The nucleus option

The definition of the word nucleus is the central and most important part of an object, movement, or group, forming the basis for its activity and growth”.

Therefore a nucleus colony of honey bees is something smaller than a full colony, but that has inherent capability to grow into a full and active colony.

A nucleus colony is usually abbreviated to nuc (pronounced nuke), often prefixed by an indication of its size e.g. five frame nuc or 2-frame nuc. The very fact that the size of the nuc is often included is an indication that they can exist in a range of different sizes. 

If the size is not defined a nuc is likely to have 5 brood frames. In this post I’ll stick to that convention; unless otherwise specified I’ll use the term nuc to mean a 5-frame nuc. 

What’s in a nuc … ?

A nuc is a fully functional colony of honey bees, just on a smaller scale than a full colony. Therefore it will contain stores, adult bees, brood in all stages and a queen.

5 frame nuc colony

5 frame nuc colony …

Of course, when first prepared it may be missing some of these components. However, to be fully functional, and to have the capacity to grow into a full colony, it must contain everything that would be expected in a full hive, just less.

Other than queens. To be functional a nuc, like a full colony, needs no less than one queen 😉

And, of course, no more than one 🙂

Part of the skill in preparing good quality nucs – for whatever purpose – is to ensure they are a balanced and functional mini-colony. They need enough adult bees to rear brood, to defend the colony and to forage effectively. They need sufficient stores to avoid starvation during a bout of bad weather, and they need a mated, laying queen to help the mini-colony expand.

… and what’s it in?

A nuc is usually housed in an appropriately sized nucleus hive, but actually doesn’t need to be. Commercially-purchased nucleus hives almost always take 5 brood frames 1, though there are exceptions. Paynes Beekeeping sell a very widely used 6 frame National nuc. Paradise Honey polystyrene Langstroth nucs also take 6 frames and, to add further confusion, can be divided easily longitudinally into two 3-frame nucs. 

Here's three I prepared earlier ...

Everynuc poly nucs

Of course, if you make your own – or butcher commercial offerings – a nucleus hive can be any size you want. As the need arises 2 I use two, three, five and eight frame nucs.

Two frame nuc box

Two frame nuc box … a bit too small for the nucleus method of swarm control (but usable at a pinch)

But the nucleus colony does not have to occupy the entire hive.

A well-prepared nuc can expand in size quite quickly. One of the biggest problems in working with nucs is their tendency to get overcrowded. As I discussed a fortnight ago, overcrowding is a well-established trigger for swarming, and a nuc is perfectly capable of swarming … thereby undoing all your efforts in establishing it in the first place.

Therefore, bearing in mind the necessity to produce a functional and balanced mini-colony, it is not unusual to create the nucleus colony smaller than the hive it is housed in, so providing some space for future expansion.

National hive dummy boards DIY

Dummy boards …

As described below, three frames in a five frame hive hive can start a new nucleus colony. You can even put the frames into a full brood box. In both cases the unoccupied space needs to be reduced or at least separated from the developing colony. With the frames pushed against the sidewall of the hive the addition of a dummy board against the ‘open’ face of the colony is usually sufficient.

Warmth and weighty matters

Being smaller than a full colony, and containing fewer bees, a nuc is less able to keep the cluster warm if the weather turns cold. This isn’t usually an issue during the late spring and summer, but is a major concern if you want to overwinter nucleus colonies.

To make things a bit easier for the bees many commercial nucleus hives are made out of expanded polystyrene. These are mass produced from moulds and sometimes include integral feeders or other design ‘features’. Some of the features included are better than others … and some are pretty useless. In my experience 3 none of the poly nucleus hives sold are perfect, but some are very good and almost all are perfectly usable.

MB poly nuc

MB poly nuc …

I’ve discussed several – now rather ageing – commercially-sold poly nucs previously. I may mention them again in passing, but will focus on the contents of the nuc for most of this post.

The low weight of polystyrene nucleus hives is an additional bonus. Less weight to carry when moving them between apiaries, when selling them or when stacking them up empty for the winter.

But nucleus hives don’t have to be made of polystyrene. For summer use only (or when preparing nuc colonies for sale) you can get nucleus hives made of folded Correx for a few pounds. I’ve also got a few lovely cedar nucleus hives built by Peter Little of Exmoor Bees. These have separate open mesh floors, tightly-fitting removable Varroa trays and deep roofs. They’re beautifully made but usually languish unused in the shed in favour of the poly Everynuc’s I routinely use.

Why prepare a nuc?

There are all sorts of reasons to prepare a nucleus colony, but – at least in my beekeeping – the three main ones are:

  • swarm control – the nucleus colony houses the old queen while the original colony requeens. If this is successful the nuc can either be expanded to a full colony or, after removal of the old queen, united with the original colony so strengthening the hive to exploit the summer nectar flows. I wrote about a nucleus method of swarm control last year.
  • making (limited) increase – a strong colony can almost always be used to prepare a nuc without jeopardising the chance of getting a good honey crop. Depending when the nuc is prepared it will either be strong enough to fill a full hive by the season’s end, or can be overwintered as a nuc. Splitting a nuc off a strong colony can also help delay swarming.
  • much greater increase – a variant of the above is to completely split a strong colony into 4 – 8 nucs. The final number depends upon the strength of the original colony 4. Remember that you need a queen or queen cell for each prepared nuc. I’ve discussed this approach previously when queen rearing using a Cloake board and in doing circle splits.

Whatever the reason, the basic mechanics of preparing nucleus colonies is the same. The important point to remember is that the goal is to produce a fully functional colony, just on a smaller scale. Unless it has sufficient stores, enough bees of the right type or a functional (or soon to be functional) queen it will struggle, and it may not survive.

Stores

I start all my nucs with a frame of largely or completely sealed stores pushed up against the sidewall of the box in which I’m going to house them.

During the first or second inspection of the season I am usually able to remove at least one frame of stores from every full colony. This is leftover from the winter and, with the spring nectar flows underway, no longer needed.

Spreading the brood nest

I replace the removed frame(s) with either drawn comb or, more usually, a new foundationless frame. These are inserted at the edges of the brood nest – effectively spreading the brood nest – rather in the space directly occupied by the frame of stores.

The colony benefits from the additional space to draw new comb for the queen to lay, so delaying the urge to swarm. And I benefit from ~2kg (5lb) of stores in the removed brood frames which I carefully hoard until I need them 🙂

Make sure you store them somewhere safe where wasps, bees and rodents cannot get at them.

Bees

This is where things start to get a little more complicated. The amount of bees – both brood and workers – added to the nuc depends upon a number of things, most important of which are:

  • where the nuc is going to be located after it has been made up. If it being moved to an out apiary more than a couple of miles away then you can usually add fewer bees. Conversely, if it is staying in the same apiary (or being moved nearby) you have to expect many of the flying bees will return to the original hive and make allowances for this by adding more at the start.
  • whether the nuc will be started with a laying queen, a virgin queen or a queen cell. A laying queen can and will start laying eggs immediately, with the resulting workers emerging in ~21 days from making up the nuc. A virgin will have to go out and mate and start laying, so adding several days to this period. If you start the nuc with a queen cell there may be a few more days to be added as well.

Remember that the flying worker bees you add as you create the nuc will all likely have died before any new bees emerge from eggs laid in the nuc. Therefore, to ensure there is a continuity of foragers you need to prime the nuc with sealed brood and plenty of young bees.

So, the next thing to add to the nucleus hive, adjacent to the frame of stores is a frame of sealed brood together with all the bees on the frame. Unless you also intend to place the queen from the original hive into the nuc make sure the queen is not on this frame.

If there is also some emerging brood on this frame as well, all the better. These will help bolster the young bee population you add, enabling them to help rear more brood and get established faster.

If the original colony is particularly strong or you want to create a strong nuc you can add a second frame of brood (and adhering bees), but this is not necessary. What is necessary is to ensure there are enough bees to compensate for ageing foragers and the loss of bees back to the original hive.

Flying bees and hive bees

When you remove a brood frame from the hive it has two general sorts of workers on it – the so-called ‘flying’ bees and the ‘hive’ bees. The former are the foragers, the latter the younger nurse bees. You can crudely separate them by deftly shaking the frame once 5. The flying bees are dislodged, the hive bees hang on tight.

Nurse bees will, as they age, mature into guards and foragers. These will be needed before adult workers emerge from any new eggs laid in the nuc. 

Therefore, I almost always shake in a frame or two of nurse bees into the nuc that is being setup. 

Doing this takes just a few moments … 

  • Lift a brood frame from the original colony and check that the queen is not on it 6
  • Shake the frame once over the original hive to displace the flying bees
  • Shake the remaining adhering ‘hive’ bees into the empty gap in the nucleus hive between the frame of brood and the sidewall
  • Return the brood frame to the original hive

Space to expand

The nucleus hive now probably contains two frames (one of stores and one of brood) and, assuming it’s in a 5-frame box, the bees have space to expand as the colony builds up.

But they also need frames to occupy.

Therefore, add a single foundationless frame, or a frame with foundation or – the 5 star deluxe treatment – a frame of drawn comb to the nucleus hive. The last is a real luxury and means the queen will have somewhere to start laying immediately.

Go on … spoil them 😉

My precious …

With the exception of a queen (see below), the nuc is now complete for the moment. Since I predominantly use foundationless frames I usually add a dummy board to isolate the colony from the echoing space in the 5-frame nuc box. For convenience I’ll usually place the two foundationless frames on the far side of the dummy board so I don’t need to remember them when the colony expands.

The arrangement of frames is therefore:

  • Stores
  • Brood (sealed and emerging), plus adhering bees
  • Drawn comb, or undrawn foundation or foundationless frame
  • Dummy board
  • Foundationless frame
  • Foundationless frame
Foam block ...

Foam block …

If the nuc is to be moved to a remote apiary I’ll also add a closed cell foam block to stop the frames moving about during transport.

Queen

When first created nucs are too small and unbalanced (in terms of the composition of bees in the box) to successfully rear a good quality queen from an egg or young larva.

They will try, but it is not a recipe for success. You’ll often end up with an undersized and underperforming scrub queen. 

Don’t let them.

Why bother putting all those valuable stores, brood and bees into a box without giving them the very best chance of flourishing?

Instead, you need to provide them with a queen – either mated and laying, a virgin or as a mature queen cell. I don’t want to cover the sometimes tricky subject of queen introduction here, so will restrict myself to the two most common scenarios:

  • using the mated queen from the hive you split the nuc off
  • making up a nuc with a ripe queen cells 

The first instance is straightforward. Either make sure the frame(s) transferred to the nucleus hive include the queen or find her in the original hive and transfer her to the nuc.

Transferring her on a frame is easy. Adding her subsequently means picking her up and gently placing her on the top bar of the transferred brood frame in the nucleus hive. Do this carefully and quickly and she will be accepted without any issues 7.

Queen cells

Although also needing care, starting a nuc with a mature, ripe queen cell is even easier.

You can make up the nuc with a frame already containing a sealed queen cell. This is simplicity itself. Just ensure you do not bump, jar or bruise the queen cell during the transfer process.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Alternatively you can add a queen cell from another frame. This can be from the original hive, or from another colony altogether 8

  • Cut around the queen cell  to leave a wide margin of comb. A couple of centimeters isn’t too much.
  • Choose a space on the face of the brood frame in the nucleus hive. If there isn’t one, make one by pushing the comb down with your thumb.
  • Place the sealed queen cell vertically in the gap and use the wide margin of wax to fix it in place by squeezing the wax together. 

You want the queen to emerge onto brood, not stores, and you want the cell roughly central in the cluster of bees to ensure it’s well looked after until she emerges. I usually fix the cell under the top bar.

All gone ...

All gone …

Of course, if you rear your own queens (or have a friend/mentor who does), the queen cells are usually attached to small plastic cups which can simply be hung in place between the top bars.

Location and relocation of nucs

If the new nuc is to remain in the original apiary you should expect that many of the flying bees will return to the original hive. Help discourage them by stuffing the nuc entrance with grass for 48-72 hours.

By the time the grass has dried and the bees have pushed their way out they’ll realise things have changed and will reorientate to their new home.

Stuffed

Stuffed …

It’s also worth checking the population of bees a few days after making up the nuc. If your nucleus hive has a perspex crownboard this can be done with minimal disturbance to the bees. If the nuc looks sparsely populated you can shake in more nurse bees from the original colony (see above).

5 frame nuc ...

5 frame poly nuc …

If you move your nuc a few miles from the apiary it was prepared in the bees will be forced to reorientate to the new location. You’ll therefore lose far fewer of the flying bees, so maintaining a reasonable foraging force during the initial establishment of the new colony.

When transporting nucs take all the normal precautions. Seal the entrance, strap the box up tightly and orientate them with the frames in line with the direction of travel.

Maintenance of nucs

Nucs need a little more TLC 9 than full colonies. Particularly when first set up they are less able to defend themselves as the population of bees is unbalanced.

This is a very good reason not to feed nucs syrup from the start. Workers returning to their original hive may take back news of a readily-available source of ‘nectar’ and induce robbing.

Later in the season, once a nuc is established it may still benefit from a reduced size entrance to give the bees less to defend. 

Being smaller than a full hive they have less space for stores and less space for expansion. Unsurprisingly the two major problems are starvation and overcrowding. Both are readily avoided by regular inspection.

Requeening a nuc ...

Requeening a nuc …

Finally, if you start a nuc with a queen cell it makes sense to find and mark 10 her before moving the colony to a larger hive. Queens are always easier to find in nucs than in full colonies.

There are far too many additional tips and tricks to preparing nucs than I have space for here, but at least it’s a start. The key point to remember is that nucs are far more likely to be successful if set up and managed with a balanced population of bees and ample resources.


Colophon

The title of this post is a modified version of the nuclear option. Formally this is a parliamentary procedure in the US senate. More generally, by analogy to nuclear warfare, it means the most drastic or extreme response possible to a particular situation.

Preparing nucleus colonies is nothing like this. Indeed, it is one of the most useful things to do in beekeeping.

I’ve no idea how this post grew to over 3000 words … my version of filibustering which the nuclear option can be used to defeat. Next week we return to science with an exciting new study 11 on the rise and rise of chronic bee paralysis virus as a threat to beekeeping in general, and beefarming in particular.

 

Principles of swarm control

Having introduced swarm prevention last week it’s probably timely to now consider the basic principles of swarm control.

This is going to be relatively high level overview of why swarm control works (which it usually does if implemented properly), rather than a detailed ‘how to’ guide.

That’s because knowing what to do and when to do it is so much easier if you understand why you’re doing it.

That way, when faced with a colony clearly committed to swarming, you can manipulate the colony to avert disaster.

Which it isn’t … though losing a swarm might feel like that to a new beekeeper.

Welcome to the club

All beekeepers lose swarms, even those who rigorously and carefully employ swarm prevention methods. I lost one last year and would have lost another two were it not for a clipped queen in one 1 and some particularly unobservant and cackhanded beekeeping with another.

Mea culpa.

However, it’s called swarm prevention because it usually delays and sometimes prevents swarming.

But at some point the enthusiasm of the bees to reproduce often outstrips the possible interventions that can be applied by the beekeeper to the intact colony.

At that point, swarm control becomes necessary.

How do you know when that point has been reached?

Typically, if you carefully inspect the colony on a regular seven day cycle you will easily identify the preliminary stages of swarming. You will then have ample time to take the necessary steps to avoid losing the majority of your bees.

When is swarm control needed?

At some point in late spring 2 a colony is likely to make preparations to swarm.

Triggers for this are many and varied.

The colony may be running out of space because the foragers have backfilled the brood box with nectar during a strong spring flow.

Pheromone levels produced by the ageing queen are reducing. These usually act to suppress the formation of queen cells.

Alternatively, although mechanistically similar, the colony may be so populous that the queen mandibular pheromone concentration is – by being distributed to many more workers – effectively reduced. As described last week, in such strong colonies the queen rarely visits the bottom edges of the comb. Consequently, the levels of queen footprint pheromone – another suppressor of queen cell formation – in this region of the nest is reduced.

Whatever the trigger – and there are probably others – the colony starts producing queen cells.

Sometimes these are very obvious, decorating the lower edges of the drawn comb.

Sealed queen cells

At other times they are hidden in plain sight … in the middle of the comb, with a moving, wiggling, shifting, dancing curtain of bees covering them 3.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

The production of queen cells indicates that swarm prevention has not been successful and that swarm control is now needed.

More specifically, it is the production of charged queen cells with a larva sitting in a deep bed of Royal Jelly, that indicates prompt swarm control is required.

Charged queen cell ...

Charged queen cell …

And remember, there may well be more than one queen cell and they are not always on the same frame.

Unsealed and sealed queen cells

With experience you can ‘age’ queen cells by their size and appearance. The larva in the queen cell in the photo above hatched from the egg about 3-4 days ago.

When the larva is five days old the cell will be sealed and the larva pupates 4.

Queen development

Queen development …

In a further 8 days i.e. 16 days after the egg was originally laid in the cell, the new virgin queen will emerge.

But the colony will have already swarmed.

That is because, under normal circumstances, a colony usually swarms on the day that the queen cell is sealed

There are two events that often delay swarming beyond the day that the queen cell is sealed.

The first you have no control over. It’s the weather. Colonies usually swarm on lovely warm, sunny days. If it’s cold and wet, or blowin’ a hoolie, the swarm will wisely wait for a day with better weather. Wouldn’t you?

If you have a week of poor weather in mid/late May (the peak swarming season around here at least) then the first day of good weather is often chaos with swarms all over the place 🙂

Swarmtastic!

The second thing that delays swarming is if the old queen has a clipped wing. In this instance the swarm usually waits until the new queen emerges before trying to leaving the colony.

The other event, less routine in my experience, that stops swarming 5 is supercedure. In this, the queen is replaced in situ, without the colony swarming. Queen cells are still produced, usually rather few in number 6. I’ll discuss supercedure at some point in the future.

Destroying queen cells is not swarm control

If you simply destroy developing queen cells the colony will eventually swarm.

Either you’ll miss a queen cell – and they can be very hard to spot in a busy colony – or the bees will start one from an older larva and the colony will swarm before your next 7 day inspection.

Beekeeping is full of uncertainties. That’s why these pages are littered with caveats or adverbs like ‘usually’. However, ‘the colony will eventually swarm’ needs no such qualification. If all you do is knock back queen cells you will lose a swarm. 

I said in the opening section that losing a swarm is not a disaster, though it might feel that way to a beginner.

In reality, for a beekeeper who thinks destroying queen cells is a form of swarm control, losing a swarm can be a disaster 7.

When is ‘not a disaster’ actually a disaster?

Here’s the scenario … on one of your regular inspections (delayed a week because of a long weekend in Rome 8) you open the hive and find half a dozen fat, sealed queen cells decorating the lower edges of a couple of frames.

Using your trusty hive tool you swiftly obliterate them.

Job done 😀

But wait … under normal circumstances when does the colony usually swarm?

On the day the queen cell is sealed.

That colony had already swarmed 😥 

She’s gone …

What’s more, it may well have swarmed several days ago. Therefore there will no longer be any eggs or very young larvae in the hive that could be reared as new queens. Without acquiring a new queen (or a frame of eggs and young larvae) from elsewhere that colony is doomed 😥

So … repeat after medestroying queen cells is not swarm control.

If they are sealed, the colony has probably swarmed already and destroying all that are there jeopardises the viability of the colony.

If they are not sealed, then destroying them will not stop them making more and you will miss one tucked away in the corner of a frame.

And the colony will swarm anyway.

Generally, destroying all the queen cells in a colony is a lose-lose situation 🙁

The principles of swarm control

Disappointingly, almost none of the above has been about the principles of swarm control 9. However, the point I make about colony viability allows me to get back on topic in a rather contrived manner 😉

When a colony swarms, ~75% of the adult bees and the mated, laying queen fly away.

They leave behind a much depleted hive containing lots of stores, some sealed brood, some larvae, some eggs and one or more sealed queen cells.

Swarming is colony reproduction. Therefore, both the swarm and the swarmed colony (the bits that are left behind) have the potential to form a new fully viable colony.

The swarm needs to find a new nest site, draw comb, lay eggs and rear foragers. The swarmed colony needs to let the new queen(s) emerge, for one queen to get mated and return to the hive and start laying eggs.

A small swarm

A small swarm …

But importantly these events take time. Therefore, neither the swarm nor the swarmed colony are likely to swarm again in the same season.

And that, in a nutshell, describes the two defining features of many types of swarm control:

  • the colony is manipulated in a way to retain its potential to form a viable colony
  • the colony is unlikely to swarm again until the following season

So, which parts of the hive population have the potential to form a viable colony?

The bees in the colony

A colony contains a mated, laying queen. The thousands of eggs she lays are part of the developing workforce of larvae and pupae, all of which are cared for by the very youngest adult workers in the hive, the nurse bees. Finally, the third component of the colony are the so-called flying bees 10, the foragers responsible for collecting pollen and nectar.

The principles of swarm control

Of those three components – the queen, flying bees, and the combination of developing bees and nurse bees – only the latter has the potential to form a new colony alone. 

The queen cannot, she needs worker bees to do all the work for her.

The flying bees cannot as they’re unmated and cannot therefore lay fertilised eggs.

But if the combination of nurse bees and developing brood contains either eggs or very young larvae they do have the potential to rear a new queen and so create a viable colony.

Furthermore, thanks to their flexible temporal polyethism 11 the combination of the queen and the flying bees also has the potential to create a viable colony.

Divide and conquer

The general principle of many swarm control methods 12 is therefore to divide the colony into two viable parts:

  1. The queen and flying bees – recapitulating, though not entirely, the swarm 13. We’ll call this the artificial swarm.
  2. The developing brood and nurse bees. This component must contain eggs and/or very young larvae from which a new queen can be reared 14. We’ll call this the artificially swarmed colony.

I’ve described two very standard swarm control methods in detail that fit this general principle.

  • The Pagden artificial swarm, probably the standard method taught to beginners up and down the country. 
  • The vertical split, which is a less resource-intensive variant but involves more heavy lifting.

Both initially separate the queen on a single frame and then exploit the exquisite homing ability of the flying bees to separate them from the nurse bees/brood combination that have been moved a short distance away. 

Both methods are effective. Neither is foolproof. 

The artificially swarmed colony almost always raises multiple new queen cells once it realises that the original queen has gone. If the initial colony was very strong there’s a good chance several queens will emerge and that the colony will produce casts – swarms headed by virgin queens.

To avoid this situation (which resembles natural cast production by very strong colonies) a second move of the artificially swarmed colony is often used to reduce further the number of flying bees 15, and so weaken the colony sufficiently that they only produce a single queen.

Alternatively, the beekeeper does this manually, by removing all but one queen cell in the artificially swarmed colony

And the nucleus method?

Astute readers will realise that the nucleus method of swarm control is similar but different.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

It separates the colony into two viable parts but there is no attempt to separate the majority of the flying bees from the brood/nurse bees.

I like the nucleus method of swarm control. It’s easy to understand, very simple to implement and – done properly – very effective.

In particular, I think it is an easier method for beginners to grasp … in a “remove the queen and the colony cannot swarm” sort of way 16.

However, the queenless part of the split colony is inevitably left relatively strong, with brood, nurse bees and a lot of the flying bees. As a consequence there’s a good chance it will produce cast swarms if it’s allowed to rear multiple queens to maturity.

Which is why you must inspect the queenless part of the split colony one week later. As I said in my original post on this method:

The timing and thoroughness of this inspection is important. Don’t do it earlier. Or later. Don’t rush it and don’t leave more than one queen cell.

Which neatly introduces nucleus colonies which is the topic for next week 😉


 

Swarm prevention

Swarm prevention and control are distinct phases in the management of colonies during the next few weeks of the beekeeping season 1.

Not all beekeepers practice them and not all colonies need them.

But most should and will … respectively 😉

Swarm prevention involves strategies to delay or stop the colony from initiating events that lead to swarming.

Swarm control strategies are more direct interventions that are used to prevent the loss of a swarm.

Why do colonies swarm?

Without swarming there would be no honey bees.

Swarming is honey bee colony reproduction. Without management (e.g. splitting colonies) colony numbers would remain static. And, since bees have only been managed for a few thousand years, they must have been successfully reproducing – by swarming – for millions of years before then.

So one of the major drivers of swarming is the innate need to reproduce.

Bees also swarm if their current environment is unable to accommodate further colony expansion. Therefore, another driver of swarming is overcrowding.

And, of course, there is some overlap in these two drivers of swarming.

You can therefore expect that strong, healthy, populous colonies will probably try to swarm on an annual basis.

The mechanics of swarming

When a colony swarms about 75% of the worker bees – of all age groups – leave with the queen. They set up a temporary bivouac near the original hive and subsequently relocate to a new nest site identified by the scout bees.

The original colony is left with all the brood (eggs, larvae and sealed brood), a significantly-depleted adult bee workforce and almost 2 all of the honey stores.

What they lack is a queen.

But what the swarm also leaves behind, amongst the brood, is one – or more often several – newly developing queens. These occupy specially enlarged cells that are located vertically on the edges or face of the comb.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Queen cells look distinctive and their initial appearance – before the swarm leaves – is a clear indication that the time for swarm prevention has gone and swarm control is now urgently needed 3.

This is one of the reasons why regular colony inspections are essential, particularly during mid/late Spring and early summer which is the time of the season when swarming is most likely.

Colony fate and the risks of swarming

But back to the recently swarmed colony. In a few days the new queen(s) emerges. If there’s more than one they usually fight it out to leave just one. She goes on one or more mating flights and a few days later starts laying eggs.

This colony should survive and thrive. They have time to build up strength (and collect more stores) before the end of the season. Under natural conditions 87% of swarmed colonies overwinter successfully 4.

Alternatively, the swarmed colony may swarm again (and again), each with a virgin queen and each further depleting the worker population. Colonies can swarm themselves to destruction like this.

Swarms headed by virgin queens are termed casts. I’m not sure what determines whether a swarmed colony also produces one or more casts. Colony strength is a determinant, but clearly not the only one as some casts contain little more than a cup full of bees.

Under natural conditions swarming is a very risky business. Swarm survival is less than 25% 5 – many will not collect sufficient stores to overwinter – and the survival of casts will be even lower because of their size and the risks associated with queen mating.

But ‘our’ bees don’t live under natural conditions

For beekeeping the ‘risks’ associated with swarming are somewhat different.

When a colony swarms you lose the majority of the workforce. Therefore honey production will be significantly reduced. You’re unlikely to get a surplus from the swarmed colony.

Of course, honey might not interest you but propolis and wax production are also reduced, as is the strength of the colony to provide efficient ecosystem services (pollination).

Secondly, despite swarms being one of the most captivating sights in beekeeping, not everyone appreciates them. Non-beekeepers may be scared and – extraordinary as it may seem – resent the swarm establishing a new nest in the eaves of their house.

Incoming! from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

Inevitably some beekeepers will claim they’ve never met anyone scared of bees, or swarms are always welcomed in the gardens that abut their apiary.

Unfortunately, that does not alter the reality that – to many – swarms are a nuisance, a potential threat and (to a small number of people 6 ) a very real danger.

Therefore, as beekeepers, we have a responsibility to practice both swarm prevention and control. This prevents our hobby/obsession irritating other people and means we have more bees to make delicious honey for family, friends and customers.

Overcrowding

I’ve already defined the event that separates swarm prevention from swarm control. It is the appearance of queen cells during the weekly colony inspection.

Swarm prevention involves managing the colony to delay the appearance of queen cells. Once queen cells are produced, swarm control is required 7

I’ve also defined the two major drivers of swarming – overcrowding and the need to reproduce 8.

How does a colony determine that it is overcrowded? As beekeepers, how can we monitor and prevent overcrowding?

As a colony expands during the spring the queen lays concentric rings of eggs from the centre of the brood nest. Imagine this initially as a kiwi fruit-sized ball, then an orange, then a grapefruit, until it is the size of a large football.

Brood frame

Perhaps a slightly squashed football, but you get the general idea.

Running out of storage space

It takes bees to make bees. The initial brood reared helps feed subsequent larvae and keeps the maturing brood warm.

As the season develops more sources of nectar and pollen become available. These are collected in increasing amounts by the expanding numbers of foragers.

This all needs to be stored somewhere.

One possibility is that the stores are loaded into the cells recently vacated by emerging workers within the brood nest. This is often termed “backfilling”. Sometimes you find a frame in which the central concentric rings of brood have emerged and, before the queen has had a chance to re-lay the frame with new eggs, workers have backfilled the cells with nectar (or, less frequently, pollen).

But, at the same time as the space available for the queen to lay is reducing, the colony population is increasing. Very fast. There are larger numbers of unemployed young bees. Unemployed because there are reduced amounts of brood to rear because the queen is running out of space.

Pheromones

And the increased number of workers means that the pheromones produced by the queen, in particular the queen mandibular pheromone, are effectively diluted. Studies by Mark Winston and colleagues 9 investigated the relationship between queen mandibular pheromone (an inhibitor of queen cell production) and colony congestion. In it he concluded that overcrowding inhibits the transmission of this pheromone, so favouring queen cell production.

Play cup or queen cell?

Play cup or are they planning their escape …?

The distribution of other pheromones is also reduced in overcrowded colonies. Lensky and Slabezki 10 showed that the queen rarely visited the bottom edges of comb in overcrowded colonies. Consequently, the levels of queen footprint pheromone was reduced. This pheromone is an inhibitor of queen cup production, the very earliest stages of queen cell development.

So, overcrowded colonies start to prepare queen cells … and swarm control is needed.

Make space

If the colony is overcrowded then you have to provide more space for colony expansion.

Just piling supers on top may not be sufficient, though it may temporarily ease congestion and partially help. Leaving a colony with no supers during a strong nectar flow is a surefire way to fill the brood box with nectar and trigger swarm preparation.

If the colony is backfilling the brood nest with nectar then the addition of supers is likely to encourage them to move the stores up, providing more space for the queen.

It will additionally have the beneficial effect of moving some bees ‘up’, to store and process the nectar, again reducing congestion in the brood nest.

However, you probably also need to encourage the bees to expand the brood nest by providing frames for them to draw out as comb. Essentially you’re spreading the brood nest by inserting one or two empty frames within it.

Expanding or spreading the brood nest

I routinely do this by removing the outer frames, which often contain stores, and adding new foundationless frames on one or both sides of the centre of the brood nest. Usually I would place these about three to four frames apart 11.

Effectively I’m providing the bees with the space to draw more comb and, in due course, for the queen to lay more eggs.

And all this keeps the workers gainfully employed and so helps alleviate overcrowding.

But what do you do if the box is full of full brood frames?

Brood frame with a good laying pattern

You provide another brood box.

Don’t just dump another brood box on top and expect the bees to immediately move up. It’s a big empty space. Ideally provide some drawn comb and move a frame or two up with emerging bees and the queen. She will rapidly start to lay up the vacated cells and the adjacent frames. Push the original frames together and add new empty frames to fill the box.

You are expanding the brood nest … vertically.

My colonies rarely need this as they are the less prolific, darker bees which tend to perform better overall in Scotland. However, some strains of bees readily fill two stacked brood boxes every season.

It’s worth emphasising again that these swarm prevention interventions are of little or no use for swarm control. If there are queen cells already present adding a frame or two of foundation will have no effect at all.

Young queens

Young queens produce more pheromones than ageing queens. Therefore, all other things being equal, the inhibitory effects of queen mandibular and footprint pheromones will be stronger in a colony headed by a young queen.

This is why colonies are less likely to swarm in their first full season 12.

You can routinely replace queens by purchasing new ones, by rearing your own, or through colony manipulation during swarm control e.g. by reuniting a vertical split.

Of these, I’d strongly recommend one of the last two approaches. It’s more interesting, it’s a whole lot more satisfying and it is a lot easier than many beekeepers realise.

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

You have the additional advantage that the queens produced in your own apiary will – by definition – be local and there is good evidence that local queens are better adapted to local conditions.

Robbing brood and making nucs

There are at least two additional, and related, ways of increasing the space available so helping swarm prevention in a rapidly expanding colony.

The first is stealing a frame of brood 13 and using it to boost a weaker colony.

Take care when doing this.

If the recipient colony is weak due to disease or a failing queen then you’re just wasting the donated brood. However, if the colony is healthy but small it can be a good investment of resources and may help delay swarming in the donor colony as well.

More drastically, it may be possible to remove a frame (or perhaps even two) of brood and adhering bees to make up a nucleus colony. In my experience, a strong donor colony can almost always be used to produce a nuc without compromising honey production, and with the added benefit of delaying swarm preparations.

I’m going to write about nuc production in more detail in a few weeks as it deserves a full post of its own. It’s worth noting here that the nuc should also be provided with sufficient bees and stores to survive and you will need a queen for it (or at least a queen cell).

Do not just dump a couple of brood frames and bees into a box and expect them to rear a half-decent queen on their own.

However, if you have a queen (or mature queen cell) then splitting a nuc off a strong colony is usually a win-win solution for swarm prevention.


 

The scent of death

It’s late May. Outside it’s dark, so you’re trapped inside until sunrise. Inside it’s warm, dark and humid. You and your sisters are crowded together with barely enough space to turn around.

And your mother keeps laying more eggs … perhaps 2000 a day. If it wasn’t for the fact that about 2000 of your sisters perish each day you’d have no space at all.

Most of them die out in the fields. Missing in action.

I counted them all out and I didn’t count them all back, as the late Brian Hanrahan did not say in 1982 😉

But some die inside. And in the winter, or during prolonged periods of poor weather, your sisters all die inside.

Which means there’s some housekeeping to do.

Bring out your dead

Dead bees accumulating in the hive are a potential source of disease, particularly if they decompose. Unless these are removed from the colony there’s a chance the overall health of the colony will be threatened.

Not all bees die of old age. Many succumb to disease. The older bees in the colony may have a higher pathogen load, reinforcing the importance of removing their corpses before disease can spread and before the corpses decompose.

Corpses

Honey bees, like many other social insects, exhibit temporal polyethism i.e. they perform different tasks at different ages.

One of the tasks they perform is removing the corpses from the colony.

The bees that perform this task are appropriately termed the undertaker bees.

Gene Robinson in Cornell conducted observational studies on marked cohorts of bees. In these he identified the roles and activities of the undertaker bees. At any one time only 1-2% of the bees in the colony are undertakers 1.

These are ‘middle aged’ bees i.e. 2-3 weeks after eclosion, similar to guard bees. Although called undertakers, they do not exclusively remove corpses. Rather they are generalists that are more likely to remove the corpses, usually depositing them 50-100m from the hive and then returning.

They preferentially occupy the lower regions of the hive – presumably because gravity means the corpses accumulate there – where they also perform general hive cleansing roles e.g. removing debris.

Bees, like all of us, are getting older all the time. Some bees may spend only one day as undertakers before moving on to foraging duties. Presumably – I don’t think we know this yet – the time a bee remains as an undertaker is influenced by the colony’s need for this activity, the laying rate of the queen and, possibly, the numbers of other bees performing this role 2.

No no he’s not dead, he’s, he’s restin’!

Dead parrot

In Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch Mr. Praline (John Cleese) argues with the shop owner (Michael Palin) that the Norwegian Blue parrot he’d purchased was, in fact, dead.

The shop owner tries to persuade Mr. Praline that the parrot is resting.

Or stunned.

Or pining for the fjords.

The inference here is that it’s actually rather difficult to determine whether something is dead or not 3.

So if you struggle with an unresponsive parrot how do you determine if a bee is dead?

More specifically, how do undertaker bees in a dark, warm, humid hive determine that the body they’ve just tripped over is a corpse?

As opposed to a resting bee 4.

The scent of death

Almost forty years ago Kirk Visscher at Cornell studied necrophoresis (removal of the dead) in honey bees 5.

He noted that it had two distinct characteristics; it happened rapidly (up to 70 times faster than debris removal) and dead bees that were solvent-washed or coated in paraffin-wax were removed very much more slowly.

Kirk Visscher concluded that the undertaker bees “probably use chemical cues appearing very rapidly after the death of a bee” to identify the corpses.

Visscher studied honey bees, Apis mellifera. I’m not aware of any recent studies in A. mellifera that have better defined these ‘chemical cues’. However, a very recent preprint has been posted on bioRχiv describing how the closely related Eastern honey bee, Apis cerana, undertakers identify the dead.

As an aside, bioRχiv (pronounced bioarkive) is a preprint server for biology. Manuscripts published there have not been peer reviewed and will potentially be revised and/or withdrawn. They might even be wrong. Many scientists increasingly use bioRχiv to post completed manuscripts that have been submitted for publication elsewhere. The peer review and publication process is increasingly tortuous and long-winded. By posting preprints on bioRχiv other scientists can read and benefit from the study well before full publication elsewhere.

It’s also used as a ‘marker’ … we did this first 😉

The preprint on bioRχiv is Death recognition by undertaker bees by Wen Ping, submitted on the 5th of March 2020.

Odours and pongs

Death recognition in honey bees is rapid. Visscher demonstrated that a dead worker bee was usually removed within 30 minutes, well before it would have started producing the pong associated with the processes of decay.

Corpse recognition occurs in the dark and in the presence of lots of other bees. Logically, an odour of some sort might be used for identification. Both visual and tactile signals would be unlikely candidates.

In searching for the odour or chemical clues (the term used by Visscher), Ping made some assumptions based on prior studies in social insects. In Argentine ants a reduction in dolichodial and iridomyrmecin is associated with corpse recognition, and addition of these compounds (respectively a dialdehyde and a monoterpene) prevented necrophoresis.

Conversely, some social insects produce signals associated with death or disease. Dead termites give off a mix of 3-octanone, 3-octanol and the combination of β-ocimene and oleic acid production is a marker of diseased brood in honey bees.

What else could be assumed about the chemicals involved? Corpse removal is an individual effort. There’s only one pallbearer. Therefore the chemical, whatever it is, doesn’t need to be a recruitment signal (unlike the alarm pheromone for example).

Finally, the signal needs to operate over a very short range. There’s no point in flooding the hive with a persistent long-range chemical as that would make the detection of the corpse impossible.

Cuticular hydrocarbons

Cuticular hydrocarbons (CHC) are widely used in insect communication. They are long chain hydrocarbons (chemicals composed solely of carbon and hydrogen) that have many of the characteristics expected of a ‘death chemical’.

Nonacosane – a long chain CHC with 29 carbons and 60 hydrogen atoms

They are generally short-range, low volatility compounds. Honey bees use CHC’s for communication during the waggle dance and to distinguish colony mates by guard bees. They also have structural roles, being a major component of wax comb and, in the cuticle, they help maintain water balance in bees.

As would be expected from chemicals with a wide variety of roles, there’s a huge range of CHC’s. Taking all the above together, Wen Ping searched for CHC’s that functioned during necrophoresis.

Cool corpses and cuticular hydrocarbons

Wen studied undertakers removing segments of dead bees and determined that the chemical signal was most probably a component of the cuticle.

Living bees in his studies had a body temperature of ~44°C. In contrast, dead bees rapidly cooled to ambient temperatures. Wen demonstrated that corpse removal was significantly delayed if the corpses were warmed to ~44°C, but then occurred rapidly once they were allowed to cool. Finally, dead bees washed with hexane (which removes CHC’s) were removed even if the corpse was warm.

Taken together, these results suggest that a cuticular hydrocarbon that was produced and released from warm bees, but reduced or absent in cold bees, was a likely candidate for the necrophoresis signal.

But which one?

Gas chromatography

A gas chromatograph analyses volatile gases. Essentially gas vapour is passed through a thin coated tube and gaseous compounds of different molecular weights bind and elute at different times. It’s a very precise technique and allows all the components of a mixture to be identified by comparison with known standards.

Gas chromatography of volatiles from live (red) and dead (blue) bees.

Ping studied the volatile CHC’s in the airspace immediately surrounding dead bees or live bees using gas chromatography. There were some significant differences, shown by the absence of peaks in the blue trace of gases from the cold, dead bees. All of the peaks were identified and nine of the twelve peaks were CHC’s.

CHC’s with chain lengths of 27 or 29 carbons exhibited the greatest difference between live warm bees and cool dead bees and synthetic versions of these and the other CHC’s were tested to see which – upon addition – delayed the removal of dead bees.

Three had a significant impact in the dead bee removal assay – with chain lengths of 21, 27 and 29 carbons. These include the compounds heptacosane (C27H56)and nonacosane (C29H60).

Summary

The results section rather fizzles out in the manuscript posted to bioRχiv and I wouldn’t be surprised to see modifications to this part of the paper in a peer reviewed submission.

The overall story can be summarised like this. Live bees are warm and produce a range of CHC’s. Dead bees cool rapidly and some of the volatile CHC levels decrease in the immediate vicinity of the corpse. The undertaker bees specifically monitor the levels of (at least) heptacosane and nonacosane 6 as a means of discriminating between live and dead bees. Within 30 minutes of death local heptacosane and nonacosane levels have dropped below a level associated with life and the undertaker bee removes the corpse.

One final point worth making again. This study was conducted on Apis cerana. Our honey bees, A. mellifera, may use the same necrophoresis signals. Alternatively, they might use different chemicals in the same way.

Or they might do something else entirely.

Personally, I bet it’s a similar mechanism, potentially using different chemical.

There are mixed species colonies of A. mellifera and A. cerana. Do the undertakers only remove same-species corpses?

Global warming and hive cooling

The discussion of the bioRχiv paper raises two interesting points, both of which are perhaps a little contrived but still worth mentioning.

We’re living in a warming world.

Temperatures are rising

Dead bees cooling to ambient temperature lead to reduced CHC production. If global temperatures rise, so will the ambient temperature. Potentially this could decrease the reduction in the levels of CHC’s i.e. the dead bees might not look (er, smell!) quite so dead. This could potentially reduce corpse removal, with the concomitant potential for pathogen exposure.

I suspect that we’ll have much bigger problems to worry about than undertaker bees if the global temperatures rise that high …

But Wen also points out that the rise in global temperatures is also associated with more extreme weather, including very cold weather. Perhaps cold anaesthetised or weak bees will be prematurely removed from the hive under these conditions because their CHC levels have dropped below a critical threshold?

Finally, do dead bees lying on open mesh floors (OMFs) cool more rapidly and so trigger more efficient undertaking? Perhaps OMFs contribute more to hive hygiene than just allowing unwanted Varroa to drop through?


 

Time to deploy!

It’s early April. The weather is finally warming up and the crocus and snowdrops are long gone. Depending where you are in the UK the OSR may start flowering in the next fortnight or so.

All of which means that colonies should be expanding well and will probably start thinking of swarming in the next few weeks.

So … just like any normal season really.

Except that the Covid-19 pandemic means that this season is anything but normal.

Keep on keeping on

The clearest guidelines for good beekeeping practice during the Covid-19 pandemic are on the National Bee Unit website. Essentially it is business as usual with the caveats that good hygiene (personal and apiary) and social distancing must be maintained.

Specifically this excludes inspections with more than one person at the hive. Mentoring, at least the really useful “hands-on” mentoring, cannot continue.

A veil is no protection against aerosolised SARS-CoV-2. Don’t even think about risking it.

This means that there will be a lot of new beekeepers (those that acquired bees this year or late last season) inspecting colonies without the benefit of help and advice immediately to hand.

Mistakes will be made.

Queen cells will be missed.

Colonies will swarm 1.

Queen cells

Queen cells …

It’s too early to say whether the current restrictions on society are going to be sufficient to reduce coronavirus spread in the community. It’s clear that some are still flouting the rules. More stringent measures may be needed. For beekeepers who keep their bees in out apiaries, the most concerning would be a very restrictive movement ban. In China and (probably) Italy these measures proved to be effective, although damaging to beekeeping, so the precedent is established.

Many hives and apiaries are already poorly managed 2. I would expect that additional coronavirus-related restrictions would only increase the numbers of colonies allowed to “fend for themselves” over the coming season.

Which brings me back to swarming.

Swarmtastic

The final point of advice on the NBU website is specifically about swarms and swarm management:

You should use husbandry techniques to minimise swarming. If you have to respond to collect a swarm you need to ensure that you use the guidelines on social distancing when collecting the swarm. If that is not possible, then the swarm then should not be collected. Therefore trying to prevent swarms is the best approach. 

Collecting swarms can be difficult enough at the best of times 3. And cutouts of established colonies are even worse.

In normal years I always prefer to reduce the swarms I might be called to 4 by setting out bait hives.

Swarm recently arrived in a bait hive with a planting tray roof …

Let the bees do the work.

Then all you need do is collect them once they’re all neatly tucked away in a hive busy drawing comb.

This year, with who-knows-what happening next, I’ll be setting out more bait hives than usual with the expectation that there may well be additional swarms.

If they’re successful I’ll have more bees to deal with when the ‘old normal’ finally returns. If they remain unused then all I’ve lost is the tiny investment of time made in April to set them out.

Not just any dark box

I’ve discussed the well-established ‘design features’ of a good bait hive several times in the past. Fortunately the requirements are easy to meet.

  • A dark empty void with a volume of about 40 litres.
  • A solid floor.
  • A small entrance of about 10cm2, at the bottom of the void, ideally south facing.
  • Something that ‘smells’ of bees.
  • Ideally located well above the ground.

I ignore the last of these. I’d prefer to have an easy-to-reach bait hive to collect rather than struggle at the top of a ladder. If I wanted to do some vertically-challenging beekeeping I’d go out and collect more swarms 😉

So, ignoring the final point, what I’ve described is the nearly perfect bait hive.

Those paying attention at the back will realise that it’s also a nearly perfect description of a single brood National hive.

How convenient 🙂

All of my bait hives are either single National brood boxes or two stacked National supers. The box does need a solid floor and a crownboard and roof. If you haven’t got a spare solid floor you can easily build them from Correx 5 for a few pence.

Inside ...

Bait hive floor

Alternatively, simply tape down a piece of cardboard or Correx over the mesh of an open mesh floor 6. In some ways this is preferable as it’s convenient to be able to monitor Varroa levels after a swarm arrives.

Do not be tempted to use a nuc box as a bait hive. You can easily fit a small swarm into a brood box, but a really big prime swarm will not fit in a 5 frame nuc box.

Big swarms are better 🙂 7

More to the point, bees are genetically programmed to search for a void of about 40 litres, so many swarms will simply overlook your nuc box for a more spacious nest site.

What’s in the box?

No, this has nothing to do with Gwyneth Paltrow in Se7en.

How do you make your bait hive even more desirable to the scout bees that search out nest sites? How do you encourage those scouts to advertise the bait hive to their sister scouts? Remember, that it’s only once the scouts have reached a democratic consensus on the best local nest site that the bivouacked swarm will move in.

The brood box ideally smells of bees. If it has previously held a colony that might be sufficient.

Bait hive ...

Bait hive …

However, a single old, dark brood frame pushed up against one sidewall not only provides the necessary ‘bee smell’, but also gives the incoming queen space to immediately start laying 8.

You can increase the attractiveness by adding a couple of drops of lemongrass oil to the top bar of this dark brood frame. Lemongrass oil mimics the pheromone produced from the Nasonov gland. There’s no need to Splash it all over … just a drop or two, replenished every couple of weeks. I usually soak the end of a cotton bud, and lay it along the frame top bar.

Lemongrass oil and cotton bud

The old brood frame must not contain stores – you’re trying to attract scouts, not robbers.

The incoming swarm will be keen to draw fresh comb for the queen to lay up with eggs. Whilst you can simply provide some frames and foundation, this has two disadvantages:

  • the vertical sheets of foundation effectively make the void appear smaller than it really is. The scout bees estimate the volume by walking around the perimeter and taking short internal flights. If they crash into a sheet of foundation during the flight the box will seem smaller than it really is.
  • foundation costs money. Quite significant amounts of money if you are setting out half a dozen bait hives. Sure, they’ll use it but – like putting a new carpet into a house you’re trying to sell – it’s certainly not the deal-clincher.

No foundation for that

Rather than filling the box with about £10 worth of premium foundation, a far better idea is to use foundationless frames. Importantly these provide the bees somewhere to draw new comb whilst not reducing the apparent volume of the brood box.

If you’ve not used foundationless frames before, a bait hive is an ideal time to give them a try.

There are two things you should be on the lookout for. The first is that the bait hive is horizontal 9. Bees draw comb vertically down, so if the hive slopes there’s a good chance the comb will be drawn at an angle to the top bar.

And that’s just plain irritating … because it’s avoidable with a bit of care.

Bamboo foundationless frames

Bamboo foundationless frames

The second thing is that the colony needs checking as it starts to draw comb. Sometimes the bees ignore your helpful lollipop stick ‘starter strips’ and decide to go their own way, filling the box with cross comb.

Beautiful … but equally irritating 🙂

Final touches

For real convenience I leave my bait hives ready to move from wherever they’re sited to my quarantine apiary (I’ll deal with both these points in a second).

Wedge the frames together with a small block of expanded cell foam so that they cannot shift about when the hive is moved.

Foam block ...

Foam block …

And then strap the whole lot up tight so you can move them easily and quickly when you need to.

Bait hive location and relocation

Swarms tend to move relatively modest distances from the hives they, er, swarmed from. The initial bivouac is usually just a few metres away. The scout bees survey a wide area, certainly well over a mile in all directions. However, several studies have shown that bees generally choose to move a few hundred yards or less.

It’s therefore a good idea to have a bait hive that sort of distance from your own apiaries.

Or even tucked away in the corner of the apiary itself.

I’ve had bees move out of one box, bivouac a short distance away and then occupy a bait hive on a hive stand adjacent to the original hive.

It’s probably definitely poor form to position a bait hive a short distance from someone else’s apiary 😉

But there’s nothing stopping you putting a bait hive at the bottom of your garden or – whilst maintaining social distancing of course – in the gardens of friends and family.

If you want to move a swarm that has occupied a bait hive the usual “less than 3 feet or more than 3 miles” rule applies unless you move them within the first couple of days of arrival. Swarms have an interesting plasticity of spatial memory (which deserves a post of its own) but will have fully reorientated to the bait hive location within a few days.

So, if the bait hive is in grandma’s garden, but grandma doesn’t want bees permanently, you need to move them promptly … or move them over three miles.

Or move grandma 😉

Lucky dip

Swarms, whether dropped into a skep or attracted to a bait hive, are a bit of a lucky dip. Now and again you get a fantastic prize, but often it’s of rather low value.

The good ones are great, but even the poor ones can be used.

But there’s an additional benefit … every one that arrives self-propelled in your bait hive is one less reported to the BBKA “swarm line” or that becomes an unwelcome tenant in the eaves of a house 10.

As long as they’re healthy, even a bad tempered colony headed by a queen with a poor laying pattern, can usefully be united to create a stronger colony to exploit late season nectar.

Varroa treatment of a new swarm in a bait hive…

But they must be healthy.

Swarms will potentially have a reasonably high mite count and will probably need treating within a week of arrival in the bait hive 11. Dribbled or vaporised oxalic acid/Api-Bioxal would be my choice; it’s effective when the colony has no sealed brood 12 and requires a single treatment.

But swarms can bring even more unwelcome payloads than Varroa mites. If you keep bees in an area where foulbroods are established be extremely careful to confirm that the arriving swarm isn’t affected. This requires letting the colony rear brood while isolated in a quarantine apiary.

How do you know whether there are problems with foulbroods in your area? Register your apiary on Beebase and talk to your local bee inspector.

My bait hives go out in the second or third week of April … but I’m on the cool east coast of Scotland. When I lived in the Midlands they used to be deployed in early April. If you’re in the balmy south they should probably be out already 13.

What are you waiting for 😉 ?


 

Do bees feel pain?

Even the most careful hive manipulations sometimes result in bees getting rolled between frames, or worse, crushed when reassembling the hive. Some beekeepers clip one wing of the queen to reduce the chance of losing a swarm, or uncap drone brood in the search for Varroa.

All of these activities can cause temporary or permanent damage, or may even kill, bees. A careful beekeeper should try and minimise this damage, but have you ever considered whether these damaged bees suffer pain?

Before considering the scientific evidence it’s important to understand the distinction between the detection of, for example, tissue damage and the awareness that the damage causes is painful and causes suffering.

Detection is a physiological response that is present in most animal species, the pain associated with it may not be.

What is pain?

Tissue damage, through chemical, mechanical or thermal stimuli, triggers a signal in the sensory nervous system that travels along nerve fibres to the brain. Or to whatever the animal has that serves as the equivalent of the brain 1.

This response is termed nociception (from the Latin nocēre, meaning ‘to harm’) and has been recorded in mammals, other vertebrates and in all sorts of invertebrates including leeches, worms and fruit flies. It has presumably evolved to detect damaging stimuli and to help the animal avoid it or escape.

But nociception is not pain.

Pain is a subjective experience that may result from the nociceptive response and can be defined as ‘an aversive sensation or feeling associated with actual or potential tissue damage’.

Most humans, being sentient, experience pain following the triggering of a nociceptive response and, understandably, conflate the two.

But they are separate and distinct. How do we know? Perhaps the first hint is that different people experience different levels of pain following the same harmful experience; an excruciatingly painful experience for one might be “just a scratch’ to another.

‘Tis but a scratch

With people it’s easy to demonstrate the distinction between nociception and pain – you simply ask them.

Can you feel that?

Does that hurt?

For the same stimuli you may receive a range of answers to the second question, depending upon their subjective experience of pain.

Painkillers

But you cannot ask a leech, or a worm or a fruit fly or – for the purpose of this post – a bee, whether a particular stimulus hurts.

Well, OK, you can ask but you won’t get an answer 😉

You can determine whether they ‘feel’ the stimulus. Since this is a simply physiological response you can measure all sorts of features of the electrical signal that passes from the nociceptors (the receptors in the tissue that detect damaging events) through the nerve fibres to the brain. This involves electrophysiology, a well established experimental science.

But how can we determine whether animals feel pain?

What do you do when you have a bad headache?

You take a painkiller – an aspirin or paracetamol. You self-medicate to relieve the pain.

Actually, even before you reach for the paracetamol, your body is already self-medicating by the release of endogenous opioids which help suppress the pain.

In cases of extreme pain injection of the opiate morphine may be necessary. Morphine is a very strong painkiller, or analgesic. Opioids bind to opioid receptors and this binding is blocked by a chemical called naloxone, an opiate antagonist. I’ll come back to naloxone in a minute.

But first, back to the unhelpfully unresponsive bee that may or may not feel pain …

It is self-medication with analgesics that forms the basis of the standard experiment to determine whether an animal feels pain.

The principle is straightforward. Two identical foods are prepared, one containing a suitable analgesic (e.g. morphine) and the other a placebo. If an animal is in pain it will preferentially eat the food containing the morphine.

Conversely, if they do not feel pain they will – on average – eat both types of food equally 2.

But this experiment will only work if morphine ‘works’ in bees.

Does morphine ‘work’ in bees?

An unpleasant or harmful stimulus induces a nociceptive response which might include taking defensive action like retreating or flying away. Studies have shown that the magnitude of this defensive action in honey bees is reduced or blocked altogether by prior injection with morphine.

This is a dose-response effect. The more morphine injected the smaller the nociceptive response by the bee. Importantly we know it’s the morphine that is having the effect because it can be counteracted by injection with naloxone.

So, morphine does work in bees 3.

We can therefore test whether bees choose to self-medicate with morphine to determine whether they feel pain.

And this is precisely what Julie Groening and colleagues from the University of Queensland did, and published three years ago in Scientific Reports. The full reference is Groening, J., Venini, D. & Srinivasan, M. In search of evidence for the experience of pain in honeybees: A self-administration study. Sci Rep 7, 45825 (2017); https://doi.org/10.1038/srep45825

Ouch … or not?

The experiment was very simple. Bees were subjected to one of two different injuries; a continuous pinch to the hind leg, or the amputation of part of the middle leg. They were then offered sugar syrup alone and sugar syrup containing morphine.

The hypothesis proposed was that if bees felt pain they would be expected to consume more of the sugar syrup containing morphine.

To ensure statistically relevant results they used lots of bees. Half were injured and half were uninjured and used as controls. If syrup laced with morphine tasted unpleasant you would expect the control group to demonstrate this by eating less.

Throughout the experiments the authors were therefore looking for a difference in syrup alone or syrup with morphine consumption between the injured bee and the uninjured controls.

All of the experiments produced broadly similar results so I’ll just show one data figure.

Relative consumption of morphine (M) and pure sucrose solution (S) by injured (i; amputated) or control (c) bees.

Both groups of bees preferred the pure syrup (the two box plots on the right labelled S_c or S_i) over the morphine-laced syrup (M). However, the bees with the amputation did not consume any more of the morphine-containing syrup (M_i) than the controls (M_c).

Therefore they did not self-medicate.

Very similar results were obtained with the bees carrying the hind leg clip (recapitulating an attack by a competing forager or predator, which often target the rear legs). The injured bees consumed statistically similar amounts of plain or morphine-laced syrup as the control group.

The one significant difference observed was that bees with amputations consumed about 20% more syrup overall than those with the rear leg ‘pinch’ injury. The authors justified this as indicating that the amputation likely induced the innate immune system, necessitating the production of additional proteins (like the antimicrobial peptides that fight infection), so leading to elevated energy needs. Speculation, but it seems reasonable to me.

Feeling no pain

This study, using a pretty standard and well-accepted experimental strategy, strongly suggests that bees do not feel pain.

It does not prove that bees feel pain. It strongly supports the theory that they do not. You cannot prove things with science, you can just disprove them. Evidence either supports or refutes a hypothesis; in this case the evidence (no self-medication) supports the hypothesis that bees do not feel pain because, as has been demonstrated with several other animals, they would self-medicate if they did feel pain.

In the discussion of the paper the authors suggest that further work is necessary. Scientists often make that kind of sweeping statement to:

  • encourage funders to provide money in the future 😉
  • allow them to incorporate additional, perhaps contradictory, evidence that could be interpreted in a different way to their own results.

Skinning a cat

That is painful … but the proverb There’s more than one way to skin a cat 4 means that there is more than one way to do something.

And there are other ways of interpreting behavioural responses as an indication that animals feel pain.

For example, rather than measuring self-medication with an analgesic, you could look at avoidance learning or protective motor reactions as indicators of pain.

Protective motor reactions include things like preferential and prolonged grooming of regions of the body which have been injured 5. There is no evidence that bees do this.

Avoidance learning

However, there is evidence that bees exhibit avoidance learning. This is a behavioural trait in which they learn to avoid a harmful stimulus that might cause injury.

If a forager is attacked by a predator at a food source (and survives) it stops other bees dancing to advertise that food source when it returns to the hive 6.

Whilst avoidance learning does not indicate that bees feel pain, it does imply central processing rather than a simple nociceptive response. It shows that bees are able to weigh up the risk vs. reward of something good (a rich source of nectar) with something bad (the chance of being eaten when collecting the nectar). This type of decision making demonstrates a cognitive capacity that might make pain experience more likely.

We’re now getting into abstruse areas of neuropsychology … dangerous territory.

Let’s assume, as I do based upon the science presented here and in earlier work, that bees do not feel pain. What, if anything, does this mean for practical beekeeping.

Practical beekeeping

It certainly does not mean we should not attempt to conduct hive manipulations in a slow, gentle and controlled manner. Just because rolled bees are not hurting, or crushed bees are not feeling pain, doesn’t give us carte blanche to be heavy handed.

One of the nociceptive responses is the production of alarm pheromones (sting and mandibular) which are part of the defensive response. Alarm pheromones agitate the hive and make the colony aggressive, much more likely to sting and much more difficult to inspect carefully.

So we should conduct inspections carefully, not because we are hurting the bees, but because they might hurt us.

But there are other reasons that care is needed as well. Crushed bees are a potential source of disease in the hive. One reason undertaker bees remove the corpses is to remove the likelihood of disease spreading in the hive. If bees are crushed the heady mix of viruses, bacteria and Nosema they contain are smeared around all over the place, putting other hive members at risk.

And, as we’re all learning at the moment, good hygiene can be a life-saver.


Colophon

This is the first post written under ‘lockdown’. It’s a little bit later than usual as it has had to travel a   v  e  r  y    l  o  n  g   way along the fibre to ‘the internet’. It’s going to be a very different beekeeping season to anything that has gone before.

At least spring is on the way …

Primroses, 27-3-20, Ardnamurchan

 

Bees in the time of corona

I usually write a review of the past year and plans for the year ahead in the middle of winter. This year I reviewed 2019 and intended to write about my plans when they were a little better formulated.

Inevitably, with the coronavirus pandemic, any plans would have had to be rapidly changed. It’s now not clear what the year ahead will involve and, with the speed things are moving at, anything I write today 1 may well be redundant by publication time on Friday.

Nothing I write here should be taken as medical advice or possibly even current information. I teach emerging virus infections and have studied RNA viruses (like DWV, coronavirus also has an RNA genome but it is a fundamentally different beast) for 30 years but defer to the experts when hardcore epidemiology is being discussed.

And it’s the epidemiology, and what we’ve learned from the outbreak in Italy, that is determining the way our society is being restructured for the foreseeable future.

Talking the talk

I gave three invited seminars last week. It was good to see old friends and to meet previously online-only contacts. It was odd not to shake hands with people and to watch people seek out the unoccupied corners of the auditorium to maintain their ‘social distancing’.

All of the beekeeping associations I belong to have cancelled or postponed talks for the next few months. Of course, there are usually far fewer talks during the beekeeping season as we’re all too busy with our bees, but those that were planned are now shelved.

Not me …

I expect that forward-thinking associations will be looking at alternative ways to deliver talks for the autumn season. If they’re not, they perhaps should as there’s no certainty that the virus will not have stopped circulating in the population by then.

I already have an invitation to deliver a Skype presentation in mid/late summer (to an association in the USA) and expect that will become increasingly commonplace. Someone more entrepreneurial than me will work out a way to give seminars in which the (often outrageous 2) speaker fee is replaced by a subscription model, ensuring that the audience can watch from the comfort of their armchairs without needing to meet in a group.

There is a positive spin to put on this. My waistline will benefit from not experiencing some of the delicious homemade cakes some beekeeping associations produce to accompany tea after the talk 😉 … I’m dreaming thinking in particular of a fabulous lemon drizzle cake at Fortingall & District BKA 🙂

It will also reduce the travel involved. For everyone. It’s not unusual for me to have a 2-3 hour journey to a venue 3 and, much as I enjoy talking, the questions, the banter and the cake, driving for 2-3 hours back can be a bit wearing.

At risk populations

Everyone is getting older … but beekeepers often have a head start. In the UK the average age of bee farmers is reported to be 66 years old. In my many visits to beekeeping associations I meet a lot of amateur (backyard) beekeepers and suspect that the majority are the wrong side of 50 4.

And that’s significant as Covid-19 is a more serious infection for those over 50.

Infection outcomes are also worse for men, and the majority (perhaps 65%) of beekeepers are men. The rates of infection appear similar, but men – particularly elderly men – often have less good underlying health; they are more likely to smoke and have less effective immune responses.

Enough gloom and doom, what does this mean for beekeeping?

Mentoring

If you took a ‘beginning beekeeping‘ course this winter you may struggle to find a mentor. If you’ve been allocated one (or someone has generously volunteered) think twice about huddling over an open hive with them.

Actually, don’t huddle with them at all … the veil of a beesuit is no barrier to a virus-loaded 5μm aerosol.

Mentoring is one of the most important mechanisms of support for people starting beekeeping.  I benefitted hugely from the experienced beekeepers who generously answered all my (hundreds of) idiotic questions and helped me with frames of eggs when I’d inadvertently ‘lost’ my queen and knocked back all the queen cells.

Without mentoring, learning to keep bees is a lot more difficult. Not impossible, but certainly more challenging. Beekeeping is fundamentally a practical pastime and learning by demonstration is undoubtedly the best way to clear the initial hurdles.

But thousands before have learnt without the benefit of mentoring.

However, if you can wait, I suggest you do.

If you cannot 5, you need to find a way to compensate for the potential absence of experienced help ‘on hand’.

All of us are going to have to learn to communicate more effectively online. Camera phones are now so good that a quick snap (or video) sent via WhatsApp may well be good enough to diagnose a problem.

Get together (virtually!) with other beginners at a similar stage and compare notes. Discuss how colonies are building up, early signs of swarming and when hives are getting heavier.

Bees in the same environment tend to develop at about the same rate. If your (virtual) ‘bee buddy’ lost a swarm yesterday you should check your colonies as soon as possible.

Getting bees

Thousands of nucs, packages and queens are imported to the UK every year. I’ve no idea what will happen to the supply this season. It might be unaffected, but I suspect it will be reduced.

If you’re waiting for an “overwintered nuc” and your supplier claims now not to be able to supply one 6 all is not lost.

Under offer ...

Under offer …

Set out one or two bait hives. With isolation, movement restrictions, curfews and illness 7 it’s more than likely that some nearby colonies will be poorly managed. If you use a bait hive you can attract a swarm with almost no work and save an overworked beekeeper from having to do a cutout from the roofspace of the house the swarm would have otherwise selected.

At the very least, you can have the pleasure of watching scout bees check out the hive in the isolated comfort of your own garden.

Keeping bees

I think the last few days have shown that the future is anything but predictable. Who knows where we’ll be once the swarming season is here. You can practice swarm control with social distancing in your out apiary unless there are movement controls in place.

In that case, you cannot get there in the first place.

Let us hope that it doesn’t come to that.

What you can do is be prepared. Give the bees plenty of space when the first nectar flow starts. Two supers straight away, or three if your knowledge of local conditions suggests two may not be enough.

Clip one of the wings of the queen. This doesn’t stop the bees swarming (almost nothing does) but it does stop you losing the bees. Although I cannot be certain that queen clipping is painless – because I’m not sure that bees feel pain (evidence suggests they don’t) – I do know that clipped queens have as long and as productive lives as unclipped queens.

There she goes ...

There she goes …

Clipped queens buy you a few days grace. The colony tends to swarm when the new virgin queen emerges rather than when the queen cell was capped. That can make all the difference.

The colony swarms but the queen spirals groundwards and usually then climbs back up the hive stand, around which the swarm then clusters. Sometimes the queen returns to the hive, though it doesn’t always end well for her there in the subsequent duel with the virgin now in residence.

1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, er, where was I? Damn!

Not lost swarm

Honey sales

Selling honey is not without risk of virus transmission, in either direction. When I sell “from the door” it often involves an extended discussion about hay fever, local forage, bumble bees and the weather. All of that can still continue but both parties will have to speak a bit louder to maintain social distancing.

Selling through shops might be easier … if the shops stay open. Farmers markets, village fetes and country fairs (fayres?) are likely to all be cancelled or postponed, at least temporarily.

There’s a neighbourhood initiative here selling high quality local produce, ordered online and collected at a set date and time. Similar things are likely to be developed elsewhere as customers increasingly want to support local producers, to buy quality food and to avoid the panic buying masses fighting over toilet tissue 8 in the supermarkets.

Peter Brookes, Panic Buying, 7-3-20, The Times

An initiative like Neighbourfood might make even more sense if there was a local delivery service to reduce further the need for contact. No doubt these things exist already.

The unknown unknowns

I’ve discussed the unknown knowns previously. These are the things you know will happen during the season, you’re just not quite sure when they’ll happen. Swarming, Varroa management, winter feeding etc.

To add to the uncertainty this year we will have the unknown unknowns … things you didn’t expect and that you might not know anything about. Or have any warning about. Social distancing, quarantine, school closures and potential lockdowns all fall into this category.

Preparing for things that cannot be predicted is always tricky. All we can do is be as resilient and responsible as possible.

My beekeeping season will start in late April or early May. I’m self-sufficient for frames and foundation and can switch entirely to foundationless frames if needed. I have enough boxes, supers, nucs etc 9 to maintain my current colonies.

I’m actually planning to reduce my colony numbers which I’ll achieve by uniting weak colonies or selling off the surplus. With a bit more free time from work (and I’m working very remotely some of the time) I intend to rear some queens when the weather is good. These will be used to requeen a few tetchy colonies for research, though it’s increasingly looking like we’ll lose this field season as the labs are effectively closed.

I’m not dependent on honey sales other than to offset the costs of the hobby. If I cannot buy fondant for autumn feeding I’ll just leave the supers on and let them get on with it.

This is why we treat ...

This is why we treat …

Which leaves only the treatments for Varroa management as essential purchases … and if I cannot mail order Apivar then things have got very serious indeed 🙁 10

In the meantime, I’m planning some more science and beekeeping posts for the future. This includes one on a new collaborative study we’re involved in on chronic bee paralysis virus which, like Covid-19, is classed as causing an emerging viral disease.


Colophon

Love in the time of cholera

The title is a rather contrived pun based on the book Love in the time of cholera by the Columbian author Gabriel García Márquez. There are no other similarities between this post and the Nobel laureates work … cholera isn’t even a virus.

Cholera, which has characteristic and rather unpleasant symptoms, might be an excuse to panic buy toilet rolls.

Covid-19, which has equally characteristic and unpleasant (but totally different) symptoms, is not 😉

 

Measles, mites and anti-vaxxers

About 11,000 years ago nomadic hunter-gatherers living near the river Tigris discovered they could collect the seeds from wild grasses and, by scattering them around on the bare soil, reduce the distance they had to travel to collect more grain the following year.

This was the start of the agricultural revolution.

They couldn’t do much more than clear the ground of competing ‘weeds’ and throw out handfuls of collected seed. The plough wasn’t invented for a further 6,000 years and wouldn’t have been much use anyway as they had no means of dragging it through the baked-hard soil.

But they could grow enough grains and cereals to settle down, doing less hunting and more gathering. Some grains grew better than others, with ‘ears’ that remained intact when they were picked, making harvesting easier. The neophyte farmers preferentially selected these and, about 10,000 years ago, the first domesticated wheat was produced.

Einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum), one of the first domesticated cereals

Since they were less nomadic and more dependent upon the annual grain harvest they took increasing care to protect it. They were helped with this by the hunting dogs domesticated from wolves several thousands years earlier. The dogs protected the crops and kept the wild animals, primarily big, cloven-hooved ungulates and the native wild sheep and goats, at a distance.

But those that got too close were trapped and were remarkably good to eat.

And since it was easier to keep animals penned up to avoid the need to actively hunt them it was inevitable that sheep and goats were eventually domesticated (~9,000 years ago) … and the nomadic hunter-gatherers became settled farmers practising recognisably mixed agriculture.

Domestication of cattle

The sheep and goats were a bit weak and scrawny. The large ungulates, the aurochs, gaur, banteng, yak and buffalo 1 had a lot more meat on them.

Inevitably, first aurochs (which are now extinct) and then other wild ungulates, were independently domesticated to produce the cattle still farmed today. This process started about 8,000 years ago.

Auroch bull (left) and modern domesticated bull (right). Auroch were big, strong (tasty) animals.

Cattle were great. Not only did they taste good, but they could be managed to produce milk and were strong enough to act as beasts of burden.

The plough was invented and crop yields improved dramatically because the grain germinated better in the cleared, tilled soil. Loosely knit families and groups started to build settled communities in the most fertile regions.

Bigger farms supported more people. Scattered dwellings coalesced and became villages.

Not everyone needed to farm the land. The higher yields (of grain and meat) allowed a division of labour. Some people could help defend the crops from marauders from neighbouring villages, some focused on weaving wool (from the sheep) into textiles while others taught the children the skills they would need as adults.

Communities got larger and villages expanded to form towns.

Zoonotic diseases

Hunter-gatherers had previously had relatively limited contact with animals 2. In contrast, the domestication of dogs, sheep, goats and cattle put humans in daily contact with animals.

Many of these animals carried diseases that were unknown in the human population. The so-called zoonotic diseases jumped species and infected humans.

There’s a direct relationship between the length of time a species has been domesticated and the number of diseases we share with it.

Domestication and shared zoonotic diseases (years, X-axis)

The emergence of new diseases requires that the pathogen has both the opportunity to jump from one species to another and that the recipient species (humans in this case) transmits the disease effectively from individual to individual.

The nomadic hunter-gatherers had been exposed to many of these diseases as well but, even if they had jumped species, their communities were too small and dispersed to support extensive human-to-human transmission.

Rinderpest and measles

Until relatively recently rinderpest was the scourge of wild and domesticated cattle across much of the globe. Rinderpest is a virus that causes a wide range of severe symptoms in cattle (and wild animals such as warthog, giraffe and antelope) including fever, nasal and eye discharges, diarrhoea and, eventually, death. In naÏve populations the case fatality rate approaches 100%.

Rinderpest outbreak in South Africa, 1896

Animals that survive infection are protected for life by the resulting immune response.

Rinderpest is closely related to canine distemper virus and measles virus. Virologically they are essentially the same virus that has evolved to be specific for humans (measles), dogs (canine distemper) or cattle (rinderpest).

Measles evolved from rinderpest, probably 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, and became a human disease.

Rinderpest was almost certainly transmitted repeatedly from cattle to humans in the 6,000 years since auroch or banteng were domesticated. However, the virus failed to establish an endemic infection in the human population as the communities were too small.

However, by about 1,500 – 2,000 years ago the largest towns had populations of ~250,000 people. Subsequent studies have demonstrated that you need a population of this size to produce enough naÏve hosts (i.e. babies) a year to maintain the disease within the population.

This is because, like rinderpest, measles induces lifelong immunity in individuals that survive infection.

Measles is a devastating disease in an unprotected community. Case fatality rates of 10-30% or higher are not unusual. It is also highly infectious, spreading very widely in the community 3. Survivors may suffer brain damage or a range of other serious sequelae.

Measles subsequently changed the course of history, being partially responsible (along with smallpox) for Cortés’ defeat of the Aztec empire in the 16th Century.

John Enders, Maurice Hilleman and Andrew Wakefield

In the late 1950’s John Enders developed an attenuated live measles vaccine. When administered it provided long-lasting protection. It was an excellent vaccine. Maurice Hilleman, in the early 1970’s combined an improved strain of the measles vaccine with vaccines for mumps and rubella to create the MMR vaccine.

Widespread use of the measles and MMR vaccines dramatically reduced the incidence of measles – in the UK from >500,000 cases a year to a few thousand.

Incidence of measles in England and Wales

If vaccine coverage of 92% of the population is achieved then the disease is eradicated from the community. This is due to so-called ‘herd immunity’ 4 in which there are insufficient naÏve individuals for the disease to be maintained in the population.

Measles cases (and deaths) continued to fall everywhere the vaccine was used.

There was a realistic possibility that the vaccines would – like rinderpest 5 – allow the global eradication of measles.

And then in 1986 Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the Lancet suggesting a causative link between the MMR vaccine and autism in children.

Subsequent studies showed that this was a deeply flawed and biased study. And totally wrong.

There is not and never was a link between autism and measles vaccination 6. But that didn’t stop a largely uncritical press and subsequently even less critical social media picking up the story and disseminating it widely.

Measles and the anti-vaccine movement

Measles vaccination rates dropped because a subset of parents refused to have their kids vaccinated with the ‘dangerous’ measles vaccine.

Several successive birth cohorts had significantly lower than optimal vaccination rates. Measles vaccine coverage dropped to 84% by 2002 in the UK, with regional levels (e.g. parts of London) being as low as 61%. By 2006, twenty years after the thoroughly discredited (and now retracted) Lancet paper vaccine rates were still hovering around the mid-80% level.

As immunisation rates dropped below the critical threshold, measles started to circulate again in the population. 56 cases in 1998 to ~450 in the first 6 months of 2006. In that year there was also the first death from measles for many years – an entirely avoidable tragedy.

In 2008 measles was again declared endemic (i.e. circulating in the population) in the UK.

Similar increases in measles, mumps and rubella were occurring across the globe in countries where these diseases were unknown for a generation due to previous widespread vaccination.

The distrust of the MMR vaccine was triggered by the Wakefield paper but is part of a much wider ‘anti-vaccination movement‘.

“Vaccines are dangerous, vaccines themselves cause disease, there are too many vaccines and the immune system is overloaded, vaccines contain preservatives (thiomersal) that are toxic, vaccines cause sterility etc.”

None of these claims stand up to even rudimentary scientific scrutiny.

All have been totally debunked by very extensive scientific analysis.

The World Health Organisation consider the anti-vaccine movement (anti-vaxxers) one of the top ten threats to global health. Vaccination levels are lower than they need to be to protect the population. Diseases – not just measles – that should be almost eradicated now kill children every year.

Where are the bees in this beekeeping blog?

Bear with me … before getting to the bees I want to move from fact (all of the above) to fantasy. The following few paragraphs (fortunately) has not happened (and to emphasise the point it is all italicised). However, it is no more illogical than the claims already being made by the anti-vaccine movement.

Childhood measles

The inexorable rise of internet misinformation and social media strengthened the anti-vaxxers beliefs further. Their claims that vaccines damage the vaccinees were so widespread and, for the uncritical, naturally suspicious or easily influenced who simply wanting to protect their kids, so persuasive that vaccine rates dropped further. They refused to consider the scientific arguments for the benefits of vaccines, and refused to acknowledge the detrimental effects diseases were having on the community.

The obvious causative link to the inevitable increase in disease rates was not missed – by both the anti-vaxxers and those promoting vaccination. However, the solutions each side chose were very different. Measles remained of particular concern as kids were now regularly dying from this once near-forgotten disease. The symptoms were very obvious and outbreaks spread like wildfire in the absence of herd-immunity 7.

The anti-vaxxers were aware that population size was a key determinant of the ability of measles to be maintained in the population. Small populations, such as those on islands or in very isolated regions, had too few new births annually to maintain measles as an endemic disease.

With the increase in remote working – enabled by the same thing (the internet) responsible for lots of the vaccine misinformation – groups of anti-vaxxers started to establish remote closed communities. Contact with the outside world was restricted, as was the size of the community itself.

A quarter of a million was the cutoff … any more than that and there was a chance that measles could get established in the unprotected population.

Small communities 8 work very well for some things, but very badly for others. Efficiencies of scale, in education, industry, farming and trade became a problem, leading to increased friction. When disease did occur in these unprotected communities it wreaked havoc. Countless numbers of people suffered devastating disease because of the lack of vaccination.

In due course this led to further fragmentation of the groups. They lived apart, leading isolated lives, flourishing in good years but struggling (or failing completely) when times were hard, or when disease was introduced. Some communities died out altogether. 

They chose not to travel because, being unvaccinated, they were susceptible to diseases that were widespread in the environment. Movement and contact between villages, hamlets and then individual farm settlements was restricted further over time.

The benefits of large communities, the division of labour, the economies and efficiencies of scale, were all lost.

They didn’t even enjoy particularly good health.

They had ‘evolved’ into subsistence farmers … again.

OK, that’s enough! Where are the bees?

Anyone who has bothered to read this far and who read Darwinian beekeeping last week will realise that this is meant to be allegorical.

The introduction of Varroa to the honey bee population resulted from the globalisation of beekeeping as an activity, and the consequent juxtaposing of Apis mellifera with Apis cerana colonies.

Without beekeepers it is unlikely that the species jump would have occurred.

Apis cerana worker

Undoubtedly once the jump had occurred transmission of mites between colonies was facilitated by beekeepers keeping colonies close together. We do this for convenience and for the delivery of effective pollination services.

The global spread of mites has been devastating for the honey bee population, for wild bees and for beekeeping.

But (like the introduction to measles in humans) it is an irreversible event.

However, it’s an irreversible event that, by use of effective miticides, can at least be partially mitigated.

Miticides do not do long-term harm to honey bees in the same way that vaccines don’t overload the immune response or introduce toxins or cause autism.

There can be short term side effects – Apiguard stinks and often stops the queen laying. Dribbled oxalic acid damages open brood.

But the colony benefits overall.

Many of the miticides now available are organic acids, acceptable in organic farming and entirely natural (even being part of our regular diet). Some of the hard chemicals used (e.g. the lipid-soluble pyrethroids in Apistan) may accumulate in comb, but I’d argue that there are more effective miticides that should be used instead (e.g. Apivar).

I’m not aware that there is any evidence that miticides ‘weaken’ colonies or individual bees. There’s no suggestion that miticide treatment makes a colony more susceptible to other diseases like the foulbroods or Nosema.

Of course, miticides are not vaccines (though vaccines are being developed) – they are used transiently and provide short to medium term protection from the ravages of the mite and the viruses it transmits.

By the time they are needed again the only bee likely to have been previously exposed is the queen. They benefit the colony and they indirectly benefit the environment. The colony remains strong and healthy, with a populous worker community available for nectar-gathering and pollination.

The much reduced mite load in the colony protects the environment. Mites cannot be spread far and wide when bees drift or through robbing. Other honey bee colonies sharing the environment therefore also benefit.

The genie is out of the bottle and will not go back

Beekeepers (inadvertently) created the Varroa problem and they will not solve it by stopping treatment. Varroa will remain in the environment, in feral colonies and in the stocks of beekeepers who choose to continue treating their colonies.

And in the many colonies of Apis mellifera still kept in the area that overlaps the natural (and currently expanding) range of Apis cerana.

Treatment-free beekeepers may be able to select colonies with partial resistance or tolerance to Varroa, but the mite will remain.

So perhaps the answer is to ban treatment altogether?

What would happen if no colonies anywhere were treated with miticides? What if all beekeepers followed the principles of Darwinian (bee-centric, bee friendly, ‘natural’) beekeeping – well-spaced colonies, allowed to swarm freely, killed off if mite levels become dangerously high – were followed?

Surely you’d end up with resistant stocks?

Yes … possibly … but at what cost?

Commercial beekeeping would stop. Honey would become even scarcer than it already is 9. Pollination contracts would be abandoned. The entire $5bn/yr Californian almond crop would fail, as would numerous other commercial agricultural crops that rely upon pollination by honey bees. There would be major shortages in the food supply chain. Less fruits, more cereals.

Pollination and honey production require strong, healthy populous colonies … and the published evidence indicates that naturally mite resistant/tolerant colonies are small, swarmy and only exist at low density in the environment.

Like the anti-vaxxers opting to live as isolated subsistence farmers again, we would lose an awful lot for the highly questionable ‘benefits’ brought by abandoning treatment.

And like the claims made by the anti-vaxxers, in my view the detrimental consequences of treating colonies with miticides are nebulous and unlikely to stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Does anyone seriously suggest we should abandon vaccination and select a resistant strain of humans that are better able to tolerate measles?


Notes

It is an inauspicious day … Friday the 13th (unlucky for some) with a global pandemic of a new zoonotic viral disease threatening millions. As I write this the UK government is gradually imposing restrictions on movement and meetings. Governments across Europe have already established draconian regional or even national movement bans. Other countries, most notably the USA and Africa, have tested so few people that the extent of Covid-19 is completely unknown, though the statistics of cases/deaths looks extremely serious.

What’s written above is allegorical … and crudely so in places. It seemed an appropriate piece for the current situation. The development of our globalised society has exposed us – and our livestock – to a range of new diseases. We cannot ‘turn the clock back’ without dissasembling what created these new opportunities for pathogens in the first place. And there are knock-on consequences if we did that many do not properly consider.

Keep washing your hands, self-isolate when (not if) necessary, practise social distancing (no handshakes) and remember that your bees are not at risk. There are no coronaviruses of honey bees.

Darwinian beekeeping

A fortnight ago I reviewed the first ten chapters of Thomas Seeley’s recent book The Lives of Bees. This is an excellent account of how honey bees survive in ‘the wild’ i.e. without help or intervention from beekeepers.

Seeley demonstrates an all-too-rare rare combination of good experimental science with exemplary communication skills.

It’s a book non-beekeepers could appreciate and in which beekeepers will find a wealth of entertaining and informative observations about their bees.

The final chapter, ‘Darwinian beekeeping’, includes an outline of practical beekeeping advice based around what Seeley (and others) understand about how colonies survive in the wild.

Differences

The chapter starts with a very brief review of about twenty differences between wild-living and managed colonies. These differences have already been introduced in the preceding chapters and so are just reiterated here to set the scene for what follows.

The differences defined by Seeley as distinguishing ‘wild’ and ‘beekeepers’ colonies cover everything from placement in the wider landscape (forage, insecticides), the immediate environment of the nest (volume, insulation), the management of the colony (none, invasive) and the parasites and pathogens to which the bees are exposed.

Some of the differences identified are somewhat contrived. For example, ‘wild’ colonies are defined fixed in a single location, whereas managed colonies may be moved to exploit alternative forage.

In reality I suspect the majority of beekeepers do not move their colonies. Whether this is right or not, Seeley presents moving colonies as a negative. He qualifies this with studies which showed reduced nectar gathering by colonies that are moved, presumably due to the bees having to learn about their new location.

However, the main reason beekeepers move colonies is to exploit abundant sources of nectar. Likewise, a static ‘wild’ colony may have to find alternative forage when a particularly good local source dries up.

If moving colonies to exploit a rich nectar source did not usually lead to increased nectar gathering it would be a pretty futile exercise.

Real differences

Of course, some of the differences are very real.

Beekeepers site colonies close together to facilitate their management. In contrast, wild colonies are naturally hundreds of metres apart 1. I’ve previously discussed the influence of colony separation and pathogen transmission 2; it’s clear that widely spaced colonies are less susceptible to drifting and robbing from adjacent hives, both processes being associated with mite and virus acquisition 3.

Abelo poly hives

50 metres? … I thought you said 50 centimetres. Can we use the next field as well?

The other very obvious difference is that wild colonies are not treated with miticides but managed colonies (generally) are. As a consequence – Seeley contends – beekeepers have interfered with the ‘arms race’ between the host and its parasites and pathogens. Effectively beekeepers have ‘weaken[ed] the natural selection for disease resistance’.

Whilst I don’t necessarily disagree with this general statement, I am not convinced that simply letting natural selection run its (usually rather brutal) course is a rational strategy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself … what is Darwinian beekeeping?

Darwinian beekeeping

Evolution is probably the most powerful force in nature. It has created all of the fantastic wealth of life forms on earth – from the tiniest viroid to to the largest living thing, Armillaria ostoyae 4. The general principles of Darwinian evolution are exquisitely simple – individuals of a species are not identical; traits are passed from generation to generation; more offspring are born than can survive; and only the survivors of the competition for resources will reproduce.

I emphasised ‘survivors of the competition’ as it’s particularly relevant to what is to follow. In terms of hosts and pathogens, you could extend this competition to include whether the host survives the pathogen (and so reproduces) or whether the pathogen replicates and spreads, but in doing so kills the host.

Remember that evolution is unpredictable and essentially directionless … we don’t know what it is likely to produce next.

Seeley doesn’t provide a precise definition of Darwinian beekeeping (which he also terms natural, apicentric or beefriendly beekeeping). However, it’s basically the management of colonies in a manner that more closely resembles how colonies live in the wild.

This is presumably unnnatural beekeeping

In doing so, he claims that colonies will have ‘less stressful and therefore more healthful’ lives.

I’ll come back to this point at the end. It’s an important one. But first, what does Darwinian mean in terms of practical beekeeping?

Practical Darwinian beekeeping

Having highlighted the differences between wild and managed colonies you won’t be surprised to learn that Darwinian beekeeping means some 5 or all of the following: 6

  • Keep locally adapted bees – eminently sensible and for which there is increasing evidence of the benefits.
  • Space colonies widely (30-50+ metres) – which presumably causes urban beekeepers significant problems.
  • Site colonies in an area with good natural forage that is not chemically treated – see above.
  • Use small hives with just one brood box and one super – although not explained, this will encourage swarming.
  • Consider locating hives high off the ground – in fairness Seeley doesn’t push this one strongly, but I could imagine beekeepers being considered for a Darwin Award if sufficient care wasn’t taken.
  • Allow lots of drone brood – this occurs naturally when using foundationless frames.
  • Use splits and the emergency queen response for queen rearing i.e. allow the colony to choose larvae for the preparation of new queens – I’ve discussed splits several times and have recently posted on the interesting observation that colonies choose very rare patrilines for queens.
  • Refrain from treating with miticides – this is the biggy. Do not treat colonies. Instead kill any colonies with very high mite levels to prevent them infesting other nearby colonies as they collapse and are robbed out.

Good and not so good advice

A lot of what Seeley recommends is very sound advice. Again, I’m not going to paraphrase his hard work – you should buy the book and make your own mind up.

Sourcing local bees, using splits to make increase, housing bees in well insulated hives etc. all works very well.

High altitude bait hive …

Some of the advice is probably impractical, like the siting of hives 50 metres apart. A full round of inspections in my research apiary already takes a long time without having to walk a kilometre to the furthest hive.

The prospect of inspecting hives situated at altitude is also not appealing. Negotiating stairs with heavy supers is bad enough. In my travels I’ve met beekeepers keeping hives on shed roofs, accessed by a wobbly step ladder. An accident waiting to happen?

And finally, I think the advice to use small hives and to cull mite-infested colonies is poor. I understand the logic behind both suggestions but, for different reasons, think they are likely to be to the significant detriment of bees, bee health and beekeeping.

Let’s deal with them individually.

Small hives – one brood and one super

When colonies run out of space for the queen to lay they are likely to swarm. The Darwinian beekeeping proposed by Seeley appears to exclude any form of swarm prevention strategy. Hive manipulation is minimal and queens are not clipped.

They’ll run out of space and swarm.

Even my darkest, least prolific colonies need more space than the ~60 litres offered by a brood and super.

Seeley doesn’t actually say ‘allow them to swarm’, but it’s an inevitability of the management and space available. Of course, the reason he encourages it is (partly – there are other reasons) to shed the 35% of mites and to give an enforced brood break to the original colony as it requeens.

These are untreated colonies. At least when starting the selection strategy implicit in Darwinian beekeeping these are likely to have a very significant level of mite infestation.

These mites, when the colony swarms, disappear over the fence with the swarm. If the swarm survives long enough to establish a new nest it will potentially act as a source of mites far and wide (through drifting and robbing, and possibly – though it’s unlikely as it will probably die – when it subsequently swarms).

A small swarm

A small swarm … possibly riddled with mites

Thanks a lot!

Lost swarms – and the assumption is that many are ‘lost’ – choose all sorts of awkward locations to establish a new nest site. Sure, some may end up in hollow trees, but many cause a nuisance to non-beekeepers and additional work for the beekeepers asked to recover them.

In my view allowing uncontrolled swarming of untreated colonies is irresponsible. It is to the detriment of the health of bees locally and to beekeepers and beekeeping.

Kill heavily mite infested colonies

How many beekeepers reading this have deliberately killed an entire colony? Probably not many. It’s a distressing thing to have to do for anyone who cares about bees.

The logic behind the suggestion goes like this. The colony is heavily mite infested because it has not developed resistance (or tolerance). If it is allowed to collapse it will be robbed out by neighbouring colonies, spreading the mites far and wide. Therefore, tough love is needed. Time for the petrol, soapy water, insecticide or whatever your choice of colony culling treatment.

In fairness to Seeley he also suggests that you could requeen with known mite-resistant/tolerant stock.

But most beekeepers tempted by Darwinian ‘treatment free’ natural beekeeping will not have a queen bank stuffed with known mite-resistant mated queens ‘ready to go’.

But they also won’t have the ‘courage’ to kill the colony.

They’ll procrastinate, they’ll prevaricate.

Eventually they’ll either decide that shaking the colony out is OK and a ‘kinder thing to do’ … or the colony will get robbed out before they act and carpet bomb every strong colony for a mile around.

Killing the colony, shaking it out or letting it get robbed out have the same overall impact on the mite-infested colony, but only slaying them prevents the mites from being spread far and wide.

And, believe me, killing a colony is a distressing thing to do if you care about bees.

In my view beefriendly beekeeping should not involve slaughtering the colony.

Less stress and better health

This is the goal of Darwinian beekeeping. It is a direct quote from final chapter of the book (pp286).

The suggestion is that unnatural beekeeping – swarm prevention and control, mite management, harvesting honey (or beekeeping as some people call it 😉 ) – stresses the bees.

And that this stress is detrimental for the health of the bees.

I’m not sure there’s any evidence that this is the case.

How do we measure stress in bees? Actually, there are suggested ways to measure stress in bees, but I’m not sure anyone has systematically developed these experimentally and compared the stress levels of wild-living and managed colonies.

I’ll explore this topic a bit more in the future.

I do know how to measure bee health … at least in terms of the parasites and pathogens they carry. I also know that there have been comparative studies of managed and feral colonies.

Unsurprisingly for an unapologetic unnatural beekeeper like me ( 😉 ), the feral colonies had higher levels of parasites and pathogens (Catherine Thompson’s PhD thesis [PDF] and Thompson et al., 2014 Parasite Pressures on Feral Honey Bees). By any measurable definition these feral colonies were less healthy.

Less stress and better health sounds good, but I’m not actually sure it’s particularly meaningful.

I’ll wrap up with two closing thoughts.

One of the characteristics of a healthy and unstressed population is that it is numerous, productive and reproduces well. These are all characteristics of strong and well-managed colonies.

Finally, persistently elevated levels of pathogens are detrimental to the individual and the population. It’s one of the reasons we vaccinate … which will be a big part of the post next week.


 

Which is the best … ?

It’s (slowly) approaching the start of the beekeeping season.

From draughty church halls across the land newly trained beekeepers are emerging (or eclosing, to use the correct term), blurry-eyed from studying their Thorne’s catalogues, desperate to get their hands on some bees and start their weekly inspections.

Their enthusiasm is palpable 1.

The start of the beekeeping season, any season, after the long winter is always a good time. Longer days, better weather, more light 🙂 . For current beekeepers we can stop fretting over stores or winter losses. The long days with plentiful forage are getting nearer. We’ll soon be doing inspections in our shirtsleeves and thinking about swarm prevention.

New beekeepers, those who haven’t had to worry about Storm Ciara wrecking their apiaries or subsequent flooding washing hives away, simply want to get started as soon as possible.

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

But, of course, they want to do things properly.

They don’t want to cut corners, they don’t want to skimp or make false economies. They want the best for their (as yet, non-existent) bees.

They’re committed and serious and determined to make a success of beekeeping … and get a great honey crop.

It needs to be great as they’ve already ‘promised away’ half of it to friends and family 🙂

Which is the best …?

If you look on the online beekeeping discussion fora, or questions to the BBKA Q&A monthly column or listen to discussions at local association meetings, many start with the words “Which is the best …”.

Which is the best hive, the best strain of bees, the best fuel for your smoker etc.

These questions reflect a couple of things:

  1. A lack of experience coupled with an enthusiasm to properly care for their charges.
  2. The generally misguided belief that these things make any substantive difference to the welfare or productivity of the bees.

Neither of these are criticisms.

All beekeepers should want the best for their bees.

Inexperienced beekeepers don’t know what works and what does not work, but they want to ensure that – whatever they do – the bees do not suffer (or fail to thrive).

They want the best bees, presumably defined as those that are calm, frugal, populous and productive and they want the best hive so these bees are warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer, or have enough space, or are easiest to manipulate, or best resembles a tree trunk.

And the smoker fuel should be the best so that it’s easy to light, never goes out and calms the bees quickly.

The best smoker fuel

Logic dictates that if there was a ‘best’ smoker fuel then almost everyone would be using it.

The septuagenarian ‘expert’ with 50 years experience would have said “Stuff your smoker with XYZ” when describing hive inspections on the beginners course. Other experienced beekeepers around the room would nod sagely and that would be the end of the matter.

If a beginner were to ask “Why don’t you use hessian rather than XYZ?” over a cuppa and a digestive afterwards there would be an awkward silence and a simple “Because XYZ is the best smoker fuel you can use” response.

The group would then move on to talk about something else.

Fuel bucket

XYZ …

And that happens … precisely never.

What actually happens is that eight beekeepers (with varying levels of expertise) contribute eleven different opinions of their personal view of the ‘best’ smoker fuel.

The only thing vaguely in common in these opinions is that some of the recommended fuels burn.

Note that I said ‘some’ 😉

The point I’m trying to make is that the ‘best’ smoker fuel does not exist. It’s what works for you when you need it … dried horse manure (yes, really), grass, wood chips, Thorne’s cardboard packaging, rotten dried wood etc.

It’s what’s in your bag, it’s what you carefully collected last month, it’s what you find in the car glove compartment when you can’t find anything else.

If it burns – ideally slowly and gently – producing good amounts of smoke, if it’s easy to light, light to carry, stays lit and is available when you need it, it’ll do.

The best hive

I’ve previously discussed the ridiculously wide range of hives and frames available to UK beekeepers.

Knowing that, or spending just half an hour perusing the Thorne’s catalogue, shows that there is clearly no ‘best’ hive. Any, and probably all, of the hives work perfectly satisfactorily. In the right conditions and with sympathetic and careful beekeeping all are capable of housing a colony securely and productively.

It’s the hive type that is compatible with those used by your mentor 2, it’s the type you have a stack of in the corner of the shed, it’s what you can borrow at short notice when you’ve run out of broods or supers.

It’s what’s available in the end of season sales or it’s what you started with (or your mother started with) and it ‘just works’.

If there was a best hive type, or hive tool or smoker fuel the Thorne’s catalogue would be about 3 pages long.

It’s not, it’s approaching 100 pages in length, with 12 pages of hive types alone (including a nice looking Layens hive). The 2020 catalogue has even more hive tools than the seventeen I counted in 2019 🙁

If there’s no ‘best’, will anything do?

Just because there might not be the perfect hive, smoker fuel or hive tool does not mean that it doesn’t matter what you use.

There are some that are unsuitable.

Smoker fuel that doesn’t stay lit, or that burns too fiercely. Hive tools with blunt edges, or that rust badly and are difficult to sterilise, or that bend 3. Hives with incorrect dimensions, ill-fitting floors, overly fussy designs or a host of other undesirable ‘features’.

Just because there’s no single best whatever definitely does not mean that anything will do.

Anthropocentrism

But, before we move on, note that all the things I used to define a smoker fuel or hive as ‘the best’ were anthropocentric 4 criteria.

It’s what suits us as beekeepers.

And, since there are a wide range of beekeepers (by education, age, height, intellect, shoe size, strength, wealth, petty likes and dislikes etc.) there is inevitably a very wide choice of stuff for beekeeping.

Which also emphasises the irrelevance of the ‘best type of ‘ question.

The full version of the question is “Which is the best type of hive tool for beekeepers” 5.

But what’s best for the bees?

None, or any, of the above.

Clearly no single hive tool is better than any other as far as the bees are concerned.

Take your pick ...

The bees do not care …

Likewise, as long as the smoker fuel generates cool, not-too-acrid, smoke, as far as the bees are concerned it’s just smoke. It masks the smell of the alarm pheromones and encourages the bees to gorge on honey, so they remain calm. Used judiciously, which is nothing to do with the fuel and everything to do with the beekeeper, one type of smoker fuel should be as good as any other.

And the same thing applies to hives. Assuming they’re secure, wind and watertight, large enough to fill with stores, have a defendable entrance and proper bee space around the frames, they’ll suit the bees perfectly well.

Think about the trees that wild-living bees naturally choose … do they prefer oak or lime, tall chimney-like cavities or largely spherical hollows?

Oak … preferred by bees. Or not.

Do they do better in one species of tree over another, one shape of space over another?

No.

Doing better …

How do we tell if the bees are ‘doing better’ anyway?

We can’t ask them.

We cannot, despite the assurances of the so-called bee-centric or bee-friendly beekeepers, tell whether they’re happy or not.

I’m a very bee-friendly beekeeper, but I don’t anthropomorphize and attribute feelings like happy or sad to my bees 6.

I determine whether a colony is doing well (or better) by very similar criteria to those you would use to judge whether a colony in a tree was flourishing.

Are they building up well, are they storing sufficient pollen and honey stores, is there overt disease, are they going to swarm?

The hive tool, smoker fuel or any one of a dozen or more hive types, have little or no influence on these measurable definitions of ‘doing well’.

What is it that determines the success or otherwise of a colony?

Essentially it comes down to two things – forage and colony health.

Bees ‘do well’ when they have ample and varied forage and when they are (largely) free of disease 7.

A healthy colony with ample forage will do better irrespective of the hive tool, hive type or smoker fuel used. You could house them in a plastic dustbin, prize the lid off with a screwdriver and waft a smouldering egg box across the entrance and they’ll still ‘do well’.

Egg box smoker

Smouldering egg box …

Conversely, put a disease-weakened colony in an area of poor forage and they’ll do badly (probably very badly) … again irrespective of the hive type, tool or smoker fuel.

Good forage does not just mean lots of it (though that helps). It means early-season pollen for colony build-up, it means late-season nectar and pollen to help develop a strong population of winter bees, it means a varied diet and it means season-long availability.

A healthy colony is one that has no overt disease. It has low levels of parasites and pathogens 8 and is able to survive periods of nectar shortages without succumbing to disease. In addition, it is resilient and genetically diverse.

And so back to those eclosing trainee beekeepers … the real ‘best’ questions they should be asking are:

  • Where is the best place to site my colonies to ensure good, season-long forage availability?
  • How to I best keep my colonies as disease-free as possible so that they can exploit that forage?

Focusing on these questions will help ensure the honey crop really is great so you can provide all those friends and family with the jars they have been promised 😉

Exceptions to the above

Inevitably there are exceptions.

It wouldn’t be beekeeping without qualifications and caveats.

The best bees are almost certainly local bees. There are several studies that demonstrate locally-adapted bees do better than imported bees. This does not mean that imported (and not necessarily from abroad) bees cannot do well. I’ve discussed some of these studies recently.

Finally, whilst the smoker fuel is irrelevant, the smoker is not.

The best smoker is the large Dadant smoker. The small Dadant is pretty good, but the large one is the bee’s knees 9.

Large Dadant smoker

I know, because my happy bees told me so 🙂