Category Archives: Beekeeping

Brexit and beekeeping

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

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

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

And one of those things is bees.

Bee imports

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

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

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

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

Empty boxes after installing packages of bees

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

Installing a package of bees

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

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

Queen imports are still allowed.

Why are were so many bees imported?

The simple answer is ‘demand’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the likely consequences of the import ban?

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

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

Is that all?

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

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

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

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

Why is early season demand so high?

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

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

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

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

Where are those sunlit uplands?

And that had been obvious for years.

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

Sustainable beekeeping

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

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

All of these things make sound economic sense. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s wrong with imported bees?

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

Varroa is cited as an example of what has happened. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad beekeeping and bee imports

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

But most beekeepers don’t …

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

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

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

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

Essentially what it involves is slightly better beekeeping.

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

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

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

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

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

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

Rant over

Actually, it wasn’t really a rant. 

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

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

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

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

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

And I’m going to write about it here.


 

The bare necessities

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

The timing is impeccable.

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

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

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

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

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

Not enough frames, foundation, hive tools or labels?

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

Like lambs to the slaughter

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

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

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

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

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

Getting started

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

My original smoker

I’m still using most of the kit.

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

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

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

Lots of people don’t find beekeeping engrossing 4.

Most who start, give up.

Usually sooner rather than later.

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

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

It’s a bargain … but caveat emptor

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

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

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

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

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

Wash the beesuit thoroughly.

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

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

Beekeeping is an expensive hobby

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

And that’s before you get any bees.

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

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

That’s a significant outlay.

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

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

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

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

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

And you will need it 🙁

The non-essentials

What do you need and what is superfluous?

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

After all … their business is selling you stuff. 

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

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

Gauntlets are an abomination.

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

Good?

No, bad. 

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

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

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

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

Boring boxes

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

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

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

Or you want to sell an overwintered nuc.

You are at an immediately disadvantage. 

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

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

Some of these are compatible, others are not. 

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

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

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

The additional £30-50 is an excellent investment.

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

Do as I say, don’t do as I did 😉

And you’ll need frames … lots of frames.

The horizontals

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

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

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

Plastic queen excluders can be purchased from about £4.

Framed wire QE ...

Framed wire QE …

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

Investing for the future

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

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

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

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

Hive tools

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

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

Hive tools ...

Hive tools …

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

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

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

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

You’ll lose them in the long grass anyway 😉

The smoker

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

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

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

Dadant smoker

Dadant smoker …

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

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

Smoker still life

Smoker

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

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

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

After prolonged use smokers get very hot. You either:

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

An ideal Christmas gift for a beekeeper

Again, perhaps not essential, but not far off …

Beesuits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither is stingproof. 

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

Of course, none of these things ever happen 😉

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

But what about … ?

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

And some of which are never needed … ever.

But what about a … 

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

Enjoy all 94 pages of the Thorne’s catalogue.

Read it and re-read it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

Creamed honey

Which of these is the odd one out?

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

Anyone?

Reserved descriptions

Honey that is for sale needs to be labelled properly.

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

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

Makes sense so far 😉

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

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

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

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

The odd one out is ‘creamed honey‘.

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

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

Creamed honey

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

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

Soft set (spring) local honey

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

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

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

But creamed has another meaning.

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

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

… the usage of which dates back to 1929.

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

Oil seed rape (OSR)

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

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

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

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

Frankly, this is a bit of a palaver 6.

Soft set honey

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

This whole process takes several days.

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

All gone … soft set honey from OSR

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

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

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

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

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

Frosting in soft set honey

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

Honey with frosting

Honey with frosting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creaming honey

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

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

You vigorously beat it … 

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

Rapido / Rasant honey creamer

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

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

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

And it works a treat:

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

Usage

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

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

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

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

Just perfect for crumpets or homemade bread 🙂

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

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

Thanks mate 🙂


Notes

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

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

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

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

The danger zone

… your bees are entering it about now.

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

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

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

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

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

So here’s one taken earlier in the winter.

So what’s all this about the danger zone?

The danger zone

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

How do we know this?

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

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

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

Why do they use more stores?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biphasic stores use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun… duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun …

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

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

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

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

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

Snowdrops and gorse are flowering … somewhere over there

So the danger is that they starve to death 🙁

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

Fondant topups

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

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

By which time it might be too late.

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

Fondant is the stuff to use.

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

Fondant mountain ...

Fondant mountain …

You can also make it relatively easily 3.

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

But it tastes appreciably better 😉

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

Waste not, want not

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

Where to place the fondant

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

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

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

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

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

However, consider the this diagram.

Plan view of fondant above the feed hole in a crownboard

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

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

But what about the smaller cluster (B)?

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

In the shed 🙁

I therefore add the fondant under the crownboard.

Fondant block ...

Fondant block …

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

Time for another?

Time for another?

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

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

Headspace

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

Or just use two of them …

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

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

It makes a right mess. Avoid clingfilm.

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

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

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

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

Perspex crownboard with integrated insulation

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

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

What, no fondant?

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

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

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

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

Emergency rations

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

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

So do that as soon as you can.

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

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

It takes bees to make bees … and honey

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

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Spring in a Warwickshire apiary …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

Hives in the snow

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

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

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

Frequently asked questions

The 2020/21 winter has been very busy with online talks to beekeeping associations. I’m averaging about five a month, with only the fortnight over Christmas and New Year being a bit quieter. 

When chatting to the organisers of these talks it’s clear that they are getting increasingly successful 1. Audience numbers are encouragingly high as people become more familiar with online presentations.

Beekeepers know they can lounge around in their pyjamas drinking wine, chat with their friends before and after the talk 2, and listen to a beekeeping presentation … a sort of lockdown multitasking.

Some of you that spend hours each day on Zoom will know exactly what I’m talking about 😉

I still lament the absence of homemade cakes, but I suspect the online format is here to stay. At least for some associations, or at least some of the winter programme each year. 

Talking to myself

There’s little point in doing science unless you tell others about it and, as as a scientist, I have presented at invited seminars and conferences for my entire career. 

Some readers will be familiar with public speaking in one form or another. They’ll be familiar with the frisson of excitement that precedes stepping up to the podium in a large auditorium. 

Assuming there’s a large audience filling the large auditorium of course 😉

Those with little experience of speaking might wish the audience was a bit smaller, or a lot smaller … or not there at all.

But the reality is that the audience is a really important part of a presentation. At least, they are once the speaker has sufficient confidence to calm down, to stop worrying they’ll say something stupid, and to ‘read’ the audience. 

An attentive beekeeping audience

By observing the audience the speaker can determine whether they’re still interested and attentive. Not just in the topic (after all, they’re sitting there rather than disappearing to the coffee shop), but in particular parts of the presentation. 

Are you going too fast?

Have you lost their attention?

Was that fancy animated slide you spent 20 minutes on a dismal failure?

Did that last witty aside work … or did it crash and burn? 3

Almost none of which can be determined when delivering a Zoom-type online presentation 🙁

You can ‘see’ the audience.

Or parts of it.

Postage stamp-sized headshots, with poor lighting, distracting backgrounds 4 and enough pixelation to make nuanced judgements about boredom or even species sometimes tricky.

Is that a Labradoodle in the audience … or just another lockdown haircut?

Has the internet frozen … or has everyone simply fallen asleep?

It’s not ideal, but it’s the best we’ve got for now.

Which makes the question and answer sessions even more important than usual.

Mixed abilities

My talks usually include a 5 minute intermission. Talking for an hour uninterrupted is actually quite tiring 5 and it’s good to make a cup of tea and gather my thoughts for ’round two’.

It also allows the audience to raise questions about subjects mentioned in the first half that left them confused.

Fortunately these ‘half time’ questions tend to be reassuringly limited in number 6.

Have a break, have a Kit Kat

However, at the end of the talk there is usually a much more extensive Q&A session. This often covers both the topic of the talk and other beekeeping issues. 

A typical audience contains beekeepers with a wide range of beekeeping experience. Enthusiastic beginners 7 jostle for screen space with ‘been there, done that, bought the T-shirt’ types who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know.

Inevitably this means the talk might miss critical explanations for beginners and omit some of the nuanced details appreciated by the more experienced. As the poet John Lydgate said:

You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time 8.

Think about this simple statement:

Varroa feed on the haemolymph of developing pupae.”

The beginner might not know what haemolymph is … or, possibly, even what Varroa is.

The intermediate beekeeper might be left wondering whether the mite also feeds on nurse bees when ‘crowdsurfing’ around the colony during the phoretic stage of the life cycle.

And the experienced beekeeper is questioning whether I know anything about the subject at all as I’ve not mentioned fat bodies and their apparently critical role in mite nourishment.

So I encourage questions … to help please a few more of the people 😉

You’re on mute!

In my experience these are best submitted via the ‘chat’ function. The host – an officer of the BKA or a technically-savvy member press ganged into hosting the talk – can then read them out to me.

Or I can … if I can find my glasses.

One or two beekeeping associations have a Zoom ‘add in’ that allows the audience to ‘upvote’ written questions, so that the most popular appear at the top of the list 9. This works really well and helps ‘please more of the people more of the time’.

The alternative, of asking the audience member to unmute their mic and ask the question is somewhat less satisfactory. It’s not unusual to watch someone wordlessly ‘mouthing’ the question while the host (or I) try and explain how to turn the microphone on.

Finally, it’s worth emphasising that the Q&A session is – as far as I’m concerned – one of the most helpful and enjoyable parts of the evening.

Enjoyable, because I’m directly answering a question that was presumably asked because someone wanted or needed to know the answer 10

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

Anyway – that was a longer introduction than I intended – what sort of questions have been asked frequently this winter (and the talks they usually appeared in).

What do you define as a strong colony? (Preparing for winter)

Strong colonies overwinter better than weak colonies. They contain more bees. This means that the natural attrition rate of bees during the winter shouldn’t reduce the colony size so much that it struggles to thermoregulate the cluster

Midwinter cluster

A strong colony in midwinter

I also think large winter clusters retain better ‘contact’ with their stores, so reducing the chances of overwinter isolation starvation.

Strong colonies are also likely to be healthy colonies. Since the major cause of overwintering colony losses is Varroa and the viruses it transmits, a strong healthy colony should overwinter better than a weak unhealthy colony. 

Colony age structure from August to December.

However, you cannot necessarily judge the strength of a colony in June/July as an indicator of colony strength in the late autumn and winter.

This is because the entire population of bees has turned over during that period. 

A hive bulging with bees in summer might look severely depleted by November if the mite levels have not been controlled in the intervening period.

The phrase ‘a strong colony’ is also relative … and influenced by the strain of bees. Native black bees rarely need more than a single brood box. Compare them to a prolific carniolan strain and they’re likely to look ‘weak’, but if they’re filling the single brood box then they’re doing just fine.

When should I do X? (Rational Varroa control and others)

When usually means ‘what date?’

X can be anything … adding Apivar strips, uniting colonies, adding supers, dribbling oxalic acid.

This is one of the least satisfactory questions to answer but the most important beekeeping lesson to learn.

A calendar is essentially irrelevant in beekeeping.

Due to geographic/climatic differences and variation in the weather from year to year, there’s almost nothing that can be planned using a calendar.

Only three things matter, the:

  1. state of the colony
  2. local environment – an early spring, a strong nectar flow, late season forage etc.
  3. development cycle of queens, workers and drones

By judging the first of these, with knowledge of the second and a good appreciation of the third, you can usually work out whether treatments are needed, colonies united or supers added etc.

This isn’t easy, but it’s well worth investing time and effort in.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

The last of these three things is particularly important during swarm control and when trying to judge whether (or when) a colony will be broodless or not. The development cycle of bees is effectively invariant 11, so understanding this allows you to make all sorts of judgements about when to do things. 

For example, knowing the numbers of days a developing worker is an egg, larva and pupa allows you to determine whether the colony is building up (more eggs being laid than pupae emerging) or winding down for autumn (or due to lack of forage or a failing queen).

Likewise, understanding queen cell development means you know the day she will emerge, from which you can predict (with a little bit of weather-awareness) when she will mate and start laying.

How frequently should you monitor Varroa? (Rational Varroa control)

This question regularly occurs after discussion of problematically high Varroa loads, particularly when considering whether midseason mite treatment is needed. 

Do you need to formally count the mite dropped between every visit to the apiary?

Absolutely not.

If you are the sort that does then be aware it’s taking valuable time away from your trainspotting 😉 12

The phoretic mite drop is no more than a guide to the Varroa load in the hive. 

Think about the things that could influence it:

  • A colony trapped in the hive by bad weather has probably got more time to groom, so resulting in an increased mite drop.
  • An expanding colony has excess late stage larvae so reducing the time mites spend living phoretically.
  • A shrinking colony will have fewer young bees, so forcing mites to parasitise older workers. Some of these will lost ‘in the field’ and more may be lost through grooming.
  • Strong colonies could have a much lower percentage infestation, but a higher mite drop than an infested weak colony. You need to act on the latter but perhaps not the former.
  • And a multitude of other things that really deserve a more complete post …

So don’t bother counting Varroa every week … or even every month.

Does what it says on the tin.

I think checking a couple of times a season – towards the end of spring and in mid/late summer – should be sufficient. You can do this by inserting a Varroa tray for a week, by uncapping drone brood and looking for mites, or by doing an alcohol wash on a cupful of workers (but these methods aren’t comparable with each other as they measure different things with different efficiencies). 

But you must also look for the damaging effects of Varroa and viruses at every inspection.

If there are significant numbers of bees with deformed wings – characteristic of high levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) – then intervention will probably be needed. 

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

And if there are increasing numbers of afflicted bees since your last regular inspection it’s almost certain that intervention will be needed sooner rather than later.

I should add that I also count mite drop during treatment. This helps me understand the overall mite load in the colony. By reference to the late summer count I can be sure that the treatment worked. 

What do you mean by a quarantine apiary? (Bait hives for profit and pleasure)

This question has popped up a few times when I discuss moving an occupied bait hive and checking the health of the colony. 

A swarm that moves into a bait hive brings lots of things with it …

Up to 40% by weight is honey which is very welcome as they will use it to draw new comb. If there’s good forage available as well it’s unlikely the swarm will need additional feeding.

However, the swarm also brings with it ~35% of the mites that were present in the colony that swarmed. These are less welcome.

I always treat swarms with oxalic acid to give them the best possible start in their new home.

Varroa treatment of a new swarm in a bait hive…

More worrisome is the potential presence of either American or European foul broods. Both can be spread with swarms. The last things you want is to introduce these brood diseases into your main apiary.

For this reason it is important to isolate swarms of unknown provenance. The logical way to do this is to re-site the occupied bait hive to a quarantine apiary some distance away from other bees. Leave it there for 1-2 brood cycles and observe the health and quality of the bees.

What is ‘some distance?’

Ideally further than bees routinely forage, drift or rob. Realistically this is unlikely to be achievable in many parts of the country. However, even a few hundred yards away is better than sharing the same hive stand. 

If you keep bees in areas where foul broods are prevalent then I would argue that this type of precautionary measure is essential … or that the risk of collecting swarms is too great.

And how do you know if foul broods are prevalent in your area?

Register with the National Bee Unit’s Beebase. If there is an outbreak near your apiary a bee inspector will contact you.

Remember also that the presence of foul broods in an area may mean that the movement of colonies is prohibited.

‘Asking for a friend’ type questions

These are great.

These are the sort of questions that all beekeepers are likely to need to ask at sometime in their beekeeping ‘career’.

Typically they take the form of two parts:

  1. a description of a gross beekeeping error
  2. an attempt to make it clear that the error was by someone (anyone) other than the person asking the question 😉

Here are a couple of more or less typical ones 13.

  • My friend (who isn’t here tonight) forgot to remove the queen excluder and three full supers from their colony in August. Should I, oops, she remove them now?
  • Here’s an an entirely hypothetical scenario … what would you recommend treating a colony with in March if the autumn and midwinter mite treatments were overlooked?
  • Should my friend remove the Apiguard trays he a) added in November, or b) placed in his colonies before taking them to the heather?
  • I’d been advised by an expert beekeeper to squish every queen cell a few days after discovering my colony had swarmed in June. It’s now late September … how much longer should I wait for the colony to be queenright?

These are very good questions because they illustrate the sorts of mistakes that many beginners, and some more experienced beekeepers, make. 

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making mistakes. The problem comes if you don’t learn from them.

I’ve made some cataclysmically stupid beekeeping errors. 

I still do … though fewer now than a decade ago, largely because I’ve managed to learn from some of them.

Partly I learned from thinking things through and partly from asking someone else … “A friend has asked me why his colony died. Was it the piezoelectric vibrations from the mite ‘zapper’ bought from eBay or was the hive he bought not suitable?


 

In the bleak midwinter

Winter has finally arrived.

Green thoughts in a white shade

We’ve had temperatures fluctuating around 0°C for the last two to three weeks now, with some very hard frosts and more than enough snow to make the track impassable.

Like the bees, I’ve spent the time hunkered down focusing on keeping warm and conserving my stores.

Unlike my bees, I’ve benefited from triple glazing and a wood burning stove 😉

And the main thing I’m worried about running out of is milk for my cappuccino 1.

The 20th was particularly cold with temperatures well below -5°C and stunningly clear. There was something strange about the conditions, as the loch froze. The surface, for 30 metres or more from the shore, had a thin film of ice covering it.

Ice, ice baby

As the tide dropped the shore was left with a sparkling crust of 1mm thick glass-like ice confetti.

The salinity of seawater is typically ~3.5% … this amount of salt reduces the freezing point to about -2°C, a temperature we’ve regularly experienced in the last fortnight. This suggests the ‘strange’ conditions were probably the absence of any swell coupled with the really calm conditions.

Whatever the cause, it was beautiful.

Early season forage … you must be joking 😉

Under conditions like these the bees are effectively invisible. They’re very tightly clustered . With daytime temperatures rarely reaching 3°C none venture out of the hive. With the exception of cleansing flights and the removal of corpses – and it’s too cold for either of these – there’s little reason for them to leave the hive anyway.

The gorse is in flower … somewhere under there

The only thing flowering is gorse and it would be a foolhardy bee that attempted to collect pollen at the moment.

I’ve previously written about the genetically-determined flowering time of gorse. In an attempt to improve forage at certain times of the year I’ve been collecting seed from suitable plants and germinating it indoors. As soon as the weather improves I’ll plant these seedlings out 2 as the amount of gorse around the apiary is quite limited.

Gorse (and some broom) seedlings

Gorse seed is painful to collect and germinates poorly. I pour boiling water over the seed and then let it soak for 24 hours, which improves germination at least ten-fold.

Hive checks

Every fortnight or so I check the hive weights by hefting. Only two colonies have had any extra fondant yet and that was through ‘an abundance of caution’. I suspect they actually didn’t really need it.

The next eight weeks (here 3 ) is when brood rearing should be starting to really ramp up. It’s during February and March that starvation is an issue.

Here on the west coast, my colonies are rearing brood. This tray has been in for about a week. I’m including it as I’ve been asked several times about how to determine if a colony is rearing brood without opening the hive.

Biscuit coloured (or a bit darker) cappings indicating brood rearing in this colony

The red arrows indicate the biscuit coloured cappings that have fallen from the seams in which they are rearing brood. The inset shows a magnification of the indicated part of the image. The photo was taken with a camera phone and the cappings are perhaps a bit darker than usual (though I also know there are a few older brood frames in this hive 🙁 ).

And if the conditions are right, even with a well-insulated poly hive, you can identify which wall the cluster is up against by the evaporation of the overnight damp from the outer surface of the hive.

The location of the cluster is clearly visible on this Abelo poly hive

This is the front of the same hive from which the Varroa tray was photographed – the cappings on the tray and the cluster location correspond perfectly.

By the way … don’t bother looking for Varroa on the tray. This hive is in a Varroa-free region 🙂

As I’ve said before, it’s not unusual for colonies in poly hives to cluster tightly against the wall in winter. Those in cedar are more often away from the wall in my experience (and the same thing applies to brood rearing other than at the height of the season).

Hey good lookin’

The Abelo hive above is a nice looking box. The paint finish is bonded well to the polystyrene and provides good protection.

If you leave unpainted polystyrene out in the elements it starts to look pretty tired, pretty quickly.

I don’t have any pictures as none of my poly hives are unpainted.

At least, none are any more 😉

I’d acquired some new Maisemores nucs with bees and had a number of unused and unpainted Everynucs. Most manufacturers recommend you paint poly hives with masonry paint of some kind, or they sell (often quite pricey) paint that’s suitable.

Here's three I prepared earlier ...

Everynuc poly nucs

I’ve painted a lot of nucs with masonry paint, using a paint spray gun. It goes on fast and is reasonably hardwearing … but not great.

Swienty brood box ...

Swienty brood box …

In contrast, my Swienty brood boxes look as good now as when they were first painted 5 years ago. These received two coats of ‘Buckingham green’ Hammerite Garage Door paint.

This paint is designed for galvanised metal garage doors (the clue is in the name 😉 ). It contains a bunch of unpleasant sounding solvents but, when dry, appears to be entirely safe. I’d recommend not reading the 13 pages of safety data sheets or you might never dare open the tin because of the imminent risk of explosion.

Melting polystyrene

These solvents have the effect of slightly ‘melting’ the surface of the poly hive. This creates a really strong bond between the paint and the hive surface. The melting isn’t enough that you can notice the surface texture change … it’s just an invisible chemical reaction going on as you brush the stuff on.

Maisemore’s poly nuc after the first coat

However, this reaction might account for the rather patchy coverage of a single coat. If you paint it on thickly enough to try and produce a nice even finish it tends to run and sag a bit.

So give it two coats … and then it looks excellent.

Oxbridge Blues – a few painted poly nucs ready for the season ahead

Several months ago I bought a ‘remaindered’ tin of Hammerite paint in Oxford blue. I had wanted a contrasting colour (to my other boxes) for these nucs to help orientate returning freshly mated queens.

I paint the entire box, avoiding any of the ‘touching’ faces which are left unpainted. Some paint usually seeps into joins between the roof, body and/or floor, but you can easily prise them apart with a judiciously applied hive tool.

I’m rather pleased with how smart they now look.

I’m somewhat less pleased with the quality control on some of the Everynucs 4. Several had the mesh floor stuck down incorrectly, with parts unattached. In places the gaps were big enough for a bee to enter.

Open mesh floor and big gap at the side in an Everynuc

I simply pulled them off and restuck them down with a glue gun. This is an easy fix but really should not be necessary on a nuc box that costs almost £60 🙁

A+E

With the current Covid pandemic we have a responsibility to minimise the demands we are placing on our heroically overstretched healthcare workers.

For this reason I’ve been avoiding doing any DIY for beekeeping for many months now 😉

However, the season is looming ever-closer and I want to try some new things.

My toolbox contains approximately equal amounts of disconcertingly sharp implements and elastoplast. I’m well prepared 😉

I’m also currently living very remotely. In the event of a bad injury I’m unlikely to ever trouble the staff in A+E … unless the accident conveniently coincides with the ferry timetable 🙁

I therefore decided to risk life and limb by building the things I need to try queen rearing using a Morris board.

I’ll describe full details of the method later in the year.

For me, this method should offer advantages due to the type of bees, the size of my colonies, the number of queens I want to rear and the period over which I want to rear them.

You can buy these boards (for about £30 each) … or you can build better ones for about a fiver from offcuts from the wood bin, a bit of queen excluder and a piece of aluminium. They are a bit fiddly to build, with four opening doors and a ‘queenproof’ slide, but the cost savings and satisfaction you gain more than outweigh the blood loss involved.

Here’s one I started earlier … a Morris board under construction

The very fact I’m still able to write this post shows that I managed to retain all my fingers. Whether or not the Morris board works 5 I consider that fact alone a success 🙂

Doing the splits

The Morris board works by allowing access to 5 frame upper brood box for defined periods. I therefore also needed a brood box divided in half.

I’ve been doing a lot of wax extracting recently and a couple of cedar boxes have cracked under the stress of repeated steam cycles. I split one down to its component boards, burning the bits that were unusable, but recycling one side into the central division of another old cedar box.

Split brood box – detailed view of my very poor workmanship

I’ll be queen rearing in two apiaries simultaneously, so will need two of these upper boxes. However, I only managed to salvage one sufficiently large board from the steam-damaged box.  Fortunately I have some cedar nucs built precisely (so clearly not by me 😉 6 ) to National hive dimensions, so I can use two of these side-by-side with the same design Morris board.

Late afternoon sun, 24th January

But queen rearing remains both a distant memory and a very long way off in the future. Until then it’s a case of enjoying the short winter days and drinking cappuccino in front of the fire.

Good times


Notes

Hammerite Garage Door paint is usually £15-20 a tin (750 ml). It’s worth shopping around as there’s quite a bit of variation. I found it remaindered and paid under a tenner 🙂

I reckon there’s enough in one tin to do two coats on 9-10 nucs as long as you take care not to over apply the first one. You could probably thin it a bit (though I’m not sure what with 7) but I’d take care you don’t create something that just melts the poly box.

Even at £20 it still works out at only about £2 a nuc. Considering these can cost £40-60 it seems like a reasonable investment of money to keep them looking smart for years.

And a good investment of time (it took me ~15-20 minutes per coat) … after all, what else are you going to do in the bleak midwinter?

Going the distance

I’m going to continue with a topic related to the waggle dance this week.

This is partly so I can write about the science of how bees measure distance to a food source.

But it’s also to encourage those who didn’t read the waggle dance post to visit it. Weirdly it was only read by about 50% of the usual Friday/weekend readership and I suspect (from a couple of emails I received) that the weekly post to subscribers ended up in spam folders 1.

If you remember, the duration of the waggle phase of the dance – the straight-line abdomen-wiggling sashay across the ‘dance floor’ – indicates the distance from the nest to the desirable food source 2. The vigour of the wiggle indicates the quality of the source.

How do bees measure distance?

Karl von Frisch, the first to decode the waggle dance, favoured the so-called ‘energy hypothesis’. In this, the distance to a food source was determined by the amount of energy used on the outbound flight.

Does that seem logical?

Foragers forage randomly, but usually return directly

If correct, foragers would only be able to determine the energy used after their second trip to a food source. This presumes their first trip was longer as they searched the environment for something worth dancing about 3.

This would be an easy thing to test, though I’m not sure it was ever investigated 4.

As it happens, far better brains determined that the energy hypothesis was probably incorrect. Many of these studies explored how gravity influences the distances reported by dancing foragers.

Going up!

Bees use more energy when flying up. For example, when flying from ground level to the top of a tall building, when compared to level flight. Similarly, they use more energy flying if they have small weights attached to them 5.

A series of experiments, nicely reviewed by Harald Esch and John Burns 6, failed to provide good support for the energy hypothesis. There were lots of these studies, involving steep mountains, tall buildings or balloons, between the 1950’s and mid-80’s.

Interesting science, and no doubt it was a lot of fun doing the experiments.

For example, bees flying to a sugar feeder situated on top of a tall building dance to ‘report’ the same distance as bees from the same hive flying to a feeder at ground level adjacent to the same building.

Similarly, foragers loaded with weights do not overestimate the distance to a food source, as would be expected if the energy expended to reach it was being measured 7.

Interesting and entertaining science certainly, but none of it providing compelling support for the energy hypothesis

It’s notable that there is a rather telling sentence from the Esch & Burns review that states “While reading the original papers, one gains the impression that evidence supporting the energy hypothesis was favored over arguments against it”.

Ouch!

Splash landing

Although Von Frisch was a supporter of the energy hypothesis 8 he also published a study that provided evidence for our current understanding of how bees measure distance.

Bees generally don’t like flying long distances over water. Von Frisch provided two equidistant nectar sources, one of which was situated on the other side of a lake.

Bees flying over calm water underestimate distances

On very calm days the bees that flew across the lake under-reported the distance to the feeder. This underestimate was by 20-25% when compared to bees flying to an equidistant feeder overland.

Von Frisch commented “the bee’s estimation of distance is not determined through optical examination of the surface beneath her”.

He assumed that the mirror-like water surface provided no optical input as it contained no visual ‘clues’. After all, one calm patch of water looks much like any other. Von Frisch used this as an argument for the energy hypothesis.

He also noted that the bees generally flew very low over the water surface, often so low that they drowned 🙁

Perhaps these bees were flying dangerously low to try and find optical clues.

Such as their height above the surface?

Or perhaps the distance travelled?

Going with the flow

Having debunked the energy hypothesis, Esch & Burns proposed instead the optic flow hypothesis. This states that “foragers use the retinal image flow of ground motion to gauge feeder distance”.

Imagine optic flow as tripping a little odometer in the bee brain that records distance as her eyes observe the environment flashing past during flight. The clever thing about that is that the environment is variable. It’s not like counting off regularly spaced telegraph poles from a train window.

When flying, environmental objects that are nearby will move across her vision much faster than distant objects. Bees don’t have stereo vision, but instead use this speed of image motion to infer range.

Optic flow – the arrow size indicates the speed with which the object apparently moves, and hence its range

Esch & Burns returned again to tall buildings to provide supporting evidence for their optic flow hypothesis. They trained bees to fly between two tall buildings with 228 metres separating the hive and the feeder 9.

Returning foragers reported that the food source was only 125 metres away.

However, the bees didn’t make a direct flight. Instead they flew at altitude for 30-50 metres, descended to fly much lower, then ascended again to approach the feeder again at altitude.

Esch & Burns experiment to support the optic flow hypothesis

The interpretation here was that the high altitude flight provided insufficient optic flow to measure distance. The bees descend to get the visual input needed to judge distance, but it’s only for part of the flight … hence leading to under-reporting the distance separating the hive and feeder.

Tunnel vision

Jurgen Tautz 10 and colleagues trained bees to forage in a short, narrow tunnel 11. This elegant experiment provided compelling support for the optic flow hypothesis.

The tunnel was ~6 m long and with a cross sectional area of ~200 cm2 – big enough for a bee to fly along, but sufficiently narrow so that the bee would be closer to the ‘walls’ than in normal free flight. The walls and floor of the tunnel had a random visual texture. Only the end of the tunnel facing the hive was open.

The tunnel experiment.

These studies were conducted when the terms round and waggle were used to distinguish the dance induced by food sources <50 m and >50 m respectively from the hive 12. Rather than emphasise the shape of the dance I’ll just describe it as a >50 m or <50 m waggle dance.

‘Tunneling’ bees misreport distances

In the first tunnel experiment (1) the feeder was 35 m from the hive. 85% of dances indicated the feeder was <50 m away. However, when the feeder was moved to the opposite end of the tunnel (2) – still only 41 m from the hive – 90% of the dances indicated the feeder was >50 m away.

To test how the random pattern influenced the perceived distance the scientists used a third tunnel (3) lined with lengthwise stripes. In this instance – despite the feeder position being unchanged from experiment 2 – 90% of the dances indicated the feeder was <50 m away.

The stripes were predicted to ‘work’ in the same way as the smooth lake surface, providing no visual clues.

In the fourth experiment (4) the feeder was 6 m along a randomly patterned tunnel, which was placed just 6 m from the hive. Over 87% of dances indicated that the feeder was >50 m away.

Interpreting the waggle run

In open flight 13 there is usually an excellent correlation between the duration of the waggle run and the distance to a feeder (see the graph below 14 ). By extrapolation, the bees in experiments 2 and 4 ‘thought’ they had flown 230 m and 184 m respectively. In reality they had flown only 41 m and 12 m in these experiments.

Determining distances from waggle dance observation

How could the bees get it so wrong?

Increased optic flow

Tunnel-traversing bees fly just a few centimeters away from the visible ‘environment’.

As a consequence, at the same flight speed, they experience greater optic flow.

If, instead of driving around in your lumbering old van, you pack your hive tool in a Caterham 7 for the trip to the apiary you’d be well aware of what I mean.

Caterham 7 … check out that optic flow … then make another trip to collect the smoker

30 mph in a Toyota Hilux feels very much slower than 30 mph in a Caterham 7. This is largely because visual reference points, like the broken white lines between lanes in the road, appear in and disappear from your field of view much faster … because you’re much closer to them.

Because the tunnel dimensions were known it was possible to calculate the calibration of the bee’s odometer. Classically this would be defined in terms of metres of distance flown generating a particular waggle run length or duration.

These tunnel studies demonstrate that distance flown is not what calibrates the odometer. Instead it’s quantified indirectly in terms of the image motion experienced by the eye. Since environments vary the way to express this is the amount of angular image motion that generates a given duration of waggle.

And, using some mathematical trickery we don’t need to bother with 15, it turns out that this angular motion is only dependent upon distance flown, not the speed of flight.

This is important. Headwinds or tailwinds could change the speed of flight, but not the distance flown 16.

It’s all relative

It’s worth emphasising that the dance followers in experiments 2 (above) should still find the feeder.

The waggle dance would ‘instruct’ them to fly 230 m at the bearing indicated and they’d experience the same visual clues en route.

This means that they should still enter the narrow tunnel and experience increased optic flow because of the encroaching walls. But they’d be experiencing the same optic flow the initial dancing bee had experienced, so would not attempt to fly further down the tunnel.

This means that the optic flow experienced is context dependent. It is related to the environment the bees are foraging in.

This makes sense as the dancing bees and dance followers all occupy the same environment.

How do we know this? 17

Changing the environment

If we change the environment the dance followers search at the wrong distance.

I qualified the statement above when I said that the dance followers should still enter the tunnel and find the feeder.

Actually, most recruits will miss the tunnel entrance – remember it’s smaller that a sheet of A5 paper. At 35 m distance a bee would have to get the bearing correct to about 0.16° to enter the tunnel 18.

So the bees that do not enter the tunnel experience a different environment.

Where do they search for the feeder?

They search at the distance indicated by the waggle duration … so bees that missed the tunnel entrance in experiment 2 (above) would have searched for the feeder 230 m from the hive. Similarly, the dance followers in experiment 4 would have searched 184 m away 19

Context dependent dance calibration

And, finally, the calibration of the odometer depends upon the environment.

Odometer calibration depends upon the environment

If the environment experienced by the dancing bee en route to the feeder in experiments 2 and 4 is different, then it generates a different relationship between waggle run duration and distance.

For example, if one feeder was across a closely mown lawn and the other was across dense shrubby woodland, they would each generate a unique optic flow, so changing the image motion experienced, and hence the waggle run generated.

In the diagram above, you shouldn’t use dance calibration for bees trained to direction A to determine the distance bees going in direction B would forage.

Phew!

Optic flow, waggle dancing and implications for practical beekeeping

None 😉

At least, none that I can think of.

A Caterham 7 isn’t an ideal car for a beekeeper but would be a lot of fun to help you understand optic flow 😉

Most of us keep our bees in mixed environments. Your apiary isn’t situated with a cliff edge on one side and an unbroken prairie on the other. Since the environment is mixed, the waggle dance calibration is not going to be wildly different, whichever way the bees fly off in. You can therefore use an approximate figure of 1 second per kilometre to estimate the the distance at which your bees are foraging, irrespective of the direction they go.


Notes

Most of the referenced studies are at least two decades old. Honey bees have remained a fertile research tool for neurobiologists. Our understanding of honey bee vision continues to improve. However, I cannot discuss any of these more recent studies with reference to optic flow. Anyway, just because they’re old doesn’t make the experiments any less elegant or interesting 🙂

 

The waggle dance

Ask a non-beekeeper what they know about bees and you’ll probably get answers that involve honey or stings.

Press them a little bit more about what they know about other than honey and stings and some will mention the ‘waggle dance’. 

Karl von Frisch

That the waggle dance is such a well-known feature of honey bee biology is probably explained by two (related) things; it involves a relatively complex form of communication in a non-human animal, and because Karl von Frisch – the scientist who decoded the waggle dance – received the Nobel Prize 1 for his studies in 1973.

Von Frisch did not discover the waggle dance. Nicholas Unhoch described the dance at least a century before Von Frisch decoded the movement, and Ernst Spitzner – 35 years earlier still – observed dancing bees and suggested they were communicating odours of food resources available in the environment.

Inevitably, Aristotle also made a contribution. He described flower constancy 2 and suggested that foragers could communicate this to other bees.

Language and communication are important. The development of language in early humans almost certainly contributed to the evolution of our culture, society and technology. Communication in non-human animals, from the chirping of grasshoppers to the singing of whales, is of interest to scientists and non-scientists alike.

It is therefore unsurprising that the ‘dance language’ of honey bees is also of great interest. Although not a ‘language’ in the true sense of the word, Von Frisch described the symbolic language of bees as “the most astounding example of non-primate communication that we know” over 50 years ago. This still applies.

The waggle dance

The waggle dance usually takes place in the dark on the vertical face of a comb in the brood nest, usually close to the nest entrance. The dance is performed by a successful forager i.e. one that has located a good source of pollen, nectar or water, and provides information on the presence, the quality, identity, direction and distance of the source, so enabling nest-mates to find and exploit it.

The dance consists of two phases:

  1. The figure of eight-shaped ‘return phase’ in which the bee circles back, alternately clockwise and anticlockwise, to the start of …
  2. The ‘waggle phase’, which is a short linear run in which the dancer vigorously waggles her abdomen from side to side.

The direction of the food source is indicated by the angle of the waggle phase from gravity i.e. a vertical line down the face of the comb. This angle (α in the figure below) indicates the bearing from the direction of the sun that needs to be followed to reach the food source. 

For example, if the dancer performs a waggle phase vertically down the face of the comb, the food source must be opposite the current position of the sun.

The waggle dance

The distance information is conveyed by the duration of the waggle phase. The longer this run is, the more distant the source. A run of 1 second duration indicates the food source is about 1 kilometre away.

The quality of the food source is indicated by the vigour of the waggling during the waggle phase and the speed with which the return phase is conducted. 

Surely it can’t be that simple?

Yes, it can.

What I’ve described above allows you to interpret the waggle dance sufficiently well to know where your bees are foraging.

Next time you lift a frame from a hive and see a dancing bee, circling around in a little cleared ‘dance floor’ surrounded by a group of attentive workers, try and decode the dance.

Remember that the dance is performed with relation to gravity in the darkened hive. You’re looking to identify the angle from a vertical line up the face of the brood comb to determine the direction from the sun.

Time a few waggle phases (one elephant, two elephants etc.) and you’ll know how far away the food source is.

Really, it’s that simple?

Of course not 😉

The waggle dance was decoded more than half a century ago and remains an active subject for researchers interested in animal communication.

What you’ll miss in your observations is an indication of the type of nectar or pollen resource that the dancing bee is communicating. The dancing worker carries the odour of the food source and may also regurgitate nectar, presumably helping those ‘watching’ (remember, it’s dark … nothing to see here!) determine the type of resource to look for when they leave the hive.

You will also be unable to detect the pulsed thoracic vibrations that the dancing bee produces. These are also indicators of the quality of the food source; better (e.g. higher sucrose content) resources elicit increased pulse duration, velocity amplitude and duty cycle, though the number of pulses is related to the duration of the waggle phase, and so is another potential indicator of distance.

Inevitably, there are also pheromones involved.

There always are 😉

The dancing bee produces two alkanes, tricosane and pentacosane, and two alkenes, Z-(9)-tricosene and Z-(9)-pentacosene. These appear to stimulate foraging activity 3.

But it’s cloudy … or rain stops play … or nighttime

What happens to dancing bees if foraging is interrupted, for example by poor weather or night? 

The dancing bee continues to change the angle of the waggle phase as the sun moves across the sky. This means that a dancing bee will correctly signal the direction to the food source, even if they have not left the hive for several hours.

During their initial orientation flights they learn the sun’s azimuth as a function of the time of day, and use this to compensate for the sun’s time-dependent movement.

Some bees even dance during the night, in which case the watching workers must presumably make their own compensations for the time that has elapsed since the dance 4.

And what happens if the sun is obscured … by clouds, or buildings or dense woodland? How can those directions be followed?

Under these circumstances the foraging bee detects the position of the sun by the pattern of polarised light in the sky. 

Scout bees

The waggle dance is also performed by scout bees on the surface of a bivouacked swarm. In this instance it is used to communicate the quality, direction and distance of a new potential nest site. 

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

The intended audience in this instance are other scout bees, rather than the general forager population 5. These scouts use a quorum decision making process to determine the ‘best’ nest site in the area to which the bivouacked swarm eventually relocates.

The shape of the bivouac often lacks a true vertical surface. However, since it’s in the open the dancing bees can orientate the waggle run directly with relation to the sun’s direction, rather than to gravity.

Under experimental conditions the dancing bee can communicate the presence and quality of a food source on a horizontal comb, but – with no reference to gravity – all directional information is lost 6.

The round dance

The duration of the waggle phase is related to the distance from the nest to the food source. Therefore the recognisable waggle dance tends to get difficult to interpret for sources very close to the nest.

It used to be thought that there was a distinct directionless dance (the ’round dance’) for these nearby i.e. 10-40 metres, food sources. However, more recent study 7 suggests that dancers were able to convey both distance and direction information irrespective of the separation of nest and food source. This indicates that bees have just one type of dance for forager recruitment, the waggle dance.

Do all bees communicate using a waggle dance?

There are a very large number of bee species. In the UK alone there are 270 species, 250 of which are solitary.

There’s a clue.

Solitary bees are like me at a disco … they have no one to dance with 🙁

I’ll cut to the chase to help you erase that vision.

The only bees that use the waggle dance are honey bees. These all belong to the genus Apis.

They include our honey bee, the western honey bee (Apis mellifera), together with a further seven species:

  1. Black dwarf honey bee (Apis andreniformis)
  2. Red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea)
  3. Giant honey bee (Apis dorsata)
  4. Himalayan giant honey bee (Apis laboriosa
  5. Eastern honey bee (Apis cerana)
  6. Koschevnikov’s honey bee (Apis koschevnikovi)
  7. Philippine honey bee (Apis nigrocincta)

Dancing and evolution

Dwarf honey bees nest in the open on a branch and dance on the horizontal surface of the nest. The waggle run is orientated ‘towards’ the food source. Apis dorsata is also an open-nesting bee, but forms large vertically-hanging combs. It dances relative to gravity, and indicates the direction by the angle of the waggle run in the same way that A. mellifera does.

The cavity nesting bees, A. cerana, A. mellifera, A. koschevnikovi, and A. nigrocinta produce the most developed form of the dance.

The dances of A. mellifera and A. cerana are sufficiently similar that they can follow and decode the dance of the other.

The complexity of the nest site and the waggle dance reflects the evolution of these bee species. The earliest to evolve (i.e. the most primitive), A. andreniformis and florea, have the simplest nests and the most basic waggle dance. In contrast, the cavity nesting species evolved most recently, form the most complex brood nests and have the most derived waggle dance.

When and why did the waggle dance evolve?

Assuming that the waggle dance did not independently evolve (there’s no evidence it did, and ample evidence due to its similarity between species that it evolved only once) it must have first appeared at least 20 million years ago, when extant honey bee species diverged during the early Miocene.

The ‘why’ it evolved is a bit more difficult to address.

Behavioural changes often arise in response to the environment in which a species evolves.

Bipedalism in non-human primates (like the australopithecines) is hypothesised to have evolved in part due to a reduction in forest cover and the increase in savannah. Apes had to walk further between clumps of trees and bipedalism offered greater travel efficiency.

Perhaps the waggle dance evolved to exploit a particular type or distribution of food reserves?

In this regard it is interesting that the ‘benefit’ of waggle dance communication varies through the season.

If you turn a hive on its side the combs are horizontal 8. Under these conditions the dancing bees can communicate the presence and quality of a food source. However, they cannot communicate its location (either direction or distance).

No directional or distance information is now available

In landmark studies Sherman and Visscher 9 showed that, at certain periods during the season, the absence of this positional information did not affect the weight gain by the hive i.e. the foraging efficiency of the colony.

They concluded that during these periods forage must be sufficiently abundant that simply stimulating foraging was sufficient. Remember those alkanes and alkenes produced by dancing bees that do exactly that?

Tropical habitats

This observation, and some elegant experimental and modelling studies, suggest that dancing is beneficial when food resources are: 

  • sparsely distributed – therefore difficult (and energetically unfavourable) to find by individual scouting
  • clustered or short-lived resources – when it’s gone, it’s gone
  • distributed with high species richness – if there’s a huge range of flowers, which are the most energetically rewarding (sugar-rich) to collect nectar from?

One of the experimental studies that contributed to these conclusions (though there’s still controversy in this area) was the demonstration that waggle dancing was beneficial in a tropical habitat, but not in two temperate habitats. This makes sense, as food resources have different spatiotemporal distribution in these habitats. Tropical habitats are characterised by clustered and short-lived resources.

Therefore the suggestion is that the waggle dance of Apis species evolved, presumable early in the speciation of the genus, in a tropical region where food resources were patchily distributed, available for only limited period and present alongside a wide variety of other (less good) choices.

For example, like individual trees flowering in a forest …

Finally, it’s worth noting that there is evidence that bees that dance are able to successfully exploit food resources further away than would otherwise be expected from their body size.

This also makes sense.

It’s much less risky flying off over the horizon if you know there’s something to collect once you get there 10.


Notes

If you arrived here from my Twitter feed (@The_Apiarist) you’ll have seen the tweet started with the words “Dance like nobody’s watching”, words that are often attributed to Mark Twain. 

The full quote is something like “Dance like nobody’s watching; love like you’ve never been hurt. Sing like nobody’s listening; live like it’s heaven on earth”.

Pretty sound advice.

But it’s not by Mark Twain. It’s actually from a country music song by Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh. This was first released on the Don Williams album Traces in 1987. So only about 90 years out 😉 

Midwinter chores

I was going to title this post ‘Midwinter madness’ until I realised that there’s nothing I could write about related to beekeeping that could compare with current political events. So, it’s Midwinter chores instead …

We’ve had a week or more of low temperatures with intermittent light snow, freezing rain and bright sunshine. During the latter I’ve escaped to walk in the local hills.

North Fife hills

The North Fife hills – when they’re not filled with the cacophony of shooting parties out after pheasant or partridge – are looking fantastic, with unrestricted views to the Angus Glens, Schiehallion and Ben Lawers.

Of these, Schiehallion has a very distinctive shape (it’s just visible in the centre of the horizon above) 1. Its isolation allowed Nevil Maskelyne to use it in 1774 to calculate the mass of the earth in the appropriately named Schiehallion experiment 2.

This experiment used a combination of physics and mathematics, both of which are well beyond me, but are subjects I’ll return to at the end of the post.

Winter checks

In between these gentle walks I’ve infrequently checked all my colonies.

Many of my hives are fitted with clear perspex crownboards. This allows me to have a quick peek at the position and size of the winter cluster. Here are two examples:

Winter cluster – hive #36

and …

Winter cluster – hive #29

These hives are adjacent to each other in the same apiary. Both are in identical 10-frame Swienty poly brood boxes.

What is notable in the pictures above?

The first is that the crownboard with the mesh-covered central hole has been almost completely filled with propolis. I see this time and time again and am convinced that bees do not appreciate any ventilation over the cluster. I think the oft-seen advice to prop the crownboard up on matchsticks is total nonsense, at least for hives with open mesh floors.

Secondly, there is effectively no condensation on the underside of either crownboard. In the absence of ventilation – though both have my homemade open mesh floors – this is because they are both very well-insulated.

Insulation

Both crownboards are topped with a 5 cm thick block of Kingspan insulation. This is an integral part of the crownboard in #36, but just sits on top of #29. This insulation is present all year round, summer and winter.

Here is a picture of the same hives taken in October.

Hive #36 and #29 – note the roofs

Hive #29 has one of my homemade Correx roofs. These cost me about £1.50 each and about 10 minutes to make. They provide negligible insulation as they’re only about 4 mm thick. However, as far as these hives are concerned this is irrelevant as it’s the underlying block of Kingspan that’s doing the insulation.

Perspex crownboard with integrated insulation

The £29 Abelo poly roof on #36, although undoubtedly a whole lot smarter, might add a bit more insulation, but it also made me a whole lot poorer 🙁

Cluster size

The cluster size in hive #36 appears significantly larger than that in hive #29. The area covered by bees under the crownboard is perhaps twice the size.

I don’t read a lot into this.

My notes suggest that hive #36 was a bit stronger towards the end of the summer season. Although it looks as though It’s on brood and a half, the super is actually nadired and was filled with partially capped frames that weren’t ripe enough to extract. I expect they are all now empty. However, the interrupted nature of my 2020 beekeeping meant there’s never been a good opportunity to recover the super.

It’s worth remembering that the bees visible under the crownboard now are not the same bees that were visible in late August, when I last inspected the colony.

These are the long-lived winter bees. Many of them will still be there in early March.

However strong the summer colony was, this is an entirely different population of bees.

Although I’m sure there’s a relationship between summer and winter colony strength, I bet it isn’t linear and I’m sure there are a number of things that can influence it.

For example, consider two identical summer colonies. One is treated with Apivar and the other with Apiguard. In my experience (I used Apiguard for 5 years before moving back to Scotland) the thymol-containing Apiguard inhibits many queens from laying for an extended period. If this occurs when the colony is rearing the winter bees then 3, unless the queen (or colony) compensates 4 the final colony size will be smaller when compared with the Apivar-treated colony 5.

Other things, like the age of the queen or the levels of pathogens, are known (or might be expected) to exert a significant effect on late season brood rearing, further emphasising that there isn’t a simple relationship between summer and winter colony size.

Cluster shape

It’s also worth noting that the orientation and organisation of the cluster will influence its appearance. Consider this picture:

Appearances can be deceptive

The area (or volume if I could have drawn it in 3D) occupied by the cluster of bees in red is identical, but viewed from above, the diameter of the cluster in the top box would be half that of the cluster in the lower box 6.

I’ve noticed before that hives with ample insulation over the crownboard often appear to contain unusually large winter clusters. I’ve always assumed that this is because the bees prefer to orientate themselves into the warmest, most energy-efficient shape to get through the winter.

This shape might need to change to allow access to stores as the winter progresses.

Remember that bees have evolved to occupy often oddly-shaped hollow trees. These might have thick and thin walled regions, or odd draughts, necessitating the reorganisation of the winter cluster to achieve the optimum energy efficiency.

Gaffer tape

The other thing to note from the photographs above is the parlous state of the second crownboard. Both the central mesh (now sealed up) and some of the wooden frame are held together with gaffer tape. This is a near-ubiquitous aspect of my beekeeping, and an essential inclusion in the bee bag.

With the exception of the Correx roofs I use the 3M duct tape sold cheaply in the ‘Middle of Lidl’. It’s great stuff, easy to tear with gloved hands, and pretty strong and sticky.

However, it’s not particularly waterproof. If you want gaffer tape to hold your roofs together for years then the Lidl stuff doesn’t ‘cut the mustard’. Instead use Unibond Waterproof Power Tape, which I’ve written about when discussing building Correx roofs. Mine have withstood the rigours of the Scottish climate for at least 6 years 🙂

Corpses

In discussing the winter bees (above) I wrote ‘many of them will still be there in early March‘.

Many, but not all.

Throughout the winter bees die. If the weather is too cold for flying these corpses simply accumulate on the floor of the hive.

With a strong colony and a prolonged period of cold or wet weather the number of corpses can be so numerous that there’s a danger the hive entrance will be blocked.

If that happens the undertaker bees will not be able to remove them when the weather picks up.

In fact, if that happens, no bees will be able to exit the hive.

Under normal conditions bees do not defecate in the hive. They store it all up during periods of adverse weather and then go on a cleansing flight when the weather improves.

But they cannot do this if the entrance is blocked. This can lead to rapid transmission of pathogens such as Nosema in the colony, with soiling of the frames and inside of the hive.

The L-shaped entrance tunnel of my preferred kewl floors can get blocked with corpses during very prolonged cold or wet periods 7, and I’ve also seen it with reduced width entrances and mouseguards.

Hive entrance cleaning gizmo (patent pending)

To avoid any problems I simply clear any corpses from the entrance using a bent piece of wire every fortnight or so. In my experience there’s no need to do it any more frequently than that.

Stores

Despite the intense cold, the Fife colonies now appear to be rearing brood. I’ve not opened the boxes, and have no intention of doing so just to confirm brood rearing. Instead I’ve infrequently monitored the Varroa trays left underneath the stands in the bee shed 8. These now have faint stripes of biscuit-coloured capping crumbs, clear evidence that there is brood emerging.

And if there’s brood emerging they must have been fed (as developing larvae) on the stored honey from the hive.

Which means that the levels of stores available in the hive to get the colony through the remainder of the winter will be reducing.

I’ve used this ‘no expense spared’ graph before to show how the rate at which stores are consumed increases once brood rearing starts.

Colony weight in early spring

Don’t read too much into the labelling on the horizontal axis. The point I’m trying to emphasise is that stores are used much faster once the colony starts rearing brood, not that the rate changes suddenly in mid/late January.

And, if there’s a lot of brood rearing happening over a prolonged period, there’s a possibility that the colony will run out of stores and starve.

This means that it is critical to monitor the weight of the hive in the early months of the year 9.

Weighty matters

The goal is to determine whether the colony has sufficient stores to survive until forage becomes available.

Experienced beekeepers will do this by hefting the hive. This involves gently lifting the back 10 of the hive a centimetre or so and judging it’s weight.

This will then be compared with either (or both) the weight of a similar e.g. poly, cedar, single or double brood, empty hive or the weight of the same hive a week or two earlier.

As you might guess, this is a pretty inexact science 🙁

It really helps if all your hives are standardised … same material (cedar, poly), same number of brood boxes and the same type of roof.

However, the photo of the three hives (above) is pretty typical of my apiaries … different material, different roof and a different number of boxes.

D’oh!

Nevertheless, all I usually do is heft the hives.

As an alternative approach you can use a set of digital luggage scales. These can be used to weigh each side of the hive, again simply lifting it off the stand a centimetre or so until a stable reading is obtained. Add the two readings together and record them in your notebook.

Weighing a hive ...

Weighing a hive …

This method has the advantage that you get an actual number to compare week to week, not some vague recollection of the ‘feeling’ of the colony and what you think it should weigh.

Popeye

But there’s a problem with using the digital luggage scales.

To obtain a reading stable enough to be recorded you need to lift the hive and hold it very steady. At least, that’s what is needed with the scales I purchased.

With luggage this is trivial. You just stand above the bag and lift it with a straight arm and … peep! … you have the weight.

But a hive on a hive stand means that the digital scales are probably already at thigh or hip height. Lifting 20-30 kg a short distance and holding it steady enough with a bent arm is very difficult.

At least it is if you don’t have forearms like Popeye or eat 2000 calories of protein shakes for breakfast before spending the morning doing benchpresses 🙁

Now you’re torquing

Which brings me back to maths and physics.

A comment on a post last season brought the eponymously named Fisher’s Nectar Detector to my attention. This is a digital torque wrench adapted to read hive weights. They retail for about $130 in the US, but I don’t think they’re sold in the UK 11.

The torque wrench is attached to a short L-shaped steel bracket that is inserted between the brood box and the floor of the hive. The weight is determined by gently applying torque, separating the box by a small distance and then lowering it again.

Although I don’t like the idea of separating the floor and the brood box, I’m intrigued by the advantages this method might offer. I also see no reason why you couldn’t lift the back of the hive from the hive stand, much in the same way as you manually heft a hive.

But the digital wrenches available here (for ~£25-50) record torque (e.g. Newton-metres), not weight. Converting one to the other isn’t difficult if you have a good understanding of basic physics.

I don’t … 🙁

But I think the Professor of Mechanics in the School of Physics might 😉

I’ll keep you posted.


 

A New Year, a new start

The short winter days and long dark nights provide ample opportunity to think about the season just gone, and the season ahead.

You can fret about what went wrong and invent a cunning plan to avoid repetition in the future.

Or, if things went right, you can marvel at your prescience and draft the first couple of chapters of your book “Zen and the Art of Beekeeping”.

But you should also prepare for the normal events you expect in the season ahead.

In many ways this year 1 will be the same as last year. Spring build-up, swarming and the spring honey crop, a dearth of nectar in June, summer honey, miticides and feeding … then winter.

Same as it ever was as David Byrne said.

That, or a pretty close approximation, will be true whether you live in Penzance (50.1°N) or Thurso (58.5°N).

Geographical elasticity

Of course, the timing of these events will differ depending upon the climate and the weather.

For convenience let’s assume the beekeeping season is the period when the average daytime temperature is above 10°C 2. That being the case, the beekeeping season in Penzance is about 6 months long.

In contrast, in Thurso it’s only about 4 months long.

More or less the same things happen except they’re squeezed into one third less time.

Once you have lived in an area for a few years you become attuned to this cycle of the seasons. Sure, the weather in individual years – a cold spring, an Indian summer – creates variation, but you begin to expect when particular things are likely to happen.

There’s an important lesson here. Beekeeping is an overtly local activity. It’s influenced by the climate, by the weather in an individual year, and by the regional environment. You need to appreciate these three things to understand what’s likely to happen when.

OSR ... can you believe it?!

Late April 2016, Fife … OSR and snow

Events are delayed by a cold spring, but if there’s oil seed rape in your locality the bees might be able to exploit the bounteous nectar and pollen in mid-April.

Mid-April 2014, Warwickshire

Foraging might extend into October in an Indian summer and those who live near moorland probably have heather yielding until mid/late September.

Move on

You cannot make decisions based on the calendar.

In this internet-connected age I think this is one of the most difficult things for beginners to appreciate. How many times do you see questions about the timing of key events in the beekeeping season – adding supers, splitting colonies, broodlessness – with no reference to where the person asking, or answering, the question lives?

It often takes a move to appreciate this geographical elasticity of the seasons at different latitudes.

When I moved from the Midlands to Scotland 3 in 2015 I became acutely aware of these differences in the beekeeping season.

When queen rearing in the Midlands my records show that I would sometimes start grafting in the second week in April. In some years I was still queen rearing in late August, with queens being successfully mated in September.

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

In the last 5 years in Scotland the earliest I’ve seen a swarm was the 30th of April and the latest I’ve had one arrive in a bait hive was mid-July. Here, queen rearing is largely restricted to mid-May to late-June 4.

All of this is particularly relevant as most of my beekeeping is moving from the east coast to the west coast of Scotland this year.

I’m winding down my beekeeping in Fife and starting afresh on the west coast.

The latitude is broadly the same, but the local environment is very different.

And so are the bees … which means there are some major changes being planned.

What are local bees?

I’m convinced about the benefits of local bees. The science – which I’ve discussed in several previous posts – shows that locally-reared bees are physiologically adapted to their environment and both overwinter and survive better.

But what is local?

Does it mean within a defined geographical area?

If so, what is the limit?

Five miles?

Fifty miles?

What is local? Click to enlarge and read full legend.

I think that’s an overly simplistic approach.

The Angus glens are reasonably ‘local’ to me. Close enough to go for an afternoon walk, or a summer picnic. They’re less than 40 miles north as the bee flies 5.

However, they’re a fundamentally different environment from my Fife apiaries. The latter are in intensively farmed, low lying, arable land. In Fife there’s ample oil seed rape in Spring, field beans in summer and (though not as much as I’d like) lime trees, clover and lots of hedgerows.

The Angus glens

But the Angus glens are open moorland. There’s precious little forage early in the season, but ample heather in August and September. It’s also appreciably colder in the hills due to the altitude 6.

I don’t think you could keep bees on the Angus hills all year round. I’m not suggesting you could. What I’m trying to emphasise is that the environment can be dramatically different only a relatively short distance away.

My bees

I don’t name my queens 7 but I’m still very fond of my bees. I enjoy working with them and try and help them – by managing diseases, by providing space or additional food – when needed.

I’ve also spent at least a decade trying to improve them.

Every year I replace queens heading colonies with undesirable traits like running on the comb or aggression or chalkbrood. I use my best stocks to rear queen from and, over the years, they’ve gradually improved.

They’re not perfect, but they are more than adequate.

When I moved from the Midlands to Scotland I brought my bees with me.

Forgot the scythe

Delivering bees from the Midlands to Fife

I ‘imported’ about a dozen colonies, driving them up overnight in an overloaded Transit van. The van was so full of hive stands, empty (and full) beehives and nucs that I had a full hive strapped down in the passenger seat. Fortunately the trip went without a hitch (or an emergency stop 🙂 ).

Passenger hive

Passenger hive

They certainly were not ‘local’ but I’d invested time in them and didn’t want to have to start again from scratch. In addition, some hives were for work and it was important we could start research with minimum delay.

But I cannot take any of my bees to the west coast 🙁

Treatment Varroa free

Parts of the remote north and west coast of Scotland remain free of Varroa. This includes some of the islands, isolated valleys in mountainous areas and some of the most westerly parts of the mainland.

It also includes the area (Ardnamurchan) where I live.

Just imagine the benefits of not having to struggle with Varroa and viruses every season 🙂

Although I don’t feel as though I struggle with managing Varroa, I am aware that it’s a very significant consideration during the season. I know when and how to treat to maintain very, very low mite levels, but doing so takes time and effort.

It would certainly be preferable to not have to manage Varroa; not by simply ignoring the problem, but by not having any of the little b’stards there in the first place 😉

Which explains why my bees cannot come with me 8. Once Varroa is in an area I do not think it can be eradicated without also eradicating the bees.

A green thought in a green shade … Varroa-free bees on the west coast of Scotland

I’ve already got Varroa-free bees on the west coast, sourced from Colonsay.

Is Colonsay ‘local’?

Probably. I’d certainly argue that it’s more ‘local’ to Ardnamurchan than the Angus glens are to Fife, despite the distance (~40 miles) being almost identical. Both are at sea level, with a similar mild, windy and sometimes wet, climate.

Sometimes, in the case of Ardnamurchan, very wet 🙁

My cunning plans

Although the season ahead might be “same as it ever was”, the beekeeping certainly won’t be.

My priorities are to wind down my Fife beekeeping activities (with the exception of a few research colonies we will need until mid/late 2022) and to expand my beekeeping on the west coast.

Conveniently, because it’s something I enjoy and also because it’s not featured very much on these pages recently, these plans involve lots of queen rearing.

Queen rearing using the Ben Harden system

In Fife I’m intending to split my colonies to produce nucs for sale. I’ll probably do this by sacrificing the summer honey crop. It’s easier to rear queens in late May/June and the nucs that are produced can be sold in 2021, or overwintered for sale the following season.

If I leave the queen rearing until later in the summer I would be risking either poor weather for queen mating, or have insufficient time to ensure the nucs were strong enough to overwinter.

It’s easier (and preferable) to hold a nuc back by removing brood and bees than it is to mollycoddle a weak nuc through the winter.

And on the west coast I’ll also be queen rearing with the intention of expanding my colonies from two to about eight. In this case the goal will be to start as early as possible with the aim of overwintering full colonies, not nucs. However, I’ve no experience of the timing of spring build up or swarming on the west coast, so I’ve got a lot to learn.

Something old, something new

I favour queen rearing in queenright colonies. This isn’t the place to spend ages discussing why. It suits the scale of my beekeeping, the colonies are easy to manage and it is not too resource intensive.

I’ve written quite a bit about the Ben Harden system. I have used this for several years with considerable success and expect to do so again.

I’ve also used a Cloake board very successfully. This differs from the Ben Harden system in temporarily rendering the hive queenless using a bee-proof slide and upper entrance.

Cloake board ...

Cloake board …

Using a Cloake board the queen cells are started under the emergency response, but finished in a queenright hive. It’s a simple and elegant approach. In addition, the queen rearing colony can be split into half a dozen nucs for queen mating, meaning the entire thing can be managed starting with a single double brood colony.

One notable feature of the Cloake board is that the queen cells are raised in a full-sized upper brood box. During the preparation of the hive this upper box becomes packed with bees 9. This means there are lots of bees present for queen rearing.

Concentrating the bees ...

Concentrating the bees …

It’s definitely a case of “the more the merrier” … and, considering the size of my colonies, I’m pretty certain I can achieve even greater concentrations of bees using a Morris board.

A Morris board is very similar to a Cloake board except the upper face has two independent halves. It’s used with a divided brood box (or two 5 frame nucleus boxes) and can generate sequential rounds of queen cells. I understand the principle, but it’ll be a new method I’ve not used before.

Since the bees are concentrated into half the volume it should be possible to get very high densities of bees using a Morris board.

And since I like building things for beekeeping 10, that’s what I’m currently making …

Which explains why I’ve got bits of aluminium arriving in the post, chopped up queen excluders on my workbench and Elastoplast on three fingers of my left hand 🙁

Happy New Year!


Notes

I’m rationalising my beekeeping equipment prior to moving. I have far too much! Items surplus to requirements – currently mainly flat-pack National broods and supers – will be listed on my ‘For Sale‘ page.