Category Archives: Practice

Long distance beekeeping

This post was originally entitled ‘lockdown beekeeping’. I changed it in the hope that, at some point in the future, we’ve all forgotten lockdown and are back to the ‘old normal‘. Instead, long distance beekeeping, better summarises the topic and might rank better in future Google searches …

But before I start, here’s some general advice …

Don’t do as I do, do as I say (elsewhere on this site 😉 )

I don’t think what I’m going to describe below was anything like ideal. In the end it worked out pretty well, but probably as much from luck as judgement. I’d do it again if I had to, but I’d prefer not to. I don’t think it is a workable solution for effective beekeeping in anything other than exceptional circumstances.

But 2020 has been an exceptional circumstance …

Mid-March madness

It was abundantly clear in very early March that a lockdown was inevitable 1 to restrict the spread of Covid-19. All the numbers were going in the wrong direction and other countries were already imposing quite draconian restrictions to control virus transmission 2.

I had speaking engagements with Oban & District BKA on the 12th and at the SNHBS event at Kinross on the 14th and, on the following day, I disappeared to my bolthole on the remote west coast of Scotland. 

The wild west

I decided to simply abandon the bees in Fife for at least a month while the country came to terms with movement restrictions, supermarket food deliveries, protecting the NHS and ‘working from home’.

On the day I left I checked that colonies were not too light, that the entrances were clear and that the roofs were secure and everything was strapped down.

March is too early to do anything with bees in Fife and my first inspections are usually not until mid/late April in a normal year, and even early May if there’s been a cold Spring. I therefore had a month to plan for the season ahead, with the expectation that I would have to manage the bees with the minimum possible number of visits for the next few months.

Planning

The beekeeping season contains a number of ‘moveable fixtures’.

By that I mean that certain things happen every season, but the time when they happen is not fixed. The timing depends upon the weather which, in turn, influences forage availability. It depends upon the strength of the colony, the location of the apiary and – for all I know – the phase of the moon.

Warm springs can lead to swarming by the end of April. Conversely, cold springs delay events. Dry summers generally put paid to the lime nectar and a protracted June gap can leave colonies starving in the middle of the season.

In the previous post I called these moveable fixtures the unknown knowns.

The variable timing of these moveable fixtures influences colony management by the beekeeper; this includes the spring honey harvest, swarm control and the summer honey harvest. In addition, it includes more mundane things like comb exchange, feeding the colony up for winter and Varroa management.

Bees and beekeeping are influenced by the environment, not the calendar 3.

The UK government imposed a nationwide lockdown on the 23rd of March 2020. Movement restrictions were imposed, including the distance you could travel from where you live.

Exemptions were made for allowed activities and, after lobbying from national associations and others, beekeeping was included as an exempt activity. Notwithstanding this, it was not going to be practical to conduct the usual weekly inspections from April until late July.

First inspections

I returned to Fife to conduct the first inspections in the third week of April. The spring was well advanced and the strong colonies were really booming. The overwintered nucs had built loads of brace comb in the space over the top bars and urgently needed to be moved to a full hive.

Overwintered nuc with brace comb

There were about 20 colonies spread between my two main apiaries. All were checked for space/strength, temper and the presence of a laying, marked and clipped queen 4. I didn’t have time to mollycoddle any weak colonies so these (having checked they were healthy) were united with nearby strong colonies.

Safely back in the hive

In addition, I didn’t have the luxury of time to see if poorly behaved colonies might pick up later in the season. To be frank, I had more colonies than I needed (or could easily cope with). With the need for swarm control looming, I decided to reduce colony numbers by uniting de-queened aggressive colonies with others in the same apiary. There were only a couple of these (identified the previous season and seemingly unimproved after the winter) … but every little bit helps.

United colonies, three supers, strapped up well … 25th April 2020

Finally, with the oil seed rape about to flower, I added three supers to the majority of the colonies. In a normal season these would have been added incrementally as needed. This year I had to assume (or hope) they might need them.

Swarm control

On my return to the west coast the spring was warming up. The primroses were looking fantastic and we had several weeks of outstanding weather.

Primroses – late April 2020

I enjoyed the good weather and spent the time fretting about the timing of swarm control.

My colonies tend to make swarm preparations between mid-May and the first week of June – a good example of a moveable fixture.

A priority this year was not to lose any swarms.

I did not want to inconvenience other beekeepers (or civilians’ 5) with swarms I managed to lose by ineptly doing my beekeeping from the other side of the country.

With most people trying to keep themselves isolated, 30,000 bees moving into a chimney would be a lot more than unwelcome.

Even in a normal year I do my very best not to lose swarms, and this was anything but a normal year.

I therefore decided to conduct pre-emptive swarm control on every colony in the third week of May. ‘Pre-emptive’ meaning that, whether the colonies showed any signs of swarming or not, I’d remove the queen and let them rear another.

Colonies do not swarm every year. Every now and again a strong colony of mine will show no inclination to swarm. These are great … I just pile another super or two on top and am thankful not to have to intervene.

However, strong colonies are more than likely to swarm and I didn’t feel I had the luxury of waiting around to find which wanted to and which didn’t.

A swarm in May (and how I avoided it … )

With the exception of a couple of our research colonies that seemed to be on a ‘go slow’ I treated all my colonies in the same way.

I used the nucleus method of swarm control. I removed the queen and one frame of emerging brood and put them into a 5 frame nuc box with a frame of foundation or drawn comb and a frame of stores. To ensure there were sufficient bees in the box I then shook in another frame of bees before sealing them up for transport.

All the nucs were moved to distant apiaries so there was no risk of bee numbers being depleted as they returned to the original hive.

And then there were three … nucs for pre-emptive swarm control

The parental colonies were left for 6 days and then checked for queen cells.

Ideally this should have been 7 days. By this time there would be no larvae young enough to generate additional queen cells from. However, there was a large storm moving in from the west and it was clear that there would be no possibility of doing any beekeeping while it moved through.

I therefore checked on the sixth day, knocked back all the queen cells, leaving just one good one, and then scarpered back to the west coast (meeting the storm en route).

However, before I disappeared I also checked all the nucs. All were doing fine. There was a good nectar flow and they had already drawn and laid up the frame out I’d given them. I therefore added two foundationless frames flanking the central frame. With frames either side these are usually drawn straight and true.

New comb with queen already laying it up

If you give the bees lots of foundationless frames together, particularly if the hive isn’t perfectly level, they will often make a real mess of drawing the comb out. By interleaving the new frames with those that were already drawn the bees are forced to maintain the required bee space on either side, so usually draw the frame out satisfactorily.

Getting the timing right … at least partly

When I left Fife on the 22nd of May the OSR was in full flower. It would finish sometime in early June.

My next dilemma was to time the following visit for the spring honey harvest. Too soon and the frames wouldn’t be capped. Too late and, being OSR, it might start to crystallise in the comb.

But I also wanted to deal with all the requeening colonies during the same visit and all of the nucs.

I’ve previously discussed the time it takes for a new queen to develop, emerge, mature, mate and start laying. It always takes longer than you’d like. The absolute minimum time is about two weeks, but it usually takes longer. Ideally I wanted to go through all the requeening colonies, find, mark and clip the queens or re-unite (with the nuc) those that had failed.

At the same time, with a strong nectar flow and a strongly laying queen, there was a real risk that the nucs were going to get overcrowded very fast. The longer they were left, the more chance that they would think about swarming.

I employed a number of local spies (beekeeping friends in the area) and queried them repeatedly 6 about the state of the OSR. Shortly after it finished, I returned to take off the spring honey.

A minor catastrophe

It was the 10th of June; this was exactly 20 days since leaving the requeening colonies with a single freshly-sealed queen cell.

I’ve previously mentioned that one of my apiaries is rather exposed to strong westerlies. Despite the wind-reduction netting and the rapidly growing willow hedge, this apiary had been really hammered by the storm on the 22nd/23rd of May.

Nuked nucs

Two nucs had lost their lids and crownboards and a full strapped-up hive had been blown over, denting the fence on its descent but remaining more or less intact.

How is the queen supposed to find the entrance?

The apiary hadn’t been checked since my last visit, so I’m assuming the damage happened during the storm in late May. That being the case, the nucs would have been open to the elements for about 18 days. Amazingly, both still contained laying queens and – despite looking a little the worse for wear – eventually recovered.

In contrast, the strapped up hive was not ‘open to the elements’. It had fallen entrance-first onto the ground. I think a few bees could fly from a gap where the ground didn’t quite block the entrance, but I was more concerned about getting them upright again to check too carefully.

Despite my best efforts I failed to find a queen in this hive. My frames are arranged ‘warm way’, so all the frames had slid together when the hive fell and it’s possible the queen didn’t survive 7.

Spring honey, nucs and queens

The spring honey harvest went well. The OSR frames were mostly capped. Those that weren’t could still be extracted as the honey would not shake out of the frame.

A fat frame of spring honey

It was my best year for spring honey since returning to Scotland in 2015. With the exception of that one big storm the weather had been pretty good and the bees had had ample opportunity to be out foraging.

However, although a few of the colonies had newly mated and laying queens, the majority did not. In most of them I found evidence that there would be a laying queen sometime soon … I usually infer this from the presence of ‘polished’ cells in the centre of the one or two of the central frames in the hive. This gave me confidence that there was likely to be an unmated, or just mated, queen in the box. There’s nothing much to be gained from actually finding her, so I would have to be a bit more patient.

Just as these things cannot be rushed, an overcrowded nuc cannot be ignored.

Almost all the nucs were fast running out of space. I therefore removed 2-3 frames of brood from each and replaced them with fresh frames. I used the frames of brood to boost the honey production colonies that were ‘busy’ requeening.

Mid-June and the foxgloves are in flower

By the 14th of June I was back on the west coast.

Late June rearrangements

I returned a fortnight later for a very busy couple of days of beekeeping.

By this time the summer nectar flow was starting. The nucs, even those ‘weakened’ by removing brood, were busy filling spaces with brace comb.

Comb in feeder

All of the requeening colonies were checked for a laying queen. A handful had failed, disappeared or whatever and now looked queenless. These were requeened by uniting them with a nuc containing the ‘saved’ queen from earlier in the season.

What could be simpler? That’s one of the main attractions of this method of swarm control.

The colonies with the first of the new laying queens were doing really well, with lovely fresh frames of wall-to-wall brood. It’s only after a queen has laid up a full frame or two that you get a proper impression of her quality. I can never properly judge this in the tiny little frames of a mini-mating nuc, so – despite the extra resources (bees, frames, boxes) needed – prefer to get queens mated and laying in hives with full-sized frames.

Good laying pattern

The remaining ‘unused’ nucs were all expanded up to full hives and given a super. All the strong colonies in the apiaries were again given three supers and left to get on with things.

Expanded nucs on the left, production hives on the right

It was a backbreaking few days, particularly because I spent the evenings jarring honey 8, but it left the apiaries in a good state for the summer nectar flow.

Summer honey

The only beekeeping I did in July was on the west coast of Scotland. I moved a couple of nucs up to full hives and, since the heather wasn’t yet in full flower, I gave them each a gallon or so of thin syrup to encourage the bees to draw comb to give the queen space to lay.

Welcome to your new home … nuc ‘promoted’ to hive with contact feeder in place

I finally returned to Fife to take the summer honey off in late August. I’ve recently posted a brief description of clearing supers during Storm Francis so won’t repeat it here.

In four days I removed all the supers and extracted the honey, fed and treated the bees for the winter, and left the colonies strapped up securely for … goodness knows when.

The summer honey harvest was unusual. One of my apiaries did fantastically well, more than the last two seasons combined, and by far my best year since 2015.

The other apiary was just slightly worse than … utterly pathetic.

This second apiary is usually very reliable. The forage in the area has been dependable and, in some years, the lime has yielded very well. However, not this year and, since I wasn’t about, I don’t know why.

I did it my way … but it wasn’t very satisfying

That last paragraph rather neatly sums up the 2020 beekeeping season.

Overall the season must be considered a success; I didn’t lose any swarms, the majority of colonies were requeened successfully, all of the colonies are going into the winter strong, fed and treated, and the overall honey crop was very good.

However, it’s all been done ‘remotely’, both literally and figuratively. I’ve not felt as though I’ve been able to watch the season and the colonies develop together. I don’t feel as though I was ‘in tune’ with what was happening in the hives. I can’t explain why some things worked well and other things – like the apiary with no honey 🙁 – failed miserably.

My notes are perfunctory at best, “+3 supers, Q laying well”, and contain none of the usual asides about what’s happening in the environment. There’s no indication of what was flowering when, whether the year was ‘early’, ‘late’, or ‘about normal’, when the migrant birds arrived or left.

I’ve done less beekeeping this year than in any year in at least a decade. Since I rather like beekeeping, this means it has been a bit of a disappointment. Since I’ve spent less time with the bees, and I’ve been so rushed when I have been working with them, I feel as though I’ve learnt less this year than normal.

What didn’t get done?

With irregular and infrequent visits some things were simply ignored this season.

I did very little Varroa monitoring. With the Apivar strips now in it’s clear that some hives have higher Varroa counts than I’ve seen in the last few years 9. However, not all of them. Some colonies appear to have extremely low mite loads.

We finally managed to check the levels of deformed wing virus in our research colonies quite late in the season once the labs partially reopened. The levels were reassuringly low. This strongly suggests that the mite levels are not yet at a point threatening the health of the colonies.

I’ve singularly failed to do much in the way of brood comb exchange this season. This means I’m going to have to take a bit more care next year to cycle out the old, dark frames and replace them with brand new ones.

Here’s one I did manage to replace

Again, not the end of the world, but ‘bad beekeeping’ all the same.

As I’m putting the finishing words together for this post the government is re-introducing further curfews and restrictions … maybe next year will be more of the same?


 

Trees for bees

The pollen and nectar sources available to bees depend upon the time of the year and the area of the country. The bees will enthusiastically exploit what’s available, but will struggle if there’s a dearth of either.

For much of this year I’ve been living on the remote west coast of Scotland, in an area with a very low population density and an even lower density of beekeepers … by my calculations less than 1 per 25 km2.

It’s very different from Fife (on the east coast of Scotland). It’s warmer and wetter here and there is almost no arable farming. One or two of the crofts on the coast might grow a bit of barley or wheat, but the few fields tend to be used for grazing and hay production. There’s probably no oil seed rape within 50 miles.

And there’s also no Varroa 🙂 … but I’ll discuss that another time.

Trees – in this case providing shelter from the westerlies – and bees

It goes without saying, since I’m spending so much time here, I now have bees here 🙂

Triffids and mad honey

The primary nectar source for honey is heather, which doesn’t yield until August. I have less than zero experience with heather honey – other than on toast – so have a lot to learn.

The land is on the edge of moorland with a mix of larch and scots pine, with a shrubby understorey of birch and some rowan. It’s awash with wildlife; pine marten, eagles, crossbills and the elusive Scottish wildcat 1.

Pine marten raiding the bird table

However, at least until a year or two ago, much of the land was covered in a triffid-like invasive mass of rhododendron. Swathes of the west of Scotland and Ireland are blighted by this shrub which was first introduced as an ornamental plant in the 18th Century.

Rhododendron as far as the eye can see – now cleared and planted with hazel and rowan

I’m biased, but I’d argue that rhododendron has no redeeming features. It seeds itself everywhere and smothers all other groundcover, leaving a near sterile environment. It’s terrible for wildlife. The flowers are briefly showy but not hugely attractive, either to me or to bees – whether wild or managed.

Oh yes, and the nectar produces hallucinogenic honey. I’ve even less experience of this than I do of heather honey … but in this case I have no desire to learn more.

So, I’ve been slowly clearing the rhododendron and replanting the cleared areas.

Trees for Life

A friend who used to keep bees in this are a few years ago commented that there was a shortage of early season pollen, meaning that colonies could sometimes struggle to build up. A colony that fails to build up well early in the season will struggle to reproduce i.e. swarm.

Of course, like most beekeepers, I don’t really want my bees to swarm.

However, I do want my colonies to be strong enough to want to swarm. That way, there will be loads of foragers to exploit the heather from late July. In addition, I’m particularly interested in queen rearing and building my stocks up, and for both these activities I need the colonies to have good access to pollen and nectar … and to be big and strong.

With no agriculture to speak of there are also no pesticides. Perhaps as a consequence of this there are a very large number of bumble bees about. These give me hope that there might actually be sufficient pollen, but more can only be beneficial.

And more will certainly be helpful if I end up with a reasonable number of colonies that could compete with the native bees for environmental resources 2.

I’m therefore busy planting trees in some of the areas cleared of rhododendron. Not quite on the same scale as the Trees for Life rewilding at Dundreggan, but every little bit helps 😉

Why trees?

Partly because they’ll take the longest to grow, so need to go in first, and partly because many of them are excellent sources of early season pollen and nectar.

It’s also the sort of epic-scale ‘gardening’ involving chainsaws and brushcutters, huge bonfires, cubic metres of firewood and lots of digging that I have an affinity for. I don’t have the patience for pricking-out and growing on bedding plants, or weeding the herbaceous border 😉

Native trees

I’m keen to re-plant with native trees and shrubs. I know they’ll do well in this environment and they can be readily sourced, either locally or at little expense.

As will become clear shortly, the ‘expense’ part is a not an insignificant consideration with the grazing pressure from deer in this area.

I’ve initially focused on just six species; alder, hazel, wild cherry (gean), poplar, willow and  blackthorn.

Of these I’ll skip over the blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). Although the white spring flowers produce nectar, I chose it to make a spiky hedge and for the distant opportunity of making sloe gin. However, I’m going to have to try again as the bareroot whips I planted last winter have done almost nothing.

Alder

Alder (Alnus glutinosa) produces large amounts of early season pollen. It also thrives in damp ground and we have plenty of that. I’ve planted quite a bit of alder and it’s all doing pretty well. There is already a lot along the banks of nearby streams and in boggy areas at the side of the loch, so I know it will do well in this area. In fact, the few dozen I’ve planted are insignificant in comparison to what’s growing locally, but I wanted to create an area of mixed alder and willow carr 3. I planted 30 cm bareroot whips last winter and those that have survived the deer have doubled or trebled in height.

Alder

Alder, once established, seems reasonably resistant to browsing by deer, presumably because they find it relatively unpalatable. The long-term plan is to coppice the alder – it makes good firewood when properly dried. It has also historically been used to make clogs, but I’ll be cutting it back before it’s grown enough for anything but the tiniest feet.

Hazel

Like alder, hazel (Corylus avellana) is a good source of early season pollen. Most readers will be familiar with the catkins which appear as early as mid-February. The area shown in a picture (above), now cleared of rhododendron, has been planted with hazel. It’s a south-facing slope with thin soil but most seem to be doing OK so far.

Hazel

There are a couple of mature hazel nearby and I managed to find a few seedlings which I transplanted, however the majority went in as bareroot whips.

Hazel is popular with deer and with the red squirrels. The fact I needed to buy barerooted trees probably reflects the fact that the squirrels get most of the nuts, and those that do germinate are then eaten by the deer. It’s a tough life.

Gean

Gean is the Scottish name for the wild cherry (Prunus avium) 4. It flowers in April and is a great source of nectar and pollen for the bees. I’ve only planted a few of these, in scattered groups of three, or along the side of the track. Despite gean not really flourishing in acid, peaty soil they seem to have established well and are already approaching shoulder height. Gean, like rowan 5, is also great for the birds and the thrushes will probably get the majority of the fruit that sets.

Poplar or aspen

Poplar or aspen (Populus tremula) is a favourite of mine. The leaves have pale undersides and are held on long, flattened petioles. As a consequence they flutter in the faintest of breezes and are a wonderful sight, particularly planted against a backdrop of dark brooding conifers.

Poplar or aspen (Populus tremula)

In fact, poplar is so attractive I’d have planted it even if it was of no interest to the bees.

Poplar is wind pollinated and the bees probably only get a little pollen from it. Some species also produce early season sap that is a major component of propolis apparently. Finally, poplar are susceptible to a rust or fungus called Melampsora, and the bees collect the spores if they need protein and there’s no pollen to be found.

Inaccessible aspen

The standard way to propagate poplar is by root cuttings. There is relatively little poplar around here, and none I could have easily grubbed up the roots from. However, after a bit of searching I discovered Eadha Enterprises in Lochwinnoch, near Glasgow. Eadha is derived from the old gaelic word for aspen. They are a social enterprise specialising in aspen production from stocks of known provenance. The cell-grown saplings I received, which are going in this winter, are derived from trees on the Isle of Arran.

Willow

In contrast to the relative difficulty of propagating aspen, you have to try hard not to propagate willow. A foot long, pencil-thick cutting – taken more or less any time of the year – will root very quickly. Even if left in a bucket of water for a fortnight.

Willow cuttings ready for planting

I’ve planted a lot of willow from local trees (probably goat willow, Salix caprea, but they hybridise so freely you can never be certain) and planted it in variously boggy bits of ground, alongside some of the alder. Willow is generally dioecious (male or female) and you need to plant male trees for the pollen. I planted some female as well as they both produce nectar.

Willow male catkins

In addition to just planting them directly, I grew a few on in tubs in potting compost. These developed good root systems and grew better.

Pot grown cutting ready for planting

However, willow is a favourite of deer and the cuttings I’ve planted have periodically been hammered by both red and roe deer.

Sabre planting and oversize cuttings

The obvious way to prevent deer damage is to build a 6 foot high fence but, because of the rocky nature of the ground, this is impractical (which is an easier way of saying eye-wateringly expensive).

If you visit the Scottish highlands you’ll be familiar with the site of small burns cascading down gulleys in the hillside. Often the the sides of the gulleys have dense growth of alder, birch or willow.

This is not just because of the nearby water supply. After all, much of the land receives 2000 mm of rain or more a year.

The other reason the trees are there (and not on the open moor) is that the gulley is steep sided and the trees therefore experience less grazing pressure. You can recapitulate this by so-called sabre planting 6. In this you plant trees of 1m+ height perpendicular on slopes of at least 40°. The slope makes the growing tips less accessible and they gradually grow out and away, straightening up as they do.

I’ve only discovered this strategy recently 7 and will be trying it in a couple of locations.

An alternative strategy, particularly suitable for willow, is to plant ‘cuttings’ that are already too big for the deer to reach the growing tips.

A ‘big’ willow cutting – there’s a game trail 2m from this that’s used every night.

To avoid grazing by red deer this means at least 1.5-1.8 m in height. The technique is almost the same as planting the foot long, pencil-thick cuttings … you just push them into the ground. It’s worth noting that you need to push them a good distance into the ground and stake them. About 50% of the big cuttings I’ve planted have apparently rooted. I’m pretty certain that those that didn’t failed because they were not staked firmly enough. This makes sense … as the leaves sprout they become wind-resistant and gales will quickly damage the developing root system through simple leverage.

Gimme Shelter

I’ve planted trees for bees before. We planted lots of goat willow and mixed hedging around our research apiary in Fife in early 2018. The combination of a major fire in my research institute the following year, and Covid this year, meant that the trees have been just left to get on with it.

Mixed hedging and willow and wildflowers (aka weeds, but the bees don’t know that)

And they have. This was a bare earth bank in February 2018. We still need a windbreak, but even that can probably be dispensed with in a year or so. Not all the trees have thrived, but I’m more than satisfied considering the neglect they received.

Oh deer

Scotland is overrun with deer. A review over 50 years ago stated that the optimum number of red deer the land could maintain was ~60,000. They defined ‘optimum’ in terms of avoiding agricultural damage, while allowing natural regeneration with no necessity for fencing. This would also ensure that there’s enough food for the deer during the winter months.

The current estimate is that there are over 450,000 red deer in Scotland. As a consequence there are many areas with no natural tree regeneration without installing expensive and intrusive fencing. In addition, the deer are often in lousy condition and/or starve to death in hard winters.

If you look carefully you can see a couple more coming down the track. There’s also a beehive in the video above, though it’s tricky to spot.

In addition to red deer we also have a smaller number of roe deer … equally attractive and almost equally destructive.

Don’t get me wrong, I love deer … particularly braised slowly with a good quality, full-bodied red and winter vegetables.

Not beekeeping?

OK, in terms of specifics, not beekeeping. However, I’d argue that beekeepers have a responsibility to maintain and protect their environment. This includes ensuring that their charges do not impact negatively on the native wildlife.

This area is towards the extreme north-west corner of the country and the introduction of a quarter of a million bees (~5 hives) will inevitably impact the pollen and nectar available for the established native pollinating insects.

I could choose to avoid the latter by ‘not beekeeping’, but I’ve instead chosen to try and improve the resources available in the environment. Time will tell if there is a shortage of pollen and if my bees thrive.

If they don’t, at least there will be a bit less bloody rhododendron 😉


Notes

If you’re interested in native trees I thoroughly recommend the Handbook of Scotland’s Trees by Reforesting Scotland. It has lots of good advice about collecting seed and planting, but also has details of uses for trees and folklore. Whilst it focuses on Scotland’s trees (the clue is in the title), most grow elsewhere as well, and it’s packed with information. If you are interested more generally in the history, uses and planting of woodlands it’s probably worth reading all 16,452 pages (a slight exaggeration, but it is a magnum opus) of Oliver Rackham’s Woodlands which is a masterpiece.

 

Winter bee production

There are big changes going on in your colonies at the moment.

The summer foragers that have been working tirelessly over the last few weeks are slowly but surely being replaced. As they die off – whether from old age or by being eaten by the last of the migrating swallows – they are being replaced by the winter bees.

Between August and late November almost the entire population of bees will have changed. The strong colonies you have now (or should have) will contain a totally different workforce by the end of the year.

Forever young

The winter bees are the ones responsible for getting the colony from mid/late autumn through to the following spring. They are sometimes termed diutinus bees from the Latin for “long lived”.

These are the bees that thermoregulate the winter cluster, protecting the queen, and rearing the small amounts of brood during the cold, dark winter to keep the colony ticking over.

Midwinter cluster

A midwinter colony

Physiologically they share some striking similarities with so-called hive or nurse bees 1 early in the summer.

Both hive bees and winter bees have low levels of juvenile hormone (JH) and active hypopharyngeal glands. Both types of bee also have high levels of vitellogenin, high oxidative stress resistance and corpulent little bodies.

But early summer nurse bees mature over a 2-3 week period. Their JH levels increase and vitellogenin levels decrease. This induces additional physiological changes which results in the nurse bee changing into a forager. They sally forth, collecting nectar, pollen and water …

And about three weeks later they’re worn out and die.

Live fast, die young

And this is where winter bees differ. They don’t age.

Or, more accurately, they age   v  e  r  y    s  l  o  w  l  y.

In the hive, winter bees can live for 6 months if needed. Under laboratory conditions they have been recorded as living for up to 9 months.

They effectively stay, as Bob Dylan mumbled, forever young.

Why are winter bees important?

Although not quite eternal youth … staying forever young is useful as their longevity ensures that the colony does not dwindle and perish in the middle of winter.

With little or no nectar or pollen available in the environment the colony reduces brood rearing, and often stops altogether for a period.

But what about the kilograms of stores and cells filled with pollen in the hive? Why can’t they use that?

Whilst both are present, there’s nothing like enough to maintain the usual rate of brood rearing. If they tried the colony would very quickly starve.

Evolution has a very effective way of selecting against such rash behaviour 🙁

If you doubt this, think how quickly hives get dangerously light during the June gap. With no nectar coming in and thousands of hungry (larval) mouths to feed the colony can easily starve to death during a fortnight of poor weather in June.

The winter bees ‘hold the fort’, protecting the queen and rearing small amounts of brood until the days lengthen and the early season pollen and nectars become available again.

And, just as the winter bees look after the viability of the colony, the beekeeper in turn needs to look after the winter bees … we rely on them to get the colony through to spring.

Lots of bees

Can you identify the winter bees?

But before we discuss that, how do you identify and count the winter bees? How can you tell they are present? After all, as the picture above shows 2, all bees look rather similar …

Counting the long lived winter bees

The physiological changes in winter bees, such as the JH and vitellogenin levels, are only identifiable once you’ve done some rather devastating things to the bee. These have the unfortunate side effect of preventing it completing any further bee-type activities 🙁

Even before you subject them to that, their fat little bodies aren’t really sufficiently different to identify them visually.

But what is different is their longevity.

By definition, the diutinus or winter bees are long lived.

Therefore, if you record the date when the bee emerged you can effectively count back and determine how old it is. If it is more than ~6 weeks old then it’s a winter bee.

Or the queen 😉

And, it should be obvious, if you extrapolate back to the time the first long lived bees appear in the hive you will have determined when the colony starts rearing winter bees.

The obvious way to determine the age of a bee is to mark it upon emergence and keep a record of which marks were used when. Some scientists use numbered dots stuck to the thorax, some use combinations of Humbrol-type paint colours.

I’m not aware that anyone has yet used the barcoding system I discussed recently, though it could be used. The winter bee studies I’m aware of pre-date this type of technology.

Actually, some of these studies date back almost 50 years, though the resulting papers were published much more recently.

This is painstaking and mind-numbingly repetitive work and science owes a debt of gratitude to Floyd Harris who conducted many of the studies.

Colony age structure – autumn to winter

Here is some data showing the age structure of a colony transitioning from late summer into autumn and winter. There’s a lot in this graph so bear with me …

Colony age structure from August to December - see text for details

Colony age structure from August to December – see text for details

The graph shows the numbers and ages of bees in the colony.

The ages of the bees is indicated on the vertical axis – with eggs and brood (the youngest) at the bottom, coloured black and brown respectively. The adult bees can be aged between 1 and ~100 days old 3. The number of bees is indicated by the width of the coloured bar at each of the nine 12 day intervals shown.

All of the adult bees present in the hive at the end of August are coloured blue, irrespective of their age. There are a lot of these bees at the end of August and almost all of them have disappeared (died) by mid-November 4.

The remaining colours indicate all the bee that emerge within a particular 12 day interval. For example, all the bees that emerge between the 31st of August and the 12th of September are coloured yellow.  Going by the width (i.e. the numbers of bees of that age) of the yellow bars it’s clear that half to two-thirds of these bees die by mid October, with the rest just getting older gracefully.

But look at the cohort that emerge between the end of September and early October, coloured like this 5. The number of these bees barely changes between emergence and early December. By this time they are 72 days old i.e. an age that most summer bees never achieve.

Brood breaks and climate

In the colony shown above the queen continued laying reduced numbers of eggs – the black bars – until mid-October and then didn’t start again until the end of November. During this period the average age of the bees in the colony increased from ~36 days to ~72 days and the strength of the colony barely changed.

The figure above comes from a BeeCulture article by Floyd Harris. The original data isn’t directly referenced, but I suspect it comes from studies Harris conducted in the late 70’s in Manitoba, some of which was subsequently published in the Journal of Apicultural Research. In addition, Harris co-authored a paper presenting similar data in a different format in Insectes Sociaux which describes the Manitoban climate as having moderate/hot summers and long, cold winters.

My hives in Scotland, or your hives in Devon, or Denmark or wherever, will experience a different climate 6.

However, if you live in a temperate region the overall pattern will be similar. The summer bees will be replaced during the early autumn by a completely new population of winter bees. These maintain the colony through to the following spring.

The dates will be different and the speed of the transition from one population to the other may differ. The timing of the onset of a brood break is likely to also differ.

However, the population changes will be broadly similar.

And, it should be noted, the dates may differ slightly in Manitoba (and everywhere else) from year to year, depending upon temperature and forage availability.

Colony size and overwintering survival

Regular readers might be thinking back to a couple of posts on colony size and overwintering survival from last year.

One measured colony weight, showing that heavier colonies overwintered better 7. A second discussed the better performance of local bees in a Europe-wide study of overwintering survival. In this, I quoted a key sentence from the discussion:

“colonies of local origin had significantly higher numbers of bees than colonies placed outside their area of origin”

I can’t remember when during the season those studies recorded colony size, but I’m well aware that large colonies in the winter survive better.

The colonies that perish first in the winter are the pathetic grapefruit-sized 8 colonies with ageing queens or high pathogen loads.

In contrast, the medicine ball-sized ‘boomers’ go on and on, emerging from the winter strongly and building up rapidly to exploit the early season nectar.

But what the graph above shows is that the bees in a strong colony in late summer are a completely different population from the bees in the colony in midwinter.

The strength of the midwinter colony is determined entirely by when winter bee rearing starts and the laying rate of the queen, although of course both may be indirectly influenced by summer colony strength.

The influence of the queen

Other than this potential indirect influence, it’s possibly irrelevant how large the summer colony is in terms of winter colony size (and hence survival).

After all, even if the summer bees were three times as numerous, their fate is sealed. They are all going to perish six weeks or so after emergence.

Are there ways that beekeepers can influence the size of the overwinter colony to increase its chances of survival?

I wouldn’t pose the question if the answer wasn’t a resounding yes.

It has been known for a long time 9 that older queens stop laying earlier in the autumn than younger queens. As explained above, the longer the queen lays into the autumn the more winter bees are going to be produced.

Mattila et al., 10 looked at the consequences of late season (post summer honey harvest) requeening of colonies. In these they removed the old queen and replaced her with either a new mated or virgin queen, or allowed the colony to requeen naturally.

Using the ’12 day cohort’ populations explained above, the authors looked at when the majority of the winter bees were produced in the colony, and estimated the overall size of the winter colony.

The influence of new queens on winter bee production.

The influence of new queens on winter bee production. Note shift to the right in B, C and D, with new queens.

With the original old queen, 53% of winter bees were produced in the first two cohorts of winter bees. With the requeened colonies 54-64% of the winter bees were produced on average 36 days later, in the third and fourth cohorts of winter bees.

This indicates that young queens produce winter bees later into the autumn.

This is a good thing™.

In addition, though the results were not statistically significant, there was a trend for colonies headed by new queens to have a larger population of bees overwinter.

Perhaps one reason the requeened colonies weren’t significantly larger was that the new queens delay the onset of winter bee rearing. I’ll return to this at the end.

The influence of deformed wing virus (DWV)

Regular readers will know that this topic has been covered extensively, and possibly exhaustively, elsewhere on this site … so I’ll cut to the chase.

DWV is the most important virus of honey bees. When transmitted by Varroa destructor there is unequivocal evidence that it is associated with overwintering colony losses. The reason DWV causes overwintering losses is that it reduces the longevity of the winter bees.

The virus might also reduce the longevity of summer bees but,

  1. there’s so many of them to start with
  2. there’s loads more emerging every day, and
  3. they only survive a few weeks anyway,

that this is probably irrelevant in terms of colony survival.

Dainat et al., (2012) produced compelling evidence showing that DWV reduces the longevity of winter bees 11. The lifespan was reduced by ~20%.

A consequence of this is that the winter bees die off a little faster and the colony shrinks a little more. At some point it crosses a threshold below which it cannot thermoregulate the cluster properly, further limiting the ability of the colony to rear replacement bees (assuming the queen is able to lay at a low rate).

This colony is doomed.

Even if they stagger through to the longer days of spring they contain too few bees to build up fast. They’re not dead … but they’re hardly flourishing.

Winter bees and practical beekeeping

I think there are three ways in which our understanding of the timing of winter bee production should influence practical beekeeping:

Firstly … The obvious take-home message is that winter bees must be protected from the ravages of DWV. The only way to do this is to minimise the mite population in the colony before the winter bee rearing starts.

The logical way to do this is to treat using an approved miticide as soon as practical after the summer honey is removed 12.

I discuss the importance of the timing of this treatment in When to treat?, which remains one of the most-read posts on this site.

Secondly … Avoid use of miticides (or other colony manipulations) that reduce the laying rate of the queen in early autumn.

When I used to live at lower latitudes I would sometimes use Apiguard. This thymol-containing miticide is very effective if used when the temperature is high enough. However, in my experience a significant proportion of queens stop laying when it is being used. Not all, but certainly more than 50%.

I don’t know why some stop and others don’t. Is it genetic? Temperature-dependent?

Whatever the reason, they stop at exactly the time of the season you want them to be laying strongly.

Thirdly … consider requeening colonies with young queens after the summer honey is removed. This delays the onset of winter bee production and results in the new queen laying later into the year. The later start to winter bee production gives more time for miticides to work.

A win-win situation.


 

Weed and feed

Weed and feed is a generic term that describes the treatment of lawns to simultaneously eradicate certain weeds and strengthen the turf.

It seemed an appropriate title for a post on eradicating mites from colonies and feeding the bees up in preparation for the winter ahead.

Arguably these are the two most important activities of the beekeeping year.

Done properly they ensure you’ll still be a beekeeper next year.

Ignored, or done too little and too late, you’ll join the unacceptably large number of beekeepers who lose their colonies during the winter.

They think it’s all over

In Fife, on the east coast of Scotland, my beekeeping season effectively finishes with the midsummer ‘mixed floral’ nectar sources. This is a real mix of lime, blackberry, clover and Heinz nectars 1 … many of which remain to be identified.

There’s no reliable late nectar flow from himalayan balsam around my apiaries are and not enough rosebay willowherb (fireweed) to be worthwhile, though in a good year the bees continue to collect a bit from both into early September.

But by then the honey supers are off and extracted. Anything the bees find after that they’re welcome to.

The contrast with the west of Scotland is very marked. Over there my bees are still out collecting reasonable amounts of late heather nectar, though the peak of the flow is over.

Storing supers

Once the honey supers are extracted they can be returned to the colonies for the bees to clean up prior to storing them overwinter. However, this involves additional trips to the apiary and usually necessitates using the clearer boards again to leave them bee-free before storage.

I used to do this and quite enjoyed the late evening trips back to the apiary with stacks of honey-scented supers. More recently I’ve stopped bothering and instead now store the supers ‘wet’. The main reasons for this are:

  • laziness lack of time
  • unless you’re careful it can encourage robbing, by wasps or bees. You need to return supers to all the colonies in the apiary and if you have the hives open too long it can induce a frenzy of robbing 2
  • the honey-scented supers encourage the bees to move up faster when they’re used the following season

If you do store the supers ‘wet’ make sure the stacked boxes are bee and wasp-tight. Mine go in a shed with a spare roof on the top. If there are any gaps the wasps, bees or ants will find them and it then becomes very messy. 

I know many beekeepers who wrap their supers in clingfilm. Not the 30 cm wide roll you use in the kitchen but the sort of metre wide swathe they used to wrap suitcases in at London Heathrow.

Dated super frames

The drawn super comb is a really valuable resource and can be used again and again, year after year. I usually record the year a frame was built on the top bar. Many are now over a decade old and have probably accommodated at least 80 lb of honey in their lifetime 3.

The timing of late season Varroa management

During the brood rearing season the Varroa levels in the colony will have been rising inexorably. Without intervention the mites will continue to replicate on developing pupae that would otherwise emerge as the all-important overwintering bees. These are critical to get the colony through to the following spring.

When Varroa feeds on a developing pupa it transmits the viruses – primarily deformed wing virus – it acquired from the last bee is fed on. These viruses amplify by about a million-fold within 24-48 hours. Pupae that do not die before eclosion may have developmental defects. Importantly, those that appear normal have a reduced lifespan.

The overwintering bees should live for months, but might only live for weeks if their virus levels are high.

And if enough overwintering bees have high viral loads and die prematurely, the probability is the the colony will perish in the winter.

You therefore need to reduce mite levels before the overwintering bees are exposed to Varroa

The full details and justification are in a previous post logically entitled When to treat?

TL;DR 4late August to early September is the best time to treat to protect the winter bees from the worst of the ravages of mite-transmitted DWV.

Use an appropriate treatment

You need to reduce the mite levels in the colony by at least 90% to protect the winter bees.

To achieve this you need an appropriate miticide used properly. 

I use Apivar

Apivar is an Amitraz-containing miticide. Although there are reports of mite resistance in some commercial apiaries, the pattern is very localised (individual hives within an apiary, which is difficult to understand) and in my view it is currently the best choice.

What are the alternates?

  • MAQS – active ingredient formic acid – poorly tolerated at high temperatures, but can be used with the supers present
  • Apiguard – active ingredient thymol – ineffective at lower temperatures (it needs an ambient temperature of 15°C to work – that’s not going to happen in Scotland in September).
  • Apistan – active ingredient a synthetic pyrethroid – unsuitable as there is widespread resistance in the mite population.

Using Apivar

Apivar treatment is temperature-independent. It cannot be used when the honey supers are present. You simply hang two strips in the hive for 6 to 10 weeks and let them do their work. The bees tolerate it well and, unlike MAQS or Apiguard, I’ve not seen any detrimental effects on the queen who continues to lay … making more of those important winter bees.

Apivar strips

Each strip consists of an amitraz-impregnated piece of plastic tape with a V-shaped tab that can be pushed into the comb to hold it in place. 

This generally works well as the frames are usually not moved much as there’s no need for inspections this late in the season.

Apivar strip pushed into comb

However, the strips can be a little fiddly to remove (or fall off during frame handling) and some of our research colonies will continue to be used for at least another month. I’ve therefore used a short piece of bent wire to hang the strips from in these hives.

Apivar strip on wire hanger

I place the strips in opposite corners of the hive, set two frames in from the sides. 

Apivar, wax and honey contamination

Although Amitraz is not wax soluble 5 there are recent reports on BEE-L that one of its breakdown products are, including one that has some residual miticide activity 6

I therefore try and get all the bees into the brood box before starting treatment (I described nadiring supers with unripe honey last week).

Very rarely I’ll leave the bees with a super of their own unripe honey. Usually this happens when the brood box is already packed with stores and overflowing with bees. In this case I’ll mark the super and melt down the comb next season rather than risking tainting the honey I produce.

I attended a Q&A session by the Scottish Beekeeping Association last month in which the chief bee inspector discussed finding Apivar strips in honey production hives. He described the testing of honey for evidence of miticide contamination and potential subsequent confiscation.

This is clearly something to be avoided.

Remember to record the batch number of Apivar used and note the date in your hive records. I just photograph the packet for convenience. The date is important as the strips must be removed after 6 weeks and before 10 weeks have elapsed. 

It’s finally worth noting that the instructions recommend scraping the strip with a hive tool part way through the period if they are being used for the full ten week course of treatment. The strips usually get propolised into the frame and the scraping ‘reactivates’ them to ensure that the largest possible number of mites are killed off.

And, after all, that’s what they’re being used for.

Apivar is expensive

Well … yes and no.

Yes it feels expensive when walking out of Thorne’s of Newburgh clutching one small foil packet and being £31 poorer. 

But think about it … that packet is sufficient to treat 5 colonies.

Is £6.20 too much to spend on a colony?

My 340 g jars of honey cost more than £6.20 and my productive colonies produce at least one hundred times that amount of honey. 

I don’t think 1% of the honey value is too much to spend on protecting the colony from mites and the viruses they carry.

Mite drop

Varroa killed by the miticide 7 fall to the bottom of the hive. If you have an open mesh floor (OMF) they fall through … onto the ground or the intervening neatly divided Varroa tray, enabling you to easily count them

Varroa trays ...

Varroa trays …

Remember that amitraz, the active ingredient of Apivar, works by direct contact. This is why you place the strips diametrically opposite one another so that as many bees as possible contact them. Unlike Apiguard, it makes no difference whether the Varroa tray is present or not.

It is useful to ‘count the corpses’ to get an idea of the infestation level and the efficacy of the treatment.

I’m going to discuss what you might expect in terms of mite drop in the winter (I need to plot some graphs first). However, this is something you could think about before then … knowing Apivar kills mites in less than three hours after exposure, what do you think the mite drop should look like over the 6-10 weeks of treatment?

Enough weeding, what about feeding?

I treat and feed colonies on the same day.

I also do the final hive inspection of the season. At this I look for evidence of a laying queen, the general health of the colony, the amount of brood present and the level of stores in the brood box. 

If the colony is queenless (how did that happen without me noticing earlier?) I simply unite the colony with a strong, healthy queenright colony. I don’t bother testing it with a frame of eggs … time is of the essence.

It’s too late to get a queen mated (at least in Fife … when I lived in the Midlands I got a few September queen matings but they could not be relied upon) and I rarely, if ever, buy queens.

I only feed with fondant in the autumn.

Convenience food

I described fondant last week as a convenience food

A spade's a spade ...

A spade’s a spade …

I’ve described in detail many of the benefits of fondant in numerous previous posts. Essentially these can be distilled to the following simple points:

  • zero preparation; no syrup spillages in the kitchen, no marital strife.
  • bucket- and feeder-free; no need to carry large volumes of syrup to the apiary and no feeders to store for the remaining 11 months of the year. All you need to feed fondant is a queen excluder and an empty super … and you’ve got those already.
  • easy to store; unopened it keeps for several years 8.
  • super speedy; I can feed a colony, including cutting the block in half, in less than 2 minutes.
  • good for queen and colony; perhaps that’s stretching it a bit. What I mean is that the bees take the fondant down more slowly than syrup, consequently the queen continues to lay uninterrupted as the brood nest does not get backfilled with stores. This is good for the colony as it means the production of more winter bees.
  • an anti-theft device; you can’t spill fondant so there is much less chance of encouraging robbing by neighbouring bees or wasps.
  • useful boxes; the empty boxes are a good size to store or deliver jarred honey in – each will accommodate sixteen 1 lb rounds.

I’ve fed nothing but fondant for about a decade and can see no downsides to its use.

Money, money, money

I’ve never used anything other than commercially purchased “baker’s” fondant … don’t believe the rubbish (about ‘additives’) some of the bee equipment suppliers use to justify their elevated prices.

You should be paying about £1/kg … any more and you’re being robbed. This year (2020) I paid less than 90p/kg.

Do not use the icing fondant sold by supermarkets for Christmas cakes. I’m sure there’s nothing much wrong with it, but – at £2/kg – you’ll soon go bankrupt. 

Tips for feeding fondant

Fondant blocks are easier to slice in half if they are slightly warm.

Use a sharp bread knife and don’t slice your fingers off. 

You can cut the blocks in half in advance in the warmth of your kitchen and then cover the cut faces with clingfilm to prevent them reannealing, but I just do it in the apiary.

Take care with sharp knives … much easier with a slightly warm block of fondant

Alternatively, use a clean spade 9.

Always place the block cut face down on a queen excluder directly over the top bars of the brood frames. With a full block, it’s like opening a book and laying it face down. Do not place it above a crownboard with a hole in it.

You want the bees to have unfettered access to the open face of the fondant block.

Fondant on queen excluder with eke

Ideally, use a framed wire queen excluder.

These are easier to lift off should you need to go into the colony.

Which you don’t 😉

There’s no need to continue inspections this late into the season. Go and enjoy a week or two away in Portugal … or perhaps not 🙁

If you need to store an unused half block of fondant wrap the cut face in clingfilm.

All my colonies get one full block (12.5 kg) and many get a further half block, depending upon my judgement of the level of the stores in the hive.

Insulation

The bees will take the fondant down over 2 – 4 weeks. They do store it, rather than just using it as needed. By late September or early October all that will remain is the blue plastic husk. The photo below is from mid-October. This colony has had a ‘topup’ additional half block after already storing a full block of fondant.

They fancied that fondant

With cooler days and colder nights, you want to reduce heat loss by the colony and minimise the dead space above the bees into which the heat escapes.

Although bees take fondant down at lower temperatures than they do syrup, there’s no point in giving the colony more additional space to heat than they need.

Poly super and fondant ...

Poly super and fondant …

Depending upon the availability of equipment I do one or a combination of the following:

  • use a poly super to provide space for the fondant
  • compress the fondant (use your boot) into as little space as possible and you squeeze it into a 50 mm deep eke, which (conveniently) is the same depth as the rim on my insulated polcarbonate/perspex crownboards 10.
  • use an eke and an inverted perspex crownboard with no need to compress the fondant
  • add a 50 mm thick block of insulation above the crownboard, under the roof (which may also be insulated)

Fondant block under inverted perspex crownboard – insulation block to be added on top is standing at the side

Oh yes … before I forget … completely ignore any advice you might read on using matchsticks to provide ventilation to the hive 11.

They think it’s all over … it is now

That’s the end of the practical beekeeping for the season 🙁

If your colonies are strong and healthy, if the mite levels are low and they have sufficient stores, there’s almost nothing to do now until March 12

Now really is a good time for a beekeeper to take a holiday.

Make a note in your diary on the date you need to remove the Apivar strips

Write up your notes, pour a large glass of Shiraz and make plans for next season 🙂


 

More gentle beekeeping

I’ve done less beekeeping this year than any time in the past decade. The Covid-19 lockdown enforced changes to the way we live and work, meaning my contact with the bees has been ‘big and infrequent’ rather than ‘little and often’. 

‘Big and infrequent’ meaning a day or three of intense activity every month or so. I’ll write about this once the season is over as it has meant that the season has, in many ways, been very unrewarding … 🙁

… but nevertheless quite successful 🙂

23,000 iced buns

With the season winding to a close, now is the time to remove the supers of summer honey and prepare to feed the colonies for winter. 

Which means a couple of days of very heavy lifting.

I buy fondant in bulk as it stores well until it is needed. This year ‘bulk’ meant over 400 kg which, based upon this recipe, is enough for over 23,000 iced ‘finger’ buns 1. That’s too much to fit in my car (fondant or finger buns 😉 ), so entailed two trips and manhandling the boxes twice – from the pallet to the car and from the car to the shed.

Load 1 of 2 … there’s more in the passenger footwell!

During all that lifting and carrying I focus on the thought that fondant has a lower water content than syrup (~78% sugar vs ~60% for syrup) so I need to feed less weight to get the same amount of sugar into the hive.

And there’s no preparation needed or fancy (expensive) feeders to store for the rest of the year. 

As convenience foods go, it’s very convenient.

But after a dozen or two blocks, also very heavy 🙁

Beekeeper’s back

There’s a bittersweet irony to the honey harvest.

The more backbreakingly exhausting it is, the better it is. 

Not so much there’s no gain without pain” as “the more pain, the more gain”.

I have two main apiaries about 15 miles apart in Fife. I checked the hives in the first apiary and was disappointed to find the supers were mostly empty. This is a site which usually has good summer forage. The OSR had yielded well in the spring, but the colonies had then all had pre-emptive splits for swarm control, before being united back prior to the main flow.

Which appears not to have happened 🙁

I put clearers on the hives and returned the following day to collect a pathetically small number of full supers. There were some uncapped and part-filled frames, some of which contained fresh nectar 2 which I pooled together in the smallest number of supers possible.

I placed these above the floor but underneath the brood boxes.

This is termed nadiring, which isn’t actually a real word according to the OED. Nadir means the lowest point, but in the 17th Century (now obsolete and probably only used by beekeepers) nadir meant a point directly beneath an object.

The hope and expectation here is that the bees will find the stores beneath the cluster and move it up into the brood box, prior to me treating and feeding them up for winter.

Quick fix clearer board – hive side

On the same day I placed clearers underneath the (much heavier) supers in my second apiary. Actually, under about half the hives as I don’t have enough clearers for all the hives at once, even with a few Correx and gaffer tape bodged efforts to supplement them (shown above).

Clearing supers

I’ve discussed these clearers previously. With no moving parts and a deep rim on the underside the bees move down quickly. It’s not unusual to find the full 5cm depth full of bees the following morning.

Lots of bees

These bees have to be gently shaken back into the hive before replacing the crownboard and roof. This is easy on a calm, warm day with placid bees, but can be a little traumatic for everyone concerned if those three key ingredients are missing.

More lifting 🙁

Filled supers usually weigh between 37 and 50 lb (17-23 kg) each 3. Therefore, moving a dozen from the hives to the car and the car to the honey warming cabinet involves manually lifting about half a metric tonne. 

And that doesn’t include shaking off the few remaining bees which remain on individual frames. It’s not only my back that aches after this, but my fingers as well. Beekeeping, not such a gentle art as some might think.

I’ve previously noticed that more bees tend to remain in the supers if the colony is queenless.

This year the only queenless colony I found was also honeyless 🙁 

There was no need for the bees to remain in the supers … and no real evidence they’d been there in the first place.

This colony had a late queen mating fail (or perhaps lost on a mating flight) so I’ll unite it with a strong colony at the same time as I feed them and treat them for mites.

There’s obviously no point in feeding and treating before uniting or I’d jeopardise the reputation some beekeepers (including me 😉 ) have for being incredibly mean financially astute.

Lugless …

While shaking bees off one frame a lug broke. It’s a lovely frame of capped lime honey. Not close to show quality but pretty respectable all the same. I could scrape it back to the mid-rib and filter the honey or cobble together some sort of nail in place of the lug so I could spin it in the extractor. Instead I’m going to give it to friends who love honey direct from the comb … I’ll let them work out how to hang or stand it at the breakfast table.

The recovered supers were stacked on my honey warming cabinet set to 40°C. By the time heat losses are taken into account this maintains the supers at about 35°C, making the honey much easier to extract.

I usually rotate the stacks top to bottom and bottom to top a day before extracting. More lifting 🙁

Back in the apiary, the freed up clearers were placed under the supers on the remaining hives for collection the following day.

Storm Francis

Storm Francis only really arrived on the east coast of Scotland on Tuesday. It was windy and wet, but nothing like the pounding west Wales received. 

However, on early Tuesday morning when I arrived at the apiary it was wet.

Very wet.

There are few more demoralising sights than an apiary in really grey, wet and miserable conditions.

It was wetter and more miserable than this photo suggests …

There’s work to do and hives to open. Every single bee is ‘at home’. You know you’re going to get wet. It’s too blustery to use an umbrella and, anyhow, social distancing means there’s no-on there to hold one. 

Cold, clammy and heavy … a wet bee suit

The one saving grace is that the bees were incredibly calm.

I’d like to think they’ve been selectively bred over the years to be placid and well behaved, and that my skills as a beekeeper have been honed to the point where they barely know I’m there.

Hogwash.

It was so wet that they caused as little trouble as possible so that I got the roof back on the hive with the minimal delay 😉

Stings

Joking aside, these bees are calm and well behaved. Despite the flow being effectively over they haven’t become defensive. The majority of the colonies are very strong and they’re not being troubled by wasps, though these are searching out spilt honey and stores wherever possible. 

Our colonies in the bee shed are used for research and used to provide larvae and pupae for experiments. Members of my research team harvest brood when needed and, because they aren’t hugely experienced beekeepers, it’s important that the bees are not stroppy.

During the week I commented to a friend that I didn’t think I’ve been stung all season.

There may have been one of those glancing blows to a nitrile glove, but nothing that actually caused any pain or inconvenience.

Partly this is because I’ve done less beekeeping, but it also reflects repeated replacement of queens from stroppy colonies with selected calmer bees over past seasons. 

Aggressive bees do not collect more nectar. They are a menace to non-beekeepers and thoroughly unpleasant to work with. Fortunately, aggression is a relatively easy trait to select against and you can quickly see an improvement in colonies over just a couple of seasons.

Of course, I spoke too soon …

I lifted the lid on a stack of boxes containing old brood frames for melting down. To my complete surprise and considerable pain, I was greeted by a frenzied blitzkrieg of angry wasps.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang … BANG!

Five stings in less time than it takes to say it.

The final BANG was self inflicted as I hit the side of my head to try and squish a wasp before it burrowed into my ear and stung me.

Partial success … I crushed the wasp, but only after it had stung me on the cartilaginous pinna of my ear 🙁

I don’t know which hurt more … the sting or the blow to the side of my head.

These days I no longer bother setting wasp traps in my apiaries, instead relying on strong colonies (and reduced entrances or kewl floors) for defence. However, I’ve discovered that a strong washing up detergent spray is a good deterrent if wasps are getting into stacks of stored boxes. Spray the stripy blighters, stand back and let it do its work before blocking access with whatever you have to hand 4.

More bittersweet season endings

After about four days of intense beekeeping I’d removed all the supers, extracted the honey, collected the fondant, fed and treated all the colonies.

I’ll deal with feeding and treating next week (if I remember) but now need to rest my weary back and fingers … over the week I estimate I’ve lifted a cumulative total of 1200 kg of fondant and at least the same amount again of supers. 

The hives are now busy chucking out drones so they have fewer mouths to feed over the winter.

It’s a tough life being a drone in late August … but not for much longer

But to end on a more uplifting note, the honey crop was pretty good this summer 🙂


 

The gentle art of beekeeping

High summer.

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

That was almost six weeks ago.

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

That would have been about a month ago.

Good queens

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

Brood frame with a good laying pattern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spare queens

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

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

Late season bramble

Late season bramble

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

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

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

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

Go west, young(er) man

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

Handheld queen marking cage

Handheld queen marking cage

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

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

JzBz queen cages

JzBz queen cages

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

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

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

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

Not really hard work, but enough.

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

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

Cloud

Threatening

Time to get a move on.

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

West.

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

Could you do me a favour?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be properly prepared

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

But they returned as I walked across the lawn.

And they brought reinforcements.

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

A shot across the bows, if you like.

I didn’t like.

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

Nitriles ...

Nitriles …

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

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

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

Opening hostilities

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

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

The thunder that is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I felt I needed chain mail … and an umbrella.

Time for a rethink

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

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

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

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

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

Now you tell me …

I See You Baby

I See You Baby

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

And then I found the unmarked queen.

As simple as that.

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

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

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

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

Her confidence was misplaced 🙁

Veiled threat

And then a bee got inside the veil.

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

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

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

Reassemble in the reverse order

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

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

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

I finally got my cup of tea.

Confidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons

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

Bad bees

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

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

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

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

While watching the bees 🙂


 

Bigging up nucs

The phrase bigging up [somebody or something] means saying they are very good, usually in public 1. It is slang and used informally and usage has increased significantly in the last couple of decades.

The term bigging in bigging up meaning promotion, is relatively new. However, the same word can be traced back to Middle English and (a bit more more recently) obsolete Scottish, when it meant build.

Two days work bigging a brick wall in the Braidfoots house 2.

Anyone who has used nucs, for queen mating or swarm control for example, is likely to big them up … as in sing their praises. Small enough to need only limited resources to start them, large enough to function as a self-contained and resilient colony etc.

However, in this post I’m going to discuss bigging up nucs in the older meaning of the phrase … building them up from a nuc to a full colony.

Which could also, of course, be considered as promoting them 😉

Problems with history and latitude

One of the perils of writing about beekeeping in the UK is the variation in the season between the south and the north of the country.

Just as you can’t be prescriptive in any one location about when certain events in a particular beekeeping year occur – e.g. swarming, winter bee production, broodlessness – it’s also pretty obvious that the season is longer 3 at lower latitudes.

It’s therefore not possible to say ‘in late May’ or ‘by mid-June’ nucs will start to be overcrowded 4. Not only does this depend upon the local climate, but it is also significantly influenced by how the nucs were prepared.

If the nuc was established for swarm control, started with the old queen and 1-2 frames of brood, it is likely to have built up rapidly and will quickly overrun the box if not dealt with promptly.

Alternatively, if the nuc was used for queen mating, started with a sealed cell (or virgin queen) and a frame of emerging brood, it will build up less fast as the queen has to get out and mate and then start laying.

Overcrowding

Whatever the history (or the latitude), at some point the colony will grow to be too large for the box. Then, but ideally earlier (so you are prepared), you need to decide what you are going to do with them.

With experience you can judge overcrowding by gently popping the lid up and peering through the thin plastic or polycarbonate crownboard. 

I use Thorne’s Everynucs which have an integral feeder at one end of the box. When they start building brace comb in the feeder they need to be given more space.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The colony above is overwintered and very clearly overcrowded. The photo was taken in the third week of April (in Scotland). By mid-season, a colony that crowded would have probably swarmed.

Comb in feeder

The photo immediately above was taken in late June this year. The nuc was set up in mid-May for swarm control with the queen and just one frame of emerging brood.

However, in the intervening six weeks I had already removed two or three frames of sealed brood (but not adhering bees) to boost other colonies, replacing the frames with a mix of drawn comb and foundation, all of which had been drawn and filled again.

Nucs can build up very fast … be warned.

Decision time

Nucs are really versatile. Your choice includes (but isn’t restricted to):

  1. Overwintering the nuc
  2. Expanding the nuc into a full hive
  3. Uniting the nuc with a queenless colony
  4. Removing the queen and uniting the nuc with a queenright colony
  5. Leaving it too late and letting them swarm 🙁

I’m not going to discuss the last option, but it is an inevitability if the colony is healthy and there’s a reasonable amount of forage in the area. 

One more week’ for a nuc is usually not worth risking.

Overwintering nucs deserves a post of its own (and has been covered some time ago 5). It’s worth noting that nucs started in May for swarm control or for queen mating require a lot of maintenance if they are not to outgrow their accommodation by the end of the season. You need to regularly remove bees and brood or the colony will swarm.

It is much better to start nucs later in the season for overwintering.

Before doing anything with the nuc it is worth confirming that the queen appears well mated and is laying well 6. She should be producing frame after frame packed with brood. In new(ish) comb you can easily tell her quality based upon the presence of even sheets of brood, with relatively few missed cells.

Good laying pattern from queen in 5 frame nucleus

The frame above is from a nuc this spring. The majority of the missed cells, at least at the top of the frame, are due to the wires in the foundation.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

And, while you’re at it, use this opportunity of the last inspection of the nuc to mark and clip the queen (if she isn’t already). It’s always easier to find a queen in a nuc – fewer bees, less frames to hide on the other side of etc.

From nuc to a full brood box

This is about as easy as it gets and should take no more than 5 minutes if you have everything to hand.

  1. Move the nuc a metre or so away from its original location.
  2. Place a new floor and a brood box on the original site.
  3. The brood box should contain a couple of frames of drawn comb if you have them, or frames with fresh foundation. Place one next to each side wall (see note below for comment on warm and cold way).
  4. If the floor has open mesh I slide in the Varroa tray. I do not want the bees to be distracted by smells from other ‘potential’ routes into the hive.
  5. Open the nuc using a very small amount of smoke 7.
  6. Remove the dummy board from the nuc and gently separate the frames if they’re propolised together.
  7. Transfer each frame to the new brood box maintaining their position and orientation relative to the neighbouring frames. Arrange the frames from the nuc close to the new hive entrance (see below).
  8. Ideally , make sure the queen is seen … just to give you confidence 🙂
  9. Move the second new frame of drawn comb or foundation to ‘sandwich’ the frames from the nuc.
  10. Fill the rest of the box with frames containing drawn comb or new foundation.
  11. Replace the dummy board removed in #6 above.
  12. Add syrup if needed – see below.
  13. Replace the crownboard and roof.
  14. Reduce the entrance to help the colony defend their new, much larger, residence.

Feeding

If there is a good nectar flow you may not need to feed the colony. If you’ve used new foundation rather than drawn comb then they probably will need feeding. It’s important they draw new comb so the queen can continue laying uninterrupted. This ensures they build up rapidly.

Use thin syrup (1:1 by weight of sugar and water) in a contact feeder. 

I usually give nucs a gallon or so of syrup to help them draw comb. They use this surprisingly fast. Check them every 48 hours. 

Welcome to your new home … nuc ‘promoted’ to hive with contact feeder in place

My crownboards lack holes, so I place the contact feeder directly above the top bars, separated by a couple of spare frame bottom bars. I add a super to ‘house’ the contact feed and then close the hive up.

Defending the hive

All of my full-sized hives are arranged warm way. This means the frames are parallel with the entrance of the hive. The alternative, cold way, has the frames perpendicular to the entrance.

To help the small colony defend the new large box they are in, the nucleus frames should be located close to the hive entrance.

The hive entrance is on the left with the frames arranged ‘warm way’.

Initially, these are the frames that are covered in bees, so providing a deterrent to any potential robbers.

It may also help to reduce the size of the hive entrance so the bees only need to defend an inch wide hole, rather than the full width of the box.

If your hives are organised cold way’ the same requirements apply – arrange the bees near to the entrance and reduce the entrance width. For example, place the frames in the centre of the hive, flanked on each side by three new frames, and leave a narrow central entrance open.

Finally, do not slop syrup around all over the place when feeding them. It’s a near-certain way to encourage robbing (particularly if there’s a shortage of nectar).

Uniting the nuc with a queenright or queenless colony

I can deal these two together because the only difference is where the queen is in the stacked boxes at the end of the procedure.

Collect together the things you will need:

  • A new brood box
  • Two sheets of newspaper
  • Six frames of drawn comb or foundation

Queens

If the hive and the nuc are both queenright you must remove the unwanted queen 8.

Typically this is when you have used the nucleus method of swarm control. The colony has reared a good new queen and the old queen in the nuc is now surplus to requirements.

Alternatively, the colony might have generated a sub-standard or poorly mated queen and you want a single united colony headed again by the original queen.

If the old(er), unwanted queen is still laying OK consider offering her to someone else in your association. Remove the queen, does not necessarily mean sacrifice her. 

Caged queen with attendants

Place the queen in a introduction cage with some attendant workers and some candy. Put her somewhere safe (the breast pocket works for me) and give her to someone who needs her more than you do … perhaps in exchange for a nice bottle of merlot 9 😉

Don’t risk leaving two queens in the same box and hoping the ‘better’ one (i.e. the one you want) will survive the ruckus that will happen. 

Sod’s Law dictates that the queen you want will not make it … particularly if it’s late in the season, she’s particularly good or she’s otherwise precious.

Uniting

I generally move the nuc to the hive it is being united with. Waft some smoke at the hive entrance, remove the roof and gently lift the corner of the crownboard. Add a second gentle puff of smoke into the gap and let the bees move down.

Remove the crownboard and gently lay two intact sheets of newspaper flat over the tops of the frames. It helps to remove brace comb from the top bars as it can puncture the newspaper and lead to premature mixing and a bit of a melee.

In the good old days a single page from a broadsheet 10 newspaper was sufficient. These days I think you have to read the Financial Times to achieve this

Assuming you’re not Gordon Gekko, a hedge fund manager or derivatives trader you will probably need two slightly overlapping sheets. Don’t bother about moving all the bees off the top bars – they’ll move down soon enough once you put the newspaper on.

If it’s windy use your initiative, recruit a helper or evolve at least one additional limb to hold the newspaper in place.

Add a second empty brood box on top.

Make a small hole (about the size of the o in hole) in the sheet using your hive tool, somewhere near the middle, above a gap between two frames. You can just see the hole above the curve of the hive tool here …

Newspaper, second brood box and a very small hole

Add two or three frames of drawn comb or foundation. Transfer all the frames from the nuc to the new brood box, as before, maintaining their order and orientation. Fill the rest of the box with frames, shake in the last bees from the nuc box and close the hive up.

Just checking!

As before, if you are uniting a queenright nuc with a queenless hive, it’s always good to be certain the queen was on one of the frames transferred to the new box.

Have patience

Hives usually have sufficient stores at this time of the season. If both boxes are light you might have to feed them syrup (to help them draw comb) or fondant (just to tide them over until the nectar flow starts).

Leave them to it. There’s nothing to be gained by ‘having a peek’. The bees will chew their way through the newspaper in 24-48 hours.

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Look out for a pile of shredded newspaper falling through the open mesh floor and, after a week, continue inspections as normal.

Miscellaneous final thoughts

If the recipient hive is broodless it will end up with lots of space and empty frames. Under those circumstances I usually unite them down to a single box. Rather than adding additional frames to the top box I use a fat dummy to fill the space.

Uniting a nuc with a full colony

Uniting a nuc with a full colony …

A block of polystyrene tightly wrapped in a bin bag works just as well 11.

A week after uniting them rearrange the brood-containing frames with pollen and stores into a single box and remove the empty frames and unwanted second brood box.

Lost bees

How will the bees reorientate to the new location?

Don’t worry. The bees from the nuc will discover that everything is changed when they have to muscle their way through the lower brood box to reach the hive entrance. They will quickly reorientate to the new hive.

Some of the workers from the nuc will have been out foraging when you rudely removed their home. They will, in time, move to a nearby hive and blag their way in 12

Where has the house gone?

You can speed this process up by removing the hive stand the nuc was on. With nowhere to land they quickly find an adjacent hive. If I unite colonies in poor weather (or just before rain starts 13) I’ll try and minimise the number of stranded bees by doing this.

For the same reason I prefer not to unite late in the afternoon to give the bees time to relocate. 

Supers

When I was younger and much better organised I’d clear the supers in advance on the recipient hive. I’d visit the apiary 24 hours before I intended to unite them and add a clearer board. When preparing the recipient colony I’d put the (now emptied) supers aside, unite the colonies and then add the supers back on top (all on the same visit). 

These days I’m definitely older and usually less well organised 🙁

Newspaper and queen excluder

If I’ve forgotten to clear the supers I’ll also unite the bees in the supers over the nuc. I separate them with newspaper as before and add a queen excluder to stop the queen moving up into the supers.

All that then remains to do is tidy up the apiary and go home for a cup of tea.

Time to tidy up and go home


 

It’s the little things …

When I first started keeping bees colony inspections were a special occasion.

There was quite a bit of preparation beforehand, collecting together the paraphernalia the catalogues all described as essential for effective beekeeping. I’d fuss over the hives, sometimes opening them a second time (or twice in a weekend) to check things. I’d write up some notes afterwards that – like certain websites 😉 – tended to verbosity.

Despite this, things went well.

Honey happened.

Splits worked.

Swarms didn’t … or were re-hived.

Larvae were grafted and queens were mated.

Colony numbers increased. 

Ready for inspection … are you?

Inspections moved from being a special occasion to, at times, something of a chore. 

Never not enjoyable or not a learning experience, but not quite the event they’d once been. 

There were also a lot more of them.

Twenty or so a week, many more if you count the nucs and the mini-nucs some years.

During all this time I was learning a whole lot more about bees.

But as importantly, I was learning a lot more about keeping and managing bees.

The KISS principle

This US Navy acronym (for Keep it simple, stupid) means that things work best if they are kept uncomplicated.

And beekeeping, and particularly the essential weekly 1 inspections are one area where the KISS principle can be beneficial.

A combination of better (but less) preparation, greater efficiency during the time spent hunched over the hive(s) and improved (but less) record keeping, reflects improvements in my beekeeping over the last decade or so.

All of which have resulted in hive inspections again being a pleasure rather than a chore.

Most of these improvements are subconscious.

I’ve unknowingly ‘learned’ that doing things a particular way works better for me or the bees. None of the lessons have been learned the hard way – they’re definitely evolution, not revolution.

Described below are a few I’m aware of 2.

Remember, these suit my style 3 of beekeeping (whatever that is 🙂 ) and may not be relevant to you.

However, for all of the things listed below I’m aware the way I’ve done things has changed over time.

Or, I’m aware that the way I do things now seems to work well though I’ve no idea how I used to do them 😉

Preparation

My essentials now fit easily into my bee bag. Partly because I now need less and partly because they never live anywhere else.

Stuff that was in the bag but wasn’t used, was ditched long ago.

I now have two boxes (2 litre ice cream tubs) in the bag, one for “daily” items and one for “queen-related” things. Neither box is full.

There’s not much in the daily container. Hive tools are kept in the apiary in a bucket of washing soda, with a spare tiddler in the bee bag to cover the inevitable losses. I now always carry a roll of gaffer tape and some staple-free newspaper. The former has all sorts of uses and the latter is for uniting colonies. 

Staple-free to save the hassle of separating sheets, and potentially ripping them, when trying to unite colonies. You want one very small hole in the sheet … they’ll easily expand this and gently mingle.

The “queen” box contains things for grafting larvae (which haven’t changed since I last wrote about them, a lifetime ago) together with the things I need for queen marking and clipping 4.

The smoker and blowtorch live together in a metal box. I have matches in the “daily” box, but never use them. A blowtorch is a much better way to light a smoker properly.

Smoker fuel lives in a plastic tub. I’ve discovered that the plastic tubs sold full of suet balls make excellent containers for smoker fuel. They are square(ish), have a handle and a convenient tab to help prise up the lid. Altogether better than a honey bucket.

Two final things come under the heading ‘preparation’.

The first is learning to fuel and light the smoker so that it stays lit. Exactly how you achieve this depends upon the fuel you are using. Practice makes perfect.

Buy a large smoker, prime it with something that smoulders well (dried rotten wood for example), light it with a blowtorch and then pack it reasonably tightly with additional combustible material. Dried grass, animal bedding, woodturning shavings etc. Top the lot off with a handful of fresh grass. 

Once lit, stays lit … bigger is better

Once it’s going, my Dadant smoker will stay lit for one to two hours without more than the occasional squeeze of the bellows … or laying on its side if burning too fiercely.

It’s ironic that the more experience you get, the less you need the smoker … however the more experience you get, the more likely the smoker will actually work when you do need it 🙂

The final preparation involves reading the notes in advance from the last inspection … the ones that I made to remind me what will be needed next time I visit the apiary.

Don’t barbeque the bees 😉

Less is definitely more when you open the hive.

The less smoke, the less knocks, bumps or sudden jarring, the less squashed bees, the less adjusting and readjusting the frames … all of these make the inspection more useful and effective.

The bees (and the beekeeper) will be calmer.

They’ll be behaving better 5

… not running manically around the frame or pinging off your veil.

You’ll see a whole lot more and, after all, what else is an inspection for if it’s not to see things?

Smoking the colony does not mean kippering them 6.

One gentle puff at the hive entrance or under the open mesh floor is enough. However these both drive the bees up.

As useful, and arguably more so, is a gentle puff in the gap created when you first lifted the crownboard 7. This eases the bees away from the top bars of the frames, making your next task easier.

OK, let’s find the queen …

You need space to work and an orderly approach. 

Think about what you’re doing. The colony, with all its darkness, smells, sounds and vibrations, is pulled apart during an inspection. 

If I wanted to be anthropomorphic I’d say it’s a very distressing experience … like having a tornado ripping the roof off and rearranging the furniture while you were frying bacon and listening to some gentle jazz 8

But I’m not anthropomorphic. 

What you need to avoid is the bees getting defensive. That just makes the looking part of the inspection more difficult. 

And if the looking is difficult, finding the queen is going to be very tricky.

Except you don’t usually need to find the queen.

If the colony contains recently laid eggs and no queen cells you can be confident the queen is in residence and will remain so … so there’s no need to look for her. 

But if your inspection is gentle and methodical, and the colony remains calm, you’ll usually see her anyway 🙂

Frame management

Remove the dummy board, shake the bees off it (onto the top bars) and lay it aside 9.

Remove the outer frame. It probably contains stores and so it’s unlikely the queen is in residence. Check, then put it aside and get on with the inspection. 

But where and how do you ‘put it aside’? Standing on end, leaning against the leg of the hive stand? Preferably not.

Most of my hive stands are a frame-width wide so you can hang a frame by the lugs, secure in the knowledge that the frame cannot be knocked over, kicked or stood on.

But I usually don’t hang the frame by the lugs.

To do so takes two hands when you put the frame down, and two when you pick the frame up. If you don’t use two hands it’s a clumsy procedure and you need a very strong grip – there’s a risk of crushing bees on the side bars.

Whilst I do have two hands (!) it’s actually usually easier to balance the frame at an angle, supported on a frame lug and the sidebar on one end, and the bottom bars on the other. There’s less reaching involved and one lug can be used as a very effective handle.

Easy to put down and pick up

The frame is held clear of vegetation below the hive stand. The protruding lug provides excellent grip. It can be put down and picked up with one hand. 

When putting the frame down, gently place the lug on the further frame bar, slide the frame away from you until the further sidebar touches the hive stand (gently, allow the bees to move aside) then lower the bottom bar towards the nearer frame bar, gently moving the frame from side to side in a narrow arc. The bees will clear the lower bar rather than get crushed.

No crushed bees

It takes much longer to describe than to actually do.

If it’s blowing a gale, frames balanced like this might topple … but if it’s blowing a gale it’s really not an ideal day to be inspecting the colony.

Unless they’re in a bee shed 😉

Removing and returning frames

With space to work you can now start the inspection. 

The frames are probably propolised together. Even with good finger strength they can be difficult to separate. 

Hive tools ...

Hive tools …

Don’t try … use the hive tool, it’s what it’s for.

Gently break the propolis seal between every frame. Do all the frame lugs on one side first, then do the other. That way you don’t pass your hands repeatedly over the open hive, which can distress the bees make them defensive.

You don’t need to lever the frames far apart. Breaking the propolis seal only involves moving the frame a millimeter or two. The smaller the distance, the less chance a bee will sneak into the gap you’ve created and get crushed as you separate other frames.

Again, less is more.

With all the frames now ‘free’ you can do the inspection.

Slide the next frame a short distance along the frame runners into your working ‘gap’. You shouldn’t just lift the frame as bees at the interface with the adjacent frame will get “rolled” 10. Grip the frame by the lugs, inspect one face, turn, inspect the other face, turn again.

The frame is now in the same orientation as when it was lifted out of the hive. It can therefore be returned easily to minimise the disruption to the brood nest. By using the same routine for every frame the colony is reassembled with the minimum unnecessary disturbance.

Wrong

Don’t just put the frame back ‘near’ it’s neighbour and squeeze them altogether when you put the dummy board back at the end of the inspection. Return it so the Hoffman spacers directly contact the neighbouring frame. That way, no bees get crushed when additional frames are added back later in the inspection.

That’s better

You’ll find that you can gently return the frame, pushing the bees aside between the Hoffman spacers as you lower it into the hive. You have a better view (more light and an oblique viewing angle) when returning the frame into the gap than when the frame is hanging by the lugs in the hive. 

Gently shiggling 11 the frame from side to side as you lower it helps move the bees aside between the spacers.

By returning the frame right next to its neighbour you’ve also retained all your working space to move the next frame into.

You handle most frames only once, increasing the efficiency of your inspection but – more importantly – minimising the likelihood of crushing bees and agitating the colony.

Once through all the frames, you can even replace the removed frame of stores at the opposite end of the box to minimise further disturbance.

Finishing up

If there are supers on the hive there is probably a queen excluder separating them from the brood box. 

I’ve got a big stack of plastic queen excluders in the bee shed, but no metal wired, wooden framed ones. 

Framed wire QE ...

Framed wire QE …

That’s because all of the metal wired, wooden framed queen excluders are in use.

They are easier to remove and easier to replace on the hive. The bee space created by the frame prevents bees being crushed. The rigid frame means they can be replaced obliquely, then gently turned until square on the hive. In doing so, bees on the upper rim of the brood box are pushed aside, rather than squished below.

With the supers, crownboard and roof back in place there are only three things left to do:

  1. Make the hive secure. Will the roof stay on, and the hive stay upright, if there’s a gale … or a cow or deer ambles into it at night? The zephyr-like breeze when you inspect might be replaced with 50 mph gusts in 48 hours. Ratchet straps really do help, though tall stacks of boxes can still topple if top-heavy with honey.
  2. Put the smoker out. Plug it with grass and let it cool before putting it away. If you do this immediately after closing the last hive it will be ready by the time you …
  3. Write up the hive notes. Less really is more here. No verbiage 12. You need to record the current ‘state’ of the colony – strength, health, stores. Ideally, also record its behaviour – defensiveness, running (are the bees stable on the frame?) and unpleasant traits such as following. All of this can be achieved with a simple scoring system. An additional sentence of freehand might also be needed – “Defensive – don’t use for grafting”. Importantly, make sure you note down anything needed at the next visit … 

Objective and subjective notes

Which neatly takes us back to preparation.

I’m sure there are a million other things I do now that are an improvement on what I used to do. I’m also certain there are better ways to do some of the things I now do 13.

Are you aware of changes to your beekeeping practices that have improved things, for you or – more importantly – for the bees?


Notes

Today (10th July) is Don’t step on a bee day … that improves colony inspections as well 😉

If it quacks like a duck …

Quack

… it might be a trapped virgin queen.

I discussed the audio monitoring of colonies and swarm prediction last week. Whilst interesting, I remain unconvinced that it is going to be a useful way to predict swarming. 

And, more importantly, that replacing the manual aspects of hive inspections is desirable. I’m sure it will appeal to hands off beekeepers, though I’m not sure that’s what beekeeping is about.

However there was a second component to what was a long and convoluted publication 1 which I found much more interesting.

Listening in

If you remember, the researchers fitted hives with sensitive accelerometers and recorded the sounds within the hive for two years. Of about 25 colonies monitored, half swarmed during this period, generating 11 prime swarms and 19 casts.

In addition to the background sounds of the hive, with changes in frequency and volume depending upon activity, some colonies produced a series of very un-bee-like toots and quacks.

Have a listen …

The audio starts with tooting, the quacking starts around 8-9s, and there’s overlapping tooting and quacking from near the 21s mark.

Queen communication

I’ve previously introduced the concept of pheromone-based communication within the hive. For example, the mated queen produces the queen mandibular and queen footprint pheromones, the concentrations of which influence the preparation and development of new queen cells.

Tooting and quacking is another form of queen communication, this time by virgin queens in the colony.

It’s not unusual to hear some of these sounds during normal hive inspections, but only during the swarming season and only when the colony is in the process of requeening.

If you rear queens, and in my experience particularly if you use mini-mating nucs, you will regularly hear “queen piping” – another term for the tooting sound – a day or so after placing a mature charged queen cell into the small colony.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. 

How does the queen make these sounds?

Queen piping or tooting

Queen tooting has been observed. The queen presses her thorax tight down against the comb and vibrates her strong thoracic wing muscles. Her wings remain closed. The comb acts as a sounding board, amplifying the sound in the hive (and presumably transmitting the vibrations through the comb as well).

This doesn’t happen just anywhere … the virgin queen is usually near the cell she has recently emerged from. 

And this swarm cell is usually on the periphery of a frame.

This is because the laying queen only rarely ventures to the edges of frames, so the concentration of her footprint pheromone is lower in this area, eventually resulting in queen cells being produced there

In their study, accelerometers embedded in the periphery of comb were able to detect much stronger tooting and quacking signals, supporting the conclusions of Grooters (1987) 2 who had first published studies on the location of piping queens.

Queen tooting and quacking

Queen piping is usually recorded at around 400 Hz and consists of one or more 1 second long pulses, followed by a number of much shorter pulses. In previous studies the frequency of tooting had been shown to be age-related. It starts at ~350 Hz and rises in frequency to around 500 Hz as the virgin queen matures over several days.

Compare the image above with the audio file linked further up the post. The tooting is followed by an extended period of quacking, and then both sounds occur at the same time.

Going quackers

The duck-like quacking is presumably also made by queens vibrating their flight muscles while pressed up against the comb.

I say ‘presumably’ as I don’t think it has been observed, as opposed to heard.

The reason for this is straightforward, the queens that are quacking are still within the closed queen cell.

Quacking is a lower frequency sound (is this because of the confines of the queen cell, the way the sound is produced, or the ‘maturity’ of the queen’s musculature?) but has also been shown to increase in frequency – from ~200 Hz to ~350 Hz – the longer the queen remains within the cell.

Afterswarms = casts

Before discussing the timing of tooting and quacking we need to quickly revisit the process of swarming. I’ve covered some of this before when discussing the practicalities of swarm control, so will be brief.

  1. Having “decided” to swarm the colony produces swarm cells. Usually several.
  2. Weather permitting, the prime swarm headed by the original laying queen leaves the hive, on or around the day that the first of the maturing queen cells is capped.
  3. Seven days after the cell was capped the first of the newly developed virgin queens emerges. 
  4. If the colony is strong, this virgin also swarms (a cast swarm). Some texts, including the publication being discussed, call these afterswarms.
  5. Over the following hours or days, successively smaller cast swarms may leave the hive, each headed by a newly emerged virgin queen.

Not all colonies produce multiple cast swarms, but initially strong colonies often do.

From a beekeeping point of view this is bad news™. It can leave the remnants of the original colony too weak to survive and potentially litters the neighbourhood with grapefruit, orange and satsuma-sized cast swarms. 

Irritating 🙁

Whether it’s good for the bees depends upon the likelihood of casts surviving. The very fact that evolution has generated this behaviour suggests it can be beneficial. I might return to this point at the end of the post.

Tooting timing

The Grooters paper referred to earlier is probably the definitive study of queen tooting or piping. The recent Ramsey publication appears to largely confirm the earlier results 3, but has some additional insights on colony disturbance during inspections 4.

Here is the acoustic trace of an undisturbed colony producing a prime swarm and two casts.

Timing of tooting and quaking in a swarming colony

I’ve added some visible labels to the image above indicating the occurrence of tooting and quacking in an undisturbed naturally swarming colony.

  • The prime swarm exited the hive on the afternoon of the 13th. No tooting had been recorded before that date.
  • On the 17th tooting starts and increases in frequency over the next two days.
  • Quacking starts 6 hours after the tooting starts.
  • The first cast swarm (afterswarm) exits the hive on the 19th and is followed by a three hour break in tooting.
  • Tooting and quacking then continue until the second cast swarm on the afternoon of the 21st.

So, in summary, tooting starts after the prime swarm leaves and stops temporarily when the first cast leaves the hive. Quacking starts after the tooting starts and then continues until the last swarm leaves the hive.

Why all the tooting and quacking?

The timing of queen tooting is consistent with it being made by a virgin queen that has emerged from the cell. The cessation of tooting upon swarming (the first afterswarm) suggests that the virgin left with the swarm. The restarting of tooting a few hours later suggests a new virgin queen has been released from another cell and is announcing her presence to the colony.

In previous studies, Grooters had shown that replaying the tooting sound to mature virgin queens actively chewing their way out of a queen cell delayed their emergence by several hours. This delay allowed the attendant workers to reseal the cell and obstruct her emergence for several days.

These timings and the behaviour(s) they are associated with suggest they are a colony-level communication strategy to reduce competition between queens. 

The newly emerged virgin queen toots (pipes) to inform the workers that there is ‘free’ queen in the colony. The workers respond by holding back emergence of other mature queens. 

If all (or several) of the virgin queens emerged and ran around the hive simultaneously they would effectively be ‘competing’ for the hive resources needed for successful swarming i.e. the workers. 

By controlling and coordinating a succession of queen emergence, a strong colony has the opportunity to generate one, two or more cast swarms whilst sufficient workers remain in the hive. It presumably helps ensure the casts are of a sufficient size to give them the best chance of survival.

At what point does this succession stop or break down? One possibility is that this happens when there are insufficient workers to prevent additional virgin queens from emerging.

Unanswered questions

Why do mature virgin queens within the cell quack? It is clearly a response to tooting, rather than being standard behaviour of a soon-to-emerge queen. 

Hear! Hear the pipes are calling, Loudly and proudly calling (from Scotland the Brave)

Is the quacking to attract workers to help reseal the cell?

I suspect not. At least, I suspect there is a more pressing need to attract the workers. After all, wouldn’t it be easier for the queen to simply stop chewing her way out for a few hours? 

Isn’t there a risk that a quacking cell-bound queen might attract the virgin queen running around ‘up top’ who might attempt to slaughter her captive half-sister? 

Possibly, so perhaps the workers that are attracted to the quacking cell also protect the cell, preventing the loose virgin queen from damaging the yet-to-emerge queens.

This would make sense … if the virgin leaves with a cast, the workers that will remain must be sure that there will be a queen available to head the colony

And finally, back to the tooting. I also wonder if this has additional roles in colony communication. For example, what other responses does it induce in the workers? 

Does the increasing frequency of tooting inform the workers that the virgin is maturing and that they should ready themselves for swarming? Perhaps tooting above a certain frequency induces workers to gorge themselves with honey to ensure the swarm has sufficient stores?

In support of this last suggestion, studies conducted almost half a century ago by Simpson and Greenwood 5 concluded that a 650 Hz artificial piping sound induced swarming in colonies containing a single mobile (i.e. free) virgin queen.

Casts

The apparently self-destructive swarming where a colony generates a series of smaller and smaller casts seems to be a daft choice from an evolutionary point of view.

Several studies, in particular from Thomas Seeley, have shown that swarming is a risky business for a colony … and that the majority of the risk is borne by the swarm, not the parental colony. 

87% of swarmed colonies will rear a new queen and successfully overwinter, but only 25% of swarms survive. And the latter figure must only get smaller as the size of the swarms decrease. 

One possibility is that under entirely natural conditions a colony will not undergo this type of self-destructive swarming. Perhaps it is a consequence of the strength of colonies beekeepers favour for good nectar collection or pollination?

Alternatively, perhaps it reflects the way we manage our colonies. Ramsey and colleagues also record tooting and quacking from colonies disturbed during hive inspections. In at least one of these their interpretation was that there were multiple queens ‘free’ in the hive simultaneously, presumably because workers had failed to restrict the emergence of at least one virgin queen.

So, perhaps hive inspections that (inadvertently) result in the release of multiple virgin queens are the colonies that subsequently slice’n’dice themselves to oblivion by producing lots of casts.

I can only remember one colony of mine doing this … and it started days after the previous inspection, but that doesn’t mean the disturbance I created during the inspection wasn’t the cause.

I’d be interested to know of your experience or thoughts.


Colophon

The title of this post is derived from the Duck Test:

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

This probably dates back to the end of the 19th Century. It’s a form of abductive 6 reasoning or logical inference. It starts with an observation or set of observations and then seeks to find the simplest and most likely conclusion from those observations. In comparison to deductive reasoning, logical inference does not lead to a logically certain conclusion. 

Inevitably, Monty Python stretched the logical inference a little too far in the Witch Logic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

What do you do with witches? Burn them! And what do you burn apart from witches? Wood! So, why do witches burn? ‘cos they’re made of wood? So; how do we tell if she is made of wood? Build a bridge out of ‘er! Ah, but can you not also make bridges out of stone? Oh yeah. Does wood sink in water? No, it floats! It floats! Throw her into the pond! What also floats in water? Bread! Apples! Very small rocks? Cider! Gra-Gravy! Cherries! Mud! Churches? Churches! Lead, Lead. A Duck! Exactly. So, logically… If she weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood… and therefore… a witch!

A June Gap

As far as the beekeeping season is concerned, we’ve had the starter and we’re now waiting for the main course. 

Like restaurants, the size of the ‘starter’ depends upon your location. If you live in an area with lots of oil seed rape (OSR) and other early nectar, the spring honey crop might account for the majority of your annual honey.

If you are in the west, or take your hives to the hills, you might have skipped the starter altogether hoping the heather is the all-you-can-eat buffet of the season.

Lockdown honey

In Fife they appear to be growing less OSR as the farmers have had problems with flea beetle since the neonicotinoid ban was introduced.

Nevertheless, my bees are in range of a couple of fields and – if the weather behaves – usually get a reasonable crop from it. My earlier plans to move hives directly onto the fields, saving the bees a few hundred yards of flying to and fro, was thwarted (like so much else this year) by the pandemic.

The timing of the spring honey harvest is variable, and quite important. You want it to be late enough that the bees have collected what they can and had a chance to ripen it properly so that the water content is below 20% 1.

However, you can’t leave it too late. Fast-granulating OSR honey sets hard in the frames and then cannot be extracted without melting. In addition, there’s often a dearth of nectar in the weeks after the OSR finishes and the bees can end up eating their stores, leaving the beekeeper with nothing 🙁

Judging all that from 150 miles away on the west coast where I’m currently based was a bit tricky. I had to timetable a return visit to also check on queen mating and the build up of all the colonies I’d used the nucleus method of swarm control on.

Ideally all in the same visit.

Blowin’ in the wind

I’d made up the nucs, added supers and last checked my colonies around the 17-19th of May. I finally returned on the 10th of June.

In the intervening period I’d been worried about one of my more exposed apiaries. I’d run out of ratchet straps to hold the hives together and was aware there had been some gales in late May.

Sure enough, when I got to the apiary, there was ample evidence of the gales …

How the mighty fall

The only unsecured hive was completely untouched and the bees were happily working away. However, one of the strapped hives had been toppled and was laying face (i.e. entrance) down. You can see the dent in the fence where it collided on its descent.

If she hadn’t already (and I expect she hadn’t based upon the date of the gales) I suspect the queen struggled to get out and mate from this hive 🙁

Nuked nucs

Two adjacent 8-frame nucs were also sitting lidless in the gentle rain. The lids and the large piece of timber they’d been held down with were on the ground. The perspex crownboards were shattered into dozens of pieces.

These bees were fine.

Both queens were laying and the bees were using the new top entrance (!) for entering and leaving the hive. They were a little subdued and the colonies were less well developed than the other nucs (see below). However, their survival for the best part of three weeks uncovered is a tribute to their resilience.

They were thoroughly confused how to get back into the hive after I replaced the lids 🙂

Slow queen mating

Other than extracting, the primary purpose of this visit was to check the queenright nucs from my swarm control weren’t running out of space, and to check on the progress of queen mating in the original colonies.

Queen mating always takes longer than you expect.

Or than I expect at least.

Poor weather hampered my inspection of all re-queening colonies but, of those I looked at, 50% had new laying queens and the others looked as though they would very soon.

By which I mean the colonies were calm and ‘behaved’ queenright, they were foraging well and the centre of the ‘broodnest’ (or what would be the centre if there was any brood) was being kept clear of nectar and had large patches of polished cells.

Overall it was a bit too soon to be sure everything was OK, but I expect it is.

However, it wasn’t too soon to check the nucs.

Overflowing nucs

In fact, it was almost too late …

With one exception the nucs were near to overflowing with bees and brood.

I favour the Thorne’s Everynuc which has an integral feeder at one end of the box. Once the bees start drawing comb in the feeder they’re running desperately short of space.

Most had started …

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

I didn’t photograph any of the nucs, but the photo above (of an overly-full overwintered nuc) shows what I mean; the feeder is on the right.

The nucs had been made up with one frame of predominantly emerging brood, a few more nurse bees, two foundationless frames, a frame of drawn comb and a frame of stores.

They were now all packed with 5 frames of brood and would have started making swarm preparations within a few days if I hadn’t dealt with them.

Good laying pattern from queen in 5 frame nucleus

And the queens had laid beautiful solid sheets of brood (always reasonably easy if the comb is brand new).

Housekeeping and more swarm prevention

The beauty of the nucleus method of swarm control is that you have the older queen ‘in reserve’ should the new queen not get mated, or be of poor quality.

The problem I was faced with was that the new queens weren’t all yet laying (and for those that were it was too soon to determine their quality), but the older queen was in a box they were rapidly outgrowing.

I therefore removed at least three frames of brood 2 from each nuc and used it to boost the re-queening colonies, replacing the brood-filled frames with fresh foundation 3.

The nucs will build up again strongly and the full colonies will benefit from a brood boost to make up for some of the bees lost during requeening. Some of the transferred frames had open brood. These produce pheromones that should hold back the development of laying workers.

Finally, if the requeening colonies actually lack a queen (the weather was poor and I didn’t search very hard in any of them) there should be a few larvae young enough on the transferred frames for them to draw a new queen cell if needed.

I marked the introduced frames so I can check them quickly on my next visit to the apiary.

This frame needs to be replaced … but could be used in a bait hive next year

The additional benefit of moving brood from the nucs to the full colonies is that it gave me an opportunity to remove some old, dark frames from the latter.

Shown above is one of the removed frames. As the colony is broodless 4 and there’s the usual reduction in available nectar in early/mid June, many of the frames in the brood box were largely empty and can easily be replaced with better quality comb.

Everyone’s a winner 😉

Drone laying queen

One of the nucs made in mid/late May had failed. The queen had developed into a drone layer.

Drone laying queen

The laying pattern was focused around the middle of frame indicating it had been laid by a queen. If it had been laying workers the drone brood would be scattered all over the frames.

There was no reasonable or efficient way to save this colony. The queen was removed and I then shook the bees out in front of a row of strong hives.

I was surprised I’d not seen problems with this queen when making up the nucs in May 5. I do know that all the colonies had worker brood because the nucs were all made containing one frame of emerging (worker) brood.

Perhaps the shock of being dumped into a new box stopped her laying fertilised eggs. Probably it was just a coincidence. We’ll ever know …

Extraction

And, in between righting toppled hives, checking for queens, stopping nucs from swarming, moving a dozen hives/nucs, boosting requeening hives and replacing comb … I extracted a very good crop of spring honey.

Luvverrrly

Although I had fewer ‘production’ hives this season than previous years (to reduce my workload during the lockdown) I still managed to get a more than respectable spring harvest. In fact, it was my best spring since moving back to Scotland in 2015.

The crop wasn’t as large as I’d managed previously in Warwickshire, but the season here starts almost a month later.

A fat frame of spring honey

I start my supers with 10 or 11 frames, but once they are drawn I reduce to 9 frames. With a good nectar flow the bees draw out the comb very nicely.

The bees use less wax (many of my frames are also drawn on drone foundation, so even less wax than worker comb 6), it’s easier to uncap and I have fewer frames to extract.

Again … everyone’s a winner 😉

Not the June gap

Quite a few frames contained fresh nectar, so there was clearly a flow of something (other than rain, which seemed to predominate during my visit) going on. These frames are easy to identify as they drip nectar over the floor as you lift them out to uncap 🙁

In some years you find frames with a big central capped region – enough to usefully extract – but containing lots of drippy fresh nectar in the uncapped cells at the edges and shoulders. I’ve heard that some beekeepers do a low speed spin in the extractor to remove the nectar, then uncap and extract the ripe honey.

I generally don’t bother and instead just stick these back in the hive.

If there’s one task more tiresome than extracting it’s cleaning the extractor afterwards. To have to also clean the extractor during extracting (to avoid the high water content nectar from spoiling the honey) is asking too much!

Colonies can starve during a prolonged nectar dearth in June. All of mine were left with some stores in the brood box and with the returned wet supers. That, plus the clear evidence for some nectar being collected, means they should be OK.

National Honey monitoring Scheme

I have apiaries in different parts of Fife. The bees therefore forage in distinct areas and have access to a variety of different nectar sources.

It’s sometimes relatively easy to determine what they’ve been collecting nectar from – if the back of the thorax has a white(ish) stripe on it and it’s late summer they’re hammering the balsam, if they’ve got bags of yellow pollen and the bees are yellow and the fields all around are yellow it’s probably rape.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

But it might not be.

To be certain you need to analyse the pollen.

The old skool way of doing this is by microscopy. Honey – at least the top quality honey produced by local amateur beekeepers 7 – contains lots of pollen. Broadly speaking, the relative proportions of the different pollens – which can usually be distinguished microscopically – tells you the plants the nectar was collected from.

The cutting edge way to achieve the same thing in a fraction of the time (albeit at great expense) is to use so-called next generation sequencing to catalogue all the pollen present in the sample.

Pollen contains nucleic acid and the sequence of the nucleotides in the nucleic acid are uniquely characteristics of particular plant species. You can easily get both qualitative and quantitative data.

And this is exactly what the National Honey Monitoring Scheme is doing.

They use the data to monitor long-term changes in the condition and health of the countryside” but they provide the beekeeper’s involved with the information of pollen types and proportions in their honey.

National Honey Monitoring Scheme samples

Samples must be taken directly from capped comb. It’s a messy business. Fortunately the labelling on the sample bottles is waterproof so everything can be thoroughly rinsed before popping them into the post for future analysis.

I have samples analysed already from last year and will have spring and summer samples from a different apiary this season. I’ll write in the future about what the results look like, together with a more in-depth explanation of the technology used.

When I last checked you could still register to take part and have your own honey analysed.


Notes

Under (re)construction

Lockdown means there have been more visitors than ever to this site, with numbers up at least 75% over this time last year.

This, coupled with the need to upgrade some of the underlying software that keeps this site together, means I’m in the middle of moving to a bigger, faster, better (more expensive 🙁 ) server. I’m beginning to regret the bloat of wordpress over the lean and mean Hugo or Jekyll-type templating systems (and if this means nothing to you then I’m in good company) and may yet switch.

In the meantime, bear with me … there may be some broken links littering a few pages. If it looks and works really badly, clear your browser cache, re-check things and please send me an email using the link at the bottom of the right hand column.

Thank you