Category Archives: Equipment

DIY queen cell incubator

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 … so said John Lydgate (1370-1450).

And he wasn’t wrong.

This is something I’m particularly aware of writing a weekly post on beekeeping. Much like my talks to beekeeping associations, the ‘audience’ (in this case the readership) ranges from the outright beginner to those with way more experience than me.

An article, like the one last week, on transporting your first nuc home and transferring it to a new hive, is unlikely to be of much interest to an experienced beekeeper.

Conversely, a post on something esoteric – like Royal patrilines and hyperpolyandry – is probably going to be given a wide berth by someone who has recently started beekeeping 1.

There’s no way I can write something relevant, interesting and topical for the entire breadth of experience of the readers 2

Going by the popularity of certain posts it’s clear that many readers are relatively inexperienced beekeepers.

The post entitled Queen cells … don’t panic! contains little someone who has kept bees for five years doesn’t or shouldn’t already know 3. Nevertheless, it is one of the most popular pages over the last couple of years. It has already been read more times this year than all previous years 4.

I suspect the majority of these thousands of viewings are from new(ish) beekeepers.

If you’re in this group then I suggest you look away now 😉 5

I’m going to discuss a pretty focused and specialised topic of relevance to perhaps a fraction of 10% of all beekeepers

The 10%

When I started beekeeping I was certain I would never be interested in queen rearing.

In fact I was so certain that, when repeatedly re-reading Ted Hooper’s book Bees and Honey, I’d skip the chapter on queen rearing all together. 

By ‘queen rearing’ I mean larval selection, grafting, cell raisers, cell finishers, mini-nucs, drone flooding etc. 

Queen cells from grafted larvae … what a palaver!

What a palaver!

All I wanted was a few jars of honey.

Oh yes, and slightly better tempered bees.

And perhaps a nuc to overwinter ‘just in case’.

What about a queen or two ‘spare’ for those swarms I miss?

A year or two later I had the opportunity – through the generosity of the late Terry Clare – to learn the basics of queen rearing and grafting

A week later I had a go on my own.

Amazingly (though not if you consider the tuition) it worked 🙂 . I successfully reared queens from larvae I’d selected, transferred, produced as capped cells and eventually got mated.

It was probably the single most significant event in my experience as a beekeeper. I got my nuc to overwinter and I’ve gradually improved my bees through selecting from the best and requeening the worst. I know how to produce ‘spare’ queens, though need them less frequently as my swarm control has also improved 😉  6

I don’t know what proportion of beekeepers ‘actively’ rear their own queens. I suspect it’s 10% or less.

But even that select group aren’t the target audience for this post.

The target audience are queen rearers who need to incubate queens or queen cells for protracted periods (hours to days) without constant access to mains electricity.

Let me explain

The peripatetic beekeeper

I live on the remote west coast of Scotland 7 but keep the majority of my bees in Fife. 

My apiaries in Fife are 30-40 minutes apart, and I drive past one on my way to my main apiary (in St Andrews). If I need a ‘spare’ queen in an out apiary (and have one in St Andrews) it adds over an hour to what is already a four hour beekeeping commute.

That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back and something I’d really like to avoid 8.

On the west coast beekeepers and bees are very thin on the ground. I’ve just started queen rearing here and (again) have a 45 minute commute between apiaries 9. I’m working with another beekeeper and larvae are sourced from one and the cells are raised in another.

You can move frames of larvae about if you keep them warm and humid – a damp tea towel works well – at least if the times/distances are not too great.

But there’s an added complication … this area is Varroa free and I don’t want to be moving potentially mite-infested frames into the area. Nor do I want to deplete any of the donor colonies of brood frames.

All I want to move are a few larvae … but they’re a lot more fragile and sensitive.

So … two slightly unusual situations.

It seemed to me that my life would be a lot easier if I had some sort of portable queen and queen cell incubator.

My trusty honey warming cabinet

More than most events in beekeeping, the timing of the various stages of queen rearing is very clearly defined. You graft day old larvae and use the cells 10 days later. This timing currently defines the dates of my trips … except that sometimes there are diary clashes.

If my apiary with the cell raising colony was a mile away I could just go later in the day. 

But it’s not … 🙁

Before I started this (temporary) life as a travelling beekeeper I’d sometimes needed to incubate queen cells that were near to emergence. Once the cell is capped you can put it in an incubator, either until you use it as a capped cell, or until the virgin queen emerges. You then requeen a colony using the recently emerged virgin queen.

This was clearly another option to make the diary clashes less of an issue – raise the cells and then incubate them (outside the hive) until emergence, and then use the queens.

I’d already used my trusty honey warming cabinet to incubate queen cells. When I built this I used an Ecostat chicken egg incubator element rather than a 100 W incandescent bulb. The Ecostat heaters are thermostatically controlled and do a pretty good job of maintaining a stable temperature, anywhere between the high 20’s (°C) and about 55°C.

A day in the life of my honey warming cabinet (click for explanation of fluctuations)

There were two minor issues … the incubator needed a 240 V mains supply and was about the size of my car 10.

Honey warming cabinet. The Apiarist

Honey warming cabinet …

However, it’s perfect if you need to incubate 800 queen cells at once 😉

What I needed was a smaller, more portable, ‘battery’ – or at least 12V – powered version … 11

Beekeepers have short arms and deep pockets

One obvious solutions was to use a commercially available hen egg incubator. Brinsea are one of the market leaders and I know several beekeepers who use them as queen cell incubators. 

Although they are usually mains powered, they actually have an integral transformer and run at 12V, so could be powered from a car cigarette lighter socket. Temperature and humidity are controlled. They start at about £80 and would need modifying to accommodate queen cells, or Nicot cages containing queens.

The beekeeping-specific commercial solution is the Carricell.

Carricell queen cell incubator

These are manufactured in New Zealand in three sizes – for 40, 70 or 144 queen cells. Swienty (and presumably others) sell the 70 cell variant 12 over here for €636 13.

Excluding VAT 🙁

Beekeepers are notoriously commendably parsimonious. Since I have an alter ego named Dr. Bodgit, it seemed logical to try and build my own.

For a little less that €636 …

And ideally less than £80 😉

But first I needed to know more about the influence of temperature on queen cell development.

Temperature and development

The usual temperature quoted for the broodnest is about 35°C. Numerous studies have shown that, although the temperature is never constant, it is always in the range 33-36°C 14

It is reasonably well known that temperature can influence the development time of honey bees. At lower temperatures, development takes a little bit longer.

More significantly, Jürgen Tautz and colleagues showed almost two decades ago that honey bee workers reared (as pupae) at low temperatures have behavioural deficiencies 15.

For example, workers reared at 32°C showed reduced waggle dance activity when compared to bees reared at 36°C. Not only were they less likely to dance to advertise a particular nectar source, but they would dance less enthusiastically, performing fewer dance circuits.

In tests of learning and memory – for example associating smells with syrup rewards – bees reared as pupae at 32°C were also impaired when compared to bees reared at 36°C.

Tautz also demonstrated that bees reared at the lower temperature were more likely to go ‘missing in action’. They disappeared at a faster rate from the hive than the bees reared at the higher temperature. This strongly suggests their compromised memory or learning also had a negative influence on their survival. For example, in predator evasion, flight duration or the ability to find the hive.

OK … so temperature is really rather important for worker development.

Perhaps very accurate thermostatic control will be needed?

But what about queens?

There are good reasons to think that queen development might not be quite as sensitive to lower temperatures.

Queen cells are relatively rarely found in the centre of the broodnest. Those that are are often considered to be ‘supersedure cells‘, though location alone is probably not definitive.

Where are queen cells more usually found?

At the periphery of the broodnest, decorating the lower edges of the frame and even protruding down into the space below the bottom of the comb.

Queen cells

Queen cells …

Logic suggests that these might well experience lower temperatures simply by being at or near the edge of the mass of bees in the cluster. 

Perhaps queen development is less temperature sensitive?

Fortunately, I don’t need to rely on (my usually deeply flawed) logic or informed guesses … the experiment has been done 16.

Chuda-Mickiewicz and Samborski incubated queen cells at 32°C and 34.5°C. Those incubated at the lower temperature took ~27 hours longer to emerge than those at 34.5°C (which emerged at 16 days and 1 hour after egg laying).

However, of the variables measured, this was the only significant difference observed between the two groups. Body weights at emergence were similar, as were the spermathecal volume and ovariole number.

In both temperature groups ~90% of (instrumentally) inseminated queens started laying eggs.

So perhaps development temperature is not so critical (for queens after all).

The cheque queen is in the post

Finally, I expected my bodged incubator would also be used to transport mated queens. There’s good evidence that these are very robust 17. After all, you can get them sent in the post 18

Again, the experiment has been done 🙂

Survival of adult drones, queens and workers at 25°C, 38°C and 42°C

Jeff Pettis and colleagues investigated the influence of temperature on queen fertility 19 and concluded that incubation within the range 15-38°C are safe with a tolerance threshold of 11.5% loss of sperm viability 20

In addition, Pettis looked at the influence of high or low temperatures on adult viability (see graph above). Queens and workers survived for at least 6 hours at 25°C or 42°C. In contrast drones, particularly at high temperatures, ‘dropped like flies’ 21.

Stand back … inventor at work

Version 1 of the incubator was built and has been used successfully.

Queen cell incubator – exterior view (nothing to see here)

It consists of a polystyrene box housing a USB-powered vivarium heating mat. This claims to offer three heating levels – 20-25°C, 25-30°C and 30-35°C – though these are not when confined in a well-insulated box where it can reach higher temperatures. I’m not sure I believe the amperage/wattage information provided and don’t have the equipment to check it.

I run it from a 2.1A car USB socket, or a similar one that plugs into the mains.

The battery pack in the picture above runs the Raspberry Pi computer that is monitoring the temperature 22. It’s important to have accurate temperature monitoring and to do some trial runs to understand how quickly the box warms/cools. In due course all this wiring can either be omitted or built in … but it wouldn’t be a proper invention unless it looked cobbled together 😉

Not a lot to see here either …

Inside the box is a lot of closed cell foam – some crudely butchered to accommodate Nicot queen cages – sitting on top of a large ‘freezer block’. This acts as a hot water bottle. There’s also a plastic tray holding some soggy kitchen towel to raise the humidity.

Define ‘success’

The box has been used for the following:

  • transfer grafted larvae from an out apiary to a cell raising colony an hour away. Success defined by getting the grafted larvae accepted by the cell raiser.
  • transport queen cells up to 7 hours by car 23. Success defined by requeening colonies with the cells.
  • transport and maintain virgin queens for 7-10 days. These emerged in the incubator and then accompanied me back and forth before being used. All are now in hives and out for mating.

While powered – either in the house or the car – the box is easy to maintain at an acceptable temperature for extended periods, though it takes some time to reach the operating temperature.

An afternoon collecting and distributing queen cells to an out apiary

Even when opening the lid as queen cells are added/removed the temperature fluctuates by no more than 2-3°C. The graph above was generated from temperature readings taking queen cells from one apiary to another.

I’ll describe maintaining queens for extended periods in an incubator (with no attendant bees) in a future post.

The future

This really is a bodged solution.

At the moment the temperature has to be changed manually to keep it within the 32-35°C range. This might only be every few hours, depending upon how frequently the box is opened.

The combination of the insulation and the ‘hot water bottle’ freezer block means it can be left unattended overnight.

However, it really needs to have automatic temperature control. This should be trivial to add but will require more time than I have at the moment and for the box to be empty. It’s accompanying me on an exotic holiday to Glenrothes for the next three days 24 and will be in use for much of July as I start to make up nucs for overwintering.

So … as promised, an inelegant but working solution for a fraction of the 10% of beekeepers who rear queens. 

At a fraction of the price of a commercial one 🙂


 

Supering

Something short and sweet this week 1 … though perhaps ‘tall and sweet’ would be preferable as I’m going to discuss supering.

The noun supering means ‘the action or practice of fitting a super to a beehive’ and dates back to 1840:

Duncan, James. Natural History of Bees Naturalist’s Library VoI. 223   The empty story which is added, may be placed above, instead of below the original stock, and the honey will thus be of a superior kind. This mode of operating is called super-ing, in contra-distinction to nadir-ing.

I don’t quite understand the description provided by here. Adding a super underneath the colony (original stock) is unlikely to lead to it being used as a honey store. Bees naturally store honey to the side and above the brood nest.

And does James Duncan mean the honey is superior because it’s better? Or is he using superior in its zoological sense meaning ‘at or near the highest point’? 2

So … let’s get a few definitions out of the way first.

  • Supering – the addition of a super to a hive, which could be either:
    • Top-supering – adding a super to the top of a stack of existing supers, or
    • Bottom-supering – adding a super below any existing supers, but above the brood box(es) 
  • Nadiring – the addition of a super below an existing brood box (which won’t be mentioned again in this post 3.

Supering … click for legend

I prefer the term top- or bottom-supering as the alternative over- or under-supering could be misinterpreted as the amount of supers being excessive or insufficient.

Which is better – top- or bottom-supering?

Let’s get the science out of the way first.

There’s an assumption that bottom supering should be ‘better’ (in terms of honey yield) as it reduces the distance bees have to travel before they are relieved of their nectar. 

A study conducted two decades ago by Jennifer Berry and Keith Delaplane 4 showed that – in terms of the amount of honey stored – it makes no statistical difference whether top- or bottom-supering is used.

This study was conducted at the University of Georgia (USA). It used 60 hives – 3 different apiaries each containing 10 hives over two distinct nectar flows. 

Note the deliberate inclusion of the term ‘statistical’ above … the bottom-supered hives did end up with ~10% more honey in total but, considering the scale of the experiment, this was not statistically significant. 

To determine if this difference was real you’d need to do a much larger scale experiment.

This was not simply weighing a few hives with the supers added on top or below … each colony used was balanced in terms of frames of brood, numbers of bees and levels of stores in the brood box for each nectar flow. That’s not my idea of fun when it would involve a few thousand colonies 🙁   5.

The Berry & Delaplane study reached the same conclusion as earlier research by Szabo and Sporns (1994) who were working in Alberta, Canada 6. They had concluded that the failure to see a significant difference in terms of honey stored was because the nectar flows were rather poor. However, this seems unlikely as the Berry & Delaplane study covered two nectar flows, one of which was much stronger than the other (measured in terms of honey yield).

Before we leave the science there’s a minor additional detail to discuss about the Berry & Delaplane study. All their hives consisted of a single Langstroth brood box with a honey super on top underneath the queen excluder (refer to C. in the figure above).

This first honey super was termed the ‘food super’. The remaining supers were the ‘honey supers’. It’s not clear from the description in the paper whether the queen ever moved up to lay in the ‘food super’. I’m assuming she did not.

That being the case, the bottom supering employed by Berry & Delaplane is probably not quite the same as understood by most UK beekeepers.

When I talk about bottom-supering (here and elsewhere) I mean adding the super directly above the box that the queen is laying in (refer to A. in the figure above).

Whether ‘true’ bottom-supering leads to increased honey yields I’ll leave to someone much stronger than me. It’s an experiment that will involve a lot of lifting … and a lot of hives 😉

Which brings us to other benefits associated with where the super is added …

Benefits of bottom supering

I can think of two obvious ones.

The first is that the frames are immediately above the warmth of the broodnest. This might help get new foundation drawn a bit faster. However, if the flow is so good you’re piling the supers on it’s likely that the bees will draw comb for fun.

Note also the comments below about frame spacing and brace comb. I start new supers with 11 frames and subsequently reduce the number to 9. To avoid brace comb it’s easier to get undrawn supers built when there are no other supers on the hive. However, if that’s not possible I usually bottom-super them … it can’t do any harm. 

The second benefit is that by bottom-supering the cappings on the lowest supers always stay pristine and white. This is important if you’re preparing cut comb honey. It’s surprising how stained the cappings get with the passage of hundreds of thousands of little feet as the foragers move up to unload their cargo in top-supered colonies. 

Benefits of top supering

Generally I think these outweigh those of bottom-supering (but I don’t make cut comb honey and I’d expect the sale price of cut comb with bright white cappings trumps any of the benefits discussed below).

The first is that it’s a whole lot easier on your back 🙂

No need to remove the stack of supers first to slide another in at the bottom. This is a significant benefit … if the colony needs a fourth super there’s probably the best part of 50 kg of full/filling supers to remove first 7

Lifting lots of heavy supers is hard work. A decade ago I’d tackle three full supers at a time without an issue.

More recently, honey seems to be getting much denser 😉 … three full supers, particularly if on top of a double brood box, are usually split into two (or even three) for lifting. 

Secondly, because top-supering is easier it’s therefore much quicker.

Pop the crownboard off, add another super, close up and move on. 

Some claim an additional benefit is that you can determine whether the colony needs an additional super simply by lifting off the crownboard and having a peek. That might work with a single brood box and one super 8, but it’s not possible on a double brood monster hive already topped with four supers 9.

Of course, all of the benefits in terms of ease of addition and/or lack of lifting are null and void if you are going to be inspecting the colony and therefore removing the supers anyway.

Frame spacing in supers

Assuming a standard bee space between drawn, filled, capped honey stores, the more frames you have in the super the smaller the amount of honey the super will contain. 

This might never be an issue for many beekeepers.

However, those that scale up to perhaps half a dozen hives soon realise that more frames per super means more time spent extracting. 

That’s exactly what happened with me. My epiphany came when faced with about 18 supers containing almost 200 frames and a manual (hand cranked) three-frame extractor 🙁

By the next nectar flow I’d invested in an electric 9 frame radial extractor and started spacing my frames further apart.

That first ‘semi-automated’ honey harvest paid for the extractor and my physique became (just) slightly less Charles Atlas-like.

With undrawn foundation I start with a full box of 11 frames. However, once drawn I space the frames further apart, usually 9 per super. The bees draw out deeper comb and fill it perfectly happily … and I’ve got less frames to extract 🙂

I know some beekeepers use 8 frames in their supers. I struggle with this and usually find the bees draw brace comb or very uneven frames. This might be because our nectar flows aren’t strong enough, but I suspect I’ve spaced the frames too far apart in one go, rather than doing it gradually.

Frame alignment of supers

Speaking of brace comb … remember to observe the correct bee space in the supers. Adding a super with mismatched frame numbers will result in brace comb being built at the junction. The same thing happens if frames are misaligned.

Frame spacing and alignment in the supers.

Inevitably this brace comb ends up fusing the two supers together and causes a ‘right mess’ 10 when you eventually prize them apart.

And you’ll have to because they’re probably too heavy to lift together.

Brace comb

Brace comb …

The example above is particularly bad due to the use of misaligned foundationless super frames. The comb is, as always, beautiful … and unusually in this example the bees built from the bottom upwards.

Note that the frame alignment between adjacent boxes does not appear to apply to the brood box and the first super. At least, it doesn’t when you’re using a queen excluder. I presume this is because the queen excluder acts as a sort of ‘false floor’. It disrupts the vertical bee space sufficiently that the bees don’t feel the need to build lots of brace comb.

You can use castellations to space the frames in the supers. I don’t (and got rid of my stock of used and unused castellations recently) as they prevent re-spacing the frames as needed 11. The bees quickly propolise up the frame lugs meaning the frames are effectively immovable without the application of significant force.

Oops ...

Oops …

Like with a hive tool … or if you drop the super 🙁  12.

Caring for out of use supers

After drawn brood comb, drawn supers are probably the most valuable resource a beekeeper has.

You can’t buy replacement so it makes sense to look after it.

Of course, having written the sentence above I realised I was almost certainly wrong. A quick Google search turned up this Bad Beekeeping post from Ron Miksha who described commercially (machine) produced drawn comb.

Three Langstroth-sized combs are €26 😯 

There’s also this stuff … 

OK, so I stand corrected. You can buy replacement drawn comb, but a single super will cost you about €78 13 so they should be looked after.

Empty drawn supers should be stored somewhere bee, wasp and rodent-free. I store mine in a shed with a solid floor underneath the stack and a spare roof on top. 

Late November in the bee (storage) shed …

I have friends who wrap their supers in clingfilm … not 30 cm kitchen roll, but the metre wide stuff they use in airports to wrap suitcases 14.

Wax moth infestation of drawn supers is generally not a problem. They much prefer used brood frames. However, it makes sense to try and make the stacks as insect-proof as possible.

Caring for in use supers

If the supers are full of bees and honey then the drawn comb is only the third most important thing in the box.

Don’t just pile the supers on the ground next to the hive. The lower edges of the frames will be festooned with bees which will get crushed. You’ll also pick up dirt from the ground which will then be transferred to the hive.

Instead, use an inverted roof. Stand the super(s) on it, angled so they’re supported just by the edges of the roof. This minimises the opportunities for bees to get squashed.

If you’re removing a stack of supers individually (because they’re too heavy to lift together) do not stack them up in a neat pile as you’re very likely to crush bees. It’s better to support the super on one edge, propped up against the edge/corner of the first super I removed.

Again, this minimises the chances of crushing bees. It’s distressing for the beekeeper, it’s definitely distressing for the bee(s) and it’s a potential route for disease transmission.

The multi-purpose Correx hive roof

Once the supers are emptied of bees but full of capped honey you’ll need to transport them home from the apiary. I use spare Correx hive roofs to catch the inevitable drips that another more caring member of the household would otherwise discover 🙁

These Correx hive roofs aren’t strong enough to stack supers on. I always ensure there’s at least one or two conventional roofs in each apiary to act as temporary super stands during inspections.

Final thoughts

Tidy comb

At the end of the season it’s worth tidying the super frames before stacking them away for the year.

Before - brace comb

Super frames before tidying and storage

I use a hive tool to scrape off any bits of brace comb from the top and bottom bars of each frame. I also use a breadknife to level up the face of the comb. The combs are then arranged in boxes of nine and stored away for the winter.

A small amount of time invested on the supers saves time and effort doing much the same thing when you need them.

Drone foundation in supers

Over 50% of my supers are drawn from drone foundation.

There are two advantages to using drone foundation in the supers. The first is that there’s less wax and more honey; it takes less effort for the bees to build the comb in the first place and the larger cell volume stores more honey.

In addition, with less surface area in each cell, it’s at least theoretically possible to get a greater efficiency of extraction 15.

The second benefit is that bees do not store pollen in drone comb. In a strong colony you sometimes get an arch of pollen stored in the bottom super, and this is avoided by using drone comb.

Drone comb in super

That doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily fill the comb with nectar. Quite often they just leave an empty arch of cells above the brood nest 🙁

The major problem with using drone comb in the supers occurs when the queen gets above the queen excluder. You end up with my million drones fiasco and a lot of comb to melt down and recycle.

The super frame shuffle

Bees often draw and fill the central frames in the super before those at the sides. This can lead to very unevenly drawn comb (which can be ‘fixed’ with a breadknife as described above), and grossly unbalanced comb when extracting.

Full super ready for extraction

Full super ready for extraction …

To avoid this simply shuffle the outer frames into the centre of the super and vice versa. The frames will be much more evenly filled.

Spares

If you have an out apiary, keep spare supers in an insect-proof stack in the apiary.

Spare supers … only one now, on hive #29

Alternatively, keep spares under the roof but over the crownboard. As a strong nectar flow tails off, or if the weather is changeable, it might save a trip back to base, or having to carry yet another thing on your rounds.


Note

I’ve now done the calculation … 11 National super frames have an area of ~5500 cm2 which would require 6.5 Langstroth-sized sheets of drawn commercial comb. At the prices quoted above (€26 for three) that would only cost about €56 … but you’d still have to slice’n’dice them into the frames.

Hmmm … almost 3000 words … not so short and sweet after all 🙁

First impressions

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

What’s in the box?

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

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

Iffy weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

And since then it’s got colder …

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

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

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

Shirtsleeve weather

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

Which here might mean July … 🙁

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

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

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

Ribes ...

Ribes …

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

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

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

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

So I had a quick look.

Very disturbing

A hive inspection inevitably disturbs the colony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of which sounds very contrived.

It doesn’t need to be.

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

Be prepared

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

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

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

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

Ready, steady … Go!

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

Nadired super and single National poly hive

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

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

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

Corpses and accumulated debris

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

This gave me access to the floor.

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

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

Old floors …

Old floors …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was safe to proceed.

Elbow room and the queen

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

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

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

Ready for inspection

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

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

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

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

Giving them a little more elbow room

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

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

Marked, laying queen

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

Replacement of dark frames

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

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

Old dark frames rotated out of the hive and replaced

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

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

Emptying the super

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

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

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

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

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

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

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

Thriving or just hanging on?

The two colonies I inspected were doing OK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope I’m not too late 🙁


 

Lost and found

It was the Welsh Beekeepers’ Convention last weekend 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of these things were big ticket items.

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

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

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

Non, je ne regrette rien … but

All this purchased ‘stuff’ takes up space.

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

Or just as far as the workshop.

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

But I’ve just moved house. 

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

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

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

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

I know this because I was asked it.

Several times 😉

So I’ve had a clear out.

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

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

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

The Why did I ever buy that? category

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

Ventilated queen cages and two spirit levels

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

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

Plastic bits

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

Plastic frame runners

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

The ‘Big mistake’ category

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

Just say no

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

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

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

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

Crack pipes and queen marking cages

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

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

Handheld queen marking cage

Handheld queen marking cage

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

Useful discoveries

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

Thankfully 😉

Ratchet straps … tamed for now

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

Standard hive straps

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

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

Apinaut queen marking kit

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

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

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

Queen introduction cages

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

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

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

Nicot queen introduction cages

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

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

Mini-nucs for queen mating

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

Kieler mini-nuc top bar frames and starter strips

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

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

Kieler mini-nuc frame feeders

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

Queenless colonies

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

Is the colony queenless?

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

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

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

Unless, of course, the grafted larvae are duds 🙁

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

Putting the cleaning into spring cleaning

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

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

Nicot cup holders in the bath

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

Nicot queen cell protection cages being washed

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

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

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

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

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


 

 

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.

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?

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.

 

Queens and amitraz residues in wax

A question following a recent evening talk to a beekeeping association prompted me to look back at the literature on amitraz and wax residues.

The question was about reuse of honey supers that were present on a colony during miticide treatment.

With the exception of MAQS, there are no approved miticides that should be used if there are honey supers on the hives. The primary reason for this is that there is a risk that the miticide will taint the honey. Since the latter is for human consumption this is very undesirable.

However, it’s not unusual at the end of the season to have a half empty super, or a super containing just uncapped stores. Typically this would be ‘nadired’ i.e. placed below the brood box, with the expectation that the bees will move the stores up into the brood chamber 1.

Two colonies overwintering with nadired supers

And sometimes this super remains in place during the annual early autumn Varroa slaughter. 

The question was something like “Can I reuse the honey super next season?”

My answer

As anyone who has heard me speak will know, my answer was probably rambling, repetitive and slightly incoherent 🙁

However, the gist of it was “Yes, but I don’t”.

With Zoom talks and written questions from the audience you often don’t get all the details. The answer must be sufficiently generic to cover most eventualities 2 including, for example, the range of possible miticides that were used for treatment.

Assuming the nadired super is emptied by the bees during the winter, what are the chances that the wax comb will be contaminated with miticides?

This depends upon the miticide used.

I explained that the organic acids (formic or oxalic) are not wax soluble and so the super can be reused without a problem. 

In contrast, Apistan (a pyrethroid) is known to be wax soluble, so it should probably not be used again to avoid any risk of tainting honey subsequently extracted from it 3.

But (I probably digressed) you really shouldn’t be using Apistan as resistance in the mite population is already widespread.

But what about Apivar (the active ingredient of which is amitraz)?

Since Apivar isn’t wax soluble it would probably be OK to reuse the super … but I qualified this by saying that I don’t reuse them “just to be on the safe side”.

What they don’t tell you about Apivar

This wasn’t really an application of the precautionary principle.

Instead, it reflected a dim memory of some posts I’d read earlier in the year on the Bee-L discussion forum. This is a low volume/high quality forum frequented by scientifically-inclined beekeepers.

It turns out that, although amitraz (the active ingredient in Apivar) is not wax soluble, it’s broken down (hydrolysed) to a formamide and a formamidine

Read that again … I didn’t write the same word twice 😉

The formamide has no residual activity against mites. In contrast, the formamidine retains miticidal activity and is wax soluble

Is this a problem?

Well, possibly. One of the things discussed by Richard Cryberg on Bee-L was that there appears to be no toxicology data on these two products. It’s probably been done, just not published.

Perhaps we can assume that they’re not hideously toxic to humans (or bees)? If it was, amitraz (which is the active ingredient in all sorts of mite and tick treatments, not solely for bees) would carry sterner warnings.

Or should 🙁

The residual miticide activity is potentially more of a problem. A well understood route to developing miticide resistance involves long-term exposure to sub-lethal doses. There are several reports of amitraz resistance in the scientific literature, and bee farmers are increasingly providing anecdotal accounts of resistance becoming a problem.

This, and the possibility of tainting honey, are reason enough in my opinion to not reuse drawn supers that have been on the hive (e.g. nadired) during Apivar treatment.

But it turns out that there are additional potential issues with amitraz residues in comb.

Miticide residues in wax

Commercial wax foundation – like the stuff you buy from Thorne’s or Maisemores or Kemble Bee Supplies – is often contaminated with miticide residues. A large US survey of drawn comb from hives and foundation demonstrated that:

Almost all comb and foundation wax samples (98%) were contaminated with … fluvalinate 4 and coumaphos 5, and lower amounts of amitraz degradates and chlorothalonil 6, with an average of 6 pesticide detections per sample and a high of 39.

I’m not aware of an equivalent published analysis of UK foundation. I’m know one has been done and I’d be astounded if it produced dramatically different results. There’s a global trade in beeswax, some of which will be turned into foundation. The only exception might be certified organic foundations.

Freshly drawn comb

A freshly drawn foundationless frame

I always purchase premium quality foundation but am under no misapprehension that it doesn’t also contain a cocktail of contaminants, including miticides and their ‘degredates’. 

I’d be delighted to be proved wrong but, since I think that’s unlikely, it’s one reason I use an increasing number of foundationless frames … which also saves quite a bit of cash 🙂

Drones and queens and miticides in wax

Numerous studies have looked at the influence of miticide residues on worker, drone and queen development. These include:

  • Sublethal doses of miticides can delay larval development and adult emergence, and reduce longevity 7
  • Tau-fluvalinate- or coumaphos-exposed queens are smaller and have shorter lifespans 8
  • Queens reared in wax-coated cups contaminated with tau-fluvalinate, coumaphos or amitraz attracted smaller worker retinues and had lower egg-laying rates 9.
  • Drones exposed to tau-fluvalinate, coumaphos or amitraz during development had reduced sperm viability 10.

All of which is a bit depressing 🙁

These studies used what are termed ‘field-realistic’ concentrations of the contaminating miticide. They didn’t use wax saturated in miticide, but instead contaminated it with parts per million (ppm), or parts per billion (ppb).

These are the highest concentrations reported in surveys of comb tested in commercial beekeeping operations in the US, so hopefully represent a ‘worst case scenario’.

It’s also worth noting that some commercial beekeepers in the US use significantly more – both in amount and frequency – miticides than are used by amateurs. If you read American Bee Journal or the Beesource forums it’s not unusual to find accounts of spring, mid-season, late-summer and mid-winter treatments, often of the same colonies.

Queen mating

To add to the literature above, a new paper was published in November 2020 which suggested that amitraz residues in wax increased the mating frequency of queens.

The paper is by Walsh et al., (2020) Elevated Mating Frequency in Honey Bee (Hymenoptera: Apidae) Queens Exposed to the Miticide Amitraz During Development. Annals of the Entomological Society of America doi: 10.1093/aesa/saaa041

This piqued my interest. Queen mating frequency is an important determinant of colony fitness.

If a queen mates with more drones there’s inevitably increased genetic diversity in the colony and, in landmark studies by Thomas Seeley, an increase in colony fitness 11

Colony fitness includes all sorts of important characteristics – disease resistance, foraging ability, overwintering success etc.

So, perhaps this is a benefit of amitraz residues in your wax foundation … the reduced egg-laying rate being compensated by increased patrilines 12 and a fitter colony?

The study

Walsh and colleagues grafted queens into JzBz queen cups containing wax laced with one or more miticides. They reared the queens in ‘cell builders’ that had not been miticide treated, shifted mature queen cells to mating nucs and then – after successful mating – quantified two things:

  • the viability of spermatozoa in the queen’s spermatheca
  • the mating frequency of the queen

Irrespective of the miticides incorporated into the wax lining the queen cup, sperm viability was very high (98.8 – 99.5% viable), and no different from queens not exposed to miticides during development. 

Queen cells after emergence in mating nucs

This suggests that miticide contamination of queen cells is unlikely to have a deleterious effect on sperm viability in mated queens.

However, rather oddly, this contradicts a not dissimilar study 5 years ago from some of the same authors where the presence of tau-fluvalinate and coumaphos did reduce sperm viability 13, as did an earlier study looking at the effect of amitraz 14.

This contradiction is pretty-much ignored in the paper … clearly something that “needs further investigation”.

It might be due to experimental differences (for example, they used different methods to determine sperm viability). Alternatively, since the queens were open-mated, it might reflect differences in the miticide-exposure of the donor drones.

Mating frequency

The authors used microsatellite analysis to determine the mating frequency of the queens reared during the study. They compared queens reared in the presence of amitraz or tasty cocktails of tau-fluvalinate & coumaphos, or clorothalonil & chlorpyrifos 15, with those reared in the absence of chemicals contaminating the waxed queen cup.

They measured the observed mating frequency and then calculated the effective mating frequency (me). Conveniently they describe the difference between these parameters:

The observed mating frequency refers to the total number of drone fathers represented in a queen’s worker progeny. The effective mating frequency uses the proportion of each subfamily within a colony and compensates for calculating potentially skewed estimates of paternity (i.e., unequal subfamily proportions in sampled pupae) and intracolony genetic relatedness.

‘Convenient’ because it saves me having to explain it 😉

The observed mating frequencies of the control queens (untreated wax), or those reared in the presence of amitraz or tau-fluvalinate & coumaphos cocktails were not statistically different. However, queens reared in clorothalonil & chlorpyrifos-laced wax had a lower observed mating frequency.

Strikingly though, when calculated, the effective mating frequency of amitraz- or tau-fluvalinate & coumaphos-exposed developing queens was significantly higher (~12.9-13.4) than either the untreated controls or clorothalonil & chlorpyrifos (~8.2-8.8) 16.

And … ?

The amitraz result is new.

The influence of tau-fluvalinate & coumaphos on effective mating frequencies has been reported previously (by some of the same authors 17) which, since this was a new study in a different region, is at least encouraging because it supports the earlier work.

Taken together, these results suggest that miticide residues (of at least two chemically different types) increase the number of drones that a queen mates with.

The discussion of the paper speculates about why this difference is observed. 

The number of drones a queen mates with is influenced by several things. These include the number and duration of the mating flights. Perhaps the amitraz-exposed queen can’t count properly, or loses her ability to judge time … or just flies more slowly?

All of these would result in exposure to more drones.

Before returning to the hive, a queen must be able to determine whether she has mated with sufficient drones. It is suggested that stretch receptors in the oviducts are involved with this, forming a negative feedback stimulus once the oviducts are full. Perhaps amitraz impairs stretch receptor function or signalling?

Clearly there’s a lot left to learn.

Hyperpolyandry

The effective mating frequencies determined in the presence of amitraz (and tau-fluvalinate & coumaphos) were higher than the controls. However, they still appear rather low when compared with previous reports of hyperpolyandrous 18 colonies with up to 77 distinct patrilines (I’ve written about this previously, including descriptions of how it was determined).

Don’t mix the two observations up. In the studies of hyperpolyandry they analysed queens to determine their patriline.

A queen from a very rare patriline is still a queen, so can be screened.

In contrast, if you only screen a handful of workers (from the thousands present in the colony), you are very unlikely to find extremely rare patrilines. Those you do find will be the ones that are most common. 

A logical extension of the studies reported by Walsh et al., would be to determine whether hyperpolyandry also increased in amitraz-exposed colonies. If the effective mating number is increased you should observe a larger number of patrilines.

Alternatively, perhaps Withrow and Tarpy (who published the hyperpolyandry paper 19) should look again at whether the colonies they screened had a long history of amitraz exposure.

And what about that nadired super?

It’s probably fortunate I’d not fully read the literature before answering the question after my talk. 

If I had, I’d have tried to paraphrase the ~2000 words I’ve just written … so making my answer interminably long.

Of course, it’s unlikely that an amitraz (Apivar) contaminated super will ever be visited by a queen (but these things do happen 🙁 ).

Or be a location for developing queen cells. 

So, in this regard, I think it’s irrelevant whether the super is reused.

In contrast, the wax solubility and residual miticide activity of one of the hydrolysis products of amitraz is more of a concern. I don’t want this near honey I’m going to extract, and I’d rather not have it in the hive at all.

All of which explains the “Yes, but I don’t” answer to the original question about whether the super can be reused.

Fondant feeding on a colony with a nadired super

The super in the picture above will be removed early next season, before the queen starts laying in it. The super will be empty and I’ll melt the wax out in my steam wax extractor. 

In a good nectar flow the bees will draw a full super of comb very quickly. Yes, they’ll use some nectar that would otherwise be used make honey, but that’s a small penalty.

And what will I do with the extracted wax? 

I’ll probably trade it in for new foundation 20.

And since this is what many beekeepers do it explains why I’m certain that most commercial foundation is contaminated with miticides 🙁

But don’t forget …

Mite management is important. Miticides are chemicals and, like other medicines, have both beneficial and detrimental effects. The beneficial effects far outweigh the detrimental ones. If you do not treat, the likelihood is that mites and viruses will kill the colony … if not immediately, then eventually.


 

The winter cluster

We had our first snow of the year last night and the temperature hasn’t climbed above 3°C all day. The hills look lovely and, unsurprisingly, I’ve not seen a single bee venturing out of the hives.

Winter wonderland

If you crouch down close to the hive entrance and listen very carefully you’ll be able to hear …

… absolutely nothing.

Oh no! Are they still alive? Maybe the cold has killed them already?

If you rap your knuckles against the sidewall of the brood chamber you’ll hear a brief agitated buzz that will quickly die back down to silence.

Don’t do that 😯

Don’t disturb them unless you absolutely have to. They’re very busy in there, huddling together, clustering to maintain a very carefully regulated temperature.

Bees and degrees

Any bee that did venture forth at 3°C would get chilled very rapidly. Although the wing muscles generate a lot of heat (see below), this uses a large amount of energy.

If the body temperature of an individual bee dips below ~5.5°C they become semi-comatose. They lose the ability to move, or warm themselves up again. Below -2°C the tissues and haemolymph starts to freeze.

However, as long as they’re not exposed to prolonged chilling (more than 1 hour) they can recover if the environmental temperature increases 1.

An individual bee has a large surface area to volume ratio, so rapidly loses heat. Their hairy little bodies help, but it’s no match for prolonged exposure to a cold environment.

But the bees in your hives are not individuals. Now, perhaps more than any other time in the season, they function as a colony. Survival, even for a few minutes at these temperatures, is dependent upon the insulation and thermoregulation provided by the cluster.

All for one, one for all

The temperature in the clustered colony is always above the coma-inducing 5.5°C threshold, even for the bees that form the outer surface layer, which is termed the mantle.

And the temperature in the core of the cluster is much warmer still, and if they’re rearing brood (as they soon will be 2) is maintained very accurately.

The mantle

The temperature inside the hive entrance, some distance from the cluster, is the same as the external ambient temperature. On a cold winter night that might be -5°C (in Fife), or -35°C (in Manitoba).

Studies have shown that clustered colonies can survive -80°C for 12 hours, so just a few degrees below freezing is almost balmy.

The winter cluster

Due to thermal radiation from the clustered colony, the temperature of the airspace around the colony increases as you get nearer the cluster. Draught free hives – and beekeepers that refrain from rapping on the brood box sidewall – will reduce movement of this air, so reducing thermal losses from convection.

The clustered colony is not a uniform ‘ball’ of bees. It has two distinct layers. The outer layer is termed the mantle and is very tightly packed with bees facing inwards. These bees are packed in so tightly that their hairy bodies trap air between them, effectively forming an insulating quilt.

To reduce heat loss further these mantle bees have a countercurrent heat exchanger (between the abdomen and the thorax) that reduces heat loss from the haemolymph circulating through their projecting abdomens.

The mantle temperature is maintained no lower than about 8°C, safely above coma-inducing lower temperatures.

Penguins and flight muscles

I’ve seen it suggested that the mantle bees circulate back into the centre of the cluster to warm up again, but have been unable to find published evidence supporting this. It’s an attractive idea, and it’s exactly what penguins do on the Antarctic ice sheet … but that doesn’t mean it’s what bees do.

Penguins, not bees

Although bees can cope with temperatures of 8°C, they cannot survive this temperature for extended periods. If bees are chilled to below 10°C for 48 hours they usually die. This would support periodically recirculating into the centre of the cluster to warm up.

Bees do have the ability to warm themselves by isometric flexing of their flight muscles. Essentially they flex the opposing muscles that raise and lower the wings, without actually moving the wings at all.

This generates a substantial amount of heat. On a cool day, bees warm their flight muscles by this isometric flexing before leaving on foraging flights. They have to do this as the flight muscles must reach 27°C to generate the wing frequency to actually achieve flight. Since bees will happily forage above ~10°C this demonstrates that the isometric wing flexing can raise the thoracic flight muscle temperature by at least 15-17°C.

But, briefly back to the penguin-like behaviour of bees, neuronal activity is reduced at lower temperatures. In fact, at temperatures below 18°C bees don’t have sufficient neuronal activity to activate the flight muscles for heat generation. This again suggests there is a periodic recycling of bees from the mantle to the centre of the cluster.

How can bees fly on cool days if it’s below this 18°C threshold? The day might be cooler, but the bee isn’t. The colony temperatures are high enough to allow sufficient neuronal activity for the foragers to pre-warm their flight muscles to forage on cool days.

Anyway, enough of a digression about flight muscles, onward and inward.

The core

Inside the mantle is the core. This is less densely occupied by bees, meaning that they have space to move around for essential activities such as brood rearing or feeding.

The temperature of the core varies according to whether the colony is rearing brood or not. If the colony is broodless the core temperature is maintained around 18°C.

The tightly packed mantle bees reduce airflow to the core. As a consequence of this the CO2 levels rise and the O2 levels fall, to about 5% and 15% respectively (from 0.04% CO2 and 21% O2 in air). A consequence of this is that the metabolic rate of bees in the core is decreased, so reducing food consumption and minimising the heat losses from respiration.

Brood rearing

My clustered winter colonies are probably just thinking about starting to rear brood 3.

Bees cannot rear brood at 18°C. Brood rearing is very temperature sensitive and occurs optimally at 34.5-35.5°C.

Outside that narrow temperature band things start to go a bit haywire.

Pupae reared at 32°C emerge looking normal (albeit a day or so later than the expected 21 days for a worker bee), but show aberrant behaviour. For example, they perform the waggle dance less enthusiastically and less accurately 4. In comparison to bees reared at 35°C, the ‘cool’ bees performed only 20% of the circuits and the ‘waggle run’ component was a less accurate predictor of distance to the food source.

Neurological examination of bees reared at 35°C showed they had increased neuronal connections to the mushroom bodies in the brain, when compared with those reared as little as 1°C warmer or cooler. This, and the behavioural consequences, shows how critical the brood nest temperature is.

The cluster position

The cartoon above shows the cluster located centrally in the hive. This isn’t unusual, though the cluster does tend to move about within the volume available as they utilise the stores.

You can readily determine the location of the cluster. Either insert a Varroa tray underneath an open mesh floor for a few days …

All is well ...

Tell tale signs of a brood-rearing cluster …

… or by using a perspex crownboard. I have these on many of my colonies and it’s a convenient way of determining the size and location of the cluster with minimal disturbance to the colony.

Perspex crownboard

Perspex crownboard …

Though you don’t need to check on them like this at all.

The photograph above was from late November (6 years ago). The brood box is cedar and therefore provides relatively poor insulation.

While checking the post-treatment Varroa drop in my colonies this winter it was obvious that cluster position varied significantly between cedar and poly hive types.

In poly hives (all my poly hives are either Abelo or Swienty) it wasn’t unusual to find the cluster tight up against one of the exterior side walls. In contrast, colonies hived in cedar brood boxes tended to be much more central.

This must be due to the better insulation of polystyrene compared with cedar.

Insulation

Although I don’t think I’ve noticed this previously in the winter, it’s not uncommon in summer to find a colony in a poly hive rearing brood on the outer side of the frames adjacent to the hive wall. This is relatively rare in cedar boxes, other than perhaps at the peak of the summer.

If you’re interested in hive insulation, colony clustering and humidity I can recommend trying to read this paper by Derek Mitchell.

I don’t provide additional insulation to my colonies in the winter. It’s worth noting that all my hives have open mesh floors. In addition, the crownboard is topped by a 5 cm thick block of insulation throughout the year, either integrated into the crownboard or just stacked on top.

Perspex crownboard with integrated insulation

If you use perspex crownboards you must have insulation immediately above them. If you don’t you get significant amounts of condensation forming on the underside which then drips down onto the cluster.

The winter cluster and miticide treatment

The only time you’re likely to see the winter cluster is when treating with an oxalic acid-containing miticide. And only then when trickle treating.

With the choice between vaporising or trickle treating, I tend to be influenced by the ambient temperature.

If the cluster is very tightly clustered (because it’s cold) I tend to trickle treat.

If it is more loosely clustered I’m more likely to vaporise.

The threshold temperature is probably about 8°C, but I’m not precious about this. The logic – what little is applied – is that the oxalic acid crystals permeate the open cluster better than they would a closed cluster.

I’ve got zero evidence that this actually happens 😉

However, it’s worth reiterating the point I made earlier about airflow through the mantle. Since this is restricted in a tightly clustered colony – evidenced by the reduced O2 and elevated CO2 levels – then it seems reasonable to think that OA crystals are less likely to penetrate it either.

Of course, there’s an assumption that the trickled treatment can penetrate the cluster, and doesn’t just coat the mantle bees with a sticky OA solution.

Which neatly brings us back to penguins … if these mantle bees do recirculate through the cluster core they’ll take some of the OA with them, even if it didn’t get there directly.

Finally, it’s worth noting that cluster formation starts at about 14°C. As the temperature drops the cluster packs together more tightly. Between 14°C and -10°C the volume of the cluster reduces by five-fold.

By my calculations 5, at 2°C and 8°C the cluster is three and four times it’s minimal volume respectively, so perhaps both OA vapour and trickled solution could permeate perfectly well.