Category Archives: Seasonal

Winding down

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

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

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

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

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

Talk, talk

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

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

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

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

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

But all that has changed.

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

‘Virtual’ beekeeping talks

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

Long distance talks – imagine the travel expenses being saved

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

It should be interesting.

Zoom and GoToMeeting

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

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

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

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

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

Heather honey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of many few … my first jars of Ardnamurchan honey

But, by golly, it was worthwhile 🙂

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

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

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

At least, usually. 

Feeding and forage

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

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

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

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

All gone

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

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

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

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

Avoiding another sticky mess

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

A small hole

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

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

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

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

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

No top ventilation please

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

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

Scratch and sniff reposition

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

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

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

Apivar strip placement as the brood nest shrinks

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

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

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

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

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

Apivar scratch and sniff repositioning studies

And that can only be a good thing™.

More heavy lifting

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

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

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

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

Either that or he’d got no phone reception.

I was right on both counts.

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

What a star.

With thanks to Palletline

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

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

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

In between all the heavy lifting …

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


 

Beekeeping fantasy vs. reality

There have been a couple of stories in the press recently that have made me think about the idealised version of beekeeping that is often promoted … with the reality of a lot of amateur beekeeping 1.

Most recently was the announcement of the new CBBC show titled Show Me the Honey! which will be available at the end of this month on iPlayer.

Information is a bit limited at the moment. It’s clearly a programme featuring and for children. According the The Guardian it “features five children and their families taking part in a series of weekly challenges to create the best hive and tastiest honey, with the winner taking home the beekeeper of the year trophy”.

Undoubtedly this will increase interest in beekeeping. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, though the timing is a bit off. The seven week series will end with much of the winter left to run.

Not the best time to start beekeeping

Will those watching who are captivated by the thought of keeping bees go for the ‘quick fix’ of an expensive mid-March nuc thinking “What can be so difficult? One of those kids became the ‘Beekeeper of the Year’ in just seven weeks”.

Or, will they do their homework, attend a Start beekeeping course with a local association, go to a couple of ‘bee handling’ sessions in the association apiary, find a mentor … and only then order a locally sourced nuc?

I’m pretty sure I know which route is more likely to produce a future ‘beekeeper of the year’ 😉

Competitive beekeeping

Just like Show Me the Honey!, my beekeeping often involves a set of ‘weekly challenges’.

  • Where is my bloody hive tool?
  • Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is “To find, mark and clip the queen in this double brood monster of a hive, bulging with psychopathic bees … before the rain starts”.
  • Can I lift these three full supers together without causing permanent damage? 

The concept of competitive beekeeping grated a bit when I first read about it, but the reality is that beekeeping can be competitive.

Think about the annual honey shows.

A bit of lighthearted entertainment for the end of the season?

Or a cutthroat affair, with lashings of deviousness and skulduggery to produce the best 1 oz wax blocks?

That sort of competition I can cope with, although I no longer partake as I’m a very bad loser.

And I lost … a lot 🙁

But think about what’s happened to climbing, and the huge success it was at the Olympics. The speed climbing event is probably now the fastest non-gravity-assisted 2 Olympic sport. 

Perhaps the inevitable adult or celebrity spin-offs of Show Me the Honey! will involve speed inspections?

3 … 2 … 1 … GO!

With Martha Kearney doing the commentary … 3

The best hive

So let’s return to that quote from The Guardian … ‘the best hive’.

Are they going to start with a Thorne’s Bees on a Budget flatpack cedar hive, a mismatched pile of nails, a hammer and a set of IKEA-ish hieroglyphic 4 instructions?

Is the winner the one who gets everything square and true? Does beespace matter? What about injuries? 5

Or perhaps it will be to dream up ‘the best’ new hive design … and there’s lots of competition for that.

How about the urban-friendly 6 B-Box the first ever beehive designed for home beekeeping’.

The B-BOX

Hang on a sec … I’m currently at home.

Let me just check what’s in that blue and yellow box by the shed.

Don’t do this at home … this beehive is designed for other locations

Yep … just as I thought. Bees. It’s a beehive. 

Am I doing something wrong? Have I got a hive designed for beekeeping somewhere other than home? 

There are some grand claims made for the B-BOX and the website is awash with buzzwords 7. I’m not sure the 16 small honey ‘supers’ would be sufficient during a strong nectar flow from the lime trees found in many cities.

These hives are about €480 (plus an extra €580 or so if you want a ‘swarm’ of bees with it … and I think they probably do mean swarm from the description. Yikes!).

Or what about this Philips design – another Urban beehive – that “consists of two parts, a tinted glass shell that houses the honeycomb frames and a flower pot with an entry passage to the glass vessel. You can then harvest the honey produced, simply pull on the smoke actuator chain to calm the bees before it is opened”

Philips Urban beehive

Wow. 

I was sure that bees draw comb in a vertical plane? 

This one is a ‘concept’ hive, so is effectively priceless. 

Which would also be my reaction if I had to do a shook swarm on it 😉

Smart hives

I’m not sure that last hive is entirely practical. 

Instead, how about this ‘robotic’ hive – or Beehome as they call it – from Israeli startup Beewise? This is a container 8 housing 24 colonies which are constantly monitored.

The Beewise ‘Beehome’ robotic beehive

The technology is clearly pretty clever as they appear to be able (or claim) to:

  • provide climate and humidity control
  • monitor brood development on every frame of every hive
  • apply pest control (non-chemical, but it’s not clear what) to control Varroa
  • deliver swarm prevention by ‘changing the conditions in the hive’
  • automatically harvest honey … when the 100 gallon tank is full the Beehome calls you to come and collect

When you think of some of the manipulations needed for successful swarm control you wonder – well, I wonder – how on earth a robot could do it by simply ‘changing the conditions in the hive’

Their website shows a screenshot of an app displaying digital images of frames, together with schematics of the distribution of the various types of brood (capped/uncapped) and stores within the hive.

Very clever … though I do wonder whether the robot takes quite as much care as I do returning frames to the hive without crushing or rolling bees in the process.

What?

I thought you’d never ask … $400.

A month.

At least, that’s the price quoted on the website. I’ve no idea if that’s ‘all in’, or if there are hidden costs involved, like custom frames, software licenses. If it is ‘all in’ and every hive generates a good crop of honey each season it seems very reasonable.

But, and this is a biggy as far as I’m concerned, it seems to to rip the soul out of all that is special about keeping bees.

It’s more like factory farming.

Save the bees

But, inevitably, it ‘saves the bees’ … so that’s OK then 🙁  9

Hives in reality

So those are the fantasy hives that the public read about in the newspapers and that adorn press releases.

Super-clean and shiny and described in glowing terms as bee friendly, bee-centric, sustainable, healthier or a nature-based solution.

In many ways these are what shape their expectation and understanding of beekeeping.

The reality is that bees do just fine in almost any relatively secure container.

Like a hollow tree.

Or a dustbin.

Or a variety of beehive types …

Gaffer tape apiary

Gaffer tape apiary …

… including some that appear to consist mainly of gaffer tape.

Aesthetically perhaps less attractive, but perfectly functional.

I’ve discussed the concept of the ‘the best’ hive previously 10.

The 12-13 pages of different hive types in the Thorne’s catalogue describe a plethora of different sizes and designs. As long as they have the correct bee space and the boxes are broadly compatible – which really means flat interfaces – I’d be happy to keep bees in any of them.

Sure, some might suit my beekeeping a little better than others, but I reckon I’d do OK with them all. 

But, of course, I’d want more than one … which is where the compatibility becomes critical. I’d inevitably end up mixing ‘n’ matching different boxes during swarm control, autumn uniting or simply when running out of equipment.

Uniting with newspaper ...

Uniting with newspaper …

And it’s this reality that never appears in that glossy advertising on promotional websites. The ‘cobbling stuff together’ to make something that’ll do. In the picture above I’m uniting a queenless double hive with a queenright poly hive.

The poly hive is actually a bait hive built from two stacked supers. They are the Paradise/ModernBeekeeping design with an overhanging lip on the lower face, hence the thin, wide, wooden shim between the boxes.

And the crownboard is a piece of thick polythene.

All perfectly functional, but not quite as glossy, organised and coordinated as is often displayed in print or online 11.

But this neat, clean and pristine presentation doesn’t stop with the hives … 

Suits you Sir!

What about the protective clothing?

If you look at the photos above you’d think you could harvest honey (from the B-BOX) wearing a T-shirt and jeans, or inspect your Philips urban hive in a slinky Christian Dior LBD.

The reality is a little less flattering. 

Bees can sting, and agitated bees – with dodgy parentage or through sloppy handling 12 – can sting quite a lot. 

As a quick aside, I note that one of the presenters of Show Me the Honey! has apparently been ‘keeping bees for 15 years and has never been stung’.

And now back to reality 😉

Beesuits aren’t particularly flattering.

Does my bum look big in this? … doesn’t even come close. 

Everything … looks big in a beesuit.

And usually the beesuits are completely pristine, not stained with propolis, held together with gaffer tape or with pockets hanging off from hive tool damage 13.

Angelina Jolie and some slightly grubbier beekeepers

The beesuit Angelina Jolie is wearing is what they typically look like in ‘fantasy beekeeping world’. No broken zips, no propolis staining, no pockets bulging with emptied queen cages and old gloves.

Those worn by the beekeepers around her are probably a bit more normal, though I also have a sneaking suspicion they’ve worn their ‘Sunday best’ beesuits for the photo op.

As another aside, Angelia Jolie is promoting the UNESCO programme ‘Women for Bees’. This teaches beekeeping and entrepreneurship to women in UNESCO designated biosphere reserves around the world. Further details also in National Geographic.

And it doesn’t stop there

I’ve had a great beekeeping year.

There have been some notable successes – in queen rearing and mating, in preparing nucs and in a really excellent honey crop.

Show me the Honey!

However, it wasn’t all the clean, neat and tidy affair depicted in the press.

And, to be honest, parts of it could best be described as an omnishambles.

I’m being polite there.

Here are just a few examples where my beekeeping reality didn’t quite match the glossy, propolis-free, beautifully ordered and presented world of beekeeping fantasy.

  • Wrenching my back during the spring honey harvest by trying to carry too many supers. I walked hunched over for a month and spent quite a lot of time lying flat on my back.
  • Glenrothes – my base when beekeeping on the east coast. Underwhelming 14

Good morning Glenrothes

  • Installing a ‘lively’ nuc in a full hive before securing my veil. No stings, but a pretty close call with several bees agitatedly struggling to escape the space they’d seemingly so easily entered.
  • Lifting three supers off a hive in late July and carelessly 15 tripping over a hive roof. I dropped the lot and fell flat on my face. A very sticky mess but the bees were extraordinarily tolerant of my clumsiness.
  • Sweating so much during July inspections that my gloves filled with perspiration and my wrinkly fingers stopped ‘unlocking’ the phone.

Ewwww

  • Consequently dropping more queens in the grass than ever before. I was so cackhanded that it became unusual not to drop them on the ground before getting them into the marking cage.
  • Watching a much-needed virgin queen fly off out of sight while – stupidly – trying to get her into an introduction cage with the shed door open. D’oh!
  • Chasing another virgin queen around the shed – after closing the door 16 – for five minutes before getting her into a cage. 
  • Going half crazy trying to keep wasps out of cleared supers before stacking them in the car.
  • The hole in the hive pocket and no trousers debacle. Enough said 🙁
  • More lifting, more sweating, more wasps …
  • The long evening drive back to the west coast, tired, dehydrated and smelling of smoke and propolis 17.

Go west young man …

That’s the reality of a beekeeping season.

It’s been fantastic.

I wouldn’t have it any other way 🙂


 

Cut more losses

This is a follow-on to the post last week, this time focusing on feeding and a few ‘odds and sods’ that failed to make it into the first 3000 words on reducing overwintering colony losses.

Both posts should be read in conjunction with one (or more 1 ) of my earlier posts on disease management for winter. Primarily this involves hammering down the mite levels before the winter bees are produced, so ensuring their longevity.

But also don’t forget to treat your colonies during a broodless period in midwinter to mop up mites that survived the autumn treatment, or have reproduced since then.

Why feed colonies?

All colonies need sufficient stores to get the colony through the winter until suitable nectar sources and good enough weather make foraging profitable the following spring.

How much the colony needs depends upon the bees themselves – some strains are more frugal than others – and the duration of the winter. If there is no forage available, or the weather is too poor for the bees to fly, then they will be dependent upon stores in the hive.

A reasonable estimate would probably be somewhere around 20 kg of stores, but this isn’t a precise science.

It’s better for the colony to have too much than too little. 

If the colony has stores left over at winter’s end you can always remove them and use them when you make up nucs later in the season. Just pull out the frames and store them safely until needed.

Unused winter stores

In contrast, if the colony starts the winter with too few stores there are only two possible outcomes:

  • the colony will starve to death, usually in late winter/early spring (see below)
  • you will spend your winter having to regularly check the colony weight and opening the hive to add “emergency rations” to get them through the winter

Neither of these is desirable, though you should expect to have to check the colony periodically in winter anyway.

Feeding honey for the winter … and meaningless anecdotes

By the end of the summer the queen has reduced her laying rate and the bees should be backfilling brood comb with honey stores. If you assume there’s about 5 kg of stores 2 in the brood box then they’ll need about another 15 kg. 

15 kg is about the amount of honey you can extract from a well-filled super. 

Convenient 😉

Some beekeepers leave a full super of honey on the hive, claiming the “it’s better for the bees than syrup”

Of course, it’s a free world, but there are two things wrong with doing this:

  • where is the evidence that demonstrates that honey is better than sugar-based stores?
  • it’s an eye-wateringly expensive way to feed your colonies

By evidence, I mean statistically-valid studies that show improved overwintering on honey rather than sugar.

Not ‘my hive with a honey super was strong in spring but I heard that Fred lost his colony that was fed syrup’ 3.

That’s not evidence, that’s anecdote.

If you want to get this sort of evidence you’d need to start with a lot of hives, all headed by queens of a similar age and provenance, all with balanced numbers of brood frames/strength, all with similar mite levels and other pathogens.

For starters I’d suggest 200 hives; feed 50% with honey, 50% with sugar … and then repeat the study for the two following winters.

Then do the stats 4.

The economics of feeding honey

If I were a rich man …

The 300 supers of honey used for that experiment would contain honey valued at about £80,000.

That’s profit, not sale price (though it doesn’t include labour costs as I – and many amateur beekeepers – work for free).

The honey in a single full super has a value of £250-275 … that’s an expensive way to feed your bees 5.

Particularly when it’s not demonstrably better than a tenner or so of granulated sugar 🙁

But there are more costs to consider

The economic arguments made above are simplistic in the extreme. However, there are other costs to consider when feeding colonies.

  • time taken to prepare and store whatever you will be feeding them with 6
  • feeders needed to dispense the food (and storage of these when not in use)
  • energetic costs for the colony in converting the food to stores

Years ago I stopped worrying (or even thinking much) about any of this and settled on feeding colonies fondant in the autumn.

Fondant mountain ...

Fondant mountain …

Fondant is ~78% sugar, so a 12.5 kg block contains about 9.75 kg of sugar.

This year I’m paying £11.75 for fondant which equates to ~£1.20 / kg for the sugar it contains.

In contrast, granulated sugar is currently about £0.63 / kg at Tesco.

The benefits of fondant

Although my sugar costs are about double this is a relatively small price I’m (more than) prepared to accept when you take into account the additional benefits.

  • zero preparation time and no container costs. Fondant comes ready-wrapped and stores for years in the box it is purchased in
  • no need for jerry cans, plastic buckets or anything to prepare or store it in before use
  • no need for expensive Ashforth-type feeders that sit around for 95% of the year unused When I last checked an Ashforth feeder cost £66 😯 
  • it takes less than 2 minutes to add fondant to a colony
  • no risk of spillages – in the kitchen, the car or the apiary 7.
  • fondant is taken down more slowly than syrup, so providing more space for the queen to continue laying. In addition, in the event of an early cold snap, fondant remains accessible whereas bees often stop taking syrup down

Regarding the energetic costs for the colony in storing fondant rather than syrup … I assume this is the case based upon the similarity of the water content of fondant to capped stores (22% vs. 18%), whereas syrup contains much more water and so needs to be ripened before capping to avoid fermentation.

Fondant block under inverted perspex crownboard – insulation to be added on top.

Whether this is correct or not 8, the colony has no problem taking down the fondant over a 2-4 week period and storing it.

What are the disadvantages of using fondant? 

The only one I’m really aware of is that the colony will not draw fresh comb when feeding on fondant (or at least, not enthusiastically). In contrast, bees fed syrup in the autumn and provided with fresh foundation will draw lovely worker brood comb. 

Do not underestimate this benefit.

They fancied that fondant

Brood frames of drawn comb are a very valuable resource. Every time you make up a nuc, or shift a nuc to a full-sized box, providing drawn comb significantly speeds up the expansion of the resulting colony.

Nevertheless, for me, the advantages of fondant far outweigh the disadvantages …

Finally, in closing, I’ve not purchased or used invert syrup for feeding colonies. Other than no prep time this has the same drawbacks as syrup made from granulated sugar. Having learnt to use fondant a decade or so ago from Peter Edwards (Stratford BKA) I’ve never felt the need to look at other options.

Let’s move on …

Ventilation and insulation

Bees can withstand very cold temperatures if healthy and provided with sufficient stores. In northern Canada bees may experience only 120 frost-free days a year, and cope with 3-4 week periods in winter when the temperature is -25°C (and colder if you consider the wind chill).

That makes anywhere in the UK look positively balmy.

Margate vs. the Maldives … a similar temperature difference to Margate vs. Manitoba in the winter

I’ve overwintered colonies in cedar or poly boxes for a decade and not noticed a difference in survival rates. Like the honey vs. sugar argument above, if there is a difference it is probably minor. 

However, colony expansion in poly boxes in the spring is usually better in my experience, and they often fill the outer frames with brood well before cedar boxes in the same apiary get there.

Whether cedar or poly I take care with three aspects of their insulation/ventilation:

  • the colonies have open mesh floors and the Varroa tray is only in place when I’m actively monitoring mite drop
  • all have insulation above the crownboard in the form of a 50 mm thick block of Kingspan (or Recticel, or Celotex), either integrated into the crownboard itself, placed above it or built into the roof
  • I ensure there is no upper ventilation – no matchsticks under the crownboard, no holes etc.
  • excess empty space in the brood box is reduced to minimise the dead air space the bees might lose heat to

In my experience bees actively dislike ventilation in the crownboard. They fill mesh with propolis …

Exhibit A … are you getting the message?

… and block up the holes in those over-engineered Abelo crownboards …

Exhibit B … ventilated hole in an Abelo crownboard

Take notice of what the bees are telling you … 😉

Insulation over the colony

I’ve described my insulated perspex crownboards before. They work well and – when inverted – can just about accomodate a flattened 9, halved block of fondant.

Perspex crownboard with integrated insulation

Finally, if it’s a small colony in a brood box 10 then I reduce the dead space in the brood box using a fat dummy

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy …

I build these filled with polystyrene chips.

You don’t need this sort of high-tech solution … some polystyrene wrapped tightly in a thick plastic bag and sealed up with gaffer tape works just as well.

Insulation ...

Insulation …

I’ve even used bubblewrap or that air-filled plastic packaging to fill the space around a top up block of fondant in a super ‘eke’ before now.

However, remember that a small weak colony in autumn is unlikely to overwinter as well as a strong colony. Why is it weak? Would you be better uniting it before winter starts?

Nucleus colonies

Everything written above applies equally well to nucleus colonies.

A strong, healthy nuc should overwinter well and be ready in the spring for sale or promoting to a full colony.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier … an overcrowded overwintered nuc in April

Although I have overwintered nucs in cedar boxes I now almost exclusively use polystyrene. This is another economic decision … a well made cedar nuc costs about double the price of the best poly nucs

I feed my nucs fondant in preparation for the winter, typically by adding 1-2 kg blocks to the integral feeder.

Everynuc fondant topup

Everynuc fondant topup

Because of the absence of storage space in the nuc brood box it’s not unusual to have to supplement this several times during the autumn and winter.

You can even overwinter queens in mini-mating nucs like Apidea’s and Kieler’s.

Kieler mini-nuc with overwintering queen

This deserves a post of its own. Briefly, the mini-nuc needs to be very strong and usually double- or triple- height. I build fondant frame feeders for Kieler’s that can be quickly swapped in/out to compensate for the limited amounts of stores present in the brood box.

Kieler mini-nuc frame feeders

My greatest success in overwintering these was in winters when I provided additional shelter by placing the nucs in an unheated greenhouse. A tunnel provided access to the outside. However, I know several beekeepers who overwinter them without this sort of additional protection (and have done so myself).

Just because this can be done doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do.

I’d always prefer to overwinter a colony as a 5 frame nuc. The survival rates are much better, their resilience to long periods of adverse weather is significantly greater, and they are generally much more useful in the spring.

Miscellaneous musings

Hive weight

A colony starting the winter with ample stores can still starve if the bees are particularly extravagant, or if they rear lots of brood but cannot forage.

The rate at which stores are used is slow late in the year and speeds up once brood rearing starts again in earnest early the following spring (though actually in late winter).

Colony weight in early spring

As should be obvious, this is a Craptastic™ sketch simply to illustrate a point 😉

The inflection point might be mid-December or even early February.

The important message is that, once brood rearing starts, consumption of stores increases. Keep checking the colony weight overwinter and supplement with fondant as needed.

I’m going to return to overwinter colony weights sometime this winter as I’m dabbling with a weather station and set of hive scales … watch this space.

An empty super cuts down draughts

Periodically it’s suggested that an empty super under the (open mesh) floor of the hive ‘cuts down draughts’, and is therefore beneficial for the colony.

It might be.

But like the ‘overwintering on honey’ (and being a pedant scientist) I’d always want to see the evidence.

There are two claims being made here:

  • a super under the floor cuts down draughts
  • fewer draughts benefits the colony which consequently overwinters better

Really?

There are ways to measure draughts but has anyone ever done so? Remember, the key point is that the airflow around the winter cluster would be reduced if there are fewer draughts. 

Does a super reduce this airflow significantly over and above that already caused by the sidewalls of the floor?

And, even if it does, perhaps the colony ‘reshapes’ itself to accommodate the draught from an open mesh floor.

What shape is the winter cluster?

For example, in an uninsulated hive (including no insulation over the cluster) with a solid floor the cluster is likely to be roughly spherical. They minimise the surface area.

With an open mesh floor are they more ellipsoid, so avoiding draughts from below? If so, is this improved much by an empty super below the open mesh floor? Does the cluster change shape or position? I don’t know as I’ve not compared cluster shapes in solid vs. open mesh floors plus/minus a super underneath.

And anyway, an open mesh floor looks very like a baffle to me … how much better can it get? How draughty is it in the first place?

Is this example 8,639 for my ‘Beekeeping Myths’ book?

I do know that top insulation tends to flatten the cluster against the warm underside of the crownboard.

Midwinter cluster

A strong colony in midwinter

Having worked out that draughts are (or are not) reduced … you still need another couple of hundred hives to test whether overwintering success rates are improved!

More winter bees

Finally, always remember that the survival of the colony is dependent upon the winter bees. All other things being equal (stores, disease etc.), a colony with lots of winter bees will overwinter better than one with fewer.

This is one of the reasons I stopped using Apiguard for mite control in autumn. Apiguard contains thymol and quite regularly (30-50% of the time in my experience) stopped the queen from laying, particularly in warmer weather. 

Apiguard works well for mite control, but I became wary that I was potentially stopping the queen at a time critical for late-season colony development. I worried that, once treatment was finished, a cold snap would shut down brood rearing leaving it with suboptimal numbers of winter bees.

I never checked to see whether the queen ‘made good’ any shortfall after removal of the treatment … instead I moved to Scotland where it’s too cold to use Apiguard effectively 🙁


 

Cut your losses

The stats for winter losses in the UK, Europe and USA can make for rather sobering reading.

In the UK, losses over the last 12 years have fluctuated between 9% and 34%. This self-selecting survey includes responses from about 10% of the British Beekeepers Association membership (primarily England and Wales, despite the name). The average number of hives maintained by a BBKA member is about 5, meaning – all other things being equal 1 – that most beekeepers should expect to lose about 1 hive every winter.

BBKA winter losses survey

About 30 countries, mainly Northern hemisphere, contribute to the COLOSS survey which is significantly larger scale. The most recent 2 data published (for the ’16/’17 winter) had data from ~15,000 respondents 3 managing over 400,000 hives. Of these, ~21% were lost for a variety of reasons. COLOSS data is presented as an unwieldy table, rather than graphically. Further details, including recently published results, are linked from their website.

In the USA the Bee Informed Partnership surveys losses – both winter and summer – and claims to have results that cover ~10% of all the colonies in the country (so probably between 250,000 and 275,000 hives). Winter losses in the USA are rarely reported at less than 20% and were as high as 35% in the ’18/’19 winter 4.

Bee Informed Partnership annual colony losses

Are these figures to be trusted?

Who knows?

Each survey is accompanied by a variety of statistics. However, since they all appear to be based upon voluntary reporting by a subset of beekeepers, there are opportunities for all sorts of data to be included (and even more to be missed entirely). 

The problem with surveys

Is the successful beekeeper who managed to get all her colonies through the winter more likely to respond?

A form of ‘bragging rights’.

What about the beekeeper that lost all his colonies?

Does he respond out of a sense of responsibility?

Or does he keep quiet because he doesn’t want to be reminded of those cold, quiet, mouldy boxes opened on the first warm day of spring?

One and two year beekeepers

What about the high level of annual ‘churn’ amongst beekeepers? They buy a nuc in May, filled with enthusiasm about the jars of golden honey they’ll have for family and friends in late summer.

To say nothing of all the “saving the bees” they’ll be doing.

But by late summer the colony is queenless and has an unpleasant temperament

Beekeeping should be enjoyable ...

Beekeeping should be enjoyable …

Psychopathic you might say … if you were feeling uncharitable.

Consequently the Varroa treatment goes on far too late,. Or is quietly forgotten. The winter bees have high viral loads and ‘die like flies’ 5, resulting in the colony succumbing by the year end.

But this colony loss is never recorded on any surveys.

The once enthusiastic beekeeper has moved on and is now passionate about growing prize-winning vegetables or cheesemaking or keeping chickens. 

Beekeeping associations train lots of new beekeepers and – although membership numbers are increasing – it’s well below the rate they’re trained at.

Some may not be ‘joiners’ and go their own way.

Many just quietly stop after a year or two.

How many people have you met that say “Oh yes, I used to keep bees”

Did you ask them whether they ever completed a winter losses survey?

I’m not sure any of the surveys listed above do much ‘groundtruthing’ to establish whether the data they collect is truly representative of the population actually surveyed. With large numbers of respondents spread across a wide geographic and climatic range it’s not an easy thing to do.

So, treat these surveys with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Undoubtedly there are high levels of winter losses – at least sometimes – and the overall level of losses varies from year to year.

Losses and costs

The direct financial cost of these colony losses to beekeepers is very high.

Ignoring time invested and ‘consumables’ like food, miticides and foundation these costs in ’16/’17 for just Austria, the Czech Republic and Macedonia were estimated at €56 million 😯  

These figures simply reflect lost honey production and the value of the lost colonies. They do not include the indirect costs resulting from lost pollination.

But, for the small scale beekeeper, these economic losses are irrelevant.

Most of these beekeepers do not rely on bees for their income.

The real cost is emotional 🙁

It still saddens me when I lose a colony, particularly when I think that the loss was avoidable or due to my incompetence, carelessness or stupidity 6.

Little snow, big snow. Big snow, little snow.

Your hives should be quiet in winter, but it hurts when they are silent in spring.

Anatomy of a death

The COLOSS surveys give a breakdown of winter losses in three categories:

  • natural disasters
  • queen problems
  • dead colonies

Natural disasters are things like bears, honey badgers, flooding or falling trees.

We can probably safely ignore honey badgers in the UK, but climate change is increasing the weather extremes that causes flooding and falling trees.

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

Don’t assume that poly hives are the answer to potential flooding.

They do float, though not necessarily the right way up 🙁

Queen problems cover a variety of issues ranging from reduced fecundity to poor mating (and consequent drone laying) to very early or late – and failed – supersedure 7.

Beekeepers with a lot more experience than me report that queen problems are increasing.

Drone laying queen ...

Drone laying queen …

Perhaps the issues with fecundity and drone laying are related to toxic levels of miticides in commercial foundation? It’s certainly known that these residues reduce drone sperm fertility significantly. I intend to return to this topic sometime during the approaching winter … perhaps in time to encourage the use of some foundationless frames for (fertile) drone production 😉

In the ’16/’17 COLOSS data, natural disasters accounted for 1.6% of all overwintered colonies (so ~7.5% of losses), queen problems resulted in the loss of 5.1% of colonies (i.e. ~24% of losses) and the remainder (14.1% of colonies, ~68% of losses) just died.

Just died?

We’ll return to natural disasters (but not bears or honey badgers) and queen problems shortly. What about the majority of losses in which the colony ‘just died’?

If you discuss colony post-mortems with beekeepers they sometimes divide the ‘just died’ category (i.e. those not readily attributable to failed queens, marauding grizzlies or tsunamis) into four groups:

  • disease
  • isolation starvation
  • starvation
  • don’t know 

The most important disease associated with overwintering colony losses is high levels of Deformed wing virus (DWV). This results from uncontrolled or inadequately controlled Varroa infestation. For any new readers of this site, please refer back to many of the articles I’ve already written on Varroa management 8.

I strongly suspect that a significant proportion of the reported isolation starvation is actually also due to disease, rather than isolation per se.

A consequence of high levels of DWV is that winter bees die prematurely. Consequently, the colony shrinks faster than it would otherwise do. It starts the size of a basketball but (too) rapidly ends up the size of a grapefruit … or an orange.

Isolation starvation and disease

The small cluster is then unable to remain in contact with stores, and so starves. 

Yes, the colony died from ‘isolation starvation’, but the cause was the high levels of Varroa and the viruses it transmits.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

What about regular starvation?

Not because the cluster became isolated from the stores, but simply because they had insufficient stores to get through the winter.

Whose fault was that?

And the last category, the “don’t knows”?

I bet most of these are due to high levels of Varroa and DWV as well 🙁

Yes, there will be other reasons … but probably not a huge number. 

What’s more … if you don’t know the reason for the colony loss there’s very little you can do to mitigate against it in future seasons.

And, other than wild and increasingly vague speculation, there’s little I can write about if the reason for the loss remains unknown 9.

Avoiding winter losses

So, let’s rationalise those earlier lists into the probable (known) major causes of overwintering colony losses:

  • natural disasters
  • queen problems
  • starvation
  • disease (but probably mainly DWV and Varroa

As the long, hot days of summer gradually shorten and cool as early autumn approaches, you should be thinking about each of these potential causes of overwintering colony loss … and doing what you can to ensure it doesn’t happen to you (or, more correctly, your bees).

Ardnamurchan autumn

Ardnamurchan autumn

Some are easier to deal with than others.

Here’s a whistle-stop tour of some more specific problems and some practical solutions 10. Some, all or none may apply to your bees – it depends upon your location, your climate, your experience and future plans as a beekeeper. 

Natural disasters

These fall into two broad groups:

  • things you can do almost nothing about (but might be able to avoid)
  • things you can relatively easily solve

Flooding, falling trees, lightning, landslides, earthquakes, volcanoes, meteor strikes etc. all fall into the first group.

If you can avoid them, do. 

Your local council will have information on areas at risk from flooding. There are also searchable maps available from SEPA. Do not underestimate the severity of some of the recent flooding. Some parts of Scotland and Northern England had 600 mm of rain in two days in 2015.

You might be surprised (and from an insurance aspect, devastated) at the classification of some areas now ‘at risk’. 

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Consider moving hives to higher ground before the winter rains start. One consequence of climate change is that heavy rainfall is now ~20% heavier than it was a few decades ago. This means that floods occur more frequently, are more extensive and the water levels rise faster. You might not have a chance to move the hives if flooding does occur,

More rain and stronger winds (particularly before leaf fall) mean more trees will come down. You might be able to identify trees potentially at risk from falling. It makes sense to remove them (or site your hives elsewhere). 

No risk of this larch tree falling on my hives

Lightning, earthquakes, volcanoes, meteor strikes … all a possibility though I would 11 probably worry about Varroa and woodpeckers first 😉

Solvable natural disasters

The ‘solvable’ natural disasters include preventing your colonies being robbed by other bees or wasps. Or ransacked by mice or woodpeckers after the first hard frosts start. A solution to many of these are ‘reduced size entrances’ which either enable the colony to better defend itself, or physically restricts access to critters.

The L-shaped ‘kewl floors‘ I use prevent mice from accessing the brood box. They are also easier for the colony to defend from bees/wasps, but can also easily be reduced in size with a narrow piece of hardwood. If you don’t use these types of floor you should probably use a mouseguard.

Polyhives and polythene

Polyhives and polythene …

Woodpeckers 12 need to cling onto the outside of the hive to hammer their way through the side. You can either place a wire mesh cage around the hive, or wrap the box in something like damp proof membrane (or polythene) to prevent them gaining purchase on the side walls.

Keep off Woody

Keep off Woody

Doing both is probably overkill though 😉

Strong colonies

Before we move onto queen problems – though it is related – it’s worth emphasising that an even better solution to prevent robbing by bees or wasps is to maintain really strong colonies.

Strong colonies with a well balanced population of bees can almost always defend themselves successfully against wasps and robbing bees.

Nucs, that are both weaker and – at least shortly after being made up – unbalanced, are far less able to defend themselves and need some sort of access restriction.

By ‘balanced’ I mean that the numbers and proportions of bees fulfilling the various roles in the nucleus colony are reflective of a full hive e.g. nurse bees, foragers, guard bees. 

Reduced entrance ...

Reduced entrance …

But the benefits of strong colonies are far greater than just being able to prevent wasps or robbing bees. There is compelling scientific evidence that strong colonies overwinter better

I don’t mean strong summer colonies, I mean colonies that are strong in the late autumn when they are fully populated with the winter bees.

Almost the entire complement of bees in the hive are replaced between late summer and late autumn. Remember that a really strong summer colony may not be strong in the winter if Varroa and virus levels have not been controlled.

How do you ensure your colonies are strong?

  1. Minimise disease by controlling Varroa levels in early autumn to guarantee the all-important winter bees are reared without being exposed to high levels of DWV.
  2. Try and use a miticide treatment that does not reduce the laying rate of the queen.
  3. Avoid blocking the brood nest with stores where the queen should be laying eggs.
  4. Requeen your colonies regularly. Young queens lay more eggs later into the autumn. As a consequence the colonies have increased populations of winter bees.
  5. Unite weak colonies (assuming they are disease-free) with stronger colonies. The former may well not survive anyway, and the latter will have a better chance of surviving if it is even stronger – see below. 
  6. Use local bees. There’s good evidence that local bees (i.e. reared locally, not imported from elsewhere) overwinter better, not least because they produce stronger colonies.

Uniting – take your losses in the autumn

My regular colony inspections every 7-10 days during May and June are pretty much abandoned by July. The risk of swarming is very much reduced after the ‘June gap’ in my experience. 

I still check the colonies periodically and I’m usually still rearing queens. However, the rigour with which I check for queen cells is much reduced. By July my colonies are usually committed to single-mindedly filling the supers with summer nectar.

They are already making their own preparations for the long winter ahead.

Although the inspections are less rigorous, I do keep a careful watch on the strength of each colony. Often this is directly related to the number of supers I’ve had to pile on top.

Colonies that are underperforming, and – more specifically – understrength are almost always united with a stronger colony.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive …

Experience has taught me that an understrength colony is usually more trouble than it’s worth. If it’s disease-free it may well overwinter reasonably well. However, it’s likely to start brood rearing more slowly and build up less well. It may also need more mollycoddling 13 in the autumn e.g. protection from wasps or robbing bees.

However, a colony that is not flourishing in the summer is much more likely to struggle and fail during the winter. Perhaps the queen is not quite ‘firing on all cylinders’ and laying at a really good rate, or she might be poorly mated.

Far better that the workforce contributes to strengthening another hive, rather than collect an underwhelming amount of honey before entering the winter and eventually becoming a statistic.

My winter losses are low and, over the last decade, reducing.

That’s partly because my Varroa management is reasonably thorough.

However, it’s probably mainly due to ensuring only strong colonies go into the winter in the first place.

Newspaper

I’ve dealt with uniting in several previous posts.

It’s a two minute job. 

You remove the queen from the weak colony, stack one brood box over the other separated by a sheet or two of newspaper with a very small (~3mm) hole in the middle. Add the roof and leave them to get on with things.

I don’t think it makes any difference whether the strong colony goes on the top or the bottom.

I place the colony I’m moving above the box I’m uniting it with. My – wildly unscientific – rationale being that the bees in the top box will have to negotiate the route to the hive entrance and, in doing so, will help them orientate to the new location faster 14.

If you unite colonies early or late in the day most foragers will be ‘at home’ so not too many bees will return to find their hive missing.

If there are supers on one or both hives you can separate them with newspaper as well. Alternatively, use a clearer the day before to empty the supers prior to uniting the colonies. You can then add back the supers you want and redistribute the remainder to other hives in the apiary.

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to check for successful uniting.

Leave them a week. The last thing you want is for the queen to get killed in an unseemly melee caused by you disturbing them before they have properly settled.

Done properly, uniting is almost foolproof. I reckon over 95% of colonies I unite are successful.

That’s all folks … more on ‘Cutting your losses’ next week 🙂


Notes

At just over 3000 words this post got a bit out of control … I’ll deal with more significant queen problems, feeding colonies, the weather and some miscellaneous ‘odds and sods’ next week.

It’s a drone’s life

What has a mother but no father, but has both a grandmother and grandfather?

If you’ve not seen this question before you’ve not attended a ‘mead and mince pies’ Christmas quiz at a beekeeping association. 

Drone

Drone … what big eyes you have …

The answer of course is a drone. The male honey bee. Drones are produced from unfertilised eggs laid by the queen, so formally they have no father. Drones are usually haploid (one set of chromosomes), whereas queens and workers are diploid 1

Anyway, enough quiz questions. With the relaxation in Covid restrictions we may all be able to attend in person this Christmas 2, so I don’t want to spoil it by giving all the answers away in advance.

The long cold spring has been pretty tough for new beekeepers, it’s been a struggle for smaller colonies and it’s been really hard for drones.

Spring struggles

New beekeepers have had to develop the patience of Job to either acquire bees in the first place or start their inspections. Inevitably new beekeepers are bursting with enthusiasm 3 and the cold northerlies, unseasonal snow (!) and low temperatures have prevented inspections and delayed colony development (and hence the availability and sale of nucs).

Small colonies 4 are struggling to rear brood and to collect sufficient nectar and pollen.

This is an interesting topic in its own right and deserves a post of its own 5. In a nutshell, below a certain threshold of bees, colonies are unable to keep the brood warm enough and have sufficient foragers to collect nectar and pollen.

As a consequence, smaller colonies are low on stores and at risk of starvation. 

It’s a Catch-22 situation … to rear sufficient brood to collect an excess of nectar (or pollen) the colony needs more adult workers. 

I don’t know what the cutoff is in terms of adult bees, but most of my colonies with <7 frames of brood have needed feeding this spring.

One feature of these smaller colonies is that, unless they have entire frames of drone comb 6, there is little if any drone brood in the hive.

There might be drones present in the colony, but I don’t know whether they were reared there or drifted there from another hive.

And, for those of us attempting to rear queens, drones are an essential indicator that queen mating will be timely and successful.

On a brighter note …

But it’s not all gloom and doom.

Strong colonies are doing very well.

Several of mine have a box packed full of brood and I’m relying on a combination of …

  • lots of space by giving them more supers than they need
  • low ambient temperatures
  • crossed fingers

… as my swarm prevention strategy 😉

Beginners take note … one of these is likely to help (space), one is frankly pretty risky (chilly) and the last is not a proven method despite being widely used by many beekeepers 😉

I’m pretty confident that colonies will not swarm at 13-14°C.

I am inspecting colonies every 7 days and have only seen two with charged queen cells. One was making early swarm preparations; I used the nucleus method of swarm control and then split the colony into nucs a fortnight ago 7.

The other colony contained my first attempt at grafting this year, which seems to have gone reasonably well 8.

Lots of brood, nectar and drones

A typical brood frame from one of these strong colonies contains a good slab of sealed or open brood, some pollen around the sides and an interrupted arc of fresh nectar above the brood. 

In the photo above you can see pollen on the right hand side of the frame and glistening fresh nectar in the top left and right hand corners.

Typically these strong colonies also have partially filled supers, though it’s pretty clear that the oil seed rape is likely to go over before the weather warms enough (or the colonies get strong enough) to fully exploit it.

Spring honey is going to be in short supply and my fantastic new honey creamer is going to sit idle 🙁

Drones

What you probably can’t really see in the picture above is that these strong colonies also contain good numbers of drones.

Strong colonies … ample drones

I can count about a dozen in the closeup above. 

I like seeing drones in a strong, healthy colony early(ish) in the season 9.

Firstly, the presence of drones indicates that the colony (and presumably others in the neighbourhood which are experiencing a similar environment and climate) will soon be making swarm preparations. This means I need to redouble my efforts to check for queen cells to avoid losing swarms 🙁  … think of it as a long-range early warning system.

But it also means I can start thinking about queen rearing 🙂

Secondly, although these drones are unlikely to mate with my queens, you can be sure they’re going to have a damned good go at mating with queens from other local apiaries.

In addition to being strong and healthy, this colony is well-tempered, steady on the comb and pleasant to work with. The production of a few hundred thousand frisky drones prepared to lay down their lives 10 to improve the local gene pool is my small act of generosity to local beekeepers 11.

How many drones?

Honey bee colonies that nest in trees or other natural cavities produce lots of drone comb. Studies of feral colonies on natural comb show that about 17% of the comb is dedicated to rearing drones (but also used for storing nectar at other times of the season).

Foundationless triptych ...

Foundationless triptych …

Similarly, beekeepers who predominantly use foundationless frames regularly see significantly greater amounts of drone comb (and drone brood and drones) in their colonies. With the three-panel bamboo-supported frames I use it’s not unusual for one third of some frames to be entirely drone comb.

In contrast, beekeepers who only use standard worker foundation will be used to seeing drone comb occupying much less of the brood nest. Under these circumstances it’s usually restricted to the edges or corners of frames.

However, given the opportunity e.g. a damaged patch of worker comb or if you add a super frame into the brood box, the workers will often rework the comb (or build new brace comb) containing just drone cells.

The bees only build drone comb when they need it.

A newly hived swarm will build sheet after sheet of new comb, but it will all be for rearing worker brood. If you give them foundationless frames they only build worker comb and if you provide worker foundation they don’t rework it to squeeze in a few drone cells.

The colony will also not build new drone comb late in the season. Drone comb is drawn early in the season because the drones are needed before queens are produced.

The timing of drone production

Studies in the late 1970’s 12 demonstrated that drone brood production peaks about one month before the the main period of swarming. Similar studies in other areas have produced similar results.

Why produce all those drones when there are no queens about?

The timing is due to the differences in the development time (from egg to eclosion) of drones and queens, together with the differences in the time it takes before they are sexually mature.

Drones take 50% longer to develop than queens – 24 days vs. 16 days. After emergence the queen take a few days (usually quoted as 5-6) to reach sexual maturity before she embarks on her mating flight(s).

In contrast, drones take from 6-16 days to reach sexual maturity.

Swarming tends to occur when charged queen cells in the hive are capped. These cells will produce new virgin queens about a week later and – weather permitting – these should go on mating flights after a further six days. 

Therefore a colony that swarms in very early June will need sexually mature drones available 12-14 days later (say, mid-June) to mate with the newly emerged queen that will subsequently return to head the swarmed colony. These drones will have to have hatched from eggs laid in the first fortnight of May to ensure that they are sexually mature at the right time.

Decisions, decisions

How does the colony know to produce drones at the right time? Is it the workers or the queen who makes this decision?

I’ve recently answered a question on this topic for the Q&A pages in the BBKA Newsletter. In doing some follow-up reading I’ve discovered that (inevitably) it’s slightly more complicated than I thought … which was already pretty complicated 🙁

The workers build the comb and therefore determine the amount of drone vs. worker comb the brood nest contains.

I don’t think it’s known how the workers measure the amount of brood comb in the nest, but they clearly can. We do know that bees can count 13 and that they have some basic mathematical skills like addition and subtraction.

Perhaps these maths skills 14 include some sort of averaging, allowing them to sample empty cells, measure them and so work out the proportion that are drone or worker.

Whatever form this ‘counting’ takes, it requires direct contact of the bees with the comb. You cannot put a few frames of drone comb in the hive behind a mesh screen and stop the bees from building more drone comb. It’s not a volatile signal that permeates the hive.

However they achieve this, they are also influenced by the amount of capped drone brood already present in the colony. If there’s lots already then the building of additional drone comb is inhibited 15.

Colonies therefore regulate drone production through a negative feedback process.

So … does the queen simply lay every cell she comes across, trusting the worker population has provided the correct proportions of drone and worker comb?

Not quite

Studies by Katie Wharton and colleagues 16 showed that the queen could also regulate drone production.

Wharton confined queens on 100% drone or worker comb in a frame-sized queen ‘cage’ for a few days.

Frame sized queen ‘cage’ …

She then replaced the comb in the cage with 50:50 mix of drone and worker comb and recorded the number of eggs laid in drone or worker cells over a 24 hour period (and then allowed the eggs to develop).

Queens that had only been able to lay worker brood for the first four days of confinement laid significantly more drone brood when given the opportunity.

The scientists showed reasonably convincingly that this was a ‘decision’ made by the queen, rather than influenced by the workers e.g. by preparing biased number of drone or worker cells for eggs to be laid in, by preferentially ‘blocking’ certain cell types with honey or by selectively cannibalising drone or worker eggs.

Interestingly, queens initially confined on worker comb laid significantly (~25%) more eggs on the 50:50 comb than those confined on drone comb. I’m not sure why this is 17.

Wharton and colleagues conclude “these results suggest that the regulation of drone brood production at the colony level may emerge at least in part by a negative feedback process of drone egg production by the queen”.  

So it seems likely that drone production in a colony reflects active decisions made by both workers and the queen.

Why has this spring been really hard for drones?

To be ready for swarming, colonies therefore need to start drone production quite early in the season – at least 4-5 weeks before any swarms are likely.

Late May ’21 forecast. Swarmy weather? I don’t think so …

But with consistently poor weather, these drones are unlikely to be needed. Colonies will not have built up enough to be strong enough to swarm.

Producing drones is a high energy process – they are big bees and require a lot of carbohydrate and protein during development.

Under natural conditions 18 a colony puts as many resources into drone production over the season as it does into swarms.

Thomas Seeley has a nice explanation of this in The Lives of Bees – if you take the dry weight of primary swarms and casts produced by a colony it’s about the same as the dry weight of drones produced throughout the season. 

Rather than waste energy in drone production the workers remove unwanted drone eggs and larvae. The queen lays them, but the workers prevent them being reared.

How do the workers decide the drones aren’t going to be needed?

Do workers have excellent long-range weather forecasting abilities?

Probably not 19

If the weather is poor the colony will be unable to build up properly because forage will be limited. As a consequence, the colony (and others in the area) would be unlikely to swarm and so drones would not be needed for queen mating.

Free and Williams (1975) demonstrated that forage availability was the factor that determined whether drones were reared and maintained in the colony. 

Under conditions where forage was limited, drone eggs and larvae were rejected (cannibalised) and adult drones were ejected from the hive.

Unwanted drone ejected from a colony in early May

Beekeepers are familiar with drones being ejected from colonies in the autumn (again, a time when forage becomes limiting), but it also happens in Spring.

And at other times when nectar is in short supply …

Those of you currently enjoying a good nectar flow from the OSR should also look at colonies during the ‘June gap’. With a precipitous drop in nectar available in the environment once the OSR stops yielding, colonies can be forced to eject drones.

It’s tough being a drone … which may explain why one of my PhD students has the name @doomeddrone on Twitter 😉


 

First impressions

There’s always a slight feeling of trepidation when I lift a roof for the first hive inspection of the season.

What’s in the box?

Is the colony going to be thriving or just hanging on?

I know they’ve got sufficient stores and that the bees have been flying on good days, but that’s not the same as the reassurance that comes from finding 3-4 frames of brood in all stages, well-tempered bees, and a marked queen with a good laying pattern.

Iffy weather

It takes bees to make bees, the saying goes. The colony cannot rear large slabs of brood without large numbers of nurse bees to feed them and clean them and cap the cells.

After a midwinter brood break (which we get, but you may not if you live further south than my 56°N) the queen lays a small patch of eggs which eventually develop and emerge. Over the next few weeks the amount of brood slowly but inexorably increases. The numbers of new bees in the hive increases.

But remember that the total number of bees in the hive is actually still decreasing as the winter bees continue to die off.

And, although brood rearing can (and does) continue like this for weeks – through January and February at least – it needs the better weather, warmer temperatures and early forage to really start ramping up.

So the further north your bees are, the later in the season that things get going.

Unlike last year, the weather this spring has been decidedly ‘mixed’. I barely saw a bee until the penultimate day of February and, with average temperatures of ~6.5°C March wasn’t a whole lot better.

And since then it’s got colder …

I’m writing this after four days of ‘sunny periods’. These sunny periods were interspersed with snow, hail and bitingly cold northerly winds.

Sunny periods … but 4°C with squally snow showers being driven down the Sound of Mull

Although the average temperature is under 5°C the bees are busy foraging when the sun is out. I spent some time yesterday trying to (unsuccessfully) photograph pollen-laden foragers returning to the hive in a snow shower.

Shirtsleeve weather

The usual advice is to not rush the first hive inspection. Wait until it’s a warm spring day. Often it’s recommended to choose a day with ‘shirtsleeve weather’.

Which here might mean July … 🙁

Actually, that’s a bit harsh. We often have excellent weather in late April through until early June.

However, this is my first season with bees on the west coast and I was very keen to see how they were progressing. I also wanted to remove the nadired super and check the levels of pollen.

It certainly wasn’t shirtsleeve weather, but I needed no more than one fleece under my beesuit and I haven’t had to wear long johns since mid-March 😉

Ribes ...

Ribes …

The other advice you’ll often hear is that a good time to conduct the first inspection is when the ornamental currant (Ribes sanguineum) is flowering.

Treat this advice 1 with some caution. In St Andrews there’s a large amount of these flowering currants near the bus station that would always be in full bloom by mid/late March, whatever the weather.

We have no Ribes on the west coast. If we had, the deer would eat them all.

But we did have an unseasonably warm day on the first of the month.

So I had a quick look.

Very disturbing

A hive inspection inevitably disturbs the colony.

However gentle you are the activities of the bees are interrupted, the humidity of the hive changes and the temperature decreases.

The odours and pheromones, so critical for the organised functioning of the colony are also affected.

For these reasons alone there must be a good reason to inspect a colony.

And that’s before you consider the increased opportunities for robbing 2, potential damage to the queen, or a myriad of other reasons.

But none of this means that hive inspections should not be conducted if and when they are needed.

What it does mean is that you need to have a plan in mind when conducting a hive inspection. In addition, you need to have all the things you might need close to hand, and have a mental checklist (your hands will be full) of the order you’re going to execute the plan.

All of which sounds very contrived.

It doesn’t need to be.

What you don’t want to be doing is realising half way through the inspection that you need a clearer board … and it’s at home in the shed 3. Or that your queen has been superseded and the new queen needs to be marked … with the non-existent Posca pen which you lost at the end of last season 🙁

Be prepared

So, although I was only having a ‘quick look’ I did make sure I had everything I needed before I removed the hive roof. This included a:

  • smoker with sufficient fuel to last the duration
  • clearer board to allow the simple removal of the nadired super
  • queen marking kit and snips
  • hive tool with a wide blade to clear the floor
  • spare frame or two
  • pollen pattie 4
  • wrapped fondant block ‘just in case’ 5

All this needs to be close to hand but not so close you trip over it. The roof of an adjacent hive is as good a place as any for the small stuff.

Since I was going to rearrange the boxes I kept space immediately adjacent to the hive free to give me room to work.

Ready, steady … Go!

The hives I inspected were single brood Nationals with a nadired 6 super containing (or not containing?) honey from last season.

Nadired super and single National poly hive

Immediately over the top bars of the frames was the remnants of a block of fondant in a ‘carry out’ food container, with the headspace over the hive provided by one of my inverted deep-rimmed perspex crownboards. This was topped by a block of insulation and the roof 7.

The colonies were installed in these hives from 5 frame nucs in July last year. They had built up reasonably well and collected a half super of heather honey.

However, most of the old, dark frames from the nuc were still in the box as I’d not managed to finish rotating them out of the hive before the season ended.

Corpses and accumulated debris

I removed the roof and the insulation. I then lifted both the nadired super and the brood box together and carefully moved them aside.

This gave me access to the floor.

Sometimes the floor is clear at this time in the spring. At other times you can find a thick accumulation of corpses, or a scattering of mummified larvae with chalkbrood.

Rarely you’ll find a dead mouse … or a live one 8. It’s not at all unusual to find slugs in the hive. These appear to particularly like the damp environment underneath the frame lugs in Abelo poly hives.

Old floors …

Old floors …

Usually I’d choose to replace the floor with a recently cleaned one.

One spare is all you need. You place the new floor down, complete the inspection, close the hive and then scrape clean and blowtorch the old floor before using it as a replacement for the next hive in the apiary.

However, despite my careful planning (!) I had no spares as they were all back in the bee shed, 150 miles away. D’oh! At least I was aware of this before I started which is why I’d made sure I had a wide-bladed hive tool with me.

I scraped the floor clean of a few bee corpses and checked that the entrance channel was clear before putting the floor back in its original location.

I gently separated the brood box from the nadired super. During this process I checked the amount of bees in the super, making an immediate judgement whether the brood nest extended that far down in the hive.

Had the super contained a lot of bees (and therefore potentially brood) there would be a risk that the queen was also ‘down below’. This would have necessitated a quick rethink.

As it was, the super had just a couple of hundred bees in it and it was clear – just by looking down the seams between the frames – that there was no brood present.

It was safe to proceed.

Elbow room and the queen

Only now did I remove the crownboard, lifting one edge first and giving the bees a gentle puff from the smoker to encourage them to stay put.

I removed the fondant block and left it nearby. The bees would return to the hive unaided, or I’d shake the last few in before closing the hive.

The colony inspection was brief and focused. The first few frames contained no bees and so were ignored. Other than the outer dark frame – see below – they weren’t even removed from the hive.

Ready for inspection

I quickly and carefully went through the frames occupied by bees, checking for:

  • sufficient stores (there were still stores on some of the frames I’d not lifted from the hive as well)
  • levels of pollen
  • brood in all stages – eggs, larvae and sealed brood
  • the queen (was she the same I’d last seen in the box over 7 months ago?)

which took no more than a minute for each of the 4-5 frames. Each frame was lifted, inspected on each side and – with one exception – replaced in the same position it had come from.

The brood nest was off-centre, pushed up against one of the side walls of the hive. This isn’t unusual with poly hives as they are so well insulated. However, it means that expansion of the brood nest can only go in one direction.

Giving them a little more elbow room

So, the exception was a frame, with some stores but mainly nice empty comb. I placed this between the brood nest and the side wall of the hive. This gives the expanding colony the option of growing in two directions.

Later in the season, when it’s warmer and the colony is growing faster, you can expand the brood nest further. However, this early in the year 9 just giving them the option to go in either direction is a start.

Marked, laying queen

The marked, clipped queen was easy to spot. I managed to disturb her while laying an egg which you can just see at the tip of her abdomen in the picture inset above.

Replacement of dark frames

Unfortunately the queen was laying up one of the old dark frames in the hive. I couldn’t therefore move this to the outside of the brood nest, but made a mental note to in a month or so.

On the opposite side of the hive were a couple of old dark frames that had been largely cleared of stores.

Old dark frames rotated out of the hive and replaced

These were removed and replaced with new frames. In a few weeks I’ll move these close to the centre of the hive. With abundant spring nectar, and warmth, they will draw fresh comb for the expanding brood nest.

Both the frames above show slight signs of mould. This isn’t unusual to see on frames at the end of the winter, and is generally nothing to worry about. The hive is a humid environment and the outer frames often get very little attention from the bees.

Emptying the super

The super contained a few hundred bees. It also clearly contained a bit of residual honey.

On a warm day I might have simply shaken the bees out. Quick and easy and all over in a single visit. However, it was not warm and this would have been even more disruptive. I therefore added a clearer board and placed the super on top of that. I replaced the crown board, the roof and strapped everything up securely.

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

The warmth and odours of the hive quickly draw the bees down to join their nest mates, leaving the super empty. This was removed the following day.

The super still had a bit of capped honey in it, as well as a frame or two of uncapped ‘nectar’.

This wasn’t fresh nectar. There’s precious little about at the moment and any the bees are collecting is being secreted around and above the brood nest so that it’s immediately available. Remember, this super had been underneath the brood box since mid-September.

Much of the nectar could be shaken out of these frames. I assume it was uncapped from last year and that it has absorbed moisture from the atmosphere 10. It didn’t have the wet bubbly, yeasty smell and appearance that fermenting stores have … presumably because it’s been too cold 🙁

Thriving or just hanging on?

The two colonies I inspected were doing OK.

More brood than I’d feared, but less than I’d hoped for.

Beekeeping is greatly influenced by the climate, the geography and the local flora. This was my first west coast spring inspection, so there’s lots new to me. It feels like a colder spring than 2020, but I didn’t have bees here then, so have nothing to compare it with.

Once the spring migrants start arriving I’ll have a better idea how it compares.

All of which emphasises the importance of the final part of the inspection. Writing up the hive records. Comparison of notes about both the bees and the environment will, over time, mean I have a much better idea of what’s happening when. And whether the colonies are doing well or badly considering the state of the season.

Black throated diver (Gavia arctica) in full summer breeding plumage

The sand martens are already here, and there are black throated divers on the hill loch. I expect blackcap, cuckoos and wheatear in the next 7-10 days. Much longer than that and it will officially be a cold, late spring.

I’ll be checking my east coast colonies, including half a dozen that have luxuriated in the bee shed overwinter, in the next fortnight or so.

Fife has been warmer and drier, so I expect those colonies to be further advanced.

I hope I’m not too late 🙁


 

Waiting

Beekeepers will be familiar with the strange distortion of time that occurs during the season. The months with the shortest days appear to drag on interminably. In contrast, the long days of summer whizz by in a flurry of activity 1.

Beekeepers timewarp – perceived month length in blue and actual day length in red.

This is due to the indirect influence of latitude on our bees.

In winter, they’re largely inactive … and so are we, and time drags.

In summer, they’re busy foraging and breeding and reproducing (swarming) and foraging more and robbing … and we’re running around like headless chickens 2 trying to keep up. 

A spring swarm in a skep

Not always successfully 🙁

Latitude

The UK is a small country. The distance between the extremities – Jersey 3 and the Shetlands (both islands, some distance from the mainland 4 ) – is only about 800 miles, or a bit less than the long diagonal across California.

Nevertheless, this has a profound effect on daylength and temperature … and therefore on the bees.

On the winter solstice the day length in Jersey is about 8 hr 11 min. On the Shetlands it’s less than 5 hr 50 min. But that is reversed by the summer solstice. The longest day on the Shetlands is over 2.5 hours longer than the 16 hr 14 min that the poor crepuscular folk in Jersey enjoy 5.

For convenience, let’s assume that bees need an average maximum temperature of 10°C to fly freely 6. That being the case, bees in St Helier, Jersey, might fly for 9 months of the year, whereas those in Lerwick, Shetland, fly for less than 6 months of the year 7

Think back to those headless chickens. All of that “foraging and breeding and reproducing (swarming) and foraging more and robbing is being squeezed into about one third less time in Lerwick than in St Helier.

The winters are not fundamentally different. But the transition to spring happens much earlier in the south.

All of which makes this time of the year hard going for those of us living at northern latitudes … which, in a roundabout way, was what I was pondering while I stared at a depressingly inactive entrance to one of my colonies a fortnight or so ago. 

Ignore Twitter

For a few days Twitter had been littered with short videos of bees piling into hive entrances laden with pollen.

Helpful comments like “Girls are very busy today” or “15°C today and all colonies flying well” accompanied the videos.

I was ankle deep in snow and we’d recently had overnight temperatures below -14°C.

No flying today

Bees from one of my colonies on the west coast had been out on cleansing flights 8 but the other was suspiciously quiet. 

Obviously it was quiet when there was snow on the ground, but this situation continued as the weather warmed and the snow disappeared.

Despite a reasonable amount of experience in keeping bees in Scotland, and an awareness that the Twitter posts might have been from a beekeeper in St Helier, I was starting to get concerned about this second colony 9.

I knew there were live bees in the box as it has a clear crownboard. I could remove the roof and block of insulation and see the bees. However, the bees appeared to still be clustered and, having added a tray under the open mesh floor, there was little evidence of brood emerging.

In contrast, the other colony was flying well, collecting pollen and the cluster was largely dispersed.

Worrying times.

Fretting

Perhaps they’ve gone queenless?

Do queenless colonies tend not to break cluster as early in the season?

Do they not have any need to collect pollen because there’s no brood to be reared?

That’s scuppered my queen rearing plans for the season ahead … is it too late to order a couple more nucs?

Is it too early in the season to unite them and at least use the surviving bees?

Should I have a quick look in the centre of the cluster?

Should I wait until tomorrow when the weather is looking a little better? 10

Waiting

This went on for the better part of a week. The weather was not great, but was steadily improving. I was working outside much of the day.

The flying colony continued to fly. There was ample evidence they were rearing brood. 

The non-flying colony just sat there and sulked 🙁

And then, on the penultimate day of February, out they came …

What a relief …

The day was no warmer than the preceding one, it was certainly no sunnier. If anything it was actually a bit worse. 

But the bees came out as though someone had uncorked a bottle 🙂

First a couple around midday, then a dozen or two by 1pm and finally reaching a few hundred by 2pm (just after the picture above was taken 11 ).

Almost all the flying bees appeared to be taking orientation flights. Only a very few were collecting pollen.

And from that point on it’s been a case of ‘normal service is resumed’.

The colonies have continued to fly on the good less bad days. Both colonies are busy with the gorse pollen. Both – by the look of the trays under the OMF 12 – are rearing reasonable amounts of brood. 

Why the sulking?

Both my west coast colonies were obtained from the same source, though I know the queens are from different lineages. I suspect the fact that one was flying well before the other simply reflects differences in their genetics.

It’s notable that after the first day or two of strong flying activity, both colonies have quietened down significantly. The proportion of bees taking orientation flights compared with foragers has decreased significantly.

I interpret that burst of flying activity as a mix of new bees taking their first flights and older bees reorienting after a long period confined to the hive.

I’m no longer worried that the queen failed in midwinter 🙂

Patience, young grasshopper

This trivial example is just one of many where the beekeeper has to wait for the bees.

You can’t rush them.

They will go at their own pace and, usually (or possibly even, almost always) it will work out OK.

I was concerned about that apparently inactive colony. Had I intervened I would have done more harm than good. 

Since there was little I could do that would constructively help the situation I simply had to wait.

Which made me think about other examples where waiting is usually the best policy in beekeeping.

Queen rearing

I’ve given a couple of talks recently on queen rearing and am already well-advanced with my own plans for the season.

Queen rearing involves several key events, all of which must more or less coincide. The colony (and other colonies in the region) must have sexually mature drones present. There really needs to be a good nectar flow to ensure the developing queens are well nourished. Finally, the weather must be suitable for queen mating.

Again, you can’t rush these things. You might have no influence on them at all …

The swarm in the skep (above) was captured on the last day of April 2019. It was an unusually early spring in Scotland and the earliest swarm I’ve seen since 2015. 

The bees had judged that conditions were right. There were reasonable numbers of drones about and the weather remained pretty good for at least the first half of May. The swarm was a prime swarm, and I fully expect that the virgin queen that emerged in the originating colony got successfully mated 13.

OSR ... can you believe it?!

Late April 2016 … OSR and snow

In contrast, three years earlier the conditions at the end of April are shown above. Colonies contained few drones and swarming first occurred in late May.

Under these conditions, starting queen rearing is a pointless exercise. The colonies aren’t ready, the environment is hostile and there is probably insufficient nectar being collected. 

It pays to wait.

Queen mating

Anyone who has kept bees for a year or two will be familiar with the often interminable wait while a virgin queen gets mated.

Assuming a colony swarms on the day that the developing queen cell(s) is capped 14, the queen that follows her must emerge, mature, go on her mating flight(s) and then start laying.

My calculations are that this takes an absolute minimum of 14 days.

For the first seven days the new queen is pupating, she then emerges and matures for 5-6 days before going on one (or more) mating flights. After mating it then takes a further 2-3 days before she starts laying.

I’ve not looked through my records but cannot remember it ever taking 14 days. In reality, even with ideal conditions, at least 17-18 days is more usual and 21 days is not at all uncommon.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

It’s worth remembering that there’s a time window within which the queen must mate. This opens 5-6 days after emergence (when she becomes sexually mature) and closes at 26-33 days after emergence, after which time she’s too old to dependably mate well.

A variety of factors can influence the speed with which the queen gets mated. 

Bad weather is the most obvious. If the weather is poor (rain, cool, very windy etc.) she won’t venture forth. For Scottish beekeepers, there’s a nice study by Gavin Ramsay 15 of the total number of ‘good’ queen mating days we enjoy in our brief summers … it can be very few indeed.

Queens mate faster from smaller hives. Queens in mini-nucs mate faster than those in 5-frame nucs which, in turn, mate faster than those in full hives. 

And, as far as the beekeeper is concerned, these few days drag by very slowly 16

There’s nothing to be gained by checking and re-checking. There’s potentially a lot to be lost if you get in the way of a queen returning from a mating flight.

Just wait … and more often than not it will all be just fine.

Enthusiastic beginners

The final example where there’s a benefit from waiting is for the beginner beekeeper getting their very first colony 17.

They’ve attended a winter ‘Introduction to beekeeping’ course, they’ve read and re-read the Thorne’s catalogue (and ordered loads of stuff they don’t need) and they are desperate to start keeping bees.

I know the feeling, I was exactly the same when I started.

Every year I get requests for nucs in March, or “as soon as possible” or “so I can install them in the hive at Easter”.

The commercial suppliers offer bees early in the season, often from April onwards. 

Or did, before the ban on imports, though some still do.

But in my opinion I think there are real benefits from waiting until a little later in the season.

In the absence of imported packages or nucs, there are only two sources of nuc colonies early in the season:

  • Overwintered nucs. These are usually in very short supply and therefore command a significant price premium. The queen will be from the previous year … not in itself a major problem, though they are probably more likely to swarm than a nuc headed by a current year queen.
  • Bees in a box headed by a queen that was imported. The proportion of bees in the box related to the queen depends upon the time that has elapsed since the queen was added to the box. Think about the timing of brood development … it takes three weeks from adding the queen to have any adult bees related to her. It takes six weeks or more to re-populate the box.

I think the price premium of an overwintered nuc is justified because they have already successfully overwintered. However, a similar box of bees would be perhaps half the price two months later 18.

It’s an expensive way to start if things go wrong.

What could possibly go wrong?

An overwintered nuc will probably build up very fast, perhaps outstripping the skills (or confidence) of the tyro beekeeper. 

If the weather is bad the new beekeeper potentially has a large, poorly-tempered, colony to manage. It’s daunting enough for some beginners doing their first few inspections, but if they’re struggling with a fast-expanding colony – potentially already making swarm preparations – on cool or wet days, then it can become a bit of a chore.

Or worse.

A few stings, a bee or two in the veil and the beekeeper gets a bad fright. The next inspection is missed or delayed. The colony inevitably swarms as the weather picks up.

Suddenly 75% of their £300 investment has disappeared over the fence 19 and they’re left with a hive full of queen cells.

In contrast, the beginner who starts with a nuc later in the season, headed by a ‘this years’ queen, avoids all those problems. 

The new queen is pumping out the pheromones and there’s very little chance the colony will swarm. They’ve arrived in late May or early June, the weather is perfect and the bees are wonderfully calm. 

They still build up at quite a pace, surprising the beginner. They’ve drawn out all the comb in a full brood box within a fortnight and will need a super just about in time for the summer nectar flow.

Beginners often open their colonies too frequently. They dabble, they fuss, they make little tweaks and adjustments. 

My first ever colony – late May. I still feel guilty about that first queen 🙁

Sometimes – like I did with my first colony – they inadvertently crush the queen during a particularly cack handed colony inspection.

D’oh!

It’s still early in the season so mated queens are difficult to get. Pinching a frame of young brood from another colony weakens it at a critical time in its build up, and leaves the beekeeper reliant on excellent weather to get a new queen mated 20.

Altogether not ideal.

So beginners should wait. By all means attend the apiary sessions or tag along with an experienced beekeeper during April and May. You’ll learn a lot.

The wait will do you and, indirectly, the bees good.

At the very least it’s great preparation for the waiting you’ll do for queens to get mated, or for a colonies to start flying well next spring 😉


 

The danger zone

… your bees are entering it about now.

I had hoped to start this post with a pretty picture of a row of colourful hives topped with a foot or more of snow. It would have been an easy picture to take … we’ve certainly got the snow.

And this was before we had a load more snow in the afternoon …

It would have been an easy picture to take … had I been able to get to the apiary 🙁

I’m writing this in central Fife. We’ve had the heaviest snowfall I’ve seen here in 6 years (well over a foot) and the roads are just about impassable. Why risk a shunt for a pretty picture?

Little snow, big snow. Big snow, little snow.

So here’s one taken earlier in the winter.

So what’s all this about the danger zone?

The danger zone

Bees that are rearing brood in the winter use stores at twice the rate when compared with bees that are not rearing brood.

How do we know this?

Clayton Farrar (1904 – 1970) was Professor of Entomology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He retired from his role as chief of the USDA Laboratories in Beekeeping in 1963. He’s well known (at least within certain beekeeping circles) for promoting two-queen honey production hives.

However, he also conducted lots of other studies on honey bees. Some of these were on the importance of pollen for brood rearing. Studies back in the 1930’s showed that when pollen was unavailable, brood rearing ceased.

Farrar compared the winter weight loss by colonies that were starved of pollen and those which had ample pollen. Those starved of pollen used their stores up only 50% as fast as those busy rearing brood.

Why do they use more stores?

I’ve recently discussed the winter cluster. In that post I made the point that the temperature of the winter cluster is carefully regulated.

In the absence of brood rearing, the core temperature of the cluster is about 18°C.

However, at that temperature honey bee development cannot happen 1.

When brood rearing the colony must raise the temperature of the core of the cluster to ~35°C.

The bees in the cluster achieve this elevation of temperature by isometric flexing of their flight muscles.

And they need energy to do this work … energy in the form of sugar stores.

Biphasic stores use

What this means is that as a colony transitions from a broodless (which may or may not occur, depending upon your latitude, climate, temperature 2 ) winter period to rearing brood, they start consuming the stores faster.

You can see this clearly in the right hand side of this graph from a paper from Tom Seeley, presented in his excellent book The Lives of Bees. This shows the winter weight change through two and a bit seasons. I’ve marked the approximate position of the winter solstice with a black arrow and mid-February (i.e. about now) with a red arrow.

Colony weight (top) and weekly weight change (lower).

Just focus on the 1928/83 winter as this most clearly shows an inflexion point in the rate of stores usage (we know it’s stores being used as it’s midwinter, so there’s no forage available).

The colony transitions from a maintenance rate to a brood rearing rate and the slope of the weight loss line steepens.

You can also see the same thing happening in the 80/81 and 81/82 winters, though it’s less obvious.

My colonies started rearing brood soon after the winter solstice. Yours might have not had a brood break at all.

However, in both cases the colony is likely to be rearing more brood now than it was 5-6 weeks ago.

Therefore it will be using more stores now … and so there’s an increased chance of the colony running out of stores.

It’s also appreciably colder over much of the UK now than it was a few weeks ago. We’ve had temperatures as low as -12°C this week, meaning the bees need to maintain a 49°C temperature differential to protect the developing brood in the hive.

This means that – all other things being equal – the colony will be using even more stores now than they were a month ago to maintain the same critical core temperature of the cluster for brood rearing.

Duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun… duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun …

That’s a rather poor attempt at spelling out the opening few bars of the Jaws theme 😉

The danger zone is in the late winter or early spring.

The colony must rear more brood to become strong enough to reproduce (swarm) in late April to early June.

And, from a beekeeping perspective, they must rear more brood to become a strong enough colony to properly exploit oil seed rape and other early nectars for the spring honey crop.

But there’s no forage available and/or it’s too cold to venture out for early nectar.

Snowdrops and gorse are flowering … somewhere over there

So the danger is that they starve to death 🙁

I’ve recently discussed determining whether your colony is rearing brood (and it will almost certainly have started by now, even if it’s taking a brief temporary break when the temperature plummeted) and also given an overview of ‘hefting’ hives and monitoring colony weight.

Fondant topups

If the colony feels light, or your records suggest it is dangerously light, you urgently need add a readily available (to the bees, if not to you) and easy to access source of sugar.

Syrup is not suitable at this time of the year. Even with lots of insulation, the space above the crownboard is a pretty chilly environment. A bucket of syrup placed there is likely to be simply ignored … at least until the ambient temperature has increased.

By which time it might be too late.

If the colony feels light they need stores now, not when it warms up (though they’ll also need stores then … if they survive that long).

Fondant is the stuff to use.

I’ve written extensively about it previously and I buy it by the pallet load. It stores perfectly for months or years, so I always have it available. I use it for almost all my bee feeding.

Fondant mountain ...

Fondant mountain …

You can also make it relatively easily 3.

Fondant is ~80% sugar. It’s also malleable but semi-solid … a bit like plasticine.

But it tastes appreciably better 😉

I’ve found the best way to provide fondant is in transparent (or at least translucent) shallow food containers.

Waste not, want not

In the photo above the clear(ish) ones are much better than the brown or green ones. Better still are the double-area ones you buy chicken breasts in 4. These are wide but shallow and can accommodate at least 2 kg of fondant.

Where to place the fondant

I stressed that the fondant must be easy to access by the bees.

There’s no point in adding it if they don’t have immediate access to it.

And if it’s -8°C outside the bees are not going to be wandering around looking for food … any that leave the cluster will soon get chilled, become torpid and perish.

You therefore need to put the fondant directly in contact with the bees.

Often the advice is to provide the fondant over the hole in the crownboard.

However, consider the this diagram.

Plan view of fondant above the feed hole in a crownboard

If your bees form a large cluster – like A above – they are in contact with the fondant that has been placed directly above the central feed hole in the crownboard.

And, if they stay there, all will be OK.

But what about the smaller cluster (B)?

These bees don’t have direct access. If the weather is cold enough and the space above the crownboard is badly insulated the fondant might as well have been left in the packet.

In the shed 🙁

I therefore add the fondant under the crownboard.

Fondant block ...

Fondant block …

I place the fondant block, inverted, covering part of the cluster. They can immediately access it and they will soon use it if they need it.

Time for another?

Time for another?

The photo above shows why clear or translucent containers are preferable – you can easily tell how much of the fondant remains.

In the photos above the cluster is located approximately centrally within the brood box. However, think back to the colony I discussed a fortnight ago. In that, the cluster was tight up against the polystyrene side wall of the hive, some distance from a central hole in the crownboard (if mine had a central hole 😉 ).

Headspace

These plastic food containers are about 5 cm deep. Filled to the brim they can hold about 1.2 kg of fondant. That might well not be enough … hence my preference for the larger containers.

Or just use two of them …

Fondant absorbs moisture from the environment, softening the surface. With the fondant directly in contact with the top bars of the frames and the bees, this softened fondant is readily used.

I made the mistake once of wrapping the fondant in clingfilm and providing a hole for the bees to access it. Over time they drag the shredded clingfilm down into the hive, incorporating it into brace comb.

It makes a right mess. Avoid clingfilm.

If you are concerned about sloppy fondant dribbling down onto the cluster (something I’ve noticed a couple of times with either very weak colonies or in very damp environments) you can cover the face of the block with a sheet of plastic. Cut a 2 cm square hole in this and place it over the centre of the cluster.

And how do you accommodate this 5 cm block of fondant under the crownboard?

You can use a 5 cm deep eke, with your normal crownboard on top.

Alternatively, you can build crownboards that have a single bee space on one side and an integral ‘eke’, in the form of a 5 cm deep rim, on the other.

Perspex crownboard with integrated insulation

I built a few of these many years ago, with perspex and an inbuilt block of ‘Kingspan’ insulation. They work really well.

When you need the headspace – for example for a block of fondant – you simply invert the crownboard and place the insulation on top, under the roof.

What, no fondant?

If you haven’t got any fondant, don’t despair.

But also don’t delay while you try and source some fondant.

Fondant is sugar after all, and everyone should be able to get sugar.

Despite having a mountain of fondant squirreled away, I still keep a few bags of granulated sugar ‘just in case’.

Emergency rations

Cut a 2 x 2 cm hole in the front of bag of sugar and add about a half teacup full of water. Let it soak in for a few minutes. Add less than you think is needed … you can always add a bit more.

You want to dampen the sugar, not dissolve it. The aim is to be able to invert the bag directly over the cluster 5.

So do that as soon as you can.

Bees need water to be able to ‘eat’ granulated sugar, so dampening it helps both keep it in the bag and saves them doing extra work collecting condensation from the hive walls.

And, just to avoid any ambiguity, only used white granulated sugar.

It takes bees to make bees … and honey

Colonies that are strong early in the season are better able to exploit the spring nectar, including that from oil seed rape.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Spring in a Warwickshire apiary …

Some beekeepers feed their colonies thin syrup (1:1 w/v) in early spring to boost brood rearing in time to have booming colonies ready for the rape.

I’ve not done this, or ever felt I really needed to. However, I’m not commercial and do not rely on the honey harvest to feed the family, pay the kids’ school fees or fuel the Porsche.

And, other than feeding the family, I don’t know any commercial beekeepers who rely on honey sales for those other things either 6.

Usually the combination of young queens, low Varroa levels and ample autumn feeding produces colonies strong enough for my beekeeping in the spring.

Rapidly expanding colonies in March and early April require good amounts of brood to be reared during the dark winter days in January and February. After all, you cannot rear lots of bees without having lots of bees available to do the brood rearing.

This is an area where it is beneficial to have young queens heading the colony. These lay later into the autumn, resulting in more winter bees.

If these bees are healthy and well fed the colony should have a flying start to the following season, if you’ll excuse the pun.

But check them nevertheless as they enter ‘the danger zone’.

As you add your third or fourth super to a hive in early May, think back to that cold, wet day three months earlier when you gave them an extra block of fondant … and give yourself a pat on the back 😉


Notes

I finally managed to get out a couple of days after it stopped snowing.

Hives in the snow

The two hives on the right have a 4 mm thick Correx roof, directly on top of a 5 cm thick block of Kingspan. Going by the amount of snow still sitting on top of these hives they’re not losing too much heat through the roof 🙂

The Danger Zone was a song by Kenny Loggins that featured in the 1986 movie Top Gun. In retrospect, it’s a pretty cheesy movie. However, 35 years ago it was the first VHS videotape I purchased. It had a Dolby soundtrack and, played loud through the stereo speakers while sitting close to the TV (to get that ‘widescreen’ cinema feeling) it sounded pretty good 😉

I do not often listen to Kenny Loggins but when I do, so do my neighbors …

Frequently asked questions

The 2020/21 winter has been very busy with online talks to beekeeping associations. I’m averaging about five a month, with only the fortnight over Christmas and New Year being a bit quieter. 

When chatting to the organisers of these talks it’s clear that they are getting increasingly successful 1. Audience numbers are encouragingly high as people become more familiar with online presentations.

Beekeepers know they can lounge around in their pyjamas drinking wine, chat with their friends before and after the talk 2, and listen to a beekeeping presentation … a sort of lockdown multitasking.

Some of you that spend hours each day on Zoom will know exactly what I’m talking about 😉

I still lament the absence of homemade cakes, but I suspect the online format is here to stay. At least for some associations, or at least some of the winter programme each year. 

Talking to myself

There’s little point in doing science unless you tell others about it and, as as a scientist, I have presented at invited seminars and conferences for my entire career. 

Some readers will be familiar with public speaking in one form or another. They’ll be familiar with the frisson of excitement that precedes stepping up to the podium in a large auditorium. 

Assuming there’s a large audience filling the large auditorium of course 😉

Those with little experience of speaking might wish the audience was a bit smaller, or a lot smaller … or not there at all.

But the reality is that the audience is a really important part of a presentation. At least, they are once the speaker has sufficient confidence to calm down, to stop worrying they’ll say something stupid, and to ‘read’ the audience. 

An attentive beekeeping audience

By observing the audience the speaker can determine whether they’re still interested and attentive. Not just in the topic (after all, they’re sitting there rather than disappearing to the coffee shop), but in particular parts of the presentation. 

Are you going too fast?

Have you lost their attention?

Was that fancy animated slide you spent 20 minutes on a dismal failure?

Did that last witty aside work … or did it crash and burn? 3

Almost none of which can be determined when delivering a Zoom-type online presentation 🙁

You can ‘see’ the audience.

Or parts of it.

Postage stamp-sized headshots, with poor lighting, distracting backgrounds 4 and enough pixelation to make nuanced judgements about boredom or even species sometimes tricky.

Is that a Labradoodle in the audience … or just another lockdown haircut?

Has the internet frozen … or has everyone simply fallen asleep?

It’s not ideal, but it’s the best we’ve got for now.

Which makes the question and answer sessions even more important than usual.

Mixed abilities

My talks usually include a 5 minute intermission. Talking for an hour uninterrupted is actually quite tiring 5 and it’s good to make a cup of tea and gather my thoughts for ’round two’.

It also allows the audience to raise questions about subjects mentioned in the first half that left them confused.

Fortunately these ‘half time’ questions tend to be reassuringly limited in number 6.

Have a break, have a Kit Kat

However, at the end of the talk there is usually a much more extensive Q&A session. This often covers both the topic of the talk and other beekeeping issues. 

A typical audience contains beekeepers with a wide range of beekeeping experience. Enthusiastic beginners 7 jostle for screen space with ‘been there, done that, bought the T-shirt’ types who have forgotten more than I’ll ever know.

Inevitably this means the talk might miss critical explanations for beginners and omit some of the nuanced details appreciated by the more experienced. As the poet John Lydgate said:

You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time 8.

Think about this simple statement:

Varroa feed on the haemolymph of developing pupae.”

The beginner might not know what haemolymph is … or, possibly, even what Varroa is.

The intermediate beekeeper might be left wondering whether the mite also feeds on nurse bees when ‘crowdsurfing’ around the colony during the phoretic stage of the life cycle.

And the experienced beekeeper is questioning whether I know anything about the subject at all as I’ve not mentioned fat bodies and their apparently critical role in mite nourishment.

So I encourage questions … to help please a few more of the people 😉

You’re on mute!

In my experience these are best submitted via the ‘chat’ function. The host – an officer of the BKA or a technically-savvy member press ganged into hosting the talk – can then read them out to me.

Or I can … if I can find my glasses.

One or two beekeeping associations have a Zoom ‘add in’ that allows the audience to ‘upvote’ written questions, so that the most popular appear at the top of the list 9. This works really well and helps ‘please more of the people more of the time’.

The alternative, of asking the audience member to unmute their mic and ask the question is somewhat less satisfactory. It’s not unusual to watch someone wordlessly ‘mouthing’ the question while the host (or I) try and explain how to turn the microphone on.

Finally, it’s worth emphasising that the Q&A session is – as far as I’m concerned – one of the most helpful and enjoyable parts of the evening.

Enjoyable, because I’m directly answering a question that was presumably asked because someone wanted or needed to know the answer 10

Helpful, because over time these will drive the evolution of the talk so that it better explains things for more of the audience.

Anyway – that was a longer introduction than I intended – what sort of questions have been asked frequently this winter (and the talks they usually appeared in).

What do you define as a strong colony? (Preparing for winter)

Strong colonies overwinter better than weak colonies. They contain more bees. This means that the natural attrition rate of bees during the winter shouldn’t reduce the colony size so much that it struggles to thermoregulate the cluster

Midwinter cluster

A strong colony in midwinter

I also think large winter clusters retain better ‘contact’ with their stores, so reducing the chances of overwinter isolation starvation.

Strong colonies are also likely to be healthy colonies. Since the major cause of overwintering colony losses is Varroa and the viruses it transmits, a strong healthy colony should overwinter better than a weak unhealthy colony. 

Colony age structure from August to December.

However, you cannot necessarily judge the strength of a colony in June/July as an indicator of colony strength in the late autumn and winter.

This is because the entire population of bees has turned over during that period. 

A hive bulging with bees in summer might look severely depleted by November if the mite levels have not been controlled in the intervening period.

The phrase ‘a strong colony’ is also relative … and influenced by the strain of bees. Native black bees rarely need more than a single brood box. Compare them to a prolific carniolan strain and they’re likely to look ‘weak’, but if they’re filling the single brood box then they’re doing just fine.

When should I do X? (Rational Varroa control and others)

When usually means ‘what date?’

X can be anything … adding Apivar strips, uniting colonies, adding supers, dribbling oxalic acid.

This is one of the least satisfactory questions to answer but the most important beekeeping lesson to learn.

A calendar is essentially irrelevant in beekeeping.

Due to geographic/climatic differences and variation in the weather from year to year, there’s almost nothing that can be planned using a calendar.

Only three things matter, the:

  1. state of the colony
  2. local environment – an early spring, a strong nectar flow, late season forage etc.
  3. development cycle of queens, workers and drones

By judging the first of these, with knowledge of the second and a good appreciation of the third, you can usually work out whether treatments are needed, colonies united or supers added etc.

This isn’t easy, but it’s well worth investing time and effort in.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

The last of these three things is particularly important during swarm control and when trying to judge whether (or when) a colony will be broodless or not. The development cycle of bees is effectively invariant 11, so understanding this allows you to make all sorts of judgements about when to do things. 

For example, knowing the numbers of days a developing worker is an egg, larva and pupa allows you to determine whether the colony is building up (more eggs being laid than pupae emerging) or winding down for autumn (or due to lack of forage or a failing queen).

Likewise, understanding queen cell development means you know the day she will emerge, from which you can predict (with a little bit of weather-awareness) when she will mate and start laying.

How frequently should you monitor Varroa? (Rational Varroa control)

This question regularly occurs after discussion of problematically high Varroa loads, particularly when considering whether midseason mite treatment is needed. 

Do you need to formally count the mite dropped between every visit to the apiary?

Absolutely not.

If you are the sort that does then be aware it’s taking valuable time away from your trainspotting 😉 12

The phoretic mite drop is no more than a guide to the Varroa load in the hive. 

Think about the things that could influence it:

  • A colony trapped in the hive by bad weather has probably got more time to groom, so resulting in an increased mite drop.
  • An expanding colony has excess late stage larvae so reducing the time mites spend living phoretically.
  • A shrinking colony will have fewer young bees, so forcing mites to parasitise older workers. Some of these will lost ‘in the field’ and more may be lost through grooming.
  • Strong colonies could have a much lower percentage infestation, but a higher mite drop than an infested weak colony. You need to act on the latter but perhaps not the former.
  • And a multitude of other things that really deserve a more complete post …

So don’t bother counting Varroa every week … or even every month.

Does what it says on the tin.

I think checking a couple of times a season – towards the end of spring and in mid/late summer – should be sufficient. You can do this by inserting a Varroa tray for a week, by uncapping drone brood and looking for mites, or by doing an alcohol wash on a cupful of workers (but these methods aren’t comparable with each other as they measure different things with different efficiencies). 

But you must also look for the damaging effects of Varroa and viruses at every inspection.

If there are significant numbers of bees with deformed wings – characteristic of high levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) – then intervention will probably be needed. 

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

And if there are increasing numbers of afflicted bees since your last regular inspection it’s almost certain that intervention will be needed sooner rather than later.

I should add that I also count mite drop during treatment. This helps me understand the overall mite load in the colony. By reference to the late summer count I can be sure that the treatment worked. 

What do you mean by a quarantine apiary? (Bait hives for profit and pleasure)

This question has popped up a few times when I discuss moving an occupied bait hive and checking the health of the colony. 

A swarm that moves into a bait hive brings lots of things with it …

Up to 40% by weight is honey which is very welcome as they will use it to draw new comb. If there’s good forage available as well it’s unlikely the swarm will need additional feeding.

However, the swarm also brings with it ~35% of the mites that were present in the colony that swarmed. These are less welcome.

I always treat swarms with oxalic acid to give them the best possible start in their new home.

Varroa treatment of a new swarm in a bait hive…

More worrisome is the potential presence of either American or European foul broods. Both can be spread with swarms. The last things you want is to introduce these brood diseases into your main apiary.

For this reason it is important to isolate swarms of unknown provenance. The logical way to do this is to re-site the occupied bait hive to a quarantine apiary some distance away from other bees. Leave it there for 1-2 brood cycles and observe the health and quality of the bees.

What is ‘some distance?’

Ideally further than bees routinely forage, drift or rob. Realistically this is unlikely to be achievable in many parts of the country. However, even a few hundred yards away is better than sharing the same hive stand. 

If you keep bees in areas where foul broods are prevalent then I would argue that this type of precautionary measure is essential … or that the risk of collecting swarms is too great.

And how do you know if foul broods are prevalent in your area?

Register with the National Bee Unit’s Beebase. If there is an outbreak near your apiary a bee inspector will contact you.

Remember also that the presence of foul broods in an area may mean that the movement of colonies is prohibited.

‘Asking for a friend’ type questions

These are great.

These are the sort of questions that all beekeepers are likely to need to ask at sometime in their beekeeping ‘career’.

Typically they take the form of two parts:

  1. a description of a gross beekeeping error
  2. an attempt to make it clear that the error was by someone (anyone) other than the person asking the question 😉

Here are a couple of more or less typical ones 13.

  • My friend (who isn’t here tonight) forgot to remove the queen excluder and three full supers from their colony in August. Should I, oops, she remove them now?
  • Here’s an an entirely hypothetical scenario … what would you recommend treating a colony with in March if the autumn and midwinter mite treatments were overlooked?
  • Should my friend remove the Apiguard trays he a) added in November, or b) placed in his colonies before taking them to the heather?
  • I’d been advised by an expert beekeeper to squish every queen cell a few days after discovering my colony had swarmed in June. It’s now late September … how much longer should I wait for the colony to be queenright?

These are very good questions because they illustrate the sorts of mistakes that many beginners, and some more experienced beekeepers, make. 

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making mistakes. The problem comes if you don’t learn from them.

I’ve made some cataclysmically stupid beekeeping errors. 

I still do … though fewer now than a decade ago, largely because I’ve managed to learn from some of them.

Partly I learned from thinking things through and partly from asking someone else … “A friend has asked me why his colony died. Was it the piezoelectric vibrations from the mite ‘zapper’ bought from eBay or was the hive he bought not suitable?


 

In the bleak midwinter

Winter has finally arrived.

Green thoughts in a white shade

We’ve had temperatures fluctuating around 0°C for the last two to three weeks now, with some very hard frosts and more than enough snow to make the track impassable.

Like the bees, I’ve spent the time hunkered down focusing on keeping warm and conserving my stores.

Unlike my bees, I’ve benefited from triple glazing and a wood burning stove 😉

And the main thing I’m worried about running out of is milk for my cappuccino 1.

The 20th was particularly cold with temperatures well below -5°C and stunningly clear. There was something strange about the conditions, as the loch froze. The surface, for 30 metres or more from the shore, had a thin film of ice covering it.

Ice, ice baby

As the tide dropped the shore was left with a sparkling crust of 1mm thick glass-like ice confetti.

The salinity of seawater is typically ~3.5% … this amount of salt reduces the freezing point to about -2°C, a temperature we’ve regularly experienced in the last fortnight. This suggests the ‘strange’ conditions were probably the absence of any swell coupled with the really calm conditions.

Whatever the cause, it was beautiful.

Early season forage … you must be joking 😉

Under conditions like these the bees are effectively invisible. They’re very tightly clustered . With daytime temperatures rarely reaching 3°C none venture out of the hive. With the exception of cleansing flights and the removal of corpses – and it’s too cold for either of these – there’s little reason for them to leave the hive anyway.

The gorse is in flower … somewhere under there

The only thing flowering is gorse and it would be a foolhardy bee that attempted to collect pollen at the moment.

I’ve previously written about the genetically-determined flowering time of gorse. In an attempt to improve forage at certain times of the year I’ve been collecting seed from suitable plants and germinating it indoors. As soon as the weather improves I’ll plant these seedlings out 2 as the amount of gorse around the apiary is quite limited.

Gorse (and some broom) seedlings

Gorse seed is painful to collect and germinates poorly. I pour boiling water over the seed and then let it soak for 24 hours, which improves germination at least ten-fold.

Hive checks

Every fortnight or so I check the hive weights by hefting. Only two colonies have had any extra fondant yet and that was through ‘an abundance of caution’. I suspect they actually didn’t really need it.

The next eight weeks (here 3 ) is when brood rearing should be starting to really ramp up. It’s during February and March that starvation is an issue.

Here on the west coast, my colonies are rearing brood. This tray has been in for about a week. I’m including it as I’ve been asked several times about how to determine if a colony is rearing brood without opening the hive.

Biscuit coloured (or a bit darker) cappings indicating brood rearing in this colony

The red arrows indicate the biscuit coloured cappings that have fallen from the seams in which they are rearing brood. The inset shows a magnification of the indicated part of the image. The photo was taken with a camera phone and the cappings are perhaps a bit darker than usual (though I also know there are a few older brood frames in this hive 🙁 ).

And if the conditions are right, even with a well-insulated poly hive, you can identify which wall the cluster is up against by the evaporation of the overnight damp from the outer surface of the hive.

The location of the cluster is clearly visible on this Abelo poly hive

This is the front of the same hive from which the Varroa tray was photographed – the cappings on the tray and the cluster location correspond perfectly.

By the way … don’t bother looking for Varroa on the tray. This hive is in a Varroa-free region 🙂

As I’ve said before, it’s not unusual for colonies in poly hives to cluster tightly against the wall in winter. Those in cedar are more often away from the wall in my experience (and the same thing applies to brood rearing other than at the height of the season).

Hey good lookin’

The Abelo hive above is a nice looking box. The paint finish is bonded well to the polystyrene and provides good protection.

If you leave unpainted polystyrene out in the elements it starts to look pretty tired, pretty quickly.

I don’t have any pictures as none of my poly hives are unpainted.

At least, none are any more 😉

I’d acquired some new Maisemores nucs with bees and had a number of unused and unpainted Everynucs. Most manufacturers recommend you paint poly hives with masonry paint of some kind, or they sell (often quite pricey) paint that’s suitable.

Here's three I prepared earlier ...

Everynuc poly nucs

I’ve painted a lot of nucs with masonry paint, using a paint spray gun. It goes on fast and is reasonably hardwearing … but not great.

Swienty brood box ...

Swienty brood box …

In contrast, my Swienty brood boxes look as good now as when they were first painted 5 years ago. These received two coats of ‘Buckingham green’ Hammerite Garage Door paint.

This paint is designed for galvanised metal garage doors (the clue is in the name 😉 ). It contains a bunch of unpleasant sounding solvents but, when dry, appears to be entirely safe. I’d recommend not reading the 13 pages of safety data sheets or you might never dare open the tin because of the imminent risk of explosion.

Melting polystyrene

These solvents have the effect of slightly ‘melting’ the surface of the poly hive. This creates a really strong bond between the paint and the hive surface. The melting isn’t enough that you can notice the surface texture change … it’s just an invisible chemical reaction going on as you brush the stuff on.

Maisemore’s poly nuc after the first coat

However, this reaction might account for the rather patchy coverage of a single coat. If you paint it on thickly enough to try and produce a nice even finish it tends to run and sag a bit.

So give it two coats … and then it looks excellent.

Oxbridge Blues – a few painted poly nucs ready for the season ahead

Several months ago I bought a ‘remaindered’ tin of Hammerite paint in Oxford blue. I had wanted a contrasting colour (to my other boxes) for these nucs to help orientate returning freshly mated queens.

I paint the entire box, avoiding any of the ‘touching’ faces which are left unpainted. Some paint usually seeps into joins between the roof, body and/or floor, but you can easily prise them apart with a judiciously applied hive tool.

I’m rather pleased with how smart they now look.

I’m somewhat less pleased with the quality control on some of the Everynucs 4. Several had the mesh floor stuck down incorrectly, with parts unattached. In places the gaps were big enough for a bee to enter.

Open mesh floor and big gap at the side in an Everynuc

I simply pulled them off and restuck them down with a glue gun. This is an easy fix but really should not be necessary on a nuc box that costs almost £60 🙁

A+E

With the current Covid pandemic we have a responsibility to minimise the demands we are placing on our heroically overstretched healthcare workers.

For this reason I’ve been avoiding doing any DIY for beekeeping for many months now 😉

However, the season is looming ever-closer and I want to try some new things.

My toolbox contains approximately equal amounts of disconcertingly sharp implements and elastoplast. I’m well prepared 😉

I’m also currently living very remotely. In the event of a bad injury I’m unlikely to ever trouble the staff in A+E … unless the accident conveniently coincides with the ferry timetable 🙁

I therefore decided to risk life and limb by building the things I need to try queen rearing using a Morris board.

I’ll describe full details of the method later in the year.

For me, this method should offer advantages due to the type of bees, the size of my colonies, the number of queens I want to rear and the period over which I want to rear them.

You can buy these boards (for about £30 each) … or you can build better ones for about a fiver from offcuts from the wood bin, a bit of queen excluder and a piece of aluminium. They are a bit fiddly to build, with four opening doors and a ‘queenproof’ slide, but the cost savings and satisfaction you gain more than outweigh the blood loss involved.

Here’s one I started earlier … a Morris board under construction

The very fact I’m still able to write this post shows that I managed to retain all my fingers. Whether or not the Morris board works 5 I consider that fact alone a success 🙂

Doing the splits

The Morris board works by allowing access to 5 frame upper brood box for defined periods. I therefore also needed a brood box divided in half.

I’ve been doing a lot of wax extracting recently and a couple of cedar boxes have cracked under the stress of repeated steam cycles. I split one down to its component boards, burning the bits that were unusable, but recycling one side into the central division of another old cedar box.

Split brood box – detailed view of my very poor workmanship

I’ll be queen rearing in two apiaries simultaneously, so will need two of these upper boxes. However, I only managed to salvage one sufficiently large board from the steam-damaged box.  Fortunately I have some cedar nucs built precisely (so clearly not by me 😉 6 ) to National hive dimensions, so I can use two of these side-by-side with the same design Morris board.

Late afternoon sun, 24th January

But queen rearing remains both a distant memory and a very long way off in the future. Until then it’s a case of enjoying the short winter days and drinking cappuccino in front of the fire.

Good times


Notes

Hammerite Garage Door paint is usually £15-20 a tin (750 ml). It’s worth shopping around as there’s quite a bit of variation. I found it remaindered and paid under a tenner 🙂

I reckon there’s enough in one tin to do two coats on 9-10 nucs as long as you take care not to over apply the first one. You could probably thin it a bit (though I’m not sure what with 7) but I’d take care you don’t create something that just melts the poly box.

Even at £20 it still works out at only about £2 a nuc. Considering these can cost £40-60 it seems like a reasonable investment of money to keep them looking smart for years.

And a good investment of time (it took me ~15-20 minutes per coat) … after all, what else are you going to do in the bleak midwinter?