Category Archives: Seasonal

Latitude and longitude

Synopsis : Bees don’t use a diary. Colony development is influenced by local environmental conditions. These are largely determined by latitude and longitude but also vary from year to year. Understanding these influences, and learning how to read the year to year differences, should help you judge colony development. You’ll be better prepared for swarm prevention and control, and might be able to to identify minor problems before they become major problems.

Introduction

Writing a weekly post on beekeeping inevitably generates comments and questions. Over the last 5 years I’ve received about 2500 responses to posts and at least double that in email correspondence. That works out at ~30 comments or questions a week 1.

Every one of them – other than the hate mail and adverts 2 – has received a reply, either online or by email.

Some are easy to deal with.

It takes just seconds to thank someone for a ”Great post, now I understand” comment, or to answer the ”Where do I send the cheque? question.

Others are more difficult … and the most difficult of all are those which ask me to diagnose something about their hive.

I almost always prefix my response by pointing out that this sort of online diagnosis is – at best – an inexact art 3.

Patchy brood pattern

Patchy brood & QC’s …

Think about it … is your definition of any of the following the same as mine?

  • a strong colony 4
  • an aggressive colony
  • a dodgy-looking brood pattern 5
  • a ‘large’ queen cell

Probably not.

Engaging in to and fro correspondence to define all these things isn’t really practical in a week containing a measly seven 24 hour days.

Geography

However, having stated those caveats, there’s still the tricky issue of geography.

Many correspondents don’t mention where the hive is – north, south, east, west (or in a couple of instances that they are in the southern hemisphere 6).

Location has a fundamental impact on your bees. The temperature, rainfall, forage availability etc. all interact and influence colony development. They therefore determine the timing of what happens when in the colony.

And so this week I decided to write a little bit about the timings of, and variation in, environmental events that influence what’s going on inside the hive.

I’ll focus here on latitude and temperature as it probably has the greatest influence. My comments and examples will all be UK based as it’s where a fraction over 50% of the readers are, but the points are relevant in all temperate areas.

Latitude

Temperate climates – essentially 40°-60° north or south of the equator – experience greater temperature ranges through the year and have distinct seasons (at least when compared with tropical areas). Whilst latitude alone plays a significant role in the temperature range – smaller nearer the equator – the prevailing wind, altitude, sea currents and continentality 7 also have an important influence.

For starters let’s consider the duration of the year during which foraging might be possible. I’ll ignore whether there’s any forage actually available, but just look at the temperature over the season at the northern and southern ends of mainland Great Britain.

I arbitrarily chose Thurso (58.596°N 3.521°W) and Penzance (50.119°N 5.537°W) for these comparisons. Both are lovely coastal towns and both are home to native black bees, Apis mellifera mellifera 8.

The lowest temperature I have observed my native black bees flying on the west coast of Scotland was about 8°C 9. So, let’s assume that the ‘potential foraging’ season is defined by an average maximum daily temperature above 8°C.

How do Penzance and Thurso compare?

Thurso – average Max/Min temperatures (°C)

In Thurso there are eight months (November just squeezed in by 0.1°C) where the average maximum daily temperature exceeds 8°C.

Penzance – average Max/Min temperatures (°C)

In contrast, every month of the year in Penzance has an average maximum daily temperature exceeding 8°C.

Thurso and Penzance are just 950 km apart as the bee flies.

Forage availability

I don’t have information on the forage available to bees in Penzance or Thurso, but I’m sure that gorse is present in both locations. The great thing about gorse is that it flowers all year, or – more accurately – individual, genetically distinct, plants can be found every month of the year in flower.

Based upon the temperature it’s possible that Penzance bees could forage on gorse in midwinter and so be bringing fresh pollen into the hive for brood rearing.

The gorse is in flower … somewhere under there

However, further north, gorse might be flowering but conditions may well not be conducive for foraging.

Inevitably, warmer temperatures will extend the range of forage types available, so increasing the time during the year in which brood rearing can occur 10.

In reality, at temperatures below 12-14°C bees start to cluster 11 and bees chilled to 10°C cannot fly. It’s unlikely much foraging could be achieved at the 8°C used in the examples above 12.

The point is that different latitudes differ greatly in their temperature, and hence the forage that grows, the time it yields nectar and pollen, and the ability of the bees to access it.

Brood rearing

The availability of forage has a fundamental impact on the ability of the colony to rear large amounts of new brood.

It’s not until foraging starts in earnest that brood rearing can really ramp up.

Similarly, low temperatures in autumn, reduce the availability of nectars and ability of bees to forage, so curtailing brood rearing 13.

And the ability to effectively treat mites in the winter is largely determined by the presence or absence of sealed brood. If there is sealed brood in the colony there will also be mites gorging themselves on the capped pupae. These mites are untouched by the ‘usual’ winter miticide, oxalic acid.

Therefore, effective midwinter mite management should be much easier in Thurso than Penzance.

I’ve not kept bees in either of those locations, but I know my bees in Fife (56°N) are reliably broodless at some point between late October and mid-December. Varroa management is therefore relatively straightforward, and Varroa levels are under control throughout the season.

In contrast, when I kept bees in Warwickshire (52°N) there were some winters when brood was always present, and Varroa control was consequently more difficult. Ineffective control in the winter results in higher levels of mites earlier in the season.

Brood rearing models

To emphasise the differences here are two images generated from Randy Oliver’s online Varroa Model, just showing the amounts of brood in all stages and adult bees 14. The overall colony sizes and amount of brood reared are about the same, but the ‘hard winter’ colony (no foraging for five months) is broodless for a much greater period.

The brood and bee population in hives that experience ‘default’ and ‘hard’ winters

Without knowing something about the latitude and/or the likelihood of there being capped brood present in the hive, it’s impossible to give really meaningful answers to questions about winter mite treatment.

This also has a bearing on when you conduct your first inspections of the season.

It is also relevant when comparing what other beekeepers are discussing on social media – e.g. those ’8 frames of brood’ I mentioned last week. If it’s early April and they’re in Penzance (or Perigord) then it might be understandable, but if you’re in Thurso don’t feel pressurised into checking your own colonies as it may well be too early to determine anything meaningful.

Year on year variation

But it’s now approaching late April and most beekeepers will be starting to think/worry about swarm control.

When should you start swarm prevention and, once that fails, when must you apply swarm control?

Or, if you’d prefer to take a more upbeat view of things, when might you expect your bait hives to be successful and when should you start queen rearing?

Again, like almost everything to do with beekeeping, dates are pretty meaningless as your colonies are not basing their expansion and swarm preparations on the calendar.

They are responding to the environmental conditions in your particular locality and in that particular year.

Which brings me to year on year variation.

Not every year is the same.

Some seasons are warmer than others – the spring might be ‘early’ or there might be an ‘Indian summer’. In these instances foraging and brood rearing are likely to start earlier or finish later.

One way to view these differences is to look at the Met Office climate anomaly maps. These show how different the climate – temperature, rainfall, sunshine etc. – can be from year to year when compared to a 30 year average.

Met Office anomaly charts – spring temperatures 2020 and 2021 (compared to 30 year averages)

Here are the anomaly maps for the last two springs. For almost all of the country 2020 was unusually warm. Penzance was 1.5°C warmer than the 30 year average. In contrast, over much of the country, 2021 was cooler than the 1990-2010 average.

So when considering how the colony is developing it’s important to consider the local conditions.

Those Met Office charts are retrospective … for example, you cannot see how this spring compares with previous years (at least, not yet 15.).

Rainfall

And, while we’re on the subject of anomalies … here are the rainfall charts for the summers of 2012 and 2021.

Met Office anomaly charts – summer rainfall 2012 and 2021 (compared to 30 year averages)

I suspect that both were rather poor years for honey. 2012 was – with the exception of Thurso! – exceedingly wet. My records for that year don’t include honey yield 16.

Last year was generally dry, and very dry in the north and west 17. Since a good nectar flow often needs moisture in the soil it may have been poor for many beekeepers.

It was my first full season on the west coast and the heather honey yield was disappointing (but it’s not a great heather area and I’ve nothing to compare it with … perhaps I’ll be disappointed every year?). However, I managed a record summer honey crop in Fife from a reduced number of hives. Quite a bit of this was from lime which I always think of as needing rain to get a good flow from, so perhaps the little rain we did have was at the right time.

Local weather and longitude

If you really want to know what the weather has been doing in your area you probably need something more fine-grained and detailed than a Met Office chart. There are very large numbers of ‘personal weather stations’, many of which share the data they generate with websites such as windy.com or wunderground.com.

Find one by searching these sites and you’ll be able to access recent and historical weather data to help you determine whether colony build up is slow because it’s been colder and wetter than usual. Or – if the conditions have been ideal (or at least normal) but the colony is struggling – whether the queen is failing, if there’s too much competition for forage in the neighbourhood, or if there might be disease issues.

Of course, judgements like these mean you need to have good records year on year, so you know what to expect.

My main apiary on the west coast has it’s own weather station.

Weather station and a typical west coast sky

To emphasise the local influence of prevailing winds and warm sea currents it’s interesting to note that my west and east coast apiaries – which are at almost the same latitude 18 – experience significantly different amounts of rainfall.

We had >270 mm of rain in November 2021 on the west coast, compared to ~55 mm on the east. In July 2021 the figures were 43 mm and 7 mm respectively.

All of which I think makes a good argument for rearing local bees that are better adapted to the local conditions 19. That’s something I’ve discussed previously and will expand upon further another time.

Phenology

Rainfall charts and meteorological tables are all a bit dull.

An additional way a beekeeper can observe the progression of the season, and judge whether the colony is likely to be developing as expected, or a bit ahead or a bit behind, is to keep a record of other environmental events.

This is phenology, meaning ‘the timing of periodic biological phenomena in relation to climatic conditions’.

  • Are frogs spawning earlier than normal?
  • When did the first snowdrops/crocus/willow flower?
  • Are the arrival dates of migrant birds earlier or later than normal?

I’m poor at identifying plants 20 so tend to focus on the animals. The locals – frogs, slow worms, toads, bats, butterflies, dragonflies – are all influenced by local conditions. Many don’t make an appearance until well into the beekeeping season.

Frogspawn

Or perhaps I just don’t notice them?

In contrast, the avian spring migrants appear in March and April. These provide a good indication of whether the spring is ‘early’ or ‘late’.

For example, cuckoo arrived here in 2020 (a warm spring) on the 18th of April. In 2021, a cold spring, they didn’t make an appearance until the 24th.

This year, despite January to March being warmer than average, they have yet to arrive. The majority of GPS-tagged birds are still en route, having been held up by a cold start to April 21, though some have just 22 arrived in southern Scotland.

Wheatear are also several days later this year than the last couple of seasons, again suggesting that the recent cold snap has held things back.

You can read more about arrival dates of spring migrants on the BTO website.

Beekeeping is not just bees

Much of the above might not appear to be much to do with beekeeping.

But, at least indirectly, it is.

Your bees live and work in a small patch of the environment no more than 6 miles in diameter. That’s a very small area (less than 30 square miles). The local climate they experience will determine when they can forage, and what they can forage on. In turn, this influences the timing of the onset of brood rearing in the spring (or late winter), the speed with which the colony builds up, the time at which winter bees start to be reared and the duration of the winter when it’s either too cold to forage or there’s nothing to forage on (or both).

As a beekeeper you need to understand these events when you inspect (and judge the development of) your colonies. Over time, with either a good memory or reasonable hive records, you can make meaningful comparisons with previous seasons.

If your colony had ’8 frames of brood’ in mid-April 2020 (a warm year) and your records showed they swarmed on the 27th, then you are forewarned if things look similar this season.

Conversely, if spring 2020 and this year are broadly similar (and supported by your comprehensive phenological records 23 ) but your bees have just two frames of brood then something is amiss.

Of course, the very best way to determine the state of the colony is to inspect it carefully. Understanding the environmental conditions helps you know what to expect when you inspect.


 

Early season inspections

Synopsis : The first inspection of the season needs to be late enough that the colony is expanding well, early enough that it isn’t making swarm preparations and timed to coincide with reasonable weather. Tricky. When you do open the hive you have to deal with whatever you find and leave the colony in a suitable state for the upcoming season.

Introduction

It is often tricky to decide when to do the first inspection of the season.

Too early and the bees will appear disappointingly understrength. If the weather is borderline you risk chilling the brood or the bees may get very defensive.

Or typically, both 🙁 .

Too late and the colonies may have backfilled the comb with early nectar and already started to make swarm preparations.

Early season – pollen pattie and brace comb

Twitter has been busy with beekeepers proudly announcing “8 frames of brood” or “Supers on this weekend”, without reference to local conditions or sometimes even their location.

Remember, some of these regular ‘tweeters’ are in France 😉 .

It must be particularly confusing for beekeepers starting their first spring with bees. They are desperate to start ‘real beekeeping’ again, which means opening colonies and looking for queens and brood, just like they were doing at the end of last season 1. However, they get dispirited if the colony is defensive or appears weak (less than 8 frames of brood!), and they kick themselves for not starting sooner if there are queen cells already present.

So what’s the best thing to do?

You have to use your experience and your judgement … or failing those, use some common sense.

I have reasonable amounts of experience and (sometimes) have good judgement, but I mainly rely upon a combination of common sense and local observation 2.

Together with a soupçon of opportunism.

Sometimes my timing is spot on, and sometimes I’m early or a bit late.

In these circumstances you have to deal with whatever you find in the colony and make the best of it.

A false start

Despite the incessant storms and getting trapped in a December blizzard (!) it has been a mild winter. We’ve had an unusually low number of frosts – none in January, one in February and two in March.

I was beginning to think that the season proper was going to start unusually early.

That was reinforced by the weather in the the last fortnight of March, which was fantastic.

Late afternoon sun on Beinn Resipol, Ardnamurchan, March 2022

Fantastic for March that is 3. Warm days, bees busy with the early season flowering gorse (it flowers all season), even a little nectar being collected.

About half my colonies had received an extra kilo or two of fondant in February or early March, and all received at least one pollen substitute pattie to help get them off to a good start. By late March the colonies were looking good 4.

I’m still a long distance beekeeper, with my colonies about equally split between the east and west coasts of Scotland. I therefore book hotels weeks or months in advance for some of my beekeeping. Predicting the weather that far ahead is impossible, so it involves some guesstimates and, inevitably, some beekeeping in unsuitable weather.

Early season is usually particularly difficult, but by late March this year I was feeling quietly confident 5.

And then April started with several hard frosts and the temperature dropped to single digits (°C) for days at a time.

Still, I was committed to make the trip to Fife … and I’m pleased I went.

And they’re off!

I have a couple of apiaries in Fife. I usually visit both on each of successive days on a trip. That allows me to store all the equipment in one apiary, without having to transport it back and forth across Scotland. This works well and means I can cope with most eventualities.

It was 9°C with a chilly easterly when I got to the first apiary. On removing the lid on the first hive it was very clear that I was (fashionably, of course 😉 ) late to the party … the bees were already building brace comb in the headspace between the top bars of the frame and the underside of the inverted crownboard.

That’s what you’ve been getting up to …

I had no spare equipment with me 6, but it was obvious that the colony needed a queen excluder and a super … as well as quite a bit of tidying up.

Which was going to be the story of the trip.

With infrequent apiary visits – either enforced by distance (in my case) or imposed by bad weather (not unusual in spring) – you have to deal with whatever situations you find when you have the opportunity to open hives.

It was clear from the state of this colony, which was on a single brood box, that the bees had expanded well during the warm weather and were going to rapidly run out of space.

Other colonies in the same apiary were on double brood boxes and were heavy with remaining winter stores – and, no doubt, some early season nectar – and reassuringly packed with bees.

It looked like a very promising start to the season.

More of the same

I travelled on to my main apiary to review the situation there. This is the apiary with my bee shed and all of my stored equipment. It is closer to the coast and the wind blows in directly from the North Sea.

It was colder and even less welcoming.

However, the bees were all in a very good state and clearly needed more space and a little post-winter TLC to get them ready for the season.

However, the temperature precluded any meaningful colony inspections. I could check for laying queens, get an approximation of colony strength (frames of brood) and give them space for further expansion. Anything more than this and there would be a risk of chilling the bees. Because of the low temperature I took relatively few photos.

Interestingly, colonies outside the bee shed were significantly better advanced than those inside. This is the first time I’ve seen this, and I’ve previously commented that the bees in the shed are often a week or two ahead of those outside.

However, in looking back through my notes I think it’s a reflection of the quality and early winter state of the colonies that currently reside in the shed. These are the ones mainly used for research and which regularly have brood ‘stolen’ for experiments (even late into the autumn). Consequently they were probably weaker going into the winter. At least one of the colonies had been united late in 2021 to ensure they would make it through the winter … and they had 🙂 .

What follows is a discussion of a few of the problems (and some potential solutions) that you can encounter at this time of the season.

‘Dead outs’ and ‘basket cases’

I’m not going to dwell on these as there’s not a lot to say and often little that can be salvaged.

Some colonies die overwinter.

I’ve discussed the numbers (and their questionable reliability) before. Most annual surveys show that about 10-35% of colonies die overwinter. The precise percentage depends upon the size and rigour of the survey 7, the severity of the winter 8 and the honesty of the beekeepers who respond 9.

Let’s just accept that quite a few colonies are lost overwinter.

I strongly suspect the majority of these losses are due to poor Varroa management. I’ve previously discussed the reasons uncontrolled mite levels are deleterious, and the – relatively straightforward – solutions that can be applied to prevent these losses 10.

It’s always worth conducting a post-mortem on ‘dead outs’ to try and work out what went amiss.

Queen failure

Some queens fail overwinter. This is probably unrelated to poor Varroa control and is ’just another thing that can go wrong’.

They either die, stop laying fertilised eggs or stop laying altogether.

They may or not be present when you check the colony in spring.

Whatever the failure, the overall result is much the same, although the appearance of the colony might differ (in terms of numbers of bees and the proportion of drones present). The colony will be significantly understrength, with little or no worker brood … and may have lots of drones.

I consider colonies with failed queens are a lost cause in March or (at least here in Scotland) much of April.

The bees that remain are likely very old. There’s no use providing them with a frame of eggs in the hope they’ll rear a new queen as it’s unlikely that there are sufficient drones about. If there aren’t flying drones I certainly wouldn’t bother.

You could provide them with a new queen if you can find one, but is it worth it?

The colony will be ‘well behind the curve’ in terms of strength for a month or two. You may have to boost them with additional brood. Unless you have ample spare brood in other colonies (as well as a spare queen and a willingness to commit these resources) I really wouldn’t bother.

Fortunately, at least so far (and I won’t be certain until later this month), all my colonies have survived and are flourishing … so let’s move on to a couple of solvable problems instead.

Brace yourself

When I add a fondant ‘top up’ to a colony I remove the crownboard and place the container of fondant directly over the cluster. This ensures that the bees can immediately access the fondant, rather than negotiating their way through a hole in the crownboard to the cold chilly space under the roof. To provide space for the fondant container I either use an eke or one of my deep-rimmed perspex crownboards.

A consequence of this is that, as the colony expands, they may build brace comb in the headspace over the top bars.

What a mess … some tidying required before the super can be added

Sometimes they fill the space entirely, though you might be lucky and find they’ve only built inside the fondant container.

Brace comb hidden inside the empty fondant container

Irrespective of the extent of comb building I usually take this to indicate that the colony needs additional space and that they should be supered.

Pronto.

Removing and reusing brace comb

I smoke the bees down – as gently as practical – and cut off the brace comb using a sharp hive tool. In the photos above the comb was filled with early season nectar.

When cutting off the comb I try and prevent too much of the nectar from oozing out and down between the frames. A sharp hive tool held almost parallel to the top bars is often the best solution. Working fast but carefully, I dumped the nectar-filled brace comb into the empty fondant container and then quickly checked the colony. The latter consisted of little more than gently splitting the brood nest and checking the approximate number of frames of brood in all stages.

I added a queen excluder, a super and a crownboard with a small hole in it, above which I placed the salvaged brace comb, surrounded by an empty super.

Crownboard and nectar-filled brace comb – stored overwinter and (hopefully) used in the spring

Finally, I added a second crownboard with some additional honey-filled brace comb they’d built last September. I wrote about this in Winding down last year. The intention is that the bees will take down the nectar/honey above the lower crownboard and either use it for brood rearing (if it’s too cold to forage) or store it properly.

If all this works as hoped the empty comb can be melted down and turned into beeswax wraps.

Waste not, want not 😉 .

The accidental ‘brood and a half’

My colony #7 has a stellar queen who produces prolific, gentle bees and who lays gorgeous slabs of brood with barely a cell missed. I used her as a source of larvae for queen rearing last season and will do so again this year.

“Gorgeous slabs of brood”

The colony entered the winter with a ‘nadired super’. I’ve discussed these somewhere before 11. Essentially this means a stores-filled super underneath the (single in this case) brood box.

Often the bees will empty the super before the winter and it can be safely removed.

Or, as in this instance, completely forgotten 🙁 .

When the bees had emptied it or not is a moot point … by last weekend they’d part filled it again.

With brood.

The queen had moved down into the super and laid up half the frames, at least two of which were drone comb 12.

I consider ‘brood and half’ an abomination. I prefer the flexibility offered by just one size of brood frame and also prefer using a single brood box if possible.

Despite perhaps swearing quietly when I realised the super was half-filled with brood (the drone brood was almost all capped) it’s only really a minor inconvenience.

Furthermore, this is a good queen and is likely to produce drones with good genes. How could I get rid of the ‘brood and a half’ setup as soon as possible and save all those lovely drones with the hope that they could spread their genes far and wide?

Upper entrances

The obvious answer was to add a queen excluder and a super, but to move the nadired super containing brood above the queen excluder.

If there had been no drone brood in this ‘super’ that would have been sufficient. However, drones cannot get through a queen excluder and distressingly 13 die trying.

Rearrangement to provide an upper entrance – before (left) and after (right)

I therefore added an upper entrance to the colony, immediately above the queen excluder. The easiest way to do this is to use a very shallow eke. I build them just 18 mm deep from softwood, with a suitably placed slot only half that depth.

The brood is directly above the brood box and so will be kept warm. The drones can emerge in due course, and fly from the upper entrance. Some will return there but – ‘boys will be boys’ – many will distribute themselves around the apiary waiting for better weather and potential queen mating.

Standard and upper entrance

If there is a strong nectar flow the bees can fill the new empty super and they will backfill the no-longer-nadired super once the brood emerges.

And finally … what did I fail to mention in this colony rearrangement ?

That’s right, the thing I failed to mention because I failed to check 🙁 ?

Where was the queen ?

It is important that the queen is in the brood box, rather than the no-longer-nadired super, when you reassemble the hive. If she isn’t, you’ll return to find two supers full of brood and an empty brood box.

A very quick check confirmed that the queen was in the brood box so I left them to get on with things.

Stores

I didn’t do a full inspection on any of the colonies I checked.

It was far too cold to spend much time rummaging around in the boxes. However, I did confirm that all were queenright and had brood in all stages.

I also ‘eyeballed’ the approximate strength of the colonies in terms of frames of brood. Typically this just involves separating the frames and looking down the seams of bees, perhaps partly removing the outer frames only to confirm things. Even just doing this I still saw a few queens which was doubly reassuring 🙂 .

The weakest colonies – those in the shed – had 3-4 frames of brood. The strongest were booming … perhaps even the 8 cadres de couvée 14 you read about on Twitter 😉 .

All of the colonies had ample stores, and several had too much.

The capped frames of stores were occupying valuable space in the brood box that the colony will need to expand into over the next 2-3 weeks. I therefore used my judgement to replace one or two frames 15 of capped stores with drawn comb or new frames. I save the frames of stores carefully and will use them to make up nucs next month.

Here are some I saved for later

I’ve heard mixed reports of winter survival and spring build up this year. I’m aware that some beekeepers in the south of England are reporting higher than usual colony losses. Others were reporting very strong expansion in the early spring and even a few early swarms.

It will be interesting to see how the season develops. As always it will be ’the same, but different’ which is one of the things that makes beekeeping so challenging and enjoyable.


 

Winter weight

Synopsis: With colonies now rearing brood there is a risk of them starving. Here are a couple of ways of checking the winter hive weight to determine if you need to add fondant. These checks should be conducted every 2-3 weeks until the bees are foraging in the warmer spring weather. 

Introduction

Last week I described how to determine what was happening inside the hive in winter.

By carefully inspecting the debris that falls through the open mesh floor (OMF) you can tell:

  • the size and position of the cluster,
  • whether they are rearing brood (or, more precisely, whether there is brood being uncapped … I don’t think you can tell if there is open brood simply by inspecting the debris),
  • if frames of stores distant from the cluster are being used.

In addition, I explained the importance of checking that the hive entrance was clear of corpses. These accumulate during long periods of cold or inclement weather. If the hive entrance is small enough to prevent mice from getting in – and it should be – then there’s a chance these corpses will build up sufficiently to stop bees getting out.

Entering the ‘danger zone’ – rearing brood, too cold to forage – don’t let them starve

These two checks take no more than a few minutes and should be conducted at least monthly. There’s no harm in doing them more frequently because – performed correctly – the colony isn’t disturbed at all.

Last week I described these as ”The bees don’t even know they’re being checked” checks.

The final important winter check is to determine the weight of the colony.

Avoirdupois 1

If the bees are rearing brood they will be using their winter stores. Of course, they will have been using these stores throughout the late autumn and winter, but critically, the rate at which they use their stores will increase once brood rearing starts.

I’ve illustrated this before schematically, but have attempted to improve the diagram a little this year.

Once they have reared some brood, they’ll have more bees to help them rear some more brood, meaning that the rate at which the stores are used will increase.

Schematic diagram of winter hive weights

The solid black line is the weight of the colony. In the late autumn the colony almost certainly goes through a broodless period 2. During this broodless period the colony is simply using stores to maintain the adult bees in the cluster. I’ve drawn this as a straight line (i.e. a constant rate of stores usage), but I bet it varies with the ambient temperature as more or less stores are required for essential metabolic processes.

But at some point the queen starts laying again and the colony have some larvae to feed.

I’ve indicated the start of brood rearing by a dashed vertical line. Typically I usually guesstimate this occurs around the winter solstice 3, but for our purposes the precise timing is irrelevant.

Twenty one days later these bees emerge, by which time the queen has already laid some more eggs.

Things start to pick up.

What started as a small palm-sized patch of brood now covers almost the side of a frame, in a month it will be double that.

Or more.

And all of those hungry mouths mean more stores are needed, so the rate at which the stores are consumed will increase, meaning that the colony weight will decrease … and it will continue to get lighter faster 4.

Silent spring

A few crocus and snowdrops are out, but the weather is too poor for foraging.

The weather gradually improves and more spring flowers become available.

There’s gorse available, of course. There always is.

Late December gorse ...

Late December gorse …

The bees can now forage a little more. On unseasonably warm days the bees take cleansing flights and might collect a little pollen and nectar.

I’ve imaginatively and artistically illustrated this in the graph with some little yellow flowers 🙂

But, all the time, more brood is being reared.

If the nectar coming in is insufficient to feed the brood – and early in the season it will be – then the bees will continue to make inroads into their precious stores.

And the colony will get lighter.

And lighter.

Until it drops below some critical threshold and enters the ‘danger zone’ – the absolute weight doesn’t matter 5 – at which point the colony must go into self-preservation mode.

Brood will be abandoned, cannibalised and/or ejected from the hive. The queen will stop laying. The colony will be forced back into a ‘maintenance’ state.

A protracted cold period, or a fortnight of rain, and there’s a very real danger the colony will starve to death.

At the very best the early spring expansion of the colony will be severely retarded and it is unlikely to recover until mid-season.

All of which is easily avoided by carefully monitoring the amount of stores the colony has.

A brood frame full of stores

However, remember you’re supposed to be conducting ”The bees don’t even know they’re being checked” checks, not pulling open the brood box and rummaging through to count frames of sealed stores.

But since the number of bees in the colony is steady (or likely decreasing slowly) and there’s effectively no nectar being collected, the weight of the hive is a good surrogate measure to determine the level of stores available.

Winter weight

There are all sorts of ingenious solutions to determine the weight of a full hive.

Probably the most complicated and expensive is to purchase (or build) a set of electronic hive scales that automagically communicate with an app on your smartphone to give you a real-time readout of the hive weight in kilograms. You can record the weight of a few thousand foragers leaving the hive in the morning 6, and see them return by nightfall together with the 1500 g of nectar they’ve collected.

Arnia hive data

Arnia hive data

At the other end of the spectrum – in terms of both cost and information – is hefting the hive. Using nothing more than than a gentle lift and good judgement you can readily tell whether the hive contains sufficient stores for the bees to continue to rear brood. You won’t be able to tell the exact weight of the hive, but you will be able to determine whether it weighs enough.

I’ve used both methods.

However, I routinely only do the latter.

I’ll leave a discussion of automated hive monitoring to another day 7 and will instead briefly discuss two methods that are quick, cheap and easy (choose any three).

One method – hefting the hive – costs nothing, but requires a bit of experience and judgement. The second method involves – inaccurately, but reproducibly – weighing the hive. This costs about £10 to implement and provides a good way to build up your confidence that your hive hefting is probably good enough to ensure colony survival.

And good enough is probably all you need …

Hefting the hive

This is easier to show than describe:

The general idea is that you judge how much effort is required to lift one edge of the hive – typically the back – a couple of centimetres off the hive stand. As you can see from the video, other than slackening off the strap that secures the hive to the stand 8 there’s nothing else involved.

Comparisons help here.

It helps to have the ‘muscle memory’ of how much the hive weighed last time you checked, or – even better – how heavy it should feel like at this stage of the winter.

Both come with experience, and improve with lots of experience.

If you have several hives in the apiary, all with the same hardware, then hefting one after the other makes this comparison relatively easy. If – like in my apiaries – you have a range of different roofs, it can help to remove the roof to get a better ‘feel’ for the hive weight.

The hive should feel heavy.

If the hive feels light it probably is light.

Too light.

Weighing the hive

This second method is a little bit more involved.

I’ve previously recommended using a set of luggage scales to weigh the hive. You attach them to one edge of the hive floor, pull up gently, let the weight stabilise and then record the value on the digital display.

Don’t try this using luggage scales with an analogue display, or ones that don’t emit a helpful ‘beep’ and freeze the display when the weight stabilises.

Just don’t 🙁

Suitable luggage scale cost about a tenner. Mine are very friendly but cannot spell.

Friendly scales ...

Friendly scales …

However, those of you who have tried this method will be aware of the world of grief that is encapsulated in the words ”let the weight stabilise”, particularly if you do not have a lot of upper body/arm strength.

Here’s the problem … you are trying to hold half the weight of a full hive stationary. Probably 9 your arms will be bent at the elbow.

The hive will probably weigh 30+ kg.

Even half that is a lot to hold steady while you wait for the tinny electronic ‘beep’ to tell you to relax and lower the hive gently back onto the hive stand.

I struggle to do this (more now than I used to) and I’m tall and relatively strong.

Before I explain an easier way to achieve the same thing I ought to say a couple of words about determining the total hive weight.

Physics … Ewwww!

If everything – frames, bees, stores – in the hive are evenly distributed, then opposite sides of the hive (weighed as described above) will be a fraction less than half the total weight 10.

Weighing hives

Since the ‘stuff’ in the hive is probably not evenly distributed the weight you record will either be less than or more than half the weight of the hive, depending on whether you have picked the heavy (C in the figure above) or light (D) side of the hive.

However, the sum of the two sides (C + D) will – with the exception of the fraction lost due to vectors as described in the last footnote – still equal the total weight of the hive and contents.

So, if you want to know the total weight either measure the weight of opposing sides and add them together.

Or, measure one side, double it, assume everything is about even and enjoy being a beekeeping free spirit.

You radical 😉

Let the weight stabilise

The solution to the arm-wrenching, patience-draining, interminably-wobbling, weight stabilising problem is to use a lever.

You need two pieces of stout wood, a strong nut and bolt and a few suitably sized washers. One piece of wood forms a vertical support. The second piece of wood is a lever. It is attached near the top of the support using the bolts/washers/nut.

Hive scales

The digital luggage scales are tied to one end of the lever.

You need a way of attaching the hive to the scales. I use a 6 mm roofing bolt.

Now you see it …

All my hive floors are drilled with a 6-7 mm hole through the middle of each side of the floor 11. This is in the side runner of my kewl floors, underneath the OMF and the Varroa tray.

The roofing bolt is pushed fully into this hole and holds everything very securely.

Now you don’t … when pushed fully home the hive is securely attached to the scales

Using this ‘Heath Robinson’ contraption is simplicity itself.

Place the support vertical and adjacent to the hive, attach the scales to the hive floor, gently press down on the other end of the lever and lift the hive no more than 1-2 cm from the hive stand.

Wait a few seconds for the ‘beep’ from the scales, lower the hive gently onto the stand and record double the weight in your hive records.

Or for those of you who are not free spirits but wear a belt and braces with your beesuit, weigh the opposite side of the hive as well, add the weights together and write up your notes 😉

How reproducible is this?

Actually, pretty good 🙂

I did a bunch of measurements on a range of dummy hives of known weights 12.

By measuring both sides and adding the recorded weights together I determined that the underestimate of the true hive weight was about 8%. With care, the variation in weight of repeated independent measurements of one side of the hive was in the range 0.3 – 1.7%.

That’s more than close enough for me.

You do need to take care to standardise the method you use:

  • make sure the upright support is vertical
  • ensure that the pull exerted by the scales is as vertical as possible.
  • lift the hive by the same distance off the stand. The smaller the distance the more accurately you will determine the total weight 13.
  • push down on the lever gently and smoothly. Don’t jerk the hive. It takes relatively little effort to hold the hive stable for the weight to be recorded 14

All of which is pretty easy to achieve.

Remember – and this is the last time I’ll write this – these inspections are ”The bees don’t even know they’re being checked” checks 15. All of the above can be achieved in 1 minute with no disturbance to the colony if you are reasonably careful.

Then what??

Remember, the weight of the hive is not important, it’s whether they have enough stores to rear brood. However, regularly recording the weight as I describe here will allow you to judge how fast the colony is getting through the stores.

Ideally weigh the hive and heft the hive.

You will then more quickly learn to make a judgement based upon hefting along.

Will the colony be underweight – based upon the hive hardware, the weight of the bees, frames and stores – in a week or two when you next visit?

Bees can use their stores fast when they’re unable to forage and rearing brood. Studies by Tom Seeley have demonstrated colony weight reduction in ‘maintenance’ mode was perhaps 1 kg per week, but that this level increased significantly once brood rearing started in earnest.

If you consider that the colony is already too light, or will be too light before your next visit, you must add some stores.

And, at this time of the year you should use fondant, not syrup, to feed bees.

Feeding fondant

I’ve written extensively about feeding fondant to bees, both in midwinter and at the end of the summer. I only use commercial baker’s fondant, not the overpriced stuff sold to gullible wealthy beekeepers.

The priority is to add the fondant as close as possible to the cluster. You want the bees to have immediate access to it. You don’t want them to have to crawl half way across the hive, up through a hole in the crownboard and into that cold empty void under the roof.

Which bees are better able to access the fondant?

Brrrr.

I add fondant in 1 – 5 kg blocks. The amount depends upon the size of the colony, the likely time of my next visit and the probability of their being nectar readily available before then.

I always err on the side of generosity 16.

You can easily remove unused fondant …

… or you can guiltily remove pathetic handfuls of starved bees.

Your choice 🙁

Pack the fondant into clear plastic food trays 17 rescued from the recycling bin. Once filled, wrap them with a couple of layers of clingfilm, or place them in a securely sealed plastic bags. The fondant will absorb moisture from the environment, particularly if it’s warm. I just keep a pile of them in the car for my winter visits to the apiary.

Spot the blocks of fondant and the scales

Remove all the clingfilm. Bees have a horrible habit of dragging it down into the brood nest, chewing it up and incorporating it into brace comb.

I place the fondant on top of the frame bars, directly over the cluster. My crownboards are reversible and have a deep upper (i.e lower when reversed!) rim which accommodates the tray of fondant.

Fondant block under an inverted perspex crownboard

I add the insulation block back over the crownboard and replace the roof, secure in the knowledge that the colony has sufficient food for the next 2-3 weeks.

If your crownboards aren’t reversible with a deep rim make some that are use an eke or an empty super.


 

Winter wait

Synopsis: In the winter bees are low maintenance, but they’re not no maintenance. You need to carry out a few regular winter checks to help them overwinter successfully. Here are the first two things to check … I’ll deal with the third and final check next week.

Introduction

The ‘beekeeping season’ runs from spring until autumn. Quite when it starts and stops depends upon your latitude and enthusiasm 1.

More of each have opposing effects in the spring.

More latitude and the season starts later, more enthusiasm and you might be tempted to start colony inspections (the first ‘proper’ beekeeping of the year) in early spring.

I’m certainly enthusiastic but I live in Scotland. I therefore rarely open a hive before mid/late April. In some seasons it might even be mid-May.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to do between the end of the preceding season and the start of the next.

The winter wait (for the start of the season) doesn’t meant that there’s nothing to do.

During the winter months of the year bees are really low maintenance, but they’re not no maintenance.

You need to check the hives at about monthly intervals. More frequent checks will do no harm – these are ”The bees don’t even know they’re being checked” checks – but probably aren’t necessary. These checks are important to ensure the bees overwinter successfully.

Spring is on the way … Fife snowdrops, mid-February 2022

Of course, you should also check after high winds or heavy rain (very timely as I’m writing this as Storm Eunice bears down on the south west) as an overturned hive or a badly flooded apiary aren’t conducive to colony survival.

So, what do these checks entail?

What are you actually looking for?

How can you tell much of anything from an inanimate cedar or poly box on a miserable, cold, wet February afternoon?

Essentially it comes down to three things … the state of the colony, access to the hive and weight.

What’s happening in the box?

Mid-February, it’s 5°C, there’s a squally northerly blowing intermittent sharp hail showers down from the hills. No self-respecting bee would venture out in conditions like these.

Most self-preserving beekeepers would probably prefer to be sat in front of the fire reading Gilles Fert’s Raising honeybee queens 2.

However, there’s work to be done.

What on earth can you judge about what’s happening inside the box on a day like this?

If you’re a relatively new beekeeper (and this applies to some of us who have been keeping bees for many years) you would probably like to know if there are any live bees in the box.

After all, you’ve not see a flying bee for months.

Perhaps they all froze to death in those heavy frosts over the previous week?

Don’t rap sharply on the outside of the box and listen for an answering angry buzz. Yes, it’s a way of detecting whether there’s ‘life in the old box yet’, but it’s an unnecessary disturbance for the bees.

How would you like it?

There are two relatively simply methods, one much more useful than the other.

The first is to use a clear perspex crownboard on the hive 3. It’s then a simple matter to lift the roof and observe the state of the colony.

Colony viewed through a perspex crownboard – mid-February 2022

Here’s one of my colonies from last weekend. I can tell from the size of the cluster that the colony is reasonably strong.

That’s a good start.

The bees are moving on the periphery of the cluster, so they’re alive 4.

In addition, though it’s not entirely clear from this photograph, there are at least 2-3 frames of capped stores at the opposite side of the hive to the cluster.

Condensation

One of the things missing from the picture above is any significant amount of condensation on the underside of the perspex crownboard. This is because the deep inner rim of the crownboard is usually filled with a 50 mm thick block of insulation.

Perspex crownboard with integrated insulation

This is essential unless the roof is very well insulated. Without insulation immediately above the perspex the high level of humidity within the hive will lead to large amounts of condensation on the underside of the perspex.

This condensation – or at least some of it – will then drip down onto the cluster, making it a pretty unpleasant environment for the bees.

So, by simply building a ‘window’ into the top of the hive you can determine the size of the colony, whether it’s alive and possibly judge something about the level of stores in the hive.

All of which, and more, you can achieve another (better) way … read on 😉

I quite like the perspex crownboards I use on some of my colonies. However, I consider them far from essential and can judge the state of the colony much better by ‘observing’ them from below rather than from above.

Open mesh floors

When I say ‘observing’ them from below, I don’t mean a glass bottomed hive and I don’t mean directly observing them from below 5.

If you use open mesh floors (hereafter OMFs) you can collect and inspect what falls through the floor and get a very good idea of the size, state, health and activity of the colony.

Wow 🙂

An OMF should have a white (or pale yellow) coloured plastic tray or sheet that can be slid underneath the floor to catch the debris that falls through.

Not black and definitely not Varroa-coloured 😉

White polystyrene Varroa trays really need painting as they discolour badly after a couple of seasons.

Abelo poly Varroa tray

Abelo poly Varroa tray – draughty and easily discolours. Yuck.

A well designed OMF – and there are many that are not 6 – should have a close-fitting tray so that those gusty February squalls don’t disturb the debris that falls through. The position and type of debris is important and if it has been blown about all over the place – or half-eaten by slugs or ants – then your task will be that much harder.

Or impossible.

Varroa tray – single brood box, busy colony, mid-February 2022

This is a tray from a reasonably strong colony in a single brood box. You can just about make out 10 fuzzy horizontal lines of debris. These lines are made up of stuff that’s fallen through the OMF.

You realise that ‘stuff’ is a highly technical beekeeping term that covers everything from antennae, legs, wax cappings, pollen and Varroa to a range of other unidentifiable crap 7.

Tasseography

Tasseography (or tasseomancy) appears to be an entirely made up word 8 for reading tea leaves.

Deciphering the debris on a Varroa tray is a more exact science than tasseography which – and at the risk of offending any fortune-teller-beekeeping readers – isn’t.

It’s not science and it’s not exact 9. The existence of well-reviewed books on the subject proves nothing other than the gullibility of purchasers I’m afraid 10.

So, let’s look again at the debris in the picture above.

The four rows in the centre/top are darker. These are directly below the cluster and are cappings produced (and dropped) as brood emerges. Brood capping are biscuit-coloured (think a sort of dark digestive, not a pale custard cream), presumably because of the incorporated pollen and associated pupal casings.

In addition, mixed in with these rows is some paler granular debris, and there is a lot more of this in the very obvious rows towards the bottom of the picture.

These are the wax cappings that are produced when the bees uncap stores. If you have a close look at these rows you can also see some white or off-white sugar crystals.

So, we can tell the approximate size of the brood nest, we know they’re rearing brood and that they are busy uncapping stores.

Hive health

The one thing you won’t see on that tray are any Varroa 11. That particular tray was left in situ from 17/1/22 to 13/2/22. I can therefore be reasonably confident that the colony is healthy, with low Varroa levels.

I can see a tall, handsome stranger in your future … and a lot of Varroa

This second tray is from another colony in a single brood box. They are also rearing brood but have yet to venture much beyond the cluster when uncapping stores.

However, looking closely at this tray I can see a disappointingly high Varroa drop … somewhere in the region of 30-50. Again, this tray has been under the colony for a month, so I’ll need to monitor Varroa levels carefully as they build up during the spring.

As an aside, both these colonies have an identical record of miticide treatments 12 and both are in the same apiary. My records show that the colony with the higher Varroa natural drop (i.e. not due to recent treatment, the tray was cleaned in mid-January and they were last treated in November) in winter have consistently had higher mite levels.

All other things being equal – e.g. temper, behaviour, frugality 13 – I would choose to rear queens from a colony with the low mite levels.

The colony that first Varroa tray was from are not ‘mite resistant’.

They will have Varroa.

My post-treatment mite counts showed a modest mite drop and I’m confident that the treatment will have been no more than 95% effective. However, low mites are better than loadsa mites 14 and it will be interesting to see if colonies headed by daughter queens behave similarly.

Entrances

The late summer/early autumn colony reduces in size as the year progresses and as bees die off. At some point in early spring that daily births outnumber daily deaths (Murray McGregor calls this ‘crossover day’) and the colony starts to expand again.

So what happens to all those corpses?

The bees fall down through the cluster to the hive floor. On good flying days the undertaker bees will carry these away and discard them outside the hive.

However, during protracted cold or wet periods when the bees cannot fly the corpses can end up covering the floor and eventually blocking the hive entrance.

Multi-purpose Swiss Army penknife for beekeepers (sort of)

So the second check you need to perform is to ensure that the hive entrance is clear. This might mean removing the mouseguard and gently raking out the accumulated corpses.

In the kewl floors I favour the L-shaped entrance requires a correspondingly L-shaped piece of wire (a repurposed stainless steel spoke from a bicycle wheel) to check it’s clear. The same tool works perfectly well on almost all other hive entrances as well.

Be aware that you might inadvertently disturb workers near the hive entrance … these can fly out and aggressively ‘ask’ you to move away 15.

Tunnel entrances

The only entrances this multipurpose-and-soon-to-be-patented tool 16 is unsuitable for are those on the hives in my bee shed.

Entrance duct and hive floor ...

Entrance duct and hive floor … brood box removed for clarity

These have a 6” tunnel entrance. Even with a torch it’s difficult to see whether the inner hive entrance is blocked or not.

However, since you’ve already removed the Varroa tray it’s easy to look up through the OMF and check it’s clear.

There are two ways to do this:

  1. Prostrate yourself and look though the OMF while at the same time getting a gentle dusting of the stuff raining down from the cluster, or
  2. Use the phone on your camera to take a quick photo (you’ll need to use the flash).

Nothing to see here … other than some clown photobombing the hive checkup

If you do find the floor covered in corpses and the entrances blocked – whether the hives are in a shed or outside) it’s very important to clear them before leaving the apiary.

Blocked Kewl floor

Blocked Kewl floor …

Simply separate the brood box from the floor, no need to remove the crownboard, set it gently aside. Clear the floor and the entrance and replace the brood box.

Fortunately, the floors of my hives were all reassuringly clear of corpses.

In the photo from underneath the floor you can see the bottom bars of the frames and, between them 17 the serried rows of bees on the underside of the cluster. There are a lot of bees in the box.

Winter weight

So, without disturbing the colony you now know:

  • the colony is alive
  • they are rearing brood
  • stores are being consumed
  • something of the strength of the colony (in terms of number of seams of bees present)
  • whether they have low or high Varroa levels
  • if they are free to fly when the weather becomes suitable

Not a bad result for 5 minutes work.

But there’s one more thing to check.

Do they have sufficient stores to survive until your next visit to the apiary?

Actually, not just survive, but do they have sufficient stores to continue to rear brood so that the colony expands to be strong enough to exploit the early season forage when it’s available.

And I’ll deal with that question next week as I’m already fast approaching 2500 words 18 and there’s quite a bit more to cover on hive weights and winter feeding.


 

Location, location, location

Synopsis: Finding a good apiary location involves homework and legwork. What should you look for and what to avoid? A good apiary will ensure your bees are more productive and your beekeeping is much more enjoyable, so finding one is time well invested.

Introduction

It was the writer and diarist John Evelyn (1620 – 1706) who, in 1697, first used the term apiary to mean a place where hives are kept. Apiary also means a bee house 1, but for the purpose of this post I’m going to restrict myself to outdoor locations where bees are kept.

How should you go about finding a good apiary location?

Remember … bees are not pets.

They are working livestock.

That sting.

They are also quite high maintenance.

Despite what some seem to suggest, you cannot just dump them in any old field and return months later to harvest buckets of beautiful honey. For about six months of the year they need regular checks to ensure they have enough space, to prevent them from swarming and to make sure they are healthy.

If Carlsberg did apiaries … an apiary in Andalucia

All of these things – their work needs 2, the maintenance, the stinging – need to be taken into account when deciding where to site your beehives.

Since I’m in the process of finding and setting up a new apiary I thought it might be timely 3 to discuss the topic in a little more detail.

The garden … perhaps not the best choice

Many beekeepers keep their bees in their garden.

It’s certainly convenient.

However, as I’ve discussed before, there are a number of disadvantages. If you have a small urban garden you can be certain that ” … whatever the evidence (or lack of it), it will be your bees that sting your neighbours grandchild, poop on their Beemer and swarm onto the garden swing.”

Swarm on a swing ... not ideal if it's in the next door garden

Swarm on a swing … not ideal if it’s in the next door garden

Although I always site bait hives in my garden, until I moved to the remote west coast I’ve never kept bees there permanently 4.

My bees are generally well behaved and my swarm control is reasonably good. However, even the most benign bees can have a bad day, and reasonably good means that there is still room for improvement 5.

It just takes one stung grandchild, one BMW getting the pointillism with poop treatment, or one missed queen cell, to potentially sour relationships forever with your neighbours.

Why risk it?

Yes, it’s convenient 6.

Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to see the bees busily flying in and out.

But disputes with neighbours can get ugly and are cited as the reason for over 350,000 people moving house each year.

Is that a risk worth taking?

The garden … you’ll still need an out apiary

If you do intend to keep bees in the garden, check the deeds to make sure that it’s allowed. Some preclude ‘keeping livestock’ which, from a legal perspective, probably means bees 7.

And, if you do keep bees in your garden, I’d argue you still need an additional, or ‘out’, apiary 8. There are two reasons for this:

  • If and when you need to move your bees you will potentially have to do so at very short notice 9. If the colony goes queenless and gets stroppy, or a child develops an anaphylactic reaction, the neighbours are not going to accept being told ”It’ll be OK in 3-4 weeks … and it might not be my bees anyway”. Remember, it’s the summer and they want to have a BBQ.
  • Some beekeeping manipulations (like making up nucs for swarm control) are made easier by simply moving bees to a distant site.

For the rest of this post I’m going to focus on the features I look for in an apiary location, largely concentrating on rural or semi-rural areas 10. I’ll focus on the needs of both the bees and the beekeeper, and I’ll include some suggestions to make your searches a little easier.

Food and water

Other than in very specific circumstances 11 the area around the apiary must have good forage.

Without ample pollen and nectar being available the colony will not thrive, and they certainly will not collect excess nectar to provide you with a honey crop.

If the intention is to use the apiary year-round then there must be forage available throughout the period of the year when the bees are active.

Of course, the bees will range far and wide to find suitable forage, but the closer they are to it the better they will do.

My hives in this field margin did fantastically well on the oil seed rape (OSR), but they also benefitted from hedgerow flowers and tree pollens, and from ample dandelion, clover and blackberry. Even without the OSR, it was a good spot.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

In additional to good forage, bees also need to have access to water. My bees spend hours collecting water from a natural pool a dozen yards from the hives. It is possible to provide water from an artificial source – like a moss-filled bucket in the apiary – but a natural source doesn’t need topping up unless there’s a serious drought.

Marooned ...

Marooned …

But don’t site your hives too close to water if there is any risk of flooding.

Hives, particularly poly hives, do float. However, they don’t necessarily float the right way up.

Searching for a new apiary location in midwinter can help exclude some sites where flooding might be an issue.

In contrast, identifying suitable forage in midwinter is more difficult. In my experience the only ways to identify whether an area has suitable year-round forage are to:

  • learn what the major forage types are (even when they’re not in flower), and then spend time reconnoitering likely areas 12.
  • ask other beekeepers 13.

But where do you start looking?

Near … but not too near

If you are looking for an out apiary i.e. one located some distance from your ‘home’ apiary 14 then it makes sense to search at least 3 miles away. This is because, although bees can return to a hive from further away, if their originating hive is moved at least three miles they reorientate to the new location. This means you can make up nucs or move mating hives to the out apiary without the risk of the flying bees returning to their original location.

But, if you are looking for your first apiary, it makes sense to choose an area close enough to home so that travel doesn’t become a big part of your beekeeping. It’s surprising how often you forget things, or how often you just need to nip back to the bees to do something trivial.

Some of my apiaries are 130 miles from home and I write lists of what I need to take with me. Just ‘nipping back’ is not an option … all my colony manipulations have to be completed during scheduled visits.

Setting up a new apiary

There’s one more thing to consider when thinking about the general area in which to search for a suitable apiary site … where do other beekeepers keep their bees?

Ask some of the ‘old hands’ in your association. They might not tell you exactly where their bees are, but they are likely to be able to give you some general pointers.

In addition, keep your eyes peeled 15 when you are out and about on your travels.

I enjoy walking and it’s surprising the number of field margins, copses and rough land where you can find a few hives tucked away out of plain sight. Take a note of where they are and then start to focus in on areas that might be suitable for you.

Google it

Google and Microsoft both have excellent mapping facilities and these can help you find a suitable location for an apiary.

If you know where your home apiary is and/or the location of other hives in the area, you can plot the potential foraging range of bees from these apiaries, and look for likely looking gaps.

The following example is entirely hypothetical. It’s based upon an apiary of mine (blue circle) in Warwickshire, now vacated. The red circles mark other apiaries and the black circle is the limit beyond which I wasn’t prepared to travel 16.

Spheres of influence

If you find likely looking gaps in the overlapping circles they might be a good place to start your detailed search for an apiary. 

It’s also worth noting that the high resolution satellite images available from Google and Microsoft allow a much more detailed search for suitable apiary sites. This type of online searching cannot replace walking around a few fields, but they might well help you decide which side of the field to start at.

Look for access tracks that fade away to nothing, wide field margins, corners of agricultural land that remain unploughed, large clearings in small woods or copses etc.

A potential access track to a new apiary?

Remember, you might have to do this in the ‘off season’ so it’s worth learning to identify likely forage (or at least potential forage) when the area looks a lot less bee-friendly than it would in midseason.

Hi-res can help (you and the bad guys)

And also look for signs that other beekeepers have already placed hives in the area.

I can see you …

In the areas with the highest resolution mapping it is possible to ‘find’ hives that may be invisible from a cursory drive past or walk through an area. It’s worth using both Microsoft and Google maps for these detailed searches as they use different satellite images (and update them relatively frequently) and so details can be visible on one that are invisible on the other.

The photo above shows a few hives in a field on a Google satellite images. The photo below shows the Microsoft image of the same site.

I can see a lot more of you …

The half dozen hives visible in the first of these two pictures wouldn’t have stopped me looking for a suitable apiary nearby. The fifteen or more additional hives in the lee of the hedge (hidden in shade in the first picture) suggests that the area might be saturated with bees and that I should look elsewhere.

In places, the detail on these satellite images is amazing. Here’s the Google image of my first bee shed within a fenced area also containing half a dozen hives.

My bee shed

Be aware that anyone can view these images and that they therefore potentially pose a security risk 17. If you already have an established apiary check to see how visible it is … you might be surprised (and disappointed).

Boots on the ground

Once you’ve done enough homework it’s time to start visiting a few likely looking locations to see if they might be suitable.

Obviously you should not trespass (and the freedom to roam rights in Scotland are a huge bonus here) but it’s usually quite easy to determine whether an area is a non-starter or has some real promise.

A site that looked good in theory, but not in practice

You might need use your imagination. What will it look like on a dry May afternoon, rather than a dreich morning in January?

The site above looked semi-promising on the map. However, the conifers were larger than I’d expected and the site would have been too shaded.

When will the sun first appear? In hilly areas you can calculate when the sun will appear and disappear over the horizon using a combination of this tool to determine the trajectory of the sun and this tool to calculate the horizon.

How good is access? Remember, you might want access late evening or early morning to move hives. If it’s close to the farmhouse/stately home that might not be possible.

And, conversely, how secure is the site likely to be?

Is there safe parking nearby?

Can you drive right up to the (likely spot for the) hives, or will there be carrying involved?

In either case, how soft is the ground? Will you need wellies, a hivebarrow, a Toyota Hilux or a canoe?

Is the area likely to be a frost pocket? If so, look elsewhere.

What is the shelter like in the direction of the prevailing weather?

Is there sufficient space? You might start with just a couple of hives, but if your ambition is to have a dozen this makes additional demands on the space and forage needed.

Time spent in reconnaissance etc.

I try and work out all of the above before I approach the landowner 18.

Rather than asking Can I put some bees on your land?, when the answer might be affirmative but you might be offered an unsuitable location, it’s better to ask ”Can I put some hives in the north-west corner of the field with the large dead oak tree in it?

You’ve already worked out that access is good and the ground is well drained, you can face the hives in a south easterly direction to get the morning sun, there’s excellent shelter to the west, the site isn’t overlooked and there are no footpaths or bridleways nearby.

Nice wide field margins … but is that a footpath?

By all means justify your choice to the landowner, and consider other locations if offered. However, don’t just accept somewhere without considering all the pros and cons first.

You probably have a much better idea of what your bees need. You certainly have a better idea of what you (as the beekeeper) need. Don’t lose sight of these in your discussions.

A jar or two of honey to sweeten the deal always helps. You should expect to pay a ground rent which you should agree when you start.

Exchange contact details and tell the landowner your vehicle registration so they don’t mistake you for a poacher or flytipper … and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Final considerations

Most of what I’ve written above largely applies to finding apiary sites in rural areas. That’s because those are the locations I’ve used for 95% of my beekeeping. I’ve never kept bees on an allotment 19 and the bees I’ve kept in gardens have been – and still are – in gardens surrounded by open countryside or farmland.

In the latter cases I talked to the landowner first, often after they bought honey from me and then asked whether I was looking for another site for hives. I explain in detail the type of location(s) I’m looking for and then have a guided tour of their land.

If you explain in advance that you want a south-east facing sunny site you can avoid sounding too negative when they offer you a heavily shaded damp corner behind the compost bins 20.

The search for a suitable apiary location can take weeks or months … or you might find it at the very first gateway you stop at.

It’s certainly well worth investing time in finding a suitable site. A well chosen apiary will make your beekeeping a much more enjoyable experience and should make your bees a lot more productive.


 

Seasonal scheming

Synopsis : Midwinter is the time for planning and preparation for the beekeeping season ahead. In addition to thinking about the normal season’s events – swarming, mite control, honey etc. – now is the time to be more expansive. What arrangements need to be made for the longer term sustainability of your apiary and beekeeping? 1


Introduction

Now is the winter of our discontent.

So said the young Richard 2 in a soliloquy celebrating the upturn in his fortunes.

For a beekeeper, this upturn might seem a little premature as it’s only 17 days since the winter solstice and there are currently less than 7 hours daylight.

The drowsy days of summer filled with the gentle buzzing of bees seem a lifetime away …

Snowing in the apiary

No cleansing flights today

… and it’s snowing in the apiary.

However, the days are slowly getting longer.

Actually, until the spring equinox, the daylength gets increasingly longer each day – by about a minute and a half on January 1st, to over 4 minutes a day by the end of the month and finally reaching a heady 4 minutes 48 seconds by the 20th of March 3.

All of which means that, although not quite ‘around the corner’ the beekeeping season will be here pretty soon.

So it’s not so much Now is the winter of our discontent as Now is the winter and the best time to prepare for the season ahead and build frames.

I’ve previously posted about building frames, so this post is about planning, though frames might get a mention in passing.

Planning for the season ahead

I was going to title this post Cunning plans but I think most of the cunning plans that Baldrick dreamt up were pretty catastrophic. It seemed sensible to choose a different title.

I have an entire talk on the topic of planning for the season ahead and am giving this talk a couple of times in the next few weeks. To avoid stealing my own thunder 4 I’m not going to talk in general terms about preparing for the season.

Instead I am going to concentrate on the things I’ll be doing in addition to all of the usual activities like swarm prevention, the honey harvest and mite control.

At this time of the year we have the luxury to stare idly off into the middle distance while simultaneously dreaming about bees and polishing off the remains of the Christmas cake. Once the season starts we’ll either be too busy, or there won’t be enough time to make some of the preparations.

So what will I be doing this year that differs from last year, or the one before that?

Long distance beekeeping

I finally moved from the east coast to the western extremities of Scotland last February after a couple of years of spending increasing amounts of time here. I’ve still got bees on both sides of the country (including colonies for research in Fife) and travel to and fro as needed to manage the colonies.

And, frankly, the novelty is starting to wear off.

It can get a bit wearing spending the day working with the bees and then driving for 4-5 hours to get home 5. Beekeeping can be hard work. There are lots of boxes to lift and it can get hot and tiring doing this for hours on a sweltering day in June.

Fortunately, this is Scotland, so the sweltering day bit doesn’t happen all that frequently 😉

However, the physical hard work does happen. I’ve previously calculated – using mental arithmatic on one of those long car journeys 6 – that my spring honey harvest might involve manhandling well over a ton of boxes over a couple of days. And that’s on top of the hive inspections.

Doing this ‘at a distance’ means everything tends to get squeezed into a 2-3 day trip every couple of weeks, or more frequently if I’m queen rearing as well.

OK, I’m not expecting much sympathy as you’ve probably also worked out by now how much honey all those supers contained 😉

Nevertheless, one priority this year is to reduce my hive count on the east coast, and increase it on the west coast.

Think of it as increasing the beekeeping : driving ratio.

Latitude and longitude

Don’t get me wrong, there are advantages of having apiaries 150 miles apart.

For a start, the timing of the key seasonal events – swarming and the nectar flows – are very different. Although there is only a fraction of a degree difference in latitude (perhaps equivalent to ~30 miles), the climatic differences are striking.

Warm and wet on the west coast, cold and dry on the east.

Or, more accurately as these things are all relative, warmer and wetter on the west coast, colder and drier on the east 😉

This, coupled with the geography, means that my bees in Fife are surrounded by intensively farmed land, whereas those on the west coast are in the howling wilderness.

A sweltering June day (!) in Fife with late-flowering OSR

And intensively farmed means oil seed rape (OSR). I don’t think there’s a single season I’ve been in Fife when OSR wasn’t available nearby. Even when the bees fail to collect a surplus the boost the colonies get from the bonanza of nectar and pollen is huge.

This means that the colonies are much bigger and stronger earlier in the season. They therefore make swarm preparations sooner and I can start queen rearing earlier.

All of which means that the 4-5 hours separation by car – less than 3° of longitude – is manifest as 3-4 weeks of difference in the beekeeping season.

And that means I don’t need the same equipment on both sides of the country at the same time.

Result 🙂

Local beekeeping

I think what these rambling comments really emphasise is the intensely local nature of beekeeping. The climate, geography and forage experienced by, or available to, colonies determines ‘what happens when’.

Specific advice on beekeeping can only meaningfully be applied if these factors are taken into account.

This is inevitably very confusing for beginners.

If a venerable sage pronounces on the discussion forums that ‘now is the right time’ for oxalic acid treatment, then it must be correct.

Yes?

Er, no.

The ‘right time’ reflects the combination of the mode of action of oxalic acid and the state of the colony. Oxalic acid is only effective against phoretic mites, so the colony should ideally be broodless. The timing of broodlessness will depend upon a host of factors, but will likely differ in different locations.

We’ve had a relatively mild winter (so far). My Fife colonies were broodless from late October through until sometime near mid/late November. A few I checked on the 7th of December had brood, and I expect they all did by Christmas (I’ve not checked since).

Cappings and a couple of mites – early December 2021, Fife

Had I not treated until the Christmas – New Year holiday my mite control would have been much less effective. Many mites would have escaped a drenching in oxalic acid as a consequence of being hunkered down in capped cells.

If you didn’t treat at all, or didn’t treat until the Christmas holidays, or didn’t treat when you know that the colony was broodless 7, keep a close eye on the mite levels as the colonies expand this spring. If the winter remains mild the mites will have ample opportunity to reproduce to disturbingly high levels.

I seem to have drifted off topic …

Local bees

My Fife bees were all reared locally and the queens are open mated. They do well in Fife and possibly wouldn’t do quite as well on the west coast. They also have Varroa whereas my west coast apiary is in a Varroa-free region.

I therefore cannot simply reduce my east coast colony numbers by moving them.

Instead I’ll have to use a combination of splitting some to produce nucs for sale and uniting others to make strong colonies for the summer nectar flow. Hopefully this should leave me with a few very strong colonies which will be easier to manage and/or hand on when I finally leave altogether.

Like last year I’ll therefore be doing quite a bit of long distance queen rearing. I’ll raise the cells in Fife and then transfer them, once sealed, to my recently completed portable queen cell incubator.

Have incubator, will travel

This frees up the cell raising colony for a second round of grafted larvae. I’ll then keep the cells with me until the queens emerge, maintaining them with a tiny bit of honey and water every day. On my next visit to Fife I’ll then be able to transfer them to introduction cages and place them in mating nucs.

A trial run doing this worked well last year.

There are several advantages of doing things this way:

  • The cell raising colony can be re-used about a week earlier than if I’d left the queens in it – either to emerge, or until they were ready for introduction as mature queen cells.
  • Any dud cells (i.e. those that don’t emerge) are ditched instead of only being discovered when checking the mating nucs a week or two later 8.
  • I can use the queens to fit in with my own travel timetable – which has other things dictating it like pesky meetings – rather than vice versa.

But, of course, it also involves a bit more work in maintaining and caging the queens. In addition, in my experience virgin queen introduction is slightly more risky than adding mature cells to a queenless colony.

However, in my view, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Expansion

I’ve successfully reared queens for several years.

I’m certainly not an expert, but I’m experienced 9 enough to expect it to work. I’m disappointed when graft acceptance is below about 75%, or when less than three quarters of my virgin queens fail to mate successfully.

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells produced using the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing system

Multiplied together (0.752) you get 0.56 … or ~50-60%. I therefore work out how many queens I need and graft twice the number of larvae and it usually works out about right.

So it is very frustrating when it doesn’t.

And it didn’t with my west coast queen rearing last season 🙁

Graft acceptance was low (though not catastrophic), but queen mating was very poor. I think this was due to a number of factors, some self-inflicted and some environmental:

  • Colonies developed much more slowly meaning queen rearing needed to start later in the season.
  • I had too few colonies, and certainly too few drones, to ensure enough ‘Summer lovin’ 🙂
  • The weather. It can be a bit hit and miss getting sufficient ‘dry, calm, settled’ weather for queen mating this far north and west.

July temperatures in Ardnamurchan

To expand my colony numbers on the west coast, and to generate surplus to help meet the demand for Varroa-free colonies in the area, I need to ‘up my game’ significantly.

Improved mating success 10

There’s nothing I can do to change the weather though I have started to take an unhealthy interest in it.

I’ve now got a personal weather station in the apiary which can generate graphs like that shown above (or for wind speed, sunlight, rainfall etc.). By retrospectively determining the local conditions that occurred during successful mating flights 11 I should be able to plan the timing of queen cell production a little better.

For example, if all that is needed is one half-decent day in an otherwise unsettled fortnight, it would make sense to produce a small number of mature cells over a long period. In contrast, if successful mating needs a longer period of settled weather – that might only occur once a season – then it might be better to have lots of queens (and mating nucs) ready for the time most likely to be suitable.

And the same considerations apply to drones.

Ardnamurchan is a very sparsely populated area … whether you’re counting people or bees. I strongly suspect that a major factor contributing to poor mating success was the relative sparsity of drones. To help compensate for this I am going to boost drone production in colonies by adding at least one full frame of drone foundation.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

Regular readers will know I use a lot of foundationless frames. The colony preferentially draws these as worker or drone comb to fit their needs at the time. Consequently, many of my colonies often have more drone brood than a hive just filled with frames of purchased worker foundation.

However, this year I’m not even going to give them the option … I’ll drop a frame of drone foundation into the box so they just have to get on with it!

Finally, I can certainly improve my understanding of colony development on the west coast. Do I need to provide a syrup or pollen (pollen sub) boost early in the season to compensate for a local dearth of nectar and pollen? Are there other ways I could manage the colonies to ensure they are strong enough at the right time for cell raising?

So, part of my planning is to improve a number of things that contribute to successful queen rearing. Some of these will inevitably impact honey production, but that’s something I’m happy to sacrifice (in the short term at least).

A new apiary

For the first time I’ve got bees in the garden … or what masquerades as a garden in this part of the world. More accurately it’s just a patch of rough hillside with some mixed woodland and a really boggy bit (and an unhealthy amount of rhododendron).

For convenience I need to find an additional apiary this year. This avoids overloading an area with too many bees, and provides an additional site for queen mating or simply moving colonies temporarily during certain manipulations.

The usual quote is “less than 3 feet or more than 3 miles” when it comes to moving bees.

However, those rules aren’t absolute.

Mountains and expanses of water both significantly reduce the distances bees will fly (they prefer to go round them rather than over them).

And we have lots of both 12.

Aspen over Loch Sunart

I’ve scouted out a couple of locations already and have a couple more to check. My main apiary will remain in the garden but I’ll have an out apiary when needed.

Learn something new

The motto of perl, my favoured (and now very much out of fashion) computer programming language, is there’s more than one way to do it.

And exactly the same motto could be applied to beekeeping.

If you think about swarm control for example, you could use any one of at least a half dozen widely used methods, each of which has pros and cons.

Pagden, Demaree, nucleus, vertical splits, Taranov, etc. 13. Any of them will do the job if properly applied. Some might be better than others, but they all get there in the end.

I’m a firm believer in learning to use one method really well before trying something new.

Learn its foibles, its strengths and weaknesses. Get good at it.

Then, and only then, try a different method. If you’re interested 14.

It’s only by being confident and successful with one technique you’ll be able to judge whether a different one might actually be better.

Last year I used a Morris board for the first time. It’s like a Cloake board, but half the width. It didn’t work as well as the queen rearing method I usually use (a Ben Harden system). I think I know why and will be trying again this season.

I’m also going to try cell punching as an alternative to grafting. Cell punching involves cutting out a cell plug containing a larva of a suitable age and then presenting the entire plug to a queenless cell raiser.

I see this (if you’ll excuse the pun, which will become obvious in a second) as a sort of ‘future-proofing’.

You need good eyesight and a steady hand for grafting. My presbyopia is becoming more marked and I’d like to be able to rear queens reliably when I need glasses so thick they don’t fit under my veil 😉

There are more schemes being schemed (including something about frames), but they’ll have to wait until another time as I’ve already written too much …


Note

Coincidentally, on the day I made some notes for the last paragraph, Jeremy Burbidge at Northern Bee Books sent out a flyer announcing Roger Patterson’s new book Queen Rearing Made Easy: The Punched Cell Method. Roger is a strong advocate of this method and has written about it on Dave Cushman’s website. I’ve not read the book, but I have watched a few YouTube videos … what could possibly go wrong?

Scores on the doors

Conveniently, this final post of the year will be published on the final day of the year. This is an appropriate time to look back over the what’s happened here on The Apiarist … a sort of behind the scenes view of the posts that were popular, the posts that were unloved and the creative writing process that converts a title and a topic on a Tuesday to a perfectly honed essay garbled jumble of words on a Friday.

Precisely because the final post of the year appears on the last day of the year, any stats I mention below will exclude this post. Should 15,000 people read this post late on New Year’s Eve 1 then this page would also make it into the ‘Top of the Posts’ lists.

Hives in the snow

And, in between some of the numbers and comments below there’s likely to be a smattering of beekeeping advice or unanswered questions, just to keep you on your toes.

So … without further ado.

Read all about it

Page views, visitor numbers, those registered for email notifications etc. are all higher this year than last, by ~30%.

Going up … page views and visitor numbers graph since time began

New posts appear on Friday afternoon around 3 pm 2 and tend to get the most views on Friday evening and over the weekend, tailing off through the remainder of the week.

Some posts are then rarely read again. Others go from strength to strength, attracting readers in successive months and years. This longevity depends upon a combination of subject matter and ‘fit’ with current search engine algorithms.

Regular as clockwork

Inevitably, the popular posts are often those on ‘how to’ subjects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering this is a beekeeping site, the top posts of the year were all on either swarm control or Varroa management.

Top of the posts

These were the most read posts of the year. Tellingly, only the one in bold first appeared this year:

  1. Queen cells … don’t panic! – a title designed to attract the beginner who, having discovered their first queen cells, is now busy panicking.
  2. The nucleus method – my favoured method of swarm control. Almost idiot proof, this explains why it’s my favoured method of swarm control.
  3. Demaree swarm control – a little bit of history and another swarm control method. What’s not to like?
  4. When to treat – a post that first appeared almost 5 years ago. Most of the relevant information is now included in other posts, or summarised in the more recent – and therefore recommended – Rational Varroa control.
  5. Vertical splits and making increase – another ageing post that, by combining swarm control, making increase, requeening and running out of equipment, has something for everyone. I think this could do with updating and deconvoluting.
  6. Swarm control and elusive queens – a useful method for those who struggle to find queens. More important still is that, for beginners, if they understand WHY it works then they’re well on their way to becoming a beekeeper.
  7. Honey pricing – higher, higher! There’s loads of cheap ‘honey’ flooding the market. You are not competing with it. You have a premium product. Do NOT sell your honey cheaply.
  8. Swarm prevention – something that should have been read before items 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 in this list … but possibly wasn’t considering it was read fewer times 🙁 3
  9. Pagden’s artificial swarm – the most popular method used by beekeeping associations to completely confuse beginners (see the nucleus method above for an alternative).
  10. Oxalic acid (Api Bioxal) preparation – which is currently the most read post, proving conclusively to me that many more beekeepers need to read Rational Varroa control because many colonies will now be rearing brood (see the photo below).

Together, these 10 posts counted for about 20% of the total traffic this year. The remainder were smeared over the other 448 posts that have appeared since early 2013. 

Biscuit-coloured crumbs on the Varroa tray = brood rearing. 23rd December 2021, Ardnamurchan, Scotland

If you’ve got some spare time, show some love for Seasonal changes which only received a single visitor this year. The late September 2016 post contains a nice picture of an orchid and a bottle of honey beer.

Search and ye shall find

The majority of visitors arrive either in response to the weekly emails announcing new posts 4 or from search engine searches. The latter are nominally a valuable resource, so are not disclosed to those of us who actually write the stuff in the first place (unless we pay Google).

However, the 0.5% of searches that come from other search engines turn up a few interesting terms (my selection from hundreds, and in no particular order):

  • cbpv winter – not usually associated together as this is a virus (chronic bee paralysis virus) that usually damages very strong, crowded hives in the middle of the season.
  • diy Kenyan beehive – not something I’ve ever discussed 5 or know anything about 6.
  • how much income from beekeeping – just a bit less than not enough, but fractionally more than SFA.
  • pointers to successful queen introduction (2006) bickerstaffes honey – a really rather specific search. I wonder whether this site was any help?
  • bee hive in old norse – see ‘diy Kenyan beehives’ above, the same sentiments apply.
  • Как сделать станок для натягивания проволоки на рамки для ульев чертежи – that’s easy … you need one of these.
  • maldives beekeeper – I have one photo on the site from the Maldives which I suspect resulted in this ‘hit’. I hope the reader wasn’t disappointed 7.
  • does a virus make bees angry – actually not such a daft question. There’s a Japanese strain of Deformed wing virus called Kakugo which is supposed to cause aggression. Kakugo means readiness or preparedness.

And, of crsuoe, there wree hrdudens of saehrces wtih snlpileg errors. Mabye smoe brepkeeees olny serach for initofrmaon atfer benig stnug rltedepaey on tiehr fenirgs? 8

Some of the spelling errors were so gross that the resulting word was barely recognisable.

There were also about 8 different spellings for ‘apiarist’ … not bad for an 8 letter word 😉

Prolixity

Fifty two posts have appeared in 2021, each averaging 2,675 words. This is an increase of about 8% over the 2020 figures 9. In total, excluding the ~1200 comments, that’s about 139,000 words.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace … more words, more characters, less bees

For comparison, this is a bit under 25% the length of War and Peace.

Phew!

Talking the talk

As well as writing too much (it has been said that) I talk too much. During 2021 I’ve given 25 talks to beekeeping associations stretching from Cornwall to Inverness 10. Audiences have ranged from about 15 to 350 and I’m very grateful to all the BKA’s who hosted me and coordinated the Q&A sessions.

Particular thanks to the associations that managed to send me the Zoom link for my presentation before the talk was supposed to start 😉 .

Although the talks were all ‘virtual’ it was good to see some old friends and to make new contacts.

Spam, spam, spam

Of the ~1200 comments I mentioned above, many are from me. I try to respond to every comment, irrespective of whether they are corrections (for which many thanks), additional insights (thanks again) or further questions 11.

Running a website, even a relatively low traffic one such as this, means you receive a lot of spam. ‘A lot’ means usually between 200 and 800 comments or emails a day. To avoid the comments section getting tainted with adverts for fake sunglasses or dodgy prescription drugs 12 I manually ‘approve’ every comment that appears.

Spam

This isn’t as onerous as it sounds. I run spam filters that trap the vast majority of the unwanted spam.

This filtering is not 100% accurate … if you previously posted a comment and it never appeared then it may have fallen foul of these filters. Next time avoid mentioning that you were wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses when you inspected the colony 😉

It’s a rather sad indictment of the internet that I sometimes receive the same amount of spam in one day as I receive in valid comments in one year 🙁

You’ve got mail

The comments and questions – whether to posts or talks – are often very interesting. After all, I may have delivered the same talk three times in the last month, but the questions will always be different. I’ve touched on this previously in Questions & Answers.

Some questions are direct, relevant and on-topic. These are usually easy to understand and answer, though they may not be easy to answer correctly.

But there two other types of question:

  • Rambling, incoherent and vague … almost always lacking some essential information, like location. These often start with a detailed description of the last three colony inspections and end with something about Nosema or polycarbonate crownboards. There may not even be a question mark …
  • Direct – verging on blunt – and totally off-topic. It’s not unusual to prepare 2,500 carefully crafted 13 words on rational Varroa control to then receive the question ”What is the recipe for thick syrup?”.

In addition to comments/questions to posts and talks I receive a lot of email. If you emailed me this year and I failed to answer promptly then it’s probably because there were 50 other unanswered emails I’d yet to wade through.

With the volume becoming unmanageable I’ve started ignoring the very terse emails requesting a quick response (because the sender is ‘busy’ and wants the answer before they leave for the apiary/office/school run/anger management class) like “What is the recipe for thick syrup”.

The few who send adverts for their quack solutions to Varroa (often vaguely disguised as informed questions) or abuse – you’d be surprised, I was – are both ignored and blocked.

Life is too short …

New topics and old chestnuts

Beekeeping is a fantastically diverse activity 14. From the single hive owner to huge commercial operations, from the hive-monitoring techno-geeks to the leave-alone organic types, from honey to venom … there really is something for everyone.

It’s therefore no surprise that there is never a shortage of topics to cover. This is particularly true when you also include some of the wonderful 15 science of honey bees.

Web of Science publications on “honey bees” since 1997

I’ve covered some beekeeping topics exhaustively and get little satisfaction from re-writing the same thing differently 16. However, these are the topics that often attract the most readers – presumably many of whom are new beekeepers.

I’m not too fussed about the reader numbers, but if I’m going to go to the trouble of writing something I do want it to be read 17.

I’m currently wondering about how to achieve a balance between what might be considered the ‘basics’ and some of the more advanced – and to me (after a lot of beekeeping) much more interesting – topics.

And I’m always happy to consider new topics if you think I’ve missed something 18.

The writing process

I usually accumulate ideas on long car journeys, while walking in the hills, out on the loch or during interminable meetings. They might start as little more than a title and a reference, or a sentence of text.

Seeking inspiration for new articles for The Apiarist

I rarely have anything actually written by the weekend before the post appears, though I will usually have decided on the topic.

This post is being written on a Tuesday, but late – often very late – on a Thursday is more typical.

Two to four hours is usually sufficient for most posts, though additional time is needed if there are custom figures or graphs.

It’s very useful to then leave the draft for a few hours after ‘finishing’ it.

I usually abandon the keyboard by 2 am on Friday and look again first thing the following morning. Typos are caught, my awful punctuation is largely fixed and some of the more garbled sentences are rewritten in English 19.

And then I press ‘Submit’.

Flat white, cappuccino, ristretto, latte macchiato and affogato

And all of those activities – the thinking, the writing and the proof-reading – are fuelled by a delicious and fulfilling combination of strong coffee and pizza.

I’d therefore like to again thank the supporters who have ‘Bought Me a Coffee’ during 2021. In particular I’d like to acknowledge the repeat supporters. In addition to facilitating my nocturnal writing marathons, this support has also enabled moving the site to a more powerful (and properly backed up and appreciably more expensive) server.

Thank you

The future

I’m looking forward to the year ahead for many reasons. I expect 20 to have a lot more time for my bees and beekeeping. In the meantime, I’ll probably write about some of my immediate plans in the next week or two.

Winter-flowering gorse, December 2021

The size and complexity of this website – hundreds of posts and thousands of images – is starting to make it both difficult and time-consuming to maintain. It’s a dynamic site, the pages being generated on the fly when your web browser requests them. There’s a significant performance cost to retaining these dynamic features, and the underlying software is bloated and a target for hackers.

I’m therefore considering alternatives that make my life a little easier and your browsing experience a little faster. One way to achieve this is to use what is termed a static site. Anyone who has looked up details of my online talks (which has ~16 images and ~2500 words, so broadly comparable to a Friday post) will have used one of these. This technology is becoming increasingly common for blogs. I still need to resolve how to retain the comments/discussion features.

I’m also keen to explore some more expansive topics.

Even ~2500 (or more) words is insufficient to do some subjects justice; the impact of honey bees/beekeeping on solitary bees and other pollinators, neonicotinoids, fake honey, the prospects for Varroa-resistant bees, more advanced methods of queen rearing etc.

Real honey … not the product of unspecified EU and non-EU countries

How do I tackle these?

Should I write less and not explore the subject fully?

Write in instalments?

Or just not bother?

What do you think?

And while you ponder that and some of the other points raised above I’m going to enjoy the last few hours of 2021 and close by wishing all readers of, and contributors to, this site the Very Best for 2022.

May your supers be heavy, your queens fecund, your bees well-tempered and your swarms … from someone else 😉

Happy New Year


Notes

The phrase [the] Scores on the doors originated from the panel show The Generation Game hosted by Larry Grayson between 1978 and 1982. However, it was subsequently appropriated to indicate the public display of food hygiene ratings.

If you arrived here from @Twitter then you might be wondering what omphaloskepsis is. It means navel-gazing as an aid to meditation. Readers with a classical education will recognise its derivation from the Ancient Greek for navel and contemplation. Scrabble players will be disappointed it doesn’t contain more high scoring consonants.

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 🙁


 

Frames

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

Actually, that’s not quite correct.

It’s sometimes the bane of my life 1.

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

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

I’m short of time.

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

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

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

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

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

Single use or reuasble?

Frames are a semi-disposable 2 consumable for beekeeping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tools of the trade

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

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

Tools of the trade

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

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

You don’t need force …  you need accuracy.

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

So buy and use a lightweight hammer 🙂

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

Tacwise nail gun

Tacwise nail gun …

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

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

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

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

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

Building frames

Get organised first.

Make sure everything is to hand and logically arranged.

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

Gimp pins

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

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

How many frames should you make at a time?

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

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

Seconds out

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

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

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

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

Prepare the top bars

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

Top bars – lined up and ready to go

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

Add the side bars

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

Properly ‘seated’ side bar

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

Add the bottom bars

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

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

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

Check frame alignment

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

Nail the frames

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

Bottom bar nailing

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

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

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

And the other face of the frame

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

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

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

Wonky pin … rip it out and start again

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

Fitting the foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pin through the foundation wedge and the trapped wire loop

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

Second bottom bar fitted … do not use glue.

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

Trimming super foundation to fit the frame

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

Foundationless frames

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

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

Why wood?

Why not a strip of commercial foundation?

Or a hand crafted wax starter strip?

Or at least a wax-painted wooden strip?

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

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

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

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

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

Let the bees tell you … 😉

Storing frames

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

Look after them!

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

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

Bamboo foundationless frames

Bamboo foundationless frames

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

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

Frame storage

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

Here are some I made earlier

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

Final thoughts

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

Nailed

Nailed …

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

The nail gun speeds up frame building.

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

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


 

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.