Category Archives: Seasonal

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?

Midwinter chores

I was going to title this post ‘Midwinter madness’ until I realised that there’s nothing I could write about related to beekeeping that could compare with current political events. So, it’s Midwinter chores instead …

We’ve had a week or more of low temperatures with intermittent light snow, freezing rain and bright sunshine. During the latter I’ve escaped to walk in the local hills.

North Fife hills

The North Fife hills – when they’re not filled with the cacophony of shooting parties out after pheasant or partridge – are looking fantastic, with unrestricted views to the Angus Glens, Schiehallion and Ben Lawers.

Of these, Schiehallion has a very distinctive shape (it’s just visible in the centre of the horizon above) 1. Its isolation allowed Nevil Maskelyne to use it in 1774 to calculate the mass of the earth in the appropriately named Schiehallion experiment 2.

This experiment used a combination of physics and mathematics, both of which are well beyond me, but are subjects I’ll return to at the end of the post.

Winter checks

In between these gentle walks I’ve infrequently checked all my colonies.

Many of my hives are fitted with clear perspex crownboards. This allows me to have a quick peek at the position and size of the winter cluster. Here are two examples:

Winter cluster – hive #36

and …

Winter cluster – hive #29

These hives are adjacent to each other in the same apiary. Both are in identical 10-frame Swienty poly brood boxes.

What is notable in the pictures above?

The first is that the crownboard with the mesh-covered central hole has been almost completely filled with propolis. I see this time and time again and am convinced that bees do not appreciate any ventilation over the cluster. I think the oft-seen advice to prop the crownboard up on matchsticks is total nonsense, at least for hives with open mesh floors.

Secondly, there is effectively no condensation on the underside of either crownboard. In the absence of ventilation – though both have my homemade open mesh floors – this is because they are both very well-insulated.

Insulation

Both crownboards are topped with a 5 cm thick block of Kingspan insulation. This is an integral part of the crownboard in #36, but just sits on top of #29. This insulation is present all year round, summer and winter.

Here is a picture of the same hives taken in October.

Hive #36 and #29 – note the roofs

Hive #29 has one of my homemade Correx roofs. These cost me about £1.50 each and about 10 minutes to make. They provide negligible insulation as they’re only about 4 mm thick. However, as far as these hives are concerned this is irrelevant as it’s the underlying block of Kingspan that’s doing the insulation.

Perspex crownboard with integrated insulation

The £29 Abelo poly roof on #36, although undoubtedly a whole lot smarter, might add a bit more insulation, but it also made me a whole lot poorer 🙁

Cluster size

The cluster size in hive #36 appears significantly larger than that in hive #29. The area covered by bees under the crownboard is perhaps twice the size.

I don’t read a lot into this.

My notes suggest that hive #36 was a bit stronger towards the end of the summer season. Although it looks as though It’s on brood and a half, the super is actually nadired and was filled with partially capped frames that weren’t ripe enough to extract. I expect they are all now empty. However, the interrupted nature of my 2020 beekeeping meant there’s never been a good opportunity to recover the super.

It’s worth remembering that the bees visible under the crownboard now are not the same bees that were visible in late August, when I last inspected the colony.

These are the long-lived winter bees. Many of them will still be there in early March.

However strong the summer colony was, this is an entirely different population of bees.

Although I’m sure there’s a relationship between summer and winter colony strength, I bet it isn’t linear and I’m sure there are a number of things that can influence it.

For example, consider two identical summer colonies. One is treated with Apivar and the other with Apiguard. In my experience (I used Apiguard for 5 years before moving back to Scotland) the thymol-containing Apiguard inhibits many queens from laying for an extended period. If this occurs when the colony is rearing the winter bees then 3, unless the queen (or colony) compensates 4 the final colony size will be smaller when compared with the Apivar-treated colony 5.

Other things, like the age of the queen or the levels of pathogens, are known (or might be expected) to exert a significant effect on late season brood rearing, further emphasising that there isn’t a simple relationship between summer and winter colony size.

Cluster shape

It’s also worth noting that the orientation and organisation of the cluster will influence its appearance. Consider this picture:

Appearances can be deceptive

The area (or volume if I could have drawn it in 3D) occupied by the cluster of bees in red is identical, but viewed from above, the diameter of the cluster in the top box would be half that of the cluster in the lower box 6.

I’ve noticed before that hives with ample insulation over the crownboard often appear to contain unusually large winter clusters. I’ve always assumed that this is because the bees prefer to orientate themselves into the warmest, most energy-efficient shape to get through the winter.

This shape might need to change to allow access to stores as the winter progresses.

Remember that bees have evolved to occupy often oddly-shaped hollow trees. These might have thick and thin walled regions, or odd draughts, necessitating the reorganisation of the winter cluster to achieve the optimum energy efficiency.

Gaffer tape

The other thing to note from the photographs above is the parlous state of the second crownboard. Both the central mesh (now sealed up) and some of the wooden frame are held together with gaffer tape. This is a near-ubiquitous aspect of my beekeeping, and an essential inclusion in the bee bag.

With the exception of the Correx roofs I use the 3M duct tape sold cheaply in the ‘Middle of Lidl’. It’s great stuff, easy to tear with gloved hands, and pretty strong and sticky.

However, it’s not particularly waterproof. If you want gaffer tape to hold your roofs together for years then the Lidl stuff doesn’t ‘cut the mustard’. Instead use Unibond Waterproof Power Tape, which I’ve written about when discussing building Correx roofs. Mine have withstood the rigours of the Scottish climate for at least 6 years 🙂

Corpses

In discussing the winter bees (above) I wrote ‘many of them will still be there in early March‘.

Many, but not all.

Throughout the winter bees die. If the weather is too cold for flying these corpses simply accumulate on the floor of the hive.

With a strong colony and a prolonged period of cold or wet weather the number of corpses can be so numerous that there’s a danger the hive entrance will be blocked.

If that happens the undertaker bees will not be able to remove them when the weather picks up.

In fact, if that happens, no bees will be able to exit the hive.

Under normal conditions bees do not defecate in the hive. They store it all up during periods of adverse weather and then go on a cleansing flight when the weather improves.

But they cannot do this if the entrance is blocked. This can lead to rapid transmission of pathogens such as Nosema in the colony, with soiling of the frames and inside of the hive.

The L-shaped entrance tunnel of my preferred kewl floors can get blocked with corpses during very prolonged cold or wet periods 7, and I’ve also seen it with reduced width entrances and mouseguards.

Hive entrance cleaning gizmo (patent pending)

To avoid any problems I simply clear any corpses from the entrance using a bent piece of wire every fortnight or so. In my experience there’s no need to do it any more frequently than that.

Stores

Despite the intense cold, the Fife colonies now appear to be rearing brood. I’ve not opened the boxes, and have no intention of doing so just to confirm brood rearing. Instead I’ve infrequently monitored the Varroa trays left underneath the stands in the bee shed 8. These now have faint stripes of biscuit-coloured capping crumbs, clear evidence that there is brood emerging.

And if there’s brood emerging they must have been fed (as developing larvae) on the stored honey from the hive.

Which means that the levels of stores available in the hive to get the colony through the remainder of the winter will be reducing.

I’ve used this ‘no expense spared’ graph before to show how the rate at which stores are consumed increases once brood rearing starts.

Colony weight in early spring

Don’t read too much into the labelling on the horizontal axis. The point I’m trying to emphasise is that stores are used much faster once the colony starts rearing brood, not that the rate changes suddenly in mid/late January.

And, if there’s a lot of brood rearing happening over a prolonged period, there’s a possibility that the colony will run out of stores and starve.

This means that it is critical to monitor the weight of the hive in the early months of the year 9.

Weighty matters

The goal is to determine whether the colony has sufficient stores to survive until forage becomes available.

Experienced beekeepers will do this by hefting the hive. This involves gently lifting the back 10 of the hive a centimetre or so and judging it’s weight.

This will then be compared with either (or both) the weight of a similar e.g. poly, cedar, single or double brood, empty hive or the weight of the same hive a week or two earlier.

As you might guess, this is a pretty inexact science 🙁

It really helps if all your hives are standardised … same material (cedar, poly), same number of brood boxes and the same type of roof.

However, the photo of the three hives (above) is pretty typical of my apiaries … different material, different roof and a different number of boxes.

D’oh!

Nevertheless, all I usually do is heft the hives.

As an alternative approach you can use a set of digital luggage scales. These can be used to weigh each side of the hive, again simply lifting it off the stand a centimetre or so until a stable reading is obtained. Add the two readings together and record them in your notebook.

Weighing a hive ...

Weighing a hive …

This method has the advantage that you get an actual number to compare week to week, not some vague recollection of the ‘feeling’ of the colony and what you think it should weigh.

Popeye

But there’s a problem with using the digital luggage scales.

To obtain a reading stable enough to be recorded you need to lift the hive and hold it very steady. At least, that’s what is needed with the scales I purchased.

With luggage this is trivial. You just stand above the bag and lift it with a straight arm and … peep! … you have the weight.

But a hive on a hive stand means that the digital scales are probably already at thigh or hip height. Lifting 20-30 kg a short distance and holding it steady enough with a bent arm is very difficult.

At least it is if you don’t have forearms like Popeye or eat 2000 calories of protein shakes for breakfast before spending the morning doing benchpresses 🙁

Now you’re torquing

Which brings me back to maths and physics.

A comment on a post last season brought the eponymously named Fisher’s Nectar Detector to my attention. This is a digital torque wrench adapted to read hive weights. They retail for about $130 in the US, but I don’t think they’re sold in the UK 11.

The torque wrench is attached to a short L-shaped steel bracket that is inserted between the brood box and the floor of the hive. The weight is determined by gently applying torque, separating the box by a small distance and then lowering it again.

Although I don’t like the idea of separating the floor and the brood box, I’m intrigued by the advantages this method might offer. I also see no reason why you couldn’t lift the back of the hive from the hive stand, much in the same way as you manually heft a hive.

But the digital wrenches available here (for ~£25-50) record torque (e.g. Newton-metres), not weight. Converting one to the other isn’t difficult if you have a good understanding of basic physics.

I don’t … 🙁

But I think the Professor of Mechanics in the School of Physics might 😉

I’ll keep you posted.


 

A New Year, a new start

The short winter days and long dark nights provide ample opportunity to think about the season just gone, and the season ahead.

You can fret about what went wrong and invent a cunning plan to avoid repetition in the future.

Or, if things went right, you can marvel at your prescience and draft the first couple of chapters of your book “Zen and the Art of Beekeeping”.

But you should also prepare for the normal events you expect in the season ahead.

In many ways this year 1 will be the same as last year. Spring build-up, swarming and the spring honey crop, a dearth of nectar in June, summer honey, miticides and feeding … then winter.

Same as it ever was as David Byrne said.

That, or a pretty close approximation, will be true whether you live in Penzance (50.1°N) or Thurso (58.5°N).

Geographical elasticity

Of course, the timing of these events will differ depending upon the climate and the weather.

For convenience let’s assume the beekeeping season is the period when the average daytime temperature is above 10°C 2. That being the case, the beekeeping season in Penzance is about 6 months long.

In contrast, in Thurso it’s only about 4 months long.

More or less the same things happen except they’re squeezed into one third less time.

Once you have lived in an area for a few years you become attuned to this cycle of the seasons. Sure, the weather in individual years – a cold spring, an Indian summer – creates variation, but you begin to expect when particular things are likely to happen.

There’s an important lesson here. Beekeeping is an overtly local activity. It’s influenced by the climate, by the weather in an individual year, and by the regional environment. You need to appreciate these three things to understand what’s likely to happen when.

OSR ... can you believe it?!

Late April 2016, Fife … OSR and snow

Events are delayed by a cold spring, but if there’s oil seed rape in your locality the bees might be able to exploit the bounteous nectar and pollen in mid-April.

Mid-April 2014, Warwickshire

Foraging might extend into October in an Indian summer and those who live near moorland probably have heather yielding until mid/late September.

Move on

You cannot make decisions based on the calendar.

In this internet-connected age I think this is one of the most difficult things for beginners to appreciate. How many times do you see questions about the timing of key events in the beekeeping season – adding supers, splitting colonies, broodlessness – with no reference to where the person asking, or answering, the question lives?

It often takes a move to appreciate this geographical elasticity of the seasons at different latitudes.

When I moved from the Midlands to Scotland 3 in 2015 I became acutely aware of these differences in the beekeeping season.

When queen rearing in the Midlands my records show that I would sometimes start grafting in the second week in April. In some years I was still queen rearing in late August, with queens being successfully mated in September.

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

In the last 5 years in Scotland the earliest I’ve seen a swarm was the 30th of April and the latest I’ve had one arrive in a bait hive was mid-July. Here, queen rearing is largely restricted to mid-May to late-June 4.

All of this is particularly relevant as most of my beekeeping is moving from the east coast to the west coast of Scotland this year.

I’m winding down my beekeeping in Fife and starting afresh on the west coast.

The latitude is broadly the same, but the local environment is very different.

And so are the bees … which means there are some major changes being planned.

What are local bees?

I’m convinced about the benefits of local bees. The science – which I’ve discussed in several previous posts – shows that locally-reared bees are physiologically adapted to their environment and both overwinter and survive better.

But what is local?

Does it mean within a defined geographical area?

If so, what is the limit?

Five miles?

Fifty miles?

What is local? Click to enlarge and read full legend.

I think that’s an overly simplistic approach.

The Angus glens are reasonably ‘local’ to me. Close enough to go for an afternoon walk, or a summer picnic. They’re less than 40 miles north as the bee flies 5.

However, they’re a fundamentally different environment from my Fife apiaries. The latter are in intensively farmed, low lying, arable land. In Fife there’s ample oil seed rape in Spring, field beans in summer and (though not as much as I’d like) lime trees, clover and lots of hedgerows.

The Angus glens

But the Angus glens are open moorland. There’s precious little forage early in the season, but ample heather in August and September. It’s also appreciably colder in the hills due to the altitude 6.

I don’t think you could keep bees on the Angus hills all year round. I’m not suggesting you could. What I’m trying to emphasise is that the environment can be dramatically different only a relatively short distance away.

My bees

I don’t name my queens 7 but I’m still very fond of my bees. I enjoy working with them and try and help them – by managing diseases, by providing space or additional food – when needed.

I’ve also spent at least a decade trying to improve them.

Every year I replace queens heading colonies with undesirable traits like running on the comb or aggression or chalkbrood. I use my best stocks to rear queen from and, over the years, they’ve gradually improved.

They’re not perfect, but they are more than adequate.

When I moved from the Midlands to Scotland I brought my bees with me.

Forgot the scythe

Delivering bees from the Midlands to Fife

I ‘imported’ about a dozen colonies, driving them up overnight in an overloaded Transit van. The van was so full of hive stands, empty (and full) beehives and nucs that I had a full hive strapped down in the passenger seat. Fortunately the trip went without a hitch (or an emergency stop 🙂 ).

Passenger hive

Passenger hive

They certainly were not ‘local’ but I’d invested time in them and didn’t want to have to start again from scratch. In addition, some hives were for work and it was important we could start research with minimum delay.

But I cannot take any of my bees to the west coast 🙁

Treatment Varroa free

Parts of the remote north and west coast of Scotland remain free of Varroa. This includes some of the islands, isolated valleys in mountainous areas and some of the most westerly parts of the mainland.

It also includes the area (Ardnamurchan) where I live.

Just imagine the benefits of not having to struggle with Varroa and viruses every season 🙂

Although I don’t feel as though I struggle with managing Varroa, I am aware that it’s a very significant consideration during the season. I know when and how to treat to maintain very, very low mite levels, but doing so takes time and effort.

It would certainly be preferable to not have to manage Varroa; not by simply ignoring the problem, but by not having any of the little b’stards there in the first place 😉

Which explains why my bees cannot come with me 8. Once Varroa is in an area I do not think it can be eradicated without also eradicating the bees.

A green thought in a green shade … Varroa-free bees on the west coast of Scotland

I’ve already got Varroa-free bees on the west coast, sourced from Colonsay.

Is Colonsay ‘local’?

Probably. I’d certainly argue that it’s more ‘local’ to Ardnamurchan than the Angus glens are to Fife, despite the distance (~40 miles) being almost identical. Both are at sea level, with a similar mild, windy and sometimes wet, climate.

Sometimes, in the case of Ardnamurchan, very wet 🙁

My cunning plans

Although the season ahead might be “same as it ever was”, the beekeeping certainly won’t be.

My priorities are to wind down my Fife beekeeping activities (with the exception of a few research colonies we will need until mid/late 2022) and to expand my beekeeping on the west coast.

Conveniently, because it’s something I enjoy and also because it’s not featured very much on these pages recently, these plans involve lots of queen rearing.

Queen rearing using the Ben Harden system

In Fife I’m intending to split my colonies to produce nucs for sale. I’ll probably do this by sacrificing the summer honey crop. It’s easier to rear queens in late May/June and the nucs that are produced can be sold in 2021, or overwintered for sale the following season.

If I leave the queen rearing until later in the summer I would be risking either poor weather for queen mating, or have insufficient time to ensure the nucs were strong enough to overwinter.

It’s easier (and preferable) to hold a nuc back by removing brood and bees than it is to mollycoddle a weak nuc through the winter.

And on the west coast I’ll also be queen rearing with the intention of expanding my colonies from two to about eight. In this case the goal will be to start as early as possible with the aim of overwintering full colonies, not nucs. However, I’ve no experience of the timing of spring build up or swarming on the west coast, so I’ve got a lot to learn.

Something old, something new

I favour queen rearing in queenright colonies. This isn’t the place to spend ages discussing why. It suits the scale of my beekeeping, the colonies are easy to manage and it is not too resource intensive.

I’ve written quite a bit about the Ben Harden system. I have used this for several years with considerable success and expect to do so again.

I’ve also used a Cloake board very successfully. This differs from the Ben Harden system in temporarily rendering the hive queenless using a bee-proof slide and upper entrance.

Cloake board ...

Cloake board …

Using a Cloake board the queen cells are started under the emergency response, but finished in a queenright hive. It’s a simple and elegant approach. In addition, the queen rearing colony can be split into half a dozen nucs for queen mating, meaning the entire thing can be managed starting with a single double brood colony.

One notable feature of the Cloake board is that the queen cells are raised in a full-sized upper brood box. During the preparation of the hive this upper box becomes packed with bees 9. This means there are lots of bees present for queen rearing.

Concentrating the bees ...

Concentrating the bees …

It’s definitely a case of “the more the merrier” … and, considering the size of my colonies, I’m pretty certain I can achieve even greater concentrations of bees using a Morris board.

A Morris board is very similar to a Cloake board except the upper face has two independent halves. It’s used with a divided brood box (or two 5 frame nucleus boxes) and can generate sequential rounds of queen cells. I understand the principle, but it’ll be a new method I’ve not used before.

Since the bees are concentrated into half the volume it should be possible to get very high densities of bees using a Morris board.

And since I like building things for beekeeping 10, that’s what I’m currently making …

Which explains why I’ve got bits of aluminium arriving in the post, chopped up queen excluders on my workbench and Elastoplast on three fingers of my left hand 🙁

Happy New Year!


Notes

I’m rationalising my beekeeping equipment prior to moving. I have far too much! Items surplus to requirements – currently mainly flat-pack National broods and supers – will be listed on my ‘For Sale‘ page.

 

Top of the Posts

The last post of the year is one that almost no-one will read because they’re too busy unwrapping presents, overeating and enjoying seeing friends and family.

Or perhaps not 🙁

A socially distanced Christmas is an oxymoron, but is also unfortunately what many responsible people will be ‘enjoying’ this year.

I’m writing this as the government imposes ever-tighter restrictions in England, and the Scottish government imposes further preventative measures. Our long-suffering NHS is beginning to struggle …

Entirely predictable, completely necessary, but nevertheless disheartening.

At times like these it’s reassuring to have something else to focus on, a reminder of good times passed, and the promise of better times in the future.

The winter solstice

Long before Christmas became an orgy of overindulgence, before snowmen, robins, reindeer and religion, there were pagan festivals associated with the increase in day length.

The Romans celebrated dies solis invicti nati (“day of the birth of the unconquered sun”) just after the winter solstice, on the 25th of December 1. The winter solstice itself – the date with the shortest amount of daylight – varies a bit from year to year. This year, in my location, it was on the 21st of December when the day was just six hours and 47 minutes long 2.

Before the Romans, there’s evidence that the winter solstice was significant to much older civilizations. Maeshowe, a 5000 year old Neolithic chambered cairn on Orkney, has an entrance corridor directly aligned with the setting sun of the winter solstice.

With the benefit of atomic clocks and a proper understanding of the solar system we now know that the winter solstice can fall anytime between the 20th and 23rd of December. The back wall of Maeshowe is illuminated by the setting sun for a few days either side of the winter solstice. Do not let this detract from the wonder of Maeshowe or the, similar but even older, Newgrange in Ireland.

And, for beekeepers, the winter solstice is also of significance as many choose to treat their colonies with oxalic acid in the holiday period after the winter solstice, and before they return to work in early January 3.

An opportunity for tasseographers?

But as I’ve discussed before … that may be too late. My bees in Fife, broodless in late October, are now rearing brood again. There’s ample evidence 4 for that on the Varroa trays left on the floor underneath the hive stands.

Scores on the doors

So, having already reviewed the 2020 beekeeping year last week, what was notable on The Apiarist this year?

The combined effect of furloughing 5, isolated living and copious amounts of caffeine (on which, more later) – coupled with my natural tendency to prattle on a bit – meant that the average length of posts increased by 40% to ~2500 words. 

Eight years of The Apiarist … and a 12,000-fold increase in visits

This extra effort didn’t go unnoticed, with a greater than 50% increase in both visitors and page reads.

Regular readers should realise I’m mixing correlation and causation here.

The increases in both readers and reading might really be because everyone is locked down and bored witless 😉

Comments

On average, most visitors only read a couple of pages and, of those, only 0.3% leave a comment. However, I’m very grateful to those that do. It allows me to clarify points that were garbled and to elaborate on topics dealt with in too little detail.

Or to answer a completely unrelated question 😉

As an aside, the server cunningly filters out spam comments from real ones. I periodically check it’s not being overzealous but cannot 6 look at all of them.

If you submitted a comment and it was missed it was either because it was:

  • too short
  • abusive 7 or full of irrational ranting 8 
  • advertising fake RayBans 9

The posts from 2020 that generated the most discussion were:

I almost always respond to comments, often simply by redirecting the reader to a previous post (or promising to cover the topic in more detail sometime in the future). Consequently, old posts still get read quite frequently.

Speaking of which … what were the most popular posts of 2020 and the most read posts of the year?

The most frequently read posts of 2020

I’m going to ignore the Google-promoted mid-June post I mentioned last week. That post, A June Gap, was notable for being read thousands of times on the day it appeared (and on the couple of days afterwards). Since then it’s been accessed just a few hundred times and has effectively disappeared without trace from current reading stats.

It’s what a statistician would call an ‘outlier’.

Other than that, these were the most read posts that were written in 2020:

  • Swarm prevention (17/4/20) – an overview of why colonies swarm and how beekeepers can delay (and sometimes even prevent) swarming, before implementing swarm control. Also notable as it received far fewer comments than the majority of posts written this season.
  • Queen cells … quantity and quality (22/5/20) – how many queen cells should you leave during swarm control? I also discussed the ‘features’ of a good queen cell.
  • Oxalic acid (Api Bioxal) preparation (13/11/20) – an update of a post from several years ago about the preparation of Api Bioxal solution for trickle treating colonies in the winter. This post also discussed the differences in the historic oxalic acid concentration used in the UK, and those in the published instructions with Api Bioxal.
  • Principles of swarm control (24/4/20) – an overview of how swarm control works, or should work if you do things correctly. As the title indicates, this post discusses the principles of the process and how it applies in several common methods of swarm control.
  • The nucleus option (1/5/20) – how to make up nucleus colonies.

So, with the exception of the rehash of some recipes, an emphasis on the principles and mechanics of swarm control. This is something that many beekeepers struggle with, but can be reliably achieved by understanding what triggers the process coupled with an appreciation of the makeup of a colony and the development cycle of queens and workers.

The most frequently read posts of all time

In which ‘all time’ actually means since late 2013 when the first posts appeared online.

  • Queen cells … don’t panic (15/6/18) – what to do when you discover queen cells during a regular inspection. This was little read when it first appeared, but became very popular this summer. I presume the 100’s still reading it every week this October/November are in Australia and New Zealand 11.

Queen cells … don’t panic

  • When to treat? (5/2/16) – in terms of presentation this post is showing its age. I’ll probably update it next year. However, the content remains as valid now as when it was written, emphasising the importance of protecting the winter bee population to successfully overwinter a colony. I think this is the most important lesson that new beekeepers need to learn.
  • Honey pricing (4/10/19) – what they don’t tell you during your “Begin beekeeping” course, and often won’t tell you afterwards. Do not undervalue your honey. Every super or bucket produced is worth hundreds of pounds 12.
  • The nucleus method (22/3/19) – my favoured swarm control method. Totally foolproof if conducted properly. It was the only method I used this year and was 100% successful.
  • Vertical splits and making increase (19/7/15) – how to do an artificial swarm using less equipment and less space. Another post that is, presentationally at least, showing its age and likely to be updated next year (if I remember 😉 ).

So, with the exception of the post on honey pricing, more articles on swarming and mite control.

You’d almost think that these topics were a particular problem for beekeepers 😉

Honey and coffee

I’m particularly pleased to see that the honey pricing post is popular. This is an important topic and beekeepers, like the general public, too often assume that supermarket prices are representative, or what they are competing with.

We should be aiming to produce a top quality product. It is made from the nectars available in ~8 square miles of land surrounding your hives. Aside from the fact it’s absolutely delicious, it’s also unique – a snapshot of a time and a place 13 – and should be priced accordingly. 

Don’t compare it with £1 a pound supermarket rubbish, containing a “Product of EU and non-EU countries”. That could mean anywhere or anything (and increasingly actually means adulterated with rice or corn syrup).

A much better comparison would be with the price premium of a top quality wine or malt whisky.

I’ll be returning to honey pricing and provenance again in 2021.

Of over 40,000 ‘clicks’ on ~2,000 links embedded in the posts, 1% were to Buy me a coffee. I set this up in June after the old server fell over due to overwork, and I was forced to upgrade.

Flat white …

I am particularly grateful to the ~100 supporters who have ‘bought me a coffee’ to fuel late night writing marathons. It is you are largely responsible for the 40% increase in the length of posts this year 14.

Thank you 🙂

Readers, readers everywhere …

Perhaps unsurprisingly, because of a shared language, the top 6 countries (of 193 in total) in the visitors list were the UK (53%), USA (24%), Ireland (4%), Canada (3%), Australia (3%) and New Zealand (1%). These figures make sense, but aren’t particularly trustworthy as you can be wherever you want with a properly configured VPN. 

Finding your way to here

New posts are automagically promoted on my (otherwise totally neglected) Facebook page and via Twitter. Of the two, Facebook generates about four times more traffic than Twitter.

I don’t use either for two-way communication. I’m old skool and prefer email 15, so don’t bother trying to reach me using either.

Don’t try using Pinterest either (does this even have a messaging function? I told you I was old skool 😉 ), which also generates quite a bit of traffic.

Subscribers receive an email whenever a new post appears, and if you submit a comment you can opt in to receive an email update when I (or someone else) adds further comments to a post. I restrict comments to the two years after a post appears. Therefore, if you sign up for comment emails they’ll stop when commenting on a particular post is closed.

Like page reads and site visitors, subscriber numbers have also increased significantly (~50%) this year … Welcome!

Remaining traffic arrives at this site from search engines like Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo and Yahoo. Increasingly these encrypt the search terms so I only see about 10% of them and they don’t seem to be as amusing as they used to be.

Finding your way from here

When you visit a website the server records where you came from, both geographically and in terms of the last webpage visited.

When you follow a link in one of the posts the server also records which link you followed to leave the page 16.

Other than links elsewhere on this site, the most popular destination was the equipment suppliers E.H. Thorne’s.

The regular links I make there are an example of pragmatism, not promotion.

There are many other good quality equipment suppliers. However, there aren’t any others 10 minutes down the road from me 😉  A combination of convenience and my dislike of P&P charges means the relatively few things I purchase these days come from Thorne’s.

2021, a fresh start

Of the links to Thorne’s, the most often followed was to this honey creamer … if you want one, mine is for sale 😉

One careful owner etc.

I’m in the process of planning for the season ahead. This includes reviewing things that are  “surplus to requirements” and having a bit of a clear out.

There are going to be some very major changes to my beekeeping in 2021 (and 2022) which will involve an emphasis on making bees, rather than making honey.

But that’s for a future post. 

Social distancing, online beekeeping talks and hand washing are going to remain the norm for 2021. Less than 1% of the UK population have received their first dose of the vaccine in the first fortnight after the vaccines became available. At that rate (and it will speed up) it will be 11 years until the population is all vaccinated 17

Enjoy your holiday/break from furlough/family-free time/oxalic acid dribbling (delete as appropriate).

I hope you’ll visit again in the New Year …

Happy Christmas 🙂


 

2020 in retrospect

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote my retrospective review of the 2019 season.

At the time I was thinking “What a nightmare! If I never again have a year like that it’ll be too soon.”.

This was due to a major fire in my research institute which terminated a 30 year research programme and drowned me in a tsunami of administration.

The little beekeeping I did in 2019 kept me sane. Insurance issues and a new research facility took every waking hour. There was no ‘active’ queen rearing and my swarm control involved littering half of Fife with bait hives.

I piled on the supers, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

And got away with it 🙂

But by February 2020, the anniversary of the fire, it was looking as though those problems were just the hors d’oeuvres.

Coronavirus (Google Trends search terms, 12 months to mid-December 2020)

‘Coronavirus’ was a word transitioning from white-coated virology nerds with expansive foreheads to everyday, and then every minute, usage.

Covid and stockpiling

The word ‘Covid’ was first used in 1686. For its first 333 years it referred to an Anglo-Indian unit of linear measurement 1. On the 11th of February it appeared as a hashtag on Twitter and today it features a dozen times on the BBC homepage.

By early March it was clear that major societal changes were going to be needed to control virus transmission. A couple of days after spring talks to Oban beekeepers, Edinburgh and District BKA and the SNHBS the country went into lockdown …

The wild west

… by which time I was jealously guarding my panic-bought toilet rolls 2 on the remote west coast of Scotland.

The national beekeeping associations negotiated travel arrangements for animal husbandry purposes and the rest, as they say, is history.

I’ve already written about the practicalities of the small amount of long distance beekeeping I did in 2020. I won’t rehash the gory details here, but will make a few more general comments.

Highs and lows

It was a pretty good beekeeping start to the year. The spring was significantly drier than the 30 year average. This meant that the bees could get out and exploit the oil seed rape (OSR).

Spring 2020 rainfall anomaly

Consequently the honey yield per colony was the best I’ve had in the five years I’ve been back in Scotland. I think it would have been even better had I been present to add the supers in a more regulated manner … and to remove them before they crystallised.

In contrast, the summer was characterised by a series of lows … low pressure systems, bringing more rain than usual.

This probably reduced the time available for foraging, but perhaps was compensated by better nectar flows. My two main production apiaries performed very differently.

One generated almost no honey per hive, the other again generated record yields of outstandingly flavoured summer honey.

Summer honey

Guess which apiary contained more production hives?

Typical 🙁

Putting the control into swarm control

Swarm control usually involves careful observation of colony development coupled with a timely intervention to split the colony and prevent swarming.

The timely intervention is often at different times for different colonies, even in the same apiary.

There was none of that this year.

With only about four inspections all season I implemented swarm control  in the majority of colonies well before queen cells developed.

The method should be termed something like split and hope 😉

In practical terms it involved preemptive application of the nucleus method of swarm control.

The only decision I made for each colony was whether to apply swarm control or not.

I then made up the queenright nucs all on the same day. The nucs were made significantly weaker than usual to delay the time when I’d have to expand them up to a full colony.

Overall the approach worked very well, at least in terms of swarm control, as none of my colonies swarmed 🙂

The colonies that weren’t split were given lots of room and a combination of inspired judgement a long June gap and some iffy midsummer weather meant they stayed together.

Hieroglyphics

I need to go back through my notes to determine how individual colonies performed in terms of honey production. Other than the absence of any summer honey from one apiary, were there differences in terms of the amount nectar collected between colonies that were split or not?

Unfortunately, the (frankly) manic beekeeping that resulted from compressing everything into a few inspections over the season meant my notes are, in places, rather sparse 3.

Too weak to split

+3 supers Q+ good

WMCLQ WTF?

Grrr 4

Deciphering my hieroglyphics will necessitate a large glass of shiraz and a long winter night – two other things, along with the loo roll, I have an abundance of at the moment.

Varroa management

The other reason I need to review my notes is to look at the relationship (if any) between the in-season colony management 5 and end-of-season mite levels.

I do have some reasonably good counts of the mite drop during late summer and midwinter treatments 6. These are particularly reliable for the colonies in the bee shed because the floors I use have a tightly fitting Varroa tray, meaning that anything that drops, stays dropped 7.

Cedar floor and plywood tray …

In addition, I’m confident that the colonies received their ‘midwinter’ treatment – in mid/late November – when totally broodless.

There were significant differences between the mite drops of colonies in the bee shed. Some dropped 250-500 8 while others dropped less than 75. Those figures are totals over 8-9 weeks with Apivar plus the fortnight or so after oxalic acid treatment.

All other things being equal I’ll use the colonies with lower mite levels for queen rearing next season. For whatever reason, those colonies appear better able to manage their Varroa levels. Perhaps this is due to increased grooming or better defence (e.g. turning away potentially mite-laden drifting workers 9). If their temperament is good and they overwinter well they will be a good choice to rear queens from.

Inevitably all things will not be equal, but at least I’ll have tried.

And I’m hoping to be doing a reasonable amount of queen rearing in 2021 … though after a devastating fire and a global pandemic I wouldn’t be surprised if the Earth was obliterated by an asteroid just as I start grafting 🙁

Going Varroa free

I’ve spent almost all year on the west coast, and will be spending increasing amounts of time here in the coming years. The area is remote, very sparsely populated and Varroa free.

It also has spectacular sunrises …

Red sky in the morning …

… and scenery …

View from Ben Laga to Mull

Actually, until I imported 10 a couple of colonies, it appeared to be completely honey bee free. I’ve sourced Varroa-free colonies from an island off the west coast of Scotland.

I’ve often written about the importance of being ‘in tune’ with the local beekeeping environment. It’s already clear that the east and west coasts of Scotland 11, despite being separated by only ~120 miles, have distinct climates, nectar and pollen availability.

What? No oil seed rape?

On the west coast there’s no OSR. In fact, there’s almost no arable farming at all. I’ll be interested to see what the bees access for spring and mid-season nectars. With mixed woodland, and more being planted, and lots of native flowers they should have a good selection.

Early season primroses

There are some huge lime trees just down the road. These need rain to generate good levels of nectar, and rain is something else we have in abundance 😉

The main source of nectar is the heather. This is something 12 I have almost no experience of. In the Midlands I was always too busy to transport hives to Derbyshire for the heather. Fife, despite being in Scotland, has very little heather moorland and most beekeepers have to take their hives to the Angus Glens. I never bothered.

Now there’s acres of the stuff just up the hill at the back of the house. Not particularly good quality heather moorland, but lots of it.

I’ll return to this when I discuss planning for the season ahead, sometime in the New Year.

The Apiarist – online and offline

This is the 51st post of the year.

Regular as clockwork

With a bit of luck I’ll also scribble something for the 25th, so completing a ‘full house’ for 2020. It’s too soon to look at any year-end statistics, but it’s clear that lots of people had lots more time for lots more reading this year.

I wonder why?

Everything came to a grinding halt in mid-June when a post featured on one of the Google news sites. In one afternoon the server was inundated with people eager to read about the June gap.

Thousands and thousands of them 🙁

Since most of them didn’t look elsewhere on the site I suspect the topic was a bit too niche for the majority of the internet illiterati.

After a couple of hiccups and a faltering stagger the server collapsed under the onslaught. I spent an afternoon moving it to a host with four times the capacity (at four times the cost) and it’s hung on gamely ever since.

Not only have beekeepers been doing lots more reading, they’ve also doing lots more listening and watching.

Online beekeeping talks

Many beekeeping associations – both local and national – have developed online winter talk programmes.

I’ve attended lively SBA Q&A sessions, BIBBA webinars by Adam Tofilski on preserving native bees, and I spent yesterday evening learning all about distinguishing Apis mellifera mellifera from ligustica or carnica or Buckfast or mongrels, care of the SNHBS.

And I’ve delivered more talks to bigger audiences this winter than in all of the last few years combined.

These talks – not mine specifically, but all of those available – fill the void between September and April. Although perhaps not the easiest way to establish new friendships 13 they are an excellent way to keep in contact with people from all over the country. In that regards they’re much better than ‘in person’ evening talks, and much more akin to the annual beekeeping conventions.

Though, unlike the conventions, my wallet doesn’t return emaciated from an hour or two going round the trade stalls.

Online talks are also good for keeping in contact with people on the other side of the county, let alone the country. It’s not unusual for my talk to be sandwiched by friendly banter between beekeepers separated by both distance and Covid.

Will this continue? I expect so. I don’t expect in person talks will start until 2022 at the earliest. However, I think – just as remote working will increase – online talks will be a regular feature of the winter beekeeping calendar. The benefits outweigh the slightly impersonal format, and many people appreciate the convenience of not having to travel 14.

Science aside

The enforced downtime, with labs closed and staff furloughed, has enabled me to finally write up a backlog of papers on honey bee virus research. A few of these have featured on this site already, in discussions of whether DWV replicates in Varroa, or in bumble bees, and in the inexorable rise of chronic bee paralysis virus as an emerging pathogen of honey bees.

I’ve yet to find time to write about our green bees because I want to include a really elegant experiment we have yet to complete. These bees are infected with a virus that expresses a green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish. When visualised under UV illumination the individual cells and tissues in which the virus replicates are easily detected. More about this next year.

Green bees

Several more papers are in the pipeline or in preparation, on rescuing hives with catastrophically high mite loads, on competition between different variants of DWV and on the landscape-scale control of Varroa.

Lessons learned

Considering the paucity of beekeeping this year I’ve still managed to learn a few new tricks and improve a few old ones.

I’ve learned how little intervention is required to manage colonies adequately (defined by good health and no swarms, though undoubtedly at the cost of maximising the honey yield).

‘Adequately’ because I also learned how unrewarding it was keeping bees without beekeeping.

For the first time I used air freshener to unite lots of colonies during a particularly busy long weekend when I requeened the majority of my hives. It’s a new trick to me, though widely used by others. Having used it, I’m now confident it works. I’ll use it again if I’m similarly rushed for time, but expect to usually rely on uniting over newspaper.

I’ve gained more confidence in accurately guesstimating how weak I can make up nucs, without them succumbing to robbing, wasps or starvation. Undoubtedly I was aided with reasonable weather and good nectar and pollen availability, but it will be a skill I’ll be able to use again in future years.

I also learned  – or at least reinforced my appreciation of (as I’ve done this previously) – how to hold back the nucs, so preventing them swarm, by removing lots of brood 15. The brood was used to boost honey production colonies which were requeening themselves. With some good judgement, and a big slice of luck, this all went very well.

The importance of regularly checking bait hives was also emphasised when I found this …

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the bee shed …

This season was unusual as I didn’t attract a single swarm to a bait hive, probably the first time that’s happened for a decade. Partly this was because I set so few out, but presumably it also reflected my dalliance with waspkeeping.

Finally, I’ve learned there are quicker ways to prepare spreadable ‘soft set’ honey that the interminable Dyce method. I’ve recently acquired a new honey creamer and the first fifty jars have been distributed to friends and family for Christmas. I expect very positive feedback 16 due to the extensive product testing and quality control applied during its preparation 😉