Category Archives: Smokers

The bee bag

Synopsis: Preparing for the season ahead should include making sure you have everything you need in the bee bag for apiary visits, but that you are not carrying things you never use. A place for everything, and everything in its place … at least until swarming starts.

Introduction

I think there’s sometimes a misconception that those who write (or talk) about a topic are the most knowledgeable on that topic.

After all, why else would they feel qualified to write?

And, if they’re knowledgeable – even if not all knowing – then they also have the luxury of time (to write, or to enjoy the scenery or whatever). Rather than repeatedly struggling doing the wrong thing, they briefly and efficiently do the right thing™.

Their incisive and unwavering decision making, coupled with a calm and measured confidence, means difficult tasks are made easier and routine activities are rendered trivial.

And this efficiency of thought and activity is complemented by an impressive level of organisation and preparedness. After all, how else would they be able to achieve what they do, without being prepared for all eventualities … and have the tools immediately to hand that are needed?

I’m sure that’s true of some who write … and it might even be true of some who write and talk about beekeeping … but it’s not true of me 🙁

At least, not often.

I might write about how I did something, making it sound trivial and unexciting:

“… pick the queen up by her wings and place her in the JzBz cage, add a few nurse bees to keep her company and place the cage safely in your pocket.”

But I omitted to describe the times I couldn’t find a JzBz cage, or got stung repeatedly grabbing workers, or let the virgin queen fly around the shed for 5 minutes before she disappeared out of the door.

Or when the cage fell through the hole in my pocket (caused by a razor sharp hive tool), down my trouser leg and into my boot.

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach

The luxury of writing means I can skip over those things that make me sound like the author of the bestselling Slapstick beekeeping, and instead present a coherent vision of what beekeeping should be like.

Think of it as a sort of sanitised version of beekeeping, with the swearing bowdlerised and the Charlie Chaplin-style antics omitted to make me look vaguely competent.

Not, I should add, that every visit to the apiary looks like Laurel and Hardy 1 in beesuits.

I do my best to learn from my mistakes, or at least not forget them, and – every winter – I incrementally improve my organisation for the season ahead.

I review my notes from the season just finished and I make general, and sometimes very specific, plans for the following year. If these necessitate buying or building new equipment then I try and do that during the seemingly interminable short winter days (if that isn’t oxymoronic).

This winter this has involved completing my queen rearing incubator and building some cell punches for queen rearing.

Cell punches

The organisation involves preparing this new ‘stuff’ as well as sorting out some of the accumulated debris from the season just finished.

End of season squalor – yes, that is a small bag of fondant buried in the bee bag

In particular, I sort through, tidy and hopefully streamline, the contents of the bee bag.

The beekeepers box

When you visit the apiary there are a few tools you will almost always need – for example, a smoker and a hive tool. You’ll need something combustible in the smoker and some way of igniting it. And you should have something to carry that lot in that is itself non-flammable, so you don’t risk self-immolation when driving back home.

I’ve discussed the fireproof box I use for my smoker previously. I now keep smoker fuel and a kitchen ‘creme brûlée’ blowtorch in a clear plastic box. Bitter experience – you can guess what – taught me that a clear box enables me to easily check the blowtorch is present before I drive 150 miles to the apiary.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

The easiest – and most hygienic – way to store your hive tool is in a strong solution of washing soda in the apiary. It’s always there and it’s always clean.

But there are times in the apiary when you’ll need a lot more than a smoker and a hive tool.

I’m not referring here to the large items – the spare brood boxes, the supers, the split boards or queen excluders 2.

Instead, I’m referring to the smaller stuff … like the JzBz cage to put the queen into, or the (wickedly sharp) scissors to clip her wing or the Posca pen to mark her.

Just add fingers and thumb for a complete queen marking and clipping kit

Beekeepers have come up with all sorts of fancy carrying boxes made from wood or metal. Jim Berndt described a typical one in Bee Culture a few years ago. Built from 3/4” pine, and with space for the smoker, frame brush, frame hanger and any number of other things.

It must have weighed a ton.

Jim admitted as much when he acknowledged that he’d build the next one from thinner wood.

I’ve seen boxes with integrated seats, or was it a seat with an integrated beekeepers box?

The bee bag

But anything rigid, by definition, lacks flexibility.

If there’s not space in the box for Thorne’s-must-have-gadget-of-2022 (something you only need every other month in the apiary) then you have to carry it separately. If there is space in the box but you only need Thorne’s-must-have-gadget-of-2022 twice a season then the box is heavier and bigger than it need be.

All of which can be avoided by using a cheap bag to carry the necessities down to the apiary.

And what could be cheaper than a supermarket ‘bag for life’ ? 3

A bag for life … or at least 3 years of beekeeping

These bags are light and easy to carry, with strong woven handles. Although they aren’t cavernous (they never have quite enough space for my shopping) they are certainly big enough to carry the essentials, and not-so-essentials, to and from the apiary.

Importantly, they are strong.

Being open and flexible you can, if needed, squeeze all sorts of additional things in.

Although I described them as cheap a better term would be inexpensive. I think they started at about 25p, but they seem to be £1 to £1.25 now.

Being made of polypropylene they are easily rinsed out or wiped clean should they get dirty.

And they will get dirty.

And since they are so cheap inexpensive, it’s not the end of the world if you melt them with the smoker or perforate them with a hive tool.

I’ve used this sort of bag for my beekeeping – not the same one, though they tend to last several seasons – for many years. The Tesco’s centenary was in 2019 and the bag above will certainly get me through to the end of the 2022 season.

Bringing order to entropy

Each winter I sort through the debris that accumulates at the bottom of the bag. I clean everything and get rid of anything that’s been carried around unused for the season. Finally, I replenish the perishables, the worn out or the irreparably damaged.

And then I’m ready for the season ahead 🙂

I don’t just carry around a bag containing a pick’n’mix of jumbled beekeeping paraphernalia 4. The items in the bag are separated into logically-labelled containers for my beekeeping activities.

And long, much repeated and enjoyable field testing has shown that the very best type of containers to use are those designed for ice cream 🙂

Not, I hasten to add, your ’fancy Dan’ Ben and Jerry’s ‘£5 for a couple of scoops’ ice cream in those pathetic cardboardy tubs 5.

Instead, what you need are plastic, square or rectangular (for efficient packing) and with well-fitting lids. Two litre containers are much better than anything much smaller, not just because they’re more fun to empty, but also because they are likely to themselves house smaller containers.

I’m still using some 2.5 litre containers that were sold full of Lidl Gelatelli Vanilla (see the photo above). The ice cream was pretty good but they appear to have stopped making it 6.

I’m sure, if you work hard, you’ll be able to find something equally good … it’s a thankless task, but someone has to do it 😉

What’s in the bag?

I can get everything small I need into two of these boxes – one marked ‘daily’ and the other labelled ‘queen stuff’.

I like to keep the labelling simple to avoid confusion.

Daily

These are the things I use, or might use, on every trip to the apiary:

  • a box containing drawing pins (difficult to use with gloves) and map tacks (easy to use with gloves), together with the red numbered disks I use to label the queen in the hive 7.

A variety of pins, some numbers for queens (see text) and two tubes for sampling weird-looking bees

  • numbers for the outside of the hive
  • marker pen for labelling anything except queens
  • a wired queen excluder cleaner 8 and an uncapping fork for checking drone brood for Varroa
  • spirit level for levelling a hive. This is important if you use foundationless frames. Once you’ve tried to rearrange the frames in an wonky hive full of drawn foundationless frames you’ll realise how useful a small spirit level is 9

Not needed on a daily basis admittedly, but kept in the ‘daily’ box – QE scraper, level and uncapping fork

  • a selection of closed cell foam blocks to hold frames together when transporting hives. These are simply wedged tightly between the top bar and the sidewall of the hive and thereby minimise the risk of crushing the queen (or other bees) when moving the hive.
  • screw cap sample tubes, just in case I see any weird, sick or odd looking bees during inspections
  • a couple of JzBz queen cages
  • digital voice recorder for taking hive notes

Closed cell foam blocks.

Queen stuff

Since a lot of my season is taken up with queen rearing this box contains both the tools for queen rearing and the used-less-than-daily tools needed for marking and clipping the queen:

  • queen marking cage (I like the push and twist ones best, as you can tell from the amount of propolis and paint covering mine)
  • dressmakers snips (Fiskar’s) for clipping the queen. These are very sharp. Don’t leave them in you bee suit pocket or you will get injured 🙁
  • Posca marking pens. Check these in the winter and make sure they haven’t dried up or gone super-gloopy. Either outcome makes for frustration when marking the queen. I only routinely use white, blue or yellow and buy whatever is cheapest or easiest to get, and use that colour for the season (or until the pen expires)
  • tools for grafting larvae and, new this season, the cell punches shown above

Grafting tools. Of these, only the middle (a 000 sable artists brush) one is needed.

  • USB rechargeable head torch (for use when grafting 10 )
  • magnifying glasses 11
  • more JzBz queen cages and some Nicot cages to protect soon-to-emerge cells

What’s in the bag but not in the box?

Inevitably, not everything fits into one of these two conveniently-sized ice cream containers 12.

The base of the bag contains some folded sheets of newspaper which are used when uniting colonies. Before the broadsheets became the same size as the Daily Mail they were preferable as a single sheet would cover a brood box. Now they’ve been shrunk you have to overlap two sheets.

Or read the Financial Times … and there’s very little point in me doing that 🙁

Unstapled newspaper … pictures of an enthusiastic Angela Merkel contrasting nicely with a John Cleese stereotype.

Avoid newspapers that are stapled.

Inevitably when pulling them apart (in a stiff breeze, with an open hive ready to be united) they tear at the staple, increasing your frustration and making you look more like Laurel or Hardy.

I also carry a couple of pieces of fibreglass insect mesh. This stuff is sold by the metre to cover open windows and so keep mosquitoes out, but is ideal for covering an open hive when moving colonies on a hot day. A Thorne’s travelling screen costs £19.40 and works no better than a piece of this mesh which costs £19 less 13. By some sort of miracle I’ve ended up with two colours of mesh, one for standard brood boxes and one for nucs 14.

Fibreglass mesh for use as travel screens (that’s £19 you owe me).

I wear gloves while beekeeping so the bag contains a box of disposable long cuffed latex-type gloves for routine use. There is also be a pair of Marigold washing up gloves for any colonies that are a bit rambunctious 15.

At least there should be a pair of Marigold’s in there … something else to order.

I try and keep a couple of hive straps in the bag.

Finally, you can never have enough gaffer tape … so there’s always a roll in the bee bag. It’s ideal for temporarily sealing hive entrances, strapping nucleus roofs down for transport or patching up holes in the bee bag.

Rejects for 2022

Having sorted through the bee bag I collected a small pile of stuff that wasn’t used last season.

And don’t let me see you in there again! Rejects from the bee bag.

In the case of the ‘crown of thorns’ queen marking torture chamber I don’t think I’ve used it for years. I’ve no idea why it was still in the bag. There’s probably more of my blood on the needle-sharp points than there is paint on the mesh … and there’s clearly no point in me carrying it around for another year.

The awful ‘Chinese’ grafting tool goes out as well, as do some JzBz queen cups, a dodgy pink sparkly Posca pen 16, an ill-fitting pair of magnifying glasses and a shonky magnifier.

And that ‘clip catcher’ … again, almost never used.

Elementary my dear Watson

As I slowly approach very (very) early middle age 17 my presbyopia is becoming more noticeable. I’ve needed magnifying glasses for grafting for several years and, increasingly, in poor light can struggle to see eggs. Unfortunately, about half my beekeeping is done in sub-optimal lighting … the colonies I keep in the bee shed are easy to inspect, whatever the weather, but the lighting is far from ideal.

LED hand magnifier (with some Nicot cups for using when testing if a colony is queenright).

Having chucked out one magnifying glass I’ve found an LED illuminated magnifying glass to try this season. This has a good quality glass lens and a dazzlingly bright set of warm/cool/both LED’s around the rim, powered by a rechargeable lithium battery.

Let there be light. USB rechargeable LED magnifier.

With a choice between wearing reading glasses for all my colony inspections – and inevitably tripping over a super I fail to notice at my feet – or periodically using a magnifying glass if the lighting is poor, I’ve chosen the latter route.

I’ll report back later in the season whether it was the right route to choose.

I’m ready, but the season isn’t

With the unwanted stuff discarded, and the wanted stuff checked and tidied, the bee bag is now ready for the season ahead. I’ve ordered some new Posca pens, charged the magnifying glass and the digital voice recorder …

I’ll probably still look like Fred Karno when I’m floundering around in the apiary, but at least I’ll have the things I need with me.

Unfortunately, it currently looks as though the season isn’t ready for me.

Where did all that lovely weather go?

The last 7-10 days have been stunning, but it’s currently 3°C and snowing 🙁

Which is probably fortunate as I still have a couple of hundred frames to build …


Note

I first wrote about the bee bag way back in November 2016. Time has passed, the contents of the bag have changed a bit (though the jokes are largely the same) so that page now redirects here.

Smell the fear

With Halloween just around the corner it seemed appropriate to have a fear-themed post.

How do frightened – or even apprehensive – people respond to bees?

And how do bees respond to them?

Melissophobia is the fear of bees. Like the synonym apiphobia, the word is not in the dictionary 1 but is a straightforward compounding of the Greek μέλισσα or Latin apis (both meaning honey bee) and phobos for fear.

Melissophobia is a real psychiatric diagnosis. Although people who start beekeeping are probably not melissophobic, they are often very apprehensive when they first open a colony.

If things go well this apprehension disappears, immediately or over time as their experience increases.

If things go badly they might develop melissophobia and stop beekeeping altogether.

Even relatively experienced beekeepers may be apprehensive when inspecting a very defensive colony. As I have discussed elsewhere, there are certain times during the season when colonies can become defensive. These include when queenless, during lousy weather or when a strong nectar flow ends.

In addition, some colonies are naturally more defensive than others.

Some could even be considered aggressive, making unprovoked attacks as you approach the hive.

A defensive response is understandable if the colony is being threatened. Evolution over eons will have led to acquisition of appropriate responses to dissuade natural predators such as bears and honey badgers.

I’m always careful (and possibly a little bit apprehensive) when looking closely at a completely unknown colony – such as these hives discovered when walking in the Andalucian hills.

If Carlsberg did apiaries ...

Apiary in Andalucia

How do bees detect things – like beekeepers or bears – that they might need to mount a defensive response against?

Ignore the bear

Bees have four senses; sight, smell, touch and taste. Of these, I’ve briefly discussed sight previously and they clearly don’t touch or taste an approaching bear 2 … so I’ll focus on smell.

Could they use smell to detect the scent of an approaching human or bear that is apprehensive of being stung badly?

Let’s forget the grizzly bear 3 for now. At over 200 kg and standing 2+ metres tall I doubt they’re afraid of anything.

Let’s instead consider the apprehensive beekeeper.

Do bees respond to the smell of a frightened human (beekeeper or civilian)?

This might seem a simple question, but it raises some interesting additional questions.

  • Is there a scent of fear in humans?
  • Can bees detect this smell?
  • Have bees evolved to generate defensive responses to this or similar smells?

If two beekeepers inspect the same colony and one considers them aggressive and the other does not, is that due to the beekeepers ‘smelling’ different?

I don’t know the answers to some of these questions, but it’s an interesting topic to think about the stimuli that bees have evolved to respond to.

The scent of fear

This is the easy bit.

Is there a distinctive scent associated with fear in humans?

The Scream by Edvard Munch (1895 pastel version)

Using some rather unpleasant psychological testing researchers have determined that there is a smell produced in sweat secretions that is associated with fear. Interestingly, the smell alone appears not to be detectable. The female subjects tested 4 were unable to consciously discriminate the smell from a control neutral odour.

However, the ‘fear pheromone’ alone caused changes in facial expression associated with fright and markedly reinforced responses to visual stimuli that induced fear.

Females could respond to the fear pheromone produced by males (and vice versa) and earlier MRI studies (involving significantly less unpleasant experiments) had shown that this smell was alone able to induce changes in the amygdala, the region in the brain associated with emotional processing.

So, there is a scent of fear in humans. We can’t consciously detect it, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

Can bees detect it?

Can bees smell the scent of fear?

This is where things get a lot less certain.

I’m not aware that there have been any studies on whether bees can definitively identify the fear pheromone produced by humans.

To conduct this study in a scientifically-controlled manner you would need to know precisely what the pheromone was. It would then be tested in parallel with one or several irrelevant, neutral or related (but different) compounds. In each instance you would have to identify a response in the bee that indicated the fear pheromone had been detected.

All of which is not possible as we don’t definitely know what the fear pheromone is chemically.

We do know it’s present in the sweat of frightened humans … but that’s about it. This makes the experiment tricky. Comparisons would also have to be made with sweat secretions present in the same 5 human when not frightened.

And what response would you look for? Usually bees are trained to respond in a proboscis extension test. In this a bee extends its proboscis in response to a recognised smell or taste.

But, as none of this has been done, there’s little point in speculating further.

So let’s ask the question the other way round.

Would bees be expected to smell the scent of fear?

Smell is very significant to bees.

They have an extremely sensitive sense of smell, reflected in their ability to detect certain molecules as dilute as one or two parts per trillion. Since many people struggle with visualising what that means it’s like detecting a grain of salt in an Olympic swimming pool 6.

Part of the reason we know that smell is so important to bees is because evolution has provided them with a very large number of odorant receptors.

Odorant receptors are the proteins that detect smells. They bind to chemical molecules from the ‘smell’ and these trigger a cellular response of some kind 7. Different odorant receptors have different specificities, binding and responding to the molecules that are present in one or more odours.

Odorant receptor diversity and sensitivity

Bees have 170 odorant receptors, more than three times the number in fruit flies, and double that in mosquitoes. Smell is clearly very important to bees 8.

This is perhaps not surprising when you consider the role of odours within the hive. These include the queen and brood pheromones and the chemicals used for kin recognition 9.

In addition, bees are able to find and use a very wide range of plants as sources of pollen and nectar and smell is likely to contribute to this in many ways.

Finally, we know that bees can detect and respond to a wide range of other smells. Even those present at very low levels which they may not have been exposed to previously. For example Graham Turnbull and his research team in St Andrews, in collaborative studies with Croatian beekeepers, are training bees to detect landmines 10 from the faintest ‘whiff’ of TNT they produce. This deserves a post of its own.

So, while we don’t know that bees could detect a fear pheromone, there’s a good chance that they should be able to.

Evolution of defensive responses

We’re back to some rather vague arm waving here I’m afraid.

In a rather self-fulfilling manner we don’t know if bees have evolved a defensive response to the fear pheromone of humans as – for reasons elaborated above – we don’t actually know whether they do respond to the fear pheromone.

We could again ask this question in a slightly different way.

Might bees be expected to have evolved a defensive response to the fear pheromone?

Long before we developed the poly nuc or the fiendishly clever Flow Hive, humans have been attracted by honey and have exploited bees to harvest it.

The ancient Egyptians kept bees in managed hives over 5000 years ago.

However, we can be reasonably certain that humans provided suitable nesting sites (which we’d now call bait hives) to attract swarms from wild colonies well before that.

But we’ve exploited bees for tens or hundreds of thousands of years more than that.

The ‘Woman(Man) of Bicorp” honey gathering (c. 8000 BC)

There are examples of Late Stone Age (or Upper Paleolithic c. 50,000 to 10,000 years ago) rock art depicting bees and honey from across the globe, with some of the most famous being in the Altamira (Spain) cave drawings from c. 25,000 years ago.

Survival of the fittest

And the key thing about many of these interactions with honey bees is that they are likely to have been rather one-sided. Honey hunting tends to be destructive and results in the demise of the colony – the tree is felled, the brood nest is ripped apart, the stores (and often the brood) are consumed.

None of this involves carefully caging the queen in advance 🙁

This is a strong selective pressure.

Colonies that responded earlier or more strongly to the smell of an apprehensive approaching hunter gatherer might be spared. These would survive to reproduce (swarm). Literally, the survival of the fittest.

All of this would argue that it might be expected that bees would evolve odorant receptors capable of detecting the fear pheromone of humans.

There’s no fire without smoke

There are (at least) two problems with this reasoning.

The first problem is that humans acquired the ability to use fire. And, as the idiom almost says, there’s no fire without smoke. Humans were regularly using fire 150-200,000 years ago, with further evidence stretching back at least one million years that pre-humans (Homo erectus) used fire.

And, if they were using fire you can be sure they would be using smoke to ‘calm’ the bees millenia before being depicted doing so in Egyptian hieroglyphs ~5,000 years ago.

It seems reasonable to expect that the use of smoke would mask the detection of fear pheromones, in much the same way that it masks the alarm pheromone when you give them a puff from your trusty Dadant.

The other problem is that it might be expected that the Mesolithic honey hunters had probably ‘got the job’ precisely because they weren’t afraid of bees. In extant hunter gatherer communities it’s known that there are specialists that have a particular aptitude for the role. Perhaps these beekeepersrobbers produce little of no fear pheromone in the first place?

What about other primates?

It’s well know that non-human primates (NHP’s), like chimpanzees and bonobo, love honey. They love it so much that they are responsible for an entire research area studying tool use by chimps.

Bonobo ‘fishing’ for termites using a tool (I couldn’t find a suitable one robbing honey)

Perhaps NHP’s produce a fear pheromone similar to that of humans? Since they haven’t learned to use fire (and they are very closely related to humans) bees may have evolved to respond to primate fear pheromone(s), and – by extension – to those of humans.

However, chimpanzees and related primates prefer to steal honey from stingless bees like Meliponula bocandei. The only information I could find suggested they avoided Apis mellifera, or “used longer sticks as tools“.

Perhaps not such a strong selective pressure after all …

More arm waving

A lot of the above is half-baked speculation interspersed with a smattering of evolutionary theory.

Bees clearly respond in different ways to different beekeepers. I’ve watched beekeepers retreat from a defensive colony which – later on the same training day – were beautifully calm when inspected by a different beekeeper.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

Although this might have been due to differences in the production of fear pheromones, it’s clear that the bees are also using other senses to detect potential threats to the colony.

Look carefully at how outright beginners, intermediate and expert beekeepers move their hands when inspecting a colony.

The tyro goes slow and steady. Everything ‘by the book’. Not calm, but definitely very controlled.

The expert goes a lot faster. However, there’s no banging frames down, there are no sudden movements, the hands move beside the brood box rather than over it. Calm, controlled and confident.

In contrast, although the “knowing just enough to be dangerous” intermediate beekeeper is confident, they are also rushed and a bit clumsy. Hands move back and forwards over the box, movements are rapid, frames are jarred … or dropped. A bee sneaks inside the cuff and stings the unprotected wrist. Ouch!

“That’s an aggressive colony. Better treat it with care.”

You see what I mean about arm waving?

I strongly suspect movement and vibration trigger defensive responses to a much greater extent than the detection of fear pheromones in humans (if they’re detected at all).

Closing thoughts

You’ll sometimes read that bees respond badly to aftershave or perfumes. This makes sense to me only if the scent resembles one that the bees have evolved a defensive response against.

Don’t go dabbing Parfum de honey badger behind your ears before starting the weekly inspection.

Mellivora capensis – the honey badger. Believe me, you’re not worth it.

But why would they react aggressively to an otherwise unknown smell?

After all, they experience millions of different – and largely harmless – smells every day. Bees inhabit an environment that is constantly changing. One more unknown new scent does not immediately indicate danger. There would be an evolutionary cost to generating a defensive response to something that posed no danger.

And a final closing thought for you to dwell on …

Humans have probably been using fire to suppress honey bee colony aggression for hundreds of thousands of years.

Why haven’t bees evolved defensive responses to the smell of smoke? 11

Happy Halloween 🙂


 

Late season miscellany

I was struggling for a title for the post this week. It’s really just a rambling discourse on a variety of different and loosely related, or unrelated, topics.

Something for everyone perhaps?

Or nothing for anyone?

Beekeeping myths – bees don’t store fondant’

I only feed fondant in the autumn. I discussed how and why a month ago. Inevitably some people question this practice.

I’ve heard that bees don’t store fondant, don’t they just eat it when needed?

‘X’ (a commercial/old/decorated/opinionated beekeeper) assures me that bees do not store fondant.

Many beekeepers, even experienced beekeepers, seem to be under the impression that bees will not store fondant.

All gone!

So, let’s correct that ‘fact’ for starters, and file it forever where it belongs … in 101 Beekeeping Myths.

I added a single 12.5 kg block of fondant to all my colonies on the 28th of August. I checked them again on the 2nd of October (i.e. exactly 5 weeks later). About 80% had completely emptied the bag of fondant. All that remained was the empty blue plastic ‘husk’.

The few that had not completely emptied the bag were ~75% through it and I expect it to be all gone in a week or so.

Blue plastic ‘husks’ from ~60 kg of fondant.

So where has the fondant gone?

There are only two options 1. They’ve either eaten the fondant and used it to rear new brood, or stored it.

That amount of fondant is far more than they could consume and not rear lots of brood. So, it’s gone somewhere …

The weather has been OK. Bees are still gathering pollen and a small amount of late season nectar. They’ve not been locked away for a month just scoffing the fondant to keep warm.

They have been rearing brood – see below – but in ever-diminishing amounts, so this is unlikely to account for those empty blue bags.

But the biggest giveaway is the fact that the hives are now very heavy and almost every frame is packed solid with stores – again, see below.

The hives are actually very much heavier than they were at the end of August.

There’s not enough late season nectar flow to account for this increase in weight. There are also empty fondant bags on the top bars.

Although correlation does not necessarily imply causation, in this case, it does 😉

Bees do store fondant 2. It’s just sugar, why wouldn’t they?

Wall to wall brood stores

Out of interest I opened a couple of colonies to check the levels of stores and brood.

I only did this on colonies that had finished eating storing the fondant. Assuming the hive is heavy enough I remove the empty bag and the queen excluder from these, prior to closing the hive up for the winter. If they are still underweight I add another half block.

And another … all gone!

A 10-frame colony in the bee shed was typical. This was in a Swienty National poly brood box. These colonies are oriented ‘warm way’ and inspected from the back i.e. the opposite side of the hive to the entrance.

The first six frames were packed with capped stores.

Nothing else.

No brood, no gaps, nothing. Solid, heavy frames of nothing but stores.

The seventh frame had a small patch of eggs, larvae and a few open cells. In total an area no larger than my rather modestly sized mobile phone 3. Other than some pollen, the rest of the frame was filled with stores, again all capped.

Frame eight had a mobile-phone sized patch of sealed brood on both sides of the frame, with the remainder being filled with stores.

The ninth frame looked like the seventh and I didn’t bother checking the last frame in the box as the front face of it looked like it was just packed with stores.

I accept that the far side of that frame could have been a huge sheet of sealed brood, but I doubt it. This colony hadn’t been opened for more than a month, so the brood nest had not been rearranged by my amateur fumbling … it’s just as the bees had arranged it.

So, in total, the colony had less brood (eggs, larvae and capped) than would comfortably fit on a single side of one frame i.e. less than one twentieth of the comb area available to them. The rest, almost every cell, was sealed stores.

On the basis that a capped full National brood frame contains ~2.3 kg of stores 4 then this brood box contained about 22 kg of stores, which should be sufficient to get them through the winter.

Apivar strips

I treated all these colonies with Apivar at the same time as I fed them. Apivar needs to be present for 6-10 weeks, so it is still too soon to remove the strips.

However, it’s worth checking the strips haven’t been propolised up, or got embedded into the comb they’re adjacent to.

Apivar strip on wire hanger

Apivar is a contact miticide. The bees need to walk back and forwards over the strips. Therefore, if parts of the strips are gummed up with propolis, or integrated into comb, the bees will not have access.

Apivar strip partially gummed up with wax and propolis

You may remember that I tried hanging the strips on wire twists this season (see photo), rather than using the integrated plastic ‘spike’ to attach them to the comb. These wire hangers have worked well, for two reasons:

  1. The strips are more or less equidistant between the flanking combs. They are therefore less likely to get integrated into the comb 5, consequently …
  2. They are a lot easier to remove 🙂

I checked all the strips, scraping down any with the hive tool that had been coated with wax or propolis. This should ensure they retain maximal miticidal activity until it is time to remove them 6.

Scraped clean Apivar strip … ready for a couple more weeks of mite killing

And, it’s worth stressing the importance of removing the strips after the treatment period ends. Not doing so leaves ever-reducing levels of Amitraz (the active ingredient) in the hive through the winter … a potential mechanism for selecting Amitraz-resistant mites.

Au revoir and thanks for the memories

Other than removing the Apivar strips in a couple of weeks there’s no more beekeeping to do this year. And that task barely counts as beekeeping … it can be done whatever the weather and takes about 15 seconds.

As stressed above, it is an important task, but it’s not really an opportunity to appreciate the bees very much.

It must be done, whatever the weather.

Last Friday was a lovely warm autumn afternoon. The sun was out, the breeze was gentle and the trees were starting to show their fiery autumn colours. The bees were busy, almost self-absorbed, and were untroubled by my visit. It was a perfect way to wrap up the beekeeping year.

Like Fred commented last week, these last visits to the apiaries are always tinged with melancholy. Even in a year in which I’ve done almost no beekeeping, I’ve enjoyed working with the bees. It’s at this time of the season I realise that it’s a long time until April when I’ll next open a hive.

And, when you think about it, the active part of the season is shorter than the inactive part in northern latitudes 🙁

It was reassuring to see strong, healthy colonies showing no defensiveness or aggression. My split them and let them get on with it approach to queen rearing this season seems to have gone OK. With 2020 queens in most of the colonies I’ll hope (perhaps in vain) for reduced swarming next spring. I’m pretty certain that the colonies that were not requeened this year (under non-ideal conditions) generated more honey because there was no brood break while the new queen got out and mated.

Securely strapped up for the winter.

I’m confident that the colonies have sufficient stores and are all queenright. The mite levels are low – some much lower than others as I will discuss in the future – and the hives are securely strapped up for the winter ahead.

There’s no smoke without fire

And now for something completely different.

I’ve acquired a third main apiary this year and, because of its location, cannot carry equipment back and forwards all the time. I’ve therefore had to duplicate some items.

A little smoker

I didn’t want to shell out £60+ on a yet another Dadant smoker so dug out my first ever smoker from the back of the shed. I think this was originally purchased from Thorne’s, though not by me as I acquired it (at least) second hand, and it’s not listed in their catalogue any longer.

It’s a bit small and it has a tendency to go out, either through running out of fuel or simply because the ‘resting’ airflow is rather poor.

Consequently I often have to relight it.

I’m a big fan of using a blowtorch to light a smoker. If you get an auto-start model they work whatever the weather.

Or, more specifically, whatever the wind.

Trying to relight a recalcitrant smoker on a windy day with matches in the presence of a stroppy colony is not my idea of fun.

Of course, my colonies aren’t stroppy, but if they were going to be it would be when all I had was a box of matches in a strong breeze 😉

Rather than buying an additional blowtorch I instead purchased a kitchen or chef’s blowtorch, designed to produce the perfect crème brûlée. It was a ‘Lightning Deal’ for under £7 from Amazon. Even at full price it’s still only half the price of a cheap DIY blowtorch.

Blowtorch

It’s easy to fill, lights first time and immediately produces a focused blue flame. In contrast, my DIY blowtorch needs to warm up for 30 s. to change from billowing yellow 7 to an intense blue flame.

The chef’s blowtorch is also small enough to fit inside the same box I store/carry smoker fuel in. There is a lock to either prevent inadvertent ignition, or to produce an ‘always on’ flame.

If it survives the adverse environment of my bee bag it will be money well spent.

If not, I’ll make some crème brûlée 😉

There’s no smoke without fuel

Thorne’s had a late summer sale a fortnight or so ago. My order was finally shipped and arrived during a week when I was away and it was raining (two facts that are not unconnected … I’d disappeared to check my bees on the other side of the country where the weather was better).

The order sat outside in the rain and looked rather forlorn when I returned. Nothing was water damaged, not least because of the huge amounts of shredded packing protecting the contents.

Drying tonight

This stuff makes good smoker fuel. You just tear a handful off and stuff it in the smoker. It’s easy to light, smoulders well and doesn’t smell too acrid.

At least, once it’s dry it has all those desirable characteristics.

It’s now laid out drying on top of my canoe in the shed. I’m not even sure how they got so much in the delivery box. It looks like several cubic feet laid out like that, possibly enough for all of next year.

Waxworks

Although I’ve singularly failed to cycle a lot of old dark frames out of my colonies this year, I have managed to accumulate a lot of frames that need melting down. Some are old and dark, others are all drone comb in foundationless frames, and some are from a colony with a dud queen. I’d also accumulated quite a bit of burr or brace comb during my few beekeeping days of the season.

There’s not a lot of wax in most brood frames and the wax you can extract is rather dark. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to trade in for fresh foundation and makes very satisfactory firelighters.

Thorne’s Easi-Steam in action

And, after you extract the wax and clean up the frames you can reuse them. Simply add fresh foundation and you save yourself the drudgery of frame making. Result 😉

Or, if you use foundationless frames, you can just reuse them. Even better 🙂

A couple of years ago I treated myself to a Thorne’s Easi-Steam. I bought it without the steam generator as I already had one from my earlier homemade wax extractor 8. With the help of a mate who is a plumber I got the right sort of brass connectors to fit my steam generator to the Easi-Steam and I was ready to go.

Frames and brace comb ready for extraction

The Easi-Steam consists of a metal roof, a deep lower eke and a mesh and metal floor that needs a solid wooden floor underneath (which isn’t provided). You put it all together, add a brood box (almost) full of frames and fire up the steamer … then watch as the wax drips out into a bucket. ‘Almost’ because the brass connector stands proud and fouls the top bars of the frames 9, so you need to leave a gap.

It works well and leaks less than my homemade extractor. The recovered wax is remelted, cleaned up briefly, refiltered and is then ready for trading in or turning into firelighters.

This is all small scale stuff. With an oil drum, a big heater and an old duvet cover you can do much more, much faster. But I don’t need that capacity, or have the space to store the gear for the 363 days of the year it’s not being used.

The finished product

Here’s some I made earlier

There’s a long winter ahead and I think the time invested in wax extraction is more than justified when I …

  • Return from Thorne’s of Newburgh with 200 sheets of premium foundation having ‘paid’ with a just few kilograms of wax
  • Ignite another pile of felled rhododendron logs with a homemade fire lighter
  • Use the time I would have been making frames to do something more enjoyable 10

 

Abelo smoker box

Small Dadant smoker

Small Dadant smoker

There’s no smoke without fire.

That’s usually considered to be an idiom.

Unless you are a beekeeper, in which case it’s probably also a proverb 1.

A large, properly fuelled and well-lit smoker will produce smoke for a very long time. The right sort of fuel and a few puffs on the bellows, perhaps with an infrequent top-up, will keep a smoker going for several hours.

A smoker that’s “gone out” can often be resurrected with a few vigorous puffs. Indeed, after finishing in one apiary, stuffing the smoker nozzle with a twist of damp grass and driving to another apiary, it’s not unusual to be able to restart it without relighting it.

Which, when you think about it, isn’t very safe.

Too hot to handle

Most half-decent smokers have some sort of heat shield or cage. These stop you inadvertently melting your gloves or burning your fingers. Some heat shields are better than others but, frankly, none are really good.

The cage on the Dadant smokers I use is ‘barely there’ underneath the smoker. Polystyrene and Correx roofs are easily melted if you’re stupid enough to stand the smoker on them.

I am 🙁

And that also means that car upholstery can be damaged if you don’t ensure the smoker has cooled down before packing it away.

I’m reasonably careful about this, but it’s easy to overlook things when in a hurry or distracted. In the past, through inattentiveness, I’ve returned to the car to find it filling with smoke 2 and periodically stories circulate about a beekeepers setting their car/van alight when transporting smokers 3.

Abelo smoker box

All this explains why I was so grateful to receive the gift of a smart metal Abelo smoker box when I recently gave an evening talk at a beekeeping association.

An ideal Christmas gift for a beekeeper

An ideal Christmas gift for a beekeeper

The box is well designed and amply big enough to take the larger of the two Dadant smokers (which is one of the largest smokers on the market). It has a fold-flat handle on the top and a small, but secure, catch to hold the lid closed.

The base of the box (not shown in the pictures) is recessed by about half an inch. This means that a hot smoker cannot directly transmit heat through the metal to whatever the box is sitting on.

Finally, the inner rim of the lid has a strip of draught sealant around the edge. A lit smoker placed in the box should go out pretty quickly due to lack of oxygen.

Could it be improved? Smokers go out faster when laid on their sides. In this box (unlike the one used by Ron Miksha) the smoker stands upright … unless I lay the entire box on its side I suppose.

It’s midwinter. It’s a month since I last opened a box of bees and it’ll be at least another three months until I fire up the smoker again and inspect my next colony.

However, when I do I’ll be able to transport my smoker safely between apiaries.


Colophon

There’s no smoke without fire was first used in the 14th Century, appeared in collections of proverbs from the mid-16th Century and remains current today 4.

If Carlsberg made smokers

They would probably be like this …

Large Dadant smoker

Large Dadant smoker …

Dadant … probably the best smoker in the world.

I was fortunate to be given a large Dadant smoker last summer and have been using it this season. It lights easily, burns evenly and just keeps on going. I can now keep a smoker in each of my larger apiaries without having to carry a hot, smelly fire risk back and forth in the car between inspections. The photo above was taken late October last year … the smoker is starting to look like its smaller relative already …

Small Dadant smoker

Small Dadant smoker

The Dadant smokers are now made with a ‘finger heat guard’ in addition to the cage and this is the model shown by Thorne’s online though I think they actually ship the model without (as shown in the top picture). This is not an inexpensive smoker (c. £60) in the UK … but appreciably less expensive ($43) in the USA.


The autocorrect feature changes Dadant to Dadaist … a reference to the avant-garde art movement in early 20th Century Europe.

Smoker fuel

Dadant smoker

Dadant smoker

A regular topic on the beekeeping forum is smoker fuel … what to use, how to get it to ignite and how to keep it alight. There are as many answers as there are contributors to the threads, actually usually more. Lighting the smoker is part of the ritual of hive inspections, though it’s not always necessary. A plant mister makes a suitable alternative, particularly for small colonies and nucs. For mini-nucs, it’s the only thing I use. However, for large colonies, particularly for large aggressive colonies (which you’re presumably intending to requeen as soon as practical 😉 ), having a lit smoker to hand can provide peace of mind.

Which smoker?

In my limited experience (I’ve only ever owned two), large smokers are easier to light and work both better and longer. With the exception of those that get lost (it happens) or reversed over when leaving the apiary car park (ditto), a good quality smoker should last for many years. I’ve got the smaller of the two Dadant smokers (see image above). I should have probably got the larger one (10 x 4) which is the only model stocked by Thorne’s. At around £50 it’s not cheap, but I expect it to last years more.

Which fuel?

The mother lode

The mother lode …

I use egg boxes for quick inspections. They’re easy to carry, ignite easily and smoulder very well, producing a cool – though perhaps rather acrid – smoke. I usually have one in the bag of stuff I carry to the apiary and – on a calm day – can even be used in the absence of the smoker. Alternatively, for longer inspections I use a mix of wood chips and dried rotten wood. Every year or two I’ll find a tree that’s been blown down in the winter storms, uncovering a rotten core. I collect the wood, dry it in my greenhouse and store it in an old plastic dustbin. I buy chipped wood animal bedding from the local Wilkinsons (where they call them ‘wood shavings‘). A large pack, supplemented with dried rotten wood will comfortably last a full season, which is pretty good value for £2. An old 30 lb honey bucket makes a convenient container to store and carry the wood chips/rotten wood mix in.

Lighting

Fuel bucket

Fuel bucket …

The majority of beekeepers I know use a blowtorch to light their smokers, and with good reason. If you get one with a spark ignition system it will light even in a strong wind. No more struggling with matches while sheltering in the lee of the apiary shed, or cowering in the car boot. A 20 second blast into a part-filled smoker, a few puffs of the bellows followed by topping up of the fuel, should be sufficient for a long session in the apiary. A well-lit Dadant smoker will remain smouldering for 30-40 minutes without attention (for example, as happened this afternoon, while I returned home to collect a spare brood box and frames to perform an emergency Demaree on a colony thinking about going AWOL*). After this period it might need quite a bit of encouragement to produce a good plume of smoke, but a regular couple of puffs of the bellows during the apiary session will keep it ready for immediate use.

Job done ...

Job done …

Periodically you’ll come across nightmare stories about smokers causing car fires … they can remain hot for a long time. Either transport them in a tin box or bucket, or make sure they are well and truly out. I stuff mine with grass immediately I finish inspections, potter about a bit tidying up and put the smoker in the car at the very end, once it’s cool to the touch.

Finally, I recommend you don’t leave a smoker in a car overnight … the smell of smoke permeates everywhere and can cause all sorts of domestic problems if you don’t have a dedicated bee-vehicle 😉


* this was written in mid-May but posting was delayed once queen rearing started

Cheap smoker

Necessity is the mother of invention. I forgot my smoker on a recent trip to an out apiary and had to open a colony (to add fondant) that was livelier than I would have liked. However, I did have some egg boxes and lighter … a scrap of egg box smoulders for a long time and gives more than enough cool smoke to waft along the edge of the cracked open crownboard to calm the bees.

Egg box smoker

Egg box smoker …

You can even leave it sitting on a (metal) hive roof until you need it. This is probably not a good idea if there’s any chance of of causing a fire but in the winter everything around here is too wet to ignite.