Category Archives: Floors

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.


 

Droning on

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

All work and no play …

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

Imagine the scenario

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

Tut, tut …

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

At some point the colony may actually be broodless.

What happens to the mites?

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

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

What about the need for nurses?

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

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

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

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

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

And the number of the little blighters …

Mite longevity

How long does a mite live?

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

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

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

Spring has sprung

So, going back to the scenario we started with …

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

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

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

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

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

My (un)informed guess …

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

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

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

OK, enough droning on, what about drones?

Back to the imagined scenario.

What happens next?

Well, perhaps not next, but soon?

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

And the colony starts to really expand.

And so do the mite numbers …

Pupa (blue) and mite (red) numbers

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

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

And drone larvae are very attractive to Varroa.

9 out of 10 mites prefer drones

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

The replication cycle of Varroa

The replication cycle of Varroa

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

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

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

I hope you can see where this is now going …

Early drone brood sacrifice

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

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

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

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

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

It can be a bit of a mess.

Is there an easier way to do this?

Drone cells

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

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

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

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

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

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

There are no wires in the way.

You can sometimes simply pull it off the starter strip.

Drone brood sacrifice

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

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

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

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


 

 

 

 

 

Flawed floors

I’m a fan of Abelo poly National hives. They’re reasonably robust, well-insulating, correctly dimensioned 1 and pre-painted.

Abelo poly National hives ...

Abelo poly National hives …

I’ve been using these boxes for well over a year now and will review them shortly.

The review will be generally positive.

Abelo floor and entrance reducer

Abelo floor and entrance reducer

‘Generally’ as I really don’t like the floors. They are by far the weakest part of the hive design and have a number of, er, flaws making them poorly suited to my beekeeping 2.

Rather than ‘taint’ a future review with negative comments on these flaws floors I’ll deal with them in this post and ignore them in the future 3.

The poly hive retails at about £125 for a hive with 2 supers. The Abelo floor alone costs £25.

What’s the floor for?

At its most basic the floor serves as something to stand a compatible brood box on.

But it does more than that.

It allows the bees to enter and exit and it often has features that discourage the entry of other animals … like mice.

These days open mesh floors (OMF) are commonplace, allowing mites dislodged by grooming or miticides to fall out and away from the colony.

But, if you think about it in a bit more detail you realise that the floor does other things as well and therefore needs additional features:

  • it’s what’s handled if you’re bodily picking up the entire hive
  • it needs to have an entrance that is easily and securely sealed for transporting hives
  • there is often an integrated landing board (for the beekeeper, rather than the bees)
  • for convenience it should have a Varroa tray to monitor mites that fall through the OMF
  • if used when vaporising oxalic acid-containing treatments it needs to be reasonably ‘gas tight’

How does the Abelo poly National floor 4 meet these requirements?

First, the good points

The Abelo floors are sturdy, ready-painted and nicely cast (molded? moulded? formed?) from dense poly. The paint (all mine are green or yellow though they may do blue as well) is tightly bonded to the poly surface and doesn’t easily wear away. I think the white patches in the picture below were there from manufacture, not from use.

Abelo floor - drone'e eye view

Abelo floor – drone’e eye view

The floors have an reasonable area of mesh, securely held in place. The mesh area isn’t as great as some wooden floors, but is at least as good as my homemade kewl floors.

On either side of the floor, on the underside, there is a recessed handhold that really helps in lifting hives. These recesses are also convenient anchoring points for an elasticated bungy to hold the roof in place 5.

Worms-eye view of an Abelo floor

Worms-eye view of an Abelo floor

Probably the best feature of these floors is that they’re fully compatible with other National hive components. I’ve mixed them with cedar or Swienty poly brood boxes and they fit perfectly. The interface between the boxes is flat, the correct dimensions and pretty hard-wearing.

Entrance blocks

Abelo do tend to design rather ‘fiddly’ equipment and they’re very keen on ventilation.

They usually include these fiddly design features to allow increased ventilation – or at least the option for it.

The entrance block is in two parts (see photo above). A grey plastic reversible full-width block that drops into two vertical slots on either side of the landing board. One way up the entrance is reduced to ~8cm wide. Inverted and the entrance is sealed.

Well, sort of sealed 🙁

There are four vertical ventilation holes that remain open on either side of the entrance block. Are these really needed? After all, the ventilation provided by the OMF far exceeds the little bit extra through the entrance block.

There’s a second green 6 plastic slider that can be added to the entrance block to provide an integral mouse guard. Or – more options – if inverted it can be used to further reduce the entrance to one bee width (or closed off altogether).

Ventilation and Varroa trays

Returning to the underside of the floor, the weakest part of the design is the Varroa tray.

Abelo floor Varroa tray - inserted

Abelo floor Varroa tray – inserted

The tray is unpainted polystyrene, square with a shallow lip. It slots into a recess in the underside of the floor, supported by two metal runners.

The area of the tray is approximately 75% of the floor area of a National brood box. With a full colony, some of the Varroa will fall outwith this area. This isn’t a major issue, but it could lead to underestimating the mite load in the colony.

The tray slides in and out easily, facilitated by a small protruding handle on the underside.

Abelo Varroa tray half withdrawn

Abelo Varroa tray half withdrawn

Unfortunately, there are some large gaps around the tray when it’s in place. If you sublimate oxalic acid a significant proportion of the vapour escapes around the edges of the Varroa tray.

The gaps around the tray are awkwardly shaped, so it’s not straightforward to plug them … other than with foam blocks perhaps. It’s also not possible to easily temporarily replace the tray with a Correx sheet. If you did it would need holding in place so potentially putting you too close to the hive and clouds of escaping oxalic acid vapour.

Resourceful beekeepers will work out solutions to these problems, but it would have been better if the defects weren’t designed into the floor in the first place.

Abelo floor, Varroa tray inverted

Abelo floor, Varroa tray inverted

And, before you ask, inverting the tray does not significantly seal off the gaps!

Poly Varroa trays

It is possible to make reasonably ‘vapour-tight’ poly Varroa trays. For example, the Thorne’s Everynuc has one that slots neatly in place. I’ve used these dozens of times and there is very little loss of vapour in my experience.

However, the Abelo floor (and the Everynuc Varroa tray) has the additional problem of being unpainted polystyrene. These very quickly become stained, with pollen, bee faeces and all of the usual rubbish that falls through the floor.

Abelo poly Varroa tray

Abelo poly Varroa tray

This staining makes counting Varroa much more difficult.

Again, a couple of coats of white gloss paint would seal the surface of the tray. However, this rather undermines the attraction of the ready-painted Abelo hives 🙁

Alternatively, you could source some white Correx sheet to make an insert that would be easy to draw a grid on, count Varroa in and clean.

And, inevitably, easy to lose.

Floors done well

In summary, the problems with these Abelo floors are three-fold.

  1. Intentionally (the entrance block) and unintentionally (the Varroa tray) leave too much ventilation to conveniently be used when sublimating oxalic acid. The success of these depends upon retaining the vapour within the hive while it condenses on internal surfaces. Allowing it to leak out excessively simply makes the treatment less effective.
  2. Even if you don’t control Varroa by oxalic acid vaporisation the Varroa tray gets dirty quickly and is difficult to clean.
  3. Finally, it’s not possible to securely fix the entrance for transporting colonies, other than by using loads of gaffer tape. Even if you do, the large landing board on these floors makes strapping hives together awkward.

Most of my hives have homemade kewl floors. These probably cost about £6 each to make and have none of the problems listed above. They offer additional benefits as the L-shaped entrance ‘tunnel’ prevents mice from entering the hive and reduces robbing by wasps.

Kewl floor and Correx landing board ...

Kewl floor and Correx landing board …

These DIY floors have a simple, easy to clean, Correx Varroa tray that is much more ‘gas-tight’ than the Abelo design. An L-shaped wooden entrance block can be screwed in place for transport and the landing board is effectively integral to the floor, replaceable if damaged and does not project in a way that inhibits strapping hives together for transport.

Cedar floor and plywood tray ...

Cedar floor and plywood tray …

Kewl floors are unsuited to being used in the bee shed. For these hives we use slightly modified cedar floors made by Peter Little of Exmoor Bees and Beehives. These have a ply removable Varroa monitoring tray that provides an excellent ‘gas-tight’ fit when sublimating. These floors are not inexpensive, but they are very well made.

Cedar floor with closed monitoring tray

Cedar floor with closed monitoring tray

Considering the quality of the rest of the Abelo National hives, these floors are a disappointment. I use them if I’ve run out of everything else and I kick myself when I discover – as I did a few weeks ago – that there are still some in use when the midwinter mite treatment is needed.

What do you call a stack of Abelo poly floors ...

What do you call a stack of Abelo poly floors …


Colophon

Hooke's microscope

Hooke’s microscope

Floor and flaw are homonyms, two words that sound the same but have different meanings. Floor, meaning in this context the ‘base of any cavity’ probably dates back to Old English (Anglo Saxon) ~317AD. Flaw in comparison is a young upstart, with the first recorded use being by Robert Hooke in 1665. Hooke was, amongst other things a microbiologist, and he used the word flaw in his book, Micrographia, which is about his observations using a microscope (and telescopes). Hooke was the first to use the word ‘cell’ following microscopic examination of plant cells, which have walls, because the appearance reminded him of honeycomb.

Bring out your dead

It’s midwinter. There’s very little to do in the apiary. Time is probably better spent planning and preparing for the coming season (and drinking tea in the warm).

However, there are a few jobs that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Let the undertakers do their work

The first job is to ensure that the hive entrances are clear. This allows bees to readily exit and re-enter the hive for ‘cleansing’ flights during warmer days. During these days the bees will also remove some of the many corpses that accumulate during the winter. If the hive entrance is clear these can be removed easily. If the entrance is blocked they continue to build up and – on warm days – you can hear a panicky roar of trapped bees from inside the hive.

Corpses at hive entrance ...

Corpses at hive entrance …

Don’t worry about the loss of these bees. It’s what happens. The colony goes into the autumn with perhaps 30,000 adult workers. Four months later, at the end of December, there may be only about one third of this number remaining. Brood rearing is limited during this period (and at times non-existent), but picks up in early January.

Attrition rate

Even assuming no brood rearing, this means that 150-200 bees a day are expiring. If they are rearing brood, even at a significantly diminished rate, it means that more than 200 bees a day are dying.

For comparison, 300 bees is about a ‘cupful’ … the number you’d do a Varroa count on. Imagine dropping a cupful of dead bees on the hive floor every day for a fortnight. Unless these corpses are cleared away the hive entrance gets blocked. This is what the ‘undertakers’ clear.

On calm warm days you can find the corpses littered on the hive roof, or in front of the entrance, dropped there by workers carrying them away from the hive.

Since ‘flying’ days may be infrequent at this time of year and/or bees have other jobs to do, like go on cleansing flights or collect water, they may not carry the corpses very far … don’t be alarmed by the numbers of corpses around the hive entrance.

Don't count the corpses ...

Don’t count the corpses …

A bent piece of wire to the rescue

I mainly use kewl floors with a dogleg entrance slot (see the top image on this page) that reduces robbing by wasps and negates the need for a mouse guard. I’ve fashioned a simple piece of bent wire to keep the entrance slot clear of corpses on my irregular visits to the apiary during this time of the year.

Kewl floor unblocker ...

Kewl floor unblocker …

I’ve only ever had problems with large, double-brood colonies after very extensive cold periods (~4 weeks with hard frosts every night) when the entrance has got blocked. One colony I managed to save despite it showing signs of Nosema after the bees were trapped for several days.

It takes just seconds to check that the entrance is clear and gives considerable peace of mind. If you use mouseguards it’s worth checking the holes aren’t all blocked after an extended cold period.

Next week I’ll discuss the other important winter check … are there enough stores remaining to stop the colony starving?


Colophon

Anyone familiar with Monty Python will recognise the post title.

This was one of the well-known scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a 1975 film parody about the Arthurian legend and a low-budget quest for the Holy Grail. The film usually ranks close to the top in surveys of the best comedies of all time, with another Monty Python film (The Life of Brian) often topping the tables.

In the film there’s a further scene (A self-perpetuating autocracy) which involves a political argument with interesting parallels between the public perception 1 of a colony of bees and the biological reality. This is topical, with the recent Deloitte report on women in leadership roles holding back the careers of other women they perceive as a threat.

Perhaps a topic for a future article … ?

Queen bees and the self-perpetuating autocracy.

 

Landing boards

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

Abelo poly National hives ...

Abelo poly National hives …

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

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

Integral landing boards and DIY

Mine's bigger than yours

Mine’s bigger than yours

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

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

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

Thorne's budget hive ...

Thorne’s budget hive …

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

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

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

Take a stand

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

Stand and integral landing board

Stand and integral landing board …

Nice, but not needed

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

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

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

Original design

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

Correx landing board ...

Correx landing board …

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

Damaged in transit … or in a pile (up)

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

It therefore gets in the way.

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

Abelo hives in transit ...

Abelo hives in transit …

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

Stacked boxes

Stacked boxes …

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

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

No landing boards here ...

No landing boards here …

Completely floored

It’s still too cold to undertake a full hive inspection (it might not be with you as I discussed last week) but one task that should take place in early Spring – whatever the weather – is cleaning the hive floor.

Knee-deep in corpses

Bees knees anyway.

During the winter the colony is much less active. Low temperatures mean there are few opportunities for workers to drag out and dispose of the corpses of their half-sisters. Consequently, depending upon the attrition rate (which in turn is at least partly dependent on the level of virulent strains of DWV in the colony), a layer of dead and increasingly foosty bees can build up on the hive floor.

Winter debris ...

Winter debris …

On open mesh floors this usually isn’t a major problem. On solid floors, particularly when there’s a bit of damp as well, it can get pretty unsanitary. Whatever the floor type, in due course the bees will clear the floor once the season has warmed sufficiently. However, cleaning and replacing the floor is a 30 second task that causes very little disruption and gives the colony a hygienic start to the season.

(Almost) smokefree zones

Place a cleaned floor adjacent to the colony. Gently insert the flat of the hive tool between the floor and the bottom of the brood box and make sure they’re separate. Often this joint isn’t heavily propolised (in comparison to the crownboard) and is easy to split. Lift the brood box and gently place it onto the adjacent clean floor, remove the old floor and slide the colony back into the original position. The entire process takes longer to read than to complete.

You can replace the floor without smoking the colony, particularly on a cool day with little hive activity. However, a very gentle waft of smoke across the entrance will push the bees up and out of the way. If you’re quick, gentle and use a tiny puff of smoke it’s possible to swap the old floor out without a single bee coming out to investigate things.

A clean start

The removed floor needs to be cleaned. Scrape away the corpses with the hive tool. Assuming the floor is wooden, with or without mesh, it can then be scorched with a blowtorch before being pressed back into service. If the floor is poly the blowtorch is not advisable 😉 After scraping off the lumpy debris it needs to be scrubbed thoroughly with a strong washing soda solution.

Scorching ...

Scorching …

In a busy apiary it’s possible to spend a happy hour or so removing, scraping, scorching and replacing in a cycle, meaning that you only need one additional floor than the number of hives.

 

Avoiding disaster

Kewl open mesh floor showing L-shaped entrance slot

Kewl floor entrance …

Kewl floors (sometimes called Dartington-inspired floors) have an ‘L’ shaped entrance that I think offers advantages to the colony when defending against wasps (or robbing by nearby colonies) and negates the need for mouse guards. However, the very feature that provides these advantages – the ‘L’ shaped gap about 9mm high – also makes them liable to get blocked with bee corpses during late winter.

During the depths of the winter, with a relatively quiescent colony and winter bees that are only a couple of months old, this isn’t usually a problem. However, as the winter turns to spring and the colony starts to become active again the attrition rate increases. As the weather improves and the winter bees expire the corpses can block the entrance, trapping the remaining colony inside.

Blocked Kewl floor

Blocked Kewl floor …

This is the sort of thing that should only happen once. Early in the season you go and visit the apiary on an unseasonably warm and calm day. With one exception the colonies look reasonably active. Foragers are returning with pollen and there are bees setting off on orientation flights.

If you listen carefully at the hive with no activity you might be able to hear the bees panicking inside. Splitting the brood box from the floor reveals the scale of the devastation. It’s a distressing sight. If you’re lucky there will be good numbers of flying bees. If you’re unlucky the colony will have already perished or there will be obvious signs of Nosema.

Kewl floor unblocker ...

Kewl floor unblocker …

With reasonably regular visits to the apiary this is a situation that can easily be avoided. Insert a piece of bent wire – I use an old bicycle spoke – in the entrance slot, turn through 90° and drag it across the full width of the entrance. The ‘vertical’ piece of the wire needs to be longer than the depth of the entrance slot on the floor, but not so long that it fouls the bottom of the frames.


 But, do we always learn from our mistakes? I’ve had this happen a couple of times. In both cases the colony was strong going into the winter and on a double brood box. The first time the colony perished, though it’s not actually clear whether they died from being trapped or from a midwinter virus overload. The second time, April 2015 (shown in the hive photo above), the colony survived. When I discovered the blocked entrance there were still lots of flying bees. I swept the floor clean and cleared the entrance, reassembled the hive and left them to it. On checking a couple of days later they were taking in pollen and I found the laying queen, none the worse for wear, at the first full inspection the following week.

 

 

Even kewler floors

So-called kewl floors have underfloor entrances that are pretty-much rodent proof (so you don’t need mouseguards in winter) and are easy to seal when needed for transporting hives or administering vaporised oxalic acid. They are very easy and inexpensive to build. The last batch I built were all fitted with a Correx landing board that protruded a centimetre or so. It turned out that the ‘design’ (a rather grand word for the bodged solution I came up with at the time) was not ideal so I’m gradually replacing them with a modified version that corrects the worst of the faults of the original.

New Correx landing board ...

New Correx landing board …

The problem

  1. The protruding landing board inevitably got a bit bashed about when transporting colonies
  2. The gap underneath the landing board disorientated bees who climbed up the hive stand or otherwise undershot. This was particularly noticeable when reversing colonies during vertical splits. I’d previously fitted a plastic ‘skirt’ to some hives to fix this (see pic below).
  3. The ‘edge’ of the Correx provided a narrow and slippery target for heavily-laded foragers returning to the colony. Many lost their grip and fell off into the grass before having a second or third attempt at entering the hive.

The solution

An L-shaped piece of Correx (of course), though this time not protruding, with a rough textured integral ‘skirt’ to block the gap below the hive entrance works well. To make an acute bend in Correx you need to make two parallel cuts through one skin and remove the intervening ‘rib’. This takes longer to write than to do. After stapling the Correx in place I spray paint it and sprinkle sand onto the wet paint. You can use different colours to help orientate bees and minimise drifting. Alternatively, use multi-coloured ‘repurposed’ estate agent signs and a clear spray varnish of some type.

Other improvements?

The final change I’d intended to make to these floors was to add a second entrance on the opposing side. Some hive manipulations involve turning the colony 180° on the stand – these include vertical splits and using a Cloake board for queen rearing. Rather than manhandling the entire colony it would be much easier to seal off the front of the hive and open a hinged entrance at the rear (much like opening and closing the gates on a Snelgrove board). Unfortunately, this batch of floors were over-engineered, with the upper upper rim glued and screwed in place, so this modification will have to be introduced when (or if) I next build floors.

New landing board in action …


The original landing board was held in place with gimp pins. Inevitably these had rusted which made removing them a bit of a pain. When replacing them I used stainless steel staples (like these from Arrow) with the hope that this will make future removal of the landing board easier.

 

Winter checks for kewl floors

Kewl floor

Kewl floor …

The majority of my full colonies are on kewl floors. Some call these ‘floors with underfloor entrances‘, which is a bit more of a mouthful. These floors have narrow ‘L’ shaped entrances; the bees are forced to access the brood box through a 8-9mm high or wide slot, negotiating a 90º bend en route. For the majority of the season these offer more than enough advantages to easily outweigh their slightly more difficult construction (though you can buy something broadly similar if needed). These advantages include:

  • integral (and readily replaceable) Correx landing board
  • no need for mouseguards – even determined mice can’t negotiate an 8mm right angle
  • guard bees can occupy both the landing board and brood box entrance so far fewer problems with robbing or wasps (and if these are really a problem a simple 9mm lathe can be pushed into the entrance leaving a single bee gap at one end)
  • easy to seal for transport

Other users of these floors also claim the absence of draughts is a benefit but, since they also have open mesh floors, I don’t think this is likely to make much of a difference.

I’m only aware of three disadvantages of this type of floor.

  • they are not suited to the Varrox-type OA vaporisers i.e. the passive heating pan that is designed to be pushed through the hive entrance. This is not an issue if you use a Sublimox-type ‘active’ vaporiser I’ve described previously
  • bees can be confounded by the gap under the landing board when reorientating to these floors, though there are quick’n’dirty fixes to this and it’s only ever an issue for a few days. For the same reason, clipped queens might – on returning to the hive – miss the entrance and end up underneath the floor (though this happens with floors and normal entrances)
  • during long cold winters the entrance can become blocked with bee corpses – the only really significant problem and easily avoided

Bring out your dead

Blocked Kewl floor

Blocked Kewl floor …

There can be a high loss of bees from the colony during long cold winters. This is generally not an issue during the depths of winter, but as the weather warms slightly and the colony becomes more active – and, inevitably, the overwintering bees get older – the attrition rate rises. If the weather still isn’t warm enough for the corpses to be removed they can end up blocking the entrance. Twice in recent years I’ve had colonies trapped inside. In both cases these went into the winter as strong double-brood colonies and – due to work commitments – weren’t checked for 4-6 weeks in late January-early March. In both cases I managed to save the colonies, but they were severely stressed by the situation, with signs of Nosema, and needed mollycoddling for several weeks at the start of the season proper.

Fortunately there’s an easy solution. On your weekly apiary winter checks (or however frequent they are) push a bent piece of wire into the entrance, turn it to project up through the vertical part of the entrance slot and slide it along the full width of the hive to ensure the entrance is clear. Any old piece of wire should be suitable as long as it it short enough not to foul the bottom of the frames. For a few years I used an easily-lost piece of wire coat hanger. More recently I added a handle to a stainless steel bicycle spoke … with a little hook so it can hung up in a “safe place” (which, of course, is no guarantee whatsoever that it won’t be lost 🙁 ).

Kewl floor unblocker ...

Kewl floor unblocker …

Floor change

Old floors …

Old floors …

At the beginning of the season it’s a good idea to move colonies onto a fresh, clean floor, removing the old one for cleaning and sterilising. Having built a number of new Kewl floors this winter I made did the floor change a fortnight or so ago. A couple of colonies had clear evidence of a chalk brood problem which should be rectified by requeening later in the season. The new Kewl floors have a Correx landing board with a large gap separating it from the hive stand. Colonies that had previously had floors with other types of entrance, particularly where the bees had landed on the stand and walked up and in, experienced some confusion with the new raised entrance. To avoid the bees clustering under the floor I pinned a strip of DPM (damp proof membrane – used to wrap the hives up in winter to avoid woodpecker damage) across the front and so encouraged them to choose the correct route home.

Kewl floor - fixed ...

Kewl floor – fixed …