa now than the convenience of treating them less effectively during the Christmas holiday period.

The latter might be more convenient … the office will be closed, I’ll be replete with turkey and sprouts and it will be a good excuse to ‘escape’ visiting relatives and yet more mince pies 4.

But is it the best time for your bees?

We have the technology

We have a couple of hives with Arnia hive monitors fitted 5. These have a temperature probe inserted into the brood nest. Brood rearing temperature is around 34°C. Here is a trace of one colony over the last month.

Arnia hive monitor temperature

Arnia hive monitor temperature

The colony temperature was pretty stable (around 33-35°C) until about the 19th of November and has dropped about 10°C since then. Although I’ve not opened the colony I think that this is additional evidence that the colony is broodless 6.

Beekeeping by numbers

Keeping bees properly involves being aware of the seasons, the available forage and the state of the colony. This varies from month to month and year to year 7.

You can’t mechanically (‘by the numbers’) add supers on the 5th of May and harvest honey on the 15th of June. Sure, it might work some years, but is it the best time to do it?

Similarly, you can’t optimally treat a colony for Varroa on the 30th of December unless the climatic conditions and state of the colony coincide to make that the best time to treat.

It might be, but I suspect that generally it’s a bit late if there is a brood break.

If you’re going to the trouble of preparing the OA treatment, donning the beesuit and disturbing the colony you might as well do it at the right time for the bees.

I’ll be treating in between the predicted sleet showers and sunny periods this weekend.

Time to treat

Time to treat

Isn’t evolution a wonderful thing? This post started with a working title of Know your enemy” and was on a different topic altogether. I’ll save that for next week.


STOP PRESS

The above was written at the beginning of the week. Now the weekend is closer it’s clear the weather is going to be cold with heavy snow predicted. Unless the forecast is wrong (and how often does that happen?!) I’ll hold off treating until a) it’s over 5°C, and b) the roads are safe.

Abelo smoker box

Small Dadant smoker

Small Dadant smoker

There’s no smoke without fire.

That’s usually considered to be an idiom.

Unless you are a beekeeper, in which case it’s probably also a proverb 1.

A large, properly fuelled and well-lit smoker will produce smoke for a very long time. The right sort of fuel and a few puffs on the bellows, perhaps with an infrequent top-up, will keep a smoker going for several hours.

A smoker that’s “gone out” can often be resurrected with a few vigorous puffs. Indeed, after finishing in one apiary, stuffing the smoker nozzle with a twist of damp grass and driving to another apiary, it’s not unusual to be able to restart it without relighting it.

Which, when you think about it, isn’t very safe.

Too hot to handle

Most half-decent smokers have some sort of heat shield or cage. These stop you inadvertently melting your gloves or burning your fingers. Some heat shields are better than others but, frankly, none are really good.

The cage on the Dadant smokers I use is ‘barely there’ underneath the smoker. Polystyrene and Correx roofs are easily melted if you’re stupid enough to stand the smoker on them.

I am 🙁

And that also means that car upholstery can be damaged if you don’t ensure the smoker has cooled down before packing it away.

I’m reasonably careful about this, but it’s easy to overlook things when in a hurry or distracted. In the past, through inattentiveness, I’ve returned to the car to find it filling with smoke 2 and periodically stories circulate about a beekeepers setting their car/van alight when transporting smokers 3.

Abelo smoker box

All this explains why I was so grateful to receive the gift of a smart metal Abelo smoker box when I recently gave an evening talk at a beekeeping association.

An ideal Christmas gift for a beekeeper

An ideal Christmas gift for a beekeeper

The box is well designed and amply big enough to take the larger of the two Dadant smokers (which is one of the largest smokers on the market). It has a fold-flat handle on the top and a small, but secure, catch to hold the lid closed.

The base of the box (not shown in the pictures) is recessed by about half an inch. This means that a hot smoker cannot directly transmit heat through the metal to whatever the box is sitting on.

Finally, the inner rim of the lid has a strip of draught sealant around the edge. A lit smoker placed in the box should go out pretty quickly due to lack of oxygen.

Could it be improved? Smokers go out faster when laid on their sides. In this box (unlike the one used by Ron Miksha) the smoker stands upright … unless I lay the entire box on its side I suppose.

It’s midwinter. It’s a month since I last opened a box of bees and it’ll be at least another three months until I fire up the smoker again and inspect my next colony.

However, when I do I’ll be able to transport my smoker safely between apiaries.


Colophon

There’s no smoke without fire was first used in the 14th Century, appeared in collections of proverbs from the mid-16th Century and remains current today 4.

We’re moving …

The Apiarist is moving to a new server in the next few days. It’s possible that there might be a little disruption but – going by the access statistics – most beekeepers are now fixated either on the dregs of the Black Friday sales, or the run up to Christmas.

We're moving ...

We’re moving …

To try and make the transition as seamless as possible I’ve closed comments on this and future posts on the current site and will re-open them on the new site as soon as all the changes are in place 1.

Why?

Speed, space, cost and to satisfy the inner geek in me. But mainly speed and cost, or cost and speed depending how things go.

Or speed alone … or cost alone if things go worse than I’d hoped  🙄

What’s new?

There will (or at least should) be a few differences.

  • The first time you access the new site you should be offered a relatively discrete privacy notice about cookies and personal information. OK it (Accept and Close) and you shouldn’t see it again for about a year … unless you use multiple computers.
  • The web address will (eventually) have an https:// rather than http:// prefix. All this means is that information is encrypted when you fill forms in. You shouldn’t need to make any changes to bookmarks or anything else, it should all be handled automagically. Some over-protective web browsers (Chrome in particular) report that the current site/servers ‘are not secure’ (it is, for what it does … I don’t take credit card orders). Google also uses https as a ranking factor, so searches that find stuff here should move from page 232 to the heady heights of page 187  😥
  • There are a few additional behind-the-scenes changes. If these break anything I’ve overlooked drop me an email via the ‘contact’ page and I’ll try and rescue things.

Thank you for your patience.

What? No beekeeping?

Well, almost none. I’ve been doing quite a few winter evening talks and particularly enjoyed the excellent lemon drizzle cake at Fortingall and District beekeepers recently  😀  Next week I’m at Dunblane and Stirling beekeepers on Tuesday and then with Arran beekeepers on Thursday.

I hope they’re both busy baking 😉

I’ve got your number

However, back to the topics of moving and beekeeping … I’ve just received two sets of numbers for hive and queen labelling next season 2.

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

I manage hives in two to three apiaries which, for work purposes, sometimes get moved about during the year. Even more mobile are some of the queens which – for reasons that are too complicated to explain here – might start the season in one hive, spend some time in a nuc midsummer and end the season heading another colony altogether 3.

Keeping track of the hives and the queens was a bit of a nightmare this year. To (hopefully) improve things I’m going to label occupied hives – both production colonies and nucs – with a unique number. In addition, using a separate distinct number, I will “label” the queens in the hives.

The hive number moves with the hive (or at least the brood box) and the queen number will be changed when the queen is moved or the colony is requeened.

What could possibly go wrong?


Colophon

The phrase to “have (got) someone’s number” means to understand someone There’s perhaps a subtle threat in the meaning … effectively “You can’t fool me … and if you try to I know what to do”.

Say “cheese”

A famous photographer was visiting a famous writer …

“Hello”, said the writer, “you’re the famous photographer. You must have a really good camera.”

“Hello”, said the photographer, “you’re the world-renowned writer. You must have a really good pen.”

Meaning of course that the quality of the camera is not the rate-limiting step in taking great photographs. The camera is just a tool.

I’m not a famous photographer. I’ve not even achieved the status of a totally-unknown photographer. But I do like taking photographs. About 99% of the images used on this site are mine, and I probably take a few thousand photographs a year (keeping several hundred and printing a handful 1).

Light and dark, Loch Sunart

Light and dark, Loch Sunart

I particularly enjoy landscape photography, but a large proportion of my photographs are of bees, beehives, apiaries and beekeeping. These are used in talks, here and elsewhere online and as an aide memoir to compensate for my patchy note taking and even patchier memory.

A picture is worth a thousand words

If you give beekeeping talks they really have to be illustrated. There’s nothing much worse (root canal treatment?) than sitting through an hour of Powerpoint slides containing nothing but text 2.

This website would be pretty turgid without the pictures. Some might say that even with the pictures … oh, never mind 😉

But most readers of this site probably give few talks and write fewer articles. That doesn’t mean a camera can’t come in useful.

My note taking – despite my best efforts – is often less than ideal. A quick snap of the apiary as I leave indicates which hive is where 3. It shows more or less how each hive is setup. Numbers of supers, type of split etc. If the hive numbering is also visible (more on that shortly) it can provide a useful memory boost when completing the notes … or a sanity check that the notes recorded actually relate to the hive in question.

Photographs are particularly useful when identifying diseases and pathogens. A good quality image of a questionable frame makes subsequent diagnosis much easier than relying on your memory. It might also be useful for the bee inspectors or the association’s disease maestro.

Martyn Hocking used a photograph to support his find of an Asian Hornet in Devon last year. A reasonable quality photo sent to alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk would undoubtedly help prioritise efforts to repel this new and unwelcome invader.

Tools of the trade

I rarely go anywhere without a camera. Sometimes it’s only my ageing phone, but even that’s got a reasonable camera. Newer smartphones have much better cameras with good video capabilities.

However, although the tale of the photographer and the writer has a lot of truth in it, there are certain circumstances when the limitations of the camera are rate-limiting 4.

For photographing bees or detail (e.g suspected disease) in the hive the usual limitations are accurately focusing on small objects close up and the amount of light that reaches the sensor. For these reasons I usually have a compact camera in the bee bag.

Sony RX100

For years I’ve been using a Sony RX100 5 which has a fast (i.e. wide aperture) short zoom Zeiss lens. This is an amazingly competent camera. It’s little bigger than a pack of playing cards, but the combination of a 20 megapixel sensor (5472 x 3648 pixels) and the exceptional lens generates outstanding quality images 6.

Used in one of the automatic modes the camera generally produces reasonably well-focused and exposed images, automagically increasing the ‘film speed’ (ISO) if the lighting is poor.

Sony RX100 mark 1

Sony RX100 mark 1

Unfortunately, a year or so ago I dropped the Sony onto a tiled floor and it’s never been quite the same since. The lens cover doesn’t always open or close and it has developed some unpredictable electronic hiccups. Although it’s still my ‘go to’ day-to-day camera these problems prompted me to look at an alternative.

Panasonic LX15

This is another 20 megapixel quality compact camera. It has four features that are really useful for the photography of bees and beekeeping. It has a fold-out LCD screen that helps compose the image at waist level. The LCD is also a touchscreen so you can simply tap it to select the focus point and take the image. It has excellent video capabilities, including 4k and slo-mo (high speed, 120 frames/second – e.g. these scout bees inspecting a bait hive entrance).

Finally, it has a feature called ‘post focus’ which allows you to take a photograph and choose the point of focus after recording the shot – more on this later.

However, although the LX15 is a very competent camera, the quality of the lens is not as good as the Sony 7. Although this isn’t usually an issue for images that will be displayed at a small size or online, it’s rather obvious when viewed enlarged or printed.

If you go to the trouble of taking a camera with you and find yourself in front of a stunning sunset or a breathtaking panorama (or mother and daughter queens on the same frame or an Asian hornet), you want to have confidence that the quality of the lens is good enough to record the scene.

RAW

Smartphones and most point and shoot cameras record the image in JPEG format. The image has an automatic amount of contrast enhancement, colour enrichment and sharpening applied by the camera. These changes to the image are irreversible and they usually result in a reasonable satisfactory picture 8.

However, for real flexibility the two cameras above (and many other reasonable quality cameras) have the option to record the image in RAW format i.e. the native data from the sensor. These can subsequently be processed (often quite quickly) on a computer to create the desired final image.

This post-processing allows local and global changes in exposure, cropping, colour, sharpness and contrast. All of my RAW images are post-processed with Adobe Lightroom. Those used online take no more than a minute to manipulate, while those destined for printing and framing get a lot more attention.

The one thing you cannot correct during post-processing is focus. If the subject of a picture is out of focus you’re scuppered 9.

Close ups

Taking close up handheld photographs of a moving subject, like a queen on a frame of bees, is not easy.

There she goes ...

There she goes …

This is due to a combination of the available lighting, the shallow depth of field and the movement of the subject.

Because the bees are moving you need a reasonably fast shutter speed to freeze them. A fast shutter speed – unless the lighting is exceptionally bright – means that the aperture 10 must be set to maximise the light getting to the sensor. You’ll often hear photographers talk about wide aperture, or using the lens ‘wide open’.

And this is where the problems really start. Due to the laws of physics, the wider the aperture, the smaller the depth of field.

Depth of field

The depth of field refers to the vertical slice of the image that is in focus. Anything in front or behind this will be out of focus.

Not only does depth of field depend upon the aperture, but it is also influenced by the distance between the lens and the subject. The closer the subject, the shallower the depth of field.

Shallow depth of field

Shallow depth of field – heavily cropped image

As an example, using a camera 11 focused on a subject 10 metres away the depth of field is 5.79 m (from ~7.8 to ~13.6 m). Everything between these distances will be in focus.

At 1 metre the depth of field is 11 cm (from 0.95 to 1.06 m).

At 30 cm the depth of field is 4mm (from ~29.8 to ~ 30.2 cm).

At anything less than 15 cm the depth of field is 1 mm or less.

Can you hold a camera steady enough to keep the subject within the 1 mm depth of field you have?

What about if you are holding the frame with one hand and the camera with the other?

Inevitably, many close-ups are out of focus 🙁

LX15 post focus capabilities

Probably the greatest recent advances in compact digital cameras have been in their video capabilities. The Panasonic LX15 takes advantage of these to allow you to record the scene and decide afterwards which part of the final image you want to be in focus.

It achieves this by analysing the scene and determining the closest and the most distant objects in the field of view. When you press the shutter it then takes a 1-2 second 4k (3840 x 2160 pixels) resolution video, changing the point of focus throughout.

This short video shows how this looks (the camera was handheld).

You can then, in camera or during post-processing, scroll through the video and choose precisely the frame that has the desired subject in focus. The three images below are all from the video above. The originals are cropped to ~4 megapixels, but reduced further in size and quality to present here.

This is pretty remarkable technology.

It’s worth remembering that, for any individual captured frame, the depth of field is still determined by the aperture the lens is set at. The images above are all at f1.6 (i.e. just about wide open).

LX15 focus stacking

You can even combine frames from the video with different planes of focus to make a composite image with a deeper overall depth of focus, just covering the area of the image you are interested in.

This focus stacking feature, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work well with a moving subject like bees on a frame. Similarly, you either need a very steady hand or (better) a tripod. I’ve only used this feature a few times and don’t see a routine application for it. I’d prefer to modify the depth of field by changing the aperture to achieve the same end result.

Limitations of post-focus and focus-stacking

Post-focus sounds like the perfect solution to solve the problems with close up photography.

The two biggest limitations are the size and format of the final images. These are in JPEG format and ‘only’ 3840 x 2160 pixels (8 megapixels, rather than the 20 megapixels that the camera is capable of with still pictures). These significantly reduce the options for subsequent enlargement and negate most options for post-processing. However, for online use (or emailing to the regional bee inspector) they are more than adequate.

The combination of changing the plane of focus during the short video and the movement of a handheld camera can mean that the desired subject is only fleetingly – if ever – in focus.

Or is in focus at the precise moment a big fat drone toddles in front of your beautiful queen 🙁

I suspect that post-focus will become commonplace on cameras (and smartphones). It’s got a lot to offer, but isn’t yet a perfect solution.

Propolis

Both the cameras mentioned cope well with a periodic liberal coating of propolis. You can scrape it off the camera body easily, but it’s worth trying to keep it off the rear LCD panel. In particular, try to keep the touchscreen LCD of the LX15 propolis-free.

Panasonic LX15

Panasonic LX15

Real bee photography

If you want to see some better quality beekeeping photography have a look at the images by Simon Croson or the wonderful pictures by Eric Tourneret in Cueillers de Miel.

Finally … remember that the best camera is the one that you have with you 😉


Colophon

Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye

Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye

Saying “cheese” makes your mouth adopt a shape roughly approximating a smile. It is therefore an instruction given by photographers to help create more appealing images.

It’s not essential. Walker Evans, a great photographer famous for his work for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930’s didn’t ask his subjects to say “cheese”. His portraits and photojournalism are outstanding.

In languages other than English different instructions are sometimes given e.g. most Latin American countries use Diga whiskey (say “whiskey”), Sweden Säg omelett (say “omelette”) and Bulgaria Zele (“Cabbage”). Lots of countries use a variant of Watch the birdy or Smile at the little bird.

The idiom A picture is worth a thousand words dates back over 100 years to a newspaper article in 1911 about journalism and publicity where the phrase “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words” was used. Even earlier, Napoleon (1769-1821) is reported to have said Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours” (A good sketch is better than a long speech).

The eyes have it

We’re entering the not beekeeping end-of-season phase of the beekeeping year. There’s been a marked reduction in visitor numbers to ‘The Apiarist’ over the last few weeks and – with the weather gradually deteriorating1 – the ‘shack nasties‘ are starting to develop. The online forums (fora?) are filled with increasingly bad-tempered arguments discussions and it might be too soon to be thinking about 2019 (it isn’t).

Wasted words

So, rather than write a series of erudite, well-argued, coherent, logical and persuasive posts about evolution of Varroa resistance in Apis mellifera, or rational mid-season mite-management strategies, or the 75:25 rule for queen and stock-improvement, or an exhaustive review of Swienty vs. Abelo poly Nationals …

Some chance !2

… I’m instead going to spend the next few weeks on a variety of odds and ends. Some interesting and amusing science, some ‘teasers’ on grow-your-own-denim-knit-your-own-yoghurt beekeeping, an introduction to why people keep bees and why they shouldn’t and a long and apologetic explanation of where the site disappeared to when I tried to move it to another server.

Actually, of these only the first exists (see below). The last I hope not to use, though I will be switching servers to accommodate changes in security and to speed things up and to introduce site-wide intrusive advertising and a subscription model to fund my seemingly-unstoppable purchasing of essential beekeeping stuff from Brian at Thorne’s of Newburgh.

Oops.

The eyes have it

The eyesight of bees is remarkable.

Actually, eyesight alone is not enough. It’s the combination of eyesight with the neuronal processing of the received images that’s truly remarkable.

Remember that the brain of a bee is about 1mm3 and contains about one million neurones 3. With this brain the bee is able to undertake a series of complex mental tasks involving learning and memory, image processing and visual generalisation.

Bees soon learn that particular flowers yield lots of pollen or nectar. They can return to them time and again, recognising them at relatively short distances from their appearance. How do they determine that other flowers – of different shapes, sizes or colours – might also have valuable pollen or nectar? What about tree flowers that have a different appearance again?

It turns out that bees are generalists, at least where flowers are concerned. They recognise things that are flower-like. They have evolved to associate reward (pollen, nectar) with things that have the appearance of flowers.

More general generalists?

Do they only have the ability to identify flower-like ‘things’. Are bees generalists when just identifying flowers and flower-like things, albeit of different colours, sizes and shapes? Is there some sort of hardwiring in the brain of the bee that has evolved this exquisite combination of flower-recognising sensitivity and flexibility?

Alternatively, perhaps bees have a more adaptable image processing capability? For example, we know through simple experiments that bees can rapidly learn to associate very unflower-like shapes with a syrup ‘reward’.

You can train bees to repeatedly return to a distinctively coloured/shaped item with a syrup reward. Over short distances you can move the item and the bees return to the new location, with the final approach being guided by vision, pattern recognition and associated image processing.

The item doesn’t need to look much like a flower.

They can also identify ‘diamond-shaped things’ (again, for example, other shapes are available at a bee lab near you) of a different colour, or even no colour, to those they’ve been trained on.

Shape recognition by bees

Shape recognition by bees …

This suggests that – at least for simple ‘not-flower’ shapes like these – a degree of generalisation is still possible.

But bees operate in a very busy and variable environment filled with shapes and colours that form wildly variable complex images. Generalisation might well be a problem with all of this variation and complexity.

Facial recognition

Bees are good at discriminating between images of simple shapes. How good are they are at recognising the sorts of complex shapes and images that are found in the environment?

What about something that our bees see every week?

Something they might associate with disruption and/or reward?

Like your face …  😀

It turns out that bees can distinguish between faces. Very well. When trained to a syrup reward on one face (top left in image below), they can distinguish it from a different face (second row) about 80% of the time (graph).

Facial recognition by bees ...

Facial recognition by bees …

There’s a distinct possibility your bees recognise you. An interesting twist on the comment many non-beekeepers make about whether we can identify ‘our’ bees.

However, bees trained to recognise a face the ‘right way up’ failed to identify the face if it was inverted (column v above).

Don’t do your hive inspections standing on your head.

Complex image generalisation

Bees can certainly discriminate well between complex images like faces. Are they also able to generalise when it comes to complex image analysis?

For example, could you train bees to associate reward with a range of female faces? Then challenge them with discriminating between a pair of new (never seen before) male and female faces? Would they pick the female face significantly more than 50% of the time?

That’s a pretty tough test. Without the labels how well do you cope with this training set?

Faces

Faces

OK, if that’s too hard, how about an analysis of image generalisation based upon the style of the image?

Humans are pretty good at this sort of thing. We can easily discriminate between the Impressionist painters (e.g. Degas, Monet, Manet, Renoir) and those in the early 20th Century Cubist art movement (e.g. Picasso, Metzinger, Braque, Gleizes, Léger).

For example, is the Picasso (below) Cubist or Impressionist?

We can tell … can the bees?

Monet or Picasso?

Wu and colleagues4 recently attempted to answer this question.

They took pairs of paintings matched for luminance, colour and spatial frequency information, one by Monet (Impressionist) and one by Picasso (Cubist). Bees were trained to associate either the Monet or the Picasso with a syrup reward.

When subsequently tested, bees were able to easily identify the painting they had been trained on from one by the other artist. After 30 training blocks bees made the correct choice about 75% of the time … approximately the same accuracy with which they identify faces (above).

This is not fundamentally a different experiment to the face recognition study as both involved the discrimination between just one complex image and another.

Monets or Picassos?

Using five different pairs of luminance, colour and spatial frequency-matched paintings from Monet and Picasso – with five days of training – they demonstrated that bees could simultaneously discriminate between them up to 75% of the time.

The more training the bees received, the better they were at picking the correct painting each time.

Impressionist or Cubist?

Having trained the bees on multiple Picasso or Monet paintings they then challenged them with new (to the bees … you’ll appreciate that these artists no longer produce new work 😉 ) paintings by the same artists.

Could bees that were able to discriminate between The Cliff at Étretat after the Storm (Monet) from Le Rêve (Picasso) and between Water Lilies and the Japanese bridge (Monet) from Girl before a Mirror (Picasso) and three other pairs correctly select a previously unseen Picasso or Monet?

In all honesty, not very well 🙁

The statistics are poor. For one of the novel pairs tested it appeared as though the bees could discriminate as well as they could one of the training pairs. However, the most positive statement that could be made by the authors was “Notably, for both groups the percentage of correct choices for novel pairs was above chance (i.e., above 50 %) in six out of the eight tests, indicating that a weak generalization may have occurred”.

Underwhelming … in this sort of science the stats wins every time, and this type of statement isn’t very compelling.

Finally, the scientists repeated the entire training regime with greyscale versions of the same training pairs of images. With this training, generalization to the novel pairs was quite a bit better with “only marginal or no significant difference between training pairs and most novel pairs”.

Better, but still not really statistically compelling. However, don’t underestimate the complexity of the task. The results showed that insects with a sesame-seed-sized brain could often discriminate between previously unseen Cubist or Impressionist paintings after a few days training on only 5 pairs of paintings of the same style.

That’s remarkable.

Bird brains

Pigeons live in the same visually complex environment as bees. They have to undertake similar visually demanding tasks during foraging. They can discriminate between Monets and Picassos. They can correctly (and statistically convincingly) determine whether a new Monet or Picasso is more Impressionist-like or Cubist-like.

In addition, when challenged with other paintings of similar styles by different artists (e.g. a Degas or a Braque), pigeons can again generalise in their selection of Cubist or Impressionist 5.

However, to achieve this remarkable visual feat, pigeons need to be trained to hundreds of exemplar paintings over many, many weeks.

Could bees do as well if trained for the same period?

We don’t know.

And we’re unlikely to find out as the lifespan of a worker bee is probably too short 🙁


Colophon

This post was written as the political fallout of the draft Brexit deal was occupying 110% of the news. By the time it appears online it’s not clear the UK will have a Prime Minister or even a functioning Government.

Be that as it may, there will be a Parliamentary vote on it.

Historically, there is a division of the assembly into those that support the motion (the ‘ayes’ i.e. ‘yes’) and those that do not (the ‘noes’). Once the vote is taken – typically by members of parliament traipsing into the appropriate division lobby – the Speaker counts the votes and announces The Ayes have it … assuming the motion was supported.

Considering the timing, a pun on The Ayes have it seemed appropriate.

Bee shed musings

It’s the end of our third season using a bee shed, and the end of the first season using the ‘new and improved’ bee shed mark 2.

What’s worked and what hasn’t?

Why keep bees in a shed at all?

A bee hive provides a secure and weatherproof container to protect the colony 1. Why then keep bee hives inside a building, like the bee shed?

Moving in day ...

Moving in day …

Beekeeping, of necessity, involves regular inspections at 7-10 day intervals throughout the main part of the season. These inspections involve opening the hive and checking for disease, for evidence that the colony is developing as expected 2, for adequate stores and space, and for for the telltale signs that the colony is thinking of swarming.

Since these inspections involve opening the hive the weather needs to be at least half-decent. Heavy rain, low temperatures and cold winds make it a less than pleasant experience – for the bees and for the beekeeper.

That’s not a problem if you have the luxury of being able to pick and choose days with benign conditions to inspect the colony.

But we don’t have that luxury.

The hives in the shed are used for research into the viruses (deformed wing virus and chronic bee paralysis virus) that are the major threats to colony health. Although we don’t conduct experiments in these hives we do use them as a regular source of larvae, pupae and workers for experiments in the laboratory 3.

We therefore must be able to open and work in the hives:

  • very early in the season
  • very late in the season – we’re still harvesting brood as I write this in early November
  • irrespective of the weather at particular times and/or days of the week

This is the east coast of Scotland. If it’s chucking it down with rain, blowing a hoolie 4, really cold or a combination of these (not unusual), then not only is it unpleasant for the beekeeper, but it’s also unpleasant for the bees …

… and they let us know about it.

The bee shed

Welcome ...

Welcome …

To protect the bees and the beekeeper we’ve built a shed to accommodate standard National hives, connected to the outside with simple tunnels.

From the outside it looks like a shed.

From the inside it looks like an apiary with wooden walls and less light 5.

Details of the first shed and its successor are posted elsewhere. The current shed is 16 x 8 feet and houses up to seven full colonies arranged along the south-facing wall.

There are windows along the entire length of this wall of the shed, sufficient storage space for dozens of spare supers, brood boxes, floors, the hivebarrow and a couple of hundred kilograms of fondant.

Hives are all arranged ‘warm way’ on a single full-length stand and inspected from the rear.

How does all this work in practice?

Space

The shed is probably still too small 🙁

Once all of that lovely storage space is in use there’s a relatively narrow passageway between the hives and the stacks of supers and fondant. For a lone beekeeper this isn’t an issue. For training purposes, or with multiple people working at once, it’s distinctly cramped.

Inspections involve lots of walking back and forwards to the door (see below) and this would be made much easier by:

  • not storing spare supers, fondant, broods and the wheelbarrow in the shed
  • only allowing very thin people with no concept of ‘personal space‘ to use the shed
  • having a much wider shed

Of these, the last option is probably the most realistic.

I’ve recently been asked for comments about using a shed for a school beekeeping association. Since this is likely to involve an element of training, with several trainees huddling around the hive, my advice would be:

  • reduce the number of hives to a maximum of three in a 16 foot long shed, each on individual stands with space to access the hive from both behind and the sides
  • buy a wider shed or store all those ‘essential’ spares elsewhere

Lighting

The shed has a solar powered LED lighting system running off a 100Ah ‘leisure’ battery. There are six of the highest power LED lights available (~120W equivalents … each ~700 lumens 6) immediately above the hives.

The lighting is great. It makes working in the shed ‘off grid’ in the evenings or on dull and dingy days much easier.

However, on a bright day this lighting is insignificant when compared to the light streaming in through the windows.

But, whatever the weather, the lighting inside the shed is still less than optimal when you’re looking for eggs or day-old larvae.

Perhaps it’s my increasingly poor eyesight but I find myself nipping out of the shed door to inspect frames for eggs or tiny larvae. It’s so much easier with the sun coming over your shoulder and angling the frame to illuminate the base of the cells.

I’m planning to rearrange the lighting so it runs down the centre of the shed rather than being directly over the hives. That way it will be ‘over the shoulder’ when inspecting frames.

And if that doesn’t work the only option will be to invest in banks of LEDs … or glasses 😎

On a brighter note – no pun intended – the solar panel, charge controller and large lead acid battery, coupled with a door ‘on when open’ switch, have worked flawlessly.

Windows

The shed windows are formed from overlapping sheets of perspex.

The weather cannot get in, but bees can easily get out. They crawl up the large pane, under the overlapping pane, and then fly from the 2cm slot between that and the top of the window aperture. It’s a simple and highly-effective solution to emptying a shed of bees after inspections.

Bee shed window ...

Bee shed window …

But I’ve discovered this year that wasps can learn to enter the shed via the windows.

2018 was a bad year for wasps. I lost a nuc and a queenless (actually a requeening) colony to robbing by wasps in this apiary. At some point during the season wasps learnt to access the shed via the window ‘slot’ and for several weeks we were plagued with them. I think we were partly to blame because we had some comb offcuts in a waste bin that wasn’t properly sealed. Once the wasps had discovered this source of honey/nectar they were very persistent … as wasps are.

This hasn’t been a problem in previous years so I’m hoping that improved apiary hygiene will prevent it being an issue next year.

No smoke …

Our bees are calm and well behaved. However, we still use a limited amount of smoke during inspections 7. Leaving a well-lit smoker standing next to the hive throughout the inspection is a guaranteed way to become as kippered as an Arbroath smokie 8. It doesn’t take long to fill the shed with smoke.

Kippered

Kippered

I therefore leave the smoker standing ‘ready for action’ just outside the shed door. It’s easy (assuming the shed isn’t full of people) to take a couple of steps to the door, recover the smoker, give them a gentle puff, return the smoker and continue.

… without fire

Sheds are made of wood. Beehives are wood or polystyrene. The stacks of spare supers and broods are full of wax-laden frames.

All this has the potential to burn very well indeed.

I’m therefore very careful to leave the smoker, securely plugged with grass, on a non-flammable surface. The wire of a spare open mesh floor is ideal for this.

Smoker still life

Smoker still life

Colony management

Routine colony management – inspections, supering, swarm prevention and control, Varroa treatment – work just as well in the bee shed as outside.

There are a few limitations of course.

Vertical splits for making increase or swarm control aren’t an option as it’s not possible (or at least not practical) to provide an upper entrance with access to the outside world. 

Similarly, space adjacent to a hive is limited so a classic Pagden artificial swarm may not be possible 9. Instead I usually use the nucleus method of swarm control – removing the old queen and a frame of brood and stores to make a nuc, then leaving the hive in the shed to requeen.

Benefits for the bees

I suspect that the main beneficiaries of the bee shed are the beekeepers, not the bees. However, colonies do appear to do well in the shed.

The impression is that brood rearing starts earlier in the season and ends later, though formally we have yet to demonstrate this. We now have some hives inside and outside the shed fitted with Arnia monitors. With these we can monitor brood temperature, humidity, hive weight and activity.

Arnia hive data

Arnia hive data

Brood temperature is an indicator of brood rearing, with temperatures around 33°C showing that the queen is laying. By monitoring colonies over the winter we expect to be able to determine when brood rearing stops and starts again 10 and, by comparison, whether the season is effectively ‘longer’ for bees within the shed.

But it’ll be months until we’ll see this sort of entrance activity again …


 

Flour water salt yeast

FWSY

FWSY

Prompted by the first hard frosts of the year and the end of the beekeeping season, here’s a post that is of only peripheral relevance to beekeeping.

Though since you presumably prefer to eat honey on something, rather than on its own, it’s not completely irrelevant.

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about breadmaking. In the intervening period I’ve baked a lot more bread … probably over 100 loaves. Almost exclusively I’ve been working from an outstanding book by Ken Forkish entitled Flour water salt yeast.

Forkish is an artisan baker from Portland, Oregon. The book, and his YouTube videos that accompany it are an excellent introduction to simple, easy and quick 1 methods for producing truly spectacular homemade bread.

Like this …

Overnight white loaf

Overnight white loaf

Matthew 4:4

Man cannot live by bread alone … well, I’m not so sure.

This bread is really good.

The general principles promoted by Forkish are:

  • Use high quality ingredients
  • Carefully control temperatures and timings
  • Use minimal amounts of mixing
  • Use small amounts of yeast and long rise periods
  • Bake in a very hot oven in a container to seal in the steam

Forkish earns his living writing and baking, so I’m not going to reproduce his recipes here – buy the book (or look for them online as some people have splurged them all over the internet).

What I will do is qualify some of points in the list above. Hopefully this will encourage you to have a go as well (and to learn from the few mistakes I made by either trying to cut corners or not reading the instructions).

Ingredients and environment

The flour you use has a big influence on the characteristics of the dough. I almost always use Bacheldre organic stoneground flours. These are strong, absorb water well and have a high protein content. They’re available direct from Bacheldre Mill and lots of places online. In my experience, the own-brand ‘strong bread flour’ sold by most of the supermarkets make a much sloppier dough than the Bacheldre flours. The resulting bread isn’t necessarily worse, but the dough is a lot harder to work with as it’s always trying to escape.

I use a thermometer to check the water temperature at the start. This ensures a uniform early development of the dough. I also check the temperature of the place I’m going to allow the dough to develop. If it’s much warmer or cooler than expected you might need to modify timings.

Mix, leave, mix, leave, mix …

One of the attractions of the breadmaking method promoted by Ken Forkish is that it involves very little work. For a standard loaf it probably takes no more than 8 minutes of mixing in total, in four blocks. And that includes rinsing your hands before and after working the dough.

All of the mixing is done in a large container.

A 30lb honey bucket is ideal.

How convenient 🙂

The flour and water are premixed to make an autolyse. This is allowed to sit for 20-30 minutes before adding the yeast and salt. Most of the recipes use very small amounts of yeast (much less than a gram for a 500g loaf) so the small, accurate scales used for weighing your oxalic acid (er, Api-Bioxal) are ideal.

After mixing the dough is allowed to develop with a further 2-3 quick ‘turns’ in the first 90 minutes or so. These ‘turns’ aren’t even really mixing. You just fold the dough over two or three times. It takes as long to write it as it takes to do it.

Then leave it overnight.

Cooking on gas

The following morning you turn the dough out, shape the loaf and allow it a final rise while the oven heats to a ‘serious-risk-of-burning-if-you-touch-anything-without-very-thick-oven-gloves-on’ 240°C 2.

As well as preheating the oven you also preheat the container you’ll cook the bread in. I use a Lodge 3 litre cast iron Combo Cooker (or Dutch Oven for convenience). These are $56 in the USA, or an uncompetitive £90 in the UK.

I was robbed 🙁

However, I then checked out the Le Creuset prices and felt a whole lot better 🙂

Any heat-retaining covered ovenproof container should be suitable. Cast iron is probably best. The goal is to trap the steam inside while the bread cooks to give the crisp crust. As an alternative to the Lodge Dutch Oven I’ve also used a large Pyrex ‘chicken brick’ which work almost as well.

Cooking takes 30 minutes with a further 15 minutes uncovered to crisp up the crust.

You can of course use an electric oven 😉

Overnight 20% wholemeal loaf

Overnight 20% wholemeal loaf

Quick and easy

From start to finish a loaf takes about 16-18 hours.

Not quick.

However, during that period you’re only actually handling the dough for about 10 minutes. Almost all the time is a long overnight rise period while the yeast works its magic 3.

So … very easy.

The proof of the pudding

The resulting loaf tastes excellent, with a very crispy crust and wonderfully textured crumb. Since the yeast has worked hard overnight the crumb is full of large holes (which conveniently fill with honey or butter or marmalade). Assuming it’s not devoured when still warm it keeps well. If anything, the loaf improves if allowed to cool properly before scoffing 4. Once cold, just wrap it up in a plastic bag and you can use it up to 48 hours later, or perhaps longer as toast … though it never lasts that long in our house.

Final notes

The book Flour water salt yeast has about a dozen different bread recipes. Almost all use essentially the same steps I’ve outlined above. Some use an overnight starter (a biga or poolish) and these take a little bit more work, and a bit more time. Actually, with the exception of the ingredients, quite a bit of the book is rather repetitive as the mixing and cooking instructions are essentially the same for all the loaves.

The second part of Flour water salt yeast covers the preparation and use of levains or sourdough starters. These also make great bread, but take more work. With travel and other commitments I can’t always keep the sourdough starter in tip-top condition, so all of the comments here (and for at least half the book) are for loaves made with freeze-dried yeast.

For a standard weekend loaf you can’t go far wrong with a standard overnight white loaf, or a 10-30% overnight wholemeal loaf. These can be started on Friday evening, cooked early on Saturday and enjoyed all weekend.

Forkish explains each of the individual steps in the breadmaking process in a series of short YouTube videos. Of the 11 on his breadmaking 5 YouTube channel, the first 8 are relevant to loaves made without a levain, or sourdough starter. Watch them in sequence, ideally with the book to hand, and you’ll appreciate just how simple the process is.