Category Archives: Talks

Eating my words

I periodically look at the access statistics of this site. It gives me an idea of what’s popular, which subjects might be worth revisiting and which posts have sunk without trace into bottomless void of the internet.

Daily page views are only 50% what they were in June. Maybe it’s the chaos/excitement/disappointment (delete as appropriate) of the US election or the deja vu and crushing inevitably of Lockdown 2.0, but beekeeping appears to be getting less popular.

Or perhaps it just reflects the fact that it’s the end of the season and everyone is frantically catching up on all the tasks they postponed from earlier in the year when they were in the apiary 1.

That’s not to say that there is no beekeeping to do at this time of the year.

Mite corpses

I usually use Apivar for Varroa control. The active ingredient, amitraz, remains effective. I like Apivar as it works even at the lower temperatures we have in Scotland. In addition, the queen continues laying – in contrast to Apiguard for example – at precisely the time the colony needs to be rearing lots of long lived winter bees.

Double brood colony the day before Apivar treatment added

I insert the Apivar strips as soon as the summer honey supers are removed and at the same time as the autumn fondant blocks are added. This year the strips went in on the 28th of August. The mite drop is then monitored over subsequent weeks.

Or should be.

My continued absence on the remote west coast meant that the counts of mite corpses were a bit hit and miss this year 2.

Mite drops – colonies in the bee shed, autumn 2020

The counts were sufficient to determine the relative mite infestation levels and observe how they dropped over time. Unfortunately, they weren’t detailed or frequent enough to see real differences on a day-by-day basis.

I’d hoped to get this to discuss the influence of the reducing laying rate of the queen on apparent mite infestation levels, but that will have to wait until another year.

Mite drop data

The four colonies plotted on the graph above are in our bee shed. They are all within 4 metres of each other, and have been for at least a year. None have had any Varroa management this season 3 other than the Apivar added in late August.

Hives in the bee shed

One of the colonies (#1) has had sealed brood periodically removed for experiments. Hive #2 and #4 are on a double brood box, the other two are on singles. All the hives are Swienty or Abelo (poly) Nationals.

The first thing to notice is that there are very significant differences in cumulative mite drop over the first 40 days after starting treatment. Rather than graph these numbers, here’s a simple list by hive number:

  1. 73
  2. 697
  3. 597
  4. 120

Infestation levels can differ significantly, even in colonies within the same apiary. Or on the same hive stand. Monitoring a single hive as a sentinel for a complete apiary could be very misleading.

Hive #1 counts are probably lower because the colony is a bit weaker than the others (though that’s relatively speaking – many beekeepers would consider it quite strong). However, the drop is not significantly different from #4 which is a very strong colony. 

Throughout the treatment period shown (we stopped counting in October) the average mite drop per day from #1 and #4 never exceeded 5 which is satisfying low. There’s little else to say about these two colonies 4.

The high mite drop from colonies #2 and #3 is about as high as I’ve ever seen in my own hives in Scotland. 

Mite reductions

When I lived in the Midlands I saw higher counts. There’s a much higher density of apiaries and beekeepers there than in Fife, and it was more difficult to manage colonies to routinely have low mite numbers. I’ve always assumed this was due to robbing and drifting – isolation definitely helps – but my Varroa management was also a bit different (in both method and timing).

Hive #3 trace shows a typical reduction week on week over the treatment period. High at the start and negligible after about 40 days.

Colony #2 has a strange increase in mite drop in the third week of treatment. I don’t really understand this. One possibility is that the colony was robbing a nearby heavily-infested colony 5 during this period, with the foragers bringing back phoretic mites as well as the stores they’d robbed out.

In both these “high mite” colonies the mite drop after ~40 days was averaging 5 per day or less, which should be OK. They will be monitored again in mid/late November and after treatment with Api-Bioxal during a broodless period

For reference, colony #1 was broodless when checked on the 13th of October, a few days after the last count on the graph above. 

Apivar strip removal

The approved duration of treatment with Apivar is 6-10 weeks. I usually remove strips after 6 weeks if the mite drop is low and steady. There’s nothing to be gained from overtreating.

However, since I was aware of the high mite drop from colonies #2 and #3 I left the strips in for a bit longer, removing them on the 30th of October (i.e. 9 weeks). 

Used and removed Apivar strips

If beekeepers are to avoid Varroa acquiring resistance to Apivar it is very important that the miticide is used properly. Removing the strips within 10 weeks very important. 

I attended an online Q&A session with Luis Molero (Scotland’s lead Bee Inspector) organised by the SBA. In this he described finding hives on heather moors which still contained Apivar strips. These had presumably been left in the hive after a mid-season treatment, though whether by accident or design is unclear. 

This is poor practice on two counts; continued presence of low levels of the miticide would contribute to selecting amitraz-resistant mites and there is the additional risk of tainting the honey with miticide. 

Reading and writing

I spend a lot of my week stuck in the office reading and writing. Grants, manuscripts, strategy documents, complaints, the BBKA Q&A page, menus (well, OK, not menus … and relatively few complaints) etc.

As a consequence I rarely spend much time reading for pleasure. Months go by without me opening The Scottish Beekeeper, the BBKA Newsletter or ABJ. However, as the beekeeping season draws to a close I have a bit more free time and so periodically binge-read some of these to catch up.

The view from the office … another reason I’m behind on my reading

Usually, by the time I read something, it’s out-of-sync with the season. I find myself reading about queen rearing strategies in late October, or overwintering queens in early February. Much of this is promptly forgotten … unless I make notes and write about it here.

You could consider The Apiarist as a sort of aide memoire for this forgetful beekeeper 😉

However, a few weeks ago I read a letter to the editor in The Scottish Beekeeper on the perils of feeding fondant. I’ll paraphrase here both to avoid copyright issues and because I’ve lost (!) the particular issue the letter appeared in.

The gist of the letter was that the correspondent had lost several colonies when fondant had gone sloppy and dripped down between the frames, killing the colony in the middle of the winter. 

I sent a letter to the editor saying that I’d only seen this when the colony had perished through disease. Healthy colonies, clustering under unfinished fondant blocks, tended to keep nibbling away and so were not swamped by a tsunami of cold, syrupy fondant.

Or words to that effect.

Don’t speak write too soon

I’ve got a couple of Varroa-free colonies on the west coast of Scotland. Both were started from nucs in mid/late summer, built up well and collected a reasonable amount of nectar from the heather. I left this for them, nadiring the partially-filled super and – as I usually do – adding a block of fondant on a queen excluder.

Both colonies are in Abelo poly hives with open mesh floors and a 5cm block of Kingspan insulation under the polystyrene roof. This is typically how my colonies would overwinter 6.

Green thoughts in a green shade

Neither colony used much more than 6 kg of fondant as both brood boxes had ample stores. I therefore intended to remove the unused fondant ‘at some point’. 

For a future post here I wanted a photograph of the typical ‘stripes’ of brood cappings visible on a Varroa tray. Since these west coast colonies brood later in the season than my Fife bees I inserted a tray below one colony a couple of weeks ago.

‘At some point’ turned out to be today (5th of November).

To my surprise. the underside of the fondant block in the hive with the Varroa tray was distinctly soft and sloppy.

Sloppy fondant stuck to the top bars – this hive had the Varroa tray inserted.

In contrast, the other colony was much as I’d expected. No sticky fondant.

No Varroa tray, no sloppy fondant stuck to the top bars.

Clearly, under certain conditions, a fondant block can soften sufficiently to start to dribble down between the frames. It’s worth emphasising the colonies are in the same type of hive (floor, boxes and roof), in the same apiary and are of equivalent strength. The only difference is the presence of a well-fitting Varroa tray in one of them.

Eat my words

I think the explanation for the difference from a) my previous experience, and b) between the two hives pictured above, is straightforward.

It rains a lot on the west coast. In the last fortnight we’ve had 280 mm of rain, with today being the first mainly dry day 7. This was why I’d chosen today to remove the fondant.

With that much rain the humidity levels are also quite high. With the Varroa tray in place I suspect that that humidity levels within the hive were higher still. Under these conditions I suggest that the fondant absorbs water faster than the bees can consume/store it.

These conditions are quite specific and are only likely to be an issue for beekeepers (or bees!) living in areas of high and regular rainfall. The original letter to The Scottish Beekeeper was from a beekeeper in Dumfries and Galloway.

Fife and the Midlands – the only areas I have many years experience of beekeeping in – both have less than 750 mm of rainfall per annum. I’ve had hives with both fondant and Varroa trays in place for weeks without any problems.

In my letter to The Scottish Beekeeper I described the hive insulation but failed to mention the open mesh floor. D’oh!

It’s now time to quickly write a follow up to explain these recent observations.

This example rather neatly demonstrates the influence of local conditions … and the importance of trying to interpret what you see when opening a hive. 

Since I’ve now written about it (my aide memoire for a forgetful beekeeper 😉 ) I’ll hopefully also remember this lesson next winter.

Speaking

It’s turning out to be a busy winter for talks to beekeeping associations.

These are increasingly popular as association members realise the benefits they offer.

You don’t have to negotiate icy roads in the dark to sit for an hour in a draughty church hall. 

No longer do you have to squint at an image projected onto a creamy-yellow wall with an irritating picture hook in the middle of every slide.

You can sit in the comfort of your own lounge (or bath), sipping shiraz and occasionally staring at a nice picture on a high resolution screen.

At least, that’s what I’m doing … as well as talking a bit 😉

I still lament the lack of homemade cakes. 

However, I have taught myself to make pizza during lockdown.

Pizza

If I’m mumbling a bit when I’m talking you’ll know why 😉


 

The new normal

For many, beekeeping associations provide the bookends that bracket the practical beekeeping season. In meetings during the dark, wet, cold winter months we can at least discuss bees, reminisce about the season just gone or plan for the season ahead.

Usually with tea and biscuits 🙂

Or in the more civilised associations (and a quick plug here for the Fortingall & District BKA) with fantastic homemade cakes 😉

Elderflower lemon drizzle cake

Beekeeping associations, through the training and social events that they organise and the contacts that they enable, provide an important support framework for beekeepers, both new and old.

Training new beekeepers is one important function associations provide, but more experienced beekeepers also benefit from co-operative purchasing schemes for foundation or fondant 1 and – of course – from the winter seminar programmes.

Double whammy

The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a double whammy to many associations.

Training events, necessitating flagrant breaches of social distancing during hands-on practical beekeeping demonstrations, are a problem. Many associations delivered the theoretical coursework before lockdown was imposed, but were subsequently unable to provide the practical component of the training for beginners.

It’s difficult to spot the queen from 50 centimetres sometimes, let alone 2 metres.

Returning a marked and clipped queen – tricky to do at arm’s length

The independent first inspections for 2020 beginners are likely to have been a pretty tough challenge for many. Congratulations to those who got through them and the rest of the season with little support.

I’m hearing that some associations have cancelled or postponed all training events for the ’20/’21 winter season.

The imposition of lockdown 2 in March probably had little impact on the ’19/’20 winter seminar programmes, but they’re likely to have a significant impact going forwards.

I give quite a few talks on science and practical beekeeping in most winters. Audiences and venues vary, depending on the association. I’ve talked in drafty church halls to groups of 15, or swanky conference centres to ten times that number.

There is always a good turnout by new beekeepers, or even by those who have yet to start keeping bees.

Not your typical beekeeping audience … or church hall

However, there is generally a gender imbalance, with more men than women attending. And – and I’m afraid there’s no gentler way to write this – there’s an age imbalance as well, with the enthusiastic young ‘uns outnumbered by older, and in some cases old, beekeepers.

Statistics

This age and gender imbalance inevitably make the ’20/’21 winter seminar programmes an endangered species, at least in the format we’ve grown used to over past seasons.

If you look at the statistics for serious Covid-19 cases it is clear that there is a strong bias towards elderly males. There are other biases as well … underlying medical complications and ethnicity also have a major influence, though whether the latter is socio-economic, genetic or due to the presence of comorbidities remains unclear.

All of which means that spending an hour in a drafty church hall listening to a talk on bait hives is probably unwise … not least because the social distancing needed precludes any chance to huddle together for warmth when the one bar electric heater blows a fuse.

Zoom …

In the brave new, socially distanced, world we’re currently inhabiting, drafty church halls and excellent homemade cakes are now just a distant memory. 

Instead we have Teams talks, Demio demonstrations and WebEx webinars. 

And Zoom, but I can’t think of a suitable alliteration to go with Zoom 🙁

For many office-based workers, lockdown resulted in the substitution of boardroom meetings with spare bedroom virtual meetings. 

Hastily repurposed guest bedrooms have become home offices. The combination of IKEA furniture, a reasonably recent laptop and a fast internet connection has enabled ‘business as usual’.

Almost.

All of my meetings – with administrators, colleagues, my research team and students – have been online since late March (and in certain cases since early March).

Academics are used to collaborating globally and so were already familiar with Zoom, Teams or Skype for conference calls and job interviews. These have just continued 3, and been extended to now include all the in-person meetings that used to happen.

One or two colleagues have embraced this expanded use of the technology to have their own ‘green screens’. This allows their head and upper torso to be projected in front of a selected image – of a tropical beach, their favourite golf course or local boozer.

The Maldives … the perfect backdrop for a dull committee meeting

The really professional ones even change out of their pyjamas before calls … 😉

But many beekeepers will be largely unfamiliar with the technology and the advantages it offers … and disadvantages it imposes.

Online beekeeping talks

I’ve both attended and delivered online beekeeping talks. Not a huge number, but enough to have a fair idea of what works and what doesn’t. In addition, I’ve taken part – as audience or presenter – in hundreds of non-beekeeping online events.

For readers who have yet to take part here’s a general guide of what to expect.

The speaker and topic are advertised in advance and those interested in listening/watching register to attend. The talk is hosted by the beekeeping association who provide a ‘chairperson’ or ‘master of ceremonies’. This person has the unenviable task of dealing with the speaker, the technology and the audience. 

And two of these three might do something incomprehensibly stupid … and the internet can break.

On the evening of the talk 4 you login via a website (using a username/password provided on registration) and launch the necessary software to take part in the event.

Eventbrite beekeeping talk

Sometimes this can be through the web browser, but – more usually – it involves downloading and installing software onto your computer. Which might be an issue for some people wanting to take part. Do this in advance of the start time of the talk, not in the last 2 minutes before kickoff.

After an introduction by the chairperson, control of the graphics is usually handed to the speaker who delivers the talk. To avoid awkward ‘noises off’ 5 the chairperson usually mutes all other microphones

Why unenviable?

I previously described the chairpersons role as unenviable.

While the speaker blathers away the chair is probably:

  • dealing with email enquiries about how to launch the software
  • justifying why there isn’t a video of the speaker actually speaking (it’s turned off to save bandwidth), and
  • telling someone that they are the only person unable to hear the presenter. Therefore, it must be their audio output settings that are wrong.

And if that isn’t enough, the chair will be collecting and collating questions during and after the talk, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly.

Finally, it’s not unusual for the chair to also ensure that the talk is recorded so that those who couldn’t download the software or hear the presenter can attempt to listen to it in the future.

That’s a lot to deal with.

Questions and answers

Good talks generate questions.

As a speaker, there’s nothing worse than a talk being met by an echoing wall of silence.

Hello? Is there anybody [out] there? Just nod if you can hear me 6.

Some are points of clarification, others are after elaboration or explanation of a contrary view.

Some questions are nothing whatsoever to do with the talk 😉

They might not even be about beekeeping.

All require an answer of some kind.

And this is where the technology gets in the way of communication. 

Questions from the floor, in which the audience member switches on their microphone, clearly enunciates the question, and turns off the mike returning ‘control’ to the host and speaker cause delays.

Often significant delays. However, even short breaks interrupt good communication – think back to the lag on transatlantic satellite phone calls. 

The speaker asks the question clearly … but omits to turn on the mike.

Or they fail to the turn off the mike, so the entire audience hears the follow up “and I hope he answers quickly as Strictly’s on in a few minutes”.

For a couple of questions this is just about acceptable. For twenty or thirty it is not.

So, the beleaguered chair takes written questions from the audience, collates them, removes duplicates … and then asks the presenter on behalf of the audience.

I refer you back to the word ‘unenviable’. If you take part, cut the chair some slack …

Disadvantages of online talks

Unfortunately a subset of beekeepers who would have attended a gathering on the second Tuesday of the month in the church hall will never attend an online beekeeping talk.

For a start, they might not even own a computer. 

They might – and I have considerable sympathy for this view – mainly attend talks for the craic, the opportunity to catch up with friends and the chance of some homemade lemon drizzle cake.

All of those are good reasons to attend a talk in person … and in the case of lemon drizzle cake I’d say a compelling reason to attend 😉

As a regular speaker at associations I’d add here that the craic and the homemade cake are the parts of the evening I enjoy the most. After all, I’ve heard the talk before. I might even have heard the questions before 😉

None of these more social things are achievable online. Everyone listens in their own little bubble, isolated from the shared experience.

If they can’t bake it’s going to be a long evening 🙁

For others, the technology will continue to be a problem. They can see the pictures but can’t hear the words. Or vice versa. Or worse …

No Zoom for you …

The fact that 190 others don’t have the same problems just makes it a more frustrating and unrewarding experience. Being live, there’s no real chance of resolving these ‘local’ problems without delaying the talk and irritating the rest of the audience.

Over time the numbers unable to handle the technology will reduce.

In some cases it’ll be because they have learned to master it – either by perseverance, or by the beekeeping association providing some sort of training sessions.

In other cases it’ll be because they simply gave up 🙁

Like those who don’t have a computer in the first place, this means online talks are serving a different audience and some association members are likely to be excluded by the switch to online talks.

Advantages of online talks

But it’s not all bad news. I can see some benefits for both the speaker and audience from online presentations.

Associations can invite speakers from anywhere.

They don’t have to be from the same county.

Or the same country.

This broadens the topics that can be covered and provides the opportunity to discover different beekeeping practices from other areas (always remembering that this might simply confuse beginners).

There are some good speakers out there – just look through past programmes for the BBKA, SBA or WBKA Annual Conventions or the National Honey Show.

Associations can ‘share’ speakers by running joint events or inviting neighbouring association members to register.

As a speaker, this means that audiences tend to be larger. Bigger audiences are almost always better 7. Since everyone is logging on, rather than driving across the county to the venue, there’s less chance a spot of bad weather will put people off.

This is a huge advantage for the speaker as well … I’ve regularly talked, answered questions, drunk tea, chatted, eaten lemon drizzle cake, drunk more tea, said my goodbyes and then driven for three hours to get home 8.

The Beast from the East ...

The Beast from the East …

I’ve also had to cancel talks at relatively short notice due to ‘adverse driving conditions’ – which in Scotland means a bit more than a dusting of snow. 

None of that happens in our brave new digital world.

Is this the new normal?

For the foreseeable future I think it is. The national lockdown is being replaced by local restrictions where virus transmission is increasing. However, school and university students have yet to return and this will likely lead to increased transmission in some areas (in Scotland, we’re already seeing this, though transmission is usually ascribed to “unregulated house parties” rather than within the school 9 ).

A vaccine remains some way off. It’ll be even longer until we have vaccinated a large enough proportion of the population to interrupt transmission.

Or to know how long immunity lasts.

All of which means that indoor social events, like talks about bait hives or swarm control, are likely to be undesirable, unattractive or simply not allowed.

What can we do to improve things?

Delivering a talk online is a very much less rewarding experience than doing so in person.

There’s no ability to properly engage with the audience – no banter, no eye contact, no jokey comments.

You can’t tell whether the old boy in the back row has switched off or just nodded off.

Or perhaps he’s simply cheesed off because he disagrees with everything I’m saying.

You don’t necessarily know who is in the audience – you might know overall numbers, but not whether the local bee inspector or beefarmer is logged on. Knowledge of the audience can influence the way you pitch a talk.

It’s an oddly sterile undertaking. This makes judging the pacing and content of the talk very much more difficult. With a live audience it’s usually possible to tell whether they’re ‘keeping up’ or ‘tuning out’. You can’t do this online.

If the audience is present you can ask questions and get immediate answers … anyone who has heard me talk will know I ask about drifting and ‘how many of your bees are your bees?’. There are ways of doing this online, but it requires familiarity with more software (or additional features of the current software).

Starting materials ...

Practical demonstrations and online presentations – tricky

In the meantime …

  1. Associations can help their members embrace the technology by providing limited training where it is needed. 
  2. Think creatively about topics that can be covered within the limitations of the technology. For example, some of the talks I’ve been to in person have had a practical component. I’ve attended excellent candle dipping and skep making workshops 10. Likewise, I talk about DIY for beekeeping which involves handing round examples of my hastily cobbled together beautifully crafted floors or roofs. These sorts of things might be achievable entirely online, perhaps with more videos. However, preparing these will certainly require a lot more work by the presenter to be effective.
  3. Provide feedback to speakers – what worked and what didn’t work?

Welcome to the new normal … I hope to “see” you online sometime 🙂


Notes

The new normal means “a previously atypical or unfamiliar situation, behaviour, etc., which has become standard, usual, or expected” (OED). Although now associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s usage can be traced back over 200 years. The big increase in usage was in reference to the 2008 financial crisis, and – historically – it is often used in reference to economic events. 

The new normal – Google ngram results

The gentle art of beekeeping

High summer.

The swarm season had been and gone. The June gap was over. Grafts made at the peak of the swarm season had developed into lovely big fat queen cells and been distributed around nucleus colonies for mating.

That was almost six weeks ago.

From eclosion to laying takes a minimum of about 8 days. The weather had been almost perfect for queen mating, so I was hopeful they’d got out promptly, done ‘the business’, and returned to start laying.

That would have been about a month ago.

Good queens

I’d spent a long morning in the apiary checking the nucs and the colonies they were destined for. In the former I was looking for evidence that the queen was mated and laying well. That meant looking for nice even frames of sealed worker brood, with some – the first day or two of often patchy egg laying – now emerging.

Brood frame with a good laying pattern

It was warming up. More significantly, it was getting distinctly close and muggy. I knew that thunderstorms were predicted late in the afternoon, but by late morning it already had that oppressive ‘heavy’ feel to the air. Almost as though there wasn’t quite enough oxygen in it.

Never mind the weather, the queens were looking good. 90% of them were mated and laying well.

Just one no-show. She’d emerged from the cell, but there was no sign of her in the nuc, and precious few bees left either.

Queenless nucs often haemorrhage workers to nearby queenright colonies (or nucs), leaving a pathetic remainder that may develop laying workers. There’s no point in trying to save a colony like that.

Actually, it’s not even a colony … it’s a box with a few hundred abandoned and rapidly ageing workers. Adding resources to it – a new queen or a frame of eggs and young larvae – is almost certainly a waste of resources. They’d better serve the colonies they were already in. The remaining workers were probably over a month old and only had another week or two before they would be lost, ‘missing in action’, and fail to return from a foraging flight.

If you keep livestock, you’ll have dead stock.

These weren’t dead stock, but they were on their last legs, er, wings. I shook the workers out in front of a row of strong colonies and removed the nuc box so there was nowhere for them to return. The workers wouldn’t help the other colonies much, but it was a better fate than simply allowing them to dwindle.

Spare queens

Most of the nucs were going to be used to requeen production colonies. A couple had been promised to beginners and would be ready in another week or so.

Midseason is a good time to get a nuc to start beekeeping. The weather – the predicted (and seemingly increasingly imminent) afternoon thunder notwithstanding – is more dependable, and much warmer. The inevitably protracted inspections by a tyro won’t chill the brood and nucs are almost always better tempered than full colonies. In addition, the new beekeeper has the pleasure of watching the nuc build up to a full colony and preparing it for winter. This is a valuable learning experience.

Late season bramble

Late season bramble

It’s too late to get a honey crop from these midseason nucs (usually, there may be exceptional years) but that’s probably also good training for the new beekeeper. An understanding that beekeeping requires a degree of patience may be a tough lesson to learn but it’s an easier one than discovering that an overcrowded nuc purchased in April, swarms in May, gets really ratty in June and needs a new queen at the beginning of July.

But, after uniting the nucs to requeen the production hives it turned out that I had one queen spare.

Which was fortunate as I’d been asked by a friend for an old leftover queen to help them improve the behaviour of their only colony. Rather than give them one of the ageing queens she could have the spare one from this year.

A queen has a remarkable influence over the behaviour and performance of the colony. Good quality queens head calm, strong colonies that are a pleasure to work with. But it’s not all good genes. You can sometimes detect the influence of a good new queen in a poor colony well before any of the brood she has laid emerges. I assume this is due to pheromones (and with bees, if it’s not genetics or pheromones I’m not sure what else could explain it – ley lines, phase of the moon, 5G masts nearby?).

Go west, young(er) man

My friend lived about 45 minutes away. I found the queen in the nuc, popped her into a marking cage and placed her safely in light shade at the back of the apiary while I rearranged the nuc for uniting over a strong queenright colony.

Handheld queen marking cage

Handheld queen marking cage

A few minutes later I’d recovered the queen, clipped her and marked her with a white Posca pen. I alternate blue and white (and sometimes yellow if neither of those work or can be found) and rely on my notes to remind me of her age should I need to know it. I’m colourblind and cannot see – or at least distinguish – red and green, either from each other or from lots of other colours in the hive.

I transferred the marked queen into a JzBz queen cage and capped the exit tube. Of all the huge variety of queen introduction cages that are available these are my favourite. They’re also the only ones I was given a bucket of … something that had a big part to play in influencing my choice 🙂

JzBz queen cages

JzBz queen cages

I put the caged queen in the breast pocket of my beesuit, extinguished the smoker and tidied up the apiary. It was warm, dark and humid in the pocket – for an hour or so she would be fine.

Actually, it was getting increasingly humid and the heaviness in the air was, if anything, getting more oppressive.

What I’d really like now would be a couple of large mugs of tea … I’d inspected a dozen large colonies and nearly the same number of nucs. The colonies that needed requeening had been united with the nucs (having found and removed the ageing queens) and I’d neatly stacked up all the empty nuc boxes in the shed. Finally, I’d retuned all the supers, some reassuringly heavy, and left everything ready for the next inspection in a fortnight or so 1.

That’s a lot of lifting, carrying, bending, squinting, prising, turning, rearranging and then gently replacing the crownboard and the roof.

Not really hard work, but enough.

Actually, quite enough … I’d really like that cuppa.

Was that thunder? Way off to the west … a sound so faint I might have imagined it. There were towering cumulus clouds building along the horizon.

Cloud

Threatening

Time to get a move on.

With the car packed I lock the apiary gate and set off.

West.

Leaving the flat agricultural land I climbed gently into low rolling hills. The land became more wooded, restricting my view of the thunderheads building, now strongly, in the direction I was heading. The sun was now intermittently hidden between the wispy clouds ahead of the storm front.

Could you do me a favour?

The bad weather was still a long way off. I’d have ample time to drop the queen off, slurp down a cuppa and be back home before any rain arrived. If my friend was sensible she’d just leave the new queen hanging in her cage in a super. The workers would feed her until the weather was a little more conducive to opening the hive and finding the old queen.

I pull into the driveway and my friend comes out to meet me. We share beekeeping chat about the weather, forage, the now-passed swarm season, the possibility of getting a nuc for next season 2.

“Could you perhaps requeen the colony? I’m really bad at finding the queen and they’ve been a bit bolshy 3 recently. I’ll put the kettle on while you’re doing it.”

I did a quick mental calculation … weighing up the positives (kettle on) and the negatives (bolshy, the distant – but approaching – thunder) and was surprised to find that my yearning for a cuppa tipped the balance enough for me to agree to do it.

I returned to the car for my smoker and some queen candy which I used to plug the neck of the JzBz cage. At the same time I also found a small piece of wire to hang the cage between the frames from.

“They’re in the back garden on the bench by the gate to the orchard.”

I look through the kitchen window across the unkempt lawn (was the mower broken?). Sure enough, there was a double brooded National hive topped with two supers on a garden bench about 30 metres away.

“I’ll stay here if you don’t mind … they gave me a bit of a fright when I last checked them.”

Sure. No problem. I’ve done this a hundred times. White, no sugar and, yes, I’d love a cookie as well.

Be properly prepared

I stepped into the back garden and fired up the smoker. It was still warm from being used for my own bees and the mix of cardboard, woodshavings and dried grass quickly started smouldering nicely. A couple of bees had come to investigate but had just done a few laps of my head and disappeared.

But they returned as I walked across the lawn.

And they brought reinforcements.

By the time I was half way across the lawn I’d been pinged a couple of times. Not stung, but the sort of glancing blow that shows intent.

A shot across the bows, if you like.

I didn’t like.

I pulled the veil over my head and zipped it up quickly, before rummaging through my pockets to find a pair of gloves. Mismatched gloved. A yellow Marigold for my left hand and a thin long-cuff blue nitrile for my right. It’s an odd look 4 but an effective combination. The Marigold is easy to get on and off, and provides ample protection.

Nitriles ...

Nitriles …

The nitrile is a bit of a nightmare to get on when it’s still damp inside. Another couple of bees dive bomb my veil, one clinging on and making that higher pitched whining sound they make when they’re trying to get through. I brushed her off with the Marigold, turned the nitrile inside out, blew into it to inflate the fingers, and finally got it on.

Why two different gloves? Two reasons. I’d lost the other Marigold and because nitriles are thin enough to easily pick a queen up with, and that’s what I’d been doing most of the morning.

And hoped to do again shortly when I found the old queen in the agitated colony.

Opening hostilities

I approached the hive. It was a strong colony. Very strong. It was tipped back slightly on the bench and didn’t look all that stable 5. I gave them a couple of puffs of smoke at the entrance and prised the supers up and off, placing them propped against the leg of the bench.

I was faintly aware of the smell of bananas and the, still distant, sound of thunder. It probably wasn’t getting any closer, but it certainly wasn’t disappearing either.

The thunder that is.

The smell of bananas was new … it’s the alarm pheromone.

Actually, it’s one of the alarm pheromones. Importantly, it’s the one released from the Koschevnikov gland at the base of the sting. This meant that one or two bees had already pressed home a full attack and stung me. Felt nowt. Presumably they’d hit a fold in the beesuit or the cuff of the Marigold.

Or my adrenaline levels were sufficiently elevated to suppress my pain response.

I was increasingly aware of the number of really unpleasant bees that were in the hive.

And, more to the point, coming out of the hive.

But I was most aware that I was only wearing a single thickness beesuit in the presence of 50,000 sociopaths with a thunderstorm approaching. Under the suit I had a thin short sleeved shirt and a pair of shorts.

It might be raining in half an hour … this could get ugly.

It was late July, it was a hot day, my bees are calm. I wasn’t dressed appropriately for these psychos.

I felt I needed chain mail … and an umbrella.

Time for a rethink

I gave the hive a couple of larger puffs from the smoker and retreated back to the car, ducking under and through – twice – some dense overhanging shrubs to deter and deflect the bees attempting to hasten my retreat.

Ideally I’d have put a fleece on under the beesuit. That makes you more or less impervious to stings.

Did I mention it was a warm day in July? No fleece 🙁

However, I did have a beekeeping jacket in the car. This is what I wear for most of my beekeeping (unless I’m wearing shorts). I removed the jacket hood and put it on over the beesuit, remembering to transfer the queen to the outer jacket pocket. I also found another nitrile glove and put it on to be double gloved.

“The queen’s not marked”, my friend shouted to me as I walked back across the garden, “Sorry!”

Now you tell me …

I See You Baby

I See You Baby

I returned to the hive. To reduce the immediate concentration of bees, I split the two brood boxes off the floor, placing each several metres away on separate garden chairs. I balanced the supers on the original floor to allow returning foragers and the increasing maelstrom of flying bees to have somewhere to return if needed.

And then I found the unmarked queen.

As simple as that.

Amazingly, it was on the first pass through the second brood box.

Each box was dealt with in the same way. I gently split the propolis sealing the frames together – first down one side of the box, then the other. I removed the outer frame, inspected it carefully and placed it on the ground leaning against the chair leg. With space to work I then methodically went through every frame, calmly but quickly.

I didn’t expect to find her so easily. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find her at all.

It helped that she was huge and pale. It helped that she was calmly ambling around on the frame, clearly confident in the knowledge that there were 50,000 acolytes willing to lay down their lives to protect her.

Her confidence was misplaced 🙁

Veiled threat

And then a bee got inside the veil.

This happens now and then. I suspect they sneak through the gap where the zips meet at the front or the back. There are little Velcro patches to hold everything together, but it was an old suit 6 and the Velcro was a bit worn.

There are few things more disconcerting that 50,000 psychos encouraging a Ninja worker that’s managed to break through your defences and is just in your peripheral vision. Or worse, in your hair. With a calm colony you can retreat and deal with the interloper. You have to take the veil off. Sometimes you have to take the suit off.

Removing the veil would have been unwise. Perhaps suicidal. I retreated a few yards and dealt with the bee. It was never going to end well for one of us 🙁

Reassemble in the reverse order

Returning to the original bench, I removed the supers that were now festooned with thousands of bees, balancing them against the leg again. I found a pencil-thick twig and used it under one corner of the floor to stop everything wobbling. Both brood boxes were returned, trying to avoid crushing too many bees at the interface. A combination of a well aimed puff or two of smoke, brushing the bees away with the back of my hand and placing the box down at an angle and then rotating it into position reduced what can otherwise cause carnage.

I hung the new queen in her cage between the top bars of the central frames in the upper box, returned the queen excluder and the supers and closed the hive up.

It took 15 minutes to avoid and evade the followers before I could remove the beesuit safely. I’d been stung several times but none had penetrated more than the suit.

I finally got my cup of tea.

Confidence

This was several years ago. I took a few risks towards the end with the queen introduction but got away with it. The colony released the queen, accepted her and a month or so later were calm and well behaved.

I was lucky to find the queen so quickly in such a strong colony. I didn’t have to resort to some of the tricks sometimes needed to find elusive queens.

Ideally I’d have left the queen cage sealed to see if they were aggressive to her, only removing the cap once I was sure they’d accept her. This can take a day or two, but you need to check them.

There was no way I was going back into the hive and my friend definitely wasn’t.

The rain and thunder never arrived … like many summer storms it was all bluster but eventually dissipated as the day cooled.

This was the worst colony I’ve ever handled as a beekeeper. At least for out and out, close quarter, bare knuckle aggression. By any measure I’d have said they were unusable for beekeeping. I’ve had colonies with followers chase me 300 metres up the meadow, though the hive itself wasn’t too hot 7. This colony was an order of magnitude worse, though the followers were less persistent.

I suspect that aggression (or, more correctly, defensiveness) and following have different genetic determinants in honey bees.

Lessons

  • Knowing when to retreat is important. Smoking them gently before I returned to the car for a jacket helped mask the alarm pheromone in the hive and gave me both time to think and renewed confidence that I was now better protected.
  • Confidence is very important when dealing with an unpleasant hive. It allows you to be unhurried and gentle, when your instincts are screaming ‘get a move on, they’re going postal’.
  • Confidence comes with experience and with belief in the protective clothing you use. It doesn’t need to be stingproof, but it does need to protect the soft bits (my forearms, ankles and face react very badly when stung).
  • Indeed, it might be better if it’s not completely stingproof. It’s important to be aware of the reactions of the colony, which is why I prefer nitrile gloves to Marigolds, and why I never use gauntlets.
  • Many colonies are defensive in poor weather or with approaching thunderstorms. If I’d known just how defensive this colony were I’d have planned the day differently.
  • The unstable ‘hive stand’ would have agitated the bees in windy weather or during inspections.

Bad bees

It turned out the colony had been purchased, sight unseen, as a nuc the year before. By the end of the season it had become unmanageable. The supers had been on since the previous summer and the colony hadn’t been treated for mites.

They appeared healthy, but their behaviour was negatively influencing their management (and the upkeep of the garden). Beekeeping isn’t fun if you’re frightened of the bees. You find excuses to not open the hive, or not mow the lawn.

The story ended well. The new queen settled well and the bees became a pleasure to work with. My friend regained her confidence and is happy to requeen her own colonies now.

She has even started using proper hive stands rather than the garden bench … which you can now use for relaxing on with a mug of tea and a cookie.

While watching the bees 🙂


 

“Start beekeeping” courses

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

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

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

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

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

Beekeeping, just like driving a car

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

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

Teaching someone else is the best way to learn.

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

Plain chocolate are preferable

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

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

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

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

Theoretical beekeeping

What should an ‘introduction to beekeeping’ course contain?

Which bits are necessary? What is superfluous?

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

Who should deliver it?

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

The audience and the intended outcome

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

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

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

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

Framed wire QE ...

Preferable to what?

What’s a queen excluder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Course contents

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

The beekeeping year and the principles of beekeeping

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

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

Or mead … 😉

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

The normal beekeeping challenges

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

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

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

Great weather … good for swarming and swimming

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

Whatever the weather (within reason).

Not every 9-12 days.

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

Andalucian apiary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bees and beekeeping

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queen development

Queen development …

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

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

Keep on message!

Equipment

What a minefield?!

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

An Abelo/cedar hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/cedar hybrid hive …

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

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

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

Or packages?

I said it was a minefield.

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

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

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

Dummy board needed ...

5 frame poly nucleus hive needing a dummy board …

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

Swarming and swarm control

Swarming is often considered to be confusing 6.

It doesn’t need to be.

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

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

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

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

It’s swarm control that often causes the problem.

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

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

Confused? You will be.

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

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

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

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

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

Disease prevention and management

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

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

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

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My beekeeping year

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

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

Sweating in a beesuit

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

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

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

If you can do, if you can’t teach

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

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

A lot.

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

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

Some are outstanding. Others less so.

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

All of this, to them, is obvious.

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

Queen rearing course

Listen up Grasshopper!

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

Possibly.

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

 

Matchless matches

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

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

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

And good luck!


 

Talk the talk

With the practical season now over we’re entering the period of regular winter beekeeping talks and weekend conventions. For five or six months the closest many of us will get to bees is a draughty church hall with a cup of tea at the end.

And a chocolate digestive biscuit if the Association Secretary has managed to get everyone to pay their subs.

What? No chocolate?

What? No chocolate?

Listening

I enjoy these events. There’s a healthy, competitive camaraderie to the conversations before and after the talk …

How was your season?

80lb? Per colony? Or in total?

Didn’t lose a swarm all season!

… and so on. The old-timers smile knowingly and keep quiet about the best sites, the ‘newbees’ enthusiastically recount the ups and downs of their first season and those on the beginners course this winter simply try and work out what the heck a ‘Demaree’ is.

During the talk the lights are dimmed. We all peer through the gloom at a slightly skewwiff image projected onto the cream-painted wall which has a picture hook irritatingly visible just left of centre.

The old boy in the fifth row falls asleep and starts snoring gently.

Forty-five to fifty minutes flies by, the lights come up and there’s an opportunity for questions. By this time everyone is gasping for a cuppa or the loo, or both, so appreciation is shown “in the usual manner” and the formal part of the evening draws to a close.

Drinking

Tea is brewed, biscuits are scoffed. Now is the time to ask the question you wish you’d asked at the end of the talk – either of the speaker or of the more experienced ‘beek’ (and in my experience there are always more experienced beekeepers at these things) sitting next to you.

Friendships are re-established, new contacts are made, recipes are exchanged and tips and tricks are offered.

The audience breaks up into little groups discussing honey or queen rearing or the upcoming sale at Maisies. People drift away. The Secretary scurries round trying to get the usual suspects to pay the subs that have been due since last January (which is why there weren’t any chocolate digestives). Cups are washed, the library is packed away and the hall locked up.

But it’s not over yet … twos and threes loiter in the car park where the real gossiping occurs. Unless it’s snowing. Who’s been buying in imported colonies or queens for selling on as “local”? How many times has ‘Fred’ recycled that winning jar of clover honey in the show? Which farmers will be growing borage next year?

Ah! That's better

Ah! That’s better

Talking

I enjoy these as well. I usually end up getting invites to present at just about the same number of talks I manage to attend at my own associations each winter. Some are round the corner or pretty local, others are at the other end of the country. I was recently excellently hosted by the Devon BKA (~500 miles away) and presented at a meeting in Chillán (~7500 miles away) of Chilean beekeepers in March.

With the exception of these long-distance trips the process is pretty similar. The satnav is programmed with the venue details. The bag is checked for the laptop and every possible connector that might be needed. A spare copy of the presentation is carried on a memory stick ‘just in case’. The car is loaded with any additional stuff used in the presentation (nothing for a science talk, but lots for talks on practical beekeeping).

I set off later than intended but earlier than needed. There’s almost nothing worse than turning up late. I find the venue, park nearby in the dark, locate the draughty church hall and the Secretary lurking in wait for early arrivers (who haven’t paid their subs yet).

The laptop is set up, the projector checked and the screen/image is levelled as the audience dribbles in. Old friends say hello. The lights are dimmed and we’re off!

The reflection from the screen casts an eerie light across the audience. Faces in the front couple of rows are clear and bright. Those further back are more like a grainy black and white image. Expressions are more difficult to see. Are they still following this? Am I going too fast? Too slow?

Laughing

Oops

Oops …

I chuck in a joke or anecdote to liven things up. That’s better. Or not. My jokes aren’t good.

A particularly pale slide casts a brighter reflection deeper into the crepuscular gloom at the back of the hall.

The old boy in the fifth row who has been gently snoring for the last 15 minutes can now be heard and seen.

I gallop towards the end, thanking the organisers, my research team, those who gave us the money to do the work and the beekeeping associations we’re privileged to be working with.

Mild applause … someone nips out to turn the urn on.

Questions

These are by far and away the best bit. As a speaker it’s how I judge how successful I was at getting the message across.

Questions range from simple and straightforward to long, rambling and exquisitely complicated.

All are welcome.

Not all can be answered.

Simple questions about things I’ve covered, albeit quickly or as a peripheral point, are easy to answer and I make a mental note to deal with the subject better in the future (or avoid it for clarity).

Difficult questions about things I’ve covered may require a longer answer, more thought or a cup of tea. Inevitably, some topics are outside the experience or interest of most of the audience. A detailed explanation of molecular biology (science) or long-winded discussion of grafting tools (queen rearing) needs to be postponed …

Gasping

Gasping …

Let’s discuss that over a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive” … the latter said hopefully.

Questions about things unrelated to my talk are not unusual. Long, rambling and exquisitely convoluted questions about a totally different topic are sometimes asked. There’s a direct relationship between the number of people wanting to ask questions and the length, ramblingness, and distance off-topic of these types of questions.

I usually hope the Association Secretary or Chair steps in at this stage and announces that tea is ready.

Experience

As a scientist I’m used to talking at conferences where the audience ranges from undergraduate students to internationally-renowned Emeritus Professors. As a beekeeper I’m well aware that the audience at Association events may include the full spectrum of experience and abilities … from those on the winter “Introduction to Beekeeping Course” to some who earn a living beekeeping.

I’m also well aware that the old boy in the fifth row who gently snored through my entire talk is probably just knackered having spent whole the day extracting 500 lb of heather honey.

Which is almost, to the ounce, 500 lb more than I got 😉

All he came for was a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive biscuit.

The end

I pack up the cables and the laptop, say my goodbyes, weave my way through the little groups in the car park gossiping about the price of Api-Bioxal or where to buy cheap fondant. I finally locate my car, plug in the satnav, turn up the radio (it’s late and I’ve got a three hour journey ahead) and wend my way home.

By midnight I’m wishing I’d had one less cup of tea and one more chocolate digestive.

Homeward bound ...

Homeward bound …


† I’ll deal with Conventions some other time. These are increasingly popular, often draw big, knowledgeable, audiences and usually have the added distraction of the trade stands.

‡ I’m well aware not all of these talks are held in draughty church halls. I’ve spoken in draughty village halls, draughty sports halls and draughty community centres. I’ve also spoken in some great venues, with excellent AV facilities, comfortable chairs (particularly in the fifth row), really good tea and coffee and some spectacularly tasty home-made cakes (thank you Arran Bee Group!). Whatever the venue, as long as we manage to get the laptop to talk to the projector – and even if we don’t – it’s great to meet enthusiastic beekeepers wanting to ‘talk bees’ on a cold winter night.

Colophon

Someone who can ‘talk the talk‘ speaks convincingly on a specific subject, showing apparent mastery of its jargon and nuances. You often hear it used in conjunction with the phrase ‘walk the walk‘ e.g. He can talk the walk but can he walk the walk?

Walk the walk essentially means to back up the talk with actions. It’s related to expressions like ‘action speaks louder than words’, ‘talk is cheap’ and ‘practice what you preach’. If you can’t ‘walk the walk’ then it’s simply empty bragging … in the UK the phrase ‘all mouth and no trousers’ is another way to say this, though it perhaps has rather sexist overtones.

 

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Welsh BKA Convention 2017

Cymdeithas Gwenynwyr Cymru

I’m honoured to be delivering the Pam Gregory Memorial Lecture at the Welsh Beekeepers Association Convention this year. The Convention is being held at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Showground in Builth Wells on the 25th of March.

Pam Gregory was one of the founders of Bees Abroad, a beekeeping charity that does work to relieve poverty through beekeeping. You can read more about her life and work, as the first Welsh Regional Bee Inspector and global beekeeping consultant, in the Spring 2016 Welsh Beekeeper. Pam was the author of Healthy bees are happy bees so it’s entirely appropriate I’m talking about deformed wing virus and Varroa control … and that the talk is sponsored by Bee Diseases Insurance.

There’s an influx of Scotland-based speakers for the Convention this year with Bron Wright and Phil McAnespie – the current and past Presidents of the Scottish Beekeepers Association – also talking.

 

Helensburgh & District BKA talk

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

I’m very pleased to be speaking on the 24th of November (this Thursday) to members of the Helensburgh and District BKA. The talk will be at the rather splendid looking Rhu Parish Church at 7.15pm. The title of the talk is “Bees, viruses and Varroa: the biology and control of deformed wing virus (DWV)”. I’ll discuss aspects of the biology of DWV, particularly relating to its transmission by Varroa, and will then explore potential ways in which bees could be ‘protected’ using either high-tech or low-tech approaches. If you’re attending please introduce yourself when we’re all having a cuppa at the end of the evening … don’t leave it too late though, I’ve got a 2 hour drive home afterwards.

Update

The drive from the east coast to Helensburgh was stunning, with a fantastic pink-tinged sunset lighting up the snow-covered hills around Crainlarich (Stuc a’ Chroin, Ben Vorlich and Ben Ledi). It was bitterly cold and clear.

Stuc a' Chroin and Ben Vorlich ...

Stuc a’ Chroin and Ben Vorlich …

There was a slight delay due to an absentee projector. During this we discussed oxalic acid-containing treatments for Varroa control and the problems caused by the lack of a ready-mixed preparation of Api-Bioxal. Once the projector arrived we were up and running and I covered viruses and Varroa, why we treat when we treat (or perhaps more correctly ‘when should we treat for maximum effect?’) and the influence of drifting and robbing on parasite and pathogen transmission between colonies. That’s quite a lot to get through in an hour … and I didn’t. The audience were rewarded for their patience with a well-earned cup of tea and a question and answer session.

The return trip was less visually pleasing other than a great view of a barn owl ghosting along the verges of the A977 near Rumbling Bridge. With thanks to Cameron Macallum and colleagues for their hospitality and a very enjoyable evening.

Dr. Bodgit goes beekeeping

Two frame nucs

Two frame nucs …

Dr. Bodgit is the name my wife gives my alter ego … the bloke who spends the first few days each week nursing the cuts and gouges in his hands from a weekend spent butchering pieces of wood for beekeeping purposes. In a past life I was asked to talk about ‘DIY for beekeepers’ for the Warwick and Leamington BKA … something relatively lightweight to follow their AGM. As any BKA member knows, these are usually very tense events, with huge competition to get onto the executive committee … or not. That talk lead to an irregular Dr. Bodgit column in the otherwise excellent WLBK Bee Talk newsletter which in turn prompted me to start this website … if you go back to some of the early posts they were often about DIY for beekeepers. Now, a few years later, I’m dusting off the same talk for the Fife BKA at their 2016 AGM (10/3/16), updated to include a further 5 years of tips and tricks and a large amount of additional scar tissue.

Paynes poly nuc ...

Paynes poly nuc …

In the spectrum of beekeeping DIY – ranging from badly carving up a block of polystyrene for hive insulation to crafting beautiful cedar broods and supers from wood I’ve felled, matured, dried, cut and planed – I’m firmly positioned at the (rank) amateur end. Nevertheless I reckon there are a large number of items that can be easily, relatively inexpensively and usefully built – these both potentially improve your beekeeping (enjoyment at least) and give you something to do in the long, cold, dark winters.

Tools of the trade

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

Over the years I’ve developed some fairly basic boundaries to the types of DIY I attempt. I’m restricted on time, space and very restricted on ability. Furthermore, since I don’t really trust myself with power tools I don’t own too many (though see below). Therefore the vast majority of the things I attempt can be constructed – a rather grand word meaning ‘bodged together’, hence Dr. Bodgit – using the sorts of tools most people already have available:

  • cutting tools – a good tenon saw, a Stanley knife and a breadknife
  • measuring tools – tape measure and set square
  • joining tools – hand drill, screwdriver and small hammer

The breadknife is really for working with polystyrene – either carving insulation or butchering Paynes poly nucs to improve them. To these tools I’d add a list of ‘consumables’ that will need regular replacement:

  • pencil for marking stuff – you will inevitably lose it … it’s behind you ear 😉
  • screws – buy them in bulk from Screwfix in a couple of convenient sizes
  • nails – almost exclusively the gimp pins for frame construction
  • sticky stuff – Evostick wood glue, Gorilla glue and Unibond Power tape (for Correx)
  • Elastoplast (though Unibond Power tape and tissues work well) and antiseptic cream
  • tea – critical to keep hydrated properly … you might also need fruit cake

Tacwise nail gun

Tacwise nail gun …

The ‘joining tools’ is where I have gradually made concessions on power tools. A reasonable quality rechargeable electric drill/screwdriver is a huge timesaver and a nail/staple gun makes assembling everything from brood boxes to frames extremely easy (you’ll need to add nails/staples to the consumables list above). However, these power tools are a luxury and not a necessity. I’m also having to consider a table saw as I now no longer have an excellent local timber merchant (or anything but the big chain, big price, rubbish) who stocks a wide variety of ‘bee space friendly’ planed softwood. It’s only the affection I have for my fingers that’s stopping me …

Don’t do this at home

Don't do this at home ...

Don’t do this at home …

There are a number of things I think that are simply not worth attempting … these are items that are either already inexpensive, that are difficult to make without a lot of investment in tools or where it is difficult to make them at a quality good enough to justify the effort. In my view brood boxes and supers tick all three of these ‘exclusion’ rules … the cedar seconds are pretty inexpensive and readily available, they’re well made and go together easily and they should last pretty-much forever. I’ve made plywood boxes previously and wouldn’t do it again … too heavy and nothing like as long-lasting.

I don’t attempt any metalwork – other than the base of my steam wax extractor – but have heard of people making queen excluders, smokers and building their own honey extractors … again, hugely rewarding I’m sure, but needs too much time, tools and expertise than I have.

The art of the possible

I think the best things to build are those that meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • items that cannot be purchased at all (there are lots of these)
  • items that can be purchased but that are poorly designed and/or built (few of these)
  • items that can be purchased but only for silly money (lots of these)

For me, considering hive components, it turns out that it’s the parts that are essentially horizontal in the hive that seem to most often meet these criteria. These include:

  • Kewl floors – these are floors with a so-called ‘Dartington-type’ underfloor entrance. I think they offer advantages for the bees in terms of reduced robbing and wasp problems, and for the beekeeper by obviating the need for mouseguards and making transporting hives and vaporising oxalic acid easier. You can buy these from one supplier but the price is ridiculous and the design is sub-optimal in my opinion (so I’m not including a link).
  • a variety of split or division boards – these include conventional single entrance split boards, multi-entrance Snelgrove boards, slightly more complicated Horsley boards and clearer boards. I’d also include Cloake boards for queen rearing in this category. In all cases, these meet one or more of the qualifying criteria – some cannot be bought, those that can are not ideal and the prices are always simply daft. Thorne’s Snelgrove boards are about £35 each and can probably be made (better) for about a fiver … that’s one of my jobs for this winter. Their Cloake board is the same price. It does come with a queen excluder (but you’ve got lots of those already) but the shallow eke and Correx removable slide can be built from scavenged materials for almost nothing. There’s a very recent thread on the SBAi about building so-called ‘flight boards‘ from thick Correx for ~£2.70 each – these are dual entrance, dual-use, split boards which can be used as crownboards or used to divide strong colonies for swarm control or making increase.
  • perspex, insulated crownboards – unavailable to my knowledge (all of those for sale are uninsulated), very useful and relatively easy and inexpensive to build.
  • inexpensive, totally weatherproof, lightweight roofs – these can be built from Correx for well under £2, less than 25% of the price of the metalwork alone from Beehive bits or about 10% of the price of the – disappointingly poor quality – Thorne’s sale quality cedar roofs.

I only list Thorne’s above for convenience – their offerings are usually no worse or better (or differently priced) than any of the major beekeeping equipment suppliers. The second quality cedar broods and supers they sell at BeeTradex and the big annual shows are – with a little picking and choosing to avoid the terminally-warped (note that you’re well-advised to take care avoiding the terminally-warped at any of the annual beekeeping jamborees) – perfectly usable. Their first quality cedar broods, of which I have a few, are lovely (and so they should be at £42).

If you move away from hive components there are lots of additional opportunities for exploiting a little DIY skill and/or experiencing a little blood loss:

  • my honey warming cabinet was first described on this site over two years ago and is consistently the most searched-for (and possibly even read) page. With a little careful planning you can build one that’s far better insulated than commercially available, with better thermostatic control and heat circulation, that will also treble up (is there such a term?) as a super-heater to aid extraction and as a queen cell incubator. If you source the individual components carefully you can build one for 25-33% of the prices listed by big T or Maisemore’s.
  • honey bucket tippers are now available commercially – they can look beautiful but are eyewateringly expensive – but are a doddle to build for the price of a few scrap pieces of wood and two hinges.
  • my hivebarrow has more than paid for itself in saving hours of backbreaking work … one of the most useful things I’ve built and, as I get more decrepit, getting more useful by the year.

So, there you have it, you’ve now no need to attend the Fife Beekeepers AGM in early March … I’ll attribute the tiny audience for my talk to the fact you’ve all read about it in advance, rather than it being of no interest to anyone.

Of course, the three or four who do turn up are going to have trouble avoiding being voted onto the committee 😉

Finally, if you need any more convincing that beekeeping DIY makes sound financial sense, I present my final exhibit …

National hive dummy boards DIY

Dummy boards …

… these cost £6-7 from the beekeeping suppliers. No wonder they’re called dummy boards 😉

And don’t forget …

Measure twice, cut once, swear often

Save the bees, save humanity

I’ve used this poster in talks a couple of times to make a distinction between colony collapse disorder (CCD) in the US and colony losses due to disease in the UK.

Save the bees ...

Save the bees …

It’s a rather striking poster … although it carries the website address www.nrdc.com (which appears to belong to the National Realty and Development Corp.), the logo and the subject are much more likely to be associated with the Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org). Whatever … the message is clear, without bees there will be pollination shortages for many important and valuable fruit and vegetable crops. The term CCD, a still incompletely understood phenomenon where hives are abandoned by workers, was first used in 2006 in the USA and similar types of colony losses have been reported in a number of European countries, though not in the UK. Prior to 2006 there were a range of other names given to apparently similar phenomena – spring dwindle, May disease, fall dwindle disease [PDF] etc.

The ‘Save humanity’ statement possibly refers to the the apocryphal quote attributed to Albert Einstein “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live” … though it’s highly unlikely Einstein ever actually said this. It’s also a rather questionable statement. Certainly honey bees provide important pollination services, but so do many other insects (and not just insects). There are certain crops for which honey bees are important – such as almonds – at least on the scale they grow them in California. However, on a visit-by-visit basis, honey bees can be relatively poor pollinators. For examples, solitary bees such as Osmia sp. are much more efficient pollinators of apples. The inefficiency of honey bees is more than compensated though by their numbers and our ability to move hives to crops that need pollinating.

So, if honey bees are so important, why does the picture above show a wasp?  😉

 

 

MSWCC 2015

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

I spent last Friday and Saturday attending the Midland and South West Counties Convention at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester. It was a good venue for a meeting, complemented by an interesting and entertaining programme of talks. I presented our research on the influence of Varroa on the transmission of pathogenic strains of deformed wing virus, together with brief coverage of both high and low-tech solutions that might be useful in mitigating the detrimental impact of the mite on the virus population (and hence, the colony).

Queen rearing course

Queen rearing course

On the Saturday I donned my beekeepers hat (veil?) and discussed queenright queen rearing methods – a talk really aimed at encouraging beginners to ‘have a go’. I’m was aware there were people in the audience who earn their living from bees whereas I largely dabble at the weekends, and that they’ve probably forgotten more about queen rearing than I’m ever likely to learn. I’m always (silently) grateful they don’t ask tricky questions or interrupt with a “You don’t want to be doing that …” comment. I think only about 10% of beekeepers actively raise queens – by which I mean select suitable larvae and generate ‘spares’ for increase, sale or giving away. Without more learning how relatively easy it is to raise queen we cannot hope to be self-sufficient and will remain reliant on imported stocks, of largely unknown provenance (and with an unknown pathogen payload), particularly at the beginning and end of the season. There were excellent presentations on the analysis of pollen in forensic studies (Michael Keith-Lucas) and the use of the shook swarm (Bob Smith), together with a very interesting mead tasting event. I unfortunately missed the workshops and the Saturday afternoon presentations as I had to waste hours hanging around for three delayed trains to eventually get to Heathrow a few minutes after my flight back to Scotland departed 🙁

The MSWCC 2016 event will be running again next year (on the Gower) in mid-October hosted by Swansea and District BKA. The theme is “Meet the Natives” and – if this year is anything to go by – it promises to be a very worthwhile event.