Category Archives: Boards

In the bleak midwinter

Winter has finally arrived.

Green thoughts in a white shade

We’ve had temperatures fluctuating around 0¬įC 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 ūüėČ

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¬įC 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¬įC, 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 ūüėČ

Under conditions like these the bees are effectively invisible. They’re very tightly clustered . With daytime temperatures rarely reaching 3¬įC 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 ūüôĀ ).

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 ūüôā

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 ūüėČ

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 ūüėČ ). 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 ūüôĀ

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 ūüėČ

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 ūüėČ

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 ūüôĀ

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 ūüôā

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 ūüėČ 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 ūüôā

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¬įN) or Thurso (58.5¬įN).

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¬įC 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 ūüôā ).

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 ūüôĀ

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 ūüôā

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 ūüėČ

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 ūüôĀ

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 ūüôĀ

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.

 

Matchstick miscellany

White propolis

What is propolis for?

Why, when you go to open a hive that you’ve not visited for some time, is the crownboard invariably stuck down with propolis?

Are the bees trying to stop you looking in? Do they think a thin bead of propolis is defence against a well-aimed hive tool?

Of course not.

What they are doing is sealing up every tiny nook and cranny, every gap and interstice.

You might think the crownboard is a snug fit.

The bees don’t.

Even the brand new, smooth, flat plastic interface between an Abelo crownboard and brood box get glued together within days.

Every fissure through which wasps 1 could gain access or heat could escape or water enter or whatever is gummed shut with a liberal helping of propolis.

Propolis is of course also antibacterial and has a host of other great properties, but for the purpose of this post I’m restricting myself to its use as a sort of “No Nonsense Decorators Caulk” of the bee world 2.

Mind the gap

Additional evidence that bees really do¬†‘mind the gap’¬†is easy to find if you use crownboards with holes in them.

Not the great gaping opening(s) designed to accommodate a porter bee escape (I’ll return to these shortly), but instead something like the ventilated disks in the grossly over-engineered Abelo poly crownboards.

Abelo poly National crownboard ...

Abelo poly National crownboard …

Here’s a brand new one, just out of the packing, with all the little fiddly ventilated plastic disks and poly plugs to cover them.

And this is what one of those ventilated holes looks like after a few weeks use …

Exhibit A … ventilated hole in an Abelo crownboard

And the same thing applies to wire mesh screens when I use split boards as crownboards (because I’ve run out … even of the 25p polythene ones).

Split board

Split board …

Which end up looking like this …

Exhibit B … are you getting the message?

Matchsticks … don’t try this at home

I’m an increasingly irregular visitor and even less frequent contributor to the online beekeeping discussion forums. On one 3 there’s a perennial discussion thread around this time of year concerning matchsticks.

Matchless matches

Essentially the discussion starts with a question or comment on the need for matchsticks as spacers to separate the crownboard from the brood box during the winter.

You’ll find this advice in many beekeeping books going back more than half a century and you’ll hear it in many ‘Start beekeeping’ winter courses … often taught by beekeepers who learned their beekeeping half a century ago.

In many cases the online forum discussion is started by a recommendation in the monthly BBKA 4 newsletter, or another online forum or Facebook group (again often BBKA-based).

The subsequent ‘discussion’ is generally nothing of the sort. The advice is (in my view rightly) criticised but as much or more effort goes into bashing the BBKA as evidencing why the advice is wrong.

I’m not here to bash the BBKA and I’ve already provided the unequivocal evidence why it’s wrong.

Much better use …

If you provide a narrow space or gap over the top of the colony they will try and seal the gap closed with propolis.

So don’t.

If you want to use matchsticks in the winter … build a model of Notre Dame instead. The bees will appreciate it more.

What are the bees telling you?

The speed with which bees seal up gaps and crevices tells you that that they ‘prefer’ not to have have these types of spaces overhead.

I’m using the word ‘prefer’ here in place of some convoluted justification around evolutionary selection of traits that benefit the long-term survival of the colony and maintenance/transmission of the genes in the environment.

They seal the gaps because to not do so, over eons, is detrimental to Apis mellifera. Not necessarily to that colony per se, but to the species.

Whether they do it to reduce robbing, to stop draughts or rain entering or to prevent the loss of warm air is, in many ways, irrelevant.

Do beekeepers really know better than millions of years of evolution?

No.

The “I always used matchsticks and my bees do well” justification

Is so deeply flawed it barely deserves contradicting.

But since I’m here, I will.

Bees have a fantastic ability to survive and even flourish despite the most cackhanded fumbling by beekeepers 5.

Just because your bees overwintered successfully with a gaping void in the crownboard does not mean they need that gaping void to survive 6.

Observe what the bees do and apply it to your beekeeping.

But what about crownboards with a big hole in for a porter bee escape? The bees don’t block those with propolis.

No, they don’t. But that’s still not justification to leave a void above the cluster. Bees seal gaps¬†smaller than ‘bee space’ (say 8-9 mm) with propolis.

Perhaps they don’t seal up these large holes in the crownboard because the ‘triggers’ that make them seal smaller gaps aren’t present.

As an aside, I wonder if they deploy guard bees to defend these large holes above the cluster? 7

But back to the matchsticks; these create a gap significantly less than 8mm and the bees clearly demonstrate Рeach and every time you crack open the crownboard Рthat this is far from optimal.

I’m not going to get into the chimney effect, lost heat, holes in trees, water ingress, draughts etc.

Whether it’s a good idea to ventilate the winter cluster, to get rid of excess humidity or anything else, the evidence is compelling 8the bees would rather you didn’t.

Winter preparation miscellany

The two propolis-adorned crownboard pictures above were taken¬†during an apiary visit in mid-October. I was opening hives for the final time this year. It was 12-13¬įC and bees were flying, bringing back pollen I presumed was largely from the ivy flowering nearby.

They fancied that fondant

Most had finished their final half block of fondant. The empty wrapper, eke and QE 9 were removed.

Others still had fondant left. In this case I bodily lifted off the QE, fondant and eke/super to give me access to the brood box.

Unfinished fondant

If you feed fondant above a QE you can balance it on an eke or empty super, so avoiding crushing the hundreds of bees clustered underneath the fondant 10

And the reason I needed access to the brood box was to recover the Apivar strips.

If the strip is fixed near the top of the frame this takes just seconds and a small amount of dexterity with a suitable hive tool.

The strips also have a small hole top and centre allowing them to be hung between frames on a matchstick.

But I don’t have matchsticks in the apiary ūüėČ so instead use the spike to fix them in the comb.

Apivar strips should not be left in for longer than the approved treatment period (6 – 10 weeks; these went in on the 28th of August, so are being removed after 7 weeks). This is important to avoid the reduced levels of amitraz in the ageing strips selecting for Apivar-resistant mites.

The few colonies I checked more thoroughly had little or no brood. All boxes were reassuringly heavy.

I saw a single drone amongst the dozen or so colonies I opened. Not long for this world I fear.

Since there was still pollen coming in I delayed fitting mouseguards to the colonies that need them.

I’ll deal with that once the frosts start 11.

Not long now ūüôĀ


 

Queen excluders

If your season is going anything like my season you’ll now be conducting weekly inspections of colonies which have one or more increasingly heavy honey supers 1.

Finally ūüôā

Wire queen excluder ...

Wire queen excluder …

At least, you should be doing weekly inspections and I hope the supers are filling nicely ūüėČ

If so, you’ll also probably be using queen excluders to stop Her Majesty from moving up into the supers. You don’t have to use queen excluders, but most people using stackable hives do. As I use a lot of drone foundation in my supers it’s a bit of a catastrophe if the queen lays up frame after frame of drones, so I always use queen excluders.

The good

I’ve used all sorts of queen excluders (henceforth QE’s for simplicity) over the years. Some are much better than others, some are awful and some fall into the¬†“OK¬†since I’ve run out of other equipment and I’m desperate”¬†category¬†i.e. useable, but not actually good.

The good ones are wooden-framed with rigid wires. They have beespace on one side 2 and generally don’t get stuck down to the tops of the frames. They are relatively easy to clean and you can buy a little scraper gadget to help with this task. Importantly, from an apiary hygiene point of view, they can be blowtorched if needed to sterilise them.

I build my own, using the wire-only grids available from Thorne’s. A 9 x 25mm frame with simple rabbet joints holds the wire, which I fix in place with Gorilla glue. I then add a narrow wooden rim around the top edge, flush with the wire, onto which the super is placed. The overall cost is about a tenner, about half that of the readymade commercial ones and only twice that of the¬†el cheapo plastic ones.

The bad

I started beekeeping using the slotted steel or zinc sheets that get propolised to the tops of the frames and, as you prise them up, suddenly go ‘ping‘ firing bees up into the air. The trick to stopping this was lift from one corner but keeping pressure in the middle with one finger so they released slowly and gently.

These slotted zinc QE’s tended to bend or crease 3¬†and mine were butchered to make mini-nuc feeders years ago.

Unfortunately – because they’re the most recent QE’s I’ve purchased – I’d also add the current XP PLUS QE from Thorne’s to this category. These are moulded plastic with square holes but have the addition of a bottom rim and half a dozen standoffs that hold them a beespace above the top bars of the brood box. So far, so good.

They’re described as non-stick, but in my experience aren’t. I’ve got about half a dozen in use at the moment and all of them have either (or both) been stuck firmly to the top bars of the brood box or – infuriatingly – to the underside of the super.

Irritatingly these QE’s also don’t appear to ever lay flat 4. When purchased they were a bit banana-shaped, but I wrongly thought that stacking under some other boxes for a few months would sort them out. When reassembling the hive they always leave a corner or two bent up, under which the bees crawl … with inevitable consequences. Avoid.

The indifferent

Plastic lay flat QE

Plastic lay flat QE …

I also have lots of the plastic ‘lay flat’ QE’s. These are just about the cheapest to buy. Some have¬†square, some rounded, holes. All are much of a muchness in my view. They get propolised to the frame tops and usually need the same sort of ‘finger press’ in the middle when removing them to avoid launching bees unceremoniously across the apiary.

All of these ‘lay flat’ QE’s are a bit tricky to clean. You can scrape them with a hive tool, but lots of the holes get blocked with wax/propolis. If you put them in the freezer overnight you can then flex them gently and quite a bit of the propolis can be released (and used for all sorts of things like tinctures).

Top tips

When removing the queen excluder, particularly the flat plastic ones that inevitably get stuck down to the top bars,¬†gently twist it in a circular motion to loosen it from the wax. Also try the¬†‘finger in the middle trick’.

Before putting the hive back together give both frame top bars and the QE a scrape with the hive tool encourage it to lie back down flat. This makes subsequent inspections easier.

Finally, remember to always check the¬†underside of the QE for the queen before setting it aside and continuing with the inspection. Take it from me … you feel a combination of stupid and relieved when you finally find the queen wandering around on the QE as you reassemble the¬†puzzlingly queenless hive that’s got loads of eggs and no queen cells.

And it’s always worth checking the upper face of the QE as well …

Queen above the QE

Queen above the QE …


 

All the gear, no idea

The new Thorne’s catalogue came out a few days ago. I picked up a copy during a visit to the Newburgh store when I bought frames for the upcoming season and some more queen excluders.

Required reading

Required reading

I’ve always enjoyed reading the Thorne’s catalogue. Browsing the 2018 copy brought back memories of my introduction to it a decade or so ago. That was after my very first¬†“Beekeeping for Beginners”¬†evening class with the Warwick and Leamington beekeepers. Everyone left the class clutching a catalogue and an order form for a discounted¬†BBwear suit.¬†

It was clearly effective and well-targeted marketing. I still spend more than I should (though less than I could, thanks to my catastrophic DIY skills) with Thorne’s and I still use BBwear suits.

Pick a size, any size

Dadant? Smith? Aargh!

Dadant? Smith? Aargh!

The abiding memories of my first experience of the catalogue were the myriad choices … of hives, frames, foundation, tools and – perhaps more than anything else – labels and moulds.

Remember, this was before even the basics of the hive had been introduced in the beginners course. That first evening was probably spent on the distinction between queens, workers and drones, or perhaps ‘the beekeeping year’.

Back to the catalogue … surely there wasn’t the need for all those different frame sizes and styles? DN1, DN2, DN4, DN5, 14″ x 12″ and BS Manley.

Hang on! What happened to DN3’s? 1

And then the hives … National, Commercial, Dadant, Smith, Langstroth … Aargh!

Very confusing. And that’s before some of the hives that didn’t even really look like beehives were considered … Top bar, Dartington, Warr√© 2¬†etc.

Of course now, a decade or so later, I know the answer. There’s no logical need for anything other than medium Langstroth boxes and one type of frame ūüėČ

But I and most other beekeepers also know that logic is something in short supply in most beekeeping.

Indeed, logic is almost as rare as adhering to standards.

Which is why I use BS ‘British Standard’ National hives ūüėČ

The essentials and nothing else …

The Thorne’s catalogue3 lists everything an amateur ‘hobbyist’ beekeeper could possibly need and almost everything he or she could possibly want. It also lists several thousand things that are either duplicates of other stuff or, plain and simple, are probably unnecessary.

Eight different types of smoker.¬†Eleven different types of uncapping knives, forks or rollers. Eighteen different types of hive tools. Eighteen! And I daren’t even look at the labels or moulds.

This isn’t a criticism. Choice is great … but is can be really confusing. Particularly when you don’t know the difference between your Bailey, Horsley, Snelgrove, Cloake or Snuggle boards.

Have some sympathy for the hundreds of tyro beekeepers attending winter training courses all over the UK at the moment. In between those two hour lectures in the drafty church hall 4 they’re feasting on the Thorne’s catalogue every evening to provide their necessary daily ‘fix’ of beekeeping enlightenment.

For many, this catalogue is an integral part of their beekeeping education.

Beetradex and the Spring Convention

And then, schooled in basics from their winter training courses and simultaneously confused and enticed by their nightly perusal of the ‘essentials’ in the Thorne’s catalogue, come the two biggies.

Beetradex and the BBKA Spring Convention.

Like lions waiting to ambush an unsuspecting baby wildebeest, the two biggest trade events in the beekeeping year allow all those essential items in the catalogue to be seen, inspected, caressed, agonised over and – finally – bought.

Beetradex ...

Beetradex …

Not necessarily in that order.

In my case sometimes bought, caressed, inspected and then agonised over ūüôĀ

What on earth possessed me to get a Combi-Brush?

All the gear, no idea

Those early beekeeping days were characterised by limitless enthusiasm – in part fueled by the annual Thorne’s catalogue – and precious little practical experience.

"Essentials" ...

“Essentials” …

I’ve still got stuff I bought in those early days. There’s all sorts of bits and bobs stored away which¬†‘might come in’.

It hasn’t and probably won’t ūüôĀ

One of the characteristics of my beekeeping (and I suspect of many others) is that it has become much simpler and more straightforward as I’ve gained experience 5. The enthusiasm is still there, it’s just tempered with pragmatism and an appreciation that there’s only so much I can fit into the garage.

Enlightened apiculture

I now carry less to the apiary than I did five years ago. The bee bag is slimmed down and much more manageable. My record keeping is more organised – or at least less shambolic. I’ve given away the frame rests, mouseguard magnet … and the Combi-brush.

But, most significantly, I’ve pretty-much standardised on the equipment I use. I buy the boxes ensuring that they’re all compatible with each other. I buy the replacement frames and I buy less and less foundation.

And most of the rest I usually do without or build myself. The latter includes almost all of the ‘horizontal’ components of the hive – the floor, boards, roof, ekes¬†etc.6

And I reckon my beekeeping is better for it. My bank balance certainly is ūüôā

What’s new?

Nevertheless, I’ve still enjoyed a quiet hour or two (as the Beast from the East roars outside) with a cup of tea and the 2018 Thorne’s catalogue.

I’ve marvelled at the Adapta hive stand and floor which, by my estimates, would cost an eye-watering ¬£422.92 if you were to buy it with all the accessories.¬†¬†Actually, I’ve mainly marvelled at their ingenuity in designing all those accessories. This floor has been out a year or two now, but new for 2018 is the Adapta eke.

Or perhaps that should be Eek!

Undoubtedly well made, indubitably multi-functional, but costing £107.50 with all the add-ons.

Eek!

My first hive was a secondhand Thorne’s¬†Bees on a Budget¬†National bought from an association member who had had to give up beekeeping due to allergies. The boxes are still in regular use. It’s still listed in the catalogue and thousands have probably started their beekeeping with one of these hives.

While the basic hive hasn’t changed there are lots of new choices of floor, half-size supers and insulation, polish containers, queen introduction cages and – inevitably – candle moulds.

So … was I tempted by anything?

Of course ūüėČ

Horsley board

Horsley board

A year or two ago Thorne’s started selling Horsley boards¬†(PDF) – an interesting method of swarm control consisting of a split board with an upper entrance, removable slide and queen excluder panel. I built my own a few years ago and have used it successfully. Mine is bodged together from bits of scrap wood and a butchered tin baking tray.

It’s a monstrosity.

They had one in the Newburgh store and it was beautifully made.

I was very tempted.

But I managed to resist … though I’ve looked at it¬†several times¬†in the new catalogue ūüėČ


Colophon

In the interest of literary accuracy I should add that the bit about the Combi-Brush is not entirely true. I’ve never bought one. It was chosen as the most ridiculous piece of beekeeping equipment I could find in the catalogue that readers might appreciate.

However, there¬†are a few things I have bought that, years, months, weeks or just days later, I’ve wondered …¬†“Why?”

What they are will remain a closely guarded secret ūüėČ

Makes space in beekeeping (3)

The poor cryptic crossword clue in the title of course refers to an eke.

In beEKEeping, an eke is a wooden frame, the same dimensions as the hive, used to provide temporary additional volume to the hive.

They are useful and versatile pieces of equipment.

Etymology

The word eke can be traced back to Middle English (eke or eake) when it meant¬†“an addition” and was derived from the the Old English (ńďaca) and the Old Norse (auki) words¬†of the same meaning.

In Old English it usually referred to a reinforcement of troops, but in 1549 it was first used 1 to indicate an addition to the tag end of a bell-rope.

And then, a mere 308 years later it was used to describe a cylinder on which a beehive was placed to increase its capacity.

Swarm in a skep

Swarm in a skep …

‘Cylinder’ of course, because in 1857 most beehives were probably still straw skeps 2. A more extensive definition from the same period was a small addition to the bottom of a beehive, often just a few strands of straw, on which the hive was temporarily raised.

Most of us don’t use skeps any longer (other than for swarm collection) but we do use ekes.

Don’t buy it, build it

For some time I’ve reckoned that the appropriately-named dummy board represent the single item with the largest profit margin for manufacturers of beekeeping equipment.

I’m wrong. It’s the humble and unassuming, but oh so useful, eke.

At its most simple, an eke is a made of four bits of wood, screwed, nailed or glued together at the corners, square 3 and true. It doesn’t need to be made out of the best quality cedar.

In fact, it doesn’t need to be made of cedar at all. Any readily-available softwood with a couple of coats of wood-preservative slapped on top will be just fine.

Look back at the definition of an eke. Now, as in 1857, it was meant as a temporary addition to the hive. Cuprinol is just fine, best western cedar is overkill.

A cute rabbit, not rabbet, from http://www.bbbvet.org.uk

No … rabbet. R a b b E t.

I shall leave the precise design and details of building an eke as¬†‘an exercise for the reader’. You can achieve ‘square and true’ by using a simple square of plywood as a template. I’d suggest gluing and screwing the corners using a simple rabbet joint. Paint the entire thing with a couple of coats of bee-friendly wood preservative and you’ll have saved at least ¬£20 on the prices some of the commercial suppliers charge.

Dimensions

Length and width are the same as the hive, depth is the important one.

You can make an eke any depth you want. You can usually buy them in only two depths.

  • Shallow (~20mm) – to provide just enough space over the brood frames when applying Apiguard treatment in the autumn. I can’t think of alternative uses that need an eke this shallow.
  • Deep (~90mm) – to convert a regular brood box for use with 14 x 12 frames 4.
Rabbit, er, rabbet joint

Rabbit, er, rabbet joint …

All my ekes are made from 20 x 44mm (thickness x depth 5) softwood. This just happened to be the wood I could easily get when I first started building them, but has turned out to be a very useful depth overall.

Build more than one. Unless you only have one hive. In which case buy another hive and then build another eke. I’ve got about two-thirds the number of ekes as I have hives and I regularly run out.

Feeding and treating

Use your wellie

Use your wellie …

The most frequent use for an eke is to provide space above the frames and below the crownboard, for example when feeding a colony fondant or applying¬†Apiguard. It takes just seconds to lift the roof and crownboard, position the eke, add the fondant or tray of Apiguard and cover the hive again. In the days when I used to use Apiguard I’d often add the fondant at the same time 6. What could be simpler?

With care (or a lot of flattening the block by standing on it repeatedly) it’s possible to easily squeeze 6-8kg of fondant into the void provided by a 43mm eke. Since I usually feed a full 12.5kg block of fondant in one go – sliced in half and opened up like a book – I simply pop an eke under an inverted insulated crownboard to provide the ‘headroom’ needed.

Vaporising with an eke

Vaporising with an eke …

Whilst we’re on the subject of applying miticides … I also use ekes when¬†administering vaporised oxalic acid-containing treatments to colonies in polystyrene hives. The nozzle of my Sublimox vaporiser gets hot enough to melt¬†polystyrene. Rather than messing around trying to aim the billowing cloud of vapour through the entrance it’s much easier simply adding a wooden eke to the top of the brood box and pushing the nozzle through a 7mm hole in one side. The vapour easily permeates to every corner of the hive 7.

Travelling

Travel screens are used in place of crownboards and roofs when colonies are being moved any distance. They are usually framed wire mesh of some sort. They are important as they stop colonies overheating during the stress of transporting them. You can also easily spray water onto the colony to help cool it if needed.

They are yet another thing that spends 98% of the time stacked up in a corner with all the other oddities of beekeeping – clearer boards, Miller feeders, weirdo split boards and custom-made shims for uniting mismatched hives.

Travel screen mesh and eke

Travel screen mesh and eke …

I don’t bother with travel screens, but instead use robust ‘glassfibre’ insect mesh held securely in place with – you’ve guessed it – an eke. I just lay the mesh over the open colony, add the eke and then strap everything thing up tight. This works a treat. The eke ensures that the mesh is held securely around the edges.

Abelo hives in transit ...

Abelo hives in transit …

Insulation and crownboards

I’m a firm believer in providing a block insulation over the crownboard, ideally all season, but certainly through the winter. I’ve built a number of reversible, insulated perspex crownboards … but I didn’t build enough

I’ve also bought, inherited or otherwise acquired several standard framed plywood or perspex crownboards. Using a 44mm deep eke and a suitably sized block of 50mm thick expanded foam you can easily cobble together a perfectly function insulated crownboard.

Another use for an eke

Another use for an eke …

And the rest …

There are all sorts of additional uses for ekes … stacking supers on, providing space¬†under brood frames with protruding queen cells (for example, when moving a frame from one colony to another 8, doubled up to provide depth for 14 x 12 frames¬†etc.

It’s worth keeping a couple of ekes stacked up with spare supers and broods in the apiary. They’re more useful than you’d think a simple square frame of wood should be.

Winter colony with eke, fondant and insulation

Winter colony with eke, fondant and insulation …


 

Cleaning perspex crownboards

Perspex crownboard

Perspex crownboard …

I’ve previously described the perspex insulated crownboards I use. These allow me to determine¬†how the colony is expanding in Spring, or how much fondant remains during autumn feeding, with minimal disruption to the colony. The poly Everynuc I use is also supplied with a semi-flexible clear polycarbonate¬†sheet¬†to be used as a crownboard‚Ć. Note that the terms¬†‘perspex’ and¬†‘polycarbonate’¬†are almost certainly incorrect, but I’m sure you are familiar with¬†the sort of material I’m talking about (and may even know the correct names for it).

My crownboards have bottom beespace and the polynucs are nominally top beespace. Nevertheless, perhaps because of the inherent flex in these materials or my shoddy workmanship, the bees often start to build wax fillets between the top bars and the crownboard. When replacing the crownboard after inspecting the colony this can trap bees so periodically needs to be removed. If you have one of the blade-ended hive tools this can be used but I’ve found a much better solution is a Stanley-bladed window paint scraper. However, don’t use a brand new blade as it will inevitably catch and stick into the relatively soft perspex/plastic/polycarbonate of the crownboard. Instead use an old and blunt blade which makes short work of the wax and propolis adhering to the crownboard.

Inevitably the bees will have started to refill the gap when you next inspect the colony but at least you won’t be faced with a little row of corpses trapped along the top of the frame. The wax can be collected and eventually melted down in a steam wax extractor and turned into something more useful, like candles, firelighters or soap.


‚Ć made by Bayer, the German agripharma company, if you bother to read the shrink-wrap plastic that covers it when supplied …

Vertical splits and making increase

A vertical split describes the division¬†of a colony into two – one queenright, the other queenless – on the same floor and under the same roof, with the intention of allowing the queenless colony to raise a new queen. If successful, you end up with two colonies from the original one. This approach can be used as a means of swarm prevention, as a way to requeen a colony, as a way to generate two colonies from one, or – to be covered in another post – the starting point to generate a number of nucleus colonies. It’s a hands-off way of queen rearing ‚Ķ without the need to graft, to prepare cell raising colonies or to manage¬†mating nucs.

Wally Shaw has written an excellent guide to simple ways of making increase (PDF) which includes a number of variants of the straightforward¬†vertical split described here. There are additional instructions available on the Kent beekeepers website by Nick Withers (Swarm Management¬†– Under One Roof¬†‚Ķ in which the ‘split board’ described below is termed a swarm board). Wally’s article¬†is particularly good, but includes complications like brood and a half colonies and a host of further embellishments. For simplicity I’ve restricted my¬†description to a situation when you have one¬†colony – on single or double¬†brood boxes, possibly with supers on top – and want to divide it into two.

The split board

Split board

Split board …

You need a way to divide the colony in two and provide an upper entrance. There are many¬†ways of doing this, including¬†the multi-entrance Snelgrove board¬†(PDF) and the increasingly popular Horsley board, but one of the most straightforward¬†is a simple split board as shown in the picture. A single sheet of 9-12mm plywood forms the basis for the board, with a ‘beespace’ rim on both faces. On one side (the ‘upper’ side when in use) make a simple hinged¬†door as shown. In the middle of the board cover a 100mm square hole with a single sheet of¬†Varroa mesh – this allows the odour of the colonies to merge and for warmth to spread from the lower box to the upper one.

Vertical split Рin principle

The general idea is to divide a strong, healthy colony into two. The colony is arranged so that the queenright side of the split gets depleted of bees which boost the queenless side, so providing ideal conditions for making emergency queen cells. After the cells are sealed the colony is manipulated to deplete the queenless side of bees, and strengthen the queenright side. This prevents swarming. Nectar collection continues without too much interruption if there is a flow on. All of this is achieved by straightforward manipulations of the colony on day one and day 7. You should have a mated, laying queen (in the originally queenless side of the split) about 3 weeks later.

Vertical split – in practice

It’s only worth rearing queens from colonies that exhibit desirable qualities – healthy, docile, a good laying pattern, steady on the comb¬†etc. Of these, I’d argue that health and temper are two critical characteristics. You need to make these judgements over an extended period – I’ve briefly discussed the basics of good record keeping when selecting¬†larvae for grafting, and the same principles apply here. Like computing –¬†rubbish in, rubbish out. If your colony doesn’t have the necessary desirable characteristics there are ways of modifying the method described below to raise queens from better stock ‚Ķ but lets deal with the basics first.

Day 1

  1. Gently smoke the colony and remove the lid and crownboard. You¬†need to find the queen so don’t gas them. If the colony is already on double brood move the top box – which probably contains the queen – off to the side. If the colony is on a single brood box you’ll need a second brood box and 11 frames of drawn comb (ideally) or foundation.
  2. Having checked carefully that the queen isn’t present on them remove a couple of outside frames to allow you space to manipulate the remainder. Go through the boxes carefully and find the frame with the queen on it. Either put this somewhere safe, like a two-frame nuc box, or leave it well separated from the other¬†frames so that the queen stays put on it.
  3. Rearrange frames between the two brood boxes so that the queen, older larvae and some sealed brood is present in what will become the upper box, together with a frame or two of stores. Eggs¬†and young larvae should predominantly be in the bottom box. This isn’t¬†a precise science, you need sufficient brood with the queen to build up a new colony and sufficient eggs and very young larvae for the queenless side to have a good choice of young larvae from which to raise a new queen.
  4. Reassemble the boxes with the brood in the centre, flanked by either stores and/or the new frames. The idea is to create two brood nests, one above the other, roughly centred on the mesh-covered hole in the split board.
  5. Place the queenless box on the original floor. Put the split board on top with the entrance open and facing in the opposite direction to the original entrance. Put the queenright box on top of the split board, then replace the crownboard and the roof (see the note about supers below).
  6. Leave the colony for a week.

What’s happening¬†‚Ķ¬†During this week foragers leaving the¬†top box will mainly¬†re-enter via the entrance at the front of the colony, so significantly boosting the numbers of bees in the bottom box. This box will rapidly realise it is queenless and will raise new queen cells. The concentration of bees in the bottom box will ensure that the developing queen larvae are well fed. If there were queen cells in the top box (with the queen) the depleted bee numbers will mean they will soon get torn down. The queen will continue laying uninterrupted.

The Vertical Split in pictures

The Vertical Split in pictures

Day 7

  1. You don’t need to inspect the colony at all, but you do need to rearrange it. If there are no supers on the colony and you’re feeling very strong you can simply reverse the entire colony on the stand. The original bottom entrance is now at the ‘back’ and the upper entrance is at the ‘front’. That’s it ‚Ķ leave them to it. There should be a new queen, mated and laying, in the bottom box in about 3 weeks.
Charles Atlas

Charles Atlas …

However, remember that this is a double brood box at the height of the season. There is likely to be a good nectar flow on and there should be¬†some reasonably fragile queen cells in the bottom box – dropping the hive when reversing it could be catastrophic, and not just for anyone standing nearby (as an aside, the mushroom-like cloud of bees that erupt from a dropped brood box is one of the most spectacular¬†sights in beekeeping ‚Ķ probably the ultimate test of how impenetrable your beesuit is and how steady your nerves are). Far better than Charles Atlas-like heroics it’s probably better to separate the colony¬†below the split board, put the upper box aside, reverse the lower box and floor, then replace the upper with the entrance now facing in the opposite direction (see the figure above).

If you do inspect the colony at this stage you’ll find a happily laying queen in the top box. There will be no queen cells in the top box unless there is something wrong with the queen. There should be relatively fewer bees in the top box – thousands not hundreds. In contrast, the bottom box will be very crowded with bees and there will be multiple queen cells present, both sealed and unsealed. Leave them ‚Ķ the bees will choose a good one in due course.

What’s happening¬†‚Ķ¬†During the next few days the bottom box will get depleted of bees as they leave by the lower entrance and return to the ‘front’ of the hive, eventually finding the upper entrance and strengthening the upper box containing the laying queen. Initially there will be considerable confusion, with hundreds of bees milling around at the site of the original entrance. For this reason it’s best not to rearrange the colony late in the evening ‚Ķ do it earlier in the day to allow them ample time to reorientate to the upper entrance. This reorientation takes a couple of days – don’t worry about it, there will be a lot more activity around the entrances (and positions of previous entrances) during this period.

A limited number of virgin queens should emerge about 16 days after the initial manipulation and the depleted bee numbers in the bottom box will ensure that the colony shouldn’t throw off casts. If multiple virgins emerge at the same time they’ll probably fight it out to leave just one. In due course, usually about 5-6 days after emerging, the virgin will go on one or more mating flights and return to the lower box and start laying.

Vertical split

Vertical split – day 7 …

Supers

If there are supers on the original colony, or the nectar flow is strong during the month-long process and you need to add supers, then there is a simple rule about where they should be placed – above the strongest of the two brood boxes, separated by a queen excluder. This means that during the first week they will be on top of the lower brood box, below the split board, and in subsequent¬†weeks they will be above the upper brood box, underneath the crown board. Because the split board has a mesh screen the colony odours are mixed and the bees should not fight during these rearrangements. There’s no need to empty the bees from supers when moving them.

Making things easier …

Any enthusiastic DIY beekeeper will realise that the entire process can be made much easier by creating both a split board and floor with two opposing entrances. Using these there would be no need to reverse the colony on day 7. The split board might be a sensible modification – something to build during the winter. However, the Kewl floors I favour don’t readily lend themselves to this type of design and – although having a physique more like Charles Hawtrey than Charles Atlas – I find it easy enough to manhandle the colony as needed. A floor with opposing entrances would also benefit queen rearing using a Cloake board which has some similarities to the principles of the vertical split.

And finally …

At the end of this vertical split you will have two queenright colonies under a single roof. You can either move one or other away (remembering the 3 feet and 3 miles rule or the box that remains on the original site will collect all the returning foragers) thereby doubling your colony number. Alternatively, you can inspect the upper box and sacrifice the old queen (of course, if she’s simply¬†surplus to requirements but still performing OK you could¬†offer her to another beekeeper ‚Ķ these little acts of kindness are appreciated both by the recipient¬†and¬†the queen), remove the split board and thereby unite the two colonies into one strong colony.¬†And, of course, if something goes wrong – the new queen doesn’t get mated or the old queen fails during the process – you can simply merge the colonies back down to one.

Advantages and disadvantages

I see the main advantages (in no particular order) as:

  • limited horizontal space required.
  • almost no additional equipment needed.
  • colony ‘smell’ retained making uniting or exchanging supers easier.
  • swarming and controlled increase are possible with little intervention.

… and the disadvantages:

  • vertical lifting required and boxes may be heavy.
  • inspections of the bottom box are complicated (not least by the mass of bees trying to return to the upper entrance).
  • supers need to be moved during the procedure and add to the weight (but think of all that lovely honey ūüėČ ).
  • some smaller colonies may not raise a new queen in the bottom box – I don’t know why this is, but suspect it’s due to the amount of queen pheromone, particularly from a young, strong queen in the top box. I intend to investigate whether a super separating the boxes might help prevent this.

Dummy boards

Can you have too many dummy boards? Well, obviously you can, but having made half a dozen last winter and another three¬†last night I’ve yet to suffer from an excess of them. In fact, I’m going to have to make some more this weekend.

National hive dummy boards DIY

Dummy boards …

I’ve run out of dummy boards this year for three¬†reasons. Firstly, I’m using the Demaree method for swarm control much more and so have two brood boxes to control free space in (and I usually remove frames of stores in the top box). Secondly, I’ve been using three frame nucs for queen mating, some of which are in five frame nuc boxes. Finally, with several swarms captured in bait hives, my colony count has increased.

Dummy boards are brood-frame-sized (length and height, but not thickness) pieces of something, with a simple top bar. The something is probably ideally a nice piece of red cedar about a centimetre thick. However, all mine are 9mm plywood from the offcuts bin in my local timber merchant, or stuff I’ve recovered by dumpster diving during refurbishments at work (I have no shame). I cut a piece 355¬†mm x 205¬†mm and simply glue and nail a top bar from 9mm stripwood along the longest, straightest edge.

Eleven frames plus dummy board

Eleven frames plus dummy board …

I’ve seen all sorts of designs on the web. Some made from a Correx-lined standard brood frame, some¬†with side spacers and some with insulation. Although there is a case to fill a large amount of excess space with something like an insulated fat dummy (e.g. when housing a nuc-sized colony in a full brood box) most of the time a dummy board will simply be occupying a small strip of space that would otherwise be filled with brace comb. Typically this is when you have eleven brood frames in a National-sized box. When new, you can squeeze a dozen frames in. However, as soon as there’s some propolis it gets nearly impossible to add or remove the last frame without rolling bees. In this case it’s better to use eleven frames and a dummy board.

Spacers and any other embellishments seem totally superfluous to me. If there’s space for a full frame I’ll use a full frame, so why purchase a full frame dummy board lined with Correx? If I want the dummy board to be a certain distance from the adjacent frame I’ll put it there ‚Ķ and in a couple of hours the bees will have propolised it into place. Finally, if you use poly nucs, or have roofing felt on the roofs of adjacent hives in the apiary, a dummy board makes a great¬†place to stand the smoker when not in use during inspections (from experience I can confirm that neither poly nor roofing felt appreciates exposure to a hot smoker ūüôĀ ).

Note: After writing this I checked the price of dummy boards with major beekeeping equipment suppliers (I’m thinking of writing about¬†beekeeping economics in the winter) and was horrified to see that they varied between ¬£5.75 and¬†¬£6.12. Dummy boards¬†are the perfect example of something that is well worth making ‚Ķ even more so because the most expensive one is plastic, so would melt under my smoker ūüėČ

 

Poly nuc insulated eke

Insulated eke with block of fondant in place

Insulated eke

The lid on Paynes poly nuc boxes is very thin. ¬†This, and the internal feeder, are the weakest features of what is otherwise a well designed, robust and useful box. ¬†You can improve the box hugely by¬†butchering it¬†removing the internal feeder. ¬†This generates an eight frame nuc box which is also a good size (and weight ‚Ķ when struggling up or down a ladder) for housing all but the largest swarms.¬†However, other than during the summer, the lid is far too thin. ¬†On a morning with a heavy frost the thawed patch above the cluster is very obvious. ¬†I’m convinced that top insulation is very important; I build crown board with internal insulation or roofs with integral Kingspan insulation for all my full-size hives. ¬†With a little ingenuity and some primitive woodworking skills it is possible to construct an insulated eke for these Paynes poly nucs that has the additional advantage of allowing you to feed fondant to the colony.

Construction details

Construction details

Kingspan and most other expanded polystyrene-type (that’s probably not exactly the correct term, but it’s a description most will understand) insulation is 50mm thick. Since my woodworking skills are limited and I lack anything other than a simple saw I have to work with the softwood ¬†sizes available off the shelf (at my excellent local Shepherds DIY store). Therefore, using 46 x 21mm softwood I build an eke, with simple rebated joints, that fits onto the nuc box, outside the short raised lip. This then needs an additional shim of 9 x 21mm softwood around the top edge. I add a thin strip of 3mm thick stripwood to the inside top edge of the eke and then create the raised lip (over which the lid will fit) using 32 x ¬†9mm softwood (this is much easier to show in a photo than to describe). The intention is that the lid fits neatly over the ‘new’ raised lip, forming a reasonable seal against the weather.

Jablite cut to fit

Jablite cut to fit

After adding two to three coats of a suitable bee-safe wood preservative like Ronseal Fence Life I prepare a block of Kingspan or Jablite insulation, carving¬†out¬†a rebate to fit the raised lip of the eke ‚Ķ again, the photo should make this much clearer. FInally, cut a hole in the insulation to take a “carry out” food container with fondant. Don’t discard the piece you cut out ‚Ķ use it to fill the space if you’re not going to be adding fondant.

Inner corner detail

Inner corner detail

In the summer I usually use 2mm Perspex crown boards on these poly nuc boxes. After an inspection they can easily be slid across the top of the box, pushing bees away and down out of the way. These crown boards have no feeding holes in them. Therefore, in the winter I prepare a sheet of thick translucent polythene with a suitably placed flap over the top bars, add the fondant block and the insulated eke, topping the entire thing off with the 2mm Perspex sheet and the poly lid. The latter can easily blow away – make sure you strap it down or add a brick on top.