Category Archives: Beekeeping

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.

Location, location, location

Synopsis: Finding a good apiary location involves homework and legwork. What should you look for and what to avoid? A good apiary will ensure your bees are more productive and your beekeeping is much more enjoyable, so finding one is time well invested.

Introduction

It was the writer and diarist John Evelyn (1620 – 1706) who, in 1697, first used the term apiary to mean a place where hives are kept. Apiary also means a bee house 1, but for the purpose of this post I’m going to restrict myself to outdoor locations where bees are kept.

How should you go about finding a good apiary location?

Remember … bees are not pets.

They are working livestock.

That sting.

They are also quite high maintenance.

Despite what some seem to suggest, you cannot just dump them in any old field and return months later to harvest buckets of beautiful honey. For about six months of the year they need regular checks to ensure they have enough space, to prevent them from swarming and to make sure they are healthy.

If Carlsberg did apiaries … an apiary in Andalucia

All of these things – their work needs 2, the maintenance, the stinging – need to be taken into account when deciding where to site your beehives.

Since I’m in the process of finding and setting up a new apiary I thought it might be timely 3 to discuss the topic in a little more detail.

The garden … perhaps not the best choice

Many beekeepers keep their bees in their garden.

It’s certainly convenient.

However, as I’ve discussed before, there are a number of disadvantages. If you have a small urban garden you can be certain that ” … whatever the evidence (or lack of it), it will be your bees that sting your neighbours grandchild, poop on their Beemer and swarm onto the garden swing.”

Swarm on a swing ... not ideal if it's in the next door garden

Swarm on a swing … not ideal if it’s in the next door garden

Although I always site bait hives in my garden, until I moved to the remote west coast I’ve never kept bees there permanently 4.

My bees are generally well behaved and my swarm control is reasonably good. However, even the most benign bees can have a bad day, and reasonably good means that there is still room for improvement 5.

It just takes one stung grandchild, one BMW getting the pointillism with poop treatment, or one missed queen cell, to potentially sour relationships forever with your neighbours.

Why risk it?

Yes, it’s convenient 6.

Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to see the bees busily flying in and out.

But disputes with neighbours can get ugly and are cited as the reason for over 350,000 people moving house each year.

Is that a risk worth taking?

The garden … you’ll still need an out apiary

If you do intend to keep bees in the garden, check the deeds to make sure that it’s allowed. Some preclude ‘keeping livestock’ which, from a legal perspective, probably means bees 7.

And, if you do keep bees in your garden, I’d argue you still need an additional, or ‘out’, apiary 8. There are two reasons for this:

  • If and when you need to move your bees you will potentially have to do so at very short notice 9. If the colony goes queenless and gets stroppy, or a child develops an anaphylactic reaction, the neighbours are not going to accept being told ”It’ll be OK in 3-4 weeks … and it might not be my bees anyway”. Remember, it’s the summer and they want to have a BBQ.
  • Some beekeeping manipulations (like making up nucs for swarm control) are made easier by simply moving bees to a distant site.

For the rest of this post I’m going to focus on the features I look for in an apiary location, largely concentrating on rural or semi-rural areas 10. I’ll focus on the needs of both the bees and the beekeeper, and I’ll include some suggestions to make your searches a little easier.

Food and water

Other than in very specific circumstances 11 the area around the apiary must have good forage.

Without ample pollen and nectar being available the colony will not thrive, and they certainly will not collect excess nectar to provide you with a honey crop.

If the intention is to use the apiary year-round then there must be forage available throughout the period of the year when the bees are active.

Of course, the bees will range far and wide to find suitable forage, but the closer they are to it the better they will do.

My hives in this field margin did fantastically well on the oil seed rape (OSR), but they also benefitted from hedgerow flowers and tree pollens, and from ample dandelion, clover and blackberry. Even without the OSR, it was a good spot.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

In additional to good forage, bees also need to have access to water. My bees spend hours collecting water from a natural pool a dozen yards from the hives. It is possible to provide water from an artificial source – like a moss-filled bucket in the apiary – but a natural source doesn’t need topping up unless there’s a serious drought.

Marooned ...

Marooned …

But don’t site your hives too close to water if there is any risk of flooding.

Hives, particularly poly hives, do float. However, they don’t necessarily float the right way up.

Searching for a new apiary location in midwinter can help exclude some sites where flooding might be an issue.

In contrast, identifying suitable forage in midwinter is more difficult. In my experience the only ways to identify whether an area has suitable year-round forage are to:

  • learn what the major forage types are (even when they’re not in flower), and then spend time reconnoitering likely areas 12.
  • ask other beekeepers 13.

But where do you start looking?

Near … but not too near

If you are looking for an out apiary i.e. one located some distance from your ‘home’ apiary 14 then it makes sense to search at least 3 miles away. This is because, although bees can return to a hive from further away, if their originating hive is moved at least three miles they reorientate to the new location. This means you can make up nucs or move mating hives to the out apiary without the risk of the flying bees returning to their original location.

But, if you are looking for your first apiary, it makes sense to choose an area close enough to home so that travel doesn’t become a big part of your beekeeping. It’s surprising how often you forget things, or how often you just need to nip back to the bees to do something trivial.

Some of my apiaries are 130 miles from home and I write lists of what I need to take with me. Just ‘nipping back’ is not an option … all my colony manipulations have to be completed during scheduled visits.

Setting up a new apiary

There’s one more thing to consider when thinking about the general area in which to search for a suitable apiary site … where do other beekeepers keep their bees?

Ask some of the ‘old hands’ in your association. They might not tell you exactly where their bees are, but they are likely to be able to give you some general pointers.

In addition, keep your eyes peeled 15 when you are out and about on your travels.

I enjoy walking and it’s surprising the number of field margins, copses and rough land where you can find a few hives tucked away out of plain sight. Take a note of where they are and then start to focus in on areas that might be suitable for you.

Google it

Google and Microsoft both have excellent mapping facilities and these can help you find a suitable location for an apiary.

If you know where your home apiary is and/or the location of other hives in the area, you can plot the potential foraging range of bees from these apiaries, and look for likely looking gaps.

The following example is entirely hypothetical. It’s based upon an apiary of mine (blue circle) in Warwickshire, now vacated. The red circles mark other apiaries and the black circle is the limit beyond which I wasn’t prepared to travel 16.

Spheres of influence

If you find likely looking gaps in the overlapping circles they might be a good place to start your detailed search for an apiary. 

It’s also worth noting that the high resolution satellite images available from Google and Microsoft allow a much more detailed search for suitable apiary sites. This type of online searching cannot replace walking around a few fields, but they might well help you decide which side of the field to start at.

Look for access tracks that fade away to nothing, wide field margins, corners of agricultural land that remain unploughed, large clearings in small woods or copses etc.

A potential access track to a new apiary?

Remember, you might have to do this in the ‘off season’ so it’s worth learning to identify likely forage (or at least potential forage) when the area looks a lot less bee-friendly than it would in midseason.

Hi-res can help (you and the bad guys)

And also look for signs that other beekeepers have already placed hives in the area.

I can see you …

In the areas with the highest resolution mapping it is possible to ‘find’ hives that may be invisible from a cursory drive past or walk through an area. It’s worth using both Microsoft and Google maps for these detailed searches as they use different satellite images (and update them relatively frequently) and so details can be visible on one that are invisible on the other.

The photo above shows a few hives in a field on a Google satellite images. The photo below shows the Microsoft image of the same site.

I can see a lot more of you …

The half dozen hives visible in the first of these two pictures wouldn’t have stopped me looking for a suitable apiary nearby. The fifteen or more additional hives in the lee of the hedge (hidden in shade in the first picture) suggests that the area might be saturated with bees and that I should look elsewhere.

In places, the detail on these satellite images is amazing. Here’s the Google image of my first bee shed within a fenced area also containing half a dozen hives.

My bee shed

Be aware that anyone can view these images and that they therefore potentially pose a security risk 17. If you already have an established apiary check to see how visible it is … you might be surprised (and disappointed).

Boots on the ground

Once you’ve done enough homework it’s time to start visiting a few likely looking locations to see if they might be suitable.

Obviously you should not trespass (and the freedom to roam rights in Scotland are a huge bonus here) but it’s usually quite easy to determine whether an area is a non-starter or has some real promise.

A site that looked good in theory, but not in practice

You might need use your imagination. What will it look like on a dry May afternoon, rather than a dreich morning in January?

The site above looked semi-promising on the map. However, the conifers were larger than I’d expected and the site would have been too shaded.

When will the sun first appear? In hilly areas you can calculate when the sun will appear and disappear over the horizon using a combination of this tool to determine the trajectory of the sun and this tool to calculate the horizon.

How good is access? Remember, you might want access late evening or early morning to move hives. If it’s close to the farmhouse/stately home that might not be possible.

And, conversely, how secure is the site likely to be?

Is there safe parking nearby?

Can you drive right up to the (likely spot for the) hives, or will there be carrying involved?

In either case, how soft is the ground? Will you need wellies, a hivebarrow, a Toyota Hilux or a canoe?

Is the area likely to be a frost pocket? If so, look elsewhere.

What is the shelter like in the direction of the prevailing weather?

Is there sufficient space? You might start with just a couple of hives, but if your ambition is to have a dozen this makes additional demands on the space and forage needed.

Time spent in reconnaissance etc.

I try and work out all of the above before I approach the landowner 18.

Rather than asking Can I put some bees on your land?, when the answer might be affirmative but you might be offered an unsuitable location, it’s better to ask ”Can I put some hives in the north-west corner of the field with the large dead oak tree in it?

You’ve already worked out that access is good and the ground is well drained, you can face the hives in a south easterly direction to get the morning sun, there’s excellent shelter to the west, the site isn’t overlooked and there are no footpaths or bridleways nearby.

Nice wide field margins … but is that a footpath?

By all means justify your choice to the landowner, and consider other locations if offered. However, don’t just accept somewhere without considering all the pros and cons first.

You probably have a much better idea of what your bees need. You certainly have a better idea of what you (as the beekeeper) need. Don’t lose sight of these in your discussions.

A jar or two of honey to sweeten the deal always helps. You should expect to pay a ground rent which you should agree when you start.

Exchange contact details and tell the landowner your vehicle registration so they don’t mistake you for a poacher or flytipper … and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Final considerations

Most of what I’ve written above largely applies to finding apiary sites in rural areas. That’s because those are the locations I’ve used for 95% of my beekeeping. I’ve never kept bees on an allotment 19 and the bees I’ve kept in gardens have been – and still are – in gardens surrounded by open countryside or farmland.

In the latter cases I talked to the landowner first, often after they bought honey from me and then asked whether I was looking for another site for hives. I explain in detail the type of location(s) I’m looking for and then have a guided tour of their land.

If you explain in advance that you want a south-east facing sunny site you can avoid sounding too negative when they offer you a heavily shaded damp corner behind the compost bins 20.

The search for a suitable apiary location can take weeks or months … or you might find it at the very first gateway you stop at.

It’s certainly well worth investing time in finding a suitable site. A well chosen apiary will make your beekeeping a much more enjoyable experience and should make your bees a lot more productive.


 

What they don’t tell you

Synopsis: The details they don’t tell you on a ’Start beekeeping’ course are almost as important as the things they do teach. By definition these courses tend to be ‘fact heavy’. They omit some of the less tangible, and sometimes less pleasant, aspects of our hobby. These are mine, but all experienced beekeepers will have their own list of what they learnt after the course ended.

Introduction

I’ve only taken one ’Start beekeeping’ course. It was well organised, it got most of the basics right (in retrospect … I obviously no idea at the time 😉 ) and it provided a good foundation for my first season. Like many of these winter courses, it was spread over two months and timed to produce a ‘swarm’ of novice beekeepers when it was almost warm enough to open some hives for the practical sessions.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

It was held on weekday evenings and consisted of two 45-60 minute sessions separated by tea and biscuits. The refreshments were an integral and essential part of the course. Biscuits – or, better yet, cake – and tea hugely improve the beekeeping experience.

I’ll return to tea and biscuits in a minute.

The basics included talks on the biology of the honey bee, the beekeeping year, equipment, swarm control, diseases, honey and wax (and a bunch of stuff I’ve forgotten by now). It was therefore probably like most other courses that are being held up and down the country at the moment.

However, good though the course was, there are a bunch of things the course didn’t cover, but perhaps could have.

Here are some of them …

You will spend a lot more than you expect

Beekeeping can be practised relatively inexpensively, but it often isn’t.

The lure of the mail-order catalogue is strong.

The ‘must haves’ are too numerous to mention.

By the time a new beekeeper has bought a hive, a beesuit, some bees, a nuc box, frames, hive tool, smoker and one of those essential combo sugar-duster and frame-brushes, there’s probably not a lot of change out of £500 1.

And it could be a whole lot more. A cedar assembled National hive alone costs almost £500 these days.

At the beginning it makes sense to buy secondhand if you can. As long as the equipment comes from a disease-free source the bees will do just as well in a 30 year old cedar box as one purchased new. Ask around your association if there are beginners from the course last year who decided beekeeping wasn’t for them …

Thorne's budget hive ...

Thorne’s ‘bees on a budget’ hive …

… and if you have spare equipment, offer it to a new beekeeper rather than finding a corner of the shed to hide it in for another year or two. When I left the Midlands 2 I gave away lots of homemade 3 nuc boxes and other kit, much of which was perfectly serviceable and is still in use now.

And remember that although you often buy beekeeping equipment flat-packed, you can’t store it flat-packed … all those boxes take lots of space and you’re going to need a bigger shed.

Late November in the bee (storage) shed …

Remember also that the ’speculate to accumulate’ justification i.e you need more supers/nuc boxes or whatever to make money from your bees, can be easily undermined by lousy swarm control or a cool, wet summer.

It might work for a year or two … but I can guarantee it does not work for a decade 😉

Observe, think, have a cuppa, then do …

There are few things in beekeeping that need immediate attention.

’Act in haste, repent at leisure’ is an aphorism that’s worth remembering.

If 4 you’re faced with a problem you don’t understand it’s often a good idea to close up the hive and take some time to think about things.

The classic ’Aargh! panic’ situation for new beekeepers is discovering sealed queen cells in the hive and immediately squidging them all to prevent the imminent loss of a swarm.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

What else was in the hive?

Did you see the queen? No … but then you’ve not seen her for weeks, so what’s new?

But you don’t need to see the queen to be reasonably certain that the colony is queenright. All you need to see are eggs. An egg takes three days to hatch after, so if you can see eggs you can be certain that there was a queen present within the last 3 days 5.

Did you see eggs? Er, no.

What about developing larvae? You can’t remember?

Of course, the likely scenario is that the queen cells were sealed because the colony has already swarmed. There are no eggs or young larvae (or possibly any larvae) because the old queen vamoosed with the swarm several days ago.

So, by acting in haste – and crushing all those sealed queen cells – the colony is left with no developing queens and no larvae from which to produce a new queen.

In fact, the colony is now terminally queenless 🙁

Far better – on discovering the queen cells – to have a good look through the rest of the hive, close it up and have a think and a cuppa while you work out the correct course of action.

Then act …

You will make mistakes

“We learn from failure, not from success!” 6.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes when beekeeping.

I’ve had a lot of failures.

But, by thinking about where I went wrong, I’ve often learnt how to avoid doing it again 7.

Probably my first real clanger was inadvertently and unknowingly crushing the queen on my second or third ever inspection.

Oops.

But it gets worse.

At the next inspection, a week later, I (unsurprisingly) discovered a load of queen cells.

Uh oh! Swarming already?

If you re-read the section above I describe exactly how I dealt with that little conundrum 😉

D’Oh!

I knocked back all the queen cells and only retrospectively wondered why there were no eggs or larvae in the hive.

It was a useful learning experience.

Beekeeping looks quite easy, but there’s a lot to learn and the bees don’t always do quite what’s expected of them. A combination of good observation, good record keeping and retrospective thought should mean that the mistakes you will inevitably make aren’t wasted opportunities to learn how to avoid a repeat performance.

I don’t think I’ve ever left a colony terminally queenless in the same way again, but I’ve had ample other ’learning opportunities’ in subsequent years.

Perhaps fewer each year, but enough to keep me entertained … and educated.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of mentoring

Most well organised and responsible associations will ‘buddy up’ trainee beekeepers with a more experienced mentor. The idea is that the mentor is available to provide help and advice as and when needed. When it works well it’s a great arrangement.

You might get your first nuc from your mentor, and you may get some help with your first couple of hive inspections. If things go wrong, and they will (see above), your mentor should be able to provide the advice needed to avoid turning a drama into a crisis.

I wrote about Better mentoring several years ago. It’s a post that could probably do with an update.

However, the real ’benefits of mentoring’ are probably to be gained when you’re the mentor, not the mentee.

Mentor and mentee

Mentors do not need to be hugely experienced beekeepers. In fact, I’d argue that it’s sometimes better if they only have a season or two of successful beekeeping under their belt.

A very experienced beekeeper probably knows all the answers 8, but the mentee will only properly learn when they’re helped rather than told. In contrast, with one or two (successful) years experience, the mentor knows enough of the the basics to avoid disasters, but is more likely to do the ‘thinking out loud’ and work through the problem with the mentee.

And, while doing this ‘thinking out loud’ the mentor also learns.

Did I already say that tea and cake helps? It does.

I learnt more about beekeeping when mentoring others than when being mentored 9.

Lots more.

If and when you get the opportunity to mentor a new beekeeper grab it. You might feel you don’t know it all (you don’t), but you probably know enough. And, by being a mentor, you’ll get to know a whole lot more.

It can be hard physical work

Unless you’re young and fit and strong, and even if you’re young and fit and strong, beekeeping will be tough on your back. Hives are heavy, but moved relatively infrequently. Supers can be very heavy and – with luck – you’ll be lifting a lot once or twice a season.

And it’s not just your back.

Unused winter stores … surprisingly heavy

Frames, particularly frames full of stores, are heavy. Unless I’m careful I get aches and pains in my fingers from the strain of handling lots of frames during inspections 10.

I don’t remember any of this being discussed in my ’Start beekeeping’ course.

I’ve had one or two seasons spoilt by a bad back. Most recently it was due to tripping over something 11 in long grass when carrying three full supers. This is definitely not recommended. The bees were upset and I had back pains until the end of the season.

Learn how to lift properly. Make sure you have clear space around your feet and somewhere suitable to place the moved boxes. All entirely obvious and very much a case of do as I say, don’t do as I do.

But the physical nature of beekeeping doesn’t stop with lifting.

Most beesuits provide good protection against bees, but only by being made of rather thick material. Therefore, on a hot day, they can get very warm indeed. The veil reduces air movement around your head, so the natural cooling from perspiration isn’t very effective.

Sweating in a beesuit

Admittedly they’re not needed a lot in Scotland, but these gel-filled, water-soaked neck wraps are excellent. They provide cooling for hours at a time. I’ve had mine for about 20 years now and I’m not sure if there’s a UK distributor, though you can get them in Holland.

Or just leave the inspection to a cooler day 😉

You will lose swarms

In about my third season I had about half a dozen colonies. I’d done some splits the year before and had my first tentative go at queen rearing.

I was beginning to really enjoy beekeeping.

Which didn’t mean I necessarily was any good at it, or had much of a clue about what to do 😉

My swarm prevention was poor and my swarm control was hopeless (bordering on non-existent).

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

At one point in late May or early June I didn’t have a single hive with a laying queen in it. They’d all swarmed.

I had at least learned not to knock back all the queen cells. A small victory.

Queen open mating success is about 75-80% and I think all the hives were eventually queenright. However, I still felt both helpless and hopeless standing in an apiary with 6 hives and no queens.

I think the secret of swarm prevention is to start early … young queens, give them space etc.

I know the secret of swarm control is to use a method you absolutely understand and have total confidence in. Learn why it works, learn the wrinkles. Understand the timing of whatever hive manipulations are needed.

It might be something as simple as making up a nuc with the old queen and letting the colony re-queen itself. Or it might involve a Snelgrove board, a 47 page manual and visits to the apiary every 21 hours for 3 weeks to open and close all those damned doors.

Whatever floats your boat.

Whatever floats your boat

Unsurprisingly I use the nucleus method for 90% of my swarm control, and in many years use nothing else.

In my hands it’s idiot proof. It needs to be.

Since you will lose a swarm or two, set out bait hives. If you’re lucky your swarm will take up residence and you can pretend you never lost it in the first place.

Swarm arriving at bait hive ...

Swarm arriving at bait hive …

If you’re really lucky you’ll notice scout bees checking out your bait hive, realise there’s a colony thinking of swarming nearby, check your own hives and discover an unsealed queen cell.

Keep your veil on to hide that smug smile 😉

Joseph Merrick

One of the skills new beekeepers need to acquire is how to judge the temperament of a colony. Some bees are naturally feisty and, knowing this, you don your beesuit and gloves well in advance 12. Other bees are calm and stay calm whatever abuses are visited upon them. You drop a frame – or a super – they buzz around a little but remain remarkably unfazed.

But most bees are between these extremes. They’re fine until they say ’enough’s enough’.

The first secret of not getting stung is to avoid forcing the bees to become defensive. Don’t crush bees when manipulating frames or replacing queen excluders. It takes a few seconds more to do it gently having brushed/encouraged the bees out of the way. Avoid opening the hive in thundery weather.

But the other secret of not getting stung is being able to judge that the colony is getting riled up. If you realise they’re getting agitated you’ll take extra care.

You might even decide to close up the colony and start again another day.

There’s no shame in a tactical withdrawal …

If they’re really agitated the other thing to take care with is removing your beesuit. I generally don’t react to stings on the hand, forearm, ankle or upper thigh 13, but I react badly when stung on the face.

Stings around the lips, eyes or tongue can be temporarily disfiguring and, for some, dangerous or even life-threatening.

The few really bad stings I’ve received were to the face after removing my veil too soon after inspecting a poorly tempered colony 14.

This is the reason I consider ‘following’ one of the worst possible traits in bees, and something I rigorously exclude when selecting stock for queen rearing (or colonies for requeening).

You will be amazed how good your first honey is

If you get to late August with a strong queenright colony and a frame or three of honey, well done. You’re half way to becoming a beekeeper.

12ox hex jar with clear (runny) honey. The Apiarist

12ox hex jar …

Enjoy the honey. It tastes even better knowing that you worked with the colony to produce it.

You will miraculously develop a wider circle of friends, and long-lost family members will appear wanting to know all about your new hobby.

And test the honey 😉

In your first season just buy 4 oz or 8 oz jars … any larger and there won’t be enough to go round 😉

Get the bees through the winter, healthy, queenright and expanding well, and you’ll have successfully completed your first full year.

Now you’re a beekeeper 🙂


 

Chips with everything

Synopsis: How do you accurately measure flight times and durations of hundreds of bees? And why would you want to do this anyway? Using the same technology as Marks and Spencers label stock items, albeit on a smaller scale, it is now possible to monitor thousands of honey bee flights very accurately.

Introduction

As a beekeeper, you’re well aware of the size and appearance of a honey bee. Considering the workers only, they are all pretty much the same size and they all look rather similar.

Yikes … I’m only two sentences into the post and I feel the need to add a couple of interesting caveats:

  • honey bees are unusual (amongst bees) in that there is much less variation in the size of individual workers within the population 1. This might aid the accuracy of the waggle dance … 2
  • however, that size is not constant. For reasons that are not really understood, the size of honey bee workers increases during the season, by a small but significant amount 3

OK, let’s get back on track …

Considering this similarity, how can you tell if and when a particular bee returns to the hive?

For example, if you’re interested in the distance from which a bee can successfully return to the hive.

The obvious thing to do is to mark the bee, in the same way you would mark a queen, with a small coloured spot of paint on the thorax.

Small bees, big numbers, Posca pens

But, returning briefly to that very slight increase in size of honey bees during the season, scientists often need to make multiple repeat observations to get statistically significant results 4. This becomes a problem as Posca only do a limited range of colours … you might be able to label bees with only eight different colours.

Mr Blobby goes beekeeping

Or 64 combinations if you use two colours per bee … or 512 if you use three colours together.

There are problems with this. Firstly, it takes a lot of time to put two or three separate dabs of paint onto the thorax of a worker bee. Secondly, the thorax is a rather small target for a rather fat pen (do you remember your first attempt at queen marking? 😉 ).

One way round this is to add dabs of paint to the abdomen as well, or instead, of the thorax. A bigger target certainly, but there are then issues with ensuring flexibility and not blocking the spiracles and a host of other things, so not ideal.

But, even if you could label a few hundred bees with unique colours, you’d then have to sit next to the hive entrance for hours at a time recording the arrival of blue-green-red (or was that green-red-blue? 5 ).

Not ideal … particularly if you are colourblind.

Actually, almost impossible.

But, thanks to Leon Theremin, the Russian inventor of the eponymous musical instrument and developer of the spookily named listening device “The Thing”, the RFID tag was created.

“The Thing”

The Thing” was a covert listening device hidden in a plaque proudly displayed inside the American ambassador’s Moscow residence for seven years 6. It was a so-called ‘passive cavity resonator’. When energised by a radio signal of the correct frequency (which – surprise, surprise – was transmitted by the Russians) it would pick up sound waves from the room, causing a membrane to vibrate. This vibration could be detected by a receiver (which – you guessed it – the Russians also had) and a decoder, thereby allowing conversations to be heard.

искусный as they say in Russian 7.

RFID tags and honey bees

And, on a somewhat smaller scale, that’s pretty much how radio frequency identification (RFID) works.

There are two components:

  • an RFID tag or chip which is attached to whatever you want to uniquely identify. You’ll be entirely familiar with these are they are often attached to price tags of items in shops (where they are used for stock control). They essentially consist of a microchip and an antenna.
  • an RFID reader which emits the radio signal to activate the tag and then ‘reads’ the information sent back. Typically this information includes a unique serial number 8.

RFID tags can be tiny. Hitachi make one that is 0.0025 mm2 which can store a 38 digit number. That’s smaller than a speck of dust. This brings a whole new set of problems as the antenna is so small that the range is only millimetres.

RFID tagged bees and RFID readers on a feeder

But an RFID chip that is about 2 mm2 is small enough to attach to the thorax of a bee and large enough to be relatively easy to detect … for example, when passing a reader at the hive entrance.

Flying home

How far do bees fly?

I’ve discussed this topic previously in a post titled Sphere of influence. Historically these studies were conducted by observing foraging activity in the badlands of Wyoming (where the bees had to fly miles to find anything), or by decoding the waggle dance to infer distances.

But let’s ask a slightly simpler question.

What is the furthest distance that a bee can successfully return to the hive from?

Just think about the practicalities of the experiment.

You could predict that the further away the bee starts, the less likely it would be to successfully return. In addition, the further away the start point, the longer it would take to return.

You’d therefore need to monitor lots of bees over a long time.

In addition, you’d need to be sure that the bees were not wind assisted, or – conversely – homing activity was similar irrespective of the direction the bee was initially transported.

So, more bees.

Time to chuck away those Posca pens and tag several hundred bees with RFID chips.

In 2011 Mario Pahl and colleagues did just that and published a study on the large scale homing of honey bees 9.

Like all good experiments, the study is elegant and relatively straightforward. The paper is Open Access if you want to read it yourself … or keep reading for the juicy bits.

The key experimental details

Recently returned pollen-laden foragers 10 were captured, tagged with an RFID chip ‘emitting’ a unique serial number, placed in a black box, transported up to 13 km from the hive and released.

The hive entrance was fitted with an RFID receiver and the exact time the bee returned – if she returned 🙁  – was recorded.

Map of the experimental area. Triangles mark release sites. Features discussed in text.

At least 20 bees were released in each of 33 different sites distributed to the north, south, east and west of the hive. The bees were transported to the release sites in black boxes so they could not get any positional information en route.

Anyone who transports bees (or cleared supers containing a few straggles) any distance will be familiar with their behaviour if/when you release escapees from the car. They spiral upwards in widening circles until they disappear from sight.

This is very similar to their behaviour on orientation flights. They are – literally – getting their bearings.

The ‘local’ landscape

It’s worth commenting here about the landscape features around the hive.

The experiment was conducted in Australia and the landscape around the hive was distinctive.

The hive was located 1 km east of Black Mountain (BM on the map above), 5 km north of Red Hill (RH 11 ) and about 4 km west of Mount Ainslie (MA). There was a lake (Lake Burley Griffin, LBG) immediately south of the hive 12.

Panoramic view of the experimental area from the home hive.

There was good forage in the immediate vicinity (within 500 m) of the hive, including the Canberra National Botanic Gardens. The authors therefore thought it “unlikely, but not impossible, that the bees knew the areas beyond the lake, behind BM and beyond MA”.

I counted them all out, and I counted them all back 13

Having released the bees they then decoded the unique tag numbers as the bees arrived back at the hive over the subsequent hours … and days.

The closer the release site, the more likely the bees were recorded returning to the hive. However, the homing rates – the percentage that returned for any given distance – were essentially the same for bees released to the north, south and west.

In these directions, no bees returned when released from much over 6 km distance.

Homing rates. The percentage of bees that successfully returned from distant release points.

In contrast, bees transported up to 11 km east of the hive managed to return successfully.

This was not due to the prevailing wind direction which was from the north-east and about 15 km/hr, and would have therefore probably aided bees initially transported north as well.

Flight speeds

The homing speed – assuming the bees flew in a straight line – was about 25 m/min for bees released to the north, south and west, but significantly higher (35 m/min) for the bees released to the east.

Of course, the bees probably didn’t fly in a straight line 14.

These speeds, when converted are only 1.5 – 2.1 km/hr. Honey bees can fly at up to 30 km/hr, but more typically fly at around half that speed.

At 15 km/hr all of the release sites were within an hour’s flight, indicating that a significant amount of time must have been spent searching for the correct bearing, rather than actually flying along that bearing.

The one exception to these flight times/speeds was for bees released on the opposite side of the lake. In this instance, flight times increased markedly despite the release sites being only 400 m apart. It is suggested that the bees minimised their flight over water by following the shoreline to the shortest crossing point in these instances.

Before moving on to the interpretation of the results it’s worth considering the numbers of bees studied, and the impossibility of doing this type of research without RFID technology.

1073 bees were tagged and released. Of these, a total of 394 returned (36%), though 75 of them (7% of released, 20% of returning) took more than 24 hours to find their way back to the hive.

Even the most dedicated PhD student would not be capable of doing this monitoring without the help of technology.

Why the longer and faster flights from the east? 

Considering it likely that the bees only knew the area within a couple of kilometres of the hive, how could they find their way back from up to 11 km away, an epic journey that took several days?

And why did bees initially transported east return at both a higher rate and a higher speed?

It seems likely that for the short to medium release distances (say <4 km), the bees used the distinctive shape of BH to guide them back to the hive. Since this mountain was immediately adjacent to the home apiary the bees would be familiar with it.

Alternatively, since bees are known to sometimes exploit particular flight lines based upon underlying landscape features, the global landmarks such as BM and MA could guide the bees to the next path segment of the flight line.

That wasn’t the question though … the question was why was it only bees flying from the east that successfully returned from distances up to 11 km away?

Getting their bearings

Bees released east of MA could not ‘see’ the hive-adjacent BM (as MA is in the way). However, the authors suggest that – by flying west towards a high point on the skyline (which initially happened to be the mountain MA) – the bees could then “continue on to BM”, where the familiar local features then lead them home.

Whilst that makes some sense to me, it also makes an assumption that the bees somehow fly up and over 15 MA to get a view of BM. Without that view, what else entices them to fly further west?

Do lots of the bees ‘lost’ returning from the east actually end up expiring during their futile search for a hive immediately to the east of MA? The fact that these successful long journeys took ‘several days’ (the precise times are not indicated for individual bees) indicates that the bees obviously spent a long time searching.

There’s an additional conclusion that can be reached from these long-distance journeys. Not only would time have been spent flying and searching, but the bees would also have had to make refuelling stops. A full crop of syrup is only sufficient to keep a bee flying for 25 minutes, or about 7 km at a typical flight speed of 15 km/hr 16. Therefore, the bees would have had to collect nectar several times on their journey.

So, what’s new?

In all honesty, not a lot.

The purpose of describing this study wasn’t because it unearthed some previously unknown details of the foraging or flight range of honey bees. Rather it was to introduce the concepts of uniquely tagged individual queen bees and using automated ‘readers’ to detect their movements.

It’s similar, but different, from the studies that involve uniquely barcoding bees I’ve described before.

Flight homing distances are considered a good indicator of the maximum potential foraging ranges. The figures determined using RFID-chipped honey bees are in broad agreement with the figures reported in previous analogue studies.

These place honey bees approximately mid-table in the league of ‘bee foraging distances’ … Ceratina smaragdula (a green metallic bee) goes no further than 200 m, whereas the South and Central American orchid bee Euplusia surinamensis boldly travels up to 23 km.

Some of the same authors applied this technique to investigate whether neonicotinoids were detrimental to the foraging behaviour of honey bees 17. At high, but sub-lethal concentrations, foraging activity was reduced and foraging flight times increased. However, at field-relevant nectar and pollen concentrations no adverse effects were observed. This study used RFID readers at both the hive and the feeder to record additional features of the foraging flight that would not have been possible manually.

You’ll realise, from the first full paragraph of this section, that I’d meant to discuss studies on queen bee (orientation and mating) flights. As tends to happen, I got a little distracted by espionage, the first electronic musical instrument, the names of mountains and Posca pens, so the queens will have to wait until another time.


 

Why keep bees

Synopsis : What makes people want to start beekeeping? Is it to Save the bees, or because they just like honey? Is their persistence and long-term success influenced by their initial motivation to keep bees. Do they keep beekeeping for the same reasons they start beekeeping?

Introduction

Hundreds of potential new beekeepers, spread across the country, are now enrolled on ’Beekeeping for beginners’ or ’Start beekeeping’ events. In the next few weeks they will take weekly or weekend theory courses.

Life cycle, swarming, the hive, Varroa, foulbroods, candles, honey … the whole nine yards 1.

They will read and re-read every page in the Thorne’s catalogue until they can recite it verbatim.

If they’re sensible they will not ’splash the cash’ until they can discriminate between what they actually need, what they might want (but not need), and what will be a total waste of money  2.

With luck, and a responsible beekeeping association, they will be appointed a mentor to provide help, advice, reassurance, cups of tea, a starter nucleus of bees, cake, commiserations and/or antihistamines 3.

It’s an exciting time. There’s a lot to learn 4 and so every reason to be a little apprehensive.

And, if they’re not, perhaps they should be?

In April they should get to see inside a hive.

Will they experience the same heady combination of wonder and bewilderment that I still sometimes feel when lifting a crownboard?

For some it will be a truly life-changing experience 🙂

For others it will confirm that they should have never taken the course in the first place 🙁

But for most it will be something in between.

I’ve often wondered whether the reaction during these early apiary sessions, and the subsequent beekeeping progress, is related to their original motivation to keep bees.

In the beginning

I don’t remember why I was interested in beekeeping. Other than my grandmother, there was no history of beekeeping in my family, and I don’t think my gran kept bees for many years.

I have a faint memory of a couple of lovely WBC hives on a patch of grass overlooking the valley, but never discussed them with her or did anything other than watch the bees going in and out.

When I signed up for a ’Start beekeeping’ course I knew less than nothing about beekeeping or beehives. I didn’t know about removable frames, or supers, or anything about plants or nectar or forage 5.

In fact, I didn’t have a Scooby Doo what was actually inside a beehive, other than a heck of a lot of bees.

However, I was interested in bees.

With a background and education in biology and employment as a biologist 6 I was always fascinated by living things. I’d read Konrad Lorenz and some other books on animal behaviour, I knew a bit about communication in higher animals and I’d heard – and probably been taught the rudiments of – the waggle dance.

I also had a sweet tooth and a long history of starting things enthusiastically and then – over time – moving on to something else. There’s nothing wrong with this approach to life/hobbies/jobs 7 though it can get rather expensive if those interests are sports cars or yachts.

As it turns out … it can also get quite expensive if your interests are bees 🙁

Save the bees, save humanity

I started keeping bees well over a decade ago 8. This was a long time before the marketing departments and rent-a-hive greenwashers had realised that there was serious money in honey bees.

Not in beefarming per se but in using honey bees as a sort of environmental imprimatur. If a product states it is bee friendly, or has ’Save the bees’ stamped on it, sales will increase.

Or it will sell at a higher price … or both.

Assuming the (inevitable) illustration used to decorate the product is recognisable, it will probably be a honey bee.

Define ‘recognisable’

Equally inevitably, this constant reinforcement means that the public 9 start to believe that honey bees are threatened and that their numbers are declining.

The reality of course is that honey bee numbers are actually increasing (globally, though not necessarily in all countries), and have been for at least the last 50 years. That doesn’t mean they’re not threatened 10 … but they’re hardly in imminent danger of disappearing.

But at least some decide that the best way to Save the bees’ would be to start beekeeping.

That wasn’t what made me want to start, but I know it’s motivation for some.

Responsible beekeeping associations should stress the potential impact competition from honey bees may have on wild pollinators … those who take up beekeeping to ’Save the bees’ may be doing precisely the opposite.

And those who start and then abandon their bees, leaving hives containing Varroa-ridden colonies to re-infest the neighbourhood, are definitely not Saving the bees … or humanity.

Self sufficiency

Beekeeping often appeals to people who want to be at least vaguely self-sufficient … in much the same way as keeping chickens or growing carrots does. Subconsciously, this may well have been the driver that encouraged me to sign up for a winter course on keeping bees.

I’d always wanted to keep chickens and had already failed spectacularly at growing carrots 11.

My attempts at allotment self-sufficiency had been marred by copious amounts of ground elder, a prolonged drought and frequent overseas travel. Surely beekeeping would be less time-consuming?

I’m beginning to realise it isn’t 😉

But the great thing about beekeeping is that – with a bit of effort – you can do better than achieve self-sufficiency.

I’ve been self-sufficient in honey since my first summer. Unless you eat vast amounts of the stuff it would be difficult not to be.

But the great thing about honey is that it’s a highly valued 12 product, with a long shelf-life.

Not unlike gold … liquid gold.

Honey

Honey

And, like gold, other people value it.

Gifts for dinner parties, thank-yous for the loan of a log splitter, even payment for odd jobs. I’ve used honey for all these things in the last couple of months.

A surplus of honey also opens up a wonderful world of barter and exchange. A jar of honey for some fresh eggs, or to help reduce the glut of runner beans or carrots, is both enriching and saves me the grief of digging and watering an allotment.

Not only is this a compelling reason to start beekeeping, it also means you get to meet like-minded people who are actually good at keeping chickens or growing carrots, and they are almost always interesting to chat with.

Profit

Are you mad?

I’m sure many amateur beekeepers think they make (at least some) money from their bees, and some probably do.

But they are beekeepers, not accountants 13.

Have they factored in the outgoings as well as the income? The cost of their time, the petrol for the van, the ongoing costs of frames and foundation and Apivar?

The losses, the bad years, the bad back?

Winter losses

Over my (relatively short) beekeeping career only about one year in four provides a real bonanza of honey. In the years you don’t run out of supers and honey buckets, you still have the same effort and outgoings. Or possibly more of both.

Even taking these things into account, I’m sure it’s possible to make some money … but would it be enough to live on?

I’ve discussed my back-of-an-envelope attempt at determining the economics of amateur beekeeping. I don’t claim it’s close to accurate, but it does give an idea of just how little ‘profit’ might be made per hive in a poor year, or conversely, how many hives you’d have to run to make more than the state pension.

I’m sure there are a few 14 individuals who take a ’Start beekeeping’ course with the dream of making a good living from bee farming.

I suspect rather few achieve their ambition 🙁

And one of the reasons it’s unlikely to be achieved is that beekeeping – at least beekeeping well – is difficult. It might seem easy in principle, or in a book (or from a website 😉 ), or during a Start beekeeping’ course, but in practice it can seem like an intractable combination of art, science and witchcraft.

Why I keep bees now

Which explains at least part of my ongoing fascination with bees and beekeeping.

There is always something more to learn.

I’ve written before that there is rarely, if ever, a trip to the apiary that does not result in me learning something new. Or learning that my current understanding of some aspect of beekeeping is inadequate, and that there is therefore more to know.

Which, of course, is half the trick about learning … if you realise what you don’t know, you’ll be alert for an opportunity to fill the gap(s) in your knowledge.

And part of the reason there’s so much to learn is that every season is different.

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

The weather varies; cold springs, hard winters, wet summers … all change the times that nectars and pollens are available, so influencing colony development.

Or the farmers get less subsidy for cattle feed and more for biofuel, so they abandon growing field beans and start growing more oil seed rape.

Our colonies respond by swarming earlier, or later, or (typically) at the time we’re least expecting.

Keeping bees means I am more in tune with the rhythm of the seasons.

I’m more aware of the arrival and departure of migrant birds, the flowering of trees or when the mackerel shoals appear in the loch. Most of this is subconscious, assisted by a little bit of note taking in my hive records:

April 10 : Colony #21 Q #7 : Gorse and late willow pollen, 5+ frames BIAS 15, first cuckoo of the season

All of which is actually rather nice. You become acutely aware of the environment around you. This provides an invaluable ‘grounding’ if your weekly existence usually involves shuttling between an air conditioned office and an air conditioned car 16.

Zen and the science of honey bees

I’ve worked on the biology of honey bee viruses for over a decade. The ability to mix ‘work and (p)leisure’ has been great. I’m certain that being a beekeeper has enabled me to write more successful funding applications 17.

My beekeeping has certainly helped my scientific interactions with other beekeepers … the many individuals and associations I’ve scrounged samples from, or who have acted as ‘guinea pigs’ for my PhD student’s projects.

One of the good things about the science of honey bees is that there are some excellent communicators on the subject. Thomas Seeley and Mark Winston are well worth reading, and if you have a subscription to American Bee Journal you can also read Jamie Ellis, Randy Oliver and Wyatt Mangum.

And there are many others.

An understanding of the biology or behaviour of bees can help you understand the science.

Lakes, for example … bees don’t like flying long distances over expanses of water. In fact, if they try to they often crash land in the water and perish. I’ve discussed optic flow and distance measurement by bees in a previous post. The mirror-like lake provides insufficient visual clues crossing their retinas, causing them to fly closer (and closer) to the surface to help estimate speed and distance … and take an early bath.

On a more practical level, the need for regular samples of larvae and pupae for research prompted me to investigate, and eventually build, a bee shed (or three).

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

These have been a revelation for many aspects of beekeeping, and are particularly useful in areas with unpredictable weather, or for beekeepers who only have limited time each week for their bees.

My most recently completed shed has still to accommodate any hives, but will be used for queen rearing in the, er, ’changeable’ climate I now enjoy on the west coast of Scotland.

I didn’t even know that queen rearing was a ‘thing’ when I started beekeeping, but it now brings me more enjoyment than many other aspects of the hobby.

Everyone is interested in bees

Finally, and this might be a byproduct of the Save the bees, save humanity’ marketing hype you see in the supermarket or read in the newspaper, lots of non-beekeepers are interested in bees.

When I used to live in a small village and sell honey ‘from the door’ it would sometimes involve a 45 minute conversation to sell a half pound jar.

My honey sales were earning me less than the national minimum wage 🙁

“Where are your hives? What sort of nectar do they collect? Do they fly far? Is it true that honey is antibacterial? Have you a recipe for thin syrup? 18 Why are honey bees threatened?

Which brings me almost full circle to the start of this rambling discourse …

And, of course, the other question beekeepers are regularly asked is Do you get stung a lot?”

You can play it cool and discuss the rigorous selection criteria you’ve used to produce the benign, laid back, mellow colonies of bees in your hives.

Or you can lay it on thick and make it sound akin to alligator wrestling … in a veil.

You think this croc is feisty? … You should see my Buckfasts

You’ll need to judge the customer to work out which is more likely to generate additional sales.

I now cannot imagine not keeping bees, even though I’m not entirely sure why I started in the first place. They are an integral part of my life, though they are by no means my only pastime/hobby/obsession.

The rhythm of the seasons means that my beekeeping is ever-changing; colony expansion in the spring, queen rearing, the honey harvest, talks, feeding them up for winter, DIY projects, more talks, jarring honey and then starting all over again.

If it was the same thing, week in, week out, I’d have probably given up years ago and kept chickens instead.