Category Archives: Seasonal

A June Gap

As far as the beekeeping season is concerned, we’ve had the starter and we’re now waiting for the main course. 

Like restaurants, the size of the ‘starter’ depends upon your location. If you live in an area with lots of oil seed rape (OSR) and other early nectar, the spring honey crop might account for the majority of your annual honey.

If you are in the west, or take your hives to the hills, you might have skipped the starter altogether hoping the heather is the all-you-can-eat buffet of the season.

Lockdown honey

In Fife they appear to be growing less OSR as the farmers have had problems with flea beetle since the neonicotinoid ban was introduced.

Nevertheless, my bees are in range of a couple of fields and – if the weather behaves – usually get a reasonable crop from it. My earlier plans to move hives directly onto the fields, saving the bees a few hundred yards of flying to and fro, was thwarted (like so much else this year) by the pandemic.

The timing of the spring honey harvest is variable, and quite important. You want it to be late enough that the bees have collected what they can and had a chance to ripen it properly so that the water content is below 20% 1.

However, you can’t leave it too late. Fast-granulating OSR honey sets hard in the frames and then cannot be extracted without melting. In addition, there’s often a dearth of nectar in the weeks after the OSR finishes and the bees can end up eating their stores, leaving the beekeeper with nothing 🙁

Judging all that from 150 miles away on the west coast where I’m currently based was a bit tricky. I had to timetable a return visit to also check on queen mating and the build up of all the colonies I’d used the nucleus method of swarm control on.

Ideally all in the same visit.

Blowin’ in the wind

I’d made up the nucs, added supers and last checked my colonies around the 17-19th of May. I finally returned on the 10th of June.

In the intervening period I’d been worried about one of my more exposed apiaries. I’d run out of ratchet straps to hold the hives together and was aware there had been some gales in late May.

Sure enough, when I got to the apiary, there was ample evidence of the gales …

How the mighty fall

The only unsecured hive was completely untouched and the bees were happily working away. However, one of the strapped hives had been toppled and was laying face (i.e. entrance) down. You can see the dent in the fence where it collided on its descent.

If she hadn’t already (and I expect she hadn’t based upon the date of the gales) I suspect the queen struggled to get out and mate from this hive 🙁

Nuked nucs

Two adjacent 8-frame nucs were also sitting lidless in the gentle rain. The lids and the large piece of timber they’d been held down with were on the ground. The perspex crownboards were shattered into dozens of pieces.

These bees were fine.

Both queens were laying and the bees were using the new top entrance (!) for entering and leaving the hive. They were a little subdued and the colonies were less well developed than the other nucs (see below). However, their survival for the best part of three weeks uncovered is a tribute to their resilience.

They were thoroughly confused how to get back into the hive after I replaced the lids 🙂

Slow queen mating

Other than extracting, the primary purpose of this visit was to check the queenright nucs from my swarm control weren’t running out of space, and to check on the progress of queen mating in the original colonies.

Queen mating always takes longer than you expect.

Or than I expect at least.

Poor weather hampered my inspection of all re-queening colonies but, of those I looked at, 50% had new laying queens and the others looked as though they would very soon.

By which I mean the colonies were calm and ‘behaved’ queenright, they were foraging well and the centre of the ‘broodnest’ (or what would be the centre if there was any brood) was being kept clear of nectar and had large patches of polished cells.

Overall it was a bit too soon to be sure everything was OK, but I expect it is.

However, it wasn’t too soon to check the nucs.

Overflowing nucs

In fact, it was almost too late …

With one exception the nucs were near to overflowing with bees and brood.

I favour the Thorne’s Everynuc which has an integral feeder at one end of the box. Once the bees start drawing comb in the feeder they’re running desperately short of space.

Most had started …

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

I didn’t photograph any of the nucs, but the photo above (of an overly-full overwintered nuc) shows what I mean; the feeder is on the right.

The nucs had been made up with one frame of predominantly emerging brood, a few more nurse bees, two foundationless frames, a frame of drawn comb and a frame of stores.

They were now all packed with 5 frames of brood and would have started making swarm preparations within a few days if I hadn’t dealt with them.

Good laying pattern from queen in 5 frame nucleus

And the queens had laid beautiful solid sheets of brood (always reasonably easy if the comb is brand new).

Housekeeping and more swarm prevention

The beauty of the nucleus method of swarm control is that you have the older queen ‘in reserve’ should the new queen not get mated, or be of poor quality.

The problem I was faced with was that the new queens weren’t all yet laying (and for those that were it was too soon to determine their quality), but the older queen was in a box they were rapidly outgrowing.

I therefore removed at least three frames of brood 2 from each nuc and used it to boost the re-queening colonies, replacing the brood-filled frames with fresh foundation 3.

The nucs will build up again strongly and the full colonies will benefit from a brood boost to make up for some of the bees lost during requeening. Some of the transferred frames had open brood. These produce pheromones that should hold back the development of laying workers.

Finally, if the requeening colonies actually lack a queen (the weather was poor and I didn’t search very hard in any of them) there should be a few larvae young enough on the transferred frames for them to draw a new queen cell if needed.

I marked the introduced frames so I can check them quickly on my next visit to the apiary.

This frame needs to be replaced … but could be used in a bait hive next year

The additional benefit of moving brood from the nucs to the full colonies is that it gave me an opportunity to remove some old, dark frames from the latter.

Shown above is one of the removed frames. As the colony is broodless 4 and there’s the usual reduction in available nectar in early/mid June, many of the frames in the brood box were largely empty and can easily be replaced with better quality comb.

Everyone’s a winner 😉

Drone laying queen

One of the nucs made in mid/late May had failed. The queen had developed into a drone layer.

Drone laying queen

The laying pattern was focused around the middle of frame indicating it had been laid by a queen. If it had been laying workers the drone brood would be scattered all over the frames.

There was no reasonable or efficient way to save this colony. The queen was removed and I then shook the bees out in front of a row of strong hives.

I was surprised I’d not seen problems with this queen when making up the nucs in May 5. I do know that all the colonies had worker brood because the nucs were all made containing one frame of emerging (worker) brood.

Perhaps the shock of being dumped into a new box stopped her laying fertilised eggs. Probably it was just a coincidence. We’ll ever know …

Extraction

And, in between righting toppled hives, checking for queens, stopping nucs from swarming, moving a dozen hives/nucs, boosting requeening hives and replacing comb … I extracted a very good crop of spring honey.

Luvverrrly

Although I had fewer ‘production’ hives this season than previous years (to reduce my workload during the lockdown) I still managed to get a more than respectable spring harvest. In fact, it was my best spring since moving back to Scotland in 2015.

The crop wasn’t as large as I’d managed previously in Warwickshire, but the season here starts almost a month later.

A fat frame of spring honey

I start my supers with 10 or 11 frames, but once they are drawn I reduce to 9 frames. With a good nectar flow the bees draw out the comb very nicely.

The bees use less wax (many of my frames are also drawn on drone foundation, so even less wax than worker comb 6), it’s easier to uncap and I have fewer frames to extract.

Again … everyone’s a winner 😉

Not the June gap

Quite a few frames contained fresh nectar, so there was clearly a flow of something (other than rain, which seemed to predominate during my visit) going on. These frames are easy to identify as they drip nectar over the floor as you lift them out to uncap 🙁

In some years you find frames with a big central capped region – enough to usefully extract – but containing lots of drippy fresh nectar in the uncapped cells at the edges and shoulders. I’ve heard that some beekeepers do a low speed spin in the extractor to remove the nectar, then uncap and extract the ripe honey.

I generally don’t bother and instead just stick these back in the hive.

If there’s one task more tiresome than extracting it’s cleaning the extractor afterwards. To have to also clean the extractor during extracting (to avoid the high water content nectar from spoiling the honey) is asking too much!

Colonies can starve during a prolonged nectar dearth in June. All of mine were left with some stores in the brood box and with the returned wet supers. That, plus the clear evidence for some nectar being collected, means they should be OK.

National Honey monitoring Scheme

I have apiaries in different parts of Fife. The bees therefore forage in distinct areas and have access to a variety of different nectar sources.

It’s sometimes relatively easy to determine what they’ve been collecting nectar from – if the back of the thorax has a white(ish) stripe on it and it’s late summer they’re hammering the balsam, if they’ve got bags of yellow pollen and the bees are yellow and the fields all around are yellow it’s probably rape.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

But it might not be.

To be certain you need to analyse the pollen.

The old skool way of doing this is by microscopy. Honey – at least the top quality honey produced by local amateur beekeepers 7 – contains lots of pollen. Broadly speaking, the relative proportions of the different pollens – which can usually be distinguished microscopically – tells you the plants the nectar was collected from.

The cutting edge way to achieve the same thing in a fraction of the time (albeit at great expense) is to use so-called next generation sequencing to catalogue all the pollen present in the sample.

Pollen contains nucleic acid and the sequence of the nucleotides in the nucleic acid are uniquely characteristics of particular plant species. You can easily get both qualitative and quantitative data.

And this is exactly what the National Honey Monitoring Scheme is doing.

They use the data to monitor long-term changes in the condition and health of the countryside” but they provide the beekeeper’s involved with the information of pollen types and proportions in their honey.

National Honey Monitoring Scheme samples

Samples must be taken directly from capped comb. It’s a messy business. Fortunately the labelling on the sample bottles is waterproof so everything can be thoroughly rinsed before popping them into the post for future analysis.

I have samples analysed already from last year and will have spring and summer samples from a different apiary this season. I’ll write in the future about what the results look like, together with a more in-depth explanation of the technology used.

When I last checked you could still register to take part and have your own honey analysed.


Notes

Under (re)construction

Lockdown means there have been more visitors than ever to this site, with numbers up at least 75% over this time last year.

This, coupled with the need to upgrade some of the underlying software that keeps this site together, means I’m in the middle of moving to a bigger, faster, better (more expensive 🙁 ) server. I’m beginning to regret the bloat of wordpress over the lean and mean Hugo or Jekyll-type templating systems (and if this means nothing to you then I’m in good company) and may yet switch.

In the meantime, bear with me … there may be some broken links littering a few pages. If it looks and works really badly, clear your browser cache, re-check things and please send me an email using the link at the bottom of the right hand column.

Thank you

 

Weight for spring

I’m currently reading The Lives of Bees by Thomas Seeley. It’s a very good account of honey bee colonies in the wild.

In the book Seeley describes studies he conducted in the early-80’s on the changes in weight of unmanaged colonies during the season 1.

One particular figure caught my attention as I was off to the apiary to heft 2 some hives and check on the levels of stores.

Colony weight (top) and weekly weight change (lower). Black arrows midwinter, red arrows early spring.

The upper panel shows the overall hive weight over a period of ~30 months, including three successive winters. I’ve butchered annotated the figure with black arrows to mark the approximate position of the winter solstice and added red arrows to indicate early spring (approximately mid-February i.e. about now) 3.

Look carefully at the slope of the line. In each year it steepens in early spring.

Shedding pounds

During the winter the colony survives on its reserves. There’s no forage available and/or it’s too cold to fly anyway, so the colony has to use honey stores to keep the worker bees alive.

In late autumn and early winter they can get by using minimal amounts of stores, just sufficient to keep metabolic activity of the bees high enough to maintain a cluster temperature of ~10°C.

All of this uses stores and so the colony gradually loses weight.

Frosty apiary

Frosty apiary

The weekly weight gained and lost is shown in the lower panel. In 1981/82, with the exception of a tiny weight gain in late August, the colony lost weight every week from mid-July until mid-April (9 months!).

But from mid-April to early-July the colony literally piles on the pounds 4.

To achieve this they need a strong population of worker bees. It’s not possible to collect that much nectar with just a few thousand bees. The colony must undergo a large population expansion from the 5,000-10,000 bees that overwintered the colony to a summer workforce of 30,000+.

This expansion is not simply the addition of a further 20,000 bees. At the same time as the new workers are emerging the winter bees are dying off. The colony therefore needs to rear significantly more than 20,000 bees to be ready to exploit the summer nectar flow.

And, since it takes bees to make bees this means that the colony must rear repeated cycles of new workers starting in very early spring.

But you can’t rear brood at 10°C

Brood rearing requires a cluster temperature of ~35°C. This is achieved by the bees raising their metabolic activity, repeatedly flexing their flight muscles and generating heat.

All of which uses lots of energy … which, in turn, is derived from the honey stores.

Which explains why, in early spring, the rate at which stores are consumed suddenly increases. And the rate at which the colony uses the stores is the weight lost per unit time i.e. the slope of the graph shown above, or below for emphasis.

Colony weight in early spring

Of course, some of the honey stores are also consumed by the developing larvae. How much presumably depends upon the amount of brood being reared and the external temperature.

Less brood requires less honey stores. Lower temperatures mean more energy must be expended to keep the brood at 35°C, so more stores are used.

Rearing brood also requires protein (pollen). Nearly 90 years ago Clayton Farrar studied the spring weight loss of colonies in Wisconsin maintained with or without pollen stores. Colonies unable to rear brood because they lacked pollen used ~50% less stores over the same period.

Thermoregulation is energetically costly and colonies must raise the temperature of the cluster to ~35°C in very early spring to rear sufficient brood to exploit the late spring nectar sources 5. They need to maintain these elevated temperatures – using yet more stores up – until the spring nectar flows start.

The danger zone

All of which means that we’re currently approaching the danger zone when colonies are much more likely to starve to death if they have insufficient stores.

The next six to eight weeks or so are critical.

If they have ample stores they will rear plenty of brood.

Clear evidence for brood rearing on trays under colonies in the bee shed

If they have borderline levels of stores they might be able to maintain viability of the colony, but they’ll only achieve this by not rearing brood 6.

If they start brood rearing and then run out of stores they will likely starve to death.

Winter chores

Every couple of weeks I check all of my colonies.

I confirm two things:

  • the entrance is clear i.e. not blocked with the corpses of dead bees.
  • the colony has sufficient stores for another few weeks.

This takes no more than one minute per colony and can be done whatever the weather, or even at night if you cannot get to the apiary in the short daylight hours.

Bent bicycle spoke to keep entrances clear

The floors I favour have an L-shaped entrance tunnel which during extreme periods of confinement can get blocked with dead bees. A quick scrape with a bent piece of stiff wire clears them away.

Even ‘normal’ entrances should be checked as it’s surprising the number of corpses that can accumulate, particularly after a long period of very adverse weather when no undertaker bees are flying.

As an aside, assuming no brood rearing, a colony entering the winter with 25,000 bees will likely lose an average of ~150 bees a day before brood rearing starts again in earnest. They will not be lost at the same rate throughout the winter. Do not worry about the corpses (though it’s worth also noting that a strong, healthy colony should clear these).

Hefting the hive

The weight of the hive can be determined in at least three different ways:

  1. wealthy beekeepers will use an electronic hive monitoring system with integral scales. No need even to visit the apiary to check these 😉 Where’s the fun in that?
  2. thorough beekeepers will use set of digital luggage scales to weigh each side of the hive, summing the two figures and noting the total carefully in their meticulous hive records.
  3. experienced beekeepers will briefly lift the back of the hive off the stand and decide “Hmmm … OK” or “Hmmm … too light”. This is termed hefting the hive.

If this is your first winter I strongly recommend doing the second and the third method every time you visit your apiary.

The second method will provide confidence and real numbers. These are what really count.

Hefting the hive for comparison will, over time, provide the ‘feel’ needed to judge things without a set of scales.

Over time you’ll find you can judge things pretty well simply by hefting. I do this 7, but only after removing the hive roof. I’ve got a variety of roofs in use – deep cedar monstrosities, dayglo polystyrene and lots of almost-weightless folded Correx – which, coupled with the variation in the number of boxes and the material they’re made from, complicates things too much.

Without the roof I find it a lot easier to judge.

Hmmm … too light

Anything that feels too light needs a fondant topup as soon as possible.

If you even think it feels too light it’s probably wise to add a block of fondant.

You need to use fondant as it’s probably too cold for bees to take down syrup. Fondant works, whatever the weather.

How much fondant should you add?

Look again at the hive weight loss per week in the early months of the year in the lower panel of the first graph. These colonies lost at least 1-1½ lb per week.

When will you next check them?

Do the maths as they say …

If you check them fortnightly you really need to add 1-2 kilograms which should be sufficient to get them through to the next check. Do not mess around with pathetic little 250g blocks of clingfilm-wrapped fondant. They might use that in three days …

You also don’t want to be opening the hive unnecessarily. Add a good-sized block and let them get on with things.

Recycle

Loads of supermarket foods are supplied in a variety of clear or semi-translucent plastic trays – chicken, mushrooms, tortellini, curry ready meals etc 8. Throughout the season I wash these out and save them for use with the bees.

I stressed clear and semi-translucent as it helps to be able to tell how much of the fondant the bees have used up when you’re trying to judge whether they need any more.

Waste not, want not

Many of these trays are about 6″ x 4″ x 2″ which when packed with fondant conveniently weighs about a kilogram. I fill a range of these with fondant, cover them with a single sheet of clingfilm and write the weight on the clingfilm with a black marker pen.

Location, location, location

In the winter the goal should be to locate the fondant block as close as possible to the cluster.

This means directly over the cluster.

Not way off to one side because there are fewer bees on the top bars that are in the way.

There’s no point in adding fondant if you also force the bees to move to reach it.

You’ll need an eke (or a nice reversible, insulated crownboard) to provide the ‘headspace’ to accommodate the fondant block 9.

Fondant block directly over the top of the cluster (in this case on a queen excluder)

Don’t delay.

Don’t wait for a ‘nice’ day.

You’ve decided the colony is worryingly light so deal with it there and then.

Remove the roof and the crownboard. If it’s cold, windy or wet the bees are going to be reluctant to fly. Don’t worry, you’re helping them. You’ll do more harm by not feeding them than by exposing them to the elements for 30 seconds 10.

Remove the clingfilm entirely 11 and invert the plastic tub directly over the top of the cluster.

Add the eke. Replace the crownboard, the top insulation and the roof.

Job done.

Crownboards with holes and queen excluders

Some crownboards have holes in them. Often these in the centre of the board.

It’s often recommended to add the fondant block above the hole in the crownboard. I think it’s better to place the fondant directly onto the top bars for the following reasons:

  • the central hole in the crownboard is probably not above the cluster 12. Why give them more work to do to collect the stores you’re providing?
  • it’s cold above the crownboard. The bees are less likely to venture up there if it’s chilly and uninviting.
  • fondant deliquesces (absorbs moisture) and can get distinctly sloppy when located in the humid headspace above the crownboard. In contrast, if the fondant is on the top bars of the frames any moisture absorbed softens the fondant surface at exactly the point where the bees are going to eat it anyway.

Finally, if there’s any reason you need to go through the brood box (before the fondant is finished) place the fondant on top of a queen excluder directly over the frames. Fondant has a tendency to stick down firmly to the top bars and it’s a nightmare to remove it to get to the frames. In contrast, if it is on a queen excluder you can easily lift it off.

You might not need to do this, but I learnt the hard way 🙁


 

“Start beekeeping” courses

It’s mid-January. If you are an experienced beekeeper in the UK you’re being battered by the remnants of Storm Brendan and wondering whether the roofs are still on your hives.

If my experience is anything to go by, they’re not 🙁

But if you’re a trainee beekeeper you may well be attending a course on Starting Beekeeping, run by your local beekeeping association. Typically these run through the first 1- 3 months of the year, culminating in an apiary visit in April.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

Sometimes a not-really-warm-enough-to-be doing-this apiary visit in April 🙁

Beekeeping, just like driving a car

Many years ago I attended the Warwick and Leamington Beekeepers Introduction to Beekeeping course. It was a lot of fun and I met some very helpful beekeepers.

But I learnt my beekeeping in their training apiary over the following years; initially as a new beekeeper, and subsequently helping instruct the cohort of trainees attending the course and apiary sessions the following year(s).

Teaching someone else is the best way to learn.

The distinction between the theoretical and practical aspects of the subject are important. You can learn the theory in a classroom, refreshed with tea and digestive biscuits, with the wind howling around outside.

Plain chocolate are preferable

However, it is practical experience that makes you a beekeeper, and you can only acquire these skills by opening hives up – lots of them – and understanding what’s going on.

Some choose never to go this far 1, others try but never achieve it. Only a proportion are successful – this is evident from the large number who take winter courses compared to the relatively modest growth in beekeeper numbers (or association memberships).

Beekeeping is like driving a car. You can learn the theory from a book, but that doesn’t mean you are able to drive. Indeed, the practical skills you lack may mean you are a liability to yourself and others.

Fortunately, the consequences of insufficient experience in beekeeping are trivial in comparison to inexperienced drivers and road safety.

Theoretical beekeeping

What should an ‘introduction to beekeeping’ course contain?

Which bits are necessary? What is superfluous?

Should it attempt to be all encompassing (queen rearing methods, Taranov swarm control, Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus) or pared back to the bare minimum?

Who should deliver it?

I don’t necessarily know, but for a variety of reasons I’ve been giving it some thought(s) … and here they are.

The audience and the intended outcome

You have to assume that those attending the course know little or nothing about bees or beekeeping. If you don’t there’s a good chance some of the audience will be alienated before you start 2.

When I started I had never seen inside a beehive. I don’t think I even knew what a removable frame was. Others on the course had read half a dozen books already. Some had already purchased a hive.

Some even had bees (or ‘hoped they were still alive’ as it was their first winter) 😯

I felt ignorant when others on the course were asking Wouldn’t brood and a half be better? or I’ve read that wire framed queen excluders are preferable.

Framed wire QE ...

Preferable to what?

What’s a queen excluder?

By working from first principles you know what has been covered, you ensure what is covered is important and you keep everyone together.

Some on the course like the idea of keeping bees, but will soon get put off by the practicalities of the discipline. That doesn’t mean they can’t still be catered for on the course. It can still be interesting without being exclusive 3.

But, of course, the primary audience are the people who want to learn how to keep bees successfully.

For that reason I think the intended outcome is to teach sufficient theory so that a new beekeeper, with suitable mentoring, can:

  • acquire and house a colony
  • inspect it properly
  • prevent it swarming, or know what to do if it does
  • manage disease in the colony
  • prepare the colony for winter and overwinter it successfully

The only thing I’d add to that list is an indication of how to collect honey … but don’t get their hopes up by discussing which 18 frame extractor to purchase or how to use the Apimelter 😉

Course contents

I’m not going to give an in-depth breakdown of my views of what an introduction to beekeeping course should contain, but I will expand on a few areas that I think are important.

The beekeeping year and the principles of beekeeping

I’d start with an overview of a typical beekeeping year. This shouldn’t be hugely detailed, it simply sets out what happens and when.

It provides the temporal context to which the rest of the course can refer. It emphasises the seasonality of beekeeping. The long periods of inactivity and the manic days in May and early June. It can be quite ‘light touch’ and might even end with a honey tasting session.

Or mead … 😉

‘Typical’ means you don’t need to qualify everything – if the spring is particularly warm or unless there’s no oil seed rape near you – just focus on an idealised year with normal weather, the expected forage and the usual beekeeping challenges.

The normal beekeeping challenges

But this part of the course should also aim to clearly emphasise the principles and practice of beekeeping.

Success, whether measured by jars of honey or overwintered colonies, requires effort. It doesn’t just happen.

Hive inspections are not optional. They cannot be postponed because of family holidays 4, weekend breaks in Bruges, or going to the beach because the weather is great.

Great weather … good for swarming and swimming

Quite the opposite. From late April until sometime in July you have to inspect colonies at weekly intervals.

Whatever the weather (within reason).

Not every 9-12 days.

Not just before and when you return from a fortnight in Madeira 🙁

Andalucian apiary

While you’re looking at these Andalusian hives your colony might be swarming.

And hive inspections involve heavy lifting (if you’re lucky), and inadvertently squidging a few bees when putting the hive back together, and possibly getting stung 5.

The discussion of the typical year must mention Varroa management. This is a reality for 99% of beekeepers and it is our responsibility to take appropriate action in a timely manner (though the details of how and when can be saved for a later discussion of disease).

Finally, this part of the course should emphasise the importance of preparing colonies properly for the winter. This again necessitates mentioning disease control.

By covering the principles and practice of a typical year in beekeeping the trainee beekeepers should be prepared from the outset for the workload involved, and have an appreciation for the importance of timing.

We have to keep up with the bees … and the pace they go (or grow) at may not be the same every year, or may not quite fit our diaries.

Bees and beekeeping

There is a long an interesting history of beekeeping and an almost limitless number of fascinating things about bees. Some things I’d argue are essential, others are really not needed and can be safely ignored.

Bee boles in Kellie Castle, Fife, Scotland … skep beekeeping probably isn’t an essential course component.

Of the essential historical details I’d consider the development of the removable frame hive is probably the most important. Inevitably this also involves a discussion of bee space – a gap that the bees do not fill with propolis or wax. Of course, bee space was known about long before Langstroth found a way to exploit it with the removable frame hive.

The other historical area often covered is the waggle dance, but I’d argue that this is of peripheral relevance to beekeeping per se. However, it could be used to introduce the concept of communication in bees.

And once the topic turns to bees there’s almost no limit what could be included. Clearly an appreciation of the composition of the colony and how it changes during the season is important. This leads to division of labour and the caste system.

It also develops the idea of the colony as a superorganism, which has a bearing on swarm preparation, management and control.

Queen development

Queen development …

Probably most important is the development cycle of the queen, workers and drones. A proper understanding of this allows an appreciation of colony build-up, the timing of swarming and queen replacement, and is very important for the correct management of Varroa.

As with the beekeeping year, sticking to what is ‘typical’ avoids confusion. No need to mention laying workers, two-queen hives, or thelytokous parthenogenesis.

Keep on message!

Equipment

What a minefield?!

As long as the importance of compatibility is repeatedly stressed you should be OK.

An Abelo/cedar hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/cedar hybrid hive …

A little forethought is needed here. Are you (or the association) going to provide your beginners with bees?

I’d argue, and have before, that you really should.

Will the bees be on National frames? 14 x 12’s? One of several different Langstroth frames? Smiths?

Or packages?

I said it was a minefield.

Beginners want to be ready for the season ahead. They want to buy some of that lovely cedar and start building boxes. They need advice on what to buy.

What they buy must be influenced by how they’re going to start with bees. One of the easiest ways around this is to allocate them a mentor and let them lead on the specifics (assuming they’ll be getting bees from their mentor).

One thing that should be stressed is the importance of having sufficient compatible equipment to deal with swarming (which we’ll be coming to shortly).

Dummy board needed ...

5 frame poly nucleus hive needing a dummy board …

My recommendation would be to buy a full hive with three supers and a compatible polystyrene nucleus hive. In due course beginners will probably need a second hive, but (if you teach the simplest form of swarm control – see below) not in the first year. A nuc box will be sufficient.

Swarming and swarm control

Swarming is often considered to be confusing 6.

It doesn’t need to be.

The life cycle of the bee and the colony have been covered already. Swarming and queen cells is just honey bee reproduction … or it’s not swarming at all but an attempt to rescue the otherwise catastrophic loss of a queen 🙁

Deciding which is important and should influence the action(s) taken.

The determinants that drive swarming are reasonably well understood – space, age of the queen etc. The timing of the events, and the importance of the timing of the events leading to swarming is very well understood.

Preventative measures are therefore easy to discuss. Ample space. Super early. Super often.

It’s swarm control that often causes the problem.

And I think one of the major issues here is the attempts to explain the classic Pagden artificial swarm. Inevitably this involves some sort of re-enactment, or an animated Powerpoint slide, or a Tommy Cooper-esque “Glass, bottle … bottle, glass” demonstration 7.

Often this is confounded by the presenters’ left and right being the audiences right and left.

Confused? You will be.

Far better to simply teach a nucleus hive-based swarm control method. Remove the old queen, a frame of emerging brood, a frame of stores and a few shakes of bees. Take it to a distant apiary (or block the entrance with grass etc. but this adds confusion) and leave a single open charged queen cell in the original hive.

This method uses less equipment, involves fewer apiary visits, but still emphasises the need for a thorough understanding of the queen development cycle.

And, to avoid confusion, I wouldn’t teach any other forms of swarm control.

Yes, there are loads that work, but beginners need to understand one that will always work for them. Hopefully they’ve got dozens of summers of beekeeping ahead of them to try alternatives.

I think swarm control is one area where the KISS principle should be rigorously applied.

Disease prevention and management

Colony disease is a reality but you need to achieve a balance between inducing paranoia and encouraging complacency.

This means knowing how to deal with the inevitable, how to identify the possible and largely ignoring the rest.

The inevitable is Varroa and the viruses it transmits. And, of at least half a dozen viruses it does transmit, only deformed wing virus needs to be discussed. The symptoms are readily identifiable and if you have symptomatic bees – and there can be no other diagnosis – you have a Varroa problem and need to take action promptly.

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

In an introductory course for new beekeepers I think it is inexcusable to promote alternate methods of Varroa control other than VMD-approved treatments.

And, even then, I’d stick to just two.

Apivar in late summer and a trickle of Api-Bioxal solution in midwinter.

Used properly, at the right time and according to the manufacturer’s instructions, these provide excellent mite management.

Don’t promote icing sugar shaking, drone brood removal, small cell foundation, Old Ron’s snake oil or anything else that isn’t documented properly 8.

Almost always there will be questions about treatment-free beekeeping.

My view is that this has no place in a beginners course for beekeepers.

The goal is to get a colony successfully through the full season. An inexperienced beekeeper attempting to keep bees without treatment in their first year is a guaranteed way to lose both the colony and, probably, a disillusioned trainee beekeeper from the hobby.

To lose one may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness. 9

Once they know how to keep bees alive they can explore ways to keep them alive without treatment … and they will have the experience necessary to make up for the colony losses.

In terms of other diseases worth discussing then Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV) is rapidly increasing in prevalence. Again the symptoms are pretty characteristic. Unlike DWV and Varroa it’s not yet clear what to do about it. Expect to see more of it in the next few years.

Nosema should probably be mentioned as should the foulbroods. The latter are sufficiently uncommon to be a minor concern, but sufficiently devastating to justify caution.

By focusing on the things that might kill the colony – or result in it being destroyed 🙁 – you’re obviously only scratching the surface of honey bee pests and pathogens. But it’s a start and it covers the most important things.

Most beginners have colonies that never get strong enough for CBPV to be a problem. Conversely, their weakness means that wasps might threaten them towards the end of the season, so should probably be discussed.

And, of course, the Asian hornet if you’re in an area ‘at risk’.

My beekeeping year

By this time the beginners have an overview of an idealised beekeeping year, an appreciation of the major events in the year – swarming, disease management, the honey harvest and preparation for winter.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

But an ideal wrap-up session to a starting beekeeping course would be the account of a real first year from a new beekeeper.

What were the problems? How did they attempt to solve them? What happened in the end?

This asks a lot of a relatively inexperienced beekeeper. Not least of which is good record keeping (but of course, they learnt this on the course the previous year 😉 ).

However, the comparison between the ‘textbook’ account delivered during the course with the ‘sweating in a beesuit’ reality of someone standing by an open hive feeling totally clueless is very enlightening.

Sweating in a beesuit

With sufficient preparation you could even turn it into a quiz to test what the trainees have understood.

I’ve seen several ‘starting beekeeping’ courses. All have had some of the things described above. None have had all of them. Most have included superfluous information, or in some cases, dangerous misinformation.

Which brings neatly me to the question of who should teach the course?

If you can do, if you can’t teach

Ensuring that everything is covered at the right time, avoiding duplication and maintaining the correct emphasis takes skill for one person. For a group of individuals it requires a lot of preparation and strict instructions not to drift off topic.

You might have noticed that many experienced beekeepers like to talk.

A lot.

A course handbook becomes an essential – both to help the students and as a guide to keep “on message” for the tutors.

Often it is some of the most experienced beekeepers who teach these courses.

Some are outstanding. Others less so.

Their years of experience often means they take for granted the subtleties that are critical. The difference between play cups and a 1-2 day old queen cell. A reduced laying rate by the queen. How to tell when there is a nectar flow on, and when it stops.

All of this, to them, is obvious.

They forget just how much they have learned from the hundreds of hives they have opened and the thousands of frames they have examined. They’ve reached the stage when it looks like they have a sixth sense when it comes to finding the queen.

Queen rearing course

Listen up Grasshopper!

As Grasshopper says to the old, blind master 10 “He said you could teach me a great knowledge”.

Possibly.

But sometimes they’ve retained some archaic approaches that should have been long-forgotten. They were wrong then, they still are. Paint your cedar hives with creosote. Use matchsticks to ventilate the hive in winter. Apistan is all you need for Varroa control.

 

Matchless matches

If any readers of this post have had these suggested on a course they are currently attending then question the other things that have been taught.

Get a good book that focuses on the essentials. I still think Get started in beekeeping by Adrian and Claire Waring is the best book for beginners that I’ve read 11.

Get a good mentor … you’re going to need one.

And good luck!


 

Resolutions

It’s that time of the year again. The winter solstice is long passed. Christmas has been and gone. The New Year is here.

Happy New Year 🙂

And New Year is a time to make resolutions (a firm decision to do or not to do something).

There is a long history of making resolutions at the turn of the year. The Babylonians promised to pay their debts and return borrowed objects at their New Year. Of course, their year was based on a lunar calendar and started with the first crescent moon in March/April, but the principle was the same.

Many New Year’s resolutions have religious origins … though the more recent trend to resolve to “drink less alcohol” or “lose weight are somewhat more secular.

About 50% of people in the western world make New Year’s resolutions. This figure is up from ~25% in the 1930’s. Perhaps success increases uptake?

Popular resolutions include improvement to: health (stop smoking, get fit, lose weight), finance or career (reduce debt, get a better job, more education, save more), helpfulness (volunteer more, give more to charity) or self (be less grumpy, less stressed, more friendly) etc.

But since this is a beekeeping website it is perhaps logical to consider what resolutions would lead to improvements in our beekeeping.

Beekeeping resolutions

The short winter days and long, dark nights are an ideal time to develop all sorts of fanciful plans for the season ahead.

How often are these promptly forgotten in the stifling heat of a long June afternoon as your second colony swarms in front of you?

The beekeeping season starts slowly, but very quickly gathers pace. It doesn’t take long before there’s not enough time for what must be done, let alone what you’d like (or had planned) to do.

And then there are all those pesky ‘real life’ things like family holidays, mowing the lawn or visiting relatives etc. that get in the way of essential beekeeping.

So, if you are going to make beekeeping resolutions, it might be best to choose some that allow you to be more proactive rather than reactive. To anticipate what’s about to happen so you’re either ready for it, or can prevent it 1.

Keep better records

I’ve seen all sorts of very complex record keeping – spreadsheets, databases, “inspection to a page” notepads, audio and even video recordings.

Complex isn’t necessarily the same as ‘better’, though I’ve no doubt that proponents of each use them because they suit their particular type of beekeeping.

Objective and subjective notes

My notes are very straightforward. I want them to:

  • Be available. They are in the bee bag and so with me (back of the car, at home or in the apiary) all the time. If I need to refer to them I can 2. They are just printed sheets of A4 paper, stuffed into a plastic envelope. I usually write them up there and then unless I forget a pen, it’s raining and/or very windy or I’m doing detailed inspections of every colony in the apiary. In these cases I use a small dictation machine and transcribe them later that evening.
  • Keep track of colonies and queens. I record the key qualitative features that are important to me – health, temper, steadiness on the comb etc. – using a simple numerical scoring system. Added supers are recorded (+1, +1, -2 etc) and there’s a freeform section for an additional line or two of notes. Colonies and queens are uniquely numbered, so I know what I’m referring to even if I move them between apiaries, unite them or switch from a nuc box to a full hive.
  • Allow season-long comparisons ‘at a glance’. With just a line or two per inspection I can view a complete season on one page. Colonies consistently underperforming towards the bottom of the page usually end up being united in late August/early September.
  • Include seasonal or environmental jottingsMay 4th – first swift of the year”, “June 7th – OSR finished”, “no rain for a fortnight”. These are the notes that, over time, will help relate the status of the colony to the local environment and climate. If the house martins, swallows and swifts are late and it’s rained for a month then swarming will likely be delayed. Gradually I’m learning what to expect and when, so I’m better prepared.

Monitor mites

Varroa remains the near-certain threat that beekeepers have to deal with every season. But you can only deal with them properly if you have an idea of the level of infestation.

Varroa levels in the colony depend upon a number of factors including the rate of brood rearing, the proportion of drone to worker brood and the acquisition of exogenous mites (those acquired through the processes of drifting and robbing).

Pupa (blue) and mite (red) numbers

In turn, these factors vary from colony to colony and from season to season. As I discussed recently, adjacent colonies in the same apiary can have very different levels of mite infestation.

Additional variation can be introduced depending upon the genetically-determined grooming or hygienic activity of the colony, both of which rid the hive of mites.

Since the combined influence of these factors cannot be (easily or accurately) predicted it makes sense to monitor mite levels. If they are too high you can then intervene in a timely and appropriate manner.

Quick and effective ways to monitor mite levels

Any monitoring is better than none.

Easy counting ...

Easy counting …

There are a variety of ways of doing this, some more accurate than others:

  1. Place a Correx tray under the open mesh floor (OMF) and count the natural mite drop over a week or so. Stick the counts into the National Bee Unit’s (appropriately named) Varroa calculator and see what they advise. There are quite a few variables – drone brood amounts, length of season etc – that need to be taken into account and their recommendation comes with some caveats 3. But it’s a lot better than doing nothing.
  2. Uncap drone brood and count the percentage of pupae parasitised by mites. The NBU’s Varroa calculator can use these figures to determine the overall infestation level. The same caveats apply.
  3. Determine phoretic mite levels by performing a sugar roll or alcohol wash. A known number of workers (often ~300) are placed in a jar and the phoretic mites displaced using icing sugar or alcohol (car screenwash is often used). After filtering the sugar or alcohol the mites can be counted. Sugar-treated bees can be returned to the colony 4. Infestation levels of 2-3% (depending upon the time of season) indicate that intervention is required 5.

Does what it says on the tin.

Overwinter nucs

If you keep livestock you can expect dead stock.

Unfortunately colony losses are an inevitability of beekeeping.

They occur through disease, queen failure and simple accidents.

Most losses are avoidable:

  • Monitor mites and intervene before virus levels threaten survival of the colony.
  • Check regularly for poorly mated or failing queens (drone layers) and unite the colony before it dwindles or is targeted by wasps or other robbers.
  • Make sure you close the apiary gate to prevent stock getting in and tipping over hives … or any number of other (D’oh! Slaps forehead 🙄 ) beekeeper-mediated accidents).

But they will occur.

Corpses

Corpses …

And most will occur overwinter. This means that as the new season starts you might be missing one or two hives.

Which could be all of your colonies if you only have a two 6.

Replacing these in April/May is both expensive and too late to ensure a spring honey crop.

Winter colony losses are the gift that keeps on giving taking.

However, if you overwinter an additional 10-25% of your colonies as 5 frame nucs (with a minimum of one), you can easily avoid disaster.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

If you lose a colony you can quickly expand the nuc to a full hive (usually well before a commercially-purchased colony would be ready … or perhaps even available).

And if you don’t lose a colony you can sell the nuc or expand your colony numbers.

Sustainable beekeeping

If you’ve not watched Michael Palmer’s The Sustainable Apiary at the National Honey Show I can recommend it as an entertaining and informative hour for a winter evening.

Michael keeps bees in Vermont … a different country and climate to those of us in the UK. However, his principles of sustainable beekeeping without reliance on bought-in colonies is equally valid.

Overwintering nucs requires a small investment of time and money. The former in providing a little more care and attention in preparation for winter, and the latter in good quality nucleus hives.

I reviewed a range of nuc boxes six years ago. Several of these models have been discontinued or revised, but the general design features to look for remain unchanged.

Here's three I prepared earlier ...

Everynuc poly nucs

Buy dense poly nucs for insulation, make sure the roof isn’t too thin and flimsy and choose one with an entrance that can be readily reduced to a “bee width” 7. Choice (and quality) has improved over the last 5-6 years but I still almost exclusively use Thorne’s Everynuc. I bought 20 a few seasons ago and remain pleased with them, despite a few design weaknesses.

Beekeeping benefits

I do all of the above.

Having learned (often the hard way) that my beekeeping benefits, these habits are now ingrained.

I had about 20 colonies going into the 2019/20 winter, including ~20% nucs. All continue to look good, but it won’t be until late April that I’ll know what my winter losses are.

In the meantime I can review the hive notes from last season and plan for 2020. Some colonies are overwintering with very substandard queens (generally poor temper) because they’re research colonies being monitored for changes in the virus population 8. They will all be requeened or united by mid/late May.

My notes mean I can plan my queen rearing and identify the colonies for requeening. I know which colonies can be used to source larvae from and which will likely be the cell raisers. The timing of all this will be influenced by the state of the colonies and the environmental ‘clues’ I’ve noted in previous years.

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells

Of course, things might go awry before then, but at least I have a plan to revise rather than making it up on the spur of the moment.

I learned the importance of mite monitoring the hard way. Colonies unexpectedly crashing in early autumn, captured swarms riddled with mites that were then generously distributed to others in the same apiary. Monitoring involves little effort, 2-3 times a season.

So these three things don’t need to be on my New Year’s resolution list.

Be resolute

More people make New Year’s resolutions now than 90 years ago.

However, increasing participation unfortunately does not mean that they are a successful way to achieve your goals.

Richard Wiseman showed that only 12% of those surveyed achieved their goal(s) despite over 50% being confident of doing so at the beginning of the year.

Interestingly, success in males and females was influenced by different things. For men, incremental goal-setting increased the success rate 9 (I will write hive notes on every apiary visit, rather than Keep better notes). For women, the peer pressure resulting from telling friends and family increased success by 10%.

More generally, increased success in achieving the goals resulted from:

  • Making only one New Year’s resolution – so perhaps the three things above is overly ambitious?
  • Setting specific goals and avoiding resolutions you’re previously failed at.

My New Year’s (beekeeping) resolutions?

Since I’m a man, the chance of achieving my goals is not influenced by peer pressure so I’m not publishing them. We’ll have to see in 12 months whether I’m in the 12% that succeed … or the 88% that fail 😉


 

Questions & Answers

One of the challenging things about beekeeping is that the season can be both confusing and entertaining in equal measure.

It’s entertaining because it’s always a little bit different from the seasons that have preceded it. The environment changes. There’s an early spring, or late frosts, a drought, a monsoon or the local farmer changes from one strain of OSR to another.

Sometimes you get all of those in a single season … or month.

Mainly dry ...

Mainly dry …

But not only does the environment change, so do your bees. Inevitably your queens will be replaced over the years. In turn, they influence the performance of the colony. Your virgins fly off to the drone congregation areas where they mate with the ‘bad boys’ from colonies run by a nearby beekeeper with much thicker gloves and a fleece under his beesuit 🙁

Mayhem ensues. Inspections get a whole lot less fun. Quickly.

Or you collect a swarm headed by a fecund queen who busies herself producing calm, prolific, frugal and productive workers.

The colony gets bigger. And bigger. It shows no signs of swarming.

As you add the fourth super you feel like you’ve really cracked this beekeeping lark.

Sorted 🙂

But these things also make beekeeping incredibly confusing to the newcomer.

If you take a calendar-centric view there is no right answer to ‘When will the colony swarm?’ or ‘Is this the right time to treat for mites?’ or ‘Should I remove the supers now?’.

And many beginners do have a calendar-based viewpoint. It’s so much easier to prepare if you’re told that swarming starts in the third week of May and the supers should be removed at the end of August.

Not only is that easier to understand, but the telltale signs that the bees produce aren’t – for a beginner – very good at telling tales.

The first half-hidden charged queen cell, a reduced laying rate, the reduction in loaded returning foragers etc.

Play cup or queen cell?

Play cup or are they planning their escape …?

But, for me, at least half of the enjoyment is deciphering these signs and working out what the colony is doing, or going to do.

And therefore, what I should be doing.

Questions and answers

Most of this is observation, interspersed with a bit of record keeping and sprinkled with some ‘best guesses’.

If you keep asking the (right) questions you will slowly but surely start finding the answers.

Are they running out of space, making more play cups, and slimming the queen down for the great escape?

But many of these things are too subtle for beginners overwhelmed by the difficulty in just finding the queen amongst 38,789 of her daughters.

Inevitably this means that beginners – quite rightly – ask other beekeepers lots of questions.

I did.

I still do.

And in this increasingly connected world, some of those questions take the form of internet searches.

And some of these questions pop up as search terms on this site.

Mites

Willie Wonka meme

Many of these queries are about mite management:

  • best time to treat for varroa in honey bees?
  • should bees be treated for mites in spring?
  • use apiguard in june?
  • oxalic acid to treat varroa can i do it this week?
  • when to treat bees with oxalic acid in arkansas?

Very specific questions, very calendar-centric. There are hundreds more queries like these 1.

A correct answer requires an understanding of the biology of the mite and an appreciation of the state of the hive.

Neither necessarily involves the calendar. Both can be acquired with a little homework and good observation. However, the very fact that ~25% of queries are about mite management emphasises that many struggle with this aspect of beekeeping.

I remain convinced that the biggest challenge new beekeepers face is how to effectively manage mites. Without proper mite management your colonies will perish.

If you lose your colonies every winter you soon get disheartened.

The easiest way to properly control mite numbers is with chemicals.

It’s what I do.

Returning a marked and clipped queen

However, it’s not the only way.

Excellent beekeeping, selective rearing of mite-tolerant colonies (or of attenuated viruses!) and yet more excellent beekeeping – coupled with a favourable environment – may mean you can keep colonies without chemical intervention, and without excessive losses 2.

All beginners lack the necessary experience to achieve this. Most lack the ability to learn the skills quickly enough to save their colonies and the majority probably live in areas that are unsuitable.

Most importantly, many beginners aren’t resilient enough to ‘learn the hard way’. They believe the (largely incorrect) statements about the evils of treatment, they want their bees to be ‘healthy and happy’ 3, they like the sound of the term biodynamic 4 … but they cannot cope with losing their stocks every single winter through disease and starvation.

So they give up.

Learn to keep bees … then learn (again, using the years of knowledge already accumulated) to keep them without chemical intervention if you want. Not the other way round.

Read all you can – here and elsewhere – but remember that nothing is as valuable as time spent observing your bees.

Technical queries

These are the sorts of questions that probably can be easily answered 5.

Remembering of course that there are usually at least two correct answers for every question, and any number of incorrect ones.

  1. honey warming cabinet plans
  2. how long does it take bees to chew through newspaper?
  3. what is the chance of a queen being left in my hive when i have just lost a huge swarm?
  4. alighting board angle
  5. where and how to set up bait hives?

My honey warming cabinet is one of the most useful things I’ve built for my beekeeping and the pages that first describe it, the plans and its use, remain some of the most popular on this site.

The answer to Q2 obviously depends upon how many sheets of newspaper are involved.

I think we all know the answer to Q3 and it’s not going to make the questioner happy 😉

It’s very rare that you can provide an absolute definitive answer in beekeeping. However, after many years of exhaustive, well-controlled and independently verified trials I have unequivocally shown that the answer to Q4 is 47.7°.

47.7° precisely

Not more, not less.

Remembering of course that a landing (alighting) board isn’t actually needed at all 😉

Tom Seeley has done the definitive studies on bait hives (Q5). He clearly describes the ‘where’. My recommendations are rather more pragmatic. It’s easier to monitor and move bait hives if they’re not 5 metres above the ground.

Miscellaneous or just weird

And then there are lots of queries that are simply amusing typos, nonsensical or just odd. My favourites this year are:

  1. maxant crank mechanism
  2. langtorthe eke
  3. how to wear rigger boots?

I’ve no idea how the first of these landed up on the apiarist.org as it’s a term I’ve never used. The middle query (Q2) is a typical typo. It’s an obvious one, but it constantly amazes me how good fuzzy matching algorithms are these days.

Q3 is about beekeeping footwear. My last pair of rigger boots were abandoned years ago when the lining fell apart and they eventually turned my feet to a bloody pulp.

How to wear them?

I wore mine while hobbling. It’s not something I’d recommend.

I now wear Muck boots – specifically the now discontinued Edgewater II short boots – which are lightweight, very comfortable and fully waterproof. No steel toe cap, but I never drop full supers.

Oops ...

Oops …

Well, almost never.

Questions and comments

Not all questions originate in internet searches. Many come via the comments sections at the end of most posts. Most of these are both welcomed and useful; they allow me to clarify things that I’d presented confusingly, or they provide an opportunity to expand on parts of the post.

The numbers of comments have increased significantly this year.

More words and more comments

This increase probably reflects the increased readership (and page accesses) of the site.

Alternatively it might mean the writing is getting worse as the comment numbers correlate with the increased length of posts 🙁

I try and answer as many comments/questions as I can. Many make very salient points and I’m very grateful for those who take the time to comment, either to correct me, to seek clarification or to provide their own insight on the topic.

I ignore those that are dogmatically stupid or just plain wrong. My prerogative. There’s enough bad advice on the internet without propagating more.

I apologise to those who comment via Facebook or Twitter. I almost exclusively use both for promoting posts made here 6. Both generate a lot of traffic to this site but I simply don’t have time (or interest) to use them interactively.

If you want to contact me do so via the comments section or the, aptly named, contact form.

More Readers’ Questions

Which, in a rather circuitous way, brings me to the Readers’ Questions Answered column in the BBKA News. I was asked to tackle these a few months ago and January and February are already written 7.

BBKA News Readers’ Questions Answered proofs

The BBKA News is the monthly newsletter of the British Beekeepers Association. It has a circulation of ~25,000. Each year a different victim expert mug contributor prepares the answers. I’m taking over from Bob Smith, NDB from Medway BKA who did an excellent job and will be a hard act to follow. Some of the previous contributors have been anonymous which might have been a sensible option, but it’s too late for me now.

My family joke that I’m now an agony aunt for beekeepers.

I discussed this with Calum, a regular contributor to the comments section of these pages, who provided (as usual) some very sage advice, including “Bees put up with a lot of sh1t from beekeepers”. I don’t think the BBKA will want to use that as my strapline but it certainly sums things up pretty accurately.

Happy New Year … may your queens be well mated, your mite numbers low, your supers heavy and may your prime swarms be in my bait hives  🙂


 

2019 in retrospect

The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, is tomorrow. It will be a long time until there’s any active beekeeping, but at least the days are getting longer again 🙂 

The queens in your colonies will soon – or may already – be laying again.

What better time to look back over the past season? How did the bees do? How did you do as a beekeeper? What could be done better next time?

Were there any catastrophic errors that really must not be repeated?

Overview of the season

Overall, in my part of Scotland, it was about average.

But that, of course, obscures all sorts of detail.

Spring was warm and swarming started early. I hived my first swarm before the end of April and my last in early July. This is about twice the length of the usual swarming season I’ve come to expect in Scotland. However, it wasn’t all frantic swarm management as there was a prolonged ‘June gap’ during which colonies were much more subdued.

The summer nectar, particularly the lime, was helped by some rain, but the season was effectively over by mid-August. I don’t take my colonies to the heather. Overall, the honey crop was 50-60% that of the (exceptional) 2018 season.

Looking at the yields from different apiaries for spring and summer it’s clear that – despite the warm spring – colonies did less well on the early season nectar (~40% that of 2018). I suspect this is due to their being less oil seed rape (OSR) grown within range of my apiaries. The colonies were strong, but the OSR just wasn’t close enough to be fully exploited..

Over recent years the area of OSR grown has reduced, a trend that is likely to continue.

Winter oil seed rape – the potential is not obvious

The winter rape is already sitting soggily in the fields; I’ve chatted to a couple of the local farmers and will move some hives onto these fields if colonies are strong enough and the weather looks promising.

Bait hives

Every year I’ve been back in Scotland I’ve put a bait hive in the garden.

Every year it has attracted a swarm.

This year – with the extended swarming season – it led to the capture of three swarms in about 10 days. As the June gap ended the weather got quite hot and sultry 1 and the first swarm arrived near the end of that month.

One week after the first swarm arrived there was lots more scout bee activity. There were also quite a few dead or dying bees littering the ground underneath the bait hive. It turned out that these were the walking wounded (or worse) scout bees from two different hives fighting.

Gone but not forgotten

Within 48 hours another swarm arrived and I was fortunate enough to watch it descend.

Incoming!

I moved the hive that evening, placing another bait hive on the same spot. By the following morning there were yet more scout bees checking the entrance and a third swarm – by far the biggest of the three – arrived later that day.

Each was a prime swarm and none were from my own hives which are in the only apiary 2 within a mile of the bait hive.

Watching the scout bees check out a bait hive is always interesting. There’s a fuller account of the observations and lessons learnt – of which there were several – written in the post titled BOGOF (buy one get one free 😉 ).

Swarm prevention

My swarm prevention this year either used the nucleus method or vertical splits (with an occasional Demaree for good measure) for most hives. All prevented the loss of swarms and queen mating went about as well – or badly – as it usually does i.e. never as fast as I’d like, but (eventually) all were successful.

Split board

Split board …

I did miss a couple of swarms. One relocated underneath the OMF of the hive it originated from because the queen was clipped and, having fallen ignominiously to the ground, she just clambered up the hive stand again.

The second swarm was also not lost as I inadvertently trapped the queen on the wrong side of the queen excluder. D’oh! In my defence, I’ve had a rather busy year at work 3 and it’s little short of a miracle that I got any beekeeping – let alone swarm control – done at all.

Mites

Considering the extended June gap, which resulted in a brood break for some colonies, mite levels were appreciably higher this year than last. I think this can largely be attributed to the warm Spring which allowed colonies to build up fast. Several colonies were strong enough to swarm in late April.

I do a limited amount of mite counting during the season but also monitor virus loads in emerging bees in our research colonies. In most colonies these stayed resolutely low and no production colonies needed any mid-season interventions for mite control.

Poly Varroa tray from Thorne's Everynuc with visible mites.

Gotcha! …

Newly-arrived swarms were treated as were some broodless splits. The former because many swarms carry a larger than expected mite population 4 and the latter because it’s an ideal opportunity to target mites as – in the absence of brood – all will be phoretic.

All colonies were treated with Apivar immediately after the summer honey came off. At the same time they were fed copious amount of fondant in preparation for the winter ahead.

In late November most colonies were broodless and were treated with a vaporised OA-containing miticide.

What worked well

In what was a pretty tough year for non-beekeeping reasons even small beekeeping successes have assumed a significance out of all proportion to the effort expended on them.

In my first year or two of beekeeping honey extraction was an unbridled pleasure. As hive numbers increased it because more of a chore. An electric extractor marginally improved things.

However, there was still the never-ending juggling of frames trying to balance the extractor and jiggling of the unbalanced machine as it sashayed across the floor.

Rubber-wheeled castor with brake

Two years ago I purchased some rubber braked wheels to add to the extractor legs.

This year I finally got round to fitting them.

The jiggle-free revolutions were a revelation 🙂

I know some beekeepers who stand their extractors on foam pads. Others who have them bolted to a triangular wooden platform. I can’t imagine either solution works better than these castors, which also make moving the extractor to and from storage much easier.

I changed my hive numbering system this season. I’d previously referred to hives by position or with a number written on the box. This caused some issues with the (sometimes shambolic) way I do my beekeeping.

If the hive moves and it’s numbered by position then its number should change. Manageable, but a bit of a pain.

If the position does not change but they’re expanded from a nuc to a full brood box do they get a new number or retain the old one? A problem if it’s written on the box.

And what happens when you move queens about in the apiary (which we sometimes need to do for work)?

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

All hives and queens were assigned a number – small red discs for the queen and big, bold numbers for the box. They stay with the colony or the queen … and the records 😉

This has worked very well. As colonies expand the numbers move, if queens are moved I know from and to where (and keep a separate record of queen performance). When colonies are united the queenless component loses both the queen number and the colony number.

The numbering has been a great success. The numbers themselves less so. Most of the red discs have faded very badly and a few of the hive numbers have cracked and/or blown away.

Numbered nuc and production colonies.

Never mind … the system works as intended and it has significantly improved my record keeping. I now know which hive and queen I’m referring to 😉

The Apiarist in 2019

I might squeeze in a more thorough overview of funny search terms and page accesses before the New Year. Briefly … there are significantly more subscribers and an increase of ~20% in overall page reads.

This year marks the sixth full season of The Apiarist which still surprises me. There still seem to be things to write about. Post length continues to increase, though the overall number of posts remain almost exactly one a week. Amazingly I’ve written nearly 95,000 words this year.

Words, words, words …

We had some server issues but most of these appear to have been resolved. Spam remains a problem and the machine auto-filters several hundred messages a day to keep my inbox only unmanageably overflowing. It has meant I’ve had to add some “I am not a robot” CAPTCHA trickery to the contact and/or comment forms. I’m aware that this has caused some problems making contact but can’t find an alternative solution that doesn’t swamp me in adverts for fake sunglasses, Bitcoins or Russian brides.

I live in Scotland and have no use for any of these things 😉 5

The year ahead

There are three main items on the ‘to do’ list for 2020 6.

The first is to start queen rearing again. Pressure of work has prevented this from happening over the last couple of seasons and I’m missing both the huge satisfaction it brings and the improved control over stock improvement. I’ve done lots of queen rearing in the past, but work has muscled its way in to too many weekends and evenings recently 7.

3 day old QCs ...

3 day old QCs …

I now have some perfectly adequate bees.

Actually, although they’re far from ‘perfect’ they are also far better than ‘adequate’.

I’ve got a couple of lines that have too much chalkbrood and almost all of them are less stable on the comb than I’d like. They don’t fall in wriggling gloops off the corner of the frame as some do, but they’re more active than I’d prefer. It’s a trait that has crept into some stocks over the last couple of years and I need to try and get rid of it.

The second is to provide better information on the provenance of my honey to potential and actual purchasers. There’s increasing interest in sourcing high quality local food and, as I’ve discussed recently on honey pricing, we should be aiming to provide a premium product (at a premium price 😉 ). The public are also increasingly aware that some of the major supermarkets have been reported to be selling adulterated honey. Providing details of the batch, the apiary and the area in which it was produced should help define it as a quality local product.

And generate repeat business.

Local honey

Finally, I’m planting up a new apiary on the west coast with dozens of pollen-bearing trees before I start beekeeping there. This has been a long and protracted process as it has involved clearing large areas of invasive rhododendron. The first 125+ native trees go in this winter – a mix of alder, loads of willow, hazel, blackthorn and wild cherry. More will follow if I manage to stop the deer eating them all.

Only another few acres of rhododendron to clear 🙁

The new apiary is in a Varroa-free region so I will not be moving my current bees there, but instead sourcing them from other areas fortunate enough to be mite-free. This is a long-term project.

Bee shed #3 … bigger and better.

The trees will need a few years to mature but the bee shed (bigger than all that have gone before 🙂 ) foundations are finished and the shed will be assembled sometime in March.

Holibobs

The holiday period is almost here. Many beekeepers will be thinking about fondant top-ups and oxalic acid mite treatment. I’ve done the latter already and – if your colonies are also broodless – hope you’ve done the same. All my hives remain reassuringly heavy but as the weather warms and brood rearing gears up I’ll have some fondant ready ‘just in case’.

I’ve covered last-minute beekeeping gifts in previous years. I think the (digital edition) American Bee Journal remains good value and provides a different perspective for UK beekeepers of what happens in the US.

And with that I’ll pour another glass of mead red wine 8 and wish you all Happy Christmas/Holidays (delete as appropriate).

David


 

Rinse and repeat

Midwinter mite treatment is no substitute for a properly applied late summer treatment that protects your all important winter bees. However, you also need to control mites in the winter or there is a good chance their numbers will reach damaging levels the following season 1.

Mid September

Late summer treatment and no winter treatment – mite levels in red.

OA (oxalic acid-containing) treatments are the ones to use in midwinter (e.g. Api-Bioxal). These can be trickled in syrup onto each seam of bees or they can be vaporised (sublimated), effectively coating everything in the hive with a very fine dusting of crystals.

Trickling damages open brood whereas sublimation is exceedingly well-tolerated by the colony.

If you are certain the colony is broodless then trickling is faster 2 and – because you don’t need power or any more PPE 3 than a pair of gloves – much easier.

If the ambient temperature is consistently below ~6°C and I know the colony is broodless I usually trickle. If the temperature is higher and/or I’m uncertain about whether there is brood present I usually vaporise.

I watch the weather and treat after the first prolonged cold spell of the winter.

Experience over the last few years suggests this is when colonies are most likely to be broodless.

Most likely is not the same as certain 🙁

Count the corpses

After treating I closely monitor the mite drop over several days. I use white Correx Varroa trays that slide underneath the open mesh of my kewl floors.

Easy counting ...

Easy counting …

I don’t count the mites every day, but I do try and count the day after treatment and 2-4 days later. I record the mite drop per hive and, over time, look for two things:

  1. The cumulative mite drop. This indicates the original infestation level of the hive. Usually it’s in the range 10-75 mites (total) for my colonies in midwinter, but – as you’ll see – it can be much higher.
  2. The speed with which the daily mite drop falls to a low single-digit average. OA treatment is very effective at killing phoretic mites. If there’s a continuing high level of mite drop it suggests that more are getting exposed over time.

In my experience, vaporised OA often results in a greater mite drop 24-48 hours post-treatment rather than in the first 24 hours 4. After that I expect (hope) the daily mite drop tails off very quickly.

Vaporised OA remains effective in the hive for several days. Randy Oliver reports studies by Radetzki who claims it remains effective for up to three weeks. I think this is an overestimate but I’m sure it continues working well for four to five days.

OA, whether vaporised or trickled, on broodless colonies is 90-95% effective i.e. if there were 100 mites in the colony you should expect as few as 5 remain after treatment.

Four to five days after the initial treatment I eyeball the numbers across all the hives in an apiary and look at the profile of the mite drop.

Mite drop profiles

I couldn’t think of a better term for this. Essentially, it’s the shape of a graph of mites dropped per day after treatment.

I don’t usually draw the graph – I have a life – but I do look carefully at the numbers.

Here are a couple of sketched graphs showing what I mean. Days are on the horizontal (X) axis, dead mites per day are on the vertical (Y) axis. Treatment applied on day 0. No count (yet) on day 6.

Mite drop profile – this is what you want

In the graph above there are high(er) levels of dropped mites on the first day or two after treatment, but levels thereafter drop to a basal level of perhaps 1-4 mites per day.

Each time I count the mites I clean the Varroa tray (the rinse in the title of the post).

Assuming the day 5 mite drop is very low, the profile above is what I’m looking for. It shows that treatment has worked and no repeat is necessary.

The profile below is much less promising 5.

Mite drop profile – this suggests additional treatment is needed

In this graph (above) the mite drop remains high every day after treatment. Sometimes they even increase over time.

If you assume treatment is equally effective – say 90%+ – on the five days after treatment 6 this must mean that there are mites being killed on days 4 and 5 that were not exposed to treatment on the earlier days.

How can this be?

The most likely explanation is that the colony had some sealed brood that has emerged in the days following treatment, exposing previously ‘hidden’ mites to the miticide.

It’s good that they’ve perished, but are there more hiding? How do you tell?

Enough of my hand drawn idealised graphs with no real numbers … what about some actual data?

Real world data

The graph below shows data for seven colonies in a single apiary. All were treated with Apivar in late summer. All were treated with a vaporised oxalic acid-containing treatment on the 28th of November. 

Mite drop profiles – real world data

I counted the mite drops on the 29th (T+1), the 2nd (T+4) and 3rd (T+5). The figures for 30th to the 2nd were averaged, which is why the bars are all the same height.

  • Colonies 3 and 6 had very low mite levels. Though not the lowest in the apiary 🙂
  • Colonies 2 and 7 had pretty good mite drop profiles, with low single-digit numbers on day T+5. None of these four colonies (2, 3, 6, 7) need treating again.
  • Colonies 1 and 5 have high mite levels 7 and – despite the pretty good levels on T+5 in colony 1 – were both re-treated.
  • Colony 4 was also treated again as the profile was flat and I suspected they had low levels of mites but were rearing brood..

And repeat

Note: The instructions for Api-Bioxal specifically state that the maximal dose of 2.3g/hive should be made in a single administrations with only one treatment per yearPrior to the VMD licensing and approval of Api-Bioxal there was effectively tacit approval for beekeepers to use unadulterated oxalic acid by trickling or vaporisation, without any particular limitations on frequency of usage.

It’s worth stressing that you should not repeat oxalic acid trickling 8.

Here is some real data for repeat treatments of another colony in the same apiary.

Repeat treatment for brood-rearing colony

The average mite drop per day over the first 5 days was ~60. This justified an additional treatment. Over the next 6 days 9 the average drop was ~20. I considered a third application was needed after which the mite drop per day was in the low single digits.

And again

Repeated treatment is needed if there is sealed brood in the colony.

The likelihood is that two additional treatments will be required.

Why two?

Here’s a reminder of the development cycle of the Varroa mite in developing worker or drone brood.

Repeated oxalic acid vaporisation treatment regime.

Worker brood occupies capped cells for 12 days (days 10 – 21 of development, shown above). Vaporised oxalic acid-containing treatments show a drop in efficacy after 4-5 days 10.

Therefore, to cover a complete cycle of capped brood, you need 3 x 5 day treatments to be sure no mites emerge without them being greeted with a lethal dose of something really, really unpleasant 😉

There should be no drone brood in your winter hives 11 but, if there was, 3 x 5 day treatments should just be enough to cover the complete cycle of capped drone brood as well. However, a fourth treatment might be needed.

Note (again): The instructions for Api-Bioxal specifically state that the maximal dose of 2.3g/hive should be made in a single administrations with only one treatment per year

Not all hives are equal

There are 15 hives in the apiary containing the bee shed. Colony 1 had just about the highest mite levels. However, as shown in one of the graphs above, adjacent colonies can have markedly different mite levels.

There is no clear correlation between mite drop after treatment and colony size. Colony 1 is a double brood monster, but the others in the bee shed are all single brood 10 and 11 frame Nationals 12.

Some colonies need repeated treatment, others did not.

To maximise efficient treatment and minimise unnecessary miticide usage it is necessary to monitor all the colonies.

It’s also worth noting that monitoring only a single hive in an apiary may be misleading; compare colonies 1 and 6 above in the graph of real data from the bee shed.

This monitoring takes just a few minutes. I usually do it after work. In the bee shed this is easy as I now have LED lighting and it’s nice and dry.

Easy conditions to count mites

In my out apiaries I have to do it by headtorch … under an umbrella if it’s raining 🙁

Checking mite drop by torchlight

That’s the last job of the winter completed … time now to review the season just gone and plan for next year.


Colophon

Rinse and repeat

Rinse and repeat is a truncation of instructions often found on the side of shampoo bottles – Lather, rinse and repeat. Other than potentially resulting in an endless loop of hair washing, it also means that a process is (or needs to be) repeated.

In The Plagiarist by Benjamin Cheever, a marketing executive becomes an industry legend by adding one word – REPEAT – to shampoo bottles. He doubles sales overnight.

For Varroa treatment the instructions should be amended to Repeat if necessary … and note again the instructions on Api-Bioxal which, at the time of writing, is the only oxalic-acid containing VMD approved miticide that can be administered by vaporisation.

 

Midwinter, no; mites, yes

There’s a certain irony that the more conscientious you are in protecting your winter bees from the ravages of Varroa in late summer, the more necessary it is to apply a miticide in the winter.

Winter bees are the ones that are in your hives now 1.

They have a very different physiology to the midsummer foragers that fill your supers with nectar. Winter bees have low levels of juvenile hormone and high levels of vitellogenin. They are long-lived – up to 8 months – and they form an efficient thermoregulating cluster when the external temperature plummets.

Winter bees production

In the temperate northern hemisphere, winter bees are reared from late summer/early autumn onwards. The combination of reductions in the photoperiod (day length), temperature and forage availability triggers changes in brood and forager pheromones.

Factors that influence winter bee production

Together these induce the production of winter bees.

For more details see Overwintering honey bees: biology and management by Döke et al., (2010).

Day length reduces predictably as summer changes to autumn. In contrast, temperature and forage availability (which itself is influenced by temperature and rainfall … and day length) are much more variable (so less predictable).

All of which means that you cannot be sure when the winter bees are produced.

If there’s an “Indian summer“, with warm temperatures stretching into late October, the bees will be out working the ivy and rearing good amounts of brood late into the year. The busy foragers and high(er) levels of brood pheromone will then delay the production of winter bees.

Conversely, low temperatures and early frosts reduce foraging and brood production, so bringing forward winter bee production.

It’s an inexact science.

You cannot be sure when the winter bees will be produced, but you can be sure that they will be reared.

Protect your winter bees

And if they are being reared, you must protect them from Varroa and the viral payload it delivers to developing pupae. Most important of these viruses is deformed wing virus (DWV).

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Aside from “doing what it says on the tin” i.e. causing wing deformities and other developmental defects in some brood, DWV also reduces the longevity of winter bees.

And that’s a problem.

If they die sooner than they should they cannot help in thermoregulating the winter cluster.

And that results in the cluster having to work harder to keep warm as it gets smaller … and smaller … and smaller …

Until it’s so small it cannot reach its food reserves (isolation starvation) or freezes to death 2.

So, to protect your winter bees, you need to treat with an appropriate miticide in late summer. This reduces the mite load in the hive by up to 95% and so gives the winter bees a very good chance of leading a long and happy life 😉

Time of treatment and mite numbers

Time of treatment and mite numbers

I discussed this in excruciating detail in 2016 in a post titled When to treat?.

The figure above was taken from that post and is described more fully there. The arrow indicates when winter bees are produced and the variously coloured solid lines indicate mite numbers when treated in mid-July to mid-November.

The earlier you treat (indicated by the sudden drop in the mite count) the lower the peak mite numbers when the winter bees are being reared.

Note that the mite numbers indicated on the right hand vertical axis are not ‘real’ figures. They depend on the number present at the start of the year. In the figure above I “primed” the in silico modelled colony with just 20 mites. This will become very important in a few paragraphs.

Late season brood rearing

Compare the blue line (mid-August treatment) with the cyan line 3 (mid-October treatment) in the figure above.

The mid-October treatment really hammers the mite number down and they remain low until the end of the year 4.

The reason the mite numbers remain low after a mid-October treatment is that there is little or no brood being reared in the colony during this period.

Mites need brood, and specifically sealed brood, to reproduce on.

In the absence of brood the mites ‘colony surf‘, riding around as phoretic mites on nurse bees (or any bees if there aren’t the nurse bees they prefer).

And that late season brood rearing is the reason the end-of-year mite number for the colony treated in mid-August (the blue line) remains significantly higher.

Mites that survive the miticide in August simply carry on with their sordid little destructive lives, infesting the ample brood available (which could even include some highly mite-attractive and productive drone brood) and reproducing busily.

So, the earlier you treat, the more mites remain in the hive at the end of the year.

Weird, but true.

Early season brood rearing

The winter bees don’t ‘just’ get the colony through the winter.

As the day length increases and the temperature rises the colony starts rearing brood again. Depending upon your latitude it might never stop, but the rate at which it rears brood certainly increases in early spring.

Or, more correctly, in mid- to late-winter.

And it’s the winter bees that do this brood rearing. As Grozinger and colleagues state Once brood rearing re-initiates in late winter/early spring, the division of labor resumes among overwintered worker bees.”

Some winter bees revert to nurse bee activity, to rear the next generation of bees.

And this is another reason why strong colonies overwinter better … not because they (also) survive the cold better 5, but because there are more bees available to take on these brood rearing activities.

Strong, healthy colonies build up better in early spring.

Colonies that are weak in spring and stagger through the first few months of the year, never getting close to swarming, are of little use for honey production, more likely to get robbed out and may not build up enough for the following winter.

Midwinter mite treatments

Which brings us back to the need for miticide treatment in midwinter.

The BEEHAVE modelled colony shown in the graph above was ‘primed’ at the beginning of the season with 20 mites. These reproduced and generated almost 800 mites over the next 10-11 months.

What do you think would happen if you start the year with 200 mites, rather than 20?

Like the 200 remaining at the year end when you treat in mid-August?

Lots of mites … probably approaching 8000 … that’s almost as many mites as bees by the end of the season.

So, one reason to treat in the middle of winter is to reduce mite levels later in the season. The smaller the number you start with, the less you have later.

Vapour leaks out ...

Vaporisation … oxalic acid vapour leaks out …

But at the beginning of the season these elevated levels of mites could cause problems. High levels of mites and low levels of brood is not a good mix.

There’s the potential for those tiny patches of brood to become mite-infested very early in the season … this helps the mites but hinders the bees.

Logically, the more mites present at the start of brood rearing, the more likely it is that colony build up will be retarded.

So that’s two reasons to treat with miticides – usually an oxalic-acid containing treatment – in midwinter.

Midwinter? Or earlier?

When does the colony start brood rearing again in earnest?

This is important as the ‘midwinter’ treatment should be timed for a period before this when the colony is broodless. This is to ensure that all the mites are phoretic and ‘easy to reach’ with a well-timed dribble of Api-Bioxal.

In studies over 30 years ago Seeley and Visscher demonstrated that colonies have to start brood rearing in midwinter to build up enough to have the opportunity to swarm in late spring. These were colonies in cold climates, but the conditions – and season length – aren’t dramatically different to much of the UK.

Low temperatures regularly extend into January or February. The temperature is also variable year on year. It therefore seems (to me) that the most likely trigger for new brood rearing is increasing day length 6.

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

I therefore assume that colonies may well be rearing brood very soon after the winter solstice.

I’m also aware that my colonies are almost always broodless earlier in the winter … or even what is still technically late autumn.

This is from experience of both direct (opening hives) or indirect (fresh brood mappings on the Varroa tray) observation.

Hence the “Midwinter, no” title of this post.

Don’t delay

I therefore treat with a dribbled or vaporised oxalic acid-containing miticide in late November or early December. In 2016 and 2017 it was the first week in December. Last year it was a week  later because we had heavy snow.

This year it was today … the 28th of November. With another apiary destined for treatment this weekend.

If colonies are broodless there is nothing to be gained by delaying treatment until later in the winter.

Most beekeepers treat between Christmas and New Year. It’s convenient. They’re probably on holiday and it is a good excuse to escape the family/mince pies/rubbish on the TV (delete as appropriate).

But it might be too late … don’t delay.

If colonies are broodless treat them now.

If you don’t and they start rearing brood the mites will hide away and be unreachable … but their daughters and granddaughters will cause you and your bees problems later in the season.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there’s no need to coordinate winter treatments. The bees aren’t flying and the possibility of mites being transferred – through robbing or drifting – from treated to untreated colonies is minimal.


 

Strong hives = live hives

Science and beekeeping make for interesting contrasts and can be awkward bedfellows 1.

Science is based upon observation of tested single variables. multiple repeats and statistical analysis. It builds on what has gone before but has accepted processes to challenge well-established theories. Some of the greatest advances are made by young researchers willing to test – and subsequently overturn – established dogma.

Over the last three generations science – both how we do it and what we understand – has changed almost beyond recognition.

In contrast, beekeeping is steeped in history, has multiple variables – climate, forage, ability – and very small sample sizes. It tends to be taught by the most experienced, passing down established – though often not rigorously tested 🙁 – methods 2.

As a consequence our beekeeping has barely changed over the last three decades. Established dogma tends to stay established.

Local bees are better adapted to local conditions

So let’s look in a little more detail at one of these established ‘facts’ … that locally reared bees are better adapted to local conditions.

The suggestion here is that locally reared bees, because they’re ‘better adapted’ (whatever that means) are more likely to flourish when the going is good, and more likely to survive when the going gets tough.

Furthermore, the implication is that they’re more likely to do better in that environment than bees reared elsewhere (and that are therefore adapted to a different environment).

This sounds like common sense.

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

As Brexit looms and the never-ending supply of early-season Greek or Slovenian queens disappears perhaps it’s also fortunate, rather than just being common sense.

But, as a scientist, I’ve spent a career questioning things.

Every time I read the “locally adapted bees survive better (or perform better, or whatever better)” 3 two questions pop into my head …

  1. What’s local?
  2. How did they prove – or how would I test – this?

Spoiler alert

There is evidence that local bees show adaptive changes to their local environment. There is also evidence that local bees do better in their local environment.

Formally, I don’t think scientists have demonstrated that the former explains the latter. This might seem trivial, but it does mean that our understanding is still incomplete.

However, I’m not going to discuss any of these things today – but I will in the future.

Instead I’m going to deal with those two questions that pop into my head.

If we tackle those I think we’ll be better placed to address that dogmatic statement that local bees are better adapted to local conditions in due course.

But perhaps we’ll first discover that other things are more important?

What’s local?

I live most of the time in central Fife. It’s a reasonably dry, relatively cool, largely arable part of the UK with a beekeeping season that lasts about 5 months (from first to last inspections).

Are my (fabulous 😉 ) locally bred queens adapted for central Fife, or the east of Scotland, or perhaps north-west maritime Europe, or Europe?

Where have all my young girls gone?

What a beauty

Would these locally adapted bees do better here (in Fife) than bees raised in the foothills of the Cairngorms, or the Midlands, or Devon or East Anglia … or Portugal?

If you measure the environment you’ll find there’s significant overlap in terms of the climate, the temperature, the forage, the day length (or a hundred other determinants) with other regions of the UK.

The temperature or rainfall extremes we experience in central Fife aren’t significantly different to those in the Midlands. The season duration is different (because of latitude), but I had lots of short seasons in the Midlands due to cool springs and early autumns.

Local is an ill-defined and subjective term.

But there are differences of course. Are Ardnamurchan bees better able to cope with the rain (and the fantastic scenery) than Fife bees? Are Fife bees better able to exploit arable crops than those foraging on the heather and Atlantic rainforests that cloak the hills in the far west of Scotland?

I don’t know 🙁

And there’s something else I don’t know

I also don’t know how I would meaningfully test this.

Just thinking about these types of experiments makes me nervous. Think of the year to year variation – in weather, forage etc. – compounded by the hive to hive variation.

Then multiply that by the variation between beekeepers.

This last one is a biggy. Two beekeepers of differing abilities will experience very different levels of success – quantified in terms of honey yield or hives that survive for example – in the same season and environment.

Doing a study large enough to be statistically relevant without having such enormous variation that the results are essentially meaningless is tricky.

What a nightmare.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to a paper earlier this year by Maryann Frazier and Christina Grozinger from Penn State University.

Ask the question in a different way

The title of the paper tells you most of what you need to know about the study.

Colony size, rather than geographic origin of stocks, predicts overwintering success in honey bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) in the northeastern United States. 4

But don’t stop reading … let’s look in a bit more detail at what they did.

They approached the question (that local bees are better adapted) from a slightly different angle.

Essentially the question they asked was “Does the geographic origin of the bees influence the overwintering survival of bees in a temperate region?”

This question is easier to answer.

They defined the parameters of the experiment a bit more clearly. For example:

  • Rather than looking at several regions they just studied bees in one area  – Pennsylvania (the temperate region in the title of the paper).
  • The bees came from four sources; two were from a hot geographic region of the USA and two from a cold region.
  • They scored ‘doing better’ only in terms of overwintering survival.

By simplifying the question they could reduce some of the variables. They could therefore increase the quantification of the parameters (colony weight, strength/size etc.) that might influence the ‘doing better’.

And in doing so, they came up with an answer.

The study

Sixty colonies were established in three apiaries in Pennsylvania. Two of the apiaries (A & B) were within 1 mile of each other, with the third (C) about 15 miles away. Colonies were generally established from packages 5, to which a queen was introduced from one of four different queen breeders.

Two of the queen breeders were from southern USA (Texas or Florida) and two from northern USA (Vermont and West Virginia 6.

The authors used microsatellite analysis to confirm that the queens – after introduction – headed genetically distinct colonies by midsummer 7.

So far, so good …

They then used standard beekeeping methods to manage the colonies – regular inspections, Varroa treatments as appropriate, feeding them up for winter etc.

They scored colonies for a variety of ‘parameters’; net weight, frames of brood, adult bees and stores.

Four queens failed before winter.

And then they overwintered the remaining 56 colonies …

The results

… of which only 39 survived until April 🙁

39/56 sounds a pretty catastrophic loss to me but it’s actually about the same (~30%) as the average winter losses reported each year in the USA.

So, did the ‘cold-adapted’ 8 Vermont queens survive and prosper? Did the ‘Southern Belles’ 9 from Texas all perish in the cold Pennsylvanian winter?

No.

That’s no to both questions.

There was no significant difference in survival of colonies headed by queens from the north or the south.

The geographic ‘origin’ of the bees did not determine colony survival.

They may have been ‘locally adapted’ (to Vermont, or Texas or wherever) and they were certainly genetically distinct, but it made no difference to whether the colony perished or not in Pennsylvania.

So if the source of the queen didn’t influence things, what did?

Weighty matters

This is the key figure from the paper.

Overwintering success is significantly associated with colony weight.

The heavier a colony was in October, the more likely that the colony survived until April.

The left hand panel shows the probability of a colony surviving (vertical axis, solid line) plotted against the net weight of the colony.

Below about 30 kg colony survival dropped significantly.

The right hand panel shows that net weight alone was not the only determinant. This plots colonies ranked by weight (vertical axis) and indicates whether they survived or not. An underweight (i.e. under 30 kg) colony in apiary C was much more likely to survive than a similar weight colony from the other two apiaries.

Allee, Allee 10

The heavier the colony, the greater the chance it survived. Furthermore, it wasn’t simply the amount of stores available.

Heavier colonies were also larger colonies.

This indicates a so-called Allee effect 11 which is a positive correlation between population density and individual fitness.

This has been shown before for honey bees (and other social insects). For bees we know that the larger the winter cluster the better they are able to maintain the correct overwintering temperature. These large clusters show lower per capita honey consumption to maintain the same temperature when compared to small clusters.

However, in addition to not running out of stores (due to more frugal usage) 12, large colonies will also be better able to rear brood in early spring … ‘it takes bees to make bees’.

Taken together these results demonstrate that colony size and weight, rather than geographic adaptation, is probably the most important determinant of overwintering colony survival.

Disease interlude

These studies were conducted in 2013 (and published in 2019 … a feature of some of my science 🙁 ). In the previous year the authors set up a similar study but did not manage Varroa levels.

Under these conditions only 12% of the colonies survived.

There’s a lesson there I think 😉

This disastrous 2012 study used the same queen breeders to source their queens (from Texas, Florida, West Virgina and Vermont). Some of these queens were described and sold as ‘Varroa-resistant’.

There was no difference in survival (or, more accurately, death) rates between colonies headed by queens described as ‘Varroa-resistant’ or not.

Another lesson perhaps?

Is there a geographic component to Varroa-resistance? Are Varroa-resistant Vermont colonies only actually resistant to mites from Vermont?

Or their viruses? 13

OK, we’re getting distracted … let’s return to apiary C.

Forage diversity and abundance is also important

Colonies in apiary C survived better at lower overall net weights than colonies from other apiaries. In addition, average colony weights were higher in apiary C than in the other two apiaries.

Apiary location significantly affected colony weight and survival.

And the abundance and range of nectar sources was significantly different between the three apiaries used in this study, with colonies from apiary C – located in a less forested and more agricultural area – surviving better.

The proportion of land cover/land use types surrounding apiaries.

The authors suggest that the forage diversity and abundance around apiary C increased the size of the colonies (by boosting brood rearing, adult longevity and colony growth) and that it was this larger adult population, rather than colony weight per se, that was important.

Are we getting the message?

This is the second time in a month that I’ve discussed the importance of strong colonies.

A few weeks ago I discussed how strong colonies are more profitable because they generate a surplus of honey or bees, both of which are valuable.

In this post I show that the primary determinant of overwintering success is the strength and weight of the colony. The source of the queen – whether from the balmy south or the frosty north – had no significant influence on colony survival.

This doesn’t mean local bees aren’t better adapted to local conditions. That wasn’t what was being tested.

However, it does suggest that other things that may be as important, or perhaps more important.

The take home message from this study is keep strong colonies in a forage-rich environment.

In a future post I’ll discuss the evidence that local bees are better adapted … and I’ll make the suggestion that some of these adaptations might be explained because the local genotype actually produces stronger colonies 😉


Note

This was originally published with the title Correlates of winter survival on 8/11/2019 but a hamster running amok in the server meant that the email to those registered to receive announcements of new posts was never sent. Rather than let the post disappear into digital oblivion – as the take home message is an important one – I’m re-posting it again.

With apologies to those who read the original …

Matchstick miscellany

White propolis

What is propolis for?

Why, when you go to open a hive that you’ve not visited for some time, is the crownboard invariably stuck down with propolis?

Are the bees trying to stop you looking in? Do they think a thin bead of propolis is defence against a well-aimed hive tool?

Of course not.

What they are doing is sealing up every tiny nook and cranny, every gap and interstice.

You might think the crownboard is a snug fit.

The bees don’t.

Even the brand new, smooth, flat plastic interface between an Abelo crownboard and brood box get glued together within days.

Every fissure through which wasps 1 could gain access or heat could escape or water enter or whatever is gummed shut with a liberal helping of propolis.

Propolis is of course also antibacterial and has a host of other great properties, but for the purpose of this post I’m restricting myself to its use as a sort of “No Nonsense Decorators Caulk” of the bee world 2.

Mind the gap

Additional evidence that bees really do ‘mind the gap’ is easy to find if you use crownboards with holes in them.

Not the great gaping opening(s) designed to accommodate a porter bee escape (I’ll return to these shortly), but instead something like the ventilated disks in the grossly over-engineered Abelo poly crownboards.

Abelo poly National crownboard ...

Abelo poly National crownboard …

Here’s a brand new one, just out of the packing, with all the little fiddly ventilated plastic disks and poly plugs to cover them.

And this is what one of those ventilated holes looks like after a few weeks use …

Exhibit A … ventilated hole in an Abelo crownboard

And the same thing applies to wire mesh screens when I use split boards as crownboards (because I’ve run out … even of the 25p polythene ones).

Split board

Split board …

Which end up looking like this …

Exhibit B … are you getting the message?

Matchsticks … don’t try this at home

I’m an increasingly irregular visitor and even less frequent contributor to the online beekeeping discussion forums. On one 3 there’s a perennial discussion thread around this time of year concerning matchsticks.

Matchless matches

Essentially the discussion starts with a question or comment on the need for matchsticks as spacers to separate the crownboard from the brood box during the winter.

You’ll find this advice in many beekeeping books going back more than half a century and you’ll hear it in many ‘Start beekeeping’ winter courses … often taught by beekeepers who learned their beekeeping half a century ago.

In many cases the online forum discussion is started by a recommendation in the monthly BBKA 4 newsletter, or another online forum or Facebook group (again often BBKA-based).

The subsequent ‘discussion’ is generally nothing of the sort. The advice is (in my view rightly) criticised but as much or more effort goes into bashing the BBKA as evidencing why the advice is wrong.

I’m not here to bash the BBKA and I’ve already provided the unequivocal evidence why it’s wrong.

Much better use …

If you provide a narrow space or gap over the top of the colony they will try and seal the gap closed with propolis.

So don’t.

If you want to use matchsticks in the winter … build a model of Notre Dame instead. The bees will appreciate it more.

What are the bees telling you?

The speed with which bees seal up gaps and crevices tells you that that they ‘prefer’ not to have have these types of spaces overhead.

I’m using the word ‘prefer’ here in place of some convoluted justification around evolutionary selection of traits that benefit the long-term survival of the colony and maintenance/transmission of the genes in the environment.

They seal the gaps because to not do so, over eons, is detrimental to Apis mellifera. Not necessarily to that colony per se, but to the species.

Whether they do it to reduce robbing, to stop draughts or rain entering or to prevent the loss of warm air is, in many ways, irrelevant.

Do beekeepers really know better than millions of years of evolution?

No.

The “I always used matchsticks and my bees do well” justification

Is so deeply flawed it barely deserves contradicting.

But since I’m here, I will.

Bees have a fantastic ability to survive and even flourish despite the most cackhanded fumbling by beekeepers 5.

Just because your bees overwintered successfully with a gaping void in the crownboard does not mean they need that gaping void to survive 6.

Observe what the bees do and apply it to your beekeeping.

But what about crownboards with a big hole in for a porter bee escape? The bees don’t block those with propolis.

No, they don’t. But that’s still not justification to leave a void above the cluster. Bees seal gaps smaller than ‘bee space’ (say 8-9 mm) with propolis.

Perhaps they don’t seal up these large holes in the crownboard because the ‘triggers’ that make them seal smaller gaps aren’t present.

As an aside, I wonder if they deploy guard bees to defend these large holes above the cluster? 7

But back to the matchsticks; these create a gap significantly less than 8mm and the bees clearly demonstrate – each and every time you crack open the crownboard – that this is far from optimal.

I’m not going to get into the chimney effect, lost heat, holes in trees, water ingress, draughts etc.

Whether it’s a good idea to ventilate the winter cluster, to get rid of excess humidity or anything else, the evidence is compelling 8the bees would rather you didn’t.

Winter preparation miscellany

The two propolis-adorned crownboard pictures above were taken during an apiary visit in mid-October. I was opening hives for the final time this year. It was 12-13°C and bees were flying, bringing back pollen I presumed was largely from the ivy flowering nearby.

They fancied that fondant

Most had finished their final half block of fondant. The empty wrapper, eke and QE 9 were removed.

Others still had fondant left. In this case I bodily lifted off the QE, fondant and eke/super to give me access to the brood box.

Unfinished fondant

If you feed fondant above a QE you can balance it on an eke or empty super, so avoiding crushing the hundreds of bees clustered underneath the fondant 10

And the reason I needed access to the brood box was to recover the Apivar strips.

If the strip is fixed near the top of the frame this takes just seconds and a small amount of dexterity with a suitable hive tool.

The strips also have a small hole top and centre allowing them to be hung between frames on a matchstick.

But I don’t have matchsticks in the apiary 😉 so instead use the spike to fix them in the comb.

Apivar strips should not be left in for longer than the approved treatment period (6 – 10 weeks; these went in on the 28th of August, so are being removed after 7 weeks). This is important to avoid the reduced levels of amitraz in the ageing strips selecting for Apivar-resistant mites.

The few colonies I checked more thoroughly had little or no brood. All boxes were reassuringly heavy.

I saw a single drone amongst the dozen or so colonies I opened. Not long for this world I fear.

Since there was still pollen coming in I delayed fitting mouseguards to the colonies that need them.

I’ll deal with that once the frosts start 11.

Not long now 🙁