Category Archives: DIY

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 🙂


STOP PRESS – update 7th September ’21

I now have a working solution with proper thermostatic temperature control. It’s currently going through a final series of tests. I strongly suggest you don’t follow the botch-up design described above, but wait for another post on this subject sometime this winter. It’s possibly to build a queen cell incubator with fully automatic temperature control of ±0.5°C that will work at home or in a vehicle for about £60.

Income and outgoings

I discussed beekeeping economics a couple of weeks ago.

I used some potentially questionable survey data on hive numbers, winter losses, honey yields and pricing, together with ‘off the shelf’ costs for frames, sugar and miticides.

Even ignoring the costs of travel and depreciation on equipment the ‘profit’ was not substantial.

Actually, it was just £102 per colony.

Consider the hard work involved, the heavy lifting, the vagaries of the weather and the amount of honey given away to friends and family.

You are not going to get rich fast (or at all) and the Maldives will have to remain a dream.

What a fantastic beekeeping year that was …

Most of us 1 keep bees for pleasure. However, a small profit from our endeavours can’t do any harm, and may actually do some good.

It might pay for a “sorry I was late back from the apiary … again” crate of beer/bunch of flowers 2 or for the new smoker to replace the one you reversed the car over.

Smoker still life

Smoker

So how do you fund the purchase of a crate of beer/bunch of flowers and a new smoker?

How do you increase the profit per colony from that rather paltry £100 to something a little more substantial?

It’s clear that to do this you need to reduce your outgoings and increase your income.

Income and outgoings

I’m going to restrict myself to the same range of outgoing costs and sources of income to those I covered on beekeeping economics.

I’m ignoring most equipment costs, depreciation, petrol, honey gifts to friends etc. All these reduce ‘profit’.

Here is the summary table presented earlier. Remember, this is for a four hive apiary, per annum 3.

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 40.00
Miticides 38.00
Food 26.00
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 63.00 550.00
Nucleus colony 15.00 40.00
Sub totals 182.00 590.00
Profit 408.00

Cutting your food costs

Not a whole lot of leeway here I’m afraid.

Granulated sugar is probably the least expensive way of feeding your bees for the winter. Other than shopping around for the best price there’s not much option to reduce your outgoings.

However, before buying sugar it’s always worth asking your local supermarket for any spoilt or damaged packets. Supermarkets are under pressure to reduce waste and can usually be persuaded to support something as environmentally-friendly as local bees.

It costs nothing to ask.

Many beekeeping associations will arrange bulk purchases of either Ambrosia-type invert syrup or fondant. I’ll comment more extensively on this later.

Cutting your medicine costs

There are even fewer opportunities for savings if you want to use VMD-approved miticides.

I’ve discussed miticide costs extensively in the past. The figures are now a bit dated (and they omitted Apivar which was not available off-prescription at the time). However, it remains broadly true that the annual cost per hive is about the same as a jar of honey 4.

If you’re using Api-Bioxal for midwinter trickling remember that you can safely dilute it to a final concentration of 3.2% (w/v), rather than that recommended on the label. Historically the UK has used oxalic acid at 3.2% and there’s no increase in efficacy at the higher strength. Full details are provided on the preparation of oxalic acid elsewhere.

At 3.2% w/v a 35g “10 hive” pack of Api-Bioxal will treat 15 hives.

There … at £11.95 a packet I’ve just slashed your midwinter treatment costs from £1.20 a hive to  80p.

Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves 😉

Frames and foundation

First quality ‘off the shelf’ frames with foundation cost about £3 each. Obviously it makes sense to shop around and/or buy in bulk.

However, much more substantial savings are possible if you do three things:

  • re-use frames after steaming and sterilising
  • use second quality frames bought on supplier ‘sale days’
  • use foundationless frames

If you nail and glue frames during construction they usually survive at least a couple of trips through a steam wax extractor. Yes, there’s some work involved in cleaning them up afterwards, but it’s no more work than building new frames each year.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

Second quality frames are sold in packs of 50 for about £37.50 5. Of the hundreds I’ve used I’ve had few (~2% or less) that were unusable due to knots, shakes, splits or other weaknesses.

Foundationless frames take a bit longer to build and you have additional expenditure on bamboo or wire/nylon. However, this outlay is insignificant when compared with the saving made on foundation.

Remember that foundationless frames built with bamboo supports can go through a steam wax extractor and be put back into service. Don’t use wax starter strips. Use lollipop sticks or tongue depressors fixed with waterproof wood glue.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

Purchased premium foundation is lovely stuff but freshly drawn comb on a foundationless frame is even better. Contamination-free, robust once fully drawn and much easier to clean from the frame when it eventually goes through the steamer.

Taken together – re-use, second quality and foundationless – I calculate that frames cost me ~25p each. This equates to a saving of £36.75 over a year 6. Remember also that additional outlay on brood frames is needed to produce nucleus colonies (see below) where the savings would be £13.75 per nuc produced.

That’s more like it 🙂

A co-operative association intermission

Beekeeping associations often have co-operative purchasing schemes. Bulk purchasing reduces both individual item costs and (often substantial) P&P costs. These schemes are often organised to pass on the majority of the discount and retain a small amount of the savings for association activities.

The larger the association the greater the savings that can be made, and there’s no reason why neighbouring associations or regional groupings cannot act together.

Yes, of course, it takes some organisation. If your association doesn’t have such a scheme either find one that does or set up your own.

My beekeeping alma mater (Warwick and Leamington Beekeepers) offered excellent discounts on jars, honey buckets, foundation, Ambrosia, fondant and gloves … and probably a load of other things I didn’t take advantage of when I was a member 7.

Products of the hive

That’s enough about outlay, what about income?

Honey bees make honey and bees.

Both are very valuable.

You can maximise income in two ways.

You can make more of either (or both) or you can sell them at a higher price.

You might even be able to achieve both.

I’ll deal with these in reverse order …

Maximising the prices of honey and bees

I’ve discussed honey pricing recently. If you’re producing a unique, high quality, well packaged product (and if you’re not, you should be) you need to price it accordingly.

More local honey

That’s not the £4 a pound charged for the imported, blended, filtered, pasteurised, uniform, dull, available-by-the-tonne-anywhere rubbish stuff sold by the supermarkets.

Look in the delicatessens and local artisan outlets … you might be surprised.

£10 a pound is not unreasonable.

£10 a pound is readily achievable.

But let’s not be greedy, let’s assume a very conservative £7.50 a pound.

Local honey

At £7.50/lb the average UK yield of 25lb of honey per hive equates to £687 (for the four hives) after paying out £63 for jars and labels 8

Two factors contribute to the price you can realise for bees (which, for this exercise, means nucleus colonies):

  1. Timing – to maximise the price you need to sell when demand is the highest and supply is limited. This means early in the season. You therefore must overwinter nucs and ensure they are strong and healthy in mid-late April. Four to six weeks later there’s a glut of bees available as colonies start swarm preparation … prices drop precipitously. Nucs are easy to overwinter with a little TLC.
  2. Quality – with a small number of colonies it is not easy to improve your stocks. However, by judicious replacement of poorly-performing queens/colonies you should be able to produce perfectly acceptable bees for sale. Don’t try selling bad bees – chalkbrood-riddled, poorly behaved, patchy brood or diseased (high Varroa, overt DWV etc.).

If you are selling one or more nucs you should expect to allow them to be inspected before the sale. Just like honey tasting, nothing is more convincing than trying the product.

Maximising the amount of honey and bees

All other things being equal 9 stronger colonies will produce more honey and generate more ‘spare’ nucs.

Compare a productive commercial colony and an unproductive amateur colony at the height of the season. What’s the difference?

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

The productive colony is on a double brood box underneath three or four full or rapidly filling supers. There are 16+ frames of brood and the beekeeper has already split off a nuc for swarm control.

In contrast, the unproductive colony has about seven frames of brood in a single brood box topped by an underwhelmingly light super. There’s little chance of producing a spare nuc this season … or much honey.

But at least they might not swarm 🙂 10

Generating these strong colonies requires good genetics and good beekeeping.

With further good management the productive colony could produce another couple of supers of late-season honey and at least one more nuc for overwintering.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

How does that help the bank balance?

Let’s assume an ambitious-but-not-entirely-unrealistic one nuc per colony and 75lb of honey per annum in total (being sold at £175 per nuc and £7.50 a pound for honey). Honey ‘profit’ for the four colonies in our hypothetical apiary works out at £2061 11 with a further £700 for the sale of four nucs at £175 each 12.

That works out at a very much more impressive £690 per colony.

Minimising losses

But wait, surely we have to use some of those valuable nucs to make up for the 25% overwintering colony losses that the average UK beekeeper experiences?

No we don’t 🙂

If you have the beekeeping skills to manage strong colonies you almost certainly also have below average overwintering losses.

And that’s because strong colonies are, almost by definition, healthy colonies which have low mite and virus levels. And, as we’ve seen time and time again, low virus levels means reduced winter losses.

This minimises the need for nucs to maintain overall colony numbers and so maximises the nucs for sale 🙂

For the sake of finishing this already overly long post, let’s assume overwintering colony losses are 12.5% (because it makes the maths easier … 10% or lower is readily achievable) rather than the 25% national average.

That being the case, for our four hive hypothetical apiary, we’ll need one replacement nuc every two years. Therefore, over a four year period we might generate 16 nucs and use just 2 of them to replace lost colonies.

Kerching!

Here are the figures for our hypothetical four colony apiary. These assume good bees, good beekeeping, low winter losses, good forage, good weather and a following wind.

I’ve assumed savings are being made where possible on frames and foundation, but also increased the number of frames (and miticides) needed to reflect colony size and strength.

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 7.50 13
Miticides 76.00 14
Food 52.00 15
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 189.00 16 2250.00 17
Nucleus colony 5.00 18 612.50 19
Sub totals 329.50 2862.50
Profit 2533.00

Per colony the overall profit is £633/annum (cf £102/colony/annum for an ‘average’ hive and beekeeper).

These figures are not unrealistic (though they’re not necessarily typical either).

They won’t be achieved every year. They are dependent upon good forage, good weather and having the beekeeping skills needed to maintain strong healthy colonies.

They might be exceeded in some years. With good forage and a good season 100+ pounds of honey per colony can be achieved.

You have no control over the weather 20, but you can influence the other two factors. You can place your bees on better forage and you can continuously try and improve your skills as a beekeeper.

And learning how to maintain (and keep!) really strong healthy productive colonies is demonstrably a very valuable skill to acquire.

E & OE

Just like in the previous article, I’ve made all sorts of assumptions and cut all sorts of corners.

Managing big strong double-brood colonies producing a nuc each every year and topped by at least three supers inevitably means investing in lots more brood boxes, supers and nuc boxes 21.

It also means a lot more work.

Extracting and jarring hundreds of pounds of honey takes time. It also benefits from some automation … an extractor, a creamer, settling tanks, a honey processing room, a warm room for supers etc.

But that lot is not needed for our well-managed four hive hypothetical apiary.

The other things I’ve deliberately omitted are alternative ways of managing colonies for profit. For example, as suggested by Calum in a previous comment, propolis is a very valuable product of the hive. You can split a strong colony very hard to generate 6-10 nucs (but no honey). You can rear queens (very easily) and you can sell wax.

You could even produce Royal Jelly …

And it’s that endless variety and options that make beekeeping so fascinating.


 

 

Quick fixes

Honey bees are remarkably resilient creatures.

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

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

Rather too much arable …

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

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

Home is where the hive is

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

And, most of the time we do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hive stands

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

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

Floors

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

Inside ...

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

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

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

Boxes

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

Under offer ...

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

Half of my bait hives are built from two supers.

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

Shim

Shim …

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

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

And is often still in use years later 😉

Crownboards

That’ll be 25p please

Poly crownboard ...

Poly crownboard …

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

Roofs

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

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

Correx in the frost ...

Correx in the frost …

Literally.

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

Not a quick enough fix for you?

Planting tray roof …

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

Incoming! from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

Clearer boards

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

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

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

Quick fix clearer board – super side

Quick fix clearer board – hive side

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

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

etc.

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

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

Travel screen mesh and eke

Travel screen mesh and eke …

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

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

Foam block ...

Foam block …

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

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

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

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

But you can often have too few.

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

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

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


 

Bee shed musings

It’s the end of our third season using a bee shed, and the end of the first season using the ‘new and improved’ bee shed mark 2.

What’s worked and what hasn’t?

Why keep bees in a shed at all?

A bee hive provides a secure and weatherproof container to protect the colony 1. Why then keep bee hives inside a building, like the bee shed?

Moving in day ...

Moving in day …

Beekeeping, of necessity, involves regular inspections at 7-10 day intervals throughout the main part of the season. These inspections involve opening the hive and checking for disease, for evidence that the colony is developing as expected 2, for adequate stores and space, and for for the telltale signs that the colony is thinking of swarming.

Since these inspections involve opening the hive the weather needs to be at least half-decent. Heavy rain, low temperatures and cold winds make it a less than pleasant experience – for the bees and for the beekeeper.

That’s not a problem if you have the luxury of being able to pick and choose days with benign conditions to inspect the colony.

But we don’t have that luxury.

The hives in the shed are used for research into the viruses (deformed wing virus and chronic bee paralysis virus) that are the major threats to colony health. Although we don’t conduct experiments in these hives we do use them as a regular source of larvae, pupae and workers for experiments in the laboratory 3.

We therefore must be able to open and work in the hives:

  • very early in the season
  • very late in the season – we’re still harvesting brood as I write this in early November
  • irrespective of the weather at particular times and/or days of the week

This is the east coast of Scotland. If it’s chucking it down with rain, blowing a hoolie 4, really cold or a combination of these (not unusual), then not only is it unpleasant for the beekeeper, but it’s also unpleasant for the bees …

… and they let us know about it.

The bee shed

Welcome ...

Welcome …

To protect the bees and the beekeeper we’ve built a shed to accommodate standard National hives, connected to the outside with simple tunnels.

From the outside it looks like a shed.

From the inside it looks like an apiary with wooden walls and less light 5.

Details of the first shed and its successor are posted elsewhere. The current shed is 16 x 8 feet and houses up to seven full colonies arranged along the south-facing wall.

There are windows along the entire length of this wall of the shed, sufficient storage space for dozens of spare supers, brood boxes, floors, the hivebarrow and a couple of hundred kilograms of fondant.

Hives are all arranged ‘warm way’ on a single full-length stand and inspected from the rear.

How does all this work in practice?

Space

The shed is probably still too small 🙁

Once all of that lovely storage space is in use there’s a relatively narrow passageway between the hives and the stacks of supers and fondant. For a lone beekeeper this isn’t an issue. For training purposes, or with multiple people working at once, it’s distinctly cramped.

Inspections involve lots of walking back and forwards to the door (see below) and this would be made much easier by:

  • not storing spare supers, fondant, broods and the wheelbarrow in the shed
  • only allowing very thin people with no concept of ‘personal space‘ to use the shed
  • having a much wider shed

Of these, the last option is probably the most realistic.

I’ve recently been asked for comments about using a shed for a school beekeeping association. Since this is likely to involve an element of training, with several trainees huddling around the hive, my advice would be:

  • reduce the number of hives to a maximum of three in a 16 foot long shed, each on individual stands with space to access the hive from both behind and the sides
  • buy a wider shed or store all those ‘essential’ spares elsewhere

Lighting

The shed has a solar powered LED lighting system running off a 100Ah ‘leisure’ battery. There are six of the highest power LED lights available (~120W equivalents … each ~700 lumens 6) immediately above the hives.

The lighting is great. It makes working in the shed ‘off grid’ in the evenings or on dull and dingy days much easier.

However, on a bright day this lighting is insignificant when compared to the light streaming in through the windows.

But, whatever the weather, the lighting inside the shed is still less than optimal when you’re looking for eggs or day-old larvae.

Perhaps it’s my increasingly poor eyesight but I find myself nipping out of the shed door to inspect frames for eggs or tiny larvae. It’s so much easier with the sun coming over your shoulder and angling the frame to illuminate the base of the cells.

I’m planning to rearrange the lighting so it runs down the centre of the shed rather than being directly over the hives. That way it will be ‘over the shoulder’ when inspecting frames.

And if that doesn’t work the only option will be to invest in banks of LEDs … or glasses 😎

On a brighter note – no pun intended – the solar panel, charge controller and large lead acid battery, coupled with a door ‘on when open’ switch, have worked flawlessly.

Windows

The shed windows are formed from overlapping sheets of perspex.

The weather cannot get in, but bees can easily get out. They crawl up the large pane, under the overlapping pane, and then fly from the 2cm slot between that and the top of the window aperture. It’s a simple and highly-effective solution to emptying a shed of bees after inspections.

Bee shed window ...

Bee shed window …

But I’ve discovered this year that wasps can learn to enter the shed via the windows.

2018 was a bad year for wasps. I lost a nuc and a queenless (actually a requeening) colony to robbing by wasps in this apiary. At some point during the season wasps learnt to access the shed via the window ‘slot’ and for several weeks we were plagued with them. I think we were partly to blame because we had some comb offcuts in a waste bin that wasn’t properly sealed. Once the wasps had discovered this source of honey/nectar they were very persistent … as wasps are.

This hasn’t been a problem in previous years so I’m hoping that improved apiary hygiene will prevent it being an issue next year.

No smoke …

Our bees are calm and well behaved. However, we still use a limited amount of smoke during inspections 7. Leaving a well-lit smoker standing next to the hive throughout the inspection is a guaranteed way to become as kippered as an Arbroath smokie 8. It doesn’t take long to fill the shed with smoke.

Kippered

Kippered

I therefore leave the smoker standing ‘ready for action’ just outside the shed door. It’s easy (assuming the shed isn’t full of people) to take a couple of steps to the door, recover the smoker, give them a gentle puff, return the smoker and continue.

… without fire

Sheds are made of wood. Beehives are wood or polystyrene. The stacks of spare supers and broods are full of wax-laden frames.

All this has the potential to burn very well indeed.

I’m therefore very careful to leave the smoker, securely plugged with grass, on a non-flammable surface. The wire of a spare open mesh floor is ideal for this.

Smoker still life

Smoker still life

Colony management

Routine colony management – inspections, supering, swarm prevention and control, Varroa treatment – work just as well in the bee shed as outside.

There are a few limitations of course.

Vertical splits for making increase or swarm control aren’t an option as it’s not possible (or at least not practical) to provide an upper entrance with access to the outside world. 

Similarly, space adjacent to a hive is limited so a classic Pagden artificial swarm may not be possible 9. Instead I usually use the nucleus method of swarm control – removing the old queen and a frame of brood and stores to make a nuc, then leaving the hive in the shed to requeen.

Benefits for the bees

I suspect that the main beneficiaries of the bee shed are the beekeepers, not the bees. However, colonies do appear to do well in the shed.

The impression is that brood rearing starts earlier in the season and ends later, though formally we have yet to demonstrate this. We now have some hives inside and outside the shed fitted with Arnia monitors. With these we can monitor brood temperature, humidity, hive weight and activity.

Arnia hive data

Arnia hive data

Brood temperature is an indicator of brood rearing, with temperatures around 33°C showing that the queen is laying. By monitoring colonies over the winter we expect to be able to determine when brood rearing stops and starts again 10 and, by comparison, whether the season is effectively ‘longer’ for bees within the shed.

But it’ll be months until we’ll see this sort of entrance activity again …


 

Flour water salt yeast

FWSY

FWSY

Prompted by the first hard frosts of the year and the end of the beekeeping season, here’s a post that is of only peripheral relevance to beekeeping.

Though since you presumably prefer to eat honey on something, rather than on its own, it’s not completely irrelevant.

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about breadmaking. In the intervening period I’ve baked a lot more bread … probably over 100 loaves. Almost exclusively I’ve been working from an outstanding book by Ken Forkish entitled Flour water salt yeast.

Forkish is an artisan baker from Portland, Oregon. The book, and his YouTube videos that accompany it are an excellent introduction to simple, easy and quick 1 methods for producing truly spectacular homemade bread.

Like this …

Overnight white loaf

Overnight white loaf

Matthew 4:4

Man cannot live by bread alone … well, I’m not so sure.

This bread is really good.

The general principles promoted by Forkish are:

  • Use high quality ingredients
  • Carefully control temperatures and timings
  • Use minimal amounts of mixing
  • Use small amounts of yeast and long rise periods
  • Bake in a very hot oven in a container to seal in the steam

Forkish earns his living writing and baking, so I’m not going to reproduce his recipes here – buy the book (or look for them online as some people have splurged them all over the internet).

What I will do is qualify some of points in the list above. Hopefully this will encourage you to have a go as well (and to learn from the few mistakes I made by either trying to cut corners or not reading the instructions).

Ingredients and environment

The flour you use has a big influence on the characteristics of the dough. I almost always use Bacheldre organic stoneground flours. These are strong, absorb water well and have a high protein content. They’re available direct from Bacheldre Mill and lots of places online. In my experience, the own-brand ‘strong bread flour’ sold by most of the supermarkets make a much sloppier dough than the Bacheldre flours. The resulting bread isn’t necessarily worse, but the dough is a lot harder to work with as it’s always trying to escape.

I use a thermometer to check the water temperature at the start. This ensures a uniform early development of the dough. I also check the temperature of the place I’m going to allow the dough to develop. If it’s much warmer or cooler than expected you might need to modify timings.

Mix, leave, mix, leave, mix …

One of the attractions of the breadmaking method promoted by Ken Forkish is that it involves very little work. For a standard loaf it probably takes no more than 8 minutes of mixing in total, in four blocks. And that includes rinsing your hands before and after working the dough.

All of the mixing is done in a large container.

A 30lb honey bucket is ideal.

How convenient 🙂

The flour and water are premixed to make an autolyse. This is allowed to sit for 20-30 minutes before adding the yeast and salt. Most of the recipes use very small amounts of yeast (much less than a gram for a 500g loaf) so the small, accurate scales used for weighing your oxalic acid (er, Api-Bioxal) are ideal.

After mixing the dough is allowed to develop with a further 2-3 quick ‘turns’ in the first 90 minutes or so. These ‘turns’ aren’t even really mixing. You just fold the dough over two or three times. It takes as long to write it as it takes to do it.

Then leave it overnight.

Cooking on gas

The following morning you turn the dough out, shape the loaf and allow it a final rise while the oven heats to a ‘serious-risk-of-burning-if-you-touch-anything-without-very-thick-oven-gloves-on’ 240°C 2.

As well as preheating the oven you also preheat the container you’ll cook the bread in. I use a Lodge 3 litre cast iron Combo Cooker (or Dutch Oven for convenience). These are $56 in the USA, or an uncompetitive £90 in the UK.

I was robbed 🙁

However, I then checked out the Le Creuset prices and felt a whole lot better 🙂

Any heat-retaining covered ovenproof container should be suitable. Cast iron is probably best. The goal is to trap the steam inside while the bread cooks to give the crisp crust. As an alternative to the Lodge Dutch Oven I’ve also used a large Pyrex ‘chicken brick’ which work almost as well.

Cooking takes 30 minutes with a further 15 minutes uncovered to crisp up the crust.

You can of course use an electric oven 😉

Overnight 20% wholemeal loaf

Overnight 20% wholemeal loaf

Quick and easy

From start to finish a loaf takes about 16-18 hours.

Not quick.

However, during that period you’re only actually handling the dough for about 10 minutes. Almost all the time is a long overnight rise period while the yeast works its magic 3.

So … very easy.

The proof of the pudding

The resulting loaf tastes excellent, with a very crispy crust and wonderfully textured crumb. Since the yeast has worked hard overnight the crumb is full of large holes (which conveniently fill with honey or butter or marmalade). Assuming it’s not devoured when still warm it keeps well. If anything, the loaf improves if allowed to cool properly before scoffing 4. Once cold, just wrap it up in a plastic bag and you can use it up to 48 hours later, or perhaps longer as toast … though it never lasts that long in our house.

Final notes

The book Flour water salt yeast has about a dozen different bread recipes. Almost all use essentially the same steps I’ve outlined above. Some use an overnight starter (a biga or poolish) and these take a little bit more work, and a bit more time. Actually, with the exception of the ingredients, quite a bit of the book is rather repetitive as the mixing and cooking instructions are essentially the same for all the loaves.

The second part of Flour water salt yeast covers the preparation and use of levains or sourdough starters. These also make great bread, but take more work. With travel and other commitments I can’t always keep the sourdough starter in tip-top condition, so all of the comments here (and for at least half the book) are for loaves made with freeze-dried yeast.

For a standard weekend loaf you can’t go far wrong with a standard overnight white loaf, or a 10-30% overnight wholemeal loaf. These can be started on Friday evening, cooked early on Saturday and enjoyed all weekend.

Forkish explains each of the individual steps in the breadmaking process in a series of short YouTube videos. Of the 11 on his breadmaking 5 YouTube channel, the first 8 are relevant to loaves made without a levain, or sourdough starter. Watch them in sequence, ideally with the book to hand, and you’ll appreciate just how simple the process is.


 

Hive stands

The humble hive stand … so often ignored, overlooked or taken for granted. Hive stands fulfil an important function in the apiary. If designed properly they help both the beekeeper and the beekeeping.

In contrast, the bees themselves probably gain relatively little, though there are some benefits for the bees from using well-designed or constructed hive stands.

Function

The clue is in the name. The hive stand is the platform or support upon which the hive, er, stands. In terms of function they:

  • Raise the hive off the ground
  • Provide a sturdy and secure (and possibly even level) base for the hive
  • Are a convenient site to place things that would otherwise get lost in the grass or tripped over
  • Provide some clear working space around a hive for colony manipulations

Do the bees care about any of these things?

No.

Why not? Well, we could get into a philosophical discussion here about sentience in honey bees and whether they ‘care’ about anything. However, it’s probably easier to simply state that none of these things make any real difference to the bees within the hive.

They’re perfectly happy on the ground or, as below, on a pallet. There are thousands of bee hives sitting on pallets across the country. Bee farmers routinely use pallets, often with four hives in a square, each facing in different directions.

Hives on a pallet

Hives on a pallet

The pallet provides a relatively flat platform 1, it prevents weeds growing directly across the hive entrance and it is reasonably stable. It’s a perfectly adequate solution … unless your apiary is prone to flooding.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

My first research apiary was near a burn that flooded every winter. And most summers. We very quickly learnt that we couldn’t safely keep hives on pallets during any month of the season where it rained a lot i.e. any month of the season, since this is Scotland 😉

Beekeepers back

Many beekeepers develop bad backs. Hive inspections involve lots of lifting – hopefully of heavy supers – and bending over. Although you can inspect colonies on pallets from a kneeling position it’s not something I enjoy 2.

Therefore, if I’m going to be standing, it helps if the hives are closer to me than they’d be on a pallet.

Almost all of my hives are on hive stands of some sort or another.

Decisions, decisions

If you are building (perhaps too grand a word for most of the stands I use … cobbling together?) hive stands there are a few design decisions to be made.

  • One or more hives per stand?
  • Dimensions – primarily height above the ground and, sometimes, depth
  • Achieving the sweet spot that balances strength, cost and weight
  • How to make them level, or to provide a level platform in an uneven apiary

Single stands are fine, though they perhaps lack flexibility. They do little other than separating the hive from the ground. Most of the equipment suppliers sell them, some with inbuilt landing boards which is a nice touch, though unnecessary.

Stand and integral landing board

Stand and integral landing board …

I’ve got a handful of these but they tend to get used for bait hives or as a last resort. Firstly, they’re a bit too low for me, only lifting the hive about 25cm above the ground. Secondly, they provide no ‘work area’ around the hive.

The advantage of a single hive stand is that the colony inspection cannot disturb any other colonies on the same stand. There’s nothing else on the stand to get jarred, bumped or disturbed. However, with care during inspections and calm bees, the benefits of a double (or more) hive stand outweigh the risk of disturbing a second colony.

I therefore prefer double or treble hive stands. Many of my hives are on double stands (on the right in the image below). This was an entirely pragmatic design decision as I’d managed to scrounge a pile of pressure-treated 1 metre pieces of wood from an unfinished fencing project.

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

I cut one fence panel in half to make the end pieces, with four others to make the sides and support rails. With four 3×2″ legs from pressure-treated decking joists (also scrounged) and a handful of screws these cost almost nothing and have worked very well.

Ironically, they’re ideal for one hive … this leaves space for the various colony manipulations.

Inevitably, most have two hives on them 🙁 Or three poly nucs.

Six poly nucleus colonies on hive stands

Lots of poly nucs …

Bigger is better

These double stands are easy to move about. They fit in the back of my small car. However, once you start making treble hive stands things get a bit heavy.

And a bit cumbersome.

Moving hive stands

Moving hive stands

If they’re built strongly enough to take three full hives (perhaps 250+ kg at the height of the season) they might also need intermediate legs for support 3.

As an alternative you can assemble hive stands on site from breeze blocks and horizontal bars. Again, a fencing project came to my rescue and I managed to get several 2.5m metal uprights that are immensely strong and make excellent rails to stand the hives on.

Breeze blocks and metal rails

Breeze blocks and metal rails

These are very effective as hive stands. Inexpensive, strong, big/wide and ‘bombproof’. Wooden rails are fine as well, but need to be substantial for multiple hives.

A collapsed hive stand does not make for happy and contented bees 🙁

Height and depth

The height of a hive stand is a personal choice. What fits me – standing 6’1″ in my wellies and beesuit – is probably too high for a slightly built beekeeper a foot shorter. I like the top bars to be about the same height as a roof stood on its edge i.e. ~17-20 inches.

This is because that’s often exactly where the roof ends up … leaning against the hive stand.

Three 140mm breeze blocks place the top rails of the stand just under 17″ from the ground, which is close enough for me.

Depth i.e. front to back distance, of the top of the stand should (obviously) be the depth of the hive. Any more and it can cause problems with the sublimators that need to be inverted during use.

However, what’s more important is the separation of the horizontal rails that support the hive. This is an ideal place to hang frames temporarily while you conduct inspections. Very low hive stands and very deep frames don’t mix well.

The steel fencing post and breeze blocks hive stands (above) have too narrow a gap for hanging frames. It can be done – and regularly is done – but they have to be placed at an acute angle.

A bit wider would be better

A bit wider would be better

In our bee shed the hive stands are higher than usual as we spend a lot of time with the hives open and this saves bending down too much. The colonies also get far fewer supers, so rarely get unmanageably tall.

The space immediately below the hive stands is used for storage, but there’s still sufficient space between the hives to hang frames on the horizontal rails that are 15 inches apart.

Bee shed hive stands

Bee shed hive stands

On the level

There are dozens of hive stand designs available, some simple – like those above – and some much more complicated. There are clever stands with folding legs that make transportation easier. I’ve not used these so can’t comment.

Apiaries very rarely have level ground … the paving slabs in the photos above are properly levelled, but very much the exception. However, hives generally need to be reasonably level. If you’re using foundationless frames they must be almost perfectly level perpendicular to the orientation of the top bar or the comb will be drawn at an angle to the top bar.

Try topping up a Miller feeder with a couple of gallons of syrup in a sloping hive …

Very few stand designs provide an easy way to level the hives … but here’s one that does. Calum, a regular contributor of comments on this site, sent me this photo some time ago. This hive stand is built using adjustable galvanised steel scaffolding feet as ‘legs’.

Scaffolding 'feet' for legs

Scaffolding ‘feet’ for legs

This is a neat solution. It probably needs some additional cross-bracing but is easy to dismantle and transport, and easy to level. The only thing stopping me from trying some like this is the cost of the base plates and screw jacks. These are widely available and on eBay are £35-45 for four. Lyson make something similar but, because it’s specifically for beekeeping, it costs $80 4.

If you know of a less expensive source please add a comment below.

Finally, I like my stands to have crossbars i.e. going from front to back between the rails. You can see some in the photo of the two hive stands on the hivebarrow. Most of my double stands are similarly set up. These crossbars provide a convenient secure point to put a strap around, effectively tying the hive to the stand. For poly nucs in particular this is essential if your apiary is exposed and windy.


 

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, Warré 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 😉

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 😉

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 🙁

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 🙁

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 🙂

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 😉

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 😉


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 😉

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 (ēaca) 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 …


 

Landing boards

I’ve bought and used a number of Abelo poly hives this season. I’m going to review these once I see how the colonies perform overwinter. However, one of their ‘features’ is an integral landing board that forms part of the removable floor (colonies 1 and 3, facing, below).

Abelo poly National hives ...

Abelo poly National hives …

Landing boards are great. They provide a large flattish or gently sloping ramp that leads to the hive entrance. There’s something mesmerising about watching heavily-laden foragers performing an inelegant ‘tail-down’ crash-landing several inches short of the entrance, righting themselves, and marching purposefully forwards into the gloom of the hive.

During a heavy nectar flow this happens dozens of times a minute, with a strong colony making about 35,000 foraging trips per day. It’s great to rest your elbows on the hive roof, peer over the top and watch hundreds of foragers bringing the nectar back, 40 milligrams at a time.

Integral landing boards and DIY

Mine's bigger than yours

Mine’s bigger than yours

Landing boards must be popular with other beekeepers as well as they regularly feature in commercially available hives. The Abelo implementation is relatively neat, projecting perhaps 5cm from the front face of the hive.

Other variants are rather more in-your-face. The version in the image on the right is on an early variant of a Maisemore’s poly National hive (I think – please correct me if I’m wrong – Matt Harris helpfully corrected me here … they’re Paynes hives). Frankly, I think it looks pretty ghastly, but at least returning foragers could crash-land some distance away and still walk the last few hundred yards unimpeded 😉

If your hives are cedar you can easily add a flat or sloping landing board to the front of the floor. If you’re going to do this use reasonable quality wood – the exposed edge of a strip of plywood tends to delaminate pretty quickly. Alternatively, build something cheap, functional and easily replaceable from Correx.

Thorne's budget hive ...

Thorne’s budget hive …

The bee shed houses up to 6 colonies, each with a simple short ‘tunnel’ ending in a 1-2″ aperture in the vertical shed wall. I’ve built simple Correx landing boards on these and they’ve performed extremely well over the last two years. Each piece of folded Correx is a distinctive colour to aid the bees returning to the correct hive.

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

If you take advantage of abandoned ‘For Sale’ signs you can get Correx in a wide range of contrasting colours which saves having to spray paint them before use.

Take a stand

Landing boards don’t need to be attached to the hive front or floor. Some of our early research colonies were housed in lovely cedar hives built by Pete Little of Exmoor Bees & Hives. He provided stands with integral sloping landing (‘alighting’) boards. These are great, though they extend the need for compatibility from the hive itself to the stand as well.

Stand and integral landing board

Stand and integral landing board …

Nice, but not needed

Despite the pleasure to be gained from watching bees return to the hive entrance, landing boards aren’t really necessary and they can get in the way.

Feral colonies generally don’t have the benefit (or need) of a nicely sloping landing board. They cope admirably with a simple unadorned hole through the soffit, with nothing more than the painted boards to cling to … upside down. Crevices or holes in trees, or the church tower, probably have ‘grippy’ surfaces that aid arrival, but there’s no evidence they’re selected on any criteria other than the volume and overall location of the potential new ‘home’.

I used to build my preferred floor – the kewl floor with a mouse-proof and wasp-resistant ‘L’ shaped underfloor entrance – with a shallow integral Correx or plywood landing boards.

Original design

However, over time these all got damaged in transit, or I got sick of bees wandering underneath the floor if they landed on the stand, not the landing board. I’ve recently described a modified entrance to these kewl floors, again made from Correx, that is a marked improvement.

Correx landing board ...

Correx landing board …

There’s a very short video on the page describing these modified entrances showing bees landing and entering the hive perfectly well.

Damaged in transit … or in a pile (up)

The main problem with any sort of protruding landing board is that, by definition, it protrudes.

It therefore gets in the way.

It makes strapping hives up during transport more difficult and means the hives don’t stack together quite as neatly. I only move small number of colonies about, so it’s the inconvenience, not the space, that is the issue.

Abelo hives in transit ...

Abelo hives in transit …

Similarly, during the winter or after uniting colonies in the season, spare floors and other pieces of kit need to be neatly stacked out of the way. Protruding landing boards prevents them being placed on the top of the stack (because the roof fouls the landing board) and – in certain orientations – stops stacks being pushed close together.

Stacked boxes

Stacked boxes …

As an aside, you probably don’t want these floors at the bottom of the stack. Firstly, you’ll inevitably need one when putting together a new hive and it’s easiest not to have to remove the entire stack to access the floor. Secondly, unless blocked off with a sheet of polythene or Correx, they’ll allow wasps and bees access to the stack … or even encourage a swarm to move in.

So … over the years landing boards on my hives have evolved or, more accurately, atrophied. They’re now only present on the outside of the bee shed, on purchased poly hives and, in a rather truncated version, at the cavernous mouth of the Thorne’s Everynucs that I favour.

No landing boards here ...

No landing boards here …

Foundationless frames update

A few weeks ago I described foundationless frames built with vertical bamboo supports. In a related post on starter strips I explained that I was going to compare homemade (dipped) wax strips with simple wooden strips or laths, the latter made from tongue depressors.

Here’s an update on the progress the bees have made with these frames so far.

Disclaimer

This trial wasn’t properly scientific, it was poorly controlled, it was conducted over several weeks in two apiaries with bees from a variety of sources. As a scientific study it was deeply, deeply flawed. I know a bit about these things. You have been warned. Caveat emptor.

Starter strips – KISS is better

Essentially I could see no difference in the acceptance rate (effectively the rate at which bees started comb) between the three types of starter strips tested. These were homemade wax strips or wood (tongue depressors) strips glued to the top bar with adhesive and either left bare or coated with molten wax.

Some of the frames I’ve been using even had one of each of these types of starter strips in each of the three ‘panels’ (see below) on the frames.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

Frames like these were used in hives with packages or shook swarms and were readily accepted by the bees and rapidly drawn out (either with a good flow of nectar from the OSR, or 1:1 syrup made up from leftover fondant). By the time I went to check all three ‘segments’ were started in the hives. I didn’t monitor which was the first to be used … I’d have needed to be inspecting hourly and I have a life (and job and family).

As far as I could tell there appeared to be no preference to the type of starter strip used.

Just starting out ...

Just starting out …

Of the 20-30 frames like this used so far this season, all have remained attached during inspections, whether started on wood or wax. I’m reasonably careful handling frames, but I reckon these could cope with all but the most cack-handed beekeeper. Colonies in the bee shed have been exposed to temperatures in the mid-high 30’s (°C for overseas readers) with no adverse effects, other than the expected softening of comb at high temperatures.

Conclusion – since the outcome was indistinguishable there seems no reason not to use simple unwaxed wooden strips as starter strips in foundationless frames. The KISS principle applies here.

There are two or three additional benefits from the observation that simple wooden laths are perfectly acceptable as starter strips; 1) there’s no need to go through the interminable and messy process of making your own wax starter strips, 2) there are no foundation costs involved, 3) the frames can be recycled through a steam wax extractor without damaging them.

Bamboo … zled

Foundationless frames built with vertical 4mm bamboo skewers are easy and inexpensive to construct. I’ve used about 50 of these already this season with almost no problems. The bees usually avoid the vertical skewers until the comb is nearly completely built. Often this is well after the queen has started laying in the upper section of the frame or the bees start to store honey in the upper cells.

Foundationless triptych ...

Foundationless triptych …

It’s not until the frames are well occupied with brood or nectar that the vertical gaps on either side of the bamboo skewers are usually filled in§. Until then the comb is only attached at the underside of the top bar. This is a potential weakness … until the comb is completed there is little lateral support or stability.

Handling the frames, particularly in hot weather, requires some care. I found myself going through the same frame handling methods I was taught several years ago – turn through 90°, rotate around the top bar, turn back through 90° etc. to inspect the other side of the (now inverted) frame.

Re-reading that it still doesn’t sound quite correct, but anyone who has attended a winter training course for new beekeepers will be familiar with what I’m talking about.

Nearly completed ...

Nearly completed …

Once the gaps are filled the comb is pretty robust and can be (mis)handled with the usual amount of care used for comb built on wired foundation. In addition, you can smile smugly to yourself as the woodwork was probably built from second quality frame partsΔ, there were no foundation costs involved and the wax is clean and untainted by residues.

Worker, drone, worker … worker, worker, drone

One of the striking features of hives containing a significant amount of foundationless frames is that the bees draw significantly more drone comb than is usually found. On standard foundation the bees squeeze drone comb into the corners of the frames, often making the comb uneven and misshapen. On foundationless frames they draw lots more, but the comb is generally not as misshapen.

If you use horizontally wired foundationless frames there will be large swathes of the comb dedicated to rearing drones. This may be intermixed with worker comb.

In contrast, frames built with vertical bamboo skewers tend to be drawn in thirds … with each third being ‘dedicated’ to either (or largely) worker or drone brood.

In the ‘Foundationless triptych …’ image above the left and central panel are largely worker comb, with the right being drone. In the image below the left and right panels start as worker but soon transition to all drone comb, the central panel is worker.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

I see this as a very significant advantage of this type of foundationless frame. Since the demarcation between drone and worker brood is pretty clear and since there are no wires to be cut, it will be a simple task to excise the unwanted segment (whether drone or worker) as required. We do this type of manipulation all the time when harvesting brood from our research colonies and the bees rapidly rebuild the damage if there is a nectar flow. It does not seem to result in weirdly shaped brace comb appearing throughout the hive.

Conclusion – bamboo skewers make good supports for foundationless brood frames. Before being completely drawn the frames need to be treated a little more gently than those with horizontal (wire or monofilament) supports which are more rapidly incorporated into comb. In my view the robustness and ease of construction using bamboo skewers outweighs this transitory lack of support.

Beautifully simple and simply beautiful

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Freshly drawn foundationless comb is really lovely stuff …

Beautiful newly drawn comb ...

Beautiful newly drawn comb …


† The KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid) dates back to the early 1960’s. It was originally a naval design term and was an expression meaning that most systems work better if they are kept simple rather than being made more complicated. Simplicity was therefore the design goal and unnecessary complexity was to be avoided.

‡ As a comparison, 1000 tongue depressors cost about £17 delivered. This is sufficient for well over 300 frames that are usable in perpetuity, or at least as long as the joints remain intact. In parallel to frames made with homemade foundation I have also used another 20-30 with commercial foundation. These worked as well, or badly, as any of the other starter strips used.

Foundationless frame ...

Foundationless frame …

§ It’s interesting (to me at least) that vertical 4mm supports are avoided whereas horizontal 1mm monofilament is readily incorporated – for example, compare the image on the right with those above. Is it the thickness or the orientation that makes them acceptable? How would the bees cope with very thin vertical supports? Alternatively, would they readily build comb ‘down’ through 4mm horizontal bamboo skewers? The latter is tricky to test as the longest skewers I’ve been able to find (35cm) are too short for a National frame. However, the ability to more willingly incorporate a thinner vertical supports can easily be tested and will be something I may well investigate next season. I suspect it’s the thickness of the ‘barrier’ rather than the orientation that’s important. Very thin wooden skewers would be flimsy (even if they were available), but there are a variety of other materials that could be tested.

Δ In my experience, other than a few poorly placed knots, second-quality frames are perfectly acceptable for building foundationless frames. One of their few failings, at least from some purchased from Thorne’s, is that the foundation channels in the side bars are sometimes off centre. Obviously, this is of no relevance when preparing foundationless frames.