Category Archives: Equipment

Quick fixes

Honey bees are remarkably resilient creatures.

As beekeepers we blunder around the hive on a weekly basis trying to ensure they don’t leave us for pastures new.

The custodians of the environment fill it with chemicals and replace those pastures with acres of distinctly bee-unfriendly monoculture.

Rather too much arable …

And, to add insult to injury, we crowd hives together and move bees with little consideration of the gallimaufry of pests and diseases we are helping to transmit.

Yet, despite this, colony numbers worldwide are increasing 1. This reflects the popularity of beekeeping, the value of honey as a commodity and the important use of honey bees to provide ‘ecosystem services’ (largely pollination) for agriculture.

Home is where the hive is

So, considering all the problems bees face when they’re out and about gathering nectar and pollen, the least we can do is provide them with well-built, watertight, secure and draught-free accommodation.

And, most of the time we do.

The quality of most commercial 2 hives these days is generally excellent. Independent manufacturers and the big national suppliers all sell very good beehives.

Even the flat-packed, second or third quality stuff you fill your car boot with on the annual ‘sale days’ is more than adequate.

You build it, you fill it with bees and they thrive.

They overwinter well, they build up strongly in the spring, you make some early splits to increase stocks and avert swarming.

They continue to thrive. It’s turning into a bumper season. You run out of supers during the strong spring nectar flows.

And then the swarming begins … and you run out of brood boxes (you’ve already run out of supers), crown boards, roofs etc.

This is when you discover all sorts of quick fixes that the bees cope just fine with. These allow you to continue beekeeping through periods with too many bees and too little equipment.

I’m going to use mostly pictures rather than lots of words. This is not an exhaustive list and it’s not restricted to the May and June swarming frenzy.

I’m sure many readers have their own solutions to short-term (or long-term) beekeeping problems. Feel free to post them in the comments section.

Hive stands

Abelo hives on pallet. Note entrances face in opposite directions.

Wooden pallets work fine as hive stands, as do stacked car tyres, or even simply stacking one hive on top of another (which saves a roof). If doing the latter it can help (the bees, but not necessarily the beekeeper) to have the entrances pointing in opposite directions.

Floors

You don’t need a fancy open mesh floor with an adjustable entrance. A sheet of Correx and some strips of softwood can be perfectly adequate.

Inside ...

Cheapy, cheapy floor … when you’ve run out of everything else.

And if you’re really running short of kit drill a hole through the sidewall of an eke and place it on the roof of another hive i.e. no floor at all.

It’s critical the hole is about the diameter of the cork from a good bottle of red wine. This is essential. For obvious reasons … you do want to use it as an eke again sometime in the future 😉

Boxes

Two stacked supers are a bit deeper than a single brood box (National hive). If you haven’t run out of supers (yet … you will) they make a perfectly adequate substitute.

Under offer ...

Two stacked supers, in this case set up as a bait hive. Note also the hive stand. And the roof.

Half of my bait hives are built from two supers.

As an aside, if you want to unite bees from these Paradise/Modern Beekeeping poly hives (see photo above) over the top of a standard National brood box, you’ll need a thin, wide shim to avoid bee-sized holes at the junction.

Shim

Shim …

This shim wrecks the ‘bee space’ but it’s only in use for a few days so it isn’t a problem 3.

Which, in a way, is the definition of the sort of quick fix I’m describing here … something that’s pressed into service for a relatively short period of time and that works satisfactorily, though perhaps not perfectly.

And is often still in use years later 😉

Crownboards

That’ll be 25p please

Poly crownboard ...

Poly crownboard …

… though a (well washed) fertiliser sack works just as well and is even cheaper.

Roofs

Might not be necessary at all if you stack another hive on top (see above).

However, if they are then Correx roofs take some beating.

Correx in the frost ...

Correx in the frost …

Literally.

These cost about £1.50 each to make, take minutes to build and are fully weathertight 4. I’ve got several that are over 5 years old and still going strong.

Not a quick enough fix for you?

Planting tray roof …

My bait hives were popular this year and I caught two swarms on successive days to a hive in the same location. I used an upturned planting tray for the roof of one of the bait hives and the bees didn’t seem to mind at all.

Incoming! from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

Clearer boards

Having planned to reduce my colony numbers this year I singularly failed to do anything of the sort.

I therefore ran out of clearer boards when I came to harvest the summer honey 5. I could have made multiple trips to the apiary but solved it with a quick fix.

Undaunted, a combination of some 4 cm ekes, a sheet or two of Correx (of course), a bit of gaffer tape (what else), a ‘lozenge’ escape or two, a Stanley knife and the inevitable half a dozen Band-Aids … and voila!

Quick fix clearer board – super side

Quick fix clearer board – hive side

These worked just fine and can be disassembled in minutes should I need the ekes again.

I’d bet good money they are used again next year …

etc.

To me, one of the great attractions of beekeeping is that it is an inherently practical occupation. In addition to the pleasure of working with the bees to produce a delicious, high quality and valuable product, you often need to use practical skill and ingenuity – coupled with Correx and gaffer tape – to solve day-to-day problems on the way.

For example, if you’re moving hives any distance it’s important they are well ventilated and that the frames don’t slide about with the consequent risk of crushing bees 6.

Travel screen mesh and eke

Travel screen mesh and eke …

Fibreglass net insect screening makes an ideal travel screen and is easily held in place with staples (in most poly hives) or an eke and a couple of stout straps.

And to stop the frames from sliding about a block or two of closed cell foam wedged between the hive wall and the dummy board is ideal.

Foam block ...

Foam block …

This type of closed cell foam is regularly supplied in packing material and is well worth saving if you find any. It’s the perfect example of a ‘quick fix’ that solves a problem at little or no cost.

Of course , you can never have too much gaffer tape. A quick fix to wasp problems until you find the errant entrance block.

Gaffer tape … remember to cover the sticky bit on the reverse to protect the bees.

And finally … you can never have too many straps to hold hives together or hold roofs down.

But you can often have too few.

Batten down the hatches … too few straps and fondant to the rescue

This photo was taken on the 14th of June, 2018. It looks balmy, but the windspeed was approaching 50 mph. I’d arrived to find some roofs already off 7 and too few straps to hold everything down.

There are two quick fixes in the picture. On the left a wooden plank holds the middle hive down with straps holding it (and the roofs on the flanking hives) in place. On the right, 25kg of fondant was press-ganged into service.


 

BOGOF

The swarm season this year has been atypical. At least here in the coolish, dampish, East coast of Scotland.

I hived my first swarm of the year on the last day of April and – as I write this – my most recent one in the middle of July.

The intervening period has been pretty quiet as the weather in May and June was – after a warm early spring – rather poor 1. The weather picked up a week or so ago, but it’s not been consistently good.

What we have had recently are some very warm and sunny days. The combination of some iffy weather, a bit of nectar coming in and then a few hot days are great conditions to trigger swarming.

Bait hives

For this reason I keep bait hives in my apiaries and one in my back garden throughout the season. These consist of a brood box with a solid floor, one old black frame anointed with lemongrass oil on the top bar, ten foundationless frames, a plastic crownboard and a roof of some sort.

Bait hive ...

Bait hive …

Any interest in these by scout bees suggests that there’s a colony nearby thinking of swarming. Scouts clearly check out potential locations before the colony swarms, but the scout activity increases significantly if they find your offering attractive and once the colony swarms and sets up a temporary bivouac from which it subsequently relocates.

Watching scout bee numbers increase allows you to guesstimate when a swarm might arrive. It’s an inexact science. A few scout bees are nothing to get excited about. Dozens are good and a hundred or two are very promising.

However, what’s best of all are a hundred or so scouts that rather suddenly disappear leaving the bait hive suspiciously quiet.

Which is more or less what happened on Sunday at the bait hive in my garden.

Walking wounded

Scout bees had discovered the bait hive sometime on Friday (or at least, this was when I first noticed them).

The weekend started warm with thunder threatened. I finished my colony inspections and returned for lunch to find a couple of dozen scouts checking out the bait hive 2. As the cloudy and muggy conditions continued scout bee numbers increased during the afternoon and then eventually tailed off as the evening cooled.

Sunday dawned warm and bright. Scouts were up and about before I’d made my first mug of coffee at 7 am. Numbers increased significantly during the morning.

While taking a few photos for talks I noticed a handful of corpses and walking wounded bees crawling around on the ground by the bait hive.

Missing in action

On closer inspection it was clear that there were intermittent fights between scouts at the hive entrance. There were more fights than cripples or corpses, and most fights ended with the scrapping bees breaking apart and continuing to, er, scout out the suitability of the bait hive.

Scout bees fighting from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

This behaviour seemed a bit unusual, but there wasn’t an obvious explanation for it. I wondered if I’d inadvertently used a frame with some stores tucked away in the top corners, with the fighting being between scouts and robbers perhaps 3.

Gone but not forgotten

Scout numbers continued to increase …

The calm before the storm

By Sunday lunchtime I was confidently predicting a swarm would be arriving ‘shortly’.

This prediction was upgraded to ‘very shortly’ once I realised – around 3 pm – that the scout bee activity had suddenly dwindled to just a few.

This happens when the scouts assemble en masse and persuade the bivouacked swarm to take flight and relocate. Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley has a full explanation of this fascinating behaviour.

And, sure enough, ten minutes later a swirling maelstrom of bees approached purposefully down the street at chimney height, spiralling down to the bait hive.

You hear it first. Is it? Isn’t it? You look up and around. You can’t place the direction the noise is coming from. Then, at walking pace, they appear.

Hundreds, then thousands, milling around, getting lower, festooning the hive front, landing all around, taking flight and settling again.

Incoming! from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

At the hive entrance are hundreds of bees fanning frantically. The queen must have already entered the box. Slowly, over an hour or so, the bees settle, enter the box and just leave a few stragglers around the entrance.

One hour later from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

Swarms are a fantastic sight in their own right. They’re even better when you have some insights into how ten thousand individuals with a brain the size of a pin head are corralled and coordinated to rehouse the queen, the flying workers and a few dozen drones that are ‘along for the ride’.

Again, I cannot recommend Honeybee Democracy highly enough as a very accessible guide to swarms and swarming.

Late evening, another move

The evening slowly cools. I can’t resist gently hefting the box to guesstimate the size of the swarm. Small to middling perhaps … a view pretty-much confirmed when I peek under the roof to see about 5-6 seams of bees occupying the back of the box.

We have a new puppy and it was clear (i.e. I was told in no uncertain terms) that the occupied bait hive must be moved to a less accessible spot.

I plug the entrance with some tissue and gently carry them around to a puppy-free location on the other side of the house.

Swarms suffer short-term geographic memory loss. They can be moved any distance you want for the first day or two after hiving them. After that they’ll have reorientated to the new location and the standard 3 feet/3 miles rule applies (which isn’t a rule at all).

Early morning, more activity

Monday dawned calm, warm and bright.

It was clearly going to be a fabulous day.

One of the great things about being an academic is the flexibility you have once the students have disappeared to Ibiza or Machu Picchu or wherever for the summer 4.

I was therefore looking forward to a day of wall-to-wall meetings, at least 3 hours of which would be in a basement room with no windows 🙁

At 7:30 am I checked the relocated and occupied bait hive. All good. Almost no entrance activity but a contented gentle buzzing from inside suggested that all was well.

As I left the house I noticed a dozen or so bees milling around the stand where the bait hive had originally been located.

Puppy territory. Oops!

I quickly dumped a floor, a brood box with half a dozen frames and a roof on the stand in the hope that any stragglers from the swarm – which I suspected were scouts that had got lost, or workers that had already reorientated to the occupied bait hive late the previous afternoon – would settle (or clear off).

No signal

Having been trapped underground in an overrunning meeting on the hottest day of the year I missed the following messages that all appeared in a rush when my phone reconnected on surfacing.

11:55 Lots of bees

13:27 Even more bees. I thought you’d moved them last night?

15:06 Bl%^dy hundreds of bees. Where are you?

16:11 HUGE swarm

As I blinked myopically in the bright sunlight, like a lost mole, I realised what I’d seen yesterday were scouts from two separate colonies fighting at the bait hive entrance.

The bees I’d seen the following morning had been scouts from the second swarm.

Another day, another bait hive, another swarm …

Which had now arrived.

Overestimates and underestimates

As a beekeeper I’m well aware that a puppy-protecting non-beekeeper telling me about Lots of bees and Even more bees probably means Some bees.

The term ‘hundreds’ might mean any number less than 100.

It’s worth noting here that the partner of a non-beekeeper is considerably more accurate than the general public. If I get a message from someone with no experience of beekeeping about ‘hundreds of honey bees. Definitely honey bees!’ I know what they’re actually talking about are 12-15 solitary bees … probably Osmia.

Or wasps.

HUGE is tricky though. It has a sort of indefinable unmeasurable quality of largeness about it.

Thousands would have been easy … a small cast perhaps?

But HUGE … ?

It was huge.

Certainly the biggest swarm I’ve seen in recent years 🙂

I had to open the box to add a full complement of frames. The poly hive was heavy. You could feel the swaying mass of bees hanging from the wooden crownboard over the empty space in the box 5. The few frames present were completely covered.

I bumped the bees off the crownboard, lifted it away and the bees formed a very deep layer at the bottom of the brood box 6. The new foundationless frames I added projected well above the frame runners supported by the writhing mass of bees and only gently settled into place as the bees moved out of the way and up the sidewalls.

I strapped the box up and moved it to a puppy-safe location.

The following evening I treated both swarms with a vaporised oxalic acid-containing miticide and the morning after that I shifted them to an out apiary.

Look and learn

Only last week I discussed the importance of learning from observation.

Here was another lesson.

What did I learn from these two swarms and what assumptions can I make?

  1. Evidence of fighting between scout bees strongly suggests that there are two different swarms looking for a new home. I’m making the assumption here 7 that the two swarms issued from different hives (rather than being two casts from the same hive 8) because:
    1. I wouldn’t expect scouts from the same hive to fight, even if they were from different swarms. Is this actually known?
    2. I’m told the two swarms approached the bait hive from opposite directions (I saw the first one of course, but not the millions of bees in a huge swarm that arrived the following day when I was – literally – buried in meetings).
  2. Scouts are active well before a hive gets busy in the morning – at least one containing a recently hived swarm. I’ve noticed this before. Perhaps the recently hived swarm is concentrating on drawing comb as a priority?
  3. It is important to have sufficient spare compatible equipment available for all sorts of eventualities. I got away with it this time … just. The first bait hive used a planting tray as a lid. The second used some spare bits kicking around in the back of the car and a handful of foundationless frames just out of the steamer.
  4. I must remember to save time after the swarm arrives by preparing the bait hive properly in advance. This includes giving it a full complement of foundationless frames (and the one dark frame) and – if you intend to move it any distance after swarm arrival – making it ready for transport. In my case this includes using an insect mesh travel screen instead of a crownboard, adding a foam wedge to stop frames shifting about during transport and strapping the whole lot up tight.
Foam block ...

Foam block …

Natural cavities

The whole purpose of putting out bait hives is to attract swarms. As a beekeeper this saves me collecting them from the neighbourhood or – more frequently – politely refusing to collect them from 40′ up a Leylandii, a chimney or the church tower 9.

If something is worth doing you might as well do it properly. The optimal design for a bait hive is well understood (essentially it’s a National hive brood box – Honeybee Democracy again!), so that’s what I offer. Not a nuc 10.

However, to have two swarms essentially fighting for access to a single bait hive suggests there is a shortage of good natural or man-made cavities to which a swarm could relocate.

I live in a small village surrounded by mainly arable farmland. There are lots of hedges, small spinneys, conifer plantations, old farm buildings and houses about 11.

Rather too much arable if you ask me …

I’ve got a fair idea where bees are kept locally. I don’t think there are any within a mile of the bait hive other than my own colonies (and they did not swarm).

I would have expected there to be several suitable local natural or man made cavities that could ‘compete’ with a bait hive to attract swarms.

Clearly not … or they are already all occupied 12.

STOP PRESS Both were prime swarms as they had laying queens when I checked them on Thursday afternoon. I should have also added that a bait hive in the same location attracted another swarm in the preceding week. It’s been a successful spot every year I’ve been back in Scotland.


Colophon

Buy one, get one free (BOGOF) seemed an appropriate title for this post. It dates back to 1985 where it was first used in the journal Progressive Grocer (who knew there was such a thing?). Two for the price of one offers have been blamed for spiralling obesity problems and there has been political pressure to ban such offers in supermarkets.

In draft form this post was entitled twofer. As in two for the price of one. Etymologically this is an older term, but surprisingly the OED does not associate it with cricket.

Twofer is regularly used by cricket pundits to mean two wickets in successive balls. However, I decided to avoid the cricket link so as to not upset any of my valued New Zealand readers who might still be smarting from the double-whammy of a cricket World Cup defeat to England and losing the claim to have the World’s steepest street to Wales.

My commiserations 😉

Teaching in the bee shed

An observant beekeeper never stops learning. How the colony responds to changes in forage and weather, how swarm preparations are made, how the colony regulates the local environment of the hive etc.

Sometimes the learning is simple reinforcement of things you should know anyway.

Or knew, but forgot. Possibly more than once.

If you forget the dummy board they will build brace comb in the gap 🙁

There’s nothing wrong with learning by reinforcement though some beekeepers never seem to get the message that knocking back swarm cells is not an effective method of swarm control 😉

Learning from bees and beekeeping

More generally, bees (and their management) make a very good subject for education purposes. Depending upon the level taught they provide practical examples for:

  • Biology – (almost too numerous to mention) pollination, caste structure, the superorganism, disease and disease management, behaviour
  • Chemistry – pheromones, sugars, fermentation, forensic analysis
  • Geography and communication – the waggle dance, land use, agriculture
  • Economics – division of labour (so much more interesting than Adam Smith and pin making), international trade
  • Engineering and/or woodwork – bee space, hive construction, comb building, the catenary arch

There are of course numerous other examples, not forgetting actual vocational training in beekeeping.

This is offered by the Scottish Qualifications Authority in a level 5 National Progression Award in Beekeeping and I’ve received some enquiries recently about using a bee shed for teaching beekeeping.

Shed life

For our research we’ve built and used two large sheds to accommodate 5 to 7 colonies. The primary reason for housing colonies in a shed is to provide some protection to the bees and the beekeeper/scientist when harvesting brood for experiments.

On a balmy summer day there’s no need for this protection … the colonies are foraging strongly, well behaved and good tempered.

But in mid-March or mid-November, on a cool, breezy day with continuous light rain it’s pretty grim working with colonies outdoors. Similarly – like yesterday – intermittent thunderstorms and heavy rain are not good conditions to be hunched over a strong colony searching for a suitable patch containing 200 two day old larvae.

Despite the soaking you get the colonies are still very exposed and you risk chilling brood … to say nothing of the effect it has on their temper.

Or yours.

Bee shed inspections

Here’s a photo from late yesterday afternoon while I worked with three colonies in the bee shed. The Met Office had issued “yellow warnings” of thunderstorms and slow moving heavy rain showers that were predicted to drift in from the coast all afternoon.

All of which was surprisingly accurate.

Bee shed inspections in the rain

For a research facility this is a great setup. The adverse weather doesn’t seem to affect the colonies to anything like the same degree as those exposed to the elements. Here’s a queenless colony opened minutes before the photo above was taken …

Open colony in the bee shed

Inside the shed the bees were calmly going about their business. I could spend time on each frame and wasn’t bombarded with angry bees irritated that the rain was pouring in through their roof.

Even an inexperienced or nervous beekeeper would have felt unthreatened, despite the poor conditions outside.

So surely this would be an ideal environment to teach some of the practical skills of beekeeping?

Seeing and understanding

Practical beekeeping involves a lot of observation.

Is the queen present? Is there brood in all stages? Are there signs of disease?

All of these things need both good eyesight and good illumination. The former is generally an attribute of the young but can be corrected or augmented in the old.

But even 20:20 vision is of little use if there is not enough light to see by.

The current bee shed is 16′ x 8′. It is illuminated by the equivalent of seven 120W bulbs, one situated ‘over the shoulder’ of a beekeeper inspecting each of the seven hives.

On a bright day the contrast with the light coming in through the windows makes it difficult to see eggs. On a dull day the bulbs only provide sufficient light to see eggs in freshly drawn comb. In older or used frames – at least with my not-so-young eyesight – it usually involves a trip to the door of the shed (unless it is raining).

It may be possible to increase the artificial lighting using LED panels but whether this would be sufficient (or affordable) is unclear.

Access

Observation also requires access. The layout of my bee shed has the hives in a row along one wall. The frames are all arranged ‘warm way’ and the hives are easily worked from behind.

Hives in the bee shed

Inevitably this means that the best view is from directly behind the hive. If the shed was used as a training/teaching environment there’s no opportunity to stand beside the hive (as you would around a colony in a field), so necessitating the circulation of students within a rather limited space to get a better view.

A wider shed would improve things, but it’s still far from ideal and I think it would be impractical for groups of any size.

And remember, you’re periodically walking to and from the door with frames …

Kippered

If you refer back to the first photograph in this post you can see a smoker standing right outside the door of the shed.

If you use or need a smoker to inspect the colonies (and I appreciate this isn’t always necessary, or that there are alternative solutions) then it doesn’t take long to realise that the smoker must be kept outside the shed.

Even with the door open air circulation is limited and the shed quickly fills with smoke.

If you’ve mastered the art of lighting a properly fuelled efficient smoker the wisp of smoke curling gently up from the nozzle soon reduces visibility and nearly asphyxiates those in the shed.

Which brings us back to access again.

Inspections involve shuttling to and from the door with frames or the smoker, all of which is more difficult if the shed is full of students.

Or bees … which is why the queen excluder is standing outside the shed as well. I usually remove this, check it for the queen and then stand it outside out of the way.

Broiled

In mid-March or November the shed is a great place to work. The sheltered environment consistently keeps the temperature a little above ambient.

Colonies seem to develop sooner and rear brood later into the autumn 1.

But in direct sunlight the shed can rapidly become unbearably warm.

Phew!

All the hives have open mesh floors and I’ve not had any problems with colonies being unable to properly regulate their temperature.

The same cannot be said of the beekeeper.

Working for any period at temperatures in the low thirties (Centigrade) is unpleasant. Under these conditions the shed singularly fails to keep the beekeeper dry … though it’s sweat not rain that accumulates in my boots on days like this.

Bee shelters

For one or two users a bee shed makes a lot of sense if you:

  • live in an area with high rainfall (or that is very windy and exposed) and/or conditions where hives would benefit from protection in winter
  • need to inspect or work with colonies at fixed times and days
  • want the convenience of equipment storage, space for grafting and somewhere quiet to sit listening to the combined hum of the bees in the hives and Test Match Special 😉

But for teaching groups of students there may be better solutions.

In continental Europe 2 bee houses and bee shelters are far more common than they are in the UK.

I’ve previously posted a couple of articles on German bee houses – both basic and deluxe. The former include a range of simple shelters, open on one or more sides.

A bee shelter

Something more like this, with fewer hives allowing access on three sides and a roof – perhaps glazed or corrugated clear sheeting to maximise the light – to keep the rain off, might provide many of the benefits of a bee shed with few of the drawbacks.


 

Droning on

This post was supposed to be about Varroa resistance in Apis mellifera – to follow the somewhat controversial ‘Leave and let die’ from a fortnight ago. However, pesky work commitments have prevented me doing it justice so it will have to wait for a future date.

All work and no play …

Instead I’m going to pose some questions (and provide some partial answers) on overwintering mites and the use of drone brood culling to help minimise mite levels early in the season.

Imagine the scenario

A poorly managed colony goes into the winter with very high mite levels. Let’s assume the beekeeper failed to apply a late summer/early autumn treatment early enough and then ignored the advice to treat again in midwinter when the colony is broodless.

Tut, tut …

The queen is laying fewer and fewer eggs as the days shorten and the temperature drops. There are decreasing amounts of the critical 5th instar larvae that the mite must infest to reproduce.

At some point the colony may actually be broodless.

What happens to the mites?

Do they just hang around as phoretic mites waiting for the queen to start laying again?

Presumably, because there is nowhere else they can go … but …

What about the need for nurses?

During the Varroa reproductive cycle newly emerged mites preferentially associate with nurse bees for ~6 days (usually quoted as 4-11 days) before infesting a new 5th instar larva.

Mites that associate with newly emerged bees or bees older than nurse bees exhibit reduced fecundity and fitness i.e. they produce fewer progeny and fewer mature progeny 1 per infested cell.

I’m not aware of studies showing the influence of the physiologically-distinct winter bees on mite fecundity.

Similarly, I’m not sure if there are any studies that have looked at the types of bees phoretic mites associate with during the winter 2, or the numbers of bees in the colony during November to January 3 that might be considered to be similar physiologically to nurse bees.

Whilst we (or at least I) don’t know the answer to these questions, I’m willing to bet – for reasons to be elaborated upon below – that during the winter the fecundity and fitness of mites decreases significantly.

And the number of the little blighters …

Mite longevity

How long does a mite live?

The usual figure quoted for adult female mites is 2-3 reproductive cycles (of ~17 days and ~11 days for the first and subsequent rounds respectively). So perhaps about 40 days in total.

But, in the absence of brood (or if brood is in very short supply) this is probably longer as there is data linking longevity to the number of completed reproductive cycles i.e. if there is no reproduction the mite can live longer.

It is therefore perhaps reasonable to assume that mites should be able to survive through a broodless period of several weeks during midwinter. However, remember that this increases the chance the mite will be removed by grooming or other physical contacts within the cluster, so reducing the overall population.

Spring has sprung

So, going back to the scenario we started with …

What happens in late winter/early spring when the queen starts laying again?

Does that 5cm patch of early worker brood get immediately inundated with hundreds of mites?

If so, the consequences for the early brood are dire. High levels of mite infestation inevitably mean exposure to a large amount of deformed wing virus (DWV) which likely will result in precisely the developmental deformities you’d expect … DWV really “does what it says on the tin”.

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

My hives are carefully managed to minimise mite levels. I don’t really have any personal experience to help answer the question. However, in colonies that have higher (or even high) mite levels I don’t think it’s usual to see significant numbers of damaged bees in the very earliest possible inspections of the season 4.

My (un)informed guess …

My guess is that several things probably happen to effectively reduce exposure of this earliest brood to Varroa:

  1. Varroa levels in the colony drop due to the extended winter phoretic phase. More opportunities for grooming or similar physical contact (perhaps even clustering) increase the loss of mites.
  2. Mites that remain may have reduced access to brood simply due to the mathematical chance of the bee they are phoretic on coming into contact with the very small numbers of late stage larvae in the colony.
  3. Mites that do infest brood have reduced fecundity and fitness and may not rear (m)any progeny.

There are a lot of assumptions and guesswork there. Some of these things may be known but discussions I’ve had with some of the leading Varroa researchers suggest that there are still big gaps in our knowledge.

OK, enough droning on, what about drones?

Back to the imagined scenario.

What happens next?

Well, perhaps not next, but soon?

The colony continues to contract (because the daily loss of aged workers still outnumbers the daily gain of new bees) but the laying rate of the queen gradually increases from a few tens, to hundreds to a couple of thousand eggs per day.

And the colony starts to really expand.

And so do the mite numbers …

Pupa (blue) and mite (red) numbers

And at some point, depending upon the expansion rate, the climate and (probably) a host of factors I’ve not thought of or are not known, the colony begins to make early swarm preparations by starting to rear drones.

Drones take 24 days to develop from the egg and a further 12-16 days to reach sexual maturity. If the swarming period starts in the first fortnight of May, the drones that take part were laid as eggs in late March.

And drone larvae are very attractive to Varroa.

9 out of 10 mites prefer drones

Varroa replicates ‘better’ in association with drone pupae. By better I mean that more progeny are produced from each infested cell. This is because the drone replication cycle is longer than that of worker brood.

The replication cycle of Varroa

The replication cycle of Varroa

On average 2.2 new mites are produced in drone cells vs only 1.3 in worker cells 5. From an evolutionary standpoint this is a significant selective pressure and it’s therefore unsurprising that Varroa have evolved to preferentially infest drone brood.

Irrespective of the mite levels, given the choice between worker and drone, Varroa will infest drone brood at 8-11 times the level of worker brood 6.

Significantly, as the amount of drone brood was reduced (typically it’s 5-15% of comb in the hive) the drone cell preference increased by ~50% 7.

I hope you can see where this is now going …

Early drone brood sacrifice

As colony expansion segues into swarm preparation the queen lays small amounts of drone brood. These cells are a very small proportion of the overall brood in the colony but are disproportionately favoured by the mite population.

And the mite population – even in a poorly managed colony – should be less (and less fit) in the Spring than the preceding autumn for reasons elaborated upon above (with the caveat that some of that was informed guesswork).

Therefore, if you make sure you remove the earliest capped drone brood you should also remove a significant proportion of the viable mites in the colony.

Drone brood is usually around the periphery of the brood nest, along the bottom of frames with normal worker foundation, or on the ‘shoulders’ near the lugs. The drone brood is often scattered around the brood nest.

As a consequence, if you want to remove all the earliest capped drone brood you have to rummage through the frames and ‘fork out’ 8 little patches here and there.

It can be a bit of a mess.

Is there an easier way to do this?

Drone cells

Beekeepers who predominantly use foundationless frames will be aware that they usually have significantly more drones (and drone comb) in their colonies than equivalent sized colonies using embossed worker foundation.

Depending upon the type of foundationless frames used the drone comb is drawn out in different positions on the frames.

Horizontally wired foundationless frames can be all drone brood or a mix of drone and worker. However, the demarcation between the brood types is often inconveniently located with regard to support wires.

In contrast, foundationless frames constructed using vertical bamboo supports are often built as ‘panels’ consisting entirely of drone or worker comb.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

Which makes slicing out one or more complete panels of recently capped drone brood simplicity itself.

There are no wires in the way.

You can sometimes simply pull it off the starter strip.

Drone brood sacrifice

Check the brood for Varroa 9, feed the pupae to your chickens and/or melt out the wax in your steam wax extractor.

The bees will rapidly rebuild the comb and will not miss a few hundred drones.

They’ll be much healthier without the mites. Importantly, the mites will have been removed from the colony early in the season so preventing them going through repeated rounds of reproduction.

This is the final part of the ‘midseason mite management‘ triptych 10, but I might return to the subject with some more thoughts in the future … for example, continuous culling of drone brood (in contrast to selective culling of the very earliest drone brood in the colony discussed here) is not a particularly effective way of suppressing mite levels in a colony.


 

 

 

 

 

Off again, on again …

The title of this post could refer to the 2019 season, queen mating, forage availability and the honey supers.

And does …

All are, of course, related to the local weather.

This is my fourth year back in Scotland keeping bees and the season started really well. Scout bees were examining my bait hives by late April and I hived my first swarm on the last day of that month.

Fanning bees

Fanning bees

April had been a good month and overwintered colonies were consequently in pretty good shape and had built up well to (hopefully) exploit the early season forage. Overwintered nucs looked particularly strong …

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The oil seed rape (OSR) appeared as expected – there’s quite a bit in range of both my main apiaries – and the bees started hammering it.

And then the weather reverted to ‘about average’ … which for my part of eastern Scotland in May is a mean maximum daily temperature of 12-14°C. With these lower temperatures came higher than average rainfall.

Nothing dramatic, but enough to – literally – put the dampeners on the first half of the season.

June gap

May segued into June and the OSR came and went. Work commitments kept me away from the apiary which meant the clearers went on about a week later than intended.

Unfortunately this was a week in which the weather deteriorated and strong colonies were stuck ‘indoors’ where they had little to do but scoff the stores. And when they could get out there was a shortage of forage – we’ve had a proper ‘June gap‘ this year 1.

Nevertheless, after extracting I managed just shy of 50% of the total from last spring (which was an exceptional year) so I’m not complaining.

One thing notable about this season was that the majority of the supers extracted were not fully capped. Some weren’t capped at all. I’d left a few ‘drippy’ supers behind and every frame extracted passed the ‘shake test’.

(Very) partially capped honey super frame ...

(Very) partially capped honey super frame …

After extraction I always check the water content of every bucket and it was all in the 16-17.5% region … no different from capped spring honey extracted in previous years.

Wheely good extraction

I’ve finally got round to mounting my SAF Natura 9 frame radial extractor on castors 2. I re-drilled the end of the three legs to accept an M10 bolt and then fitted castors with a couple of nuts, one of which was nylon-lined so it should not work loose.

Rubber-wheeled castor with brake

Two of the castors are braked, but they don’t need to be.

The castors make it a lot easier to move the extractor from storage to my extracting room 3 or to the area where I hose it out after use.

No more jiggling

But much more significantly (and the reason I fitted them in the first place) they prevent a poorly balanced extractor from ‘walking’ across the room if unbalanced and unattended.

I no longer have to cling on for dear life until the machine stops jiggling about 🙂

Of course, I always try and balance my extractor. However, the reality is that you sometimes get frames with crystallised honey which unbalance the extractor late in the run. Or runs in which no amount of juggling of the frames achieves a really satisfactory balance.

Under these circumstances the wheels allow the unbalanced extractor to oscillate from side to side rather than march off down the room.

Adding the little rubber wheels has been a revolution in my extracting if you’ll excuse the lousy pun.

… and away again

Summer has now officially started as the longest day has – like the OSR – been and gone. Today we’ve had rain, thunder and lightning i.e.  a typical summer day and almost perfect conditions to return a towering stack of wet supers to the hives.

The bees were not impressed to be disturbed 4 but were grateful for the wet supers. By dealing with these in the late afternoon on a manky day I avoided the bees getting overexcited and triggering robbing.

It’s clear that the June gap is, if not over then certainly drawing to a close. All colonies have fresh nectar stored in the brood frames and the supers in strong colonies are starting to get heavier.

The rain might even help get a good crop from the lime this year (it was far too dry last season) but we need high temperatures as well.

With a bit of good fortune we’ll also now get some good enough weather for queen mating which has been really hit and miss for the last month.

Where did they come from?

Clearly there are some queens getting reared.

I was called out to a swarm in a neighbours garden late in the afternoon a few days ago. It had been in a low bush for a few hours and was a doddle to drop into a Paynes poly nuc. I’ve yet to see the queen so don’t know whether she’s mated or marked.

What’s puzzling is where the bees swarmed from …

My understanding is that the classic football-sized ball of bees hanging from a branch is a temporary bivouac. The swarm sets up camp there while the scouts do their scouting around looking for a better location to make a permanent residence.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

In my experience the bivouacked bees are usually only a short distance from their original location. By ‘short distance’ I mean 5 to 50 metres. Perhaps 100 at the outside. You don’t just find them randomly dotted around the countryside 5.

Which is what’s odd … the closest apiary to the swarm is mine (perhaps 500 metres away). I’d inspected my colonies the same afternoon. All the queens were present and correct. All are marked and clipped. None of the colonies showed any sign of wanting to swarm 6. It’s definitely not from my colonies.

My village is very small. I don’t know everyone but I know someone who does. There are no other beekeepers here. So where did they come from?

Perhaps they were a swarm from a distant colony that failed to reach their intended destination (like one of my bait hives which had been getting some attention 7). Alternatively they might come from a nearby feral colony.

I’m off to take a closer look at the church tower …


Colophon

The title of this post is truncated from the start of the chorus of a 1921 song by E.R. Edson about a train conductor (Flanagan) and a derailed train … “Off again, on again, gone again, Flanagan”.

The hairdryer treatment

I must be missing a couple of fingers. When I wrote the last post on hive and queen numbering I counted off the days to the end of this week, scheduled the post and was then quite surprised when it appeared on Wednesday.

D’oh!

That Friday feeling

That’s spoilt the pattern a bit.

To get back on schedule here’s a note about the well-known trick to revitalise foundation 1.

Frames and foundation

It’s the time of the season when many beekeepers will be running out of frames as they try and keep up with splits and swarming.

It’s sometimes difficult to get new foundation precisely when you need it. The suppliers sell out or delivery takes a week and you need it that afternoon 2. I therefore usually buy in bulk and store it somewhere cool and flat.

If you look after it properly foundation lasts for ages. Don’t go piling things on top of the stack and try not to damage the fragile edges. However, over time it becomes brittle and develops a pale waxy bloom on the surface. It also loses that lovely ‘new foundation’ smell.

The bees draw out this old rather tired foundation appreciably less well than they do new fragrant sheets. In my experience this is particularly noticeable in supers.

However, a few seconds with a hairdryer on a medium setting quickly restores the foundation to its original state.

Revitalising foundation

Don’t overheat it. The sheet will bow slightly as it is warmed. Treat both sides to try and keep it as flat as possible. The foundation will become slightly translucent and regains that lovely ‘new foundation’ smell as oils are released from the warmed wax.

It’s easier to do this once the foundation is fitted in the frame. However, old, brittle foundation is less easy to work with when you’re making up frames in the first place.

Or you could use foundationless frames 😉

Your call.


Colophon

The phrase ‘hairdryer treatment’ is most often associated with the last but one, two, three, four 3 managers of Manchester United FC, Sir Alex Ferguson. The BBC’s Learning English website describes it very well … When Sir Alex Ferguson was angry with his players, he shouted at them with such force, it was like having a hairdryer switched on in their faces.

Since I’m interested in etymology 4 and not football I’ve no idea what prompted the rise in use of the term in May 2013, visualised below on Google Trends.

Hairdryer treatment – Google Trends

Perhaps the May 2013 peak wasn’t Fergie or football at all … perhaps it was a flurry of articles on restoring old wax foundation 😉

Equipment for beginners

As a new beekeeping season gears up we’re approaching the time of year when beginners will start acquiring nucs or swarms to start their own colonies.

Beekeeping is an excellent hobby. It involves physical work outdoors. It is cerebral, requiring good observation, thought and interpretation. You produce delicious honey for your breakfast, your family and friends.

Honey

Honey

You can even recoup your – not inconsiderable – costs by selling products from the hive.

Beekeeping is not an inexpensive hobby and it’s not one you can dependably make money from. Dependably is the important word here. You can certainly make money, by selling honey, bees, wax or propolis, but doing so needs a combination of a good season and the beekeeping expertise to exploit it.

The former is out of your control whereas the latter takes a combination of luck and practise.

You also need the time to develop the customers to sell your products (and not give everything away to friends and family 😉 ).

Hobbies and investments

If you’re interested in starting beekeeping to make money, think again. Instead, buy a 50:50 combination of index-linked gilts and global equity tracker funds. Leave this invested for 20 to 30 years and you’ll make money.

But if you’re starting beekeeping as a hobby (which might make you money in the dim and distant future) then it is worth investing in a minimum amount of good quality equipment.

If beekeeping is for you then you’ll continue using it.

If beekeeping isn’t for you 1 then you’ll be able to sell the equipment without too great a loss.

Buy cheap, buy twice … but this doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive either.

Hives

There are two main decisions to be made here. The material the hive is made from and the type of hive.

The material is immaterial 😉  The main choice is between polystyrene or cedar. Both have advantages and disadvantages. The bees will do fine in either if prepared properly for the winter.

In my view cedar is nicer to handle and a bit more robust. It looks and ‘feels’ more traditional. Poly might be better if you have very harsh winters. I use both more or less interchangeably.

Thorne's budget hive ...

Thorne’s budget hive …

There are some really lovely cedar hives made, but for starters you cannot go far wrong with the Thorne’s ‘Bees on a Budget‘ hive. I bought my first one (second hand from a beginner who was giving up) and it’s still going strong. I have had hundreds of pounds of honey from that hive over the years.

The best of the poly hives that I’ve used is from Abelo. However, it’s an evolving market and there are lots of poly hives I’ve neither used or even seen.

Abelo poly hives

Abelo poly hives

The type of hive – National, Langstroth, Smiths etc. – is one of the most important beekeeping decisions you will make … and one of the first. It doesn’t really matter what type of hive you use 2, but the investment involved commits you to either continuing with that hive type, buying everything again or a lifetime of compatibility problems and frustration 😉

Use what the beekeepers around you use. You should be getting your bees locally and compatibility with them makes buying (and selling in due course) bees easier. It also makes cadging a frame of eggs to ‘rescue’ a queenless hive – or improve your stock – straightforward as the frame will fit into your hive.

Finally, it makes borrowing equipment e.g. spare supers to cope with a phenomenal nectar flow, possible … which brings me on to the an important point …

More hives

You will need some or all of an additional hive the first time you do swarm control. Vertical splits only need an additional brood body, but the classic Pagden artificial swarm requires an additional hive (floor, brood body, crownboard and roof).

In a good year you will also need more than the standard two supers that most ‘complete’ hives are sold with.

Two are better than one …

So … right at the outset it probably makes sense to purchase two complete hives.

Kerching!

Frames

You will need frames of the right size for all boxes you’ve bought. Super frames can be used year after year. Brood frames need replacing about every three years (or the comb does, the frame can be re-used).

Capped honey super frame ...

Capped honey super frame …

Helpfully frames are sold in tens, whereas many boxes require eleven frames. D’oh! At least you’ll have some spares.

You will also need foundation for the frames. Buy the best quality you can get. The bees are going to ‘live’ in it and store your honey in it. There have been problems with poor quality foundation which may contain lots of impurities or chemicals.

In due course, but not right from the start 3, consider using foundationless frames. You will save money and have confidence that the wax is the best possible quality as the bees made it all themselves.

I emboldened all in the opening paragraph of this section deliberately.

There are few things more frustrating than grabbing an empty brood box (expecting a full one) when you’re in the middle of the swarming season.

Another one of those Don’t do as I do, do as I say statements 😉

Miscellaneous hive parts and other equipment

Some ‘complete’ hives (like the Abelo) are sold without a queen excluder.

So, not complete then 😉

The cheapo plastic queen excluders are OK, but a wood-framed metal excluder is easier to use, squashes far fewer bees and is much easier to clean.

You will also need a way to clear the supers of bees before the honey harvest. The Thorne’s Bees on a Budget hive comes with a couple of porter bee escapes and a suitable crownboard, but you’ll need to beg, steal or build something suitable if you buy the Abelo.

Hive tools are a very personal item. There are dozens of different designs and it will take some time to decide which best suits your beekeeping and your hands. Some are big and heavy, some are small and light. Choose a simple medium sized inexpensive one for starters.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

And then buy another as you’ll probably lose it in the long grass 😉

Buy a honey bucket and keep your hive tools, together with a small serrated knife and a pair of scissors, in strong washing soda. You can leave this in the apiary. The tools will stay pathogen-free and be nice and clean when you next use them.

I’ve owned three smokers since starting. The first was small, a nightmare to start and worse to keep alight. The other two are the little and large Dadant smokers. These aren’t inexpensive, but they are easy to use and last forever.

Smoker still life

Smoker still life

Unless you reverse your car over it 🙁

Get another honey bucket to keep your smoker fuel in – once you’ve spent months deciding what works best.

That’s it … no bee brush, frame stand, powdered sugar shaker, queen clip or the 1001 ‘essentials‘ you find listed in the catalogues.

The sting and confidence

Bees sting and you will get stung. When you do  get stung it generally means you’ve done something wrong or you have temperamental bees. The latter can be due to the weather, the forage (or lack of it) or bad genes.

Working confidently with bees comes with practice and with the knowledge that you are wearing sufficient protection to keep the bees away from the most sensitive spots.

A good bee suit costs about as much as a complete hive and should last as long. BBwear and BJ Sherriff bee suits are high quality, well made, repairable and come in a myriad of colours. I’d recommend their basic models in a full suit style … as you gain experience you might progress to a jacket or even just a veil.

I still use the first BBwear suit I bought. It’s been washed hundreds of times and is a bit tatty but it has at least another decade of use in it.

Paradoxically, the gloves that give me the most confidence when working with bees are the thinnest I own. These are long-cuff blue nitrile gloves. They are thin enough to feel a bee if you’ve trapped it, rather than just squishing it as you would wearing thick gauntlets.

BBwear used to offer ‘free’ gauntlets with their suits. They were like welders mittens! Ask for a discount instead and use standard Marigold-type washing up gloves to start with. Stings can just about penetrate, but are attenuated. You’ll be reminded when you’re doing something wrong, but they enable far more dexterity than the sting-pheremone-accumulating leather gauntlets.

Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh

Don’t, whatever you do, buy heavy duty, black, long cuff household gloves.

Why not?

Remember that most bears don’t look (or behave) like Winnie the Pooh … 😉

Is that it?

More or less. I reckon everything above is essential for beginners (including a duplicate hive). I’ve only included the specialist beekeeping equipment and have excluded items you should borrow from your local association (or mentor … you do have a mentor?) such as an extractor. I’ve also excluded Varroa treatments, sugar/fondant for winter stores and the non-specialist stuff like a notepad, wellington boots or a bag to carry everything to the apiary.

There won’t be much change out of £500, but there should be some.

And you still have to get some bees 🙁

As I said, not inexpensive. I’ve got a half-written post on the economics of hobby beekeeping, including indications of where you can save money (and where you can make money).

Remember also that keeping two colonies is highly recommended, so doubling the equipment needed. Perhaps not in your first year, but – perhaps after a successful artificial swarm – something to plan for your second full season.

Luxury item

If this was Desert Island Discs you’d be allowed one luxury item. Although not a luxury as such, the one nearly invaluable additional item I’d add to the list above is a poly nucleus box.

Nuc boxes are probably the most useful pieces of equipment in beekeeping. You can overwinter colonies in them, catch swarms, keep the queen safe and use them for a very effective form of swarm control.

Again, like the poly hives there are lots of makes, all with their own particular quirks. You need one that takes the same frame size as the hives. However, unlike full size hives I’d only recommend polystyrene, not cedar. They are lighter and much better insulated.

Paynes nuc box ...

Paynes nuc box …

They are also more reasonably priced, so drop some hints before Christmas after your first full season of beekeeping.


 

 

 

 

Ready, Steady … Wait

Since you are reading an internet beekeeping site you are probably aware of the discussion fora like Beesource, BBKA, the Beekeeping Forum and Beemaster Forum.

Several of these have a section for beginners. The idea is that the beginner posts a simple beekeeping question and, hey presto, gets a helpful answer.

Of course, the reality is somewhat different 😉

The question might seem simple (“Should I start colony inspections this week?”), but the answers might well not be.

If there’s more than one answer they will, of course, be contradictory. The standard rule applies …

Opinions expressed = n + 1 (where n is the number of respondents 1)

… but these opinions will be interspersed with petty squabbles, rhetorical questions in return, veiled threats, comments about climate or location, blatant trolling and a long discourse on the benefits of native black bees/Buckfast/Carniolans or Osmia bicornis 2

Finally the thread will peter out and the respondents move to another question … “When should I put the first super on my hive?”

Climate and weather

Although it might not seem helpful at the time, the comment about climate and location refers to an important aspect of beekeeping often overlooked by beginners 3.

Climate and weather are related by time. Weather refers to the short term atmospheric conditions, whereas climate is the average of that weather.

Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.

Climate and weather have a profound influence on our beekeeping.

We live on a small island bathed in warm water originating from the Gulf Stream. In addition, we are adjacent to a large land mass. The continent and the sea influence both our weather and climate.

For simplicity I’m going to only consider temperature and rainfall. The former influences the flowering period of plants and trees upon which the bees forage.

Mean annual temperature average 1981-2010

Mean annual temperature average 1981-2010

Both temperature and rainfall determine whether the bees can forage – if it’s too cold or wet they stay in the hive.

And adverse weather (strong winds, heavy rain) can make inspections an unpleasant experience for the bees … and the beekeeper 4.

Mean annual average rainfall 1981-2010

Mean annual average rainfall 1981-2010

The North – South divide (and the East – West divide)

Compare the mean temperature in Fife (marked with the red star) with Plymouth (blue star). The average annual temperature is 8-9°C in Fife and 10-11°C in Plymouth. Although this seems to be a very minor temperature difference it makes a huge difference to the beekeeping season 5.

As I write this (mid-April) I’ve yet to fully inspect a hive but colonies are swarming in the south of England, and have been for at least a week.

When I lived in the Midlands I would often start queen rearing in mid/late April 6 whereas here inspections might not begin until May in some years.

The 6° of latitude difference between Plymouth and Fife (~415 miles) is probably equivalent to 3-4 weeks in beekeeping terms.

In contrast to the oft-quoted view that ‘Scotland is wet’, Fife only gets about 66% of the rainfall of Plymouth (800-1000 mm for Fife vs. 1250-1500 mm for Plymouth).

However, there is an East – West divide for rainfall in parts of the country. I’m writing this in Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point of mainland Britain (yellow arrow), where we get about three times the annual rainfall as the arid East coast of Fife.

The rhythm of the seasons

The seasonal duties of the beekeeper are dependent on the weather and the climate. This is because the development of the colony is influenced by how early and how warm the Spring was, how many good foraging days there were in summer, the availability of sunny 20°C days for queen mating and the warmth of the autumn for late brood rearing.

And a host of other weather-related things.

All of which vary depending where your bees live.

And vary from year to year.

Which is why it’s impossible to answer the apparently simple question When should I put the first super on my hive?” using a calendar.

“Beekeeping by numbers (or dates)” doesn’t work.

You have to learn the rhythm of the seasons.

Make a note of when early pollen (snowdrop, crocus, hazel, willow) becomes available, when the OSR and rosebay willowherb flowers and when migratory birds return 7. The obvious ones to record are flowers or trees that generate most honey for you, but early- and late-season cues are also useful.

Most useful are the seasonal occurrences that precede key events in the beekeeping year.

Link these together with the recent weather and the development of your colonies. By doing this you will begin to know what to expect and can prepare accordingly. 

If the OSR is just breaking bud 8 start piling the supers on. If cuckoos are first heard a month before the peak of the swarming period in your area make sure you prepare enough new frames for your preferred swarm control method.

And preparation is pretty-much all I’ve been doing so far this year … though I expect to conduct my first full inspections over the Easter weekend.

Degree days

While doing some background reading on climate when preparing this post I came across the concept of heating and cooling degree days. These are used by engineers involved in calculating the energy costs of heating or cooling buildings.

Heating degree days are a measure of how much (in degrees), and for how long (in days), the outside air temperature was below a certain level. 

Conversely, cooling degree days are a measure of how much (in degrees), and for how long (in days), the outside air temperature was above a certain level.

You can read lots more about degree days on the logically-named degreedays.net , which is where the definitions above originated.

From a beekeeping point of view you can use this sort of data to compare seasons or locations.

Most ‘degree days’ calculations use 15.5°C as the certain level in the definitions above. This isn’t particularly relevant to beekeeping (but is if you are heating a building). However, degreedays.net (which have a bee on their BizEE Software Ltd. logo 🙂 ) can generate custom degree day information for any location with suitable weather data and you can define the level above or below which the calculation is based.

For convenience I chose 10°C. Much lower than this and foraging is limited.

The North – South divide (again)

So, let’s return to swarms in Plymouth and the absence of inspections in Fife … how can we explain this if the average annual temperate is only a couple of degrees different?

Heating and cooling degree days for Plymouth and Fife, April 2018 to March 2019

Heating and cooling degree days for Plymouth and Fife, April 2018 to March 2019

Focus on the dashed lines for the moment. September to November (months 9, 10 and 11) were very similar for both Plymouth (blue) and Fife (red). After that – unsurprisingly – the Fife winter is both colder and longer. From December through to March the Plymouth line rises later, rises less far and falls faster. In Plymouth the winter is less cold, is shorter and – as far as the bees are concerned – the season starts about a month earlier 9.

2018 in Fife was an excellent year for honey. After a cold winter (and the Beast from the East) colonies built up well and I harvested record amounts (for me) of both spring honey (in early June) and summer honey (in late July/early August).

I’ve no idea what 2018 was like for honey yields in Plymouth, but the cooling degree days (solid lines) show that it was warmer earlier, hotter overall and that the season lasted perhaps a month longer (though this tells us nothing about forage availability).

Of course it’s the longer, hotter summers and cooler, shorter winters that – averaged out – mean the average annual temperature difference between Plymouth and Fife is only a couple of degrees Centigrade.

Good years and bad years

As far as honey is concerned the last two years in Fife have been, respectively, sublime and ridiculous.

2018 was great and 2017 was catastrophic.

How do these look when plotted?

The 2017 and 2018 beekeeping season in Fife.

The 2017 and 2018 beekeeping season in Fife.

The onset of summer (solid lines – the cooling degree days – months 4-6) and the preceding winter (dashed lines – the heating degree days – months 9-11) were similar – the lines are nearly superimposed.

The 2016-17 winter was milder and shorter than 2017-18. The latter was extended by arrival of the Beast from the East and Storm Emma which brought blizzards in late February and continued unseasonably cold through March.

However, the harsh 2017-18 winter didn’t hold the bees back and the 2018 season brought bumper honey harvests.

In contrast, the 2017 season was hopeless. It was cooler overall, but the duration of the season was similar to the following year 10. Supers remained resolutely empty and my entire honey crop shared a single batch number 🙁

However, it wasn’t the temperature that was the main problem. It was the abnormally high rainfall during June.

June 2017 rainfall anomaly from 1981-2010

June 2017 rainfall anomaly from 1981-2010 …

Colonies were unable to forage. Some needed feeding. Queen mating was very patchy, with several turning out as drone laying queens later in the season.

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

The spring nectar flows were a washout and the colonies weren’t at full strength to exploit the July flows.

Let’s see what 2019 brings …


 

Unknown knowns

If there’s one thing that can be almost guaranteed about the beekeeping season ahead it’s that it will be unpredictably predictable. I can be pretty sure what is going to happen, but not precisely when it’s going to happen.

These are the unknown knowns.

The one thing I can be sure about is that once things get started it will go faster than I’d like … both in terms of things needing attention now (or yesterday 🙁 ) and in the overall duration of the season.

So, if you know what is coming – spring build up, early nectar flow, swarming, queen rearing, splits, summer nectar flow, robbing, uniting, wasps, Varroa control and feeding colonies up for winter – you can be prepared.

As Benjamin Franklin said …

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail

Preparation involves planning for the range of events that the season will (or could) produce.

It also involves ensuring you have additional equipment to cope with the events you’ve planned for.

Ideally, you’ll also have sufficient for the events you failed to include in your plans but that happened anyway 😉

Finally, it involves purchasing the food and treatments you need to manage the health and winter feeding of the colony 1 .

So what do you need to plan for?

Death and taxes 2

The two utterly dependable events in the beekeeping season are – and this is likely to be a big disappointment for new 3 beekeepers – Varroa control and feeding.

Not an outrageous early spring honey crop, not ten weeks of uninterrupted balmy days for queen rearing, not even lots of swarms in your bait hives (freebees) … and certainly not supers-full of fabulous lime or heather honey.

Sorry 😉

So … plan now how you are going to feed the colony and how you are going to monitor and manage mites during the season.

Feeding usually involves a choice between purchased syrup, homemade syrup or fondant. I almost exclusively use fondant and so always have fondant in stock. I also keep a few kilograms of sugar to make syrup if needed.

Buy it in advance because you might need it in advance. If it rains for a month in May there’s a real chance that colonies will starve and you’ll need to feed them.

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

I’ve discussed mites a lot on this site. Plan in advance how you will treat after the summer honey comes off and again in midwinter. Buy an appropriate 4 treatment in advance 5. That way, should your regular mite-monitoring indicate that levels are alarmingly high, you can intervene immediately.

Having planned for the nailed-on certainties you can now turn your attention to the more enjoyable events in the beekeeping year … honey production and reproduction.

Honey production

Preparing for the season primarily means ensuring you have sufficient equipment, spares and space for whatever the year produces.

In a good season – long sunny days and seemingly endless nectar flows – this means having more than enough supers, each with a full complement of frames.

How many is more than enough?

More supers

More supers

Here on the east coast of Scotland I’ve not needed more than three and a bit per hive i.e. a few hives might need four in an exceptional summer (like 2018). When I lived in the Midlands it was more.

Running out of supers in the middle of the nectar-flow-to-end-all-nectar-flows is a frustrating experience. Boxes get overcrowded, the bees pack the brood box with nectar, the queen runs out of laying space and the honey takes longer to ripen 6.

Without sufficient supers 7 you’ll have to beg, borrow or steal some mid-season.

Which is necessary because … it’s exactly the time the equipment suppliers have run out of the supers, frames and foundation you desperately need.

And so will all of your beekeeping friends …

Ready to extract

Ready to extract …

Not that you’ve necessarily got the time to assemble the things anyway 😉

Don’t forget the brood frames

You’ll need more brood frames every season. A good rule of thumb is to replace a third of these every year.

There are a variety of ways of achieving this. They can be rotated out (moving the oldest, blackest frames to the edge of the box) during regular inspections, or you can remove frames following splits/uniting or through Bailey comb changes.

Irrespective of how it’s achieved, you will need more brood frames and – if you use foundation – you’ll need more of that as well.

Foundationless frames

Foundationless frames …

And the suppliers will sell out of these as well 🙁

But that’s not all …

You will also need sufficient additional brood frames for use during swarm prevention and control and – if that didn’t work – subsequent rescue of the swarm from the hedge.

Swarmtastic

In a typical year the colony will reproduce. Reproduction involves swarming. If the colony swarms you may lose the bees that would have produced your honey.

You can make bees or you can make honey, but it takes real skill and a good year to make both.

And to make both you’ll need spare equipment.

Pagdens' artificial swarm ...

Pagdens’ artificial swarm …

Knowing that the colony is likely to swarm in late spring, you need to plan in advance how you will manage the hive to control or prevent swarming. This generally means providing them with ample space (a second brood box … so yet more brood frames) and, if that doesn’t work 8, manipulating the colony so that it doesn’t swarm.

Which means an additional complete hive (floor, brood box, yet more brood frames, crownboard, roof) if you plan to use Pagdens’ artificial swarm.

Alternatively, with slightly less equipment, you can conduct a vertical split which is essentially a vertically orientated artificial swarm.

Or you can use a nucleus (nuc) box to house the old queen … a very straightforward method I’ll discuss in more detail later this season.

Bait hives and skeps

I don’t like losing swarms. I’ve previously discussed the responsibilities of beekeepers, which includes not subjecting the general public to swarms that might harm or frighten them, or establish a colony in their roof space.

But I do like both attracting swarms and re-hiving swarms of mine that ‘escaped’ (temporarily 😉 ). I always set out bait hives near my apiaries. If properly set up these efficiently attract swarms (your own or from other beekeepers) and save you the trouble of teetering at the top of a ladder to recover the swarm from an apple tree.

But if you end up doing the latter you’ll need a skep 9 or a nice, light, large poly nuc box to carefully drop the swarm into.

Paynes nuc box ...

Paynes nuc box …

Don’t forget the additional brood frames you will need in your bait hive or in the hive you eventually place the colony in the skep into 😉

Planned reproduction

You’re probably getting the idea by now … beekeeping involves a bit more than one hive tucked away in the corner of the garden.

Not least because you really need a minimum of two colonies.

A quick peek inside the shed of any beekeeper with more than 3 years experience will give you an idea of what might be needed. Probably together with a lot of stuff that isn’t needed 😉

Storage shed

Storage shed

By planned reproduction I mean ‘making increase’ i.e. deliberately increasing your colony numbers, or rearing queens for improving your own stocks (or those of others).

This can be as simple as a vertical split or as complicated as cell raising colonies, grafting and mini mating nucs.

By the time most beekeepers get involved in this aspect of the hobby 10 they will have a good idea of the additional specialised equipment needed. This need not be complicated and it certainly is not expensive.

I’ve covered some aspects of queen rearing previously and will write more about it this season.

3 day old QCs ...

3 day old QCs …

Of course, once you start increasing your colony numbers you will need additional brood boxes, supers, nuc boxes, floors, roofs, stands, crownboards, queen excluders and – of course – frames.

And a bigger shed 😉


Colophon

The title of this post is an inelegant butchering of part of a famous statement from Donald Rumsfeld, erstwhile US Secretary of Defense. While discussing evidence for Iraqi provision of weapons of mass destruction Rumsfeld made the following convoluted pronouncement:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

The unknown known

The unknown known

If you can be bothered to read through that lot you’ll realise the one thing Rumsfeld didn’t mention are the unknown knowns.

However, as shown in the image, this was the title of the 2013 Errol Morris documentary on Rumsfeld’s political career. In this, Rumsfeld defined the “unknown knowns” [as] “things that you know, that you don’t know you know.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State, claimed that Rumsfeld doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” ... though she wasn’t referring to the unknown knowns.

 

Winter chores

After two weeks of mites, their diets and pedantry we’ll take a break this week for some practical beekeeping.

Or at least as close as you can get to practical beekeeping when it’s been as cold as -8°C.

Midwinter is a time to prepare for the season ahead, to stock up on new equipment during the winter sales, build more frames, plan the strategy for swarm control and think about stock improvement.

And – if you’re anything like as disorganised as me – it’s also the time to tidy up after the season just finished.

Which is what we’ll deal with today.

Tidy the shed

The original research apiary and bee shed is now under an access road for a new school. Fortunately, we managed to rescue the shed which has now been re-assembled in the new apiary.

In the longer term these sheds could together accommodate at least a dozen full colonies. However, in the shorter term it has allowed me to rationalise the storage, giving much more space to work with the colonies in the larger shed.

Supers and brood in the storage shed have all been tidied (see below) and are in labelled stacks ready to use. The other side of the store contains stacks of floors, split boards, clearers and roofs.

It’ll get messier as the season progresses, but it’s a good start.

I also spent a couple of weekends making some minor improvements to the bee shed following the experience last season.

The lighting has been increased and repositioned so it is ‘over the shoulder’ when doing inspections. On a dull winter day it is dazzlingly bright 1 but I fear it will still not be enough. I’m looking at creating some reflectors to direct the light better.

I’ve also used a few tubes of exterior sealant to block up all the holes and cracks around the edge of the shed roof. Last season was a bad one for wasps and we were plagued with the little stripy blighters.

Tidy the frames

Two of the most valuable resources a beekeeper has are drawn super frames and capped stores in brood frames.

Look after them!

I often end up uniting colonies late in the season, but then overwinter the bees in a single brood box. This means I can end up with spare frames of sealed stores. These should be protected from wax moth and mice (or anything else) as they are really useful the following year for boosting colonies that are light on stores or making up nucs.

Drawn supers can be used time and time again, year after year. They also need to be protected but – if your extraction is as chaotic as mine – they also usually need to be tidied up so they are ready for the following season.

I load my extractor to balance it properly, rather than just super by super. Inevitably this means the extracted frames are all mixed up. Since frames are also often drawn out unevenly this leaves me with a 250 piece jigsaw with billions of possible permutations, but only a few correct solutions.

Little and large - untidy frames and a breadknife

Little and large – untidy frames and a breadknife

And that’s ignoring all the frames with brace comb that accumulate during a good flow.

So, in midwinter I tidy up all the cleared super frames, levelling off the worst of the waviness with a sharp breadknife, removing the brace comb, scraping down the top bar and arranging them – 9 to 11 at a time 2 – in supers stored neatly in covered stacks.

And, if you’ve got a lot, label them so you know what’s where.

An hour or two of work on a dingy midwinter day can help avoid those irritating moments when – in the middle of a strong flow – you grab a super to find it contains just five ill-fitting frames, one of which has a broken lug.

The wax removed during this tidying up is usually lovely and white. Save it for making soaps, cosmetics or top-quality candles.

Wax extraction

Brood comb has a finite life. After about three years of repeated brood rearing cycles it should be replaced. Old comb contains relatively little wax but what’s there can be recovered using a solar or steam wax extractor. This also allows the cleaned frames to be re-used.

Processing a few dozen brood frames with a solar wax extractor during a Scottish winter is an exercise in futility. For years I’ve used a DIY steam wax extractor which worked pretty well but was starting to fall apart. I therefore recently took advantage of the winter sales and purchased a Thorne’s Easi-steam 3.

The Easi-steam works well and with a little further processing generates a few kilograms of wax for making firelighters or trading in … and a large stack of frames for re-use.

Remember to keep a few old dark brood frames aside for using in bait hives

Keep an eye on your bees

In between all these winter chores don’t forget to check on your bees.

There’s not a lot to do, but these checks are important.

Make sure the entrances are clear, that the mouse guards 4 are in place and that the roofs are secure.

Storm Eric brought us 50-60 mph winds and a couple of my hives lost their roofs. These had survived a couple of previous storms, but the wind was from a different direction and lifted the roofs and the bricks stacked on top. I got to them the following day but we’ll have to wait until the season warms up to determine if there’s any harm done.

Fondant top up

Fondant top up

Finally, as the days lengthen and it gets marginally warmer colonies should have started rearing brood again. Make sure they have sufficient stores by regularly ‘hefting‘ the hive. If stores are low, top them up with a block or two of fondant. This should be placed directly over the cluster, either over a hole in the crownboard or on the top bars of the frames.