Category Archives: Beekeeping

Early season inspections

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

Introduction

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

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

Or typically, both 🙁 .

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

Early season – pollen pattie and brace comb

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

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

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

So what’s the best thing to do?

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

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

Together with a soupçon of opportunism.

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

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

A false start

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

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

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

Late afternoon sun on Beinn Resipol, Ardnamurchan, March 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they’re off!

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

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

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

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

Which was going to be the story of the trip.

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

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

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

It looked like a very promising start to the season.

More of the same

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

It was colder and even less welcoming.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Dead outs’ and ‘basket cases’

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

Some colonies die overwinter.

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

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

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

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

Queen failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brace yourself

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

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

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

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

Brace comb hidden inside the empty fondant container

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

Pronto.

Removing and reusing brace comb

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waste not, want not 😉 .

The accidental ‘brood and a half’

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

“Gorgeous slabs of brood”

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

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

Or, as in this instance, completely forgotten 🙁 .

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

With brood.

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

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

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

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

Upper entrances

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

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

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

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

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

Standard and upper entrance

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

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

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

Where was the queen ?

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

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

Stores

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some I saved for later

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

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


 

Bait hives, evolution & compromise

Synopsis : The features of a successful bait hive are well known. However, they are not absolutes. The more desirable features your bait hives offer the more successful they should be, but both the bees and the beekeeper can make compromises through necessity or preference.

Introduction

I gave a talk on bait hives to a friendly group of beekeepers from Westerham last week. Westerham is near Sevenoaks in Kent, a rich agricultural area with lots of fruit growing and hops for the brewing industry.

And, as you will see shortly, lots of beekeeping.

One of the messages I try and get across in my talk on bait hives is that it is a remarkably successful way to capture swarms … and a whole lot less work than teetering precariously on a step ladder holding a skep.

However, success involves two things:

  • understanding the needs of the swarm, and
  • overcoming the doubt that such a passive activity – essentially putting a box in a field – can be so successful.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Some readers may not know what a bait hive is.

Bait hive

Smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises

The post this week is not intended to be a comprehensive account of how you should prepare and set out bait hives. I’ve covered this topic ad nauseam before. Instead, I’m going to try and convince you that, although it is a passive activity, if you do things correctly you are very likely to succeed.

And then, in the second half of the post, I’ll discuss an interesting question (and my – possibly less interesting – answer) from one of the Westerham beekeepers that is a nice illustration of some of the compromises that beekeeping entails.

Bait hives and swarm traps

A bait hive is an artificial nest site placed somewhere suitable to attract a swarm.

In the US these are often called ‘swarm traps’.

I don’t think either name is perfect … a bait hive doesn’t involve ‘bait’ 1 and a swarm trap doesn’t really ‘trap’ the swarm as they are free to leave again.

That they (almost) never do is rather telling … I touch on this in my post on absconding.

Perhaps the term ‘swarm hive’ would be better? 2

A bait hive deployed in mid-April in good time for the swarm season ahead

A bait hive possesses the features that scout bees look for when searching the environment for a new nest site. Essentially these are the following:

  • a 40 litre void
  • smelling of bees
  • with a small entrance situated near the bottom of the void
  • facing south
  • shaded but clearly visible
  • and located at least 5 metres above the ground

The majority of these features were defined by studies of natural swarms and in experiments by Thomas Seeley described in his book Honeybee Democracy 3.

Conveniently a beekeeper can meet these needs by assembling the following and placing it somewhere suitable:

  • a brood box with a roof, a solid floor and a small entrance
  • filled (completely or partially) with foundationless frames plus one old dark brood frame
  • a drop or two of lemongrass oil

Surely it can’t be that easy?

Yes it can … and it is.

But let’s first try and overcome the impression that something as simple and passive as a box in a field will even be found by scout bees, let alone selected by them as the new nest site for the swarm.

If you build it, they will come

In the 1989 file Field of Dreams an Iowan farmer, Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner), follows his dream of creating a baseball field in his corn field. The oft misquoted ’If you build it, they will come’ from the movie really means that if you put your doubts aside you will succeed 4.

Kevin Costner … in a Field of Corn

He cuts down his corn, builds a baseball field and Shoeless Joe Jackson and the banned 1919 Chicago White Sox players appear.

Kinsella was attracting disgraced baseball players from 50 years earlier … all your bait hive needs to do is attract a swarm from a nearby mismanaged 5 hive.

Which is a whole lot easier.

Nearby hives

So how many nearby hives are there? How many are likely to swarm? And how near is nearby?

Let’s return to the lovely blossom-filled orchards around Westerham in Kent for some specifics.

The National Bee Unit’s Beebase has information on the number of apiaries within 10 km of any of your own apiaries that are registered.

You are registered, aren’t you? 6

Beebase record for an apiary in Westerham, Kent

Within a 10 km radius of Westerham there are 247 other apiaries. That’s a lot 7, but I’ve no doubt it reflects the excellent forage in the area, and the unstinting efforts of Kent beekeeping associations to train more beekeepers.

How many hives do these apiaries contain? I have to start guessing here as mere mortals can’t mine that sort of information from Beebase.

Let’s assume five hives per apiary.

That seems a reasonable number to me 8.

Firstly, it’s a sensible minimum number of hives to co-locate in an apiary. Secondly, with about 250,000 managed colonies in the UK and about 50,000 beekeepers, if we assume that they are evenly distributed 9 it works out as a rather neat 5 hives per apiary.

Which means that in the 314 square kilometres within a 10 km radius of Westerham there are over 1200 hives, which equates to almost 4 hives per square kilometre (the precise number is 3.931, but you’ll appreciate I’m in arm waving mode here).

How far do scout bees, er, scout?

To answer this we can safely (but briefly) disengage arm waving mode.

Scout bees fly from and return to the bivouacked swarm. They then communicate with other scout bees by performing a waggle dance on the surface of the bivouac.

Thanks to Karl von Frisch we can decipher the waggle dance, which includes both directional and distance information.

And from doing exactly that we know that scout bees survey the landscape for at least 3 km from the swarm.

Hive density, swarms, scout bees and bait hives (see text for details)

In the diagram above a typical area investigated by scout bees is indicated by the pale yellow circle. The red dot indicates the bivouacked swarm. The grid in the background is 1 km squares.

The bait hive is in blue in the centre of a circle of radius 10 km. The smaller dotted circle represents the maximum distance from which a scout bee would travel to find the bait hive 10 .

Let’s put some numbers on that. 

Assuming the average hive density at Westerham is about 4 per km2 and that apiaries and hives are evenly distributed, there will be 111 hives within the smaller dotted circle of radius 3 km 11 .

If any of those hives swarm, their scout bees could or should find the bait hive.

And, if they like the bait hive enough, they might persuade their fellow scouts to check it out and – in due course – together lead the swarm to the bait hive.

The final piece of the jigsaw necessitates re-engaging arm waving mode … 

Ready?

What proportion of hives swarm each year?

Over the last several years I would say that the majority of my full-sized production colonies have tried to swarm each season. By ’tried’ I mean produced charged queen cells which necessitated me employing swarm control.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

The vast majority of these colonies did not swarm … because the swarm control was successful.

But I’ve certainly lost a few swarms over the years 🙁

About 80% of free-living colonies studied by Thomas Seeley in the Arnott Forest swarmed each season. There are reasons to think that this may be higher than normal 12, but possibly not much higher than large, healthy managed colonies.

So, if 80% of managed colonies around Westerham ‘try’ and swarm each season, the actual number of swarms is a reflection of how well trained the beekeepers of Kent are … and, for those who have kept bees for several seasons, how effective they are at swarm control.

And, whilst I’m sure the training is excellent and the swarm control is diligently applied, I’m equally sure that many swarms are lost 😉

A small swarm ...

A small swarm …

If we assume that only 10% of colonies swarm, that’s still 11 swarms a season within range of a bait hive placed anywhere within the larger 10 km radius circle.

And I’d wager my favourite hive tool 13 that it’s more than 10% 😉

Evolution of nest site preferences

The preferences shown by scout bees 14 have evolved because swarms that move into nest sites like these survive better.

If they survive, they are also more likely to reproduce (swarm), so passing on the genes that were instrumental in creating the bees that selected those particular features in a nest site.

This does not mean that the nest site features are absolutes.

For example, a 35 litre or 45 litre void is likely to be just as attractive.

In fact, the scout bees may not be able to discriminate between these anyway.

However, although a tiny 10 litre void or a cavernous 100 litre space is less attractive, it does not mean that a swarm won’t select a cavity of these volumes and move in.

Whether it does or not depends upon what other choices are available and upon the poorly understood (at least by me) ranking of the importance of the various features of the nest sites.

For example, if you offer a poxy 15 10 litre bait hive in an environment rich in suitable 40 litre cavities you will probably be unlucky.

However, if the bees rank void volume as relatively unimportant, and your bait hive was perfect in all other regards, then perhaps they would choose to move in.

Compromises by bees

In reality, they probably would not move in to a 10 litre bijou bait hive, perfect in all other regards, as the volume available is the primary determinant of how big the colony can get, how much brood it can rear and how much pollen and nectar it can store.

Furthermore, the natural environment (in which I include your bait hive placed in the landscape) does not offer simple choices in which only individual features vary.

Almost everything varies … even two apparently similar bait hives are likely to occupy locations with more or less exposure, or greater or lesser shade, between which the scout bees will choose.

And natural cavities, in trees, church towers or compost bins 16 are likely to vary in many or all of the features judged by scout bees.

The scout bees make their decision based upon the sum of the overall desirability of a nest site, which is undoubtedly influenced by their ranking of which features are more or less important.

Perhaps they can cope with a west facing entrance that’s a bit larger than they would prefer if the shade is good, the space is the right size and it pongs nicely of bees.

It’s effectively a compromise.

But remember that your bait hive has to compete with the wealth (at least in some landscapes) of natural nest sites.

In this regard, you have an advantage. The more of the desirable features you offer, the more desirable the nest site should be.

Q&A

Which, by a typically long and circuitous route, brings me to the interesting question from a Westerham beekeeper 17 following my bait hive talk:

If scout bees prefer bait hives with solid floors does this mean that bees prefer solid floors over open mesh floors?

I can’t remember the exact wording of my answer but know it involved reference to the draughtiness of the space. I hope I also mentioned the amount of light inside the void, but can’t be sure.

A more complete answer would be that bees aren’t too worried about a draughty space, at least one with small holes, cracks or fissures, as these can be filled with propolis. However, they do prefer a dark space, and a bait hive with an open mesh floor would presumably be too well illuminated for the scout bees.

I think this reflects the evolution of nest site choice.

Bees have evolved to prefer (select) dark spaces as these – by definition – don’t have large holes that let light or more importantly bears, honey badgers and robbing bees, in.

Natural cavities don’t have mesh floors. Indeed, stainless steel mesh isn’t something that bees will have experienced for the first few million years of their evolution.

Therefore, it’s not that they prefer solid floors over mesh floors, it’s that they prefer dark, secure spaces over well lit voids that may well be difficult to defend.

Covered OMF ...

Covered OMF … as bees prefer bait hives with solid floors

But, when setting out your bait hives there’s an easy fix … simply cover an open mesh floor with a piece of cardboard or Correx. You can always remove it again once the bees have arrived.

What do the bees want?

But do scout bee preferences tell us something about what the colony, once established, prefers?

Not necessarily, at least with regard to the closed or open nature of the floor.

Let’s accept that that scout bees (and therefore swarms) prefer a solid floor for the reasons given above. That is not the same as it being an indication that the established colony would prefer a solid floor over an open mesh floor.

If they did, what differences in the behaviour of the bees would you observe?

  1. I think you’d see more colonies absconding from hives with open mesh floors than those with solid floors. I’m not aware of any data showing that colonies on solid floors abscond less. I don’t use solid floors and have never had a full colony abscond.
  2. The bees would cover and seal the mesh with propolis. Again, I’ve never seen this in my own hives, though I regularly see them blocking gaps over the colony with propolis.

There are enough beekeepers still using solid floors, and even some reverting from mesh floors to solid floors. However, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a beekeeper moving (or moving back) to solid floors to reduce the number of colonies that abscond.

Have you?

Compromises by beekeepers

Finally, let’s return to that list of desirable features sought by the scout bees.

Remember that they are not absolute.

Just because a bait hive faces west doesn’t mean it will be ignored by scout bees. I’ve attracted two swarms in successive days to one west facing bait hive in my garden. The same bait hive caught a swarm two months earlier as well 18.

By facing the bait hive west I got a better view of the entrance … it was a compromise that suited me.

Under offer ...

Under offer …

I regularly use two stacked supers (in place of a brood box) as a bait hive. These have been very effective, despite having about 25% greater volume 19.

Again, this is a compromise that suits me. It allows me to use some supers that I dislike because they have an overhang/rebate and are infuriatingly incompatible with my other equipment.

I also never site bait hives more than 5 metres above the ground.

In fact, I almost always site them at knee height.

Bees have probably evolved to choose high altitude nest sites to avoid predation by bears.

Global (current and historic) distribution of the brown bear

There are no bears in Scotland, at least not wild ones, though historically they were present. Their absence isn’t why I don’t bother to place my bait hives up trees.

I want to be able to observe scout bee activity easily. More importantly, I want to be able to safely move the hive late in the evening of the day the swarm arrives.

I can do both these things much better with the hive on a hive stand.

It probably makes the bait hives slightly less attractive to the scout bees, but it’s a compromise I’m willing to make as it improves my enjoyment of the bees and simplifies my beekeeping.

If I wanted to climb ladders I’d go out collecting bivouacked swarms in a skep 😉


 

The bee bag

Synopsis: Preparing for the season ahead should include making sure you have everything you need in the bee bag for apiary visits, but that you are not carrying things you never use. A place for everything, and everything in its place … at least until swarming starts.

Introduction

I think there’s sometimes a misconception that those who write (or talk) about a topic are the most knowledgeable on that topic.

After all, why else would they feel qualified to write?

And, if they’re knowledgeable – even if not all knowing – then they also have the luxury of time (to write, or to enjoy the scenery or whatever). Rather than repeatedly struggling doing the wrong thing, they briefly and efficiently do the right thing™.

Their incisive and unwavering decision making, coupled with a calm and measured confidence, means difficult tasks are made easier and routine activities are rendered trivial.

And this efficiency of thought and activity is complemented by an impressive level of organisation and preparedness. After all, how else would they be able to achieve what they do, without being prepared for all eventualities … and have the tools immediately to hand that are needed?

I’m sure that’s true of some who write … and it might even be true of some who write and talk about beekeeping … but it’s not true of me 🙁

At least, not often.

I might write about how I did something, making it sound trivial and unexciting:

“… pick the queen up by her wings and place her in the JzBz cage, add a few nurse bees to keep her company and place the cage safely in your pocket.”

But I omitted to describe the times I couldn’t find a JzBz cage, or got stung repeatedly grabbing workers, or let the virgin queen fly around the shed for 5 minutes before she disappeared out of the door.

Or when the cage fell through the hole in my pocket (caused by a razor sharp hive tool), down my trouser leg and into my boot.

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach

The luxury of writing means I can skip over those things that make me sound like the author of the bestselling Slapstick beekeeping, and instead present a coherent vision of what beekeeping should be like.

Think of it as a sort of sanitised version of beekeeping, with the swearing bowdlerised and the Charlie Chaplin-style antics omitted to make me look vaguely competent.

Not, I should add, that every visit to the apiary looks like Laurel and Hardy 1 in beesuits.

I do my best to learn from my mistakes, or at least not forget them, and – every winter – I incrementally improve my organisation for the season ahead.

I review my notes from the season just finished and I make general, and sometimes very specific, plans for the following year. If these necessitate buying or building new equipment then I try and do that during the seemingly interminable short winter days (if that isn’t oxymoronic).

This winter this has involved completing my queen rearing incubator and building some cell punches for queen rearing.

Cell punches

The organisation involves preparing this new ‘stuff’ as well as sorting out some of the accumulated debris from the season just finished.

End of season squalor – yes, that is a small bag of fondant buried in the bee bag

In particular, I sort through, tidy and hopefully streamline, the contents of the bee bag.

The beekeepers box

When you visit the apiary there are a few tools you will almost always need – for example, a smoker and a hive tool. You’ll need something combustible in the smoker and some way of igniting it. And you should have something to carry that lot in that is itself non-flammable, so you don’t risk self-immolation when driving back home.

I’ve discussed the fireproof box I use for my smoker previously. I now keep smoker fuel and a kitchen ‘creme brûlée’ blowtorch in a clear plastic box. Bitter experience – you can guess what – taught me that a clear box enables me to easily check the blowtorch is present before I drive 150 miles to the apiary.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

The easiest – and most hygienic – way to store your hive tool is in a strong solution of washing soda in the apiary. It’s always there and it’s always clean.

But there are times in the apiary when you’ll need a lot more than a smoker and a hive tool.

I’m not referring here to the large items – the spare brood boxes, the supers, the split boards or queen excluders 2.

Instead, I’m referring to the smaller stuff … like the JzBz cage to put the queen into, or the (wickedly sharp) scissors to clip her wing or the Posca pen to mark her.

Just add fingers and thumb for a complete queen marking and clipping kit

Beekeepers have come up with all sorts of fancy carrying boxes made from wood or metal. Jim Berndt described a typical one in Bee Culture a few years ago. Built from 3/4” pine, and with space for the smoker, frame brush, frame hanger and any number of other things.

It must have weighed a ton.

Jim admitted as much when he acknowledged that he’d build the next one from thinner wood.

I’ve seen boxes with integrated seats, or was it a seat with an integrated beekeepers box?

The bee bag

But anything rigid, by definition, lacks flexibility.

If there’s not space in the box for Thorne’s-must-have-gadget-of-2022 (something you only need every other month in the apiary) then you have to carry it separately. If there is space in the box but you only need Thorne’s-must-have-gadget-of-2022 twice a season then the box is heavier and bigger than it need be.

All of which can be avoided by using a cheap bag to carry the necessities down to the apiary.

And what could be cheaper than a supermarket ‘bag for life’ ? 3

A bag for life … or at least 3 years of beekeeping

These bags are light and easy to carry, with strong woven handles. Although they aren’t cavernous (they never have quite enough space for my shopping) they are certainly big enough to carry the essentials, and not-so-essentials, to and from the apiary.

Importantly, they are strong.

Being open and flexible you can, if needed, squeeze all sorts of additional things in.

Although I described them as cheap a better term would be inexpensive. I think they started at about 25p, but they seem to be £1 to £1.25 now.

Being made of polypropylene they are easily rinsed out or wiped clean should they get dirty.

And they will get dirty.

And since they are so cheap inexpensive, it’s not the end of the world if you melt them with the smoker or perforate them with a hive tool.

I’ve used this sort of bag for my beekeeping – not the same one, though they tend to last several seasons – for many years. The Tesco’s centenary was in 2019 and the bag above will certainly get me through to the end of the 2022 season.

Bringing order to entropy

Each winter I sort through the debris that accumulates at the bottom of the bag. I clean everything and get rid of anything that’s been carried around unused for the season. Finally, I replenish the perishables, the worn out or the irreparably damaged.

And then I’m ready for the season ahead 🙂

I don’t just carry around a bag containing a pick’n’mix of jumbled beekeeping paraphernalia 4. The items in the bag are separated into logically-labelled containers for my beekeeping activities.

And long, much repeated and enjoyable field testing has shown that the very best type of containers to use are those designed for ice cream 🙂

Not, I hasten to add, your ’fancy Dan’ Ben and Jerry’s ‘£5 for a couple of scoops’ ice cream in those pathetic cardboardy tubs 5.

Instead, what you need are plastic, square or rectangular (for efficient packing) and with well-fitting lids. Two litre containers are much better than anything much smaller, not just because they’re more fun to empty, but also because they are likely to themselves house smaller containers.

I’m still using some 2.5 litre containers that were sold full of Lidl Gelatelli Vanilla (see the photo above). The ice cream was pretty good but they appear to have stopped making it 6.

I’m sure, if you work hard, you’ll be able to find something equally good … it’s a thankless task, but someone has to do it 😉

What’s in the bag?

I can get everything small I need into two of these boxes – one marked ‘daily’ and the other labelled ‘queen stuff’.

I like to keep the labelling simple to avoid confusion.

Daily

These are the things I use, or might use, on every trip to the apiary:

  • a box containing drawing pins (difficult to use with gloves) and map tacks (easy to use with gloves), together with the red numbered disks I use to label the queen in the hive 7.

A variety of pins, some numbers for queens (see text) and two tubes for sampling weird-looking bees

  • numbers for the outside of the hive
  • marker pen for labelling anything except queens
  • a wired queen excluder cleaner 8 and an uncapping fork for checking drone brood for Varroa
  • spirit level for levelling a hive. This is important if you use foundationless frames. Once you’ve tried to rearrange the frames in an wonky hive full of drawn foundationless frames you’ll realise how useful a small spirit level is 9

Not needed on a daily basis admittedly, but kept in the ‘daily’ box – QE scraper, level and uncapping fork

  • a selection of closed cell foam blocks to hold frames together when transporting hives. These are simply wedged tightly between the top bar and the sidewall of the hive and thereby minimise the risk of crushing the queen (or other bees) when moving the hive.
  • screw cap sample tubes, just in case I see any weird, sick or odd looking bees during inspections
  • a couple of JzBz queen cages
  • digital voice recorder for taking hive notes

Closed cell foam blocks.

Queen stuff

Since a lot of my season is taken up with queen rearing this box contains both the tools for queen rearing and the used-less-than-daily tools needed for marking and clipping the queen:

  • queen marking cage (I like the push and twist ones best, as you can tell from the amount of propolis and paint covering mine)
  • dressmakers snips (Fiskar’s) for clipping the queen. These are very sharp. Don’t leave them in you bee suit pocket or you will get injured 🙁
  • Posca marking pens. Check these in the winter and make sure they haven’t dried up or gone super-gloopy. Either outcome makes for frustration when marking the queen. I only routinely use white, blue or yellow and buy whatever is cheapest or easiest to get, and use that colour for the season (or until the pen expires)
  • tools for grafting larvae and, new this season, the cell punches shown above

Grafting tools. Of these, only the middle (a 000 sable artists brush) one is needed.

  • USB rechargeable head torch (for use when grafting 10 )
  • magnifying glasses 11
  • more JzBz queen cages and some Nicot cages to protect soon-to-emerge cells

What’s in the bag but not in the box?

Inevitably, not everything fits into one of these two conveniently-sized ice cream containers 12.

The base of the bag contains some folded sheets of newspaper which are used when uniting colonies. Before the broadsheets became the same size as the Daily Mail they were preferable as a single sheet would cover a brood box. Now they’ve been shrunk you have to overlap two sheets.

Or read the Financial Times … and there’s very little point in me doing that 🙁

Unstapled newspaper … pictures of an enthusiastic Angela Merkel contrasting nicely with a John Cleese stereotype.

Avoid newspapers that are stapled.

Inevitably when pulling them apart (in a stiff breeze, with an open hive ready to be united) they tear at the staple, increasing your frustration and making you look more like Laurel or Hardy.

I also carry a couple of pieces of fibreglass insect mesh. This stuff is sold by the metre to cover open windows and so keep mosquitoes out, but is ideal for covering an open hive when moving colonies on a hot day. A Thorne’s travelling screen costs £19.40 and works no better than a piece of this mesh which costs £19 less 13. By some sort of miracle I’ve ended up with two colours of mesh, one for standard brood boxes and one for nucs 14.

Fibreglass mesh for use as travel screens (that’s £19 you owe me).

I wear gloves while beekeeping so the bag contains a box of disposable long cuffed latex-type gloves for routine use. There is also be a pair of Marigold washing up gloves for any colonies that are a bit rambunctious 15.

At least there should be a pair of Marigold’s in there … something else to order.

I try and keep a couple of hive straps in the bag.

Finally, you can never have enough gaffer tape … so there’s always a roll in the bee bag. It’s ideal for temporarily sealing hive entrances, strapping nucleus roofs down for transport or patching up holes in the bee bag.

Rejects for 2022

Having sorted through the bee bag I collected a small pile of stuff that wasn’t used last season.

And don’t let me see you in there again! Rejects from the bee bag.

In the case of the ‘crown of thorns’ queen marking torture chamber I don’t think I’ve used it for years. I’ve no idea why it was still in the bag. There’s probably more of my blood on the needle-sharp points than there is paint on the mesh … and there’s clearly no point in me carrying it around for another year.

The awful ‘Chinese’ grafting tool goes out as well, as do some JzBz queen cups, a dodgy pink sparkly Posca pen 16, an ill-fitting pair of magnifying glasses and a shonky magnifier.

And that ‘clip catcher’ … again, almost never used.

Elementary my dear Watson

As I slowly approach very (very) early middle age 17 my presbyopia is becoming more noticeable. I’ve needed magnifying glasses for grafting for several years and, increasingly, in poor light can struggle to see eggs. Unfortunately, about half my beekeeping is done in sub-optimal lighting … the colonies I keep in the bee shed are easy to inspect, whatever the weather, but the lighting is far from ideal.

LED hand magnifier (with some Nicot cups for using when testing if a colony is queenright).

Having chucked out one magnifying glass I’ve found an LED illuminated magnifying glass to try this season. This has a good quality glass lens and a dazzlingly bright set of warm/cool/both LED’s around the rim, powered by a rechargeable lithium battery.

Let there be light. USB rechargeable LED magnifier.

With a choice between wearing reading glasses for all my colony inspections – and inevitably tripping over a super I fail to notice at my feet – or periodically using a magnifying glass if the lighting is poor, I’ve chosen the latter route.

I’ll report back later in the season whether it was the right route to choose.

I’m ready, but the season isn’t

With the unwanted stuff discarded, and the wanted stuff checked and tidied, the bee bag is now ready for the season ahead. I’ve ordered some new Posca pens, charged the magnifying glass and the digital voice recorder …

I’ll probably still look like Fred Karno when I’m floundering around in the apiary, but at least I’ll have the things I need with me.

Unfortunately, it currently looks as though the season isn’t ready for me.

Where did all that lovely weather go?

The last 7-10 days have been stunning, but it’s currently 3°C and snowing 🙁

Which is probably fortunate as I still have a couple of hundred frames to build …


Note

I first wrote about the bee bag way back in November 2016. Time has passed, the contents of the bag have changed a bit (though the jokes are largely the same) so that page now redirects here.

It makes you go blind

Synopsis: There is a sexual arms race between the queen and the drones she mates with. The queen needs to mate with multiple drones to maximise colony fitness. Conversely, it’s in the interest of individual drones to reduce the number of additional partners who mate with the queen. Recent studies have demonstrated that drones reduce repeat mating flights by impairing the eyesight of the queen. Potential implications of this for practical beekeeping are discussed.

Introduction

Honey bee queens are described as polyandrous 1 because they copulate with multiple drones during one or more mating flights taken shortly after emergence.

These multiple matings are a risky business 2.

It takes longer to mate with multiple drones than it does to mate with one, but this time is minimised by reducing the number of mating flights. Rather than leaving the hive, mating once, returning and then repeating the process, the queen flies some distance to a drone congregation area and copulates with multiple drone before returning to the hive.

Shallow depth of field

One of many …

I’ve discussed the location and locating drone congregation areas previously and the distances the queens and drones respectively fly to reach these (which are different to avoid inbreeding).

Between the queen returning from the mating flight and the onset of egg laying there is a delay of a few days. During this period the queen is storing the sperm from the drones in her spermatheca. These are the sperm storage organs within which sperm stays active for years … a necessity as, after the onset of laying, the queen will not go on any more mating flights.

Perhaps surprisingly, only about 3-5% of the sperm transferred from each drone is stored by the queen.

I hope that makes you wonder why she bothers mating with so many drones … it should.

Polyandry and hyperpolyandry

Just before I explain why she only stores 3-5% of the sperm from each of several drones, rather than storing it all from one twentieth the number (and thereby reducing the risks of longer mating flights) of drones, I need to explain the poly bit of polyandry.

How many drones does the queen mate with?

The usual figures quoted are in the high teens, with a range extending from single digits into the low forties. These numbers are determined using a variety of different techniques, at least some of which are likely to underestimate the actual number of drones.

Marked queen surrounded by a retinue of workers.

Here’s one I made earlier …

Think of it like this, if you have a large population of something – like beekeepers – how many would you have to ‘sample’ to find one called ’David’.

Not many, it’s a common name.

But what about ’Atlas’ or ’Zebedee’?

You’d have to sample a lot more apiarists to find any with these rarer names, though I bet they’re out there somewhere. You might even have to use a different way to screen the population.

And it’s the same when determining the numbers of drones that the queen mates with.

Search and ye shall find – detecting rare patrilines

When you use a method that specifically looks for rare patrilines – essentially genetically distinct offspring fathered by different drones – you can find them. This suggests that the queen probably mates with more than the 15-19 drones usually quoted, and that hyperpolyandry is perhaps a better term to describe the mating behaviour of queen honey bees.

There’s evidence that these very rare patrilines (so-called ‘Royal patrilines’) are preferentially selected when rearing queens under the emergency response.

Colony fitness

So now we’ve defined what the poly in polyandry means … but we still don’t know why the queen risks all those aerial shenanigans to mate with so many different drones.

By mating with multiple drones she ensures that the workers in the colony are genetically diverse. This genetic diversity increases the rather-difficult-to-grasp concept of colony ‘fitness’. In this instance fitness is used to mean a combination of adaptability, resistance to stress or pathogens, increased foraging activity, better overwinter survival etc.

I’ve discussed this concept before and suggest you revisit that post for all the gory details.

The bottom line is that colonies that are headed by queens that are mated with very many drones (50+) produce more brood, have better disease resistance and have many other desirable traits (that benefit both the colony and the beekeeper).

The final piece of this introductory jigsaw I need to mention is that drone sperm is used randomly. It’s not a case of ‘first in, last out’. The 3-5% of sperm stored from each drone is mixed thoroughly in the spermatheca.

This makes sense in light of the comments above about colony fitness. If the sperm were used in batches from each drone you’d have cohorts of young bees being produced that had reduced genetic diversity, thereby potentially compromising colony fitness.

It takes two to tango

But let’s think about the poor drones for a moment.

Drones have two fates (excluding getting eaten by a bee eater); they either die while mating with a queen, or they get turfed out of the hive and starve to death towards the end of the season.

If the drone fails to mate with a queen he’s genetic dead end.

If he does mate with a queen there’s a good probability that the genes he carries will be passed on to the following generation.

There is therefore a lot of competition for the queen in the drone congregation areas (DCA).

The drones, once sexually mature, fly every (suitable) day to several DCAs, one after the other. In addition, they fly relatively short distances from the hive to maximise their time within the DCAs.

Heat map of the landscape used by drones – bright spots are DCA’s

This competition is intense, and it doesn’t stop once the drone has mated (and died).

If a queen mates with a relatively small number of drones – let’s say 10 for the sake of argument – the chance of the sperm from any one of those drones being used to fertilise an egg is much greater than if the queen had mated with 50 drones.

The fewer drones the queen mates with the better the chances that the genes from any one of her successful suitors will be passed on to the following generation.

Paradoxically, it therefore benefits the drone 3, if the queen mates with fewer other drones.

And, remarkably, drones have evolved a way to reduce the number of additional drones that a queen mates with.

A sexual arms race

Before I describe the mechanism, it’s worth emphasising here that best interests of the colony are served by the queen mating with many drones, but those of the drones are best achieved by limiting the polyandrous activity of the queen.

These two processes are therefore in direct competition.

There are some additional subtleties.

If the drone simply prevented the queen from mating again 4 it would be detrimental if that drone was the first with which the queen mated. The resulting colony would have little genetic resilience and would be unlikely to survive.

Any one drone must therefore allow the queen to mate with sufficient other drones to ensure colony fitness.

In addition, the more mating flights that a queen goes on, the greater the chances she will be predated by a passing bird, or get lost on the return flight.

From the drones point of view it would probably be beneficial for the queen to go on only one mating flight, but that she mates with sufficient (but no more than that) drones on that flight.

And finally, before I get to the mechanism by which all this is achieved – a compromise solution, like all the best solutions – I’ll remind you that studies have shown that queens go on about 5 mating flights spread over 3, usually successive, days.

Love is blind

At least, too much love is … 😉

Liberti and colleagues have recently published a snappily titled paper on how drones reduce the number of mating flights taken by a queen. The paper is Open Access so you can get all of the nitty-gritty details I don’t have time, energy or intelligence to include in the summary below.

The paper is:

Seminal fluid compromises visual perception in honeybee queens reducing their survival during additional mating flights by Joanito Liberti et al., (2019) eLife 2019;8:e45009

As with all science, the results published in this paper were a continuation of earlier studies of queen honey bees. In particular, these included studies by some of the same authors who had showed that seminal fluid contained proteins that had the ability to interact with neurons.

In addition, in Drosophila melanogaster (the fruit fly, and genetically best studied insect) there was evidence to suggest that seminal fluid promotes fast oviposition and reduces the willingness of females to seek additional copulations.

Drosophila mating in captivity

Now, Drosophila mating behaviour is very different to that of honey bees, but there was clearly a precedent here in which some of the components of seminal fluid – the ‘carrier’ that keeps sperm alive and motile and protects against pathogens – influenced subsequent mating in insects.

Or the lack of mating.

The study by Liberti et al., involves an elegant combination of hardcore molecular gene expression analysis coupled with electroretinography 5 and field work. I’ll skip briefly through the first two of these and provide a bit more detail on the last.

Analysis of gene expression

Virgin queen bees were instrumentally inseminated with seminal fluid (i.e. no sperm) or a control saline solution. Subsequent analysis of the brains of the bees – using a method called RNA-Seq which allows the qualitative and quantitative changes in gene expression to be accurately determined – demonstrated reproducible changes in the gene expression of dozens of genes.

Venn diagram of differential gene expression in instrumentally inseminated queen bees

Detailed analysis of which genes had changed in expression showed that several so-called signalling and metabolic cascades were modified in response to seminal fluid, and many of these mapped to the phototransduction pathways i.e. those involved in sight.

Several of the genes that were detected encoded proteins that were implicated in the conversion of light into the electrical signals in photosensitive electrical cells.

Inevitably, that one sentence has probably confused half the readers that have persevered to this point in the post …

Essentially what this means is that there are components within drone seminal fluid that change the ability of the queen to perceive light, or to see.

So, do they?

Visual perception of queens

The gene expression studies in this paper are complicated (for a molecular biologist). The electroretinography is an order of magnitude more complicated for this molecular biologist to understand … but here goes.

Electroretinography involves measuring the electrical signals generated by particular neurones that are connected to the compound eyes and ocelli 6. This allows the consequences of the changes in gene expression to be determined in terms of the vision of the queen bee.

These studies showed that queens instrumentally inseminated with seminal fluid had lower responses to low frequency flickering light, and that that this response (or lack of response) increased on the second day after insemination.

There were additional changes in the response of the ocelli in queens inseminated with seminal fluid.

Taken together, these results show that queens exposed to seminal fluid experience reduced visual performance.

They are not blinded, but their vision is impaired.

Does this visual impairment have any influence on their mating behaviour?

Mating flight behaviour

Finally, we come to something that’s a bit easier to comprehend, not least because I’ve previously discussed the technology used – the RFID tagging of individual bees to monitor their flight frequency and duration.

RFID-tagged queens (34 in total) were instrumentally inseminated (either mock, or seminal fluid or semen) and subsequently monitored when going on mating flights. Those receiving either seminal fluid or semen were more likely to get lost on these flights, and repeatedly triggered the hive entrance sensors, suggesting they were disorientated by sunlight after leaving the hive.

Of the 21 queens that returned, 81% went on mating flights of more than 7 minutes which was considered a conservative threshold for a completed mating flight i.e. flight to a DCA, mating(s) and return to the hive, and about 50% laid worker brood.

Notably, of the 17 queens that went on ‘successful’ (by duration, not necessarily by outcome) mating flights, those receiving the control saline solution left 1-2 days later than those that had received seminal fluid or semen.

Seminal fluid and semen induce alterations of mating flight behaviour in honeybee queens

These results show that exposure to seminal fluid induces significant changes in queen mating flight behaviour, presumably as a consequence of the alteration to the vision of the queen.

Therefore, the implication from these results is that proteins in the seminal fluid of drones impairs the visual perception of queens, thereby reducing the likelihood that the queen will embark on additional mating flights.

Queens that had already mated (or been instrumentally inseminated in this study) were more likely to get lost on subsequent mating flights, and embarked on these flights earlier.

But what about swarming?

The hive – or a natural nest site – is a low-luminance environment. Queens do not need fully functional eyesight once they have returned from their mating flights. In the hive communication is non-visual, mediated by pheromones, contact, vibrations and sound.

However, although a queen only goes on a few mating flights, she will also leave the colony if it swarms.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

What are the implications for the this study on the eyesight of queens during swarming?

This isn’t really discussed in the paper, but I think there are two likely scenarios:

  • the changes in visual perception by the queen are transient and return to ‘normal’ after a few days, weeks or months
  • swarming is a fundamentally different activity in which thousand of bees leave the hive and for which accurate vision is not needed by the queen.

There’s a world of difference between embarking alone on a mating flight of several kilometres and having to return to the exactly the same location, and leaving on a one-way trip with a swirling mass of attendees with dozens of scout bees leading the way.

Further studies will be needed to determine whether the changes in vision are transient or permanent, as well as to identify the ‘active ingredient’ in seminal fluid that is responsible for the degradation of the mated queen’s vision.

I also think further studies will be required to determine the relationship between dose and timing of the response.

How long does it take for the reduction in visual perception? If the first and second mating flight are taken on successive days is the “return rate” greater than if they are taken a few days apart?

How many drone matings are needed to reduce the visual acuity of the queen? I would predict that this would be a number consistent with the lower estimates of polyandrous matings needed to generate fitness in the resulting colony.

And implications for practical beekeeping?

Perhaps none directly, though I’m interested in the answers to the questions I posed in the paragraphs above.

In an area with low drone densities and those with shall we say ‘variable’ weather – such as my apiaries on the west coast of Scotland (or for that matter, any beekeepers living in remote northerly areas with just a few hives) – is colony fitness compromised by reduced matings?

An isolated apiary

Conversely, is mating success lower because more queens fail to return from subsequent mating flights that they have to take to try and mate with enough drones?

Can mating success and colony fitness be increased by boosting drone numbers?
And is this achievable at a scale meaningful to a small-scale beekeeper?

If a measurable increase in mating success took a 1000-fold increase in drone numbers it’s probably not achievable.

However, if all it took was an extra frame of drone comb in every hive in the apiary, then that’s quick win.


 

Triumphs and tragedies

Synopsis: Having dealt with beekeeping tragedies last week, it’s now time to consider landmark events (‘triumphs’) in beekeeping. These four things – successful overwintering, swarm control, finding the queen and queen rearing – are what I consider the most notable. All beekeepers should be able to achieve these, and their beekeeping will benefit as a consequence.

Introduction

In the second part of the highs and lows of my (or an average beekeepers’s 1 ) beekeeping career I discuss what I consider are the four most significant events in the progression from total beginner to my current level 2.

These highs and lows, or ‘triumphs and tragedies’, stemmed from a question posed during a live-streamed Q&A session with Lawrence Edwards from Black Mountain Honey. I didn’t think I answered it particularly well then – though some of the things below were definitely included – so have had another crack at it.

The tragedies I covered last week – the loss of a queen, a swarm or a colony – aren’t really tragedies. As I said in the introduction then, ” … the observant and well-prepared beekeeper can avoid most of the ‘tragedies’, and recover from almost all of them”.

However, unlike the tragedies that really aren’t tragedies, these triumphs really are landmark events that significantly improve your beekeeping.

Unsurprisingly, some of the triumphs I discuss below are how you recover from – or avoid altogether – the tragedies I mentioned last week.

Successful overwintering

Studies from Tom Seeley (in his book The Lives of Bees) indicate that a swarm from a wild-living colony has about a 23% chance of surviving the winter. Swarms perish for a number of reasons; many starve to death, others die from pathogens 3, a few queens likely fail and some colonies are lost due to ‘natural disasters’ such as lightning strikes or storms or bears.

Although I don’t know the percentage breakdown of these causes of death, I’d be surprised if the combination of queen failures and ‘natural disasters’ account for more than a small percentage.

In contrast, I expect that starvation and disease account for most losses of ‘wild’ colonies.

Hives in the snow

The survival rate of managed colonies is not entirely clear as it differs with the group or individual being surveyed.

The relatively small-scale annual BBKA surveys suggest that about 80% (the average of the last 12 years) of colonies overwinter successfully. The much larger Bee Informed Partnership surveys 4 report a slightly lower figure of 70%.

Finally, the COLOSS surveys – covering Europe and a few other countries 5 – helpfully split winter losses into those due to ‘mortality’ (presumably disease and starvation) from queen failure and natural disasters, and usually report survival rates of 70-80% 6.

COLOSS reports losses due to queen failure and natural disasters are typically about 5-7%.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these are unavoidable, and that they’re as likely to befall a managed hive as a ‘wild’ colony.

Averages, outliers and being ‘better than average’

These losses, when analysed statistically, show considerable variation between individual beekeepers. Some never lose colonies during the winter, others often experience high rates of colony mortality.

When I last checked 7 all my colonies have survived this winter. My average losses over the last decade (about 200 ‘colony winters’) are well below 10%. Many of the experienced beekeepers I know routinely experience losses in the 5-10% range.

In contrast, inexperienced – and sometimes longstanding 8 – beekeepers may lose many or even all the colonies they ‘manage’. Many give up, others make up the losses through splitting, swarms or purchases, and soldier on to the next winter, only to experience the same disappointment again 9.

Winter losses ...

Winter losses … dead bees on the floor of a hive with a failed queen.

Some losses are expected – though perhaps no more than the ‘unavoidable’ 5-7% due to ‘natural disasters’ and queen failures.

However, the remaining 90-95% of colonies should survive, particularly if we assume that their loss would be due to starvation or disease … both of which squarely fall under the term ‘management’ when considering managed colonies.

This management is the responsibility of the beekeeper – s/he must ensure that the mite (and consequently virus) levels are minimised at the right times during the season, and that the colony has sufficient stores to overwinter successfully.

Take your winter losses in autumn

The final point to remember is that the successful management of colonies involves excluding those from going into the winter that are likely to fail.

Weak colonies in late autumn, or early autumn queen failures, are often doomed anyway.

Don’t let them become a (BBKA, BIP or COLOSS) statistic.

If healthy, unite these colonies with strong colonies and then plan for some additional splits the following season to make up the ‘on paper’ loss. Far better you strengthen another colony than condemn a weak colony, or one with a poorly mated queen, to a lingering death in midwinter.

Uniting a strong colony with a weak (queenless) colony

I therefore consider the first landmark event (‘triumph’) in beekeeping is the successful overwintering of the majority (over 90%) of the colonies managed – irrespective of the severity or duration of the winter.

Achieving this involves a combination of skills:

  • successful disease management (which I term ‘Rational Varroa Control’)
  • appropriate feeding in the autumn
  • the ability to judge colonies unlikely to survive before it’s too late to unite them
  • well-sited apiaries unlikely to flood or be hit by falling trees (or visited by rampaging bears)
  • provision of young and well-mated queens to head colonies

A strong and healthy colony is likely to overwinter successfully. It’s also more likely to build up strongly the following spring, and therefore will probably swarm … or at least try to.

Which neatly takes me to the second of the ‘triumphs’ that a beekeeper should aim to achieve.

Successful swarm control

Swarm control is the management of a colony that has started making queen cells, and is therefore likely committed to swarm within a few days.

It is a necessity if (or when!) swarm prevention stops working.

I visited one of my apiaries last week. There were a dozen colonies in the apiary last year and I know I missed one swarm.

‘Missed’, but not ‘lost’.

I’d found the bivouacked swarm, dropped it into a nuc box and successfully re-hived them 🙂

Collecting the stragglers – a captured bivouacked swarm dropped into a nuc box.

However, while taking some willow cuttings I discovered wax deposits on another of the small trees I’d planted.

Clearly a swarm had bivouacked here for a day or so and I’d both missed and lost it 🙁

Missed and lost – signs of a bivouacked swarm on a small willow.

For the last couple of seasons, while living remotely, I’ve usually been very pro-active in my swarm control.

If a few colonies in the apiary start building queen cells I use the nucleus method of swarm control and take the queens out of all the strong colonies and then allow them to requeen.

For swarm control the nucleus method is almost foolproof.

It is very successful in preventing the loss of a prime swarm (one with the mated queen). However, with really strong colonies, there remains the risk that more than one virgin queen emerges. I suspect I’d missed a queen cell and lost a cast headed by a virgin queen. I know that all my colonies requeened successfully and without unexpected delays.

So, this was an example of unsuccessful swarm control, but it was less of a problem than the loss of a prime swarm (as I still had the mated queen tucked away in a nuc somewhere).

Timing and mechanics

Successful swarm control involves the ability to recognise when a colony is actively making swarm preparations i.e. being able to find queen cells, and then knowing exactly what to do (and when to do it) to prevent the colony from swarming.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

The first is observational and will improve the more hives you inspect (or should if ‘seeing’ is coupled with ‘understanding’).

The second – ‘what and when’ – is the mechanics of swarm control:

  • find and isolate the mated queen somehow (Pagden or vertical split, nucleus etc.) in a way that ensures her survival. Her continued availability is important if the original colony does not successfully requeen.
  • find all the queen cells and leave sufficient to ensure the colony can requeen but not so many that the colony generates casts. I usually leave a single charged queen cell (but clearly left more than one in the colony that swarmed onto that willow above).
  • the ability to judge that the colony has successfully requeened and that the new queen is well mated, so guaranteeing the survival of the colony.

There are dozens of different swarm control methods. Most share some common features in terms of actions and timing.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can ‘mix and match’.

  • Learn one method.
  • Know when to apply it. Understand its pros and cons.
  • Have the equipment to hand during the ‘swarm season’.
  • Analyse what went wrong if it doesn’t work.

Achieve all this and you will be successful at swarm control, your colonies will be stronger during the peak nectar flows of the season, you’ll collect more honey and they will overwinter more successfully.

Swarm control – knowing what to do when, and employing it successfully – moves you from hit and hope scrabbling around with “Finger’s crossed they won’t swarm” to a reassuring 10 “What will I do with the additional colony?

It’s a real confidence builder … and while we’re on the topic of confidence.

Finding the queen … quickly, and every time

Watch a new beekeeper look for the queen. They will sequentially and thoroughly inspect every frame in the colony. Each frame is turned and rotated slowly as taught in the winter ’Start beekeeping’ courses. They’re often particularly careful to check the sidebars and the bottom bar of the frames. The underside of the queen excluder (QE) is carefully scrutinised.

A gentle puff of smoke every couple of frames keeps the colony nicely subdued.

Fifteen minutes later they find her, on a frame of stores. The frame had already been inspected at least once 🙁

She’s somewhere in there …

In contrast, an experienced – and good (!) – beekeeper gently lifts the QE, checks it briefly and closely observes the density of bees along the visible seams. She then uses a small amount of smoke to allow the dummy board and outer frame to be removed. These are carefully placed aside.

The beekeeper then splits the remaining frames where the density of young bees is the greatest, opening a 2 cm gap. The nearer frame facing the gap is then carefully removed and the queen will usually be found on it, or on the far side of the other frame facing the gap.

It’s all over in 90 seconds and – to the inexperienced – it looks like magic.

It’s not.

Blue marked queen ...

Blue marked queen …

It’s also not 100% guaranteed, but it happens enough that it’s certainly not chance.

Of course, you don’t need to find the queen to be reasonably certain the colony is queenright.

Usually their behaviour, the presence of eggs and the absence of sealed queen cells is a sufficiently good indication that there’s a queen present.

Gently does it

But, when you do need to find her – for example, to employ one of those swarm control methods that requires the isolation of the queen 11 – the 13.5 minutes saved by the good beekeeper really helps avoid frustration (and agitated bees).

In the example above the beginner found the queen on a frame of stores, almost certainly because he disturbed the colony using too much smoke and by slowly going through the box frame by frame. The queen was ‘chased’ across the box, scuttled across the floor or around the sidewall of the hive and ended up on the outer frame of stores or pollen.

The experienced beekeeper used almost no smoke. The bees barely knew she was there. She split the frames where there were more young bees. These will be tending the queen and the young larvae. If the queen wasn’t on the face of the first frame checked she’s likely to be on the reverse of the facing frame (having moved there to avoid the light streaming in through the gap between the frames).

You can keep bees without being able to find the queen, but certain things are much easier if you can reliably and quickly locate her.

This is a skill that some never acquire and that others seem to naturally possess.

But it can also be learned.

It’s easier to do with a calm and gentle colony.

However, it’s perhaps learned fastest with a double brooded box of suicidal psychotics 😉

And, if you’re good at finding the queen you will be asked 12 to requeen one of those double brooded boxes of suicidal psychotics.

Which is why this third landmark event in your beekeeping is inextricably linked to my final choice … the ability to actively rear high quality queens.

Queen rearing

Of all the things I’ve learned since starting beekeeping – including the huge number of things I’ve subsequently forgotten – queen rearing has been, without doubt, the most useful.

I’m talking here about ‘active’ queen rearing, rather than passively allowing a queenless colony to generate queen cells and requeen itself.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this ‘passive’ approach. I use it every year. However, it doesn’t teach you as much about beekeeping.

I consider the following are the direct and indirect benefits of active queen rearing. These justify inclusion of queen rearing in this list of landmark events in beekeeping:

  • to be successful you need the ability to judge the quality of the bees over the course of the season. There’s no point in rearing queens from poor quality stock.
  • rearing good quality queens means you can readily improve the quality of your colonies, simply by requeening them. You should see the benefits in 2-3 years (or months in the case of some colonies I’ve requeened 😉 ).
  • queen rearing means you need to acquire the skills and confidence to find and (often) handle the queen. Marking and clipping the queen makes your beekeeping easier.

Returning a marked and clipped queen

  • you can readily achieve sustainability in your beekeeping. No need to buy in queens or nucs. No need to rely upon capturing swarms to maintain colony numbers.
  • you can have spare queens and nucs available when you need them, or generate surplus for gift/sale.
  • young queens – which you ensure by requeening – head stronger colonies, are less likely to swarm and overwinter better.
  • queen rearing requires understanding the colony manipulations needed to start queen cell production. This necessitates good observation and skilled beekeeping.

And there are probably as many again that I could include if I hadn’t already written 500 words more than I’d intended 😉

The most fun you can have with a beesuit on?

However, almost as importantly … “of all the things I’ve learned since starting beekeeping – including the huge number of things I’ve subsequently forgotten – queen rearing has been, without doubt, the most”enjoyable.

Perhaps not ‘the most fun you can have with a beesuit on’ 13 but pretty darned close.

Actually, I’ve already thought of a few more things that should be in the list above:

  • the skill to prepare nucs for queen mating (either mini-nucs or 2-5 frame nucs). And subsequently manage them.
  • an ability to have nucs available for overwintering to make up losses or for (profitable) sale early the following season.
  • the confidence to dabble with methods for colony preparation to find strategies that suit your own bees and the local environment.
  • out-of-season projects to entertain you (like building my wildly over-engineered queen cell incubator) during the interminable dark winter months.
  • etc.

Portable queen cell incubator

Only a relatively small percentage of beekeepers actively rear queens.

I suspect many are dissuaded because they think it requires skills they don’t have, and are unlikely to acquire without years of practice.

Au contraire as a Gilles Fert, a well-known French queen rearer, would say.

You may not (yet) have the skills but few of them are ‘mission critical’ and most can be learned relatively easily. 

Of the four things discussed in this post, queen rearing is the skill that has provided the greatest benefit to my beekeeping.

And enjoyment.

Go forth and multiply 🙂


 

Tragedies and triumphs

Synopsis: Beekeeping shouldn’t be “a series of calamities then winter”, though it sometimes feels like that. In the first of a two-part post I look at the real and imagined disasters that can befall you during the season. The reality is that the observant and well-prepared beekeeper can avoid most of the ‘tragedies’, and recover from almost all of them.

Introduction

A few weeks ago I did a live-streamed Q&A with Laurence Edwards from Black Mountain Honey. Some of the questions were both good and interesting, some of the answers were perhaps less so. Before any readers think I’m being rude here I should point out that Laurence was asking the questions – often on behalf of others – and I was answering them.

There were quite a few questions on non-chemical treatment which I was singularly ill-equipped to deal with. Not because I don’t know anything about it, but because I don’t practice it 1 and because I suspect I’m not a good enough beekeeper to be successful if I did try it. There’s clearly a lot of interest in the topic, though I fear much of this is also from beekeepers who are not sufficiently experienced to succeed with it either.

However, there were two questions – or perhaps it was one merged question – that went something like this:

What is your greatest beekeeping success and your biggest beekeeping disaster?

I’m paraphrasing here. I can’t remember the precise wording and daren’t review it on YouTube as I’d then have to listen to my erudite insights inchoate waffle … which would be excruciating.

My answer probably involved asking whether I was restricted to just one disaster … 😉

Let’s get some perspective first

New beekeepers in particular are likely to worry about the “disasters” and overlook some of the “successes” in their first season or two. I therefore thought I’d discuss what I consider are the highs and lows – abbreviated to tragedies and triumphs’ to give the post a snappy title – of the first few years of beekeeping.

Obviously this is biased and based upon my own experience, and from mentoring others. Your experience may be very different … or you may have yet to experience the highs and lows of a beekeeping season.

But before I start using superlatives to describe the chaos of my early efforts at swarm control it’s worth remembering – particularly as the war in Ukraine enters its third week – that I’m only talking about beekeeping here.

In the overall scheme of things it’s simply not very important.

What might feel like a disaster of biblical proportions in the apiary … isn’t.

Yes, it might threaten the productivity, or even the survival, of the colony, but it is only beekeeping 2.

So, having got that out of the way, which do you want first?

The good news or the bad news?

The bad news … how mature 😉

The loss of a hive tool

Clearly I’m being flippant here.

The loss of a hive tool is a minor inconvenience rather than a tragedy.

There you are!

Unless you don’t have a spare and/or you’re about to inspect a dozen heavily-supered hives in the apiary … in which case it’s a major inconvenience.

It’s remarkably easy for a hive tool to fall out of those tall, thin pockets in the sleeve or thigh of your beesuit. Inevitably it falls, not onto closely cropped sward, but into tangled tussocks of rarely-mown grass.

You will probably find it again.

You could spend 15 minutes on your hands and knees retracing your steps since you left the car or you could become a detectorist and conduct a grid-based search, sweeping the area for metal objects.

Neither method is guaranteed to work.

To be certain, you must cut the grass.

But be careful. A glancing contact with the lawnmower or brush cutter and a half-buried hive tool will be damaging at best, and potentially a lot worse 🙁

Hive tools soaking

Hive tools soaking in a solution of soda crystal

Or you can avoid all this grief by keeping a covered bucket in the apiary – a honey bucket is ideal – containing a strong solution of soda crystals. You know exactly where the hive tools are and you soon get into the habit of dropping it back in after an inspection.

Better still, keep two hive tools in the bucket and alternate them as you look at your colonies. The soaking in soda will clean the hive tool, reduce any potential cross-contamination and improve your apiary hygiene.

The loss of a queen

This can be anything from a minor inconvenience to a bit of a calamity.

It very much depends upon the:

  • time of the season
  • whether you notice she’s missing
  • availability of a spare colony

How do you lose a queen? Other than by losing a swarm (see below) the two most likely reasons are cackhanded beekeeping or a queen that fails due to being poorly mated.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

Losing a queen mid-season, for whatever reason, should be little more than a minor inconvenience. Assuming you notice she’s missing in action you can remove unwanted queen cells, leaving a single charged (i.e. known to contain a fat larva lounging around on a comfortable bed of Royal Jelly) cell, and wait while she pupates, emerges, mates and starts laying.

Nerve racking? Perhaps slightly, but it’s usually a pretty safe bet that things will work out OK.

If, through clumsiness or stupidity 3, you kill the queen during an inspection there should be ample eggs and young larvae for the colony to use when rearing one or more replacements.

Keep your eyes peeled …

But what if you don’t notice she’s missing? You assume she’s there and blithely knock back all the queen cells you can find 4.

Sealed queen cells

You return the next week … all looks good, no more queen cells.

But wait a minute … there are no eggs either 🙁

Under these circumstances you realise the importance of having at least two colonies. You can rescue the queenless colony by donating a frame of eggs from a queenright colony.

With two hives a crisis is rarely a disaster

Queens also fail because they are poorly mated. They either stop laying, or they stop laying fertilised eggs (i.e.they continue to lay unfertilised ones, leaving you with ever-increasing numbers of drones in the colony). The colony might realise and supersede her, or you might be able to rescue the situation with a donated frame of eggs.

I’ll deal with the consequences of a failed or slaughtered queen at the extremities of the season – early or late – below.

The loss of a swarm

It happens to the best of us, and it sometimes seems to happen even if you do your swarm prevention and control by the book 5.

I’ve turned up in the apiary on a warm May afternoon to discover a whirling mass of bees swarming from one of my hives 6.

It’s not a disaster … in fact it’s one of the greatest sights in beekeeping.

With luck the swarm will bivouac nearby and you’ll be able to collect them in a skep and re-hive them late in the afternoon.

A small swarm

A small swarm …

At least it shouldn’t be a disaster, but Sod’s Law usually dictates that …

  1. if you’re there when the swarm emerges, and
  2. you have a skep and sheet with you

… the swarm will alight 45 feet up a Leylandii 🙁

Even then it might end well if you’ve got a suitable bait hive set out nearby.

The time when losing a swarm is a disaster 7 is when you don’t realise you’ve lost a swarm. You find some queen cells, hurriedly knock them all back 8 and then wonder why there are no eggs the following week.

Déjà vu

At which point you’re in a similar situation to the ‘loss of the queen’ I described above … except you’ve also lost up to 75% of the workers from the colony. The situation is still rescuable with a frame of eggs from your other hive 9 but you’re likely to miss out on the major nectar flow.

Could the situation be any worse?

Oh no it can’t … Oh yes it can!

You miss the lost the swarm, you knock back all those queen cells and you then fail to realise there are no eggs or young larvae in the colony until only sealed brood remains (i.e at least 9 days).

Or worse still, until no brood remains (i.e at most 21 days).

With no brood pheromone being produced there’s now a real danger that the colony will develop laying workers. Things now get an order of magnitude more difficult as a colony with laying workers is very difficult to requeen (and generally will not even attempt to rear their own if presented with a frame of eggs).

Drone laying workers ...

Multiple eggs per cell = laying workers (usually)

You’re fast approaching the next of the beekeeping ‘disasters’ …

The loss of a colony

How do you lose a colony?

What was it Elizabeth Barrett Browning said? ’Let me count the ways’ 10.

Natural disasters such as falling trees, winter gales, raging floods, woodpeckers, honey badgers and stampeding elephants 11 can destroy a colony.

Hive toppled by a summer storm

However much care you take – avoiding floodplains, strapping the hives down, seeking shelter (but not near shallow-rooted trees) – sometimes sh1t just happens 12.

You did your best and nature did her worst.

See what you can rescue and try again next year.

Queen loss at the start or end of the season

Losing a queen very early or very late in the season – for whatever reason – is a problem. There’s no chance of the colony rearing another – it’s too cold and/or there are no drones available. I suppose there’s an outside chance you could requeen the colony – if you had a queen available 13 – but doing so involves quite a bit of risk.

If the queen fails overwinter, all the bees in the box will be very old by the time your colony inspection confirms she’s firing blanks, or not firing at all. The chances of successfully requeening the hive are slim at best.

Although that colony is effectively lost – at least if it happens late in the season – it’s not an unmitigated disaster if you have another hive 14. You can unite the queenless colony over a queenright colony very late into the autumn, strengthening the latter and (at least) using the bees from the former, rather than condemning them to a lingering death.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive … uniting colonies in midsummer

I wouldn’t bother trying to unite a queenless colony (or one with a failed queen) at the very beginning of the season. The remaining bees will be pretty decrepit and there won’t be many of them. It’s unlikely they would contribute in a meaningful way to the successful build-up of another colony.

Winter losses through starvation

These are unfortunately common and often entirely avoidable.

Small-scale surveys from the BBKA and SBA often report winter colony losses of 20-30%, and up to 50% in some years. Large scale surveys, like the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) one in the USA, have reported annual colony losses – the majority of which occur in the winter – exceeding 40% in all but two years since 2013.

Bee Informed Partnership loss and management survey

I’ve lost colonies through both starvation and disease.

In both cases it was entirely my fault 🙁

It was a disaster for the bees and it was a sobering and educational experience for me.

I discussed starvation, and how to avoid it, in winter weight a couple of weeks ago. I won’t rehash it here, but I will repeat again that the bees are still in the ‘danger zone’.

Time for another?

Time for another? Definitely.

There’s little nectar available and they are busy rearing brood. Their need for stores is probably higher now than at any time over the last 4-5 months.

At best, a shortage will hold the colony back. At worst they’ll die of starvation.

All of which is completely avoidable by ensuring they have ample stores at the beginning of the winter, and then by keeping an eye on the weight of the colony as they enter the spring. If you’re adding fondant in late December it’s likely the colony had insufficient stores to start with … but at least you’re keeping a check on the weight of the colony.

Winter losses due to disease

I suspect that the majority of winter losses are not due to starvation but are instead due to inadequate or incorrect Varroa management.

This is a topic that has been covered numerous times in posts here. The most recent overarching review of the topic is probably Rational Varroa Control. Versions of this appeared in the August 2020 BBKA Newsletter and in The Scottish Beekeeper in the same month.

Successful Varroa control requires an understanding of the treatments available and the pros and cons of using them on your bees and in your location/climate. Too many beekeepers simply want to know whether they should add Apiguard in the third week of August or middle of September.

Apivar strip on wire hangar

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

But that doesn’t mean it’s particularly difficult either.

Unlike many of the other diseases of honey bees – e.g. chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV), Nosema and the foulbroods – there are effective treatments to control Varroa and the damaging viruses that it transmits.

Losing a colony in June to CBPV is possibly unavoidable (it’s just bad luck) but losing one to Varroa/DWV in January – which is largely avoidable – might well be bad beekeeping.

In both cases of course it’s a disaster for the colony 🙁

Disaster

The meaning of disaster is ‘An event or occurrence of a ruinous or very distressing nature; a calamity; esp. a sudden accident or natural catastrophe that causes great damage or loss of life’. Its origins date back to the mid-16th Century.

Some of the ‘disasters’ I’ve described above involve the loss of just one life – that of the queen. For the reasons I describe, they’re not really disasters at all, or shouldn’t be for the observant and well prepared beekeeper.

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

They become disasters i.e. causing great damage or loss of life, if you miss the tell-tale signs and so contribute to the eventual demise of the colony.

The avoidable loss of a queen or a colony is a distressing experience, or at least it should be 15.

If it is distressing then it will probably also be a learning experience.

Analyse what went wrong and work out how you might prevent it happening again in the future.

We have a duty of care for the bees we manage. I don’t like losing colonies, but it still happens infrequently. When it does I try and determine whether it was just fate … or my incompetence (or – let’s be generous – my actions or inactions) that caused the loss.

And the times you manage to work out where you went wrong are the foundations for your beekeeping triumphs in the future … which is what we’ll return to next week.


 

Battlefield bees

Synopsis: For millennia bees were used as weapons of war. They are now being developed as ‘weapons of peace’ to help clear the millions of anti-personnel mines left after active conflict ends. Their legendary scent detection abilities combined with high-tech ‘bee detection’ methods show promise and may help reduce the thousands of civilian casualties that occur decades after the war ends.

Introduction

The weekly posts on this website are about bees and beekeeping.

In the same way that I deliberately shun sponsorship and avoid advertising 1 I also try and avoid politics, law and other divisive subjects. These cause enough problems without adding my opinions into the mix … and worse, having to moderate the opinions of others in the subsequent comments.

So, although I might write about the detrimental effects of thiamethoxam on bees, I would focus on the science of neurotoxins rather than politics of lifting the ban of the use of this neonicotinoid in the UK .

It is harmful to bees, but the aphid-transmitted yellows viruses may otherwise decimate our sugar beet crop, and might not the alternative pesticides be more harmful to bees?

Do we even need that much sugar beet?

And what about the livelihoods involved?

You can see how quickly it gets very messy.

But, at the same time, I strive to make posts relevant and even topical. When viewed retrospectively – even if just by me – the posts represent a snapshot of my jumbled thoughts of what’s current at the time.

There are ageing posts on oxalic acid treatment that don’t reference ApiBioxal (the good old days as I like to call them), and others that make passing mention of maximising the oil seed rape (OSR) crop, or processing OSR honey 2.

All of which means I cannot really avoid mentioning the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine 3.

Six-legged soldiers and one-legged civilians

Two years ago I wrote a post about the use of bees in warfare. For many hundreds of years they were an effective tactical weapon to be dropped on or fired at the enemy.

Not individually – that would be just silly – but a hive at a time.

I’ve been present when someone has dropped a full brood box. The whirling cloud of angry bees was reminiscent in shape, though nothing else, to the mushroom-shaped cloud over Hiroshima. Lots of people got stung in the training apiary during that session.

Unfortunately, the ingenuity of man knows no bounds when it comes to killing and maiming others.

The thermobaric weapons employed today are very different from the torsion-powered ballista siege engines used by the Ancient Greeks over two millennia ago 4.

Soldiers now wear carbon and kevlar rather than Corinthian helmets and short-sleeved tunics.

Although you can buy a camouflaged bee suit, it’s not designed for the battlefield, and is likely to be about as much use as the hoodies, jeans and T-shirts that the innocent civilians inevitably caught up – or deliberately targeted – in today’s wars are wearing.

The legacy of war

And long after the battle has ended – years or even decades later – those surviving civilians continue to be maimed and killed by unexploded ordinance and, particularly, by anti-personnel mines.

Minefield sign, Cyprus

So, rather than dwell on the horrors of the present – which is about as far removed from beekeeping as it’s possible to get – I’m going to discuss some more hopeful stories of how bees might help reduce the deaths and injuries caused by anti-personnel mines.

Those readers expecting the (un)usual humour may be disappointed this week … this is not a topic that lends itself well to jokes.

The solutions that scientists are developing to detect anti-personnel mines use a clever combination of the truly awesome scent detection capabilities of honey bees coupled with some very clever technology.

The problem

In 2021 there were 61 countries which were ‘contaminated’ with anti-personnel mines. These mines are typically produced for a few dollars, are perhaps 30 cm in diameter and are buried just sub-surface … and often forgotten.

One definition of the word minefield is ‘a situation or subject presenting unseen hazards’. The plural hazards, and use of ‘field’, indicate that lots of anti-personnel mines are usually buried across an area, thereby rendering it too dangerous to enter.

Farming, trade and communication is inhibited as people have to avoid the minefield(s) … and, if they don’t then the consequences can be devastating.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines recorded over 7,000 casualties in 2020, 2,500 of whom were killed.

80% of these casualties were civilians and – where the age was known – over 50% of the casualties were children.

Aside from banning the use of anti-personnel mines in the first place, a priority must therefore be to find and removes mines from these areas.

Typically this involves using metal detectors or sniffer dogs for detection, followed by manual clearance. Inevitably, there are considerable risks involved in both the detection and – to a lesser extent – the clearance. These risks make the process time-consuming and expensive.

Which is where honey bees come in …

”I love the smell of Napalm in the morning”

So said Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in the film Apocalypse Now.

Landmines don’t contain Napalm, but about 90% if them contain TNT (trinitrotoluene).

And not only does TNT have an odour, but landmines continue to emit this odour for years after they have been buried. On a calm day there are vapour plumes of TNT above each of the buried mines 5.

The vapour concentration of TNT is measured in parts per trillion (pptr) and is usually in the range 0.01 – 100 pptr.

Just as the usual way to express areas is by comparison to Wales 6, the ‘volume comparison’ is typically made to an Olympic swimming pool.

1 part per trillion is about the same as half a teaspoon added to an Olympic swimming pool. Not very concentrated …

… but well within the detection capabilities of honey bees. For comparison, this is similar to that of sniffer dogs 7.

To cut a long story short, scientists 8 trained bees to feed on syrup laced with trace quantities of TNT. They then tested the ability of these bees to detect targets emitting field-realistic amounts of TNT.

The results were very encouraging. 97-99% of targets were detected with 1-2.5% of false-positives.

More importantly, the false-negatives (targets that were missed) were less than 1%. It’s much more important to not miss any than to ‘find’ some that aren’t there.

Lidar

The authors neatly sum up the benefits and principles of the study:

Bees do not cause mines to explode, do not require a handler, and can be trained more rapidly than dogs. This technique makes use of the natural foraging behavior of bees, which frequently cover ranges up to several km around a hive. The bees identify the sample location by their increased dwell time while flying in its vicinity.

And it’s that last sentence that should give you pause for thought.

How do you detect the “increased dwell time” – a fancy term meaning spending more time flying in one small area than the remainder of the study area – if you’re trying to find mines in an area about the size of a couple of football pitches 9.

Remember, as if you’d forgotten, you cannot enter the minefield because of those unseen hazards that are lurking just under the surface waiting to blow your legs off.

Bees are pretty small. I can see them against the clear blue sky at 20-30 metres range, but I can’t see them against mixed foliage at anything like that distance.

One potential solution is light detection and ranging (lidar) technology. Essentially this involves shining a scanning laser across an area and detecting the light scattered when it ‘hits’ objects – such as flying bees 10. For additional discrimination, changes in the polarisation of the scattered light has been used to distinguish between bees and what the scientists termed ‘clutter’, which I take to mean foliage.

And it works.

Lidar detection of bees; a) bee heatmap, b) chemical detection (5 is a false positive), and c) visual mapping of bees.

Not only in theory but also in practice … lidar has been used to detect bees detecting mines in an active ‘minefield’. Mines were buried in known locations, trained bees were released and their ‘dwell times’ were recorded using lidar (with the detector about 80 metres away).

Football fields and minefields

But there’s a problem.

Lidar involves a laser scanning horizontally 30-60 cm above the ground. Anything lower than this and the foliage prevents accurate (or any) detection of the bees.

And, even though a minefield might be the size of a football field, it doesn’t look like a football field … either when mined in the first place and definitely not after a few years.

Minefield in the Golan Heights

Unfortunately, there’s also an additional problem.

Tragically the sign above was probably erected after someone inadvertently stepped on a mine. Until that fateful day it might have just been ‘that scrubby bit of field bordering the river’.

Detecting the location of mines in a minefield is one problem.

Detecting whether a field is a minefield is a different – albeit related – problem.

And it turns out that bees might be able to help us discriminate between minefields and football fields, or any other sort of equally harmless fields.

I’ll discuss this before returning to the detection of individual mines in a minefield.

REST (and be thankful)

REST is an acronym for Remote Explosive Accent Tracing 11 .

Since those buried anti-personnel and landmines give off a vapour plume of TNT there are methods of sampling the air and testing it for the presence of trace amounts of explosives.

The ‘sampling’ is highly technical and outside the scope of this post 12.

The ‘testing’ involves sniffer dogs and lots of doggy treat-type rewards. Consequently it is a time-consuming and therefore costly procedure.

However, honey bees are covered in tiny hairs. Through electrostatic interactions, these pick up molecules while they are out foraging. Graham Turnbull 13 and colleagues have shown that flying bees can pick up molecules of TNT (from buried mines) which can subsequently be detected.

The bees are therefore used for wide area sampling, but how is the TNT detected? Graham is a physicist whose speciality is organic semiconductor sensing films … essentially thin films that change fluorescence when certain chemicals are deposited on their surface.

The hive entrances were modified so that the bees passed through a tube. This was made of a special material to pick up – and since lots of bees were making the trips, to also concentrate – the molecules that adhered to their hairs whilst out foraging.

Quenched photoluminescence (red bars) compared to negative control areas (black line)

To cut another long story short, the concentrated molecules were then transferred to the semiconductor sensing film and the photoluminescence quantified. A reduction in the photoluminescence (quenching) was indicative of TNT detection 14.

So honey bees can be used to discriminate between minefields and, er, other fields.

Detecting mines not minefields

I should add that the bees used in the study above were not trained 15 in any way. They simply placed feeders on the opposite side of the uncontaminated test or mined field to encourage them to sample in a reasonably defined area. The bees were not searching for mines, or the TNT vapour plumes, they were just flying back and forth ‘doing their stuff’ and foraging.

Bees are fast learners and can – as described briefly above – readily be trained to associated particular scents (such as TNT) with rewards (i.e. syrup). When you release these trained bees into an area with TNT vapour plumes they home in on these looking for the rewards … and hence exhibit those previously mentioned ’increased dwell times’ near buried mines.

But there’s still the problem of how the bees can be detected.

Huge advances have been made in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s or drones), GPS and video technology in the 15+ years since the original use of lidar to detect bees detecting landmines.

The combination of these technologies now provides a way to detect individual bees, and consequently anti-personnel mines, within an area.

Using drones to monitor bees

A drone flying 10 m above the minefield 16 was used to record high resolution video from which the locations of individual bees could be (computationally) determined.

By detecting bees on individual frames (from video taken at 45 fps), rather than tracking each bee, it was (again computationally) relatively straightforward 17 to generate spatial density maps showing where the bees preferentially concentrated.

Video stills (left) and bee location heat maps (right). The blue circles show mine locations. Bee numbers on scale.

The accurate spatial location was ensured by using a modification (RTK) to GPS which involved an additional ground base station. This increased the standard GPS resolution to provide a horizontal accuracy of 5 cm. The bright coloured foci of ‘increased dwell times’ were less than 0.5 x 0.5 m.

Conclusions and problems

These studies are encouraging. They suggest that a biohybrid system 18, combining advanced physics and area-wide sampling of bees, with the exquisite scent detection of trained foragers coupled with highly accurate video monitoring, might help reduce the number of victims of landmines that occur long after the original conflict ended.

However, there are a few problems that remain to be resolved.

Bees learn fast, but they also forget fast. The authors developed some reinforcement training exercises to ‘remind’ them that they were searching for things scented with TNT.

Bees are not ideal chemical biosensors. They are potentially easily distracted by a strong nearby nectar flow, they don’t forage 19 in poor weather and their availability might be seasonal, depending upon the latitude.

Drones have limited flight times and long vegetation still impedes accurate video detection. Either the bees fly at lower altitudes or the foliage is disturbed by rotor downwash and so increases background noise.

Nevertheless, the expected costs and time involved in both the wide-area sampling and mine detection are lower, and the mine detection per se is much safer.

The mines still have to be destroyed, but knowing precisely where they are – and where they are not – is much more than half the battle … in solving the lethal legacy of a possibly long-forgotten battle.


 

Winter weight

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoirdupois 1

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

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

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

Schematic diagram of winter hive weights

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

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

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

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

Things start to pick up.

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

Or more.

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

Silent spring

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

The weather gradually improves and more spring flowers become available.

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

Late December gorse ...

Late December gorse …

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

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

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

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

And the colony will get lighter.

And lighter.

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

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

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

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

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

A brood frame full of stores

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

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

Winter weight

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

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

Arnia hive data

Arnia hive data

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

I’ve used both methods.

However, I routinely only do the latter.

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

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

And good enough is probably all you need …

Hefting the hive

This is easier to show than describe:

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

Comparisons help here.

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

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

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

The hive should feel heavy.

If the hive feels light it probably is light.

Too light.

Weighing the hive

This second method is a little bit more involved.

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

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

Just don’t 🙁

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

Friendly scales ...

Friendly scales …

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

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

The hive will probably weigh 30+ kg.

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

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

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

Physics … Ewwww!

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

Weighing hives

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

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

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

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

You radical 😉

Let the weight stabilise

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

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

Hive scales

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

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

Now you see it …

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

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

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

Using this ‘Heath Robinson’ contraption is simplicity itself.

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

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

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

How reproducible is this?

Actually, pretty good 🙂

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

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

That’s more than close enough for me.

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

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

All of which is pretty easy to achieve.

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

Then what??

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

Ideally weigh the hive and heft the hive.

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

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

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

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

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

Feeding fondant

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

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

Which bees are better able to access the fondant?

Brrrr.

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

I always err on the side of generosity 16.

You can easily remove unused fondant …

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

Your choice 🙁

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

Spot the blocks of fondant and the scales

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

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

Fondant block under an inverted perspex crownboard

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

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


 

Winter wait

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

Introduction

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

More of each have opposing effects in the spring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what do these checks entail?

What are you actually looking for?

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

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

What’s happening in the box?

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

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

However, there’s work to be done.

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

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

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

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

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

How would you like it?

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

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

Colony viewed through a perspex crownboard – mid-February 2022

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

That’s a good start.

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

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

Condensation

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

Perspex crownboard with integrated insulation

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

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

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

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

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

Open mesh floors

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

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

Wow 🙂

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

Not black and definitely not Varroa-coloured 😉

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

Abelo poly Varroa tray

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

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

Or impossible.

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

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

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

Tasseography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hive health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They will have Varroa.

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

Entrances

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

So what happens to all those corpses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tunnel entrances

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

Entrance duct and hive floor ...

Entrance duct and hive floor … brood box removed for clarity

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

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

There are two ways to do this:

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

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

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

Blocked Kewl floor

Blocked Kewl floor …

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

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

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

Winter weight

So, without disturbing the colony you now know:

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

Not a bad result for 5 minutes work.

But there’s one more thing to check.

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

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

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


 

Queen mating flights

Synopsis: How far does a queen fly to mate? Studies using RFID-tagged queens are providing insights into the frequency, duration and temperature dependence of queen mating flights … all of which have practical implications for beekeeping.

Introduction

Although it tends to be a rather poor topic of conversation at dinner parties 1, I’m getting increasingly interested in the mating biology of honey bees. This is an essential part of the life cycle of our bees, and one that has been – and continues to be – well studied.

Marked queen surrounded by a retinue of workers.

Here’s one I made earlier …

When I lived in the Midlands there were a seemingly endless supply of bees in the area. Beebase reported that there were about 200 other apiaries within 10 km of my main apiary. Assuming an average of 5 hives per apiary 2, and ignoring any wild or feral colonies, that’s 1000 hives producing drones with which the queen could mate 3.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, but bear with me.

In Fife, on the east coast of Scotland, my apiaries are in areas with about 35-40 other apiaries within 10 km, so – using similarly dodgy maths – perhaps 200 hives.

Nevertheless, bees are in apparently plentiful supply.

What do I mean by ‘plentiful’?

As a beekeeper, the two main ways – other than Beebase or by physically searching for them – I can judge the numbers of bees in the environment are, the:

  • success of my bait hives in attracting swarms 4, and
  • the ease with which my queens get mated

If I catch lots of swarms and a high percentage of my queens mate successfully then there must be a lot of bees about.

Apiary density

I was intending to start this post with a discussion of the evenness or otherwise of the distribution of apiaries within the Beebase-defined 10 km radius.

However, it turns out 5 that my maths are not good enough to plot a truly even distribution of hives/apiaries 6. Anyway, common sense dictates that apiaries are not evenly distributed … so let’s instead just consider the number of hives per square kilometre within that Beebase 10 km boundary.

Neighbouring apiaries, hive density and queen mating distances (see text for details)

In the diagram above the enclosing black circle indicates the area within which Beebase reports ‘neighbouring’ (i.e. within 10 km) apiaries. Inside that I’ve shown just four of the 314 one km2 blocks (in blue). On average, in the Midlands each of these would contain ~3.2 managed hives 7. In Fife, there would be – on average again – about 5 times fewer hives per blue square.

Several studies suggest that drones fly relatively short distances from the hive to the drone congregation areas (DCA) where they loiter with intent’ (of finding a virgin queen to mate with). I’ve discussed the use of harmonic radar tracking studies to identify these locations.

So, how many of these hives are actually within the range of a queen on a mating flight?

Where do you go to my lovely?

I posed the question How many of these hives … ? as we don’t know where the actual DCAs are.

The radar mapping study identified several within a few hundred metres of three drone producing colonies, so it seems reasonable to simply assume the DCAs are near the hives, and we know the average density of these.

Harmonic radar tracking of tagged queens visiting DCAs was not successful. It’s a short range technique, and the queen is known to sometimes fly long distances to visit DCAs.

I’ve discussed some of the studies used to determine these long-distance virgin queen flights, but summarise them again here:

  • In studies almost 90 years ago, Klatt observed successful mating on an isolated peninsula when the queen and drones were 6.3 miles (10.1 km) apart
  • In the mid-50’s Peer 8 demonstrated matings could occur when the queen and drones were 10.1 miles (>16 km) apart
  • Jensen 9 demonstrated mating when the queen and drones were 9.3 miles (15 km) apart

Of course, in all these studies it was not determined whether the queen and drones flew similar distances to the DCA. Since we know that drones probably fly relatively short distances it’s likely that the queen does the majority of the leg wing-work.

Ignore the outliers

The Peer studies showed that, although mating could occur when drones and queens were very widely separated, there was an inverse relationship between mating success and distance.

Just because 5% 10 of queens can mate following combined flight distances of 15 km does not mean that’s the distance they usually travel.

Actually, if only 5% of queens get mated at that distance then we can be pretty sure they usually fly much shorter distances.

Fortunately, Jensen did a more thorough analysis of this and showed that 90% of all matings occurred within 4.6 miles (7.4 km) and 50% within 1.5 miles (2.4 km).

And those are the 50% and 90% circles plotted on the diagram above, encompassing an area of 18 km2 and 174 km2 respectively.

Or, to express that area in potential drone donor colonies, 58 or 548 respectively in the Midlands, with a hive density of 3.2/km2 11.

So, in areas with reasonable densities of bees, knowing the majority of queens fly no more than 7.4 km, there are potentially hundreds of colonies producing drones that the queen could mate with.

All of which is a rambling introduction to looking at queen mating distances using a different approach.

Rather than work out how far she flies, what happens if we measure how long she takes?

If we know how fast the queen can fly we can again calculate distances and the number of potential drone producing colonies within range.

Time and weather dependence

But there are additional advantages of looking at queen mating flight duration.

If we can do it accurately we can also determine the:

  1. time of day when most mating flights take place,
  2. influence of the weather on the duration and frequency of queen mating flights,
  3. number of orientation and mating flights the queen takes.

And frankly, as a practical beekeeper, I’m much more interested in the first two of these than I am in the absolute distance she flies for her dalliances.

In an area well-populated with hives, understanding when the queen is likely to be away on a mating flight will help me avoid interrupting her return, and determining when she is likely to start laying.

But, as a scientist, I’m also really interested in the third point as there is some interesting recent work to suggest that drones try and restrict queens taking multiple mating flights 12.

Heidinger et al., studied the mating behaviour of queens using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags 13. Although the study produced no dramatically new results, it was a neat application of technology and allows me to discuss when mating flights occur and the influence of the weather in a little more detail.

The paper is Open Access if you’d like to read it. I’m not going to go through every subtle wrinkle and nuanced argument in the study, but will instead just focus on the important ’take home message(s)’.

RFID tagged queens

This is something I don’t need to discuss in anything other than cursory detail as I wrote about it three weeks ago in ’Chips with everything’.

Or perhaps I do? The post was only read by about 25% of the visitors who read the following week’s ’What they don’t tell you’ … it’s almost as though the hardcore science is less interesting than anecdotes about starting beekeeping. Surely not?

Essentially you stick a unique tag onto a bee and record when it enters or exits a hive using a sensitive reader at the hive entrance.

RFID tagged bees and RFID readers on a feeder

You don’t need to stand by the hive and watch anything.

All the ‘observations’ are made automagically and recorded digitally for subsequent analysis. You can therefore monitor hundreds of workers or dozens of queens simultaneously, thereby increasing the statistical robustness of the results obtained.

The Heidinger et al., study monitored the mating flights of 64 queens.

Of these, 11 were ‘missing in action’ 14 and never returned to the mating nuc.

Fifty three (83% … a figure very close to that quoted above from completely different studies) mated successfully and started laying eggs. However, two of these managed to get out and mate successfully without ever being detected by the RFID reader, meaning that flight times, frequencies and durations are from 51 queens 15.

The study was conducted in two apiaries about 4 km apart in Middle-Thuringia, Germany, in June/July.

Logistics and data wrangling

Conducting these types of field studies is not straightforward. Queens have to be produced in batches and then introduced to mating nucs.

A week of bad weather means the queens will have aged before they have a chance to fly.

What do you do about queens that return from a mating flight but that cluster underneath the mating nuc, only entering (and triggering the reader) after an hour or two?

To accommodate these vagaries the authors:

  • grouped queens according to age,
  • considered flights less than 3 minutes long as orientation flights
  • ignored mating flights of longer than one hour

And whatever filtered through from that pre-screening was then subjected to rigorous statistical analysis.

Time and duration of mating flights

Queens went on mating flights for 1 to 5 days, with an average of 2.2 +/- 0.98 day 16. In easier-to-comprehend terms this means that about 70% of all the queens went on mating flights on 1 to 3 days.

Since it’s often quoted that queens leave the hive ‘once to mate’ this might be a surprise to some.

Perhaps even more surprising is that queens went on a total of 1 to 16 mating flights, with an average of 5.04 +/- 3.11.

One particularly enthusiastic queen went on 7 mating flights in one day. The very definition of ’hot to trot’.

The timing of queen mating flights

Over 80% of these mating flights took place between 1pm and 4pm. From a practical beekeeping standpoint, by avoiding this period for hive inspections you will significantly reduce the chances of being in the way when a queen returns to a mating nuc.

The duration of mating flights

The average length of a mating flight was a bit less than 18 (17.69 +/- 13.19) minutes. Of approximately 255 mating flights (i.e. flights of 3-60 minutes duration) monitored, about 180 (70%) were of 20 minutes or less.

All of these results are in pretty good agreement with a wealth of literature collected using different methods over the last few decades.

Can we use some of these figures to calculate queen mating flight distance?

Duration x speed = distance

I can find nothing in the literature on the speed at which a queen flies. However, I do know that the escapee virgin queens I try and catch usually fly just too fast 🙁

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the queen flies at about the same speed as a worker bee. This is usually reported as 25 km/hr unladen and about 17 km/hr when laden with pollen or nectar.

Therefore, a queen mating flight of 20 minutes at 25 km/hr involves flying a total distance of no more than 8.3 km. A 10 minute mating flight at 17 km/hr equates to 2.8 km.

These distances include three components, an inward and outward leg separated by the flight time within the DCA. Your guess is as good as mine as to how long the latter takes 17.

However, not knowing something is the perfect opportunity for some informed speculation (or, as here 18, wild guesswork).

Wildly uninformed guesswork

The queen mates with several drones while in the DCA. Although each mating takes a very short time (seconds) there is competition between the drones while they chase the queen, so she must stay within the DCA for a reasonable period.

Time for another assumption … this time let’s assume that the queen spends one third of the duration of her mating flight within the DCA or 4 minutes, whichever is the shorter 19.

If that were the case, a 10 minute mating flight at 17 km/hr, with a third of the flight time being spent in the DCA, would mean the mating site was just 940 metres from the hive. Conversely, if the queen spent no more than 4 minutes in the DCA during a 20 minute mating flight at 25 km/hr, then the mating site must be 3.33 km from the hive.

Either my guessestimate for the time spent in the DCA is too high (quite possible), or the predicted flight speed of the queen is too low (unlikely to be wildly wrong, she’s not going to rush there at 75 km/hr) … or the typical distances queens travel to a DCA are significantly less than those measured using isolated queen and drone-producing colonies in the studies cited earlier by Jensen, Peer or Klatt (see above).

Relationship of time spent in DCA and potential maximum mating flight distance

The table above shows why I think queens likely spend less than 4 minutes in the DCA. Distances in red are within 2.4 km that Jensen showed 50% of matings occur in, those in yellow are within the 7.4 km that 90% of matings occured in 20.

The influence of the apiary

Let’s stop all this wild guesswork and return to the calming certainties of statistically compelling data 😉

The Heidinger study involved two apiaries separated by a few kilometres. All the data discussed above uses recordings pooled from both apiaries. However, queens in one apiary went on more mating flights than in the other. The difference isn’t huge (5 vs. 4 flights in the first three flight days), but is statistically significant.

Mating flight number (a) in different apiaries, and (b) at different temperatures

The queens are described as ‘sister queens’ and I assume this means they are all reared from larvae from the same mother queen, though this isn’t made explicit. If that is the case, it suggests the geography of the area influences queen mating flight frequency.

I say geography, rather than drone availability, as they also added an additional 47 (!) drone producing colonies near one apiary and observed no influence on queen mating flight characteristics.

Although the number of mating flights the queens went on differed, the duration of the flights did not.

The data start to get a bit more complicated when they considered the age of the queens and the duration of the first, second, third etc. flight … so I’ll skip all that and finally just consider the influence of temperature on mating flights.

Some like it hot

It is regularly stated that virgin queens need calm, sunny afternoons with a temperature exceeding 20°C before embarking on mating flights.

This is somewhat disconcerting for a beekeeper living on the cool/wet/windy – but exceeding beautiful – extremities of the UK.

July rain squalls across Mull, Skye and the Sound of Sleat

In fact, mating flights – by which I mean flights of 3-60 minutes (as no record of successful mating on individual flights was made) – occurred in the Heidinger study between a range of 14°C and 25°C.

In cooler weather, queens tended to take more mating flights (shown in the right hand panel on the graph above). The line is a ‘best fit’ and it’s clear there is quite a bit of variation. However, at 15°C the queens would take about 7 flights, compared to only about 4 flights at 24°C 21.

Unsurprisingly therefore, individual mating flights were of greater duration during warmer weather. Again the ‘best fit’ line is shown together with the variation in the primary data.

Relationship between temperature and individual mating flight duration

I found these last two graphs quite reassuring … there were lots of flights below 20°C.

Geek alert

I’m starting to get a bit obsessed with the weather here on the west coast and installed a weather station last summer. I only have complete records from July, but know we had a total of only 27 days on which the temperature exceeded 20°C from July and September.

August 2021 temperatures in Ardnamurchan

2021 was an outstanding summer here on the west coast.

Next year I’ll have data for the full queen rearing season so hope to understand this aspect of the mating biology of my queens a little better.

Conclusions

I’ve covered a lot of ground in this post … from the how far can she fly to mate? studies of the 1930’s to what appear to be short duration, and therefore relatively local, mating flights of RFID-tagged bees.

Understanding when a queen is likely to go on a mating flight should help you with timing your colony inspections. It should certainly help curb your impatience as you wait for your queens to get mated.

Finally, knowing that she can fly on much cooler days than the widely-cited 20°C gives those of us living in more northerly latitudes some reassurance that our queen rearing efforts are not entirely futile.


Notes

Some figures I meant to quote earlier; if the queen only flies between 940 m and 3.33 km to the DCA (see Duration x speed= distance above), and assuming colony densities of either 0.6/km2 or 3.2/km2 (see Apiary density about 3000 words ago 🙁 ) the number of hives ‘within mating flight range’ are between 1.7 and 111.

Quite a range, so ample opportunity for good numbers of genetically diverse drones, though remember that apiaries are not evenly distributed and DCA’s are variable distances from drone producing colonies.

Treat all of my numbers (and particularly my calculations) with considerable caution.