Category Archives: Tools

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.

Frames

How have I managed to write over 450 posts without having one specifically dedicated to the bane of every beekeeper’s life … frame building?

Actually, that’s not quite correct.

It’s sometimes the bane of my life 1.

Building frames in the height of the season can be a rather stressful process.

I belatedly realise I need 20 frames for swarm control, or making up new nucs, or simply to replace some grotty old ones.

I’m short of time.

I can’t find the hammer … or the nails … or the foundation 🙁

Perhaps it’s only me that’s so disorganised?

But frame building isn’t always like that, and it doesn’t have to be like that.

When there’s no rush, when you have the right tools for the job and the time to do it properly, it can be quite a pleasant way to spend half an afternoon.

And the winter is the time to build frames, so this seemed a logical time to write this post.

Single use or reuasble?

Frames are a semi-disposable 2 consumable for beekeeping.

At least brood frames are. You’ll need new ones during swarm control and when making increase. These brood frames should then be replaced every 3-4 years, depending upon how dark and manky 3 they are getting.

‘Semi-disposable’ because brood frames can be recycled a few times through the steam wax extractor, but eventually the joints get a bit rickety and they should be consigned to the stove.

Super frames are a bit different because they can be reused year after year. I still have some (frames with drawn comb) in use from my first summer of beekeeping.

However, whether I’m making brood or super frames, I build them in essentially the same way. I also build my foundationless frames in a broadly similar manner.

If you build them properly they will remain square and relatively rigid even after a couple of passes through the steam wax extractor. This makes financial sense as frame costs can quickly escalate if you are not careful.

If you build them the way I describe below, you can put them through the steam wax extractor, push off the ‘nailed only’ bottom bar, scrape back any remaining propolis and wax, add a fresh sheet of foundation and refit the bottom bar.

Tools of the trade

You need somewhere with a reasonable amount of space to work and just a few very unspecialised tools. I like building frames in the garden if it’s warm and dry. The banging 4 is less intrusive for those indoors.

Of course, if you’re (sensibly) building them in midwinter – when you have time and little else to do – then you need to plan things accordingly i.e. not late in the evening, or when the crochet/poker club are meeting downstairs.

Tools of the trade

A sharp knife, a pair of pliers and a small lightweight hammer are the essentials. I use a 110 g (4 oz) cross pein hammer, though anything similar is suitable. Even if you end up using a nail gun for most of the work (see below) you will still need a hammer.

You will be surprised (I was) how much easier it is to build frames with a small hammer like this.

You don’t need force …  you need accuracy.

Every frame requires 11 nails, so a brood box or super-full of frames will mean you’re going to be using it a minimum of 121 times.

So buy and use a lightweight hammer 🙂

And then, after a thousand frames, buy a nail gun and ask yourself “Why didn’t I do this years ago?”.

Tacwise nail gun

Tacwise nail gun …

The Tacwise model I use has worked well, but I know some prefer a compressed air (rather than ‘lecky) powered gun.

I wasn’t joking when I said make a thousand frames first. Frame building is a sort of rite of passage for a beekeeper. You won’t make better frames with a nail gun, but you will make them faster (and more noisily).

I also suggest you use some wood glue 5 such as the blue indoor/outdoor Evo Stick or the equivalent stuff from Gorilla.

Of the two, I prefer the Gorilla glue as the nozzle is more clog-free 6.

OK … any readers who have made a few hundred frames up already can skip ahead to some of the concluding comments. You will know all of the following … or you should.

Building frames

Get organised first.

Make sure everything is to hand and logically arranged.

Put a hundred or so gimp pins (frame nails) into a container that has low sides and a wide open top, ideally quite heavy. You want them to be easy to pick up, but not easy to vibrate off the worksurface with all the hammering.

Gimp pins

And, if they do fall off, you only want to pick up a few dozen, not a 500 g box full.

I strongly recommend a Charlie Bigham’s pie container 7 for this purpose 🙂

How many frames should you make at a time?

I do them in batches of 10 as that number fits on the top of my Black and Decker Workmate. It’s also the number of sheets of foundation in a packet. And it’s a convenient number to put in a brood box so you don’t trip over them when building the next 10.

I usually make 5-10 batches and then give up from boredom 8.

Seconds out

You can save a chunk of cash by purchasing second quality frames in the sales. Most of the major suppliers sell them in batches of 50.

You can expect that a small proportion of the frame bars will have defects – knots, shakes, splits or warps.

If any of these are significant, and particularly if there are defects near the frame lugs or warps or twists in the top bar, discard them. It will only be 1-2% of the frame bars and it will save you the hassle of a broken lug or an ill-fitting frame later in the season.

I learnt this the hard way, so you don’t have to 😉

Prepare the top bars

  • Use the knife to remove the foundation retaining wedge from the top bars. Don’t just pull the wedge off as they sometimes break.
  • Put the foundation wedges somewhere nearby but out of the way 9.
  • Tidy up the remaining sliver of wood that is attached to the top bar with another careful swipe of the knife.
  • Lie the top bars – all in the same orientation – upside down on a flat surface.

Top bars – lined up and ready to go

  • Add a small dab of wood glue to the recess cut into the top bar where the side bars attach. Do both sides at once.

Add the side bars

  • Working down one side, then the other, of the aligned top bars, push fit the side bars in place.
  • Make sure you orientate the side bars with foundation groove on the inside 10.
  • They will be a tight fit and don’t worry if they’re not all perfectly aligned or fully pushed down. They need to be a tight fit to ensure that the frames will be square once assembled.
  • Once all the side bars are in place, take each frame and turn it over, standing on a hard surface and use the hammer to tap down on the top bar to ‘seat’ the side bars properly. Don’t hit the lug, just aim for the narrowest part of the top bar.

Properly ‘seated’ side bar

  • Some frames won’t need this, others will need a couple of smart taps to ‘seat’ them properly.
  • Return the frames to the inverted position.

Add the bottom bars

  • Add a dab of glue to the recess in the side bars that will take the bottom bar above the ‘non wedge’ side of the top bar.

Glue for one of the bottom bars only – note the orientation of the top bar

  • Add one bottom bar to every frame in the glued recesses. If the bottom bar is a very tight fit then the frames are good quality. If it’s so tight that the side bar splits then they are not such good quality.
  • A sharp tap with the hammer at the ends of the bottom bar before offering it to the glued recess will make it slightly thinner and so it may be easier to fit.
  • It is important that the ends of the bottom bars are flush with the side bars. If they are not the frame will taper and you will struggle fitting the foundation.

Check frame alignment

  • Check the alignment of the frames. They should all be square, with equal gaps between the bottom bars as shown in the photo above.
  • If any are wonky give them a twist to straighten them up.

Nail the frames

  • I nail each frame in turn, rather than doing all bottom bar nails first, then all side bars. It involves less frame handling and so is faster.
  • Use two gimp pins, one each side, to attach the bottom bar to the side bar. Drive the pin in vertically through the bottom bar into the end grain of the side bar.

Bottom bar nailing

  • Use four pins, two each side, to attach the two side bars to the top bar. One pin goes through the flat edge of the side bar.

One of four pins attaching the side bars and the top bar

  • The other – assuming you are using Hoffman self-spacing frames – is driven through the angled wedge-shaped spacer. Alternatively, some drive it in to the apex of the wedge. Either way works.

And the other face of the frame

  • All of the nails should be driven in flush with the wood. You do not want the heads protruding to catch on the hive tool when (if) you scrape the frames of propolis.
  • Some gimp pins are poor quality and have ‘spade ends’. These tend to drive in at weird angles and are best avoided.

Some good and bad gimp pins – the four on the left might be tricky to drive in straight

  • If the gimp pin does go in at an angle then don’t worry … unless it protrudes through the side bar or into the foundation groove.

Wonky pin … rip it out and start again

  • In these cases replace the pin or you will inevitably catch it with the hive tool, or rip your vinyl glove on it.

Fitting the foundation

I only fit foundation shortly before I need to use the frames. Foundation is relatively fragile. It goes brittle in the cold and develops a white(ish) bloom on the surface which makes it less attractive to the bees.

If you are building frames in the winter 11 then wait until you need the frames before fitting the foundation.

I use diagonally wired foundation. If you remove a sheet from the packet you will see that there are small or large loops of wire on the long edge of the sheet. The large loop goes adjacent to the top bar of the frame, trapped under the foundation wedge.

  • Fold the three large loops at 90° to the sheet and slide the sheet down the foundation grooves in the side bar so that the the wire loops lay flat against the underside of the top bar.

Placement of the wire loop against the underside of the top bar

  • Refit the foundation wedge. You usually have to squeeze it into the gap between the side bars, trapping the wire loops underneath it.
  • Fix the foundation wedge in place with three gimp pins driven through the wedge and each of the trapped wire loops. This stops the foundation from slipping down in the frame.

Pin through the foundation wedge and the trapped wire loop

  • Add the second bottom bar to the frame. This should not be glued as you want to be able to remove it to replace the foundation. Just use one gimp pin at each end.
  • Take care adding this second bottom bar as there is (or at least I have) a tendency to crumple the lower edge of the sheet of foundation. Push fit one end of the bottom bar and then offer it into position by prising it apart from the already fitted bottom bar, so making space for the foundation to fit. You quickly get the hang of this after messing up a couple of sheets of premium quality foundation 🙁

Second bottom bar fitted … do not use glue.

  • Some sheets of foundation are fractionally too wide for the frames. I’ve only ever used Thorne’s DN/SN4’s and DN/SN5’s – both first and second quality – and their premium foundation, and still they are sometimes too wide. In that case lay the foundation on a flat surface and cut ~1mm off one of the shorter edges.

Trimming super foundation to fit the frame

  • I suspect this poor fit is because the sheets of foundation ‘stretch’ slightly during storage 12. Since I usually need to trim down every sheet in a packet I find I can do 3-4 sheets at a time.

Foundationless frames

I’ve discussed these in detail before. I use a lot of them. I don’t have time or space or energy to justify their use again here … I’ve written lots about their construction and use previously which I hope should answer any questions you have.

I make these frames in the same way except for the addition of a couple of vertical bamboo supports. These are added after I fit both bottom bars. I then add back the foundation wedge to leave a narrow slot into which I glue a simple wooden ‘tongue depressor’ starter strip.

Why wood?

Why not a strip of commercial foundation?

Or a hand crafted wax starter strip?

Or at least a wax-painted wooden strip?

Because a plain wooden strip made from a tongue depressor works better and is less effort than any of the other ‘solutions’ 13 above.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

And I know this because I’ve done a side-by-side comparison (see above) to determine which the bees preferentially use … and they simply do not care.

I made a dozen or so frames up like those above and added them to hives and observed which of the options the bees ‘chose’ to draw comb from.

They chose the plain wood as frequently as any others … and since that’s the easiest to prepare, that’s what I do.

Let the bees tell you … 😉

Storing frames

If you’re paying full price for the frames and foundation (rather than buying in bulk, or buying second quality) a frame will cost about £3.30.

Look after them!

Storing 10-20 frames is easy … just put them in empty brood boxes. Except these might get pressed into service during swarm control, or to make bait hives, so then where do you store the frames?

Foundationless frames are relatively easy as they are more robust than frames with foundation. Just stack them up in a pile and use as needed.

Bamboo foundationless frames

Bamboo foundationless frames

Ideally do the same with the built frames before you add the foundation.

However, with a little ingenuity you can devise a solution … here’s mine.

Frame storage

I can store a couple of hundred frames hanging from the shed roof. This has worked well, but needs a reasonable amount of ‘head space’ – either a high roof, or something underneath them (like a bench, or in my case a canoe) that stops you from walking/standing directly below them.

Here are some I made earlier

I’m sure there are lots of other equally good solutions …

Final thoughts

If you use a nail gun to assemble frames do not use it for the second of the bottom bars (other than for foundationless frames). The gun drives the nails in deep and they are very difficult to remove. Attach the unglued second bottom bar with gimp pins as described above.

Nailed

Nailed …

I use 20 mm 18g nails for the nail gun.

The nail gun speeds up frame building.

It can get quite competitive … can I build the next 10 frames in less time than it took the last 10?

Come on .. give me a break. It’s the winter and I need some sort of entertainment to get me through the dark days until I’m beekeeping again 😉


 

The bare necessities

It’s that time of the season when the increasingly bloated Thorne’s catalogue crashes onto the doormat.

The timing is impeccable.

Through the long winter, experienced beekeepers have busied themselves with the unpleasant jobs ignored all last season; the painting and decorating, the tax return, tidying the loft or even gardening.

There’s only so much procrastination you (or I) can get away with …

More recently, if they’re like me, they will have been planning for the season ahead.

What didn’t work last year and needs to be changed? Which new method worked well and should be used on more colonies this year?

A different queen rearing strategy? A simpler method of swarm control?

Not enough frames, foundation, hive tools or labels?

Thank goodness, here’s the Thorne’s catalogue to save the day 😉

Like lambs to the slaughter

And, if you thought the Thorne’s catalogue was tempting for the experienced, imagine how it is viewed by a beginner.

They’ve spent the winter doing nothing but dream about balmy spring days with the bees 1.

The six week ‘Beginning beekeeping’ course will soon be over and they must be ready for the season ahead.

They’ve promised honey to all their friends and family … and that’s not going to happen unless they’re properly equipped.

Thank goodness, here’s the Thorne’s catalogue to save the day 😉

Getting started

I started beekeeping with secondhand everything … hive, smoker, hive tool, beesuit, feeders, the lot. It was all reasonable quality equipment and was being sold because a beginner had reacted badly to a couple of stings and decided beekeeping was not for them.

My original smoker

I’m still using most of the kit.

The hive was a Thorne’s ‘Bees on a budget’ offering. It is made of cedar, but is paler and lighter (and frankly less good) than western red cedar boxes. It had been stained a weird red colour, so is still obvious in my – now mountainous 2 – stack of green-stained cedar and painted poly boxes.

More of a problem was that the supers had been assembled incorrectly and the beespace was all over the place. I pulled them apart and reassembled them.

It was probably the best £125 I’ve ever spent 3 … firstly because it was a very fair price for some barely-used kit, and secondly because it got me started with a hobby obsession that has engrossed me ever since.

Lots of people don’t find beekeeping engrossing 4.

Most who start, give up.

Usually sooner rather than later.

You simply need to look at the number trained every winter.

My alma mater BKA (Warwick and Leamington beekeepers) trained about 40 new beekeepers a year from 2012 to 2020, but their membership grew by only ~120 during that period. 

It’s a bargain … but caveat emptor

If you’re starting beekeeping this year take advantage of this high ‘drop-out’ rate. Buy some little-used equipment from a trusted source e.g. someone who trained in a previous year with the association … rather than from a dodgy bloke down at the allotment.

Equipment can carry diseases which is why I stressed a ‘trusted source’.

Even if you know something about the source and history of the kit, clean it thoroughly.

Flame a cedar box with a blowtorch, ensuring you get into all the nooks and crannies. Soak and scrub poly boxes with a strong soda solution.

Treat hive tools and smokers with soda in the same way.

Wash the beesuit thoroughly.

And throw away any gauntlet-type leather or faux-leather gloves. I’ll return to these later …

And, while you’re at it, discard any used frames and comb. 

Beekeeping is an expensive hobby

If you don’t buy secondhand, the necessary equipment can be expensive.

And that’s before you get any bees.

I’ve seen plenty of 5 frame nucleus colonies being offered for £240-300 this year. Because of the Brexit import ban nucs are likely to be in short supply, particularly early in the season 5.

Which means that the hive, suit, tools and bees might cost the best part of £750 … on top of the training course.

That’s a significant outlay.

And remember, for reasons explained elsewhere, it is always better to have two colonies. 

With one colony you have no ‘internal controls’ – to use science-speak.

Is it bad tempered because it’s queenless, or simply because a strong nectar flow has stopped? If both hives are tetchy it’s likely to be the latter as you’re unlikely to ‘lose’ two queens simultaneously. With one colony, the loss of a queen can be terminal, with two it can almost always be easily rescued.

So … two complete hives, two nucleus colonies, frames, foundation, beesuit, tools etc. … which together will cost well over £1000.

And that’s before you consider the additional equipment you will need for swarm control.

And you will need it 🙁

The non-essentials

What do you need and what is superfluous?

Don’t be led by what’s in the ‘basic kit’ offered by beekeeping suppliers.

After all … their business is selling you stuff. 

For example, most ‘kits for beginners’ I’ve seen include gauntlet-type gloves and a bee brush.

You won’t need a bee brush; you can either shake the bees off the frame, or use a tuft of grass or a large feather.

Gauntlets are an abomination.

They are impossible to clean and provide zero manual dexterity. Because you have no sense of touch you’ll inevitably crush bees. You’ll get stung, but will feel nothing as the gloves are so thick and protective.

Good?

No, bad. 

The sting pheromone will soak into the glove and you’ll get stung more. You’ll have to wash the gloves every time you use them, so they’ll get cracked and hard so making handling frames even more difficult.

Not only are gauntlet-type leather gloves non-essential, I think they’re actually a serious impediment to new beekeepers. They provide the impression of safety and protection, but in practice prevent the safe and gentle handling of bees.

Kimberly-Clark Purple Nitrile-Xtra … perfect, long-cuff nitriles for beekeeping.

Instead use easy-to-clean (or disposable) long-cuff nitrile gloves. Add a thin pair of Marigold-type washing up gloves over the top if you need some additional confidence for your first few forays into a hive.

Boring boxes

A hive (or two) is essential. Your choice should be based upon what the local association members use. I would strongly suggest you don’t go off piste until you know what you’re doing.

If everyone around you uses National hives, don’t buy a Warré. 

As soon as you use something ‘a bit weird’ (with apologies to Warré hive users) you’re stuck if you need a frame of eggs to rescue a queenless hive.

Or you want to sell an overwintered nuc.

You are at an immediately disadvantage. 

By all means try these things after a season or two … but when you’re starting out it pays to be boring and mainstream and vanilla.

Which isn’t easy as the Thorne’s catalogue lists a lot of different hive types – National, 14×12, Dadant, Commercial, Langstroth, WBC, Warré, Layens, Smith, Drayton, Rose … at anything from £160 to – gasp – £700. 

Some of these are compatible, others are not. 

The association apiary is not filled with Layens’ hives, so don’t buy one as your starter hive. 

For swarm control, I’d recommend buying a compatible polystyrene nucleus hive. This enables one of the easiest and most foolproof methods of swarm control, which has the advantage of needing the least additional equipment.

A reputable supplier, or – even better – local beekeeper, should be able to provide your first nucleus colony in a suitable nucleus box.

The additional £30-50 is an excellent investment.

Polystyrene hives are used increasingly and are generally very good quality. Again, compatibility is essential. Avoid anything that you cannot mix with other boxes like the plague … like overhanging lips or rebates.

Do as I say, don’t do as I did 😉

And you’ll need frames … lots of frames.

The horizontals

The boring boxes are topped, tailed and separated with the horizontal bits of the hive – the roof, floor and the queen excluder. 

Roofs and floors can be made cheaply and easily if you need them. Crownboards can be as simple as a sheet of thick polythene, or something more complicated.

It’s likely that these things will all be with the hive you buy … but if they’ve gone missing it’s not a dealbreaker if you’re buying secondhand. Just offer a bit less.

Plastic queen excluders can be purchased from about £4.

Framed wire QE ...

Framed wire QE …

However, I’d strongly advise buying (or building) a framed wire queen excluder. These are more expensive, but far better in use. Their integral beespace means they are much easier to place back on the brood box, particularly if the colony is really strong.

Investing for the future

Framed wire QE’s are 3-5 times the price of the plastic alternatives. That’s a substantial additional cost. However, it’s one that will more than repay the investment over subsequent years … in terms of fewer crushed bees, easier colony inspections and more enjoyable beekeeping.

Of course, it’ll only repay the investment if you keep on beekeeping … but I’d argue you’re more likely to do so if your colony inspections are easier and you crush fewer bees 😉

There are a few other things where items can be purchased relatively cheaply (or perhaps inexpensively might be a better word here), but that – over time – benefit from spending a bit more.

The three most obvious (to me at least) are the hive tool, the beesuit and the smoker.

Hive tools

I know beekeepers who use an old screwdriver as a hive tool. They work, though the box edges are a bit tatty.

For years I used Thorne’s ‘budget’ claw hive tools (second from the left in the picture below), always purchased for £2 at conventions or during the winter sales.

Hive tools ...

Hive tools …

I owned better quality hive tools – like the ‘Frontier-type’ German-made hive tool (second from the right, above) – but found them too big and heavy. They were also inconvenient to pick up as they lie flat on a surface. 

More recently I’ve purchased a few of the non-budget claw-type hive tools. These look very similar to the one above (again, second from the left) but are made of much better quality stainless steel and have an excellent sharp edge and strong claw. They were over six times the price, but fit my hand nicely and should last a lifetime until I lose them 6.

Hive tools are a very personal item.  Some offer more leverage than others, some suit smaller (or larger) hands, some are comfortable, others awkward.

Pre-Covid you could try a range of hive tools at any association apiary session to find what feels right. Those days will return … but in the meantime you either have to stick with your first choice or buy a few over time and decide what works best.

You’ll lose them in the long grass anyway 😉

The smoker

I’ve discussed smokers before and so won’t go into too much detail. 

Like hive tools, there are good and poor quality smokers. Unlike hive tools (which all more or less do the job intended) some smokers work very poorly.

My original smoker (pictured above) is still used now and again. However, it’s too small for extended use and needs work to keep it going.

Dadant smoker

Dadant smoker …

I now use Dadant smokers and – when I next reverse over one in the car – will again (!) replace it with another Dadant smoker. 

The large Dadant smoker is outstanding and the smaller one (which is still not very small) is just very, very, very good.

Smoker still life

Smoker

These are easy to light, they stay lit and they just keep on working. 

I’m not recommending these as a necessary initial outlay … but if and when you need to replace your smoker they are a very worthwhile investment.

And, while we’re at it, I’d recommend a box to store the smoker in safely.

After prolonged use smokers get very hot. You either:

  • dump them in the back of the car and risk a major conflagration while driving back from the apiary
  • wait until they cool sufficiently to avoid a fire, but risk a later conflagration when you arrive home so late your dinner is ruined (since you prefer to spend all your time with your bees”)
  • stick them in a smoker box and avoid the risk of conflagrations of any sort 😉
An ideal Christmas gift for a beekeeper

An ideal Christmas gift for a beekeeper

Again, perhaps not essential, but not far off …

Beesuits

There are some pretty fancy beesuits available these days. Ventilated, multi-coloured, stingproof … or even all three together.

When you’re starting beekeeping, the really important thing about a beesuit is that it provides you with the protection you need to gain confidence when working with bees.

The stingproof ones tend to look very bulky 7. I’ve never used one or even tried one on, but I presume they don’t impair your movement too much.

The only beesuits I’ve ever used are by BBwear. These, and the not quite separated-at-birth BJ Sherriff, make excellent beesuits for UK beekeepers. 

Their products are a bit more expensive than the budget offerings from eBay or those sold with ‘start beekeeping’ kits. However, the investment is probably worthwhile. Ask your association whether they can arrange a group purchase – you can usually negotiate a worthwhile discount. 

Both companies will also repair the beesuits as they, inevitably, get worn or torn, so your are essentially purchasing something that should last a decade or more.

My full suit (A BBwear deluxe suit) is approaching 15 years old and needs some repairs, but has lots of life in it yet. I supplemented it with a deluxe jacket which I wear for 75% of my beekeeping.

Neither is stingproof. 

If I’m getting stung through the suit it’s because the colony has lousy genetics and urgently needs a new queen, or I’m being sloppy or hamfisted in my colony manipulations … or it’s raining hard and I really shouldn’t be opening the colony anyway.

Of course, none of these things ever happen 😉

In an emergency I can always wear a fleece under the beesuit to provide additional protection.

But what about … ?

The overweight Thorne’s catalogue lists a further 23,759 other ‘useful’, essential’, ‘practical’, ‘convenient’, ‘clever, ‘helpful’, ‘beneficial’, ‘functional’ or ‘serviceable’ items almost none of which are needed when first starting beekeeping.

And some of which are never needed … ever.

But what about a … 

  • one handed queen catcher?  Check the ends of your arms … do you have 5 digits on each? You therefore have a one handed queen catcher already built in. You need to be able to find the queen first. And, with luck, the one in the nuc you purchase will already be marked.
  • mouseguard?  Some floors don’t need mouseguards at all. Those that do, don’t need them until November which is a very long way off. 
  • fancy multifunctional floor or crownboard?  Purchased with all the add-ons these cost more than a standard hive. They might be useful, but they tie you into a particular format which may, or may not, be available in subsequent years. I’d recommend waiting until either a) you decide to build your own, or b) you realise you don’t need them anyway 😉
  • combi brush?  Er, no 8

Enjoy all 94 pages of the Thorne’s catalogue.

Read it and re-read it. 

But save your money until you better understand what you really need.

As I said before … Do as I say, don’t do as I did 😉

Buy the bare necessities and, if possible, invest in quality items that will last you for years.

Even if your beekeeping doesn’t last for years, they’ll have a better resale value 9.

And if you carry on beekeeping – which, of course, I hope you do – those bare necessities will be your trusty companions through season after season, making them exceptional value for money.

Except for the hive tool you lose midsummer in the long grass 🙁


Notes

Other catalogues are available … online, even if not in print. My Thorne’s catalogues arrived this week and, until recently, I lived 10 minutes from Thorne’s of Scotland. If I’d lived in York I’d have offered the same advice but substituted Abelo for Thorne’s throughout.

Creamed honey

Which of these is the odd one out?

Comb honey, chunk honey, baker’s honey, creamed honey, blossom honey, borage honey, Scottish honey, honeydew honey?

Anyone?

Reserved descriptions

Honey that is for sale needs to be labelled properly.

I don’t intend to discuss the labelling regulations as, a) they may be different here in Scotland to wherever you live, b) they’re a bit of a minefield, and c) if revised this page would quickly become out of date.

However, logicall, honey that is for sale needs to have a label that includes the word ‘honey’.

Makes sense so far 😉

In addition, there are a number of reserved descriptions such as comb honey, borage honey, Scottish honey that are allowed.

These reserved descriptions may be only used ‘where the product meets the definition’.

So, you can only use the words ‘comb honey‘ when the honey is sold wholly or partly in the comb. You can only use the reserved description ‘borage honey‘ if the honey is primarily made from nectar collected from borage etc.

Similarly, the honey must be collected entirely within a certain geographic area to be named after the area.

The odd one out is ‘creamed honey‘.

My understanding is that this used to be allowed 1 but is no longer an acceptable reserved description. It’s certainly not listed as such on the Trading Standards website 2.

It’s no longer acceptable because honey doesn’t contain cream.

Creamed honey

I think this is disappointing … after all, creamed honey never contained cream as far as I’m aware.

Instead the description was meant to indicate the smooth consistency of the product, the ‘melt on your tongue’ creamy texture.

Soft set (spring) local honey

Why should food names and labels be literal? After all, we eat hot dogs and sweetbreads 3.

When I last checked these weren’t made from dogs … or bread 4.

But it was clearly too confusing for some, so – inevitably – the word ‘creamed’ was banned from use as a reserved description on honey labels 🙁

But creamed has another meaning.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes the following definition of ‘creamed’ …

To deal with vigorously and with success, esp. to beat or thrash; to defeat heavily, as in sporting contexts; to ruin or wreck (a motor vehicle, etc.). colloquial (originally U.S.).

… the usage of which dates back to 1929.

And this is a perfect description of an easy way to produce a really high quality honey from coarse- and fast-granulating nectars like oil seed rape.

Oil seed rape (OSR)

For many beekeepers OSR provides a bumper early season honey harvest. The honey is extracted in late May or early June, allowed to set and then processed for sale.

Anyone who has bees near OSR will know that the honey, without processing, is spoonbendingly 5 hard.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

To make it spreadable (and saleable) I usually use a version of the Dyce method for producing soft set honey.

Frankly, this is a bit of a palaver 6.

Soft set honey

You need to completely melt the honey, cool it to 34°C, seed it with a honey with a suitable fine crystal structure, mix it thoroughly and then allow it to set at ~13°C with very regular stirring.

This whole process takes several days.

It’s not constant work and it’s not particularly hard work, but it is all a bit protracted. Done properly it produces honey with a good texture that sells well … and is outstanding on crumpets.

All gone … soft set honey from OSR

There are other ways of achieving this … such as buying an automated machine which does all the intermittent stirring for you.

At a price … perhaps £2500 with full temperature control.

But I don’t want to produce 50 or 100 kg of honey at a time. And I don’t want yet another piece of equipment sitting around taking up valuable space.

Like the majority of the 45,000 beekeepers in the UK, I produce nothing like the quantities of honey to justify this commercial-scale equipment.

And, like the majority of those 45,000 beekeepers, I don’t want to spend all of my time producing honey to pay for this sort of equipment. I want to rear some queens, walk in the hills, go sailing or drink coffee on the patio.

Frosting in soft set honey

Furthermore, in my experience soft set honey can show significant batch-to-batch variation in terms of its tendency to develop frosting in the jar. Some batches never show frosting, others develop the unsightly appearance (that has no influence on the flavour) within a week or two.

Honey with frosting

Honey with frosting

In my experience, I and third party sellers are more concerned about the unsightly appearance than the customers are.

I want to produce a honey that tastes and looks good.

The shopkeeper wants a honey that they know is going to sell well.

It’s not entirely clear to me what causes frosting. Some has the distribution and appearance that suggests minute bubbles have risen through the honey, getting trapped under the shoulders of the jar.

At other times it looks as though the honey has contracted slightly, pulling away from the sidewalls of the jar.

The example above is particularly unsightly and looks very like the honey is re-crystallising again, losing the ‘melt on your tongue’ crystal structure for something altogether coarser. Whatever, they went back to the furthest recesses of the cupboard where I found them 😉

Creaming honey

There’s another way to generate a fine crystal structure from a coarsely crystallised honey.

You cream it … in the OED sense of the word:

You vigorously beat it … 

Which neatly brings me to the Rapido / Rasant Honey Creamer.

Rapido / Rasant honey creamer

A few months ago Calum – who regularly submits insightful comments to posts on this site – recommended this honey creamer for processing oil seed rape honey (OSR). Calum called it the Rapido. It’s produced by Germerott Bienentechnik and they appear to call it the ‘Rasant‘ (and have what looks like a second variant available since I purchased mine).

The Rapido is a stainless steel paddle that is used to vigorously beat the honey. It’s about 9 cm in diameter and is securely mounted on a 60 cm shaft. The non-honey end of the shaft is hexagonal and can therefore be secured in the chuck of a powerful drill.

The instructions indicated a 1000 W drill was required, or – with a different fitting at the non-honey end of the shaft – you can use a plasterers mixer 7.

And it works a treat:

This is a 30 lb bucket of honey converted from coarsely crystallised to a beautifully fine crystal structure in a little under four minutes.

Usage

It’s not quite as quick as I’ve described as you still need to pre-warm the honey and allow time for it to settle.

Here’s the full process I’ve used for about four buckets (~60 kg) of OSR honey in the last month.

  1. Warm the bucket in a honey warming cabinet at 30-33°C. It must be warmed right through, so leave for at least 12-15 hours.
  2. Remove any surface scum if there is any. The majority of my buckets don’t have any, so this can be skipped. My set OSR honey has already been through a coarse and fine stainless steel filters during extraction.
  3. Starting slowly as shown above, mix with the Rapido. Make sure all the honey is mixed, which may involve pushing the non-rotating paddle down the sidewalls of the bucket to loosen it slightly 8.
  4. Continue mixing for 3-4 minutes until the honey is the consistency shown at the end of the video.
  5. Pour into a bucket with tap.
  6. Return to the honey warming cabinet at 30-33°C for a further 12-15 hours to allow bubbles to settle out (or is that rise out?). I’m not certain this stage is needed … but since it involves me doing nothing it’s easy to do.
  7. Jar the honey.
  8. Allow to cool. Add labels.
  9. Sell the honey and wait for the plaudits and repeat custom 🙂 It will happen.

Once the resulting honey cools it has a wonderful texture – easy to spoon and spread, but does not drip off the spoon.

Just perfect for crumpets or homemade bread 🙂

This really is honey that has been ‘creamed’ … beaten vigorously and with success.

I’d like to end with a “big shout out” (as the young people say) to Calum for the recommendation in the first place.

Thanks mate 🙂


Notes

A shorter post than usual this week as I’m moving house 9. I’m writing this when I should be packing boxes … or trying to find things I now need that were packed into boxes yesterday. Assuming things have gone to plan I’m no longer a permanent resident of Fife (though I’ll continue to work there) and now live in the wild west 🙂

Germerott Bienentechnik don’t have a UK distributor for the Rasant honey creamer (I know, because I’ve chatted with them about it) so it needs to be purchased direct from Germany. It costs ~€50 but is quite heavy so shipping costs are high. Post-Brexit there may also be additional taxes involved 🙁

UPDATE (23/2/21) As indicated in the comments below, Thorne’s now appear to be selling this as a honey churner … at least it looks identical to me. I’ve also been in contact with Werner and Klaus at Bienentechnik and they are happy to take your order and can be contacted on info@bienentechnik.com. Inevitably, there may be some post-Brexit shipping issues to overcome 🙁

Finally, there’s always a demand for raw honey. Although I still wouldn’t call this honey ‘raw‘, I can claim honestly that it’s not been heated to temperatures higher than would naturally occur in the hive. Some customers will prefer this.

It’s the little things …

When I first started keeping bees colony inspections were a special occasion.

There was quite a bit of preparation beforehand, collecting together the paraphernalia the catalogues all described as essential for effective beekeeping. I’d fuss over the hives, sometimes opening them a second time (or twice in a weekend) to check things. I’d write up some notes afterwards that – like certain websites 😉 – tended to verbosity.

Despite this, things went well.

Honey happened.

Splits worked.

Swarms didn’t … or were re-hived.

Larvae were grafted and queens were mated.

Colony numbers increased. 

Ready for inspection … are you?

Inspections moved from being a special occasion to, at times, something of a chore. 

Never not enjoyable or not a learning experience, but not quite the event they’d once been. 

There were also a lot more of them.

Twenty or so a week, many more if you count the nucs and the mini-nucs some years.

During all this time I was learning a whole lot more about bees.

But as importantly, I was learning a lot more about keeping and managing bees.

The KISS principle

This US Navy acronym (for Keep it simple, stupid) means that things work best if they are kept uncomplicated.

And beekeeping, and particularly the essential weekly 1 inspections are one area where the KISS principle can be beneficial.

A combination of better (but less) preparation, greater efficiency during the time spent hunched over the hive(s) and improved (but less) record keeping, reflects improvements in my beekeeping over the last decade or so.

All of which have resulted in hive inspections again being a pleasure rather than a chore.

Most of these improvements are subconscious.

I’ve unknowingly ‘learned’ that doing things a particular way works better for me or the bees. None of the lessons have been learned the hard way – they’re definitely evolution, not revolution.

Described below are a few I’m aware of 2.

Remember, these suit my style 3 of beekeeping (whatever that is 🙂 ) and may not be relevant to you.

However, for all of the things listed below I’m aware the way I’ve done things has changed over time.

Or, I’m aware that the way I do things now seems to work well though I’ve no idea how I used to do them 😉

Preparation

My essentials now fit easily into my bee bag. Partly because I now need less and partly because they never live anywhere else.

Stuff that was in the bag but wasn’t used, was ditched long ago.

I now have two boxes (2 litre ice cream tubs) in the bag, one for “daily” items and one for “queen-related” things. Neither box is full.

There’s not much in the daily container. Hive tools are kept in the apiary in a bucket of washing soda, with a spare tiddler in the bee bag to cover the inevitable losses. I now always carry a roll of gaffer tape and some staple-free newspaper. The former has all sorts of uses and the latter is for uniting colonies. 

Staple-free to save the hassle of separating sheets, and potentially ripping them, when trying to unite colonies. You want one very small hole in the sheet … they’ll easily expand this and gently mingle.

The “queen” box contains things for grafting larvae (which haven’t changed since I last wrote about them, a lifetime ago) together with the things I need for queen marking and clipping 4.

The smoker and blowtorch live together in a metal box. I have matches in the “daily” box, but never use them. A blowtorch is a much better way to light a smoker properly.

Smoker fuel lives in a plastic tub. I’ve discovered that the plastic tubs sold full of suet balls make excellent containers for smoker fuel. They are square(ish), have a handle and a convenient tab to help prise up the lid. Altogether better than a honey bucket.

Two final things come under the heading ‘preparation’.

The first is learning to fuel and light the smoker so that it stays lit. Exactly how you achieve this depends upon the fuel you are using. Practice makes perfect.

Buy a large smoker, prime it with something that smoulders well (dried rotten wood for example), light it with a blowtorch and then pack it reasonably tightly with additional combustible material. Dried grass, animal bedding, woodturning shavings etc. Top the lot off with a handful of fresh grass. 

Once lit, stays lit … bigger is better

Once it’s going, my Dadant smoker will stay lit for one to two hours without more than the occasional squeeze of the bellows … or laying on its side if burning too fiercely.

It’s ironic that the more experience you get, the less you need the smoker … however the more experience you get, the more likely the smoker will actually work when you do need it 🙂

The final preparation involves reading the notes in advance from the last inspection … the ones that I made to remind me what will be needed next time I visit the apiary.

Don’t barbeque the bees 😉

Less is definitely more when you open the hive.

The less smoke, the less knocks, bumps or sudden jarring, the less squashed bees, the less adjusting and readjusting the frames … all of these make the inspection more useful and effective.

The bees (and the beekeeper) will be calmer.

They’ll be behaving better 5

… not running manically around the frame or pinging off your veil.

You’ll see a whole lot more and, after all, what else is an inspection for if it’s not to see things?

Smoking the colony does not mean kippering them 6.

One gentle puff at the hive entrance or under the open mesh floor is enough. However these both drive the bees up.

As useful, and arguably more so, is a gentle puff in the gap created when you first lifted the crownboard 7. This eases the bees away from the top bars of the frames, making your next task easier.

OK, let’s find the queen …

You need space to work and an orderly approach. 

Think about what you’re doing. The colony, with all its darkness, smells, sounds and vibrations, is pulled apart during an inspection. 

If I wanted to be anthropomorphic I’d say it’s a very distressing experience … like having a tornado ripping the roof off and rearranging the furniture while you were frying bacon and listening to some gentle jazz 8

But I’m not anthropomorphic. 

What you need to avoid is the bees getting defensive. That just makes the looking part of the inspection more difficult. 

And if the looking is difficult, finding the queen is going to be very tricky.

Except you don’t usually need to find the queen.

If the colony contains recently laid eggs and no queen cells you can be confident the queen is in residence and will remain so … so there’s no need to look for her. 

But if your inspection is gentle and methodical, and the colony remains calm, you’ll usually see her anyway 🙂

Frame management

Remove the dummy board, shake the bees off it (onto the top bars) and lay it aside 9.

Remove the outer frame. It probably contains stores and so it’s unlikely the queen is in residence. Check, then put it aside and get on with the inspection. 

But where and how do you ‘put it aside’? Standing on end, leaning against the leg of the hive stand? Preferably not.

Most of my hive stands are a frame-width wide so you can hang a frame by the lugs, secure in the knowledge that the frame cannot be knocked over, kicked or stood on.

But I usually don’t hang the frame by the lugs.

To do so takes two hands when you put the frame down, and two when you pick the frame up. If you don’t use two hands it’s a clumsy procedure and you need a very strong grip – there’s a risk of crushing bees on the side bars.

Whilst I do have two hands (!) it’s actually usually easier to balance the frame at an angle, supported on a frame lug and the sidebar on one end, and the bottom bars on the other. There’s less reaching involved and one lug can be used as a very effective handle.

Easy to put down and pick up

The frame is held clear of vegetation below the hive stand. The protruding lug provides excellent grip. It can be put down and picked up with one hand. 

When putting the frame down, gently place the lug on the further frame bar, slide the frame away from you until the further sidebar touches the hive stand (gently, allow the bees to move aside) then lower the bottom bar towards the nearer frame bar, gently moving the frame from side to side in a narrow arc. The bees will clear the lower bar rather than get crushed.

No crushed bees

It takes much longer to describe than to actually do.

If it’s blowing a gale, frames balanced like this might topple … but if it’s blowing a gale it’s really not an ideal day to be inspecting the colony.

Unless they’re in a bee shed 😉

Removing and returning frames

With space to work you can now start the inspection. 

The frames are probably propolised together. Even with good finger strength they can be difficult to separate. 

Hive tools ...

Hive tools …

Don’t try … use the hive tool, it’s what it’s for.

Gently break the propolis seal between every frame. Do all the frame lugs on one side first, then do the other. That way you don’t pass your hands repeatedly over the open hive, which can distress the bees make them defensive.

You don’t need to lever the frames far apart. Breaking the propolis seal only involves moving the frame a millimeter or two. The smaller the distance, the less chance a bee will sneak into the gap you’ve created and get crushed as you separate other frames.

Again, less is more.

With all the frames now ‘free’ you can do the inspection.

Slide the next frame a short distance along the frame runners into your working ‘gap’. You shouldn’t just lift the frame as bees at the interface with the adjacent frame will get “rolled” 10. Grip the frame by the lugs, inspect one face, turn, inspect the other face, turn again.

The frame is now in the same orientation as when it was lifted out of the hive. It can therefore be returned easily to minimise the disruption to the brood nest. By using the same routine for every frame the colony is reassembled with the minimum unnecessary disturbance.

Wrong

Don’t just put the frame back ‘near’ it’s neighbour and squeeze them altogether when you put the dummy board back at the end of the inspection. Return it so the Hoffman spacers directly contact the neighbouring frame. That way, no bees get crushed when additional frames are added back later in the inspection.

That’s better

You’ll find that you can gently return the frame, pushing the bees aside between the Hoffman spacers as you lower it into the hive. You have a better view (more light and an oblique viewing angle) when returning the frame into the gap than when the frame is hanging by the lugs in the hive. 

Gently shiggling 11 the frame from side to side as you lower it helps move the bees aside between the spacers.

By returning the frame right next to its neighbour you’ve also retained all your working space to move the next frame into.

You handle most frames only once, increasing the efficiency of your inspection but – more importantly – minimising the likelihood of crushing bees and agitating the colony.

Once through all the frames, you can even replace the removed frame of stores at the opposite end of the box to minimise further disturbance.

Finishing up

If there are supers on the hive there is probably a queen excluder separating them from the brood box. 

I’ve got a big stack of plastic queen excluders in the bee shed, but no metal wired, wooden framed ones. 

Framed wire QE ...

Framed wire QE …

That’s because all of the metal wired, wooden framed queen excluders are in use.

They are easier to remove and easier to replace on the hive. The bee space created by the frame prevents bees being crushed. The rigid frame means they can be replaced obliquely, then gently turned until square on the hive. In doing so, bees on the upper rim of the brood box are pushed aside, rather than squished below.

With the supers, crownboard and roof back in place there are only three things left to do:

  1. Make the hive secure. Will the roof stay on, and the hive stay upright, if there’s a gale … or a cow or deer ambles into it at night? The zephyr-like breeze when you inspect might be replaced with 50 mph gusts in 48 hours. Ratchet straps really do help, though tall stacks of boxes can still topple if top-heavy with honey.
  2. Put the smoker out. Plug it with grass and let it cool before putting it away. If you do this immediately after closing the last hive it will be ready by the time you …
  3. Write up the hive notes. Less really is more here. No verbiage 12. You need to record the current ‘state’ of the colony – strength, health, stores. Ideally, also record its behaviour – defensiveness, running (are the bees stable on the frame?) and unpleasant traits such as following. All of this can be achieved with a simple scoring system. An additional sentence of freehand might also be needed – “Defensive – don’t use for grafting”. Importantly, make sure you note down anything needed at the next visit … 

Objective and subjective notes

Which neatly takes us back to preparation.

I’m sure there are a million other things I do now that are an improvement on what I used to do. I’m also certain there are better ways to do some of the things I now do 13.

Are you aware of changes to your beekeeping practices that have improved things, for you or – more importantly – for the bees?


Notes

Today (10th July) is Don’t step on a bee day … that improves colony inspections as well 😉