Category Archives: Hive products

Eats, sleeps, bees

Synopsis : The beekeeping season is starting to get busy. Swarm control is not only essential to keep your hives productive, but also offers easy opportunities to improve the quality of your bees. Good records and a choice of bees is all you need. This week I discuss stock improvement together with a few semi-random thoughts on honey labelling, colony behaviour and wax foundation. Something for everyone. Perhaps.

Introduction

May is usually a lovely month in Scotland. It is often dry and sunny enough to spend much of the time outdoors, the days are long enough 1 to get a lot done and it’s early enough in the year to avoid the dreaded midges 2.

Usually and often.

Unfortunately, the weather so far this month has been unseasonably cool. It was probably better for much of March than it’s been for the first half of May.

But that good weather in March gave the bees a real boost – particularly in my apiaries on the east coast of Scotland.

Consequently, there’s still a lot of beekeeping to do now – swarm control, preparations for queen rearing, catching up with all the things I didn’t do in the winter ( 🙁 ) – often in between some rather iffy weather 3.

The next couple of months are usually pretty much full on … hence Eats, sleeps, bees 4.

Latitude …

The differences I discussed in Latitude and longitude a month ago are particularly marked now.

Beekeepers in Sussex or Kent have been complaining about running out of supers since mid-April. Other have been proudly displaying their first (or second) round of grafted queen cells.

In contrast, a few of my west coast colonies are still only on 6-7 frames of brood. It will be at least another fortnight until I even think about whether they’ll need swarm control.

Which might be a fortnight before they’ll actually need it.

These are perfectly healthy west coast native bees, adapted to the climate and forage available here.

The wonderful west coast of Scotland

They are classic late developers, evolution having timed colony expansion to fit with the local forage and the availability of weather good enough for queen mating.

There’s insufficient forage to produce oodles of brood in late April and many colonies have yet to produce any mature drones (though they all now have drone brood). Instead, they build up rather slowly, and are probably at the peak in July when the heather starts to yield.

This is all reasonably new to me and I feel I’m still learning how the season develops here on the west coast. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it.

Eventually 😉

Going by the rate colonies are currently building up, and their performance last year, I expect to be rearing queens from these colonies in June and early July 5.

… and longitude

Meanwhile, in Fife things are progressing much faster.

My apiaries there are about 160 miles east and at a similar latitude, but most of the colonies are already overflowing their boxes. Swarm prevention is a distant memory and I’m now busy with swarm control.

The genetics are different. My east coast bees are all local mongrels, again adapted to local conditions.

However, I suspect an even greater difference is the early season forage and – although it’ll be finished in the next week or so – the oil seed rape (OSR).

Oil seed rape … and rain

The OSR gives colonies a massive boost. They gorge on it – both the nectar and pollen – quickly filling supers and a multitude of hungry larval mouths. Reasonably strong nucs made up for swarm control on the 1st of May are now in a full brood box and will be more than ready for the summer nectar flow when it starts.

Queen rearing would have started already if the two boxes I’d earmarked for cell raising hadn’t become a little overcooked and produced queen cells at the beginning of the month 🙁 .

The best laid plans etc. 6.

And, to add insult to injury, the (lovely quality) colony I’d intended to source larvae from produced queen cells the following week.

D’oh!

Quality control

One of the (nominal) cell raising colonies – we’ll call it colony #6 for convenience 7 was borderline in terms of temperament.

On a balmy afternoon, with a good nectar flow, the bees were calm, unflustered and a pleasure to handle.

However in cool, damp or blustery weather they weren’t so great.

This is one of the reasons that record keeping is so important. Although I’d not inspected them this season in very poor conditions 8, my records from last year also showed they were, shall we say, ’suboptimal’. Not psychotic or even hugely aggressive, but certainly hotter than I’d prefer and nothing like as stable on the comb as I like 9.

Of course, the simple answer is not to go burrowing through the box in cool, damp or blustery weather’ 🙂

However, I don’t always have a choice as these bees are 160 miles away. Met Office forecasts are good for tomorrow, questionable for next week and essentially guesswork for next month (which is when I’m booking the hotels).

So, having realised that both swarm control and quality control were needed, how have I tried to improve the quality of this colony?

Controlling quality

I discovered open, charged queen cells in colony #6 on the 1st of May. Without intervention the colony would have swarmed before the end of the first week of the month 10. The queen was clipped but, as I hope I made clear last week, queen clipping does not stop swarming.

Swarm control

I used my preferred swarm control method by making up a nuc with the old queen and a couple of frames of emerging brood with the adhering bees. I put these, together with a frame of stores and a couple of new frames into a nuc box and moved them to an out apiary several miles away.

By moving the nuc away I don’t have to worry about losing bees back to the original hive. I can therefore make the nuc up a little weaker than I would otherwise need to. An out apiary (or two) isn’t essential, but it makes some tasks a lot easier.

I then went carefully through colony #6, shaking all the bees off each frame and destroying every queen cell. There were still eggs and young larvae present, so they would undoubtedly make more queen cells before my visit a week later. However, by shaking every frame and being rigorous about destroying every queen cell I ensured:

  • there would be a bit less work to do the following week
  • I’d not missed a more mature cell somewhere that could have left a virgin queen running about at my next visit. This was unlikely, based upon the timing of brood development, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Colony #6 is in a double brood box. While ransacking the brood nest for queen cells I also hoiked out a frame of drone brood and cut out yet more drone brood from a foundationless frame or two. Since the genetics of this colony was questionable it made sense to try and stop these undesirable genes being spread far and wide.

At the same time I rearranged the frames, moving all the unsealed brood into the top box.

One week later

Early on the morning of the 8th of May I checked the colony again. As expected there were more queen cells reared from eggs and larvae I’d left the week before.

The vast majority of these queen cells were in the top box, but – since I’m a belt and braces beekeeper – I checked the bottom box as well. Again, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

All of the queen cells were again destroyed.

Tough love … but if you want to improve the quality of your bees you have to exclude those with undesirable characteristics.

Importantly, by now the youngest larvae in the colony would be at least four days old. This is really too old – at least given the choice (and I was going to give them a choice) – to rear a new queen from.

Room for one more …

I rearranged the frames, leaving a gap in the middle of the top box, closed colony #6 up and completed my inspection of the other colonies in the apiary.

The last colony I checked was my chosen ‘donor’ colony with desirable genetics.

More swarm control 🙂 and a few days saved

The donor colony (#7) had started queen cells sometime during the first week of May and so also needed swarm control. However, very conveniently it had produced two nice looking cells on separate frames.

Both these queen cells were 3-4 days old and so would be capped in the next 24-48 hours.

A three and a bit day old queen cell

I could therefore use my standard nucleus swarm control (to ‘save’ the queen ‘just in case’), leaving one queen cell in colony #7 and donating the other queen cell to colony #6.

Which is exactly what I did.

Having gently brushed off the adhering bees from the frame (you should never vigorously shake a frame containing a queen cell you want 11 ) I gently slotted it into the gap I’d left in the upper brood box of colony #6. I also marked the frame to make my subsequent check (on the 15th) easier.

The frame marked QC is the only one that needs to be checked next week

By adding a well developed, but unsealed, queen cell to colony #6 I’ve saved the few days they would have taken to rear a queen from an egg or a day old larva.

Because the cell was open I was certain it was ‘charged’ i.e. it contained a fat larva sitting contentedly in a deep bed of Royal Jelly 12.

Better to be safe than sorry (again)

There were also eggs and a few larvae on the frame containing the queen cell (which was otherwise largely filled with sealed brood). It was likely that some of these would also be selected to rear new queens.

And they were when I checked on the 15th.

There was my chosen – and now nicely sculpted and sealed – cell and a few less well developed cells on the donated frame.

I know the cell I selected was charged and the larva well nourished.

In addition, I also had total confidence that the bees had selected a suitable larva to raise as a queen in the first place. After all, the survival of the resulting colony depends on it.

Therefore, I didn’t need any backups.

No ’just in case’ cells.

Rather than risking multiple queens emerging and fighting, or the strong colony throwing casts, I (again) destroyed all but the cell I had originally selected.

I’m writing this on the 17th and she should have emerged today … so my records carry a note to check for a laying queen during my first inspection in June.

This shows how simple and easy stock improvement can be.

No grafting, no Nicot cages, no mini-nucs and almost no colony manipulations etc. Instead, just an appreciation of the timings and the availability of a frame from a good colony (and this could be from a friend who has lovely bees … ).

And in between all that

That was about 1400 words on requeening one colony 🙁 . That was not quite what I intended when I sat down to write a post entitled Eats, sleeps, bees.

My east coast beekeeping – including 8-9 hours driving – takes a couple of days a week at this time of the season. On the west coast I have fewer colonies and – as outlined above – they are less well advanced, so there’s a bit less to do 13.

However, there are always additional bee-related activities that appear to fill in the gaps between active colony inspections.

I’ll end this post with a few random and half thought out comments or questions on stuff that’s been entertaining or infuriating me in the last week or so.

In between the writing, inspections, Teams meetings, editing, reviewing and writing … 😉

Honey labelling

I use a simple black and white thermal printer – a Dymo LabelWriter 450 – to produce labels that don’t detract from (or obscure) the jar contents.

Dymo thermal label (and a jar of honey)

I’ve used these for over 6 years and been very happy with the:

  • cost of the labels (a few pence per jar)
  • flexibility of the system. I can change the best before date, the batch number or other details for each print run; whether it’s 1 or 1000.
  • ability to include QR codes containing embedded information, like a website address or details of the particular batch of honey.

However Dymo, in their never ending quest for more profits a ‘better consumer experience’ have recently upgraded their printers and label printing software 14.

The newest incarnation of the printer I use – now the Dymo LabelWriter 550 – only works with authentic Dymo labels.

A more accurate spelling of authentic is  e x p e n s i v e , at least if you only buy labels in small quantities (100’s, not 1000’s).

If you fancied adding a little square label on the cap of 100 jars claiming ”Delicious RAW honey” you’d not only be falling foul of the Honey Labelling Regulation, you’d also have to cough up £18 for a roll of labels.

Dymo labels are great quality. Smudge proof, easy to remove and sharp black on white. In bulk they are reasonably priced (~3p – the same cost as an anti-tamper label – if you buy >3000 at a time).

However, you can get similar labels for a third of the price … but they won’t be usable in the new printer.

The Dymo LabelWriter 450 has no such restrictions and is still available if you look around.

I’m tempted to buy a spare.

Colony to colony variation

I started this post with a discussion of variation due to latitude and longitude. However, individual colonies in a single location can also show variation (in addition to temperament, running, following etc.) that I don’t really understand.

I have three colonies in a row behind the house here on the west coast. I can see whether they are busy or not when I’m making coffee, doing the washing up or pottering in the work room (two of these activities are more common than the other 😉 ).

All in a row (though not the colonies referred to in the text as they’re camera shy)

And they are consistently different, despite being pretty similar in terms of colony strength and development.

One colony typically starts foraging before the others and another, probably the weakest of the three, forages later and in worse weather.

Early in the season these differences were so marked I thought that one of the colonies had died.

I assume – because a) I’ve not got the imagination to think of other reasons, b) it’s the justification I use for anything I don’t properly comprehend, and c) I’ve not done any experiments to actually test what else it could be – that this is due to genetics.

It’s only because I’m fortunate enough to look out on these colonies dozens of times a day that I’ve noticed these consistent behavioural differences. I suspect my other colonies show it, but that I’ve never looked carefully or frequently enough.

Attractive foundation

I’m busy making up nucs for swarm control and sale. Although many of the frames I use are foundationless I also use a lot with standard foundation. The frames are built (or should be built!) in the winter, but I add the foundation once the weather improves and there’s less risk of cracking the brittle sheets due to low temperatures.

I buy foundation once every season or so and carefully store it somewhere cool and flat. Some of these sheets are quite old by the time I get round to using them and they often develop a white powdery ‘bloom’ on their surface.

Before (bottom) and after (top) 30 minutes in the honey warming cabinet

I used to run a hairdryer over the frames containing these bloomed sheets. The warm air brings out the oils in the wax and makes they much more attractive to the bees. They smell great!

Frames in the honey warming cabinet (W = worker foundation, to distinguish them from D = drone)

These days I just stick a ‘box full’ of frames at a time into my honey warming cabinet set at about 40°C for 30 minutes. Not necessarily quicker, but a whole lot easier … so freeing up time to do something else related to bees 🙂


Note

Today is World Bee Day. The 20th of May was Anton Janša’s (1734-1773) birthday. He was a beekeeper – teaching beekeeping in the Hapsburg court in Vienna –  and painter from Carniola (now Slovenia). He promoted migratory beekeeping, painted his hives and invented a stackable hive. 

Honeyguides

That’s not a typo.

I didn’t mean Honey Guides … or honey guide.

The sweet spot ...

For once we’ll discuss something else …

Honeyguides are a group of 17 species of birds, distributed into four genera, belonging to the family Indicatoridae. All of the 8 species that have been well studied are brood parasites, like the cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). They lay their eggs in the nest of another species – usually a specific species as they are evolutionarily adapted to match the egg size and shape 1 – and subsequently puncture the other eggs to destroy the developing embryo. 

There’s some great research on the evolutionary arms race between the egg puncturing ability of honeyguides and the eggshell thickness of the host species 2 … but I’ll leave that as your homework for the holidays 3 as I want to discuss something else about honeyguides.

Indicatoridae by name, indicator by nature

The really remarkable thing about honeyguides is hinted at by the family name. 

Indicatoridae

This reflects their ability to lead human honey hunters to a wild honey bee nest site.

Of the 17 species of honeyguides, it is only the greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator) that has been extensively studied for its guiding behaviour. There is disagreement whether the scaly-throated honeyguide also exhibits similar guiding activity.

For the rest of this post, when I say ‘honeyguide’ I mean the greater honeyguide.

The greater honeyguide lives in dry open woodland in sub-Saharan Africa. It is a rather dull-coloured, starling-sized bird. It eats honey bee larvae, pupae and wax from the nest, and is one of the few birds that can digest wax.

honeyguides

Greater honeyguide

However, the honeyguide cannot access most wild honey bee nest sites. These are often in a hollow tree and are well-defended by the bees.

But, over millenia, the honeyguide has learned that honey hunters, who have the benefit of being able to use smoke to calm the bees 4, leave a lot of debris after robbing the nest of honey.

And, over millenia, the honeyguide and honey hunters have evolved a mutualistic relationship in which the bird guides the human to the bee’s nest. The hunter gets the honey (and probably pupae, an important source of protein) and the honeyguide gets the leftovers.

“Mutualism describes the ecological interaction between two or more species where each species has a net benefit.”

Everybody wins 🙂

Guiding behaviour

Greater honeyguides are territorial and scout out the location of wild bee nests in their territory. Each territory may contain multiple honey bee nests.

To attract the attention of a honey hunter the honeyguide emits a distinctive chattering call 5.

 

They then flit from tree to tree, towards the honey bee nest, perching and spreading the tail to expose two conspicuous white spots.

This behaviour was reported as long ago as 1588. João dos Santos, a Portuguese missionary, described the ability of the bird to lead honey hunters to bees’ nests (and also described how the bird would enter the church to eat the wax candles).

Guiding by honeyguides is very effective.

The honey hunters have learned to recognise the distinctive call, flight and perching activity of the bird 6. Studies have shown that ~75% of guiding events lead to the successful identification of at least one nest. 95% of these were honey bees nests and the remainder were stingless bees.

Smoke ’em out

Once the nest has been located the honey hunter uses smoke to calm the bees. Often the nests are located high up in the tree so the hunters attach some smouldering wood to a long pole and hold it near the nest entrance. They can then climb the tree and approach safely.

There are no bee suits or veils used … many of the photographs of honey hunters I’ve seen show them wearing just sandals and shorts.

The entrance is widened with a machete and the honey-laden combs are extracted intact and lowered to the ground … no doubt after a little ‘quality control’.

It’s not just humans who value honey … chimpanzees love the stuff as well, but they eat less than 1% of the honey consumed by humans in the same area. Chimpanzees, although known to use tools, do not know how to exploit fire. They are therefore ineffective honey hunters.

In a multi-year study of chimps in the Kibale National Park, Uganda, about 60% of of bees’ nests were successfully defended by the bees, driving the chimps away by stinging them. In contrast, human honey hunters are never driven away after smoking the nest.

Smoke is the key component needed for successful robbing of the nest by the honey hunters.

Two way communication

So, the honeyguide signals – with calls and its characteristic behaviour – to the honey hunter, guiding them to the nest site. The honey hunter can ‘read’ and understand these signals and can accurately home in on the nest.

But what if you are a honey hunter and, as you start your foraging, there are no honeyguides to be seen or heard?

This is where the close relationship between the honeyguide and the honey hunter becomes even more extraordinary.

The honey hunter calls to attract the honeyguide. 

Not just any call, but a specific call … and to add an additional level of complexity, different tribes use different specific calls to attract honeyguides.

Remember, these are wild birds. 

We’re all used to communicating with domesticated animals … “Here Fido!” 7, but a specific call to attract a wild animal is probably unique.

The Yao honey hunters in Mozambique use a distinct ‘brrrr-hm’ call to summon the honeyguide. 

 

An excellent study by Claire Spottiswoode and colleagues showed that this call, not used by the Yao people for anything else, more than doubled the likelihood of attracting a honeyguide to the honey hunter and initiating guiding by the honeyguide 8. The call successfully attracted a honeyguide about two-thirds of the time it was used.

The characteristic ‘brrrr-hm’ call is passed down the generations of Yao honey hunters – from father to son 9 – meaning that a bird hearing the call could be reasonably certain the caller has the skills and tools necessary to harvest the honey.

Learning the lingo

Not all honey hunters use the same call. The Hadza people of northern Tanzania use a melodious whistle to attract honeyguides. The Kenyan Boran people use a distinctive sharp whistling call.

Different geographic populations of honeyguides clearly recognise distinct calls by the hunters.

How do the birds learn to recognise the call of the honey hunter?

Obviously not from their biological parents.

Remember, these are brood parasites and they are reared by other species such as lesser bee eaters or green woodhoopoes.

And there’s another amazing story here as these hosts have different shaped eggs 10. Different lineages of honeyguide have evolved that lay a suitably shaped egg that matches that of the specific host 11. The host specialisation is thought to reside on the female-specific W chromosome. 

OK … enough digression.

It appears that honeyguides have an innate ability to recognise human calls. As young birds they listen for these calls and learn them, a process presumably reinforced through successful honey hunting in concert with humans.

Whether juvenile Tanzanian honeyguides transported to Kenya or Mozambique could identify the ‘local’ honey hunter’s call has not been tested, but would be interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised if the call used by the honey hunter has not also evolved (the evolution of languages is itself a fascinating area) to be distinctive from other sounds in the particular area, or to carry longer distances … or that is more attractive to the honeyguides.

The evolution of mutualism between humans and honeyguides

How did humans learn to call and follow honeyguides?

Originally it was thought to involve copying the natural guiding by the bird of honey badgers (ratels).

Mellivora capensis – the honey badger.

However, this story has largely been discredited – ratels do not call to attract the honeyguide and there’s a suspicion that videos showing birds guiding badgers have been staged 12.

Instead, it is much more likely that the mutualistic relationship between humans and honeyguides evolved over a very long period.

Since we’re talking about evolutionary timeframes here this could potentially mean millions of years.

Have humans been about that long?

No … we are the ‘new kids on the block’. Homo sapiens evolved from our hominin ancestors about 300,000 years ago. Therefore it’s likely that early hominins such as the (relatively recent) H. heidelbergenesis (0.4 million years ago (Mya) ), H. erectus (1.6 Mya) or H. habilis (2 Mya) were involved instead.

The divergence of humans and great apes from a common ancestor

Have honeyguides been about that long?

Yes … analysis of the mitochondrial DNA (inherited solely from the mother) of those distinct burrow- or tree-nesting lineages of honeyguides demonstrated that they diverged at least 3 million years ago.

Have honey bees been around that long?

Certainly … Apis mellifera probably evolved from other cavity-nesting bees about 6 Mya 13

There’s no smoke without fire

One of the great debates about the evolution of humans is when our ancestors learnt to create and use fire. 

There is good evidence for use of fire about 1 Mya and additional claims that evidence control of fire 1.7 – 2 Mya 14.

All of which provides ample time for the evolution of mutualistic behaviour between H. erectus and the greater honeyguide.

This behaviour cannot have evolved without the ability of early hominins to control fire. The study of chimpanzees failing to successfully and efficiently collect honey shows this must be the case. 

At least 44 distinct African ethnic groups exhibit the type of mutualistic relationship with honeyguides I have described and current studies are aimed at determining when the hominin-honeyguide mutualism evolved 15.

A honey hunting scene at Abrigo de Barranco Gómez in Castellote, Teruel, Spain c. 7500 years old.

The fossil record cannot help us here. There’s also a huge gap between the evolution of the early homonins and the upper Paleolithic rock art that clearly depicts honey hunters smoking bees’ nests.

More studies are needed. However the inexorable passage of time is now accompanied by increasing urbanisation, the availability of refined sugar and exclusion of hunter gatherers from nature reserves. This means that people depend less on honeyguides.

In time I expect it will be inevitable that this wonderful example of interspecies cooperation will be lost.

As another year draws to a close and you spread honey on your breakfast toast, take a moment to marvel at how our ancestors’ love of honey resulted in the evolution of the only known mutually beneficial relationship between a wild bird and humans.

Extraordinary.

Happy Christmas


Notes

There’s a BBC Natural Histories podcast on honeyguides featuring Claire Spottiswoode available online. The programme notes are:

The greater honeyguide is unique: it is the only wild animal that has been proven to selectively interpret human language. Brett Westwood tells the sweet story of a bird that leads human honey hunters to wild bees’ nests in order to share the rewards – perhaps one of the oldest cultural partnerships between humans and other animals on Earth. With biologist Claire Spottiswoode, anthropologist Brian Wood, and honey hunters, Lazaro Hamusikili in Zambia and Orlando Yassene in Mozambique, and the calls of the honeyguide. Producer: Tim Dee.

2021 in retrospect

Déjà vu?

Well … not really.

This time last year I wrote my 2020 in retrospect post. Looking back the last few years I’ve always tried to post these retrospective reviews of the season a week or so before Christmas.

In December 2020 we had a rapidly rising number of Covid cases being diagnosed, peaking in early January at ~68,000 a day. One year later – actually a little less than one year – we’ve just surpassed those worryingly high numbers.

So, not déjà vu at all … as that means the feeling of having already experienced the present situation.

We have experienced it already 🙁

Like chalk and cheese

Covid and the lockdowns of 2020 had a dramatic impact on my beekeeping. I did the bare minimum to maintain the colonies. This involved little more than some rigorous swarm control followed by feeding them up for winter.

2021 has been completely different.

Despite the self-imposed restriction of living 150 miles from the majority of my bees, I had a really busy time and was beekeeping more or less all season.

And it was a very good season.

After a cold, late start to the year 1 I was concerned that the colonies weren’t going to be strong enough to exploit the oil seed rape and other early nectar.

Mean temperature difference in Spring 2021 from 20 year average

I needn’t have worried.

By mid May the colonies were booming and I managed the biggest spring honey harvest since returning to Scotland in 2015 2.

The honey bonanza was repeated again in the summer, again with a record crop.

What was particularly rewarding was that these good harvests were achieved from significantly fewer production colonies than previous years.

This isn’t really a case of Less is more, it just reflects what a good year it was here.

Downsizing

I had lived in Fife since 2015. From 2018 I’d spent increasing amounts of time on the west coast which – with lockdown – had included the majority of 2020.

Ardnamurchan sunrise, late November 2021

For many reasons this was preferable and, with no expectation of Covid (and all it had entailed) disappearing anytime soon, we took advantage of a brief hiatus in government restrictions 3 to sell-up in Fife and move permanently to Ardnamurchan.

The move was in February 2020 … and there are still some things that have yet to be unpacked.

The one thing I didn’t move was any bees.

Bees in Fife, like ~98% of the UK mainland, have Varroa. In contrast, the Ardnamurchan peninsula, together with some parts of neighbouring Morvern and Knoydart, are Varroa-free.

Therefore, in preparation for moving away from Fife altogether, I have been reducing my colony numbers on the east coast this year.

As many beekeepers know, the best way to do this is to split colonies into nucs and pop in a ripe queen cell.

Bingo!

Three weeks later you should have a mated queen and two to three weeks after that you will have a nuc ready for sale.

Have you seen the price of nucs recently?

All of which meant that I spent much of the first half of the season rearing queens.

Queen rearing in Fife

I probably enjoy queen rearing more than any other aspect of beekeeping.

I think I’ve previously recounted first reading Hooper’s Bees and Honey book and skipping over the queen rearing chapter thinking ‘Why on earth would I want to do all that?’.

Have you seen the price of nucs recently?

As Hooper said, there are few things more satisfying than working with a calm and productive colony headed by a queen you have reared.

And he was right.

Queen cells from grafted larvae … somewhere under all those bees

I started queen rearing on the 10th of May. In retrospect, despite getting good acceptance (10/10) of the larvae, this was a bit early as subsequent queen mating was patchy and slow.

If at first you don’t succeed …

The second and third batches of queens (on the 1st and 7th of June) were much more successful and the better weather in June improved mating success. Overall, almost 75% of grafted larvae resulted in mated queens.

In my experience, this is about as good as it gets. At least with my rather amateur fumbling.

I usually work with the expectation of getting about a 50% mated queens from larvae grafted, and am more than happy if I achieve much more than this.

Ben Harden setup and pollen patties

All of my cell raising in Fife used my favoured ‘Ben Harden‘ system which I described way back in 2014. I often supplement these with pollen but this year – as I had no stored pollen available – I used pollen substitute patties. There probably wasn’t a shortage of natural pollen but the bees still wolfed these down and I doubt they did any harm, even if they didn’t do much good.

Preparing a nuc for transport. Note the foam block to secure the frames

The resulting queen cells were added to 2-3 frame nucs for mating and then grown on.

In the good weather the nucs rapidly outgrew the boxes and I found myself stripping out frames of brood to hold them back when needed. The brood frames removed were used to boost production colonies, no doubt helping them collect a bumper summer crop.

West coast queen rearing

The season on the west coast starts later and develops more slowly than on the east. I suspect this is due to the absence of any oil seed rape, and possibly limited amounts of other early season sources of pollen and nectar.

Nevertheless, by late June I attempted my first round of queen rearing. With a patchy nectar flow – and despite feeding syrup – getting larvae accepted was tough. I also struggled to get the queens I did produce mated … although it wasn’t an unmitigated failure, it was in stark contrast to my experience on the east coast.

Beinn Resipol, early June

I’m pretty sure the poor queen mating success was down to a shortage of drones. This is a very sparsely populated area … of both people and bees. Next year I plan to boost drone production in all my good colonies, even if it’s at the cost of reduced honey production, to help populate the local drone congregation areas.

I used a Morris board for cell raising on the west coast. This works much like a Cloake board which I have used very successfully in previous years. I need a better season to determine whether it offers benefits over the Ben Harden setup.

Beekeeping is an exquisitely ‘local’ activity. Despite being at a broadly similar latitude and only ~150 miles apart, the bees in my east and west coast apiaries develop at different rates and swarm at different times. It’s probably going to take me a year or two to ‘get in the groove’ 4 with queen rearing on the west coast.

Record keeping

To help me remember what didn’t work last season – or to aid my recall of the few successes I did enjoy – I keep records.

In previous years I’ve done this with bits of paper that I carry around with me from apiary to apiary in my bee bag.

However, the combination of the house sale and my shockingly bad organisation 5 had resulted in me starting the 2020 season with no blank printed forms on which to keep records.

Colony records on a spreadsheet

I therefore cobbled together a slightly expanded version of the form on a spreadsheet and used this for all my record keeping.

I always have a laptop with me when travelling and the majority of my bees on the east coast are in apiaries with at least some shelter. Therefore, rather than taking notes and transcribing them to the spreadsheet I just typed them up, there and then, during the inspections.

The downs and ups of being a digital nomad

The N, M and comma keys are now sufficiently gummed up with propolis that the laptop is almost unusable.

D’oh!

The essential tech for the queen rearing digital nomad

However, keeping records like this has been a revelation. Not only are my records more complete than usual, they are also a lot more useful.

For example, they are directly searchable. If I search for ‘OA’ I can find the 18 instances when I referred to this during the year – all of which are in the Treatment column.

With a little Pivot Table magic I can see how busy I was during the season.

Colony inspections per week 2021

I’ve not broken this down into east and west coast apiaries, and I’ve exclude instances when the brood box wasn’t opened or when I did nothing but add syrup/pollen patties etc.

Over the season I inspected something like 340 colonies, but as is clear from the graph above, the bulk of the work was in May and June. Several colonies haven’t been fully inspected since late July, though all those on the east coast have had the Apivar strips added and removed.

Big deal … show me something useful

OK, I agree the graph above is of little use. Perhaps more beneficial is the ability to easily get an idea of various aspects of colony performance.

For example, when I’m queen rearing I only want to select larvae from my best colonies.

That’s not necessarily the colony I thought was best last week.

Perhaps I was particularly clumsy that week with an even better colony?

Maybe I have simply forgotten how psychotic the apparently good colony was in previous weeks?

It really should be the colony that has, over the range of characteristics I score, performed best over the season.

Come in number 21, your time is up

My queens are numbered, or at least the boxes they are in carry a unique queen number.

Therefore, by being careful not to duplicate queen numbers during the season, it’s possible to get an idea of which colonies (queens) have performed best … again with a little Pivot Table magic.

The scores are on the doors

These are cumulative averaged scores of three separate criteria e.g. temper or steadiness. I don’t keep records of honey weights, or longevity, or swarminess, or any number of other criteria … but I could if I wanted 6.

Next season I’ll have a pretty good idea which queens to select larvae from when I start queen rearing.

Mid-season scare

At some point late in July I received the dreaded ‘AFB within 5 km’ email from the National Bee Unit.

Irrespective of how careful you are in previous inspections, or of how rigorous you are with apiary hygiene 7, these emails are always worrying.

At least they are to me 🙁

I sold my first-borne child and purchased a load of AFB test kits, ordering them en route to Fife and collecting them from Brian in Thorne’s of Newburgh before arriving at the apiaries.

I then spent an entire day going through every frame 8 in every hive in the ‘at risk’ apiary and another site that I use.

Congratulations

It was a busy day.

After looking at a few hundred thousand cells you start to get paranoid.

Inevitably you’ll find a few partially capped cells … after all, they can’t go from open to capped without – at some point – being partially capped. I didn’t lateral flow test every one, but I did the ropey larva test on a large number … everything was negative.

Phew!

I was subsequently told that, although additional apiaries (one or more, bee inspectors are, rightly, careful not to disclose confidential information) were found with AFB, all were directly linked to the index site i.e. AFB transmission involved the beekeeper-mediated transfer of bees or contaminated equipment, rather than through drifting or robbing by the bees alone.

Forewarned is forearmed … next season I’ll be careful to check the colonies as they build up in the spring.

The dying of the light

I’m writing this as we approach the shortest day of the year which, here on the west coast, is about six and three quarter hours long.

There’s not much light, but what there is can be stunning …

Ardnamurchan sunset, looking towards Mull

It’s a good time to look back over the season.

To work out what worked and what didn’t.

Overall 2021 was pretty good as far as my bees were concerned. The season contained a normal range of surprising successes and abject failures, caused – in equal measure – by my usual insightful interventions and appallingly cackhanded meddling.

It was fun.

I learnt a few new things.

I probably re-learnt a lot more 😉

And, like every season, I saw things I’d either never seen before or not been alert enough to notice.

Herding drones

I’ll end this retrospective with a photo taken on the last day of August as I transferred a colony to a new brood box.

Herding drones

It’s not a particularly good photo as I had to carefully put down the frame I was holding and scrabble around for my camera.

In the far back corner of the hive, diametrically opposite the entrance (which was reduced to help the colony repel wasps), there was a ‘clump’ of drones. They were tightly wedged into the corner of the hive and – at least to me – it looked as though they were being herded there by the workers.

We all know that drones are evicted from the colony as autumn approaches.

Their job is done.

Actually, to be pedantic, if they are still alive in early autumn they have singularly failed to do their job 😉

Whatever … they are surplus to requirements as far as the colony is concerned.

Usually you see the drones being turfed out of the entrance of the hive.

I think this photo shows what happens to the drone inside the hive. The workers pester and harry them. Either they try and hide in the corners of the hive, or they are effectively herded there by the workers.

It can’t be a lot of fun being a drone in late August 🙁


 

Beeswax wraps

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

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

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

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

But bees don’t only produce honey

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

Oops … brace comb

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

Wax block

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

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

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

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

Beeswax wraps

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

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

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

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

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

Ingredients

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

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

Fabric and pinking shears

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

You’ll need the following:

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

Ingredients for beeswax wraps

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

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

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

Slow cooker …

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

Instructions

beeswax wraps

Evenly spread the beeswax mix

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

beeswax wraps

Here are some I prepared earlier

Once cooled they can be folded gently and stored.

Notes

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

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

beeswax wraps

Large wraps

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

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

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

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

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

Have fun 🙂


Note

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

Preparing this sheets of beeswax wrap mix

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

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

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

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

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

All done!

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

 

Measure twice, cut once

Swear often 😉

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

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

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

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

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

The elasticity of time

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

This is what it feels like … the beekeepers year

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

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

This surely defies the laws of physics?

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

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

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

Getting creative

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

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

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

That column eventually morphed into this website 4.

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

I wrote about DIY because it was something that:

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

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

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

Measure twice, cut once

Which brings me back to the start of this post.

The motto for beekeeping DIY could be something like:

Measure twice, cut once, swear often 6

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

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

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

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

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

Morris board … that’s £8.25 please

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

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

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

Fat dummies

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

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

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

Fat dummies – mark 1

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

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

Clever.

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

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy mark 2 … with integral feeder and insulation

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

Problem solving

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

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

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

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

So, it’s often free.

And that’s a word all beekeepers like 😉

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

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

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

Believe me, I’ve tried.

There are special glues, but at special prices 🙁

Roofs

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

Pizza cutter

Pizza cutter … take care scoring the Correx

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

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

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

Sticky stuff ...

Sticky stuff …

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

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

Here’s one I made earlier

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

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

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

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

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

Electrickery

This winter I have three projects to entertain me.

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

Mark 2 is currently being stress tested.

It is being tested.

I am getting stressed.

Queen cell incubator – mark 2 … a work in progress

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

Great temperature control at a range of (different) temperatures

Grrrr.

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

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

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

The plan is for mine to be the exact opposite.

Simple, and not very clever at all.

Testing is ongoing 😉

Software, not hardware

And the final project is software, not hardware.

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

QR code containing a batch number

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

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

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

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


 

Hydroxymethylfurfural

Excuse me?

Hydroxymethylfurfural which, for very obvious reasons is usually abbreviated to HMF, is an organic compound that forms in sugar-containing foods, often as a result of heating.

Hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) Oxygen = red, Hydrogen = white, Carbon = black

HMF is relevant to bees because, at high levels, it is toxic for them. Since beekeepers often heat (or use ready-made feed that has been heated during production) sugar-containing syrups or fondants it’s worth being aware of it.

HMF is also relevant to beekeepers as high levels of it in honey are an indication of prolonged heating during storage and preparation or potential adulteration. For this reason there are legal limits on the levels of HMF in honey sold for human consumption.

I suspect beekeepers in the UK who know about HMF – and many may not – probably worry about it unduly. In tropical countries or regions where high fructose corn syrup is used as a bee food then HMF is likely to be of more immediate importance.

Natural occurrence of HMF

Hydroxymethylfurfural is essentially absent from fresh foods. However, in sugar-containing foods, particularly those that are acidic, HMF levels can build up. A chemical process called a Maillard reaction is responsible for HMF formation (there are other reactions that generate HMF as well, including caramelisation) and the reaction works about five times faster for every 10°C rise in temperature.

Therefore processes such as drying or cooking result in elevated HMF levels. The precise amount varies depending upon the foodstuff, the amount of heating and other factors; typical figures are bread 3 – 180 mg/kg, prunes 240 mg/kg, sugarcane syrup 100 – 300 mg/kg and roast coffee 900 mg/kg 1.

All of these foods can be consumed perfectly safely (at least in terms of their HMF content … prunes can have some adverse effects 😉  ).

It should therefore be obvious that the 40 mg/ml limit 2 of HMF in honey has nothing to do with its safety for human consumption.

Dietary HMF has been extensively studied as there were concerns it may be carcinogenic for humans. Several studies showed that non-physiological levels and/or prolonged exposure were cytotoxic or inhibited key enzymes in the cell such as DNA polymerase. However, no evidence for in vivo carcinogenic or genotoxic effects have been demonstrated 3.

HMF is currently considered safe and has been shown to have beneficial antioxidant activity, to protect against hypoxic (low oxygen) injury and to counteract the activities of some allergens.

HMF in honey

Readers familiar with the chemistry of honey will be aware that it is often rich in fructose (one of the sugars from which HMF is derived) and is acidic.

Add a little heat and you have near-perfect conditions for the production of HMF.

How much heat? 

It’s actually not just heat but a combination of heat and time.

The higher the temperature, the less time is required for the production of a certain amount of HMF. There are several studies of this, but one of the most frequently quoted is from White et al., in 1964 4 which has this slightly skewwhiff, but nevertheless useful, graph of the influence of storage temperature and time on HMF production in honey.

HMF production in honey – influence of storage temperature and time

That’s barely legible – check (and enlarge) the original if needed – but the approximate times/temperatures required to generate 30 mg/kg of HMF in honey 5 are as follows:

30°C ~250 days
50°C ~10 days
70°C ~10 hours

All of which is good news … heating a 15 kg bucket of rock-solid OSR honey overnight at 50°C to melt it before making soft-set honey is unlikely to significantly increase the HMF levels.

How to avoid the generation of HMF in honey

But, if you are worried about HMF levels, you could always produce creamed honey which just requires overnight warming at 33°C.

This is what I now do; not because of any concern over the HMF levels but because it’s:

  • faster
  • produces a honey with better batch-to-batch consistency of texture
  • generates a jarred honey much less susceptible to frosting

Long-term storage of honey results in the formation of HMF. The lower the temperature it is stored (and the shorter the time) the less HMF is produced. For an exhaustive list of HMF levels quantified in honey stored at different temperatures have a look at Table 1 in Shapla et al., (2018).

Store honey carefully in a cool place … or sell, eat or gift it quickly

It makes senses to store honey in a cool place with a relatively stable temperature.

Quantifying HMF

There are a variety of ways of detecting HMF. Unfortunately, all require laboratory equipment and none are really suitable for home use.

There are spectrophotometric methods – essentially detecting a colour change after adding an indicator that reacts to the presence of HMF – but these can lack both sensitivity and specificity. Some of the chemicals involved are carcinogenic.

More accurate and sensitive are methods use reversed-phase high-performance liquid chromatography. These have been in routine use for years.

Orbitrap ID-X Tribrid Mass Spectrometer

Probably the newest and most advanced methods involve the use of time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MS MALDI-TOF). These ionise the constituents of the sample and measure the time they take to reach a detector. Mass spectrometry is exquisitely sensitive and specific … and the equipment is eye-wateringly expensive. 

Since you’re unlikely to have one in your honey processing room 6 you’re better off doing your best to avoid conditions that lead to the build-up of HMF in the first place.

OK, enough about honey and humans, what about the bees?

HMF is toxic for both adult bees and developing larvae. The level of toxicity depends upon the concentration of the HMF, the duration of exposure and the developmental stage of the bee.

Krainer and colleagues 7 looked at toxicity of HMF to developing larvae and showed that concentrations up to 750 ppm (i.e. 750 mg/kg) did not reduce larval or pupal mortality.

Larval and pupal mortality when exposed to HMF at different concentrations.

They calculated that the LC50 (concentration that produced 50% mortality) at day 7 and day 22 was 4280 ppm and 2424 ppm respectively, with a calculated LD50 (dose per larva that resulted in 50% mortality) of 778 μg and 441 μg at day 7 and day 22 respectively.

Adult bees were less sensitive to HMF in the first week after emergence than during the first week of larval development.

Adult bee mortality when fed a diet containing HMF at the levels specified

What does all this mean?

It means that high levels of HMF are likely to have a significant impact on adult bees, but – at least until the levels are exceptionally high (grams, not milligrams, per kilogram) will probably not adversely impact brood levels.

Further validation of the adverse effects of HMF to adult bees

A similar study was recently conducted by Gregorc and colleagues 8 using lower concentrations of HMF.

Survival of adult bees fed with HMF-spike Apifonda

Again, there was a time/dose response, but note that only about 30% of the control bees survived 30 days and this was only double the number that had been fed the lowest level of HMF-spiked Apifonda. Note the clear evidence of a dose-response with increasing levels of HMF in the diet.

Dysentery

Several studies, dating back at least 50 years, report that high levels of HMF result in dysentery-like symptoms due to ulceration of the gastrointestinal tract of honey bees.

Gregorc and colleagues used immunohistochemistry to investigate the integrity of the gut tissues in the honey bees fed HMF. They stained cells red that were undergoing a process called ‘programmed cell death’ or apoptosis. This is a natural physiological response to damage. The more red staining, the worse the damage.

Midgut of formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissue of worker bees exposed to HMF

At higher doses of HMF and/or longer exposure there was increased apoptosis in the gut tissues, presumably accounting for the dysentery-like symptoms often seen (though these were not recorded in this particular study).

Real world beekeeping

All of these bee corpses and fancy-dan immunohistothingamajiggery really just confirm that high levels of HMF are a bad thing™

In terms of honey processing and storage the allowed levels are nothing to do with human (or bee) health, but everything to do with evidencing overheated, poorly stored or doctored honey.

And since no readers of this blog do these things then there’s no need to be concerned 😉

Assuming your honey starts with low HMF levels (on extraction) then any reasonable levels of heating to liquify honey for filtering, blending or jarring should not result in HMF levels anywhere near to those that would prevent the honey being saleable 9.

Refer to the graph above from the 55 year old paper from White and Co. (shown above) for further validation.

If you’re making thick (2:1 by weight sugar to water) syrup to feed bees perhaps use warm rather than boiling water. However, considering the time involved and the absence of the acidity of honey, even with the latter HMF levels should not get close to high enough levels to endanger the bees.

If you’re making thin (1:1 by weight) syrup then use cold water. Just stir it a bit longer to dissolve it all.

However, take care – or avoid altogether – the use of high fructose corn syrups (HFCS) for feeding bees. I don’t know anyone who does this in the UK and have no experience of it myself. To learn more have a look at this article in Bee Culture. HFCS is high in fructose (the clue is in the name) and acidic, so HMF readily forms.

Studies of commercial HFCS show levels of HMF can start at 30 – 100 mg/kg before any long-term storage. 

Oxalic acid

The only time most beekeepers probably need to have concern about HMF levels is in the preparation and storage of oxalic acid solutions for trickle treating colonies in midwinter.

Oxalic acid is, er, acidic. For trickle treating it’s mixed with thin syrup to make a 3.2% solution. The combination of syrup and acidity means that HMF can be produced if stored – for a long time – in unsuitable conditions (under which there is an obvious colour change).

Stored OA solution and colour change

Stored OA solution and colour change …

So, if you’re preparing OA solutions for trickle treating either:

  • use it immediately and safely dispose of the excess
  • store it at 4°C and use then it as soon as possible (before safely disposing the excess)

Fondant

But what about fondant?

The HMF levels in commercially available fondant have recently been discussed on the Beekeeping Forum. I’m grateful to ‘loyal listener reader’ (to use Radio 4’s More or Less definition) Archie McLellan for bringing this to my attention.

The thread started with the challenging title The truth behind fondants.

Like all discussion groups, the contributions are many and varied.

Some wander off-topic.

Others use it as an opportunity to get a little dig in at the opposition.

Or a great big dig 😉

Novices and the naive ask simple questions and hope for straightforward answers 10.

Usernames often give no indication of who the poster actually is.

Is the poster a manufacturer or distributor of BeeCentric fondant™ “The best fondant for bees and a whole lot better than that cr*p they sell for ice buns”

Does the poster use 5 tonnes of fondant a year and buys anything s/he can get as long as it’s cheap enough?

Or does the contributor have a £576,000 Orbitrap MALDI-TOF mass spectrometer in their basement and a damned good idea of exactly how much HMF is present in every commercial source of fondant?

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

Who knows?

I certainly don’t know all of the contributors to these threads.

But I know some of them 😉

Read the thread. It’s now 12 pages long and you’ll do well not to get lost or to disappear down a few cul-de-sacs

If you’ve ‘got a life’ and want to cut to the chase then have a look at this post in particular.

What do I do?

I use standard Baker’s fondant. It costs about £8-12 for 12.5 kg depending how much you need. I’ve used this type of fondant for a decade for 90% of my colony feeding (and 100% of my autumn feeding).

I’ve never seen any adverse effects from using this type of fondant for my bees.

I simply do not believe some of the negative marketing that is used to promote BeeCentric fondant™ costing £36 for 12.5 kg. It’s not that I can’t afford this 11 and it’s certainly not because I don’t care about my bees. I simply choose to trust experience over carefully-worded marketing ‘information’.

To convince me they’d need to publish the HMF levels in their products. They might be lower than bog-standard Baker’s fondant.

And I’d also want to know the HMF levels in standard Baker’s fondant 12.

If they were significantly higher 13, are they anywhere near high enough to damage my bees?


Note

A version of this article appeared in the November 2021 edition of An Beachaire – The Irish Beekeeper.

Winding down

Here in Scotland the season is rapidly drawing to a close. All of the summer nectar sources – the lime, blackberry and heather – have stopped yielding and the bees are noticeably less busy, other than in the warmest parts of the day.

Inside the hive the colony is segueing from summer to winter bee production. Brood rearing is still ongoing and there’s lots of pollen still going in, but the rate at which the queen is laying is very much reduced.

And, as the bees transition from summer to autumn behaviour, my own beekeeping activities are also changing. No more queen rearing, uniting or even colony inspections. The risk of swarming ended months ago.

Instead, with the winter ahead, the number of evening talks is increasing and several winter beekeeping projects are starting to occupy my mind.

But the season’s not over yet and there are still a few last minute tasks before active beekeeping stops. Here is what has been keeping me busy over the last week or two …

Talk, talk

Beekeepers are a sociable bunch and the pandemic has had a significant impact on the amount of digestive biscuits consumed and tea slurped in church halls across the country.

However, in addition to being sociable 1 they are also adaptable and inventive. Zoom and GoToMeeting talks, attended from the comfort of the sofa with a glass of red wine, have become the new normal. 

Early forays into the world of ‘virtual’ beekeeping were plagued with dodgy connections or noisy feedback.

Q&A sessions were stilted due to the lack of familiarity with the need to unmute the microphone before talking.

Some were more like a Marcel Marceau tribute act than Beekeeper’s Question Time.

But all that has changed.

I’ve experienced some excellent hosting, lively and interactive Q&A sessions and entertaining pre- or post-talk chat with beekeepers across the country. 

‘Virtual’ beekeeping talks

Increasingly this format appears to have been widely accepted. There may not be face-to-face meetings with tea and biscuits, but there’s also no need to drive half way across the county on a filthy, wet winter night.

Long distance talks – imagine the travel expenses being saved

I live in one of the most westerly locations in the UK (I’m about 15 km west of Land’s End) and have used the title ‘Go West young man’ a couple of times in previous posts. Later this winter I’ll be ‘virtually’ going west a further 7000 km and talking to beekeepers in British Columbia, Canada. They may be half way across the world, but their climate (reasonably mild and wet) is not dissimilar to the west of Scotland, and bees are bees 🙂 

It should be interesting.

Zoom and GoToMeeting

About 95% of the talks I give (or attend) use Zoom. It works well. The interface is logical and I can see some/all of the audience. Questions are often handled through the ‘Chat’ function. At least a couple of associations have invested in an add-on 2 that allows questions to be upvoted, so moving the most popular or relevant topic 3 to the top of the pile. 

‘Seeing’ the audience in the talk isn’t really necessary, and can be a bit distracting 4. But I find it really helps during the Q&A session, and certainly makes the ‘virtual’ interaction just that little bit more realistic. 

At the very least I can guesstimate the age and experience of the beekeeper asking the question, so allowing me to tailor my answer if appropriate. Of course, this sometimes goes wrong, but people are usually too polite to point out my error.

GoToMeeting is less intuitive (possibly because I’ve used it less) and I don’t think offers me a view of the audience 5. However, I think it’s more suited to larger audiences and coped admirably with ~250 who attended a recent talk to the Welsh BKA.

OK, enough virtual beekeeping … what about the real thing?

Heather honey

In the six years I lived in Fife (on the east coast of Scotland) I never moved my bees outside a 20 mile corridor in the centre of the county. The arable farmland, mixed woodland and low, rough grazing contained no (worthwhile) heather.

Therefore, despite living in Scotland, I’ve no previous experience with heather, considered by many to be the ultimate honey. However, on the west coast we have patchy heather on the hill behind the house, so the bees have almost no choice but to forage there.

After a record-breaking honey yield in Fife, anything extra in the west was a bonus.

I was singularly ill-equipped to extract it. A few of the frames I put through the extractor collapsed spectacularly, so I was reduced to scraping the frames back to the midrib and crushing and straining the honey out.

As I’ve said before, there’s always something new to learn.

Crushed and strained … I was, but I got there eventually

And I learnt that this can be a messy and exhausting process 🙁

One of many few … my first jars of Ardnamurchan honey

But, by golly, it was worthwhile 🙂

I now have to buy a larger shed to store a compressed air-driven fruit press as extracting anything more than half a dozen supers of heather honey will probably drive me round the bend.

Based on the price of these fruit presses and the likely honey yield per year I reckon I’ll break even in about 29 years 🙁  6

The heather here on the west coast goes on yielding long after the bees in Fife have packed up and gone home.

At least, usually. 

Feeding and forage

The summer honey came off the hives in Fife in mid-August. All the colonies were treated with Apivar strips and received a full block of fondant on the same couple of days I removed the supers.

It was hard work, not least because there was a lot of honey. All the supers were brought back home for extracting, and subsequently returned for storage.

As described a couple of weeks ago, I only feed fondant in the autumn. Having checked the colony is queenright I simply plonk a block of fondant on the hive and leave them to get on with it 7.

When I checked the colonies earlier this week all had completely finished their 12.5 kg fondant block.

All gone

Although I didn’t do a full colony inspection, I did have a peek in a couple of hives to check the level of stores and brood. They were wall-to-wall with capped stores except for 2-3 frames in the centre of the brood box which contained about a hands-breadth of brood. Much of this brood was capped and there was still a little bit of space for the queen to lay … but not much.

However, several boxes also had brace comb in the super above the empty bag of fondant. None of this contained brood as I always support the block of fondant on a queen excluder. 

Bees don’t draw comb on fondant … or do they?

I suspect this comb building was triggered by the availability of ivy nectar. In previous years I’ve not seen comb drawn when feeding fondant. However, it’s been quite mild and the bees have probably been taking advantage of the warm weather to supplement the fondant.

Avoiding another sticky mess

I don’t want to leave the bees with a third of a super of ivy honey, particularly when the rest of the super is a big empty space they would have to heat. However, I also don’t want to mess about cutting it all away or – worse – wasting all their efforts.

A small hole

Therefore, having removed the queen excluder and the empty fondant wrapper I placed a new crownboard and empty super back on the hives with brace comb. I modified the crownboard to reduce the hole to about a single bee width.

Regular readers will know that modified almost always means either gaffer tape or Correx.

I’ve branched out this time and instead used the side of a cardboard box of fondant for one hive. If this works I’ll claim it was a well thought out experiment. If it doesn’t I’ll claim I was pushed for time and had no Correx or gaffer tape with me 8.

Having done all this I added back the original crownboard with the attached brace comb and closed the hive up securely.

The intention here was to make the stores in the brace comb appear as though it was outside the hive. I expect the bees to relocate the nectar from the brace comb – none of it was capped yet – to the brood box, as and when space become available.

No top ventilation please

Finally, reinforcing the point I made recently about the dislike bees have for top ventilation, every single Abelo crownboard “vent” was gummed up solidly with propolis. 

I’ve got the message loud and clear. No matchsticks needed here.

Scratch and sniff reposition

Apivar strips need to be placed in the edges of the brood nest, at least two frames apart and in diametrically opposing corners of the hive.

But in mid-August the brood nest is a lot larger than it is a month later. As the brood nest shrinks, the strips get further and further away from the main concentration of the bees in the hive.

In an active hive stuffed with bees this probably isn’t a major issue. However, to achieve maximum exposure of the bees – particularly the young bees that Varroa like to hang out with and that are concentrated around the brood nest – it makes sense to reposition the strips midway through the treatment period.

Apivar strip placement as the brood nest shrinks

Apivar treatment takes 6-10 weeks. The actual wording is something like “The larger the brood is, the longer the strips should be left in the limit of 10 weeks”. I usually treat for 9-10 weeks; my colonies are all pretty strong at the end of the summer.

But strips left for that long in the hive often get gummed up with propolis and wax.

Apivar strip efficacy is probably impaired by all that propolis and wax

I therefore spend a few minutes scraping the strips clean of gunk 9 and then reposition them in the hive, adjacent to the – now shrunken – brood nest.

There are studies showing that this scratching and repositioning of the Apivar strips marginally increases the devastation wreaked on the mite population.

Apivar scratch and sniff repositioning studies

And that can only be a good thing™.

More heavy lifting

I returned to the west coast after two long days of driving, beekeeping and meetings 10 having collected a further 125 kg of fondant en route. 

The following day a pallet of jars were delivered from C Wynne Jones. I get the square jars I like – and, more importantly, my customers like – from there. Because of my remote location the ‘free delivery’ comes with a hefty surcharge, so it makes sense to buy a reasonable number at once.

Unfortunately the courier transported them on a 36 ton artic, and there was slightly less than no chance whatsoever that it would be able to negotiate our ~300 metre, 1 in 5 driveway.

I’d had a barely decipherable call (wrong mobile network) from the driver in the morning as he arrived on the peninsula but heard nothing more. I presumed he was still negotiating the ~18 miles of single track road to get here.

Either that or he’d got no phone reception.

I was right on both counts.

He knocked at the door having been unable to call me, but had abandoned the lorry in the road and walked up the hill to the house. 

What a star.

With thanks to Palletline

In exchange for a jar of honey – to restore his flagging blood sugar levels – he unloaded the pallet in the road and I made four trips by car to collect the boxes.

Beekeeping is a high-volume pastime 11 … everything takes up a lot of space.

I think I need to find another location for the canoe that occupies one side of the shed.

In between all the heavy lifting …

And canoeing with the dolphins in the loch is the other thing I’ve been enjoying now the majority of the beekeeping is winding down for the year.


 

Less is more

The season here started late after a a long, cold spring, and it’s giving every impression of ending early. A couple of low pressure systems have slowly drifted in from the west, replacing the settled calm weather with something a lot more changeable.

On the west coast of Scotland the heather has still to really get started. That is if it’s going to get started at all 🙁

It was so dry earlier in the summer that the recent rain may be too little, too late. I’m not unduly worried as I’m busy making bees rather than making honey this year.

Although the temperature hasn’t dropped much 1 it’s starting to feel quite autumnal. 

Siskin

The mixed woodland around us is now quiet most of the time, with very few small birds about. When you do see them, siskin and goldfinch are starting to form large jittery flocks, bounding away at the slightest provocation. The longer nights 2 are busy with the calls of tawny owls as the young leave the nest.

My infrequent visits to the east coast are short and packed with beekeeping and work commitments so I see much less wildlife. However, it’s very clear that the season is ‘all over bar the shouting’. The bees are getting defensive, there are lots of wasps about and the nectar flow is finished.

Let the heavy lifting begin … and Correx

On my last visit to Fife I cleared the supers and removed them for extraction.

I’ve described my clearer boards before 3. They have no moving parts, a deep lower rim providing space for the bees to clear to, and two well-separated exits.

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

I usually try and clear all the hives in a single apiary at once. It increases the workload, but it saves making more than two visits. This of course means that I need sufficient clearer boards for every hive in the apiary … and on this trip I didn’t 4.

At the last minute I therefore built a few extra using Correx, some butchered rhombus escapes, spare ekes and gaffer tape. 

Quick fix clearer board – hive side

If you’re going to do this here are a couple of tips:

  1. Do not use standard 3M gaffer tape as sold in the ‘Middle of Lidl’ and elsewhere. It can’t cope with the warmth and humidity of the hive – at least when stuck to Correx – and the escape usually detaches within 24 hours. Unsurprisingly these things work a whole lot less well (i.e. not at all) without the rhombus escape. The best gaffer tape I’ve found for Correx is Unibond Power Tape (which is waterproof and very long lasting).
  2. Don’t try and save time/save rhombus escapes/cut corners by using only one exit hole and half a rhombus escape. The hives I tried this with still had hundreds of bees in the supers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉

I have to transport all my supers to the west coast for extraction. Emptying them of bees, keeping the wasps away and loading them into my little car was a fraught and exhausting process.

More Correx

Whatever the opposite of a hot hatchback is … is what I drive.

It’s a great little car and very economical 5.  However, it’s not really ideal as a beemobile. I can only get a maximum of about 16 supers in it whilst still being able to see out of at least some of the windows.

To save the already filthy upholstery from contaminating all that lovely honey in the supers I use more Correx …

The multi-purpose Correx hive roof

… in this case an upturned Correx hive roof.

These are simplicity itself to construct using Correx and more Unibond Power Tape. Correx is remarkably UV resistant and I have roofs originally built in 2013/14 still going strong. A single 1.2 x 2.4 m sheet of Correx will yield half a dozen roofs and cost you the grand sum of about £1.70 each 6.

When you’re clearing and transporting supers these lightweight roofs/trays are invaluable. They keep the wasps out of the top of the stack and stop the honey dripping out of the bottom.

And a bit more Correx

It’s much easier to extract honey if it’s warm. I therefore stack the supers on top of my honey warming cabinet until I’m ready to do the extracting … or until my back recovers after lifting all those supers off the hives and into the car.

Honey supers waiting to be extracted

I built my honey warming cabinet several years ago. It is probably one of the most useful (and used) pieces of beekeeping ‘stuff’ I’ve got. It’s got excellent temperature control and I’ve even used it to incubate queen cells. However, it is primarily used for honey and every bucket I process and jar goes through it, often more than once 7.

Because of the size of available plywood sheet, the depth needed to house the element and insulation, coupled with a generous helping of my incompetence, I built the cabinet slightly too small. 

This resulted in the classic ‘good news and bad news’.

The good news is that I don’t need to be absolutely precise in terms of positioning the edge of the supers on the thin upper edges of the cabinet. Any mistakes here would result in the insulation getting crushed. 

The bad news is that some supers can leave a slight gap at the bottom through which heat escapes. This depends upon the particular design of the supers. Paradise/Denrosa poly supers and Abelo supers are reasonably flat on the underside, but red cedar boxes leave lots of unwanted gaps.

Correx gap-filler on the honey warming cabinet

A simple shim of Correx is an easy solution to this issue. As an added benefit, this also stops the upper edges of the cabinet from getting sticky.

A wheely useful trolley

A honey warming cabinet takes up quite a bit of space when not in use. Mine conveniently fits onto a robust ‘trolley’ that allows me to easily wheel it out of the way when needed.

Wheely useful trolley under the honey warming cabinet

When pre-warming supers for extraction it has to be moved off this onto the floor. The 18 supers in the picture above probably weigh over 300 kg. Neither the tiled floor nor the castors would be able to support this.

However, when just warming a couple of buckets of OSR honey prior to creaming this allows me to tuck the cabinet out of the way until needed.

I’ve got a couple of these trolleys. I stack the empty supers on them after extraction and so can move them about without excess bending and lifting.

Extracting

I uncap supers using a hot air gun. This is fast and efficient. The cappings melt almost instantaneously but can generate wax ‘shrapnel’ which tends to fly off in all directions. I strongly recommend wearing an apron to avoid getting peppered with tiny specs of molten wax.

A 10 frame super … but I actually squeezed the bottom one in from another box.

Almost all my supers are arranged to contain 9 frames. I start them with 11, reduce them to 10 once the comb is drawn, and take one more frame out once they start fattening up. Drawn super comb is reused year after year and it’s always nice to see a frame dated a decade or more ago going though the extractor. 

The 9 frames in a super conveniently fills my 9 frame extractor (funny that). Of course, sometimes the bees fail to completely fill the outer frames, so there may be a little juggling to try and get the machine reasonably well balanced before starting the run.

It’s surprising how quickly you learn to judge the weight of a filled frame and to calculate where it should be placed in the extractor to achieve the best balance.

‘Best’ as in ‘best that can be achieved with these 9 frames without spending an interminable amount of time shifting the frames about’.

Thank goodness for extractors on castors 🙂

Rubber-wheeled castor with brake

An unbalanced extractor on castors gently wiggles back and forth, rather than walking boldly across the room. Leave the castors unbraked during use.

My extractor is pretty basic. On/off and speed control. No timed runs or other snazzy settings. Because some honey extracts more easily (perhaps because it was lower down in the stack of warming supers?) I use an LED headtorch 8 to look down the inner sidewall of the machine to judge when I should stop the run.

Extractor and headtorch

You can see the drops of honey hitting the sidewall as tiny pinpricks of reflected light. Once they’ve reduced to almost nothing I reverse the machine for a minute or two, or remove the frames and reload it.

Why is less more?

As I suggested in the opening paragraph, this has felt like a very short season. Because of my move to the west coast I’ve also got far fewer honey production colonies this year than any time in the last decade.

Nevertheless, it’s been an outstanding year for honey 🙂

My total crop is the best I’ve had since returning to Scotland in 2015, though this was largely due to a fantastic spring harvest. I’m also hopeful there may be a little bit of heather honey before the end of the season … we’ll see.

The priority now is to ensure that the bees are given sufficient fondant to store for the winter ahead, and that the mites are treated promptly and effectively. I’ll write about these important aspects of preparing for winter in the next week or three.

But before I go …

With all those winter bees to rear over the next couple of months the colony will need lots of pollen. 

The United colours of Benetton pollen in one of my hives

This frame made me smile. I counted just 20 developing larvae in the centre, surrounded by a pointillist sea of different pollen types. These will be well-nourished bees 🙂

Although not absolute, the bees tend to store similar pollens in individual cells. Since it takes many corbiculae-full to fill one cell this must involve a degree of ‘sorting’ by the bees during pollen storage. This all happens in the dark, so presumably is based upon a characteristic other than the colour of the pollen.

Pollen close up

I don’t know how they do this but will read a bit more during the winter and report back. This was one of the outer frames in the colony. Most of the rest are still packed with brood, ensuring the colonies will be strong going into the winter.

Wasps are starting to pester the hives. On the west coast I have several colonies recently promoted from nucs to a full hive. Most are in hives with kewl floors 9 which have an L-shaped tunnel entrance, making them easier to defend.

However, to improve things further I often add an entrance reducer. The ‘roof’ of the horizontal part of the L-shaped entrance has two small screws set into it 10 which act as ‘stops’ for the entrance reducer which I build out of the bottom bar of a frame.

A case of misdirection …

My quality control is a bit shonky and these reducers sometimes fit rather poorly. To make them a better fit I added a few wraps of gaffer tape. Initially I used black tape. However, it was clear that this looked sufficiently like the dark entrance to the hive that the bees were getting ‘misdirected’ away from the real entrance to the black tape.

That’s better …

To avoid further confusion I added an overwrap of a lighter coloured tape. All of which resulted in me revisiting some of the scientific literature on bee vision … which I’ll save for another day.


 

Growing old (dis)gracefully

… but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

So wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1789 1.

Taxes are a subject that I’ve not previously covered. Furthermore, I have no intention of writing about them in the future. My once a year late-night wrestle with the HMRC website is a distressing enough experience and one I’d prefer not to be reminded about.

So this week I’ll deal with that other certainty … death.

Eilean Fhianain burial ground, Loch Shiel

Sooner or later it will happen to us all.

No ifs or buts, and – unlike taxes – it really is a certainty.

What’s interesting about death is the ‘sooner or later’ element.

Some die young, due to bad luck, poor health or overindulgence.

Others live to a ripe old age, outliving their peers by many years or even decades.

Talking the talk

Beekeeping has been a relatively solitary pastime for the last 16 months. The restrictions imposed by lockdowns and social distancing have meant that beekeeping meetings have all been ‘virtual’. 

I’ve written about these recently and it seems likely that many associations are going to continue (at least some of the time) with Zoom talks.

A caffeine-fueled Q&A session

Whether in person, or online, one of the things that’s noticeable is that all beekeeping audiences are – how can I put this delicately? – not as young as they used to be.

By which I mean the individual beekeepers are not callow youths, but are instead older, wiser, and – of course – better looking. 

In my experience, giving talks over the last decade or so, beekeeping audiences have always had an older average age than a cross-section of society.

In addition, as I briefly mentioned recently, the average age of beefarmers in the UK is about 66 years old.

Why is this?

It seems there are two possibilities:

  1. Since beekeeping takes a reasonable amount of time, it’s largely people who have more spare time who start or stick with the hobby. At least at the start, beekeeping also costs quite a bit of money. Again, those who are a bit older probably have more disposable income (or fewer distractions like mortgages or kids to spend it on).
  2. Beekeepers live longer. The relatively high average age of a beekeeping audience – when compared with a similarly-sized cross-section of society – reflects their increased longevity.

Of course, both of those are rather simplistic explanations, but it’s a start.

Do beekeepers live longer?

When you start beekeeping you tend to be interested in honey and swarm control and pathogens.

Or just honey 😉

But after a few years of successful beekeeping you probably produce quite a bit of honey. Your success in honey production is partly due to your understanding and implementation of swarm control, and by your interventions that minimise disease.

And so your interests in beekeeping expand.

Some produce award-winning candles or wax flowers, some rear hundreds of queens a season, some explore esoteric hive designs, and some become interested in the history of beekeeping.

And one of the things that’s noticeable about the history of beekeeping is that several well known beekeepers lived to a remarkably old age.

With improvements in nutrition and healthcare, the average life expectancy of the population has been increasing for the last 150 years or so. 

UK life expectancy (from birth) 1765-2020

If you were born in the 18th Century you’d be expected to live (on average) about 40 years. However, in the last third of the 19th Century, life expectancy started to increase.

I was going to say ‘inexorably increase’ were it not for that little blip around 1918-1920. That wasn’t the First World War. It was the last significant global viral pandemic, the so-called Spanish ‘flu 2. Only recently has this increase in life expectancy started to plateau, and actually reverse.

Well known historical (old) beekeepers

My knowledge of the history of beekeeping is rather patchy so I did a quick search for ‘famous beekeepers‘.

Don’t bother with the first couple of hits 3, but the third is the ever-dependable and enjoyable Bad Beekeeping Blog by Ron Miksha.

Here’s a few picked at anything-but-random ( 😉 ) to support my hypothesis that beekeepers live longer. 

In no particular order:

  • François Huber (1750-1831, 81 years), Swiss, ~40 years 4. Huber was an extraordinary individual 5. Despite being blind his ‘observations’ worked out many details of the life cycle of the queen and he developed one of the first observation hives.
  • Lorenzo Langstroth (1810-1895, 85 years), US, ~40 years. Langstroth combined an understanding of ‘bee space’ with the movable frame ‘leaf hive’ (developed by Huber) to develop and patent the first removable frame hive.
  • Brother Adam (1898-1996, 98 years), German (lived in UK), ~47 years. Brother Adam (Karl Kehrle) was an authority on bee breeding and the developer of the Buckfast strain of honey bees. He resigned his post of beekeeper at Buckfast Abbey at the age of 93.
  • Charles Dadant (1817-1902, 85 years), French (lived in US), ~40 years. Dadant invented the Dadant hive, ran thousands of hives (after failing as a vintner) and founded the – still flourishing – Dadant & Sons beekeeping business.
  • Eva Crane (1912-2007, 95 years), UK, ~52 years. Eva Crane was a mathematician/physicist who spent much of her (long) life doing research on bees. She founded the Bee Research Association (still flourishing as the International Bee Research Association) and wrote hundreds of papers, and notable books, on bees and beekeeping.
  • Harry Laidlaw (1907-2003, 96 years), US, ~51 years. Harry Laidlaw was one of the pioneers of studies on bee genetics and optimised methods for instrumental insemination of queens. 
  • Karl von Frisch (1886-1982, 96 years), German, ~39 years. Karl von Frisch deciphered the waggle dance of honey bees and received the Nobel Prize in 1973.

And there are many others … including many much less famous but equally old 6

Correlation not causation

Just because (some) beekeepers live a long time doesn’t mean that beekeeping is responsible for their longevity. 

Perhaps they’ve just got ‘good genes’ and they’d have lived into their 80’s or 90’s whether they’d been beekeepers or BASE jumpers.

BASE jumping, Half Dome, Yosemite

Maybe it takes that long to become an acknowledged expert at beekeeping? 

How many famous beekeepers can you name who died young?

If Harry Laidlaw had only lived to his mid-60’s (still older than the average for his year of birth) perhaps he’d have been unknown?

Unlikely … he published his first book at the age of 25, was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at 48 and was the first Associate Dean for Research in UC Davis in his late 50’s.

All of the individuals listed enjoyed a near-lifelong association with bees and were clearly exceptional beekeepers well before they also achieved an exceptional age (considering the year that they were born).

So perhaps there is something about bees or beekeeping that makes beekeepers live longer?

One possibility is that honey is good for you. 

Although some beekeepers don’t like honey 7, most undoubtedly do. Honey has a host of antimicrobial, antiviral, antiparasitic, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, as well as being a guaranteed ( 😉 ) way to prevent hay fever.

Or perhaps it’s bee stings? 8

Caveat

Treat most of what I’ve written above with some caution.

My selection of famous (old) beekeepers is extremely selective. 

The reason audiences in beekeeping association meetings have a high average age is almost certainly due to spare time and disposable incomes … and because all the young ones are out partying.

It’s not my sort of science, but a proper study of the association between longevity and beekeeping would be quite interesting. 

Do beekeepers actually live longer than non beekeepers? 

Is there a causative association? Is it associated with beekeeping per se, or do non-beekeepers who eat honey also live longer? How many hive/years do you need to keep bees to increase your longevity? If it’s bee stings that are beneficial, do beekeepers who keep stingless bees also live long and healthy lives?

There is literally a certain finality about studying the age at death. Are there perhaps other markers of longevity that could be investigated a little earlier in a beekeeper’s life?

There certainly are …

Chromosomes and DNA replication

We (beekeepers) have 23 pairs of chromosomes 9 that consist of DNA and proteins and contain the majority of our genetic material 10

The chromosomes are in nucleus of the cell.

Cells associate to form tissue (like muscle or nerves) which associate to form organs (like the heart or brain).

As humans grow – from egg, to embryo, to foetus, to adult – these cells have to divide. And the chromosomes have to be duplicated to ensure that all cells end up with the required 23 pairs. 

Chromosomes are not circular but are essentially linear strands of DNA. This introduces a problem. 

The enzymes that copy and make new DNA (the DNA polymerase) only ‘work’ in one direction. Since DNA consists of two antiparallel strands this means that the polymerase copies one strand directly to make one continuous product, but it copies the other strand in small pieces, and then joins them together. 

The details really don’t matter … but the consequences do. 

The small piece synthesised at the very end of the discontinuously copied strand isn’t quite at the very end of the strand 11

Frankly, this is a bit of a design flaw 🙁

Telomeres

As a consequence of this discontinuous copying, one of the strands of the DNA molecule gets a little bit shorter every time it is copied.

The DNA of chromosomes contains all the genes that make all the proteins that makes all the cells that get together to form all the tissues that create the organs that make beekeepers.

Phew!

So, if the little bit of the chromosome that’s lost during replication happened to contain an essential gene, things would go very seriously wrong™.

But chromosomes have a sort of ‘get out of jail card’.

The ends of the chromosome contain a region of highly repetitive and non-coding 12 DNA called telomeres. You can imagine the telomere as a sort of ‘cap’ at the end of the chromosome.

During replication, little bits of this cap are lost – the cap gets shorter – but this truncation does not result in the loss of any essential genes.

Telomere shortening and cell division

And all this telomere shortening is rather predictable.

As cells divide – during growth or tissue repair – the telomeres shorten. Therefore, if you measure telomere length you can get an idea of how many division it has undergone and therefore how old it is.

Telomere length is therefore a measure of biological age.

Except it’s not quite that simple

There are a bunch of things that also influence telomere length.

For example, the age of the father influences the length of the child’s telomeres. 

Telomeres also accumulate damage – and so shorten – through oxidative stress. This is a process that results from the excess production of oxidants such as peroxides, free radicals and reactive oxygen species. These are chemical intermediates in normal biochemical processes. The cell can cope with small amounts of oxidants. However, the protection mechanisms become swamped if they are in excess, resulting in cellular damage.

Some diets are rich in antioxidants which can (or at least are hypothesised to) reduce oxidative stress. 

Honey can contain high levels of polyphenols, these are well known antioxidants that are also found in some fruits, vegetables and olive oil.

Finally … we’re getting somewhere 😉

There are studies that demonstrate that eating honey every day increases the levels of antioxidants 13. However, I’m not aware that these or other studies were extended to investigate whether the test cohort also exhibited a reduced rate of telomere shortening.

This isn’t surprising … the inherent variation between individuals and the relatively slow rate at which telomeres shorten means thousands of individuals would need to be analysed. Potentially over many years.

But there is also a study of telomere length in beekeepers … which is the reason for the 2,200 word introduction above.

Beekeepers and telomeres

A Malaysian research team 14 have measured telomere length in 30 beekeepers and the same number of age-matched non-beekeepers.

The beekeepers chosen had all been keeping bees for at least five years. The non-beekeepers didn’t just not keep bees 15, they also did not consume any bee products (honey, propolis 16 or royal jelly 17 ). In addition to being age-matched (average age ~42 years) both groups excluded individuals with known disease.

And I wouldn’t have been telling you all this unless the telomere length did differ significantly. The non-beekeeper’s had telomeres that were ~30% shorter.

Chronologically they were the same age, but biologically they were older.

This small study also investigated whether there was a correlation between the period of beekeeping, the number of bee products consumed, or the period or frequency of bee product consumption, and telomere length.

Telomere length only correlated with the frequency and duration of consumption of bee products, not with the types of products or the number of years of beekeeping.

The significance of these sorts of population-based studies is related to the scale of the study. This is a small study, and the only one I’m aware of that specifically investigates telomere length in beekeepers.

It has only been cited 7 times and has not been repeated.

It remains firmly in the ‘interesting observation’ rather than ‘acknowledged fact’ category. 

So all those afternoons hunched over the hive appear to make no difference 18, but having honey every day on your porridge might actually make you younger.

Biologically younger … you’ll still look old 😉


 

Supering

Something short and sweet this week 1 … though perhaps ‘tall and sweet’ would be preferable as I’m going to discuss supering.

The noun supering means ‘the action or practice of fitting a super to a beehive’ and dates back to 1840:

Duncan, James. Natural History of Bees Naturalist’s Library VoI. 223   The empty story which is added, may be placed above, instead of below the original stock, and the honey will thus be of a superior kind. This mode of operating is called super-ing, in contra-distinction to nadir-ing.

I don’t quite understand the description provided by here. Adding a super underneath the colony (original stock) is unlikely to lead to it being used as a honey store. Bees naturally store honey to the side and above the brood nest.

And does James Duncan mean the honey is superior because it’s better? Or is he using superior in its zoological sense meaning ‘at or near the highest point’? 2

So … let’s get a few definitions out of the way first.

  • Supering – the addition of a super to a hive, which could be either:
    • Top-supering – adding a super to the top of a stack of existing supers, or
    • Bottom-supering – adding a super below any existing supers, but above the brood box(es) 
  • Nadiring – the addition of a super below an existing brood box (which won’t be mentioned again in this post 3.

Supering … click for legend

I prefer the term top- or bottom-supering as the alternative over- or under-supering could be misinterpreted as the amount of supers being excessive or insufficient.

Which is better – top- or bottom-supering?

Let’s get the science out of the way first.

There’s an assumption that bottom supering should be ‘better’ (in terms of honey yield) as it reduces the distance bees have to travel before they are relieved of their nectar. 

A study conducted two decades ago by Jennifer Berry and Keith Delaplane 4 showed that – in terms of the amount of honey stored – it makes no statistical difference whether top- or bottom-supering is used.

This study was conducted at the University of Georgia (USA). It used 60 hives – 3 different apiaries each containing 10 hives over two distinct nectar flows. 

Note the deliberate inclusion of the term ‘statistical’ above … the bottom-supered hives did end up with ~10% more honey in total but, considering the scale of the experiment, this was not statistically significant. 

To determine if this difference was real you’d need to do a much larger scale experiment.

This was not simply weighing a few hives with the supers added on top or below … each colony used was balanced in terms of frames of brood, numbers of bees and levels of stores in the brood box for each nectar flow. That’s not my idea of fun when it would involve a few thousand colonies 🙁   5.

The Berry & Delaplane study reached the same conclusion as earlier research by Szabo and Sporns (1994) who were working in Alberta, Canada 6. They had concluded that the failure to see a significant difference in terms of honey stored was because the nectar flows were rather poor. However, this seems unlikely as the Berry & Delaplane study covered two nectar flows, one of which was much stronger than the other (measured in terms of honey yield).

Before we leave the science there’s a minor additional detail to discuss about the Berry & Delaplane study. All their hives consisted of a single Langstroth brood box with a honey super on top underneath the queen excluder (refer to C. in the figure above).

This first honey super was termed the ‘food super’. The remaining supers were the ‘honey supers’. It’s not clear from the description in the paper whether the queen ever moved up to lay in the ‘food super’. I’m assuming she did not.

That being the case, the bottom supering employed by Berry & Delaplane is probably not quite the same as understood by most UK beekeepers.

When I talk about bottom-supering (here and elsewhere) I mean adding the super directly above the box that the queen is laying in (refer to A. in the figure above).

Whether ‘true’ bottom-supering leads to increased honey yields I’ll leave to someone much stronger than me. It’s an experiment that will involve a lot of lifting … and a lot of hives 😉

Which brings us to other benefits associated with where the super is added …

Benefits of bottom supering

I can think of two obvious ones.

The first is that the frames are immediately above the warmth of the broodnest. This might help get new foundation drawn a bit faster. However, if the flow is so good you’re piling the supers on it’s likely that the bees will draw comb for fun.

Note also the comments below about frame spacing and brace comb. I start new supers with 11 frames and subsequently reduce the number to 9. To avoid brace comb it’s easier to get undrawn supers built when there are no other supers on the hive. However, if that’s not possible I usually bottom-super them … it can’t do any harm. 

The second benefit is that by bottom-supering the cappings on the lowest supers always stay pristine and white. This is important if you’re preparing cut comb honey. It’s surprising how stained the cappings get with the passage of hundreds of thousands of little feet as the foragers move up to unload their cargo in top-supered colonies. 

Benefits of top supering

Generally I think these outweigh those of bottom-supering (but I don’t make cut comb honey and I’d expect the sale price of cut comb with bright white cappings trumps any of the benefits discussed below).

The first is that it’s a whole lot easier on your back 🙂

No need to remove the stack of supers first to slide another in at the bottom. This is a significant benefit … if the colony needs a fourth super there’s probably the best part of 50 kg of full/filling supers to remove first 7

Lifting lots of heavy supers is hard work. A decade ago I’d tackle three full supers at a time without an issue.

More recently, honey seems to be getting much denser 😉 … three full supers, particularly if on top of a double brood box, are usually split into two (or even three) for lifting. 

Secondly, because top-supering is easier it’s therefore much quicker.

Pop the crownboard off, add another super, close up and move on. 

Some claim an additional benefit is that you can determine whether the colony needs an additional super simply by lifting off the crownboard and having a peek. That might work with a single brood box and one super 8, but it’s not possible on a double brood monster hive already topped with four supers 9.

Of course, all of the benefits in terms of ease of addition and/or lack of lifting are null and void if you are going to be inspecting the colony and therefore removing the supers anyway.

Frame spacing in supers

Assuming a standard bee space between drawn, filled, capped honey stores, the more frames you have in the super the smaller the amount of honey the super will contain. 

This might never be an issue for many beekeepers.

However, those that scale up to perhaps half a dozen hives soon realise that more frames per super means more time spent extracting. 

That’s exactly what happened with me. My epiphany came when faced with about 18 supers containing almost 200 frames and a manual (hand cranked) three-frame extractor 🙁

By the next nectar flow I’d invested in an electric 9 frame radial extractor and started spacing my frames further apart.

That first ‘semi-automated’ honey harvest paid for the extractor and my physique became (just) slightly less Charles Atlas-like.

With undrawn foundation I start with a full box of 11 frames. However, once drawn I space the frames further apart, usually 9 per super. The bees draw out deeper comb and fill it perfectly happily … and I’ve got less frames to extract 🙂

I know some beekeepers use 8 frames in their supers. I struggle with this and usually find the bees draw brace comb or very uneven frames. This might be because our nectar flows aren’t strong enough, but I suspect I’ve spaced the frames too far apart in one go, rather than doing it gradually.

Frame alignment of supers

Speaking of brace comb … remember to observe the correct bee space in the supers. Adding a super with mismatched frame numbers will result in brace comb being built at the junction. The same thing happens if frames are misaligned.

Frame spacing and alignment in the supers.

Inevitably this brace comb ends up fusing the two supers together and causes a ‘right mess’ 10 when you eventually prize them apart.

And you’ll have to because they’re probably too heavy to lift together.

Brace comb

Brace comb …

The example above is particularly bad due to the use of misaligned foundationless super frames. The comb is, as always, beautiful … and unusually in this example the bees built from the bottom upwards.

Note that the frame alignment between adjacent boxes does not appear to apply to the brood box and the first super. At least, it doesn’t when you’re using a queen excluder. I presume this is because the queen excluder acts as a sort of ‘false floor’. It disrupts the vertical bee space sufficiently that the bees don’t feel the need to build lots of brace comb.

You can use castellations to space the frames in the supers. I don’t (and got rid of my stock of used and unused castellations recently) as they prevent re-spacing the frames as needed 11. The bees quickly propolise up the frame lugs meaning the frames are effectively immovable without the application of significant force.

Oops ...

Oops …

Like with a hive tool … or if you drop the super 🙁  12.

Caring for out of use supers

After drawn brood comb, drawn supers are probably the most valuable resource a beekeeper has.

You can’t buy replacement so it makes sense to look after it.

Of course, having written the sentence above I realised I was almost certainly wrong. A quick Google search turned up this Bad Beekeeping post from Ron Miksha who described commercially (machine) produced drawn comb.

Three Langstroth-sized combs are €26 😯 

There’s also this stuff … 

OK, so I stand corrected. You can buy replacement drawn comb, but a single super will cost you about €78 13 so they should be looked after.

Empty drawn supers should be stored somewhere bee, wasp and rodent-free. I store mine in a shed with a solid floor underneath the stack and a spare roof on top. 

Late November in the bee (storage) shed …

I have friends who wrap their supers in clingfilm … not 30 cm kitchen roll, but the metre wide stuff they use in airports to wrap suitcases 14.

Wax moth infestation of drawn supers is generally not a problem. They much prefer used brood frames. However, it makes sense to try and make the stacks as insect-proof as possible.

Caring for in use supers

If the supers are full of bees and honey then the drawn comb is only the third most important thing in the box.

Don’t just pile the supers on the ground next to the hive. The lower edges of the frames will be festooned with bees which will get crushed. You’ll also pick up dirt from the ground which will then be transferred to the hive.

Instead, use an inverted roof. Stand the super(s) on it, angled so they’re supported just by the edges of the roof. This minimises the opportunities for bees to get squashed.

If you’re removing a stack of supers individually (because they’re too heavy to lift together) do not stack them up in a neat pile as you’re very likely to crush bees. It’s better to support the super on one edge, propped up against the edge/corner of the first super I removed.

Again, this minimises the chances of crushing bees. It’s distressing for the beekeeper, it’s definitely distressing for the bee(s) and it’s a potential route for disease transmission.

The multi-purpose Correx hive roof

Once the supers are emptied of bees but full of capped honey you’ll need to transport them home from the apiary. I use spare Correx hive roofs to catch the inevitable drips that another more caring member of the household would otherwise discover 🙁

These Correx hive roofs aren’t strong enough to stack supers on. I always ensure there’s at least one or two conventional roofs in each apiary to act as temporary super stands during inspections.

Final thoughts

Tidy comb

At the end of the season it’s worth tidying the super frames before stacking them away for the year.

Before - brace comb

Super frames before tidying and storage

I use a hive tool to scrape off any bits of brace comb from the top and bottom bars of each frame. I also use a breadknife to level up the face of the comb. The combs are then arranged in boxes of nine and stored away for the winter.

A small amount of time invested on the supers saves time and effort doing much the same thing when you need them.

Drone foundation in supers

Over 50% of my supers are drawn from drone foundation.

There are two advantages to using drone foundation in the supers. The first is that there’s less wax and more honey; it takes less effort for the bees to build the comb in the first place and the larger cell volume stores more honey.

In addition, with less surface area in each cell, it’s at least theoretically possible to get a greater efficiency of extraction 15.

The second benefit is that bees do not store pollen in drone comb. In a strong colony you sometimes get an arch of pollen stored in the bottom super, and this is avoided by using drone comb.

Drone comb in super

That doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily fill the comb with nectar. Quite often they just leave an empty arch of cells above the brood nest 🙁

The major problem with using drone comb in the supers occurs when the queen gets above the queen excluder. You end up with my million drones fiasco and a lot of comb to melt down and recycle.

The super frame shuffle

Bees often draw and fill the central frames in the super before those at the sides. This can lead to very unevenly drawn comb (which can be ‘fixed’ with a breadknife as described above), and grossly unbalanced comb when extracting.

Full super ready for extraction

Full super ready for extraction …

To avoid this simply shuffle the outer frames into the centre of the super and vice versa. The frames will be much more evenly filled.

Spares

If you have an out apiary, keep spare supers in an insect-proof stack in the apiary.

Spare supers … only one now, on hive #29

Alternatively, keep spares under the roof but over the crownboard. As a strong nectar flow tails off, or if the weather is changeable, it might save a trip back to base, or having to carry yet another thing on your rounds.


Note

I’ve now done the calculation … 11 National super frames have an area of ~5500 cm2 which would require 6.5 Langstroth-sized sheets of drawn commercial comb. At the prices quoted above (€26 for three) that would only cost about €56 … but you’d still have to slice’n’dice them into the frames.

Hmmm … almost 3000 words … not so short and sweet after all 🙁