Category Archives: Tools

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 ūüėČ

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 ūüėČ

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 ūüôĀ

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 Warr√©.¬†

As soon as you use something ‘a bit weird’ (with apologies to Warr√© 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, Warr√©, 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 ūüėČ

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 Рthe 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 ūüėČ

There are a few other things where items can be purchased relatively cheaply (or perhaps inexpensively might be a better word here), but that Рover time Рbenefit 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 ūüėČ

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 Рwhen I next reverse over one in the car Рwill 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 ūüėČ
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 ūüėČ

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 ūüėČ
  • 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 ūüėČ

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 ūüôĀ


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 ūüėČ

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 ūüôĀ

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¬įC, seed it with a honey with a suitable fine crystal structure, mix it thoroughly and then allow it to set at ~13¬įC 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 ūüėČ

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¬įC. 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¬įC 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 ūüôā 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 ūüôā

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 ūüôā


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 ūüôā

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 ~‚ā¨50 but is quite heavy so shipping costs are high. Post-Brexit there may also be additional taxes involved ūüôĀ

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 ūüôĀ

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 ūüėČ – 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 ūüôā ) 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 ūüėČ

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 ūüôā

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 ūüėČ

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 ūüôā

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 ūüėČ

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 ūüėČ

Small, but perfectly formed

We’re in the hiatus between the end of the beekeeping season and the start of the beginning of the planning for the preparation for the next. Or, I am.

Of course, if you’re reading this from Australia (G’day … the 5th largest readership globally) or Chile (Hola … 62nd in the list) then things are probably just getting really busy.

Inevitably things here are going to be a bit quiet for a few months. Have patience.

Getting ready for winter

Here in the Northern hemisphere, at a latitude of about 56¬įN, the nights are rapidly getting longer and the temperature is tumbling. We’ve had several sharp frosts already. I checked my bees yesterday through the perspex crownboards – where present – and most were pretty tightly huddled together. In the very warmest part of the day there were a few flying in the weak sunshine, but the majority of colonies were quiet.

Since many of the most recent posts have been rather long (and I’m pressed for time with work commitments) I’m going to restrict myself to a few brief comments about this tidy – and tiny – little hive tool from Thorne’s.

Pocket hive tool

Pocket hive tool

One of the final tasks of the year is to slice off the brace comb built in places along the tops of the frames while feeding colonies. I only use fondant, usually adding 12.5 kg to start with and then a further few kilograms if I think the hive is a bit light. All this fits nicely under one of my inverted, insulated perspex crownboards. However, as the fondant it taken down and stored, the bees tend to build little pinnacles of comb under or around the plastic bag.

Before closing the colony up for the season all these bits of brace comb need to be tidied away. I simply run a sharp hive tool along the top bars of the frames, remove the wax and – eventually – melt it down in my steam wax extractor. If you leave the wax in place you can’t put the crownboard back the right way up … or, when you do, you risk crushing bees.

Bargains in the sales

In the Thorne’s summer sales this year I bought the usual range of stuff I have almost no use for, together with half a dozen of the cheapo copies of their claw hive tool to replace those I’ve lost or lent during the year.

In addition I bought a couple of their ‘pocket hive tools’ (shown above) for a quid each.

These are small and neat, have a simple frame lifter at one end and a very good, sharp, chisel tip at the other. They are made of stainless steel. They fit neatly into the palm of the hand, don’t project too far and yet are enough to provide the leverage to separate all but the most stubbornly propolised frames.

For tidying up the top bars of my hives before closing them up for year this little hive tool was just the job.

‘Pocket hive tool’ is a bit of a misnomer though. It’s certainly small enough to¬†fit into your beesuit pocket, but just about sharp enough it won’t be staying there long. Any serious pressure, for example as you get back into the car/van/truck risks either a nasty injury ( ūüėĮ ) or it will eventually escape through a neatly sliced-through seam.

It might be better to keep it in your bee bag, or – as I do with other hive tools – store it in a bucket of soda in the apiary.


Colophon

The phrase¬†small, but perfectly formed is at least 200 years old. Google Books first lists it in the¬†Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle of 1779 (though in those days they used a medial or long ‘s’ so the title was the¬†Gentleman’s Magazine and HiŇŅtorical Chronicle) where it appears in an article by Mr Rack describing (or deŇŅcribing) a new found aquatic animal. Whether ‘small, but perfectly formed‘ is now an idiom or a cliche is unclear. The usually excellent¬†Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable¬†(2014) defines the idiom as meaning “something noticeably small but compensating for this by a perfection of quality”. Their first reference to the phrase occurs in a letter written in October 1914 by Duff Cooper to Lady Diana Manners, later his wife, and quoted in Artemis Cooper’s Durable Fire (1983): ‚ÄėYour two stout lovers frowning at one another across the hearth rug, while your small, but perfectly formed one kept the party in a roar‚Äô.¬†The expression was probably not original to Cooper but drawn from the fashionable talk of the period. The usage is often tongue-in-cheek or journalistically formulaic for anything small … which is exactly how I’ve used the term in the title of this post.

SaveSave

SaveSave

Hive tools

Man is a tool-using animal, Thomas Carlyle† (1795 Р1881)

The Scottish philosopher wasn’t talking about beekeepers, but he might as well have been. The quotation goes on something like¬†“Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all”. Which pretty neatly¬†sums up the beekeeper who has lost¬†his hive tool in the long grass.

Hive tools ...

Hive tools …

Conducting a full inspection without a hive tool is a a thankless task. You can’t crack the crownboard off (unless it’s a sheet of heavy-duty plastic),¬†propolis acquires¬†the adhesive properties of¬†SuperGlue¬†and your fingers become clumsy, fat, bee-squashing sausages¬†as you try and prise¬†the frames apart.

A personal choice

There’s a huge choice of hive tools available. At the recent Welsh BKA Convention I saw about a dozen different designs on the Abelo stand alone, several not in their catalogue or on the website. Thorne’s list about 17 different hive tools. We’re spoilt for choice. Over the last few years I’ve bought, borrowed or otherwise acquired about eight¬†different styles … some of those that haven’t been lost, given away or discarded in disgust are pictured here.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

From left to right …

  1. Thorne’s traditional¬†hive tool. Perfectly adequate. Nicely weighted and pretty good quality stainless steel.
  2. Cheap knock-off variant of Thorne’s Claw Hive Tool. ¬£2 each from a long-forgotten stand at a beekeeping convention.¬†Light and relatively short (8″). My favourite by a long way. I bought half a dozen of them and wish I’d bought more.
  3. An American hive tool originally sold by Modern Beekeeping but now available from Thorne’s who call it their Frontier Hive Tool. Great quality, excellent scraper blade but too heavy and long for me.
  4. El cheapo hive tool bought from eBay. Strong, long, heavy and coarse. Horrible in my view. This one lurks in the bottom of my bee bag and is only brought out in a dire emergency.

Care and maintenance of hive tools

There’s really only two things that you need to do with hive tools in terms of care and maintenance. You need to keep them clean and try and avoid losing them.

Washing soda

Washing soda

I specifically said ‘try and avoid’. Losing hive tools is one of the¬†inevitabilities of beekeeping. Like getting stung, running out of supers, not having enough frames, missing queen cells and ‘rediscovering’¬†a¬†lost hive tool with the lawnmower. I lost three in one apiary a few years ago, finding¬†all of them in the winter as the herbage died back. You can reduce losses by painting them bright colours. Blue works well. I’ve got a nice quality bright blue hive tool given away by Mann Lake at the BBKA Spring Convention when they first started up in the UK … somewhere.

Hive tools soaking

Hive tools soaking

Hive tools need to be kept clean. I keep a bucket containing a strong washing soda solution in each apiary. Between inspections the hive tools are immersed in the bucket. This guarantees three things; there will be a hive tool available for your inspections, the hive tool will be clean and the paint will have probably peeled off. The Frontier-type American hive tool (second from right, above) was originally bright yellow. This bucket is also a great place to keep a small serrated utility knife which is useful for all sorts of tasks during the season.

I know some people who keep a separate hive tool for every hive in an apiary as part of their ‘good hive hygiene’ practice. This seems like overkill to me and ignores the level of bees drifting between colonies. It’s easy enough to dip the tool in the washing soda between inspections if needed … and saves investing in loads of hive tools ūüėČ

Lost and found ...

Lost and found …


‚Ƭ†Thomas Carlyle had a famously unhappy marriage to Jane Welsh. The novelist Samuel Butler said¬†It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”

Honey warming cabinet element

Ecostat 100 kit

Ecostat 100 kit

I recently spent an enjoyable evening giving a talk to the¬†Edinburgh and Midlothian Beekeepers Association. In questions after the talk I was asked where to buy the Ecostat heating element used in my honey warming cabinet. It’s not always listed on the website of the suggested supplier,¬†Patrick Pinker (but is as I write this).

These incubator elements are usually purchased be people rearing chickens or gamebirds. An alternative supplier listing Ecostat kits in 50 and 100 eggs sizes is Strangford Incubators in Northern Ireland. You will almost certainly need the 100 egg size to generate enough heat to melt OSR honey properly.

Shop around before you purchase as there can be quite a variation in prices … ¬£64¬†vs¬†¬£93 (including P&P) for the two suppliers listed here¬† ūüėĮ

The bee bag

Beekeepers toolbox

Beekeepers toolbox

I’ve seen some wonderful examples of well-organised solutions to transport ‘stuff’ to and from the apiary. A place for everything and everything in its place. The ‘tool tidy’ trays are popular with some beekeepers and Thomas Bickerdike¬†has previously blogged about his Rolls Royce box of goodies. The majority of these are boxes built by enthusiastic amateur beekeepers with demonstrably better¬†DIY skills than I have, though some are available commercially (the one shown here is from Heather Bell Beekeeping Supplies in Cornwall for about ¬£50). Some are even craftily based upon a 5-frame nuc box … though what you do with the contents should you have¬†to use the nuc box is not clear.

However, these rigid containers always seem to have certain limitations to me. If they’re big enough to contain what you might need they’re likely to be cumbersome and awkward to carry. If they’re small and eminently portable you’ll probably end up with¬†additional stuff in your pockets. And if they’re open-topped you’ll inevitably trip over a trailing bramble one day and spend the rest of the afternoon on your hands and knees looking for your queen clipping scissors in the long grass … and kneeling on a “crown of thorns” queen marking cage which you’d also dropped.

Which is really a paragraph-long excuse for my rather less sartorially elegant solution …

Bag lady man

Busy bee bag ...

Busy bee bag …

For years I’ve used one of those 20p ‘bags for life’ from the supermarket. These are nearly indestructible, at least semi-waterproof and reasonably capacious. If you’re happy to wear a beesuit you¬†will, by definition, not be self-conscious about your appearance (“Does my bum look big in this?” Damn right). Therefore carrying a bulging bright blue polypropylene bag emblazoned with “Every little helps” should cause no embarrassment at all.

These bags are great. Cheap enough to replace without a second thought when you melt a hole through it with the smoker. Available more or less everywhere. Flexible to accommodate odd-shaped bits and pieces. Small enough to be convenient¬†but big enough for the extras needed when grafting for queen rearing. Comfortable to carry. Wipe clean. I could go on …

Ice cream container

Ice cream container

To provide a bit of internal order and coordination I use ice-cream containers to house¬†the essentials, organised into boxes labelled ‘Daily’ and ‘Queen stuff’, indicating the usual role of their contents. This also means there’s less stuff to pick up should the bag contents be disgorged across your apiary. I recommend you take some time and care sourcing these containers … for example, you really should try Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream (though the container it comes in is wholly unsuitable being waxed cardboard). The best I’ve found is 2.5 litre Lidl Gelatelli vanilla … the box is excellent and the contents aren’t bad either‚Ć.

An additional box carries the things needed for grafting larvae, but this only goes into the bag when I’m queen rearing. A similar box is useful for offcuts of brace comb or propolis, though I usually end up squidging it into a lump and putting it into a plastic bag en route to the steam wax extractor.

A bag for life ...

A bag for life …

So, what’s in the bag?

The daily box contains the sort of things that might be needed on any visit to the apiary Рthis includes drawing pins, a magnifying glass, drone brood uncapping fork, queen excluder scraper, digital voice recorder, sample collecting tubes, pencil and/or pen, yellow Posca marking pen, tin foil and matches.

The queen stuff box contains the items that specifically relate to handling, marking and introducing queens, but excludes the things I use for grafting. So, this box contains Fiskars dressmaking snips (for queen clipping), blue, white and metallic pink Posca marking pens, queen marking cage, a variety of queen introduction cages (JzBz and Nicot), paperclips and a clingfilm-wrapped lump of queen candy.

Most ‘bags for life’ will easily accomodate two of these Lidl Gelatelli boxes end-to-end, with ample additional space¬†underneath or down the sides for the following essentials:

  • newspaper for uniting colonies … no staples makes it easier to use
  • spare hive tool … the ‘in use’ hive tool is kept in the apiary in a bucket of soda, together with a small ‘Kitchen Devil’-type knife for a variety of uses
  • spare gloves
  • a squashed egg box or two … the smoker-free smoker
  • a couple of hive straps and a block of foam … for moving hives in an emergency
  • a bee brush … though I don’t remember the last time I used it and usually use a handful of grass to gently remove bees from a frame

Finally, there’s space on top of the Lidl ice cream boxes for the smoker, a blowtorch and a camera which I always take to the apiary.

Two things that don’t easily fit into the bag are the L-shaped hive entrance blocks I use on my kewl floors and smoker fuel. The former I usually leave in the apiary for use when needed and the latter gets its own bucket that stays in the car.

Why all those Posca pens?

I’m colourblind so just¬†use white and blue pens on alternate years for queen marking. I find the red and green pen colours virtually indistinguishable and almost impossible to see in the mass of bees on the frame. The yellow is visible and very rarely gets used for queen marking but is useful to write notes on the hive roof, or mark frames as necessary. The metallic pink pen is used to mark queens going into an observation hive.

Bee bag and hivebarrow ...

Bee bag and hivebarrow …


‚Ć though they may have stopped making this as I’ve not seen it for a few months.

Extractor cleaning

Spring honey crop

Spring honey crop …

A honey extractor is one of the most expensive individual pieces of equipment a beekeeper is likely¬†buy ‚Ć. If you’re lucky, your association might own one or more extractors and make them available to borrow or hire. However you get hold of one, after use they need to be thoroughly cleaned before storing (or returning) them.

Don’t, whatever you do, follow the advice on some websites or beekeeping forums (fora?) and leave the¬†extractor outside¬†“for the bees to clean”. This is a very bad¬†idea. The feeding frenzy that results is a perfect way to spread disease.

Patience, cold water, more patience and a hairdryer

The used extractor will have quite a bit of residual honey adhering to the sidewalls and floor. You can scrape this out using a flexible silicone spatula but it’s a messy process and almost guaranteed to cover you from wrist to oxter¬†in honey. It’s far easier to:

  • close the honey gate securely
  • tip the extractor up at a steep angle so the honey runs towards the gate
  • turn the heating up in the room and leave it overnight

The following morning the majority of the honey will have drained down towards the honey gate, this can then be bottled for home consumption or used for mead or marmalade making. It’s not unusual to get a pound or more of honey like this … it’ll be a bit frothy and might be less well-filtered but it will still be delicious.

Testing ...

Testing …

To wash out the residual honey, wax and propolis from the extractor:

  • level the extractor
  • close the honey gate securely
  • fill it completely with cold or cool water and leave¬†overnight
  • empty out the water, rinse well with more cool/cold water
  • mop up the dregs with clean kitchen towel
  • dry with a hairdryer set on ‘low’

Avoid using hot water as it melts any residual wax and makes it a lot harder to clean. The easiest way to complete this wash is to stand the extractor in the garden late in the evening (after the bees stop flying), fill it from the hosepipe and then empty it early the following morning. Almost all of the honey residues will have dissolved. The extractor can then be wiped out and dried with a hairdryer … I simply hang one inside the extractor for half an hour, set on the lowest heat setting and repositioning it periodically to get into all the corners. The stainless steel drum of the extractor warms very quickly, transmitting the heat throughout the extractor.


‚Ć Unless you’re semi-commercial or larger in scale in which case you might have bought anything from a ‚ā¨1600 bottling machine to a ¬£really?! Unimog

Spray painting poly nucs

It’s recommended that poly nucs are painted before use as polystyrene degrades in sunlight. I’ve always used the cheapest masonry paint I can find – being water-based there’s no danger of damaging¬†the polystyrene, it goes on reasonably well and is pretty hard wearing. The range of colours – in the inexpensive ranges at least – is a bit limited¬†‚Ķ white, a variety of cream or ivory shades, brick red or black. I’ve always used the brick red (though the bees would see this as black of course) from Wilkinsons, but would really prefer a leaf or dark green colour¬†to help make the hives unobtrusive.

Black & Decker HVLP200

Black & Decker HVLP200

The paint tends to a be a bit thick out of the pot, so I usually water it down by about 25% and apply a couple of coats. The Thorne’s Everynucs or Paynes boxes are easy to paint with a brush as all the surfaces are flat. The Modern Beekeeping poly Langstroth nucs are a different matter altogether – the ‘branding’ and handles moulded into every face make painting them a real¬†pain.

First coat done

First coat done …

However, painting a large number of any of these boxes quickly becomes a tedious task. With 18 new Everynucs to paint I bought a Black and Decker HVLP (high volume low pressure) spray gun in the sales. These come with a small funnel-like contraption to measure the viscosity of the paint. Out of the tin the masonry paint I’ve got was far too thick and gloopy, but with enough water and lots of stirring I readily¬†achieved the right consistency. After that the painting was a doddle. In two hours – as two one hour stints – I painted a dozen Everynucs with two coats. A few areas were a bit patchy as I got the hang of the paint gun. These paint guns are essentially strong hairdryers so there are few moving parts – the nozzles and paint reservoir are easily rinsed out and cleaning probably took no more than 10 minutes.

I usually paint my cedar hives with Ronseal Fence Life¬†in a ‘forest green’ colour – this is much thinner paint and will probably¬†be usable without dilution. It’s not as hard wearing as the masonry paint and requires re-painting every few years. This spray gun will¬†make this a trivial task and it should be possible to stack them head-high and paint all four sides very quickly. All of this painting needs to be done outdoors on a calm day as there’s quite a bit of overspray from this type of paint gun ‚Ķ there speaks the voice of experience ūüėČ

D'oh ...

D’oh …

 

Saf Natura Extractor

Saf Natura Ritmo

Saf Natura Ritmo

This is a review of a 9 frame radial motorised Saf Natura Ritmo extractor, prompted by a recent discussion on the SBAi forum and the absence of many other reviews when I was researching the purchase. I hope it’s useful to others thinking of purchasing a machine.

Extractors are probably the single most expensive¬†item purchased by the majority of beekeepers. Actually, that should have started “an extractor” because a well-chosen machine that suits your beekeeping should last a very long time.¬†Try before you buy ‚Ķ borrow one from another beekeeper or, if your association owns one or more, book or hire one for a weekend to see how it suits your beekeeping needs. If your association is reasonably large it’s likely that demand will be high as the OSR finishes – honey must be extracted promptly or it will crystallise in the comb. Be prepared. Book the machine in good time and keep the removed supers warm to make extraction easier.

You may not need to buy an extractor at all. Many don’t. If you’re¬†flexible about when you can extract, or well organised, you might be able to share with friends or use the association machine(s). I’m certainly not well organised and often have to fit extraction around inflexible work commitments ‚Ķ

Extractor size – 3, 4, 9, 18 frame?

This is my second machine ‚Ķ the first being a 4-frame Lega manual tangential model which, although excellent quality, was simply too small for the number of colonies (~10) I now have. Small or large extractors (in terms of number of frames) take about the same time to extract the honey per spin, so buy a larger model if you want to spend less time extracting. This has been extensively discussed elsewhere. Since I extract twice per year (OSR and late summer) from about 18-24 supers (~200+ frames each time) and don’t intend to scale up I’ve decided a 9 frame extractor will suit me for the foreseeable future.¬†Famous last words.

Manual (hand cranked) or motorised?

Charles Atlas

Charles Atlas …

Motorised. End of discussion. Seriously. Unless you’re built like Charles Atlas, or want to be, I would strongly¬†recommend a motorised extractor if you’re considering a 9 frame or larger model. My manual tangential model was hard work after a couple of dozen frames. 200 would have been purgatory. Remember that if you’re handling 20 or so supers you will already be moving about 1000 lb.¬†of boxes around, before you start extracting, often in a warm room. For the model I discuss below the price differential between the manual and motorised version is about ¬£280. I think this is a good investment. You can often retro-fit motors to manual models, but I have no experience of this.

Why a Saf Natura extractor?

After outgrowing my manual four frame tangential extractor I’d borrowed a polythene-barreled radial 9 frame motorised Thorne’s extractor from our association. I was convinced about the capacity¬†and the motor but disappointed about the signs of¬†wear¬†on the polythene barrel. The machine had been used pretty hard by the association and would have become increasingly difficult to properly clean, so I wanted a stainless steel machine. All the standard suppliers sell these, at prices – for a 9 frame radial model – ranging from about ¬£600 to ¬£1600. The Thorne’s polythene-barreled model has a list price of approaching ¬£800. I looked carefully Abelo extractors on show at the Yorkshire Beekeepers Association¬†Spring meeting. Abelo¬†sell 8 frame tangential and 12 frame radial models, but¬†there were some rough edges on the stainless steel barrel of the model I inspected which put me off. I finally purchased a Saf Natura Ritmo extractor from Bee Equipped in Derbyshire. It was close enough to collect, so I wasn’t committed to purchasing until I’d checked the quality.

Ritmo motorised radial extractor

Manual motor

Manual motor …

The Saf Natura website provides details of this model. It is 52.5 cm in diameter and Рonce the bent angle coated steel legs are assembled and attached Рstands 102 cm high at the top of the closed lid. The motor extends the height a further 12 cm. Note that the model illustrated on the Bee Equipped and the Saf Natura websites both show what is variously termed a Saf Natura motor, or РI think Рa digital motor. These have an additional control box on the side, presumably controlling time of spin etc. Bee Equipped only sell this extractor model with a more basic manually controlled motor as shown in the images here. I presume this helps keeps the price down to a very attractive £620.

Resin cage

Resin cage …

The other clear cost-saving is the cage for the frames. In this model the top and bottom¬†sections are¬†moulded out of some sort of plastic or resin, rather than being constructed from stainless steel. The top and bottom sections are joined by stainless steel rods. The honey gate is also plastic. Half of the perspex (?) lid hinges up to add and remove frames for extraction, in doing so the motor safety cut-out (red and black in the image on the right) is engaged. The overall quality, rigidity and finish of the stainless steel is excellent. It looks and feels like a solid, well made, machine that should last a long time. I use Nationals and the extractor¬†I purchased was set up for this frame size. By using longer stainless steel rods holding the resin cages apart it is possible to use Langstroth frames in the same model. I also purchased three mesh frames for tangential extraction from brood frames (deeps). Unfortunately these are only supplied in Langstroth dimensions so will need some minor butchering before being suitable for National frames (I’ll describe this later if I ever get round to it ‚Ķ the tangential meshes were only ¬£25 for three and I didn’t want to have to pay postage at a later date).

In use …

It works well. The motor makes the expected whining noise as it speeds up or slows down. It sounds strained but I’ve heard exactly the same thing with other extractors and you soon get used to it. Full speed is amply fast enough to clear filled supers, even of viscous OSR honey. There’s nothing to stop you opening the lid or slamming the machine into reverse when it’s going full speed ahead ‚Ķ other than common sense and a small adhesive label stuck on the lid. I’ve not tried and I suggest you don’t either. As with all extractors it wobbles with an uneven load. I’m going to investigate castors or foam blocks under the legs. However, if the wobble is bad enough it’s worth rearranging the frames to sort the problem, rather than simply hanging on for dear life as it dances around the room. The worst wobble I’ve experienced, which got progressively worse as the length of spin increased, was due to my forgetting¬†to uncap one side of one frame ‚Ķ D’oh! Crystallised OSR honey in part of a frame often causes problems for similar reasons.

I run the machine with the honey gate open, directly filtering the honey through coarse and fine stainless steel filters above a 30 lb. honey bucket. As long as you keep a careful eye on the level of honey in the bucket this method works well. A contributor to the SBAi discussion commented on the relatively short distance between the bottom of the barrel and the cage, causing the long frame lugs on National supers to foul the accumulated honey. This is avoided by leaving the gate open.

I’ve only had the machine for a season so cannot comment on longevity, spares¬†etc. Dot at Bee Equipped told me they’ve been selling this model for at least a decade with no significant problems, other than some models damaged in transit. Redesigned or stronger boxes appear to have sorted this problem out.

In conclusion … highly recommended.

Note that many suppliers aggressively discount extractors in the spring shows (BeeTradex or the BBKA convention) and that the very worst time to buy an extractor is at the end of the summer ūüėČ

Full speed ahead …