Category Archives: DIY

Beeswax wraps

One of the great things about beekeeping as a hobby is that you are never short of gifts for friends and family 1. A jar or two of honey instead of a bottle of wine – or in addition to a bottle of wine – for dinner parties is always received with enthusiasm.

In your first year or two of beekeeping honey might not be available in excess. You get caught out by swarming or you lose the colony through poor mite management.

However, with a little more attention to swarm prevention / control and timely application of miticides your colony strength increases. Your colony numbers also probably increase. Together these, coupled with favourable weather and a geographically well-sited apiary, ensure a good honey crop.

You’ll never again be short of a last minute gift 🙂

But bees don’t only produce honey

With increasing hive numbers you will also start producing surplus wax. Bits of brace comb, wax cappings or wax melted out in a steam wax extractor … it all starts to add up.

Oops … brace comb

Before you know it you’ve got a few kilograms of wax and you need to find something creative to do with it.

Wax block

Or uncreative … the simplest solution is to trade it in for fresh foundation 2. The block shown above has been filtered through a sheet of kitchen paper and is reasonably clean. In my experience, the wax doesn’t need to be anything like this clean to still be acceptable for exchange.

Of course, the obvious thing to do with excess wax is to make candles.

You need good quantities of nice quality wax, a bain-marie, moulds, wicks and significantly more skill than I’ve got 3. It’s also useful to have a very understanding and patient spouse … there will be spillages 🙁

Alternatively, with relatively little wax you can easily make beeswax wraps to seal food – or food containers – in the fridge or for lunches.

Beeswax wraps

‘The eco-friendly, plastic free, alternative to clingfilm’.

That’s how Thorne’s advertises the beeswax wraps they sell. At two for about £13 (24 cm square) or three for £6 (12 cm square) they are not inexpensive … and when you see how easy they are to make yourself you’ll a) be gobsmacked/impressed 4 at the profit margin and, b) want to make some yourself for use or gifting.

We’ve been using commercial (a gift, in a coals to Newcastle way, from a non-beekeeper) or homemade wraps for at least a year now. The ones I have made are at least as good as the commercial ones, though they don’t come in the nice brown recycled packaging 5.

If you get your skates on you probably have sufficient time to prepare these before Christmas for last minute, in person, gifts.

If I’d written this a month or two ago you’d have also had time to post them – and they’re ideal for this for obvious reasons – but the last posting date 6 for Christmas was probably in October 🙁

Ingredients

The wraps are beeswax-impregnated cotton fabric of some sort. I’ve used plain or patterned cotton of a variety of colours. Depending upon the quality of the wax the material will discolour slightly, so it usually helps to have an off-white colour to start with.

I’ve no idea of the density or weight of the fabric. For comparison, I’d say it was similar to sheets or pillowcases.

Fabric and pinking shears

The beeswax is prepared with jojoba oil (to provide some antibacterial properties), almond oil (to increase pliability) and powdered pine rosin (to provide the ‘tack’ or stickiness).

You’ll need the following:

  • Cotton fabric cut into suitably-sized pieces. Use pinking shears to generate a run-free edge.
  • 100 g clean, filtered beeswax.
  • 10 g jojoba oil (100 ml @ £6.49) 7.
  • 10 g almond oil (500 ml @ £6.99).
  • 70 g powdered pine rosin (500 g for £8.99).

Ingredients for beeswax wraps

The pine rosin (the left-overs from turpentine distillation from pine resin) is usually sold in yellow to amber-coloured translucent lumps. Before use it needs to be ground into a powder. I use a pestle and mortar but I suspect you could do a much faster job with a coffee grinder 8.

In addition to the ingredients above you will also need a limited amount of additional ‘equipment’:

  • some means of melting the ingredients and holding them at temperature. A slow cooker is ideal for this purpose though you could also do this in a homemade bain-marie (e.g. a pyrex bowl in a saucepan of water over a low and controllable heat). Wax is flammable. Take care.

Slow cooker …

  • a metal oven tray and an oven to put it in.
  • baking parchment.
  • a dedicated poor quality paintbrush. ‘Dedicated’ as it will be useless for anything else afterwards. ‘Poor quality’ as we’re not discussing fine art here … it’s just for spreading the melted stuff evenly over the fabric.
  • disposable wooden stirring sticks (lolly sticks, or similar).

Instructions

beeswax wraps

Evenly spread the beeswax mix

  1. Add the powdered pine rosin to the slow cooker and allow it to melt with occasional stirring. I set my slow cooker on medium heat for this.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients to the melted rosin. I weigh the oils and add the solid wax and allow everything to melt together with more gentle stirring.
  3. Pre-warm the oven to ~125°C.
  4. When the mix is ready place the metal oven tray covered with a sheet of baking parchment and the first piece of pre-cut fabric in the oven for a couple of minutes.
  5. Place the pre-warmed metal tray and fabric on a heatproof and newspaper-covered surface 9 and ‘paint’ the fabric with the beeswax mix. To reduce drips from the paintbrush I use an old coffee scoop to add the beeswax mix to the fabric and then spread it evenly with the paintbrush.
  6. Put the tray and coated fabric back in the oven for two minutes.
  7. Remove again and use the paintbrush to ensure the beeswax mix is spread evenly, with no lumpy bits or excess. This usually involves using the paintbrush to sort of spread the excess off to the sides 10.
  8. Lift the now covered fabric wrap by two corners and hold over the metal tray (not the floor!) for 15 seconds or so to catch any drips. Remember, it’s likely to still be hot. Use tongs of some sort if you have heat-sensitive fingers.
  9. Lay the finished wrap aside once it is sufficiently cool. This takes just a few seconds. You’ll often see instructions to hang these on a drying rack but I’ve never bothered.
  10. Add another piece of fabric and go back to #4 in these instructions. Repeat until you’ve run out of beeswax mix, fabric or patience.
beeswax wraps

Here are some I prepared earlier

Once cooled they can be folded gently and stored.

Notes

The quantities by weight in the ingredients list above are sufficient to make (at least) a couple of dozen wraps 11. If that’s more than you need, or if you want to prepare the beeswax mix in bulk in advance, simply pour it into a suitable container (e.g. a plastic ice cream tub) that has been pre-treated with something like FloPlast Silicone Spray to allow its easy removal for re-melting.

You can make large wraps suitable for a loaf of bread in the same way. Just fold the fabric over so that it fits onto the metal tray. Turn it over to ensure that the fabric is full impregnated with the beeswax mix.

beeswax wraps

Large wraps

I found the recipe above somewhere online. I tried a couple and this worked best for me 12.

The wraps I make are a little thicker and quite a bit ‘tackier’ than the commercial ones I’ve seen.

I’m using tacky here as an adjective meaning ‘sticky’ … not as the informal ‘poor taste or quality’ !

This tackiness is an advantage as it is a little more self-adhesive when you’re wrapping things, and it probably makes the wrap last a little longer as well. You could probably reduce the rosin content to make a ‘drier’ beeswax wrap, but I can’t guarantee it will stay wrapped.

The same sorts of guidance applies to the use of these wraps as any commercial ones. Do not use them to wrap raw meat or fish. If they get dirty wash them in lukewarm water with a very small amount of detergent. If they lose their ‘stick’ revitalise them by placing them in the over for 5 minutes at 125°C.

Have fun 🙂


Note

Elaine Robinson, a regular reader and commenter, sent me a description of an alternative way of preparing and applying the beeswax mix. Having mixed the ingredients she pours it onto a wetted piece of plywood where it sets in a thin sheet.

Preparing this sheets of beeswax wrap mix

Having floated this off in water she freezes it – or them as it makes sense to prepare a lot in advance – in a tub and then, by simply shaking the tub, turns it into broken shards.

Here are some that were prepared earlier – sheets of beeswax wrap mix

Using about 16 g of shards per 30 cm square wrap Elaine stacks the fabric and shards on a baking tray and places them in an oven at ~80°C.

Ready to use shards – use them straight from the freezer to avoid stickiness

After melting everything all that is then needed is a brush to ensure the edges of each of the beeswax wraps are fully covered … followed by folding the wraps and popping them into some very neat custom-made brown paper sleeves that she also prints at home.

All done!

Which look very impressive and made my efforts look rather inadequate 😉

 

Portable queen cell incubator

One of the earliest posts on this site, back in January 2014, described my honey warming cabinet.

Both that post and the cabinet are still going strong.

The cabinet has been used to process a lot of honey … and the post has been read tens of thousands of times and still remains in the top 10% of most read pages (of ~450 now) in 2021.

I attribute the popularity of the post to two things:

  • it was an erudite article written in an elegant and entertaining style 1
  • the design reflected the sort of inspirational genius rarely seen outside a Dyson factory 2
  • almost all beekeepers find that a honey warming cabinet is very useful
  • similar 3 commercial honey warming cabinets are a daft price

Today’s post is on a niche DIY project … a portable queen cell incubator. However, like the honey warming cabinet, it is something that can be built for significantly less than a similar commercial model.

Portable queen cell incubator version 2

Unlike the honey warming cabinet, this is something that will be of interest to only a subset of beekeepers.

Or perhaps fewer.

The fraction of a fraction of a small proportion

Firstly, only a small proportion of beekeepers actively 4 rear queens. Quite how big or small that proportion is I don’t know … perhaps 10%.

Secondly, only a fraction of that 10% of beekeepers will want to use an incubator for queen emergence or short-term storage 5.

And finally, only a fraction of that fraction might need the queen cell incubator to be portable.

But I’m one of them, and I know there are a few others who are regular readers … 6.

It also seemed appropriate to balance the article on frames – of general relevance, if not interest – last week with something of very specialist interest … reflecting the wonderful diversity of our hobby.

Design criteria

I discussed some general features of a portable queen cell incubator when I described my first attempt at building one back in July.

Broadly the design criteria were as follows: 

  • automatic temperature controlled environment maintained at between 33.3 °C (92 °F) and 35.5 °C (96 °F) 7
  • ideally with the temperature controlled to between 34.4 °C to 35 °C (94-95 °F)
  • high humidity
  • able to accommodate at least 10 queen cells in Nicot cages
  • portable and powered by a 5V or 12V supply so it could be used in a car (or from a battery)

Version 1 was a case of ‘close, but no cigar’.

It worked up to a point. Queens emerged in it and I successfully transported virgin queens across Scotland (including hotel stops), maintaining them for up to a week before introducing them (also successfully) into hives. 

Version 1 … a bit primitive if I’m honest … but it did work (more or less)

But it was a bit of a botch-up.

It consisted of a polystyrene box with a 5 V vivarium heat mat. Temperature control was not automatic, but was more sort of ‘hit and hope’.

If at first you don’t succeed … 

However, I’ve spent some time since then making version 2 which – remarkably – meets all of the design criteria listed above 🙂

I don’t intend to provide a step-by-step guide to building this portable queen cell incubator. You might want a bigger one, or one for mains power only, or to house bare cells rather than queens in Nicot cages, or one coloured red or whatever. 

But what I will show are the general ways I met my design criteria, with a list of parts and lots of pictures showing how it was put together. I’ll highlight the critical features that actually made it work as intended. I’ll also discuss testing and performance, which are as important as the design and construction.

Overview

The portable queen cell incubator consists of an insulated picnic box with a 12 V 15 W heating element. Supported above the element is a block of foam insulation to hold the Nicot cages. Temperature control is automatic and a very stable temperature is achieved by circulating the air in the incubator with a small fan. Ten Nicot cages can be accommodated at a suitable temperature for hours/days at a time in ~90% humidity.

It’s winter … so this hasn’t been tested with queens or queen cells.

Caveat emptor.

A list of parts is followed by cross-sectional diagram and lots of photos, with comments, of some of the components. Towards the end of the post I describe the testing process and the results.

OK, for the six readers who have not already moved on … buckle up. Here goes.

Materials

This is what I used. I didn’t shop around much for bargain prices, so you might be able to do better. Note that I struggled to find anywhere other than RS Components that sold suitable heating mats.

  • Insulated picnic box – e.g. an Andes 5 litre coolbox at £14.99
  • Piece of wooden laminate flooring (from my spares bin)
  • Silicone 15 W heating mat – e.g. one from RS Components at ~£30
  • A5 6mm aluminium sheet – purchased from eBay for £4.50
  • Offcuts of a cheapo plastic queen excluder (from my spares bin)
  • 20 mm M4 roofing nuts and bolts (from my spares bin)
  • Closed cell foam – the stuff they pack computers in when shipping (from my spares bin)
  • 40 mm 12 V computer fan – e.g. a Noiseblocker BlackSilent Fan XM-1-40mm at ~£4.50 8
  • STC-1000 12 V temperature controller – e.g. an Aideepen at £14. Make sure you choose a 12 V model.
  • Plastic food container for the electrics – stolen from the kitchen (from my spares bin)
  • Velcro tape, Sugru, zip ties, cable gland, thin bits of foam, some wire and a few electrical connectors (from my – yes, you guessed it – spares bin)
  • 12 V mains power supply with 5.5 x 2.1 mm male connector (from a woefully poor BT broadband modem via my spares bin)
  • 5.5 x 2.1 mm female power jack sockets (about £9 for half a dozen)
  • 12 V car cigar lighter adaptor with 5.5 x 2.1 mm male connector (about £8) 9

Testing, testing

For development and testing I used a Raspberry Pi Zero with DS18b20 external temperature sensor(s) and DHT22 temperature/humidity sensor to monitor the environment in the incubator. For the technically-minded these recorded internal and external temperatures and/or humidity at 1 minute intervals, displaying the results via ThingSpeak. Perl or python scripts were run via cron jobs and data was saved to CSV-format files for subsequent analysis.

Computer geekery used for testing purposes – Raspberry Pi Zero, two DS18b20 and one DHT22 sensors

You don’t need this type of computer geekery, but you do need to be able to accurately determine the temperature (at least) inside the incubator and to calibrate the STC-1000 thermostatic controller.

Ideally you want a thermometer small enough that you can place it in different locations to determine how even the heating is within the incubator.

Cross-sectional diagram of the queen cell incubator

Early attempts just placing the foam (holding the Nicot cages) directly above the heating element were an abject failure. Temperature control was all over the place.

It turns out that you need a 1 cm gap between the foam and the element and you need a fan to circulate the air. That was the breakthrough … after which it was pretty much plain sailing.

Queen cell incubator schematic

A very humid environment is not ideal for electrical things like fans or thermostats. I therefore opted to house everything except the fan in a plastic food container velcro’d to the outside of the insulated picnic box.

Mission control

Not pretty … but functional.

If I was doing this again I’d do exactly the same thing … it works perfectly well.

Calibrate the STC-1000

The STC-1000 is a widely used and inexpensive thermostatic controller. It has a power input, a temperature sensor (probe) and separate controllable heating and cooling circuits. Both 12 V and 240 V models are available. 

You set the control temperature on the STC-1000 and a delta (offset) temperature of, say, 0.3 °C. Every time temperature drops below the set temperature minus delta the heating circuit switches on. When the sensor reports the temperature exceeds the set temperature plus delta the cooling circuit switches on. In the narrow range of set temperature ± delta the STC-1000 just keeps track of the temperature. 

This project did not use the cooling circuit.

The STC-1000 temperature sensor is on a long piece of wire. It is almost certain that the displayed temperature is not the actual temperature.

Calibrating the STC-1000

I worked out the temperature difference by placing the sensor in a Thermos flask (no lid) of hot water (~50 °C), together with thermometer(s) I trusted. I then recorded the temperatures at 10 minute intervals as the water slowly cooled and plotted the results.

STC-1000 calibration

My STC-1000 consistently over-read by ~1 °C across the tested range (28 – 49 °C). The STC-1000 has a function (F4 in the menu) to calibrate the unit so that the display – and therefore the thermostat settings – reflect the accurate temperature.

It’s worth doing this before embarking on the build, though you will need to adjust it again later (see below).

The F2 function on the STC-1000 sets the temperature delta (offset) away from the set temperature. Set this to the minimum, which is 0.3 °C. You want the temperature to fluctuate over a limited range.

The heating element

This is the single most important and expensive component.

I used a 12 V 15 W 100 x 150 mm silicone heating mat from RS Components. 

WARNING – these heat pads MUST be thermostatically controlled. Without thermostatic control these pads can reach ~200°C. Not only will this cook your queens, it will probably also melt your car, burn your house down and run off with your spouse. You have been warned!

Of course, I immediately wired it up (without a thermostat) to a 12V source and determined that it didn’t reach anything like 200°C particularly fast … though I dare say it would reach it eventually.

It did get too hot to touch, but you have to try these things, don’t you? 10

Silicone heating pad, wooden insulation and aluminium plate

To avoid damaging the inner floor of the box 11 I placed it on top of a ~1.5cm thick offcut of wood laminate flooring. I stopped this moving about with some fillets of closed cell foam.

To help dissipate the heat more evenly I stuck the heating mat to the underside of a 6mm thick piece of aluminium. The heating mat I purchased had an adhesive pad on one side of it.

Make sure the heating mat is central and stuck down with no air bubbles. Protect the wiring from the sharp edges of the aluminium pad with some gaffer tape.

With hindsight, a larger heating mat may work better. RS Components do a 30W version which is A5-sized (approximately) and would fit in the insulated picnic box I used. It should heat the box faster and may provide a more evenly heated surface 12.

The box

I chose a small (5 litre) square-sided picnic box designed to take 6 x cans of beer (or Coke … or iced-tea or whatever). The sides and base are foam-filled. The lid appears to be just hollow plastic. 

The box has a carry handle 13. There is no lock or catch to keep the lid shut, but it is quite tight and should be secure enough.

The intention at the start was to mount the STC-1000 through the side-wall of the insulated box, hence the choice of a square-sided model. I quickly abandoned this idea when I realised the humidity level inside the box and just how limited in volume it was.

There are similar, and slightly bigger insulated sandwich/picnic boxes that might well be better insulated and/or a better choice 14.

The internal bits 15

I drilled a hole through the rear wall of the box to take the wiring for the STC-1000 temperature sensor, heating mat and fan. In addition, I drilled a hole for a thermometer for use when testing the unit (subsequently filled in with a bit of foam and taped over, but it’s there if I need it again).

The foam block to hold the Nicot cages needs to be supported ~1 cm above the aluminium sheet. I used an offcut of plastic queen excluder held in place with 6 ‘legs’ created from M4 roofing bolts. These are a reasonably good fit through the holes in the queen excluder, but require a nut and washer each side to hold them firm and square to the plastic.

Legs for the foam support

This support was placed ‘screwhead down’ on top of the aluminium sheet.

Queen excluder support for foam block

The foam block goes on top of the queen excluder. I had to cut small recesses in the underside of the block to accommodate the protruding ends of the M4 roofing bolts. This is important as it keeps the queen excluder and foam properly aligned and flush fitting.

The foam block must be carefully shaped … this needs:

  • the ability to visualise the finished item in 3D
  • a sharp breadknife
  • a steady hand … or Elastoplast

The idea is to maximise the area to accommodate the Nicot cages, but to allow good airflow around the four edges of the block. I achieved this by leaving protruding corners that fitted very snugly into the box, but cut ~1 cm ‘recesses’ in the block on all four sides.

Foam block corner detail

The foam block I started with was ~5 cm thick, but I thinned it to ~3.5 cm to provide space for the Nicot cages.

My greatest smallest fan

The fan is located centrally, supported at the corners on the queen excluder and attached to the underside of the foam block. I cut a 40 mm diameter central hole through the block using a holesaw and then, using a scalpel, cut a recess for the fan. The fan was just taped in place. The airflow is intended to push warmed air from the aluminium plate UP through the central hole, so make sure you get the fan in the correct orientation.

I discovered that it helps to cut away the queen excluder underneath the fan to maximise the airflow. These little fans are pretty puny … don’t obstruct them if you can avoid it. 

The fan I purchased had a speed controller/reader wire which wasn’t needed, so I just cut it off.

The fan fits centrally in a recess cut into the underside of the foam block

I cut eleven suitably-sized (~2 cm diameter) plugs out of the block using a holesaw for the Nicot cages. Rather than cut right through the foam I cut through partially (~2 cm deep) and then used a very thin and sharp scalpel through the side of the block to cut across the bottom of the plug, so releasing it.

The intention was to grip the Nicot cage, but to have the queen cells protruding into the airspace over the foam … where hopefully the temperature would be even and constant.

Almost finished …

Wiring it all up

I’m not going to embarrass myself or risk your electrocution by showing the gory details of the rats nest of wiring I ended up with.

What a mess … 12V makes this a whole lot easier and safer

Suffice to say that working with 12V probably saved my life more than once 😉

It’s worth remembering that the heating (and cooling) circuits on an STC-1000 are not powered but the temperature sensor is, so you need to take a spur off your power input to provide juice to the heating mat.

I based my wiring on the following diagram, ignoring both the yellow/green earth wires as I was using 12 V and the cooling terminals.

STC-1000 wiring diagram. For 12 V omit the yellow/green earth wires.

Actually, it was a little more complicated than that as I also wired the fan directly into the power so that it was always running. Preliminary tests showed that this gave reduced temperature fluctuations than when wired in parallel with the heating mat.

More ‘shockingly bad’ wiring

The temperature sensor and wires to the heating mat and fan are routed via a cable gland from the plastic box on the outside, through the hole in the sidewall of the picnic box. I sheathed the wires in some flexible cable sleeving I had from another project.

Cable gland and sleeve

The power supply feeds into the plastic ‘control box’ via a near-ubiquitous 5.5 x 2.1 mm socket (shown above). 

The temperature sensor needs to be fixed in a central location on the inside of the lid of the picnic box.

Temperature sensor

To ensure repeatable temperature control this sensor must be in a fixed location. Do not just leave it flapping around in the box 16. Make sure you have sufficient wire free to the sensor to allow the lid to open easily, without fouling anything in the box.

Ready for testing

With everything assembled the inside of the box should look something like this:

Almost ready to go

I still have a little more tidying to do with the wiring to the heating pad and the temperature sensor. They will both be held in place with zip ties and I’m intending to construct a smaller seal on the inner wall using Sugru mouldable silicone glue (which is extraordinary stuff).

The recesses to hold the Nicot queen cages are numbered.

Having put everything together I then tested it 17

Temperature testing

The temperature within the Nicot queen cages is not identical in every position in the box.

It varies, in a very reproducible manner, from position to position 18. The variation between positions is mostly with 1°C, so the aim was to adjust the thermostat so as many of the Nicot cages as possible were within the optimum part of the temperature range.

In the following graph the temperature was measured for 1-2 hours with the Nicot cage containing my testing thermometer in each location, with positions #5 (light bars) or #9 (dark bars) occupied by the water source to maintain humidity. Error bars indicate the standard deviation in each position.

Temperature testing

Red lines indicate the lowest (dashed) and highest (solid) temperatures acceptable for incubating queen cells. Blue lines indicate the low and high limits on the optimum range.

Positions #5 and #11 were consistently warmer. The heating mat must have a ‘hotspot’ in this central region. Position #9 was consistently cooler (and was the most variable position).

Using position #9 for the water source, 8 of the remaining 10 positions maintain the temperature within the optimum range of 34.4 °C to 35 °C. The two outside this range (positions #3 and #10) are only ~0.4 °C cooler.

Nice 🙂

Calibration of the STC-1000 … what, again?

But you will not achieve figures like those above without again calibrating the temperature offset in the STC-1000.

With the temperature sensor suspended from the lid of the box there is a temperature differential between the sensor and the location of the queen cell within the Nicot cage.

You therefore need to work out this difference and then recalibrate – via the F4 function – the offset on the STC-1000. 

Accurately measure the temperature where the queen cells will sit and then compare this temperature with that shown – once a steady temperature is reached – by the STC-1000. For example, if the STC-1000 is set at 34.5 °C, but your thermometer reads the Nicot cage temperature as only 33.5 °C, you need to adjust F4 by -1.0 °C.

This takes a little time, but the goal is to end up with the set temperature on the STC-1000 being the temperature at which you want to incubate your queen cells.

Frankly, I was delighted 19 I could get such accurate and reproducible temperatures 🙂

The ambient temperature in my workshop was 15-17 °C throughout these tests, but I also confirmed that the temperature did not fluctuate when the box was moved outdoors (8 °C).

Humidity

Queens need a humid environment. I used a folded up piece of kitchen towel fitted tightly into a Nicot cage and then soaked in water. This sits in position #9. Using this I could maintain humidity at a fraction over 90% as long as the lid of the box was closed.

Humidity measurements

From a ‘cold start’ humidity increases to ~91% after one hour and remains high. The humidity drops to ~70% when the box was briefly opened (after 2 hours 40 minutes, above) but quickly returned to over 90%.

That’s good enough for me and should be good enough for my queens 🙂

Heating and cooling

The graph above shows that the box takes about one hour to reach working temperature. In repeated tests this was very reproducible from an ambient (workshop) temperature of ~17 °C.

Heating and cooling

If the lid was kept closed the temperature drops from ~34 °C to ~25 °C in one hour when the power is turned off. The temperature drops much faster if the lid was left open 20.

All of the temperature measurements shown in the bar chart above involved repeated opening and closing the lid to move the test thermometer about. This is not dissimilar to the manipulations when introducing, checking or feeding queens. Under these conditions the temperature fluctuated by only 1-2 °C and returned to the set temperature within a few minutes.

Again, that’s more than good enough for me and my queens 🙂

What’s in a name?

There is a commercial portable queen cell incubator, the Carricell, made in New Zealand.

Carricell queen cell incubator

This is primarily designed to carry cells … hence the name. I don’t think it’s a queen cell incubator, despite what it says on the side of the unit. It keeps cells warm, but you couldn’t incubate sealed cells until they emerged … but what do I know, as I’ve never seen or used one?

I’ve also never seen any data on the temperature stability of the Carricell. However I do know they cost an eye-watering €636 from Swienty (for the mid-sized 70 cell model).

The Carricell is for professional bee farmers who want to transport lots of cells at a time. 

My incubator is for a small number of cells only (but could be scaled up now the basic design problems are solved).

I need a name for the box I’ve described as ‘portable queen cell incubator’ is much too sensible and unwieldy. 

I currently favour the name PortaQueen 21 … can you think of anything better?

In use

Unless you’re in the fraction of a fraction of a small proportion of beekeepers who actually need one of these you might have read 22 the last 3700 words and be wondering “That’s all very well, but what the hell is it used for?”

Here are the three things I expect to use this for next season:

  1. Incubating queen cells started and capped in my cell rearing colonies. This frees up the cell rearing colony to rear a second batch of queens. A capped cell just needs to be kept warm. The queen emerges and is then introduced to a colony for subsequent mating. Alternatively, the queen cell can be used just prior to emergence to prime a newly made up nucleus colony.
  2. Keeping virgin or mated queens warm and safe during transport between apiaries 23. You can feed virgin queens with honey and water and keep them alive for several days prior to introducing them into a colony. It is always good to have a spare queen or two ‘on hand’ in case of emergencies, opportunities or stupidity.
  3. Transporting eggs or very young larvae for grafting in a distant apiary. I don’t have space to write about this more here, but may cover it in the future.

Here’s one I produced earlier

If you attempt to build one of these I’d be interested to hear how you got on.


Note

Almost forgot … this box needs a 12 V supply, but the heating pad and fan are about 16 W total (and the former is only on ~50% of the time). I calculate it could be powered by a 7 Ah sealed lead acid battery for a few hours if needed. Coincidentally (not) I’ve previously built solar powered battery boxes that house 7Ah SLA batteries to drive my trail cameras which could also be used with the PortaQueen.

Measure twice, cut once

Swear often 😉

I’ll return to cursing shortly … bear with me.

The autumn solstice is long gone and we’re fast approaching the end of British Summer Time 1. For most northern hemisphere beekeepers this means that there may be five months of ‘not beekeeping’ before we start all over again.

Of course, there are things we have to do with the bees in the intervening period.

The hive entrances must be kept clear so they can get out on the inoffensively named ‘cleansing flights’ when needed. There will be a winter miticide treatment to apply … probably long before midwinter. It is also important to keep an eye on the weight of the hive – particularly as brood rearing starts in earnest in late January and February – to ensure the bees do not starve.

But those three things aren’t going to fill anything like five months, so there is bound to be some time ‘spare’ over the coming months.

The elasticity of time

Although the year contains twelve about equal length months, those of us who keep bees in temperate northern countries experience a strangely warped calendar.

This is what it feels like … the beekeepers year

Apparently the months only vary in length by ±3 days. May and December contain the same number of days, but May disappears in the blink of an eye, whereas December can drag on interminably.

Weirdly there appears to be an inverse relationship between the available daylight to work in, and the amount of time it feels as though you have available to actually get the various beekeeping tasks completed.

This surely defies the laws of physics?

All of which means that beekeepers often have little free time in the summer and ample free time in the winter.

Some wise beekeepers have a busman’s holiday and go to New Zealand to tour apiaries (and – more to the point – vineyards).

Others catch up with all of the non-beekeeping activities that apparently ‘normal’ people do … like the decorating, or building model railways, or flamenco dancing 2.

Getting creative

But if you still want to dabble with a bit of beekeeping – in the broadest sense of the word –  through the cold, dark days of December and January 3 there are all sorts of things you can do. 

Many years ago I wrote an irregular column for my then beekeeping association on do-it-yourself (DIY) for beekeepers.

It was irregular because my use of punctuation has always, been suspect, and because it didn’t appear each month. 

That column eventually morphed into this website 4.

In fact, some of the very earliest articles were almost lifted verbatim from the beekeeping monthly newsletter.

I wrote about DIY because it was something that:

  • brought me a lot of satisfaction
  • saved me a few quid
  • improved my beekeeping

Now, a decade or more later, I still use the winter months to do the majority of my beekeeping-related DIY 5.

It’s only in the winter that I have the time to think things through properly before rummaging through the wood offcuts box and actually building something.

Measure twice, cut once

Which brings me back to the start of this post.

The motto for beekeeping DIY could be something like:

Measure twice, cut once, swear often 6

However, having identified a problem, there’s almost as much enjoyment to be gained from thinking it through to a workable solution than there is from the actual woodwork.

But Think lots, measure twice, cut once etc. doesn’t have quite the same flow.

And, as we’ll see below, it doesn’t have to be woodwork.

So I can happily fill a few hours on a dark November evening thinking about improvements to a hive stand that could cope with 1500 mm of rain a year and very uneven ground 7, or how to best construct the removable slides for a Morris board.

And by best here, I mean for a lot less than the £30 charged for the commercial ones 8.

Morris board … that’s £8.25 please

Part of the thinking involves how to tackle the project with the limited range of tools I have. I don’t have the space or the skill 9 to own a bandsaw, or a thicknesser 10, or a router.

Almost everything I build uses a combination of Gorilla glue, Correx, hand tools, blood 11, wood offcuts and some really rich Anglo-Saxon phrases.

My DIY skills are legendary, and not in a good way, but the great thing is that the bees could not care less

Fat dummies

Most of the various things I build develop from ideas that occur during the ‘active’ beekeeping season.

If it’s needed urgently I’ll cobble something crudely together and use it there and then. However, it’s unlikely to have received much thought (or care in construction) and so I’m more than likely to ponder how it could be improved once I have a bit more time.

I learnt the basics of queen rearing from the late Terry Clare at a BBKA Annual Convention and couldn’t wait to have a go myself.

Fat dummies – mark 1

I used the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing approach. This needs an upper brood box with most of the space ‘dummied down’ to concentrate the bees on the grafted larvae. For this you need a couple of ‘fat dummies’ 12. I built my first fat dummies one afternoon using gaffer tape and Correx (see above) and later that April reared my first queens.

But that winter I had time to do a bit more research. Dave Cushman’s website described fat dummies with integral feeders.

Clever.

These would clearly be an improvement – unless there’s a strong nectar flow you often have to feed the colony – so I built some. 

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy mark 2 … with integral feeder and insulation

Mine are still in use … and not just for queen rearing. They are packed with polystyrene insulation … an embellishment I thought up 13. I can use them to reduce ’empty’ space in a brood box occupied by an undersized colony. In fact, with two of them, I can overwinter a four-frame nuc over a strong colony to provide warmth from below.

Problem solving

As I said earlier, the problem solving is part of the fun. 

I use a lot of Correx. That’s the fluted polypropylene board that is used for political posters and For Sale signs.

Sourcing it is often not a problem if you’re prepared to do some homework.

It’s lightweight, strong, available in a range of cheery colours … but most importantly it is used for political posters and For Sale signs.

So, it’s often free.

And that’s a word all beekeepers like 😉

Wait for a general election and seek out a candidate who has suffered an ignominious and humiliating defeat. Ideally one in which they have both lost their deposit and and any remnants of support from the political party they were standing for … and ask politely.

And For Sale signs are even more easily obtained. Always ask … and remember that it’s bad form to remove them if the house has yet to be sold.

But there’s a problem with Correx. You cannot glue it with any normal glues. It’s got some sort of surface coating that prevents glue from adhering properly. 

Believe me, I’ve tried.

There are special glues, but at special prices 🙁

Roofs

I wanted to build some hive roofs from Correx but had to solve how to fold it ‘across’ the longitudinal flutes, and then how to stick it together in a way that would be weatherproof.

Pizza cutter

Pizza cutter … take care scoring the Correx

The folding bit was easy … it turns out that people who keep guinea pigs use this stuff to make the cages and runs for their cavies. And after an hour or two reading about someone else’s (weird) obsession I discovered that a pizza cutter was ideal for scoring Correx prior to folding it.

The glue I worked out for myself. I built a couple of dummy roofs and held the folded corners together with zip ties or regular gaffer tape, zip ties and regular gaffer tape, or some (claimed) waterproof tape.

Of these, the waterproof tape – specifically Unibond Extra Strong Power tape – worked really well. 

Sticky stuff ...

Sticky stuff …

And remains the only one I’ve found to work.

You need to lightly sand the surface of the Correx and ideally degrease it with some solvent. I still have roofs built 8 years ago with the original tape holding them together. They cost me £1.50 each to build as I had to buy 14 the Correx as the only For Sale signs I had were too small.

Here’s one I made earlier

Most of the things I’ve made have been through one or two iterations of ‘improvement’ before I’ve ended up with something I’m satisfied with.

The Kewl floors I almost exclusively use these days were an improvement of the original design I built, but have also had a couple of additional modifications

My honey warming cabinet – one of the first things I ever built – was modified after a few years by the addition of a fan to better circulate the warmed air. This significantly improved it.

The things I’ve discussed above are all good examples of why it’s worth spending some time in the winter doing some creative thinking and DIY 15 :

  • commercial Morris boards are expensive and (I think) have entrances that are too large
  • I’m not aware of any commercially available fat dummies … please correct me if I’m wrong
  • no one sells hive roofs (or super carrying trays) for £1.50
  • my floors are ideal for the beekeeping I do and significantly less expensive than anything similar available commercially
  • my honey warming cabinet is used to warm supers before extraction, to melt set honey and – because the temperature control and heat distribution is good enough – has even been used as a queen cell incubator

Electrickery

This winter I have three projects to entertain me.

The first project is the second iteration of my DIY portable queen cell incubator. The first of these was cobbled together earlier this year. Although it worked – more or less – it was far from satisfactory.

Mark 2 is currently being stress tested.

It is being tested.

I am getting stressed.

Queen cell incubator – mark 2 … a work in progress

I’ve managed to achieve really good temperature control. However, I’m currently struggling with uneven temperatures at different areas within the box. They barely fluctuate, but they’re not the same.

Great temperature control at a range of (different) temperatures

Grrrr.

I’m pretty sure this is solvable 16 and that it will be possible to build something better than is available commercially for about 10-15% of the price 17.

But, almost more important than that, it will be a problem I’ve solved 18 that suits me, my bees and my beekeeping … which will be very satisfying.

The second project is a set of hive scales. Lots of others have tackled this problem and there are some really clever and complicated solutions out there.

The plan is for mine to be the exact opposite.

Simple, and not very clever at all.

Testing is ongoing 😉

Software, not hardware

And the final project is software, not hardware.

All my honey jars have unique batch numbers. These allow the individual apiary (and bucket) to be identified. The batch number is generated by some PHP or perl scripts and used to print a QR code onto a Dymo label affixed to the back of the jar.

QR code containing a batch number

But that monochrome pointillist pattern contains a hidden web address as well. The purchaser will be able to point a mobile phone at the code and get more information about the honey 19

Having sold honey ‘from the door’ for years I’m unsurprised when buyers want to know more about local bees and the available forage … and with these labels they can (and do).

I’ve written the scripts to handle label creation and logging/redirecting ‘views’. I now have to write the programs that create the customised web pages with the local information lifted from the backend database.

And, with only ~165 days until I next expect to open a hive, I think I’m going to have my work cut out to complete any of these projects.


 

DIY queen cell incubator

NOTE: This post is now redundant as I have designed, built and tested version 2 of my portable queen cell incubator. I’m leaving this post here for those who wanted to read some of the background information.


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.

STOP PRESS – update 26th November ’21

Full details of version 2 have now been published and this page is left here for historical reasons only … 

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 😉