Category Archives: Moving colonies

Darwinian beekeeping

A fortnight ago I reviewed the first ten chapters of Thomas Seeley’s recent book The Lives of Bees. This is an excellent account of how honey bees survive in ‘the wild’ i.e. without help or intervention from beekeepers.

Seeley demonstrates an all-too-rare rare combination of good experimental science with exemplary communication skills.

It’s a book non-beekeepers could appreciate and in which beekeepers will find a wealth of entertaining and informative observations about their bees.

The final chapter, ‘Darwinian beekeeping’, includes an outline of practical beekeeping advice based around what Seeley (and others) understand about how colonies survive in the wild.

Differences

The chapter starts with a very brief review of about twenty differences between wild-living and managed colonies. These differences have already been introduced in the preceding chapters and so are just reiterated here to set the scene for what follows.

The differences defined by Seeley as distinguishing ‘wild’ and ‘beekeepers’ colonies cover everything from placement in the wider landscape (forage, insecticides), the immediate environment of the nest (volume, insulation), the management of the colony (none, invasive) and the parasites and pathogens to which the bees are exposed.

Some of the differences identified are somewhat contrived. For example, ‘wild’ colonies are defined fixed in a single location, whereas managed colonies may be moved to exploit alternative forage.

In reality I suspect the majority of beekeepers do not move their colonies. Whether this is right or not, Seeley presents moving colonies as a negative. He qualifies this with studies which showed reduced nectar gathering by colonies that are moved, presumably due to the bees having to learn about their new location.

However, the main reason beekeepers move colonies is to exploit abundant sources of nectar. Likewise, a static ‘wild’ colony may have to find alternative forage when a particularly good local source dries up.

If moving colonies to exploit a rich nectar source did not usually lead to increased nectar gathering it would be a pretty futile exercise.

Real differences

Of course, some of the differences are very real.

Beekeepers site colonies close together to facilitate their management. In contrast, wild colonies are naturally hundreds of metres apart 1. I’ve previously discussed the influence of colony separation and pathogen transmission 2; it’s clear that widely spaced colonies are less susceptible to drifting and robbing from adjacent hives, both processes being associated with mite and virus acquisition 3.

Abelo poly hives

50 metres? … I thought you said 50 centimetres. Can we use the next field as well?

The other very obvious difference is that wild colonies are not treated with miticides but managed colonies (generally) are. As a consequence – Seeley contends – beekeepers have interfered with the ‘arms race’ between the host and its parasites and pathogens. Effectively beekeepers have ‘weaken[ed] the natural selection for disease resistance’.

Whilst I don’t necessarily disagree with this general statement, I am not convinced that simply letting natural selection run its (usually rather brutal) course is a rational strategy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself … what is Darwinian beekeeping?

Darwinian beekeeping

Evolution is probably the most powerful force in nature. It has created all of the fantastic wealth of life forms on earth – from the tiniest viroid to to the largest living thing, Armillaria ostoyae 4. The general principles of Darwinian evolution are exquisitely simple – individuals of a species are not identical; traits are passed from generation to generation; more offspring are born than can survive; and only the survivors of the competition for resources will reproduce.

I emphasised ‘survivors of the competition’ as it’s particularly relevant to what is to follow. In terms of hosts and pathogens, you could extend this competition to include whether the host survives the pathogen (and so reproduces) or whether the pathogen replicates and spreads, but in doing so kills the host.

Remember that evolution is unpredictable and essentially directionless … we don’t know what it is likely to produce next.

Seeley doesn’t provide a precise definition of Darwinian beekeeping (which he also terms natural, apicentric or beefriendly beekeeping). However, it’s basically the management of colonies in a manner that more closely resembles how colonies live in the wild.

This is presumably unnnatural beekeeping

In doing so, he claims that colonies will have ‘less stressful and therefore more healthful’ lives.

I’ll come back to this point at the end. It’s an important one. But first, what does Darwinian mean in terms of practical beekeeping?

Practical Darwinian beekeeping

Having highlighted the differences between wild and managed colonies you won’t be surprised to learn that Darwinian beekeeping means some 5 or all of the following: 6

  • Keep locally adapted bees – eminently sensible and for which there is increasing evidence of the benefits.
  • Space colonies widely (30-50+ metres) – which presumably causes urban beekeepers significant problems.
  • Site colonies in an area with good natural forage that is not chemically treated – see above.
  • Use small hives with just one brood box and one super – although not explained, this will encourage swarming.
  • Consider locating hives high off the ground – in fairness Seeley doesn’t push this one strongly, but I could imagine beekeepers being considered for a Darwin Award if sufficient care wasn’t taken.
  • Allow lots of drone brood – this occurs naturally when using foundationless frames.
  • Use splits and the emergency queen response for queen rearing i.e. allow the colony to choose larvae for the preparation of new queens – I’ve discussed splits several times and have recently posted on the interesting observation that colonies choose very rare patrilines for queens.
  • Refrain from treating with miticides – this is the biggy. Do not treat colonies. Instead kill any colonies with very high mite levels to prevent them infesting other nearby colonies as they collapse and are robbed out.

Good and not so good advice

A lot of what Seeley recommends is very sound advice. Again, I’m not going to paraphrase his hard work – you should buy the book and make your own mind up.

Sourcing local bees, using splits to make increase, housing bees in well insulated hives etc. all works very well.

High altitude bait hive …

Some of the advice is probably impractical, like the siting of hives 50 metres apart. A full round of inspections in my research apiary already takes a long time without having to walk a kilometre to the furthest hive.

The prospect of inspecting hives situated at altitude is also not appealing. Negotiating stairs with heavy supers is bad enough. In my travels I’ve met beekeepers keeping hives on shed roofs, accessed by a wobbly step ladder. An accident waiting to happen?

And finally, I think the advice to use small hives and to cull mite-infested colonies is poor. I understand the logic behind both suggestions but, for different reasons, think they are likely to be to the significant detriment of bees, bee health and beekeeping.

Let’s deal with them individually.

Small hives – one brood and one super

When colonies run out of space for the queen to lay they are likely to swarm. The Darwinian beekeeping proposed by Seeley appears to exclude any form of swarm prevention strategy. Hive manipulation is minimal and queens are not clipped.

They’ll run out of space and swarm.

Even my darkest, least prolific colonies need more space than the ~60 litres offered by a brood and super.

Seeley doesn’t actually say ‘allow them to swarm’, but it’s an inevitability of the management and space available. Of course, the reason he encourages it is (partly – there are other reasons) to shed the 35% of mites and to give an enforced brood break to the original colony as it requeens.

These are untreated colonies. At least when starting the selection strategy implicit in Darwinian beekeeping these are likely to have a very significant level of mite infestation.

These mites, when the colony swarms, disappear over the fence with the swarm. If the swarm survives long enough to establish a new nest it will potentially act as a source of mites far and wide (through drifting and robbing, and possibly – though it’s unlikely as it will probably die – when it subsequently swarms).

A small swarm

A small swarm … possibly riddled with mites

Thanks a lot!

Lost swarms – and the assumption is that many are ‘lost’ – choose all sorts of awkward locations to establish a new nest site. Sure, some may end up in hollow trees, but many cause a nuisance to non-beekeepers and additional work for the beekeepers asked to recover them.

In my view allowing uncontrolled swarming of untreated colonies is irresponsible. It is to the detriment of the health of bees locally and to beekeepers and beekeeping.

Kill heavily mite infested colonies

How many beekeepers reading this have deliberately killed an entire colony? Probably not many. It’s a distressing thing to have to do for anyone who cares about bees.

The logic behind the suggestion goes like this. The colony is heavily mite infested because it has not developed resistance (or tolerance). If it is allowed to collapse it will be robbed out by neighbouring colonies, spreading the mites far and wide. Therefore, tough love is needed. Time for the petrol, soapy water, insecticide or whatever your choice of colony culling treatment.

In fairness to Seeley he also suggests that you could requeen with known mite-resistant/tolerant stock.

But most beekeepers tempted by Darwinian ‘treatment free’ natural beekeeping will not have a queen bank stuffed with known mite-resistant mated queens ‘ready to go’.

But they also won’t have the ‘courage’ to kill the colony.

They’ll procrastinate, they’ll prevaricate.

Eventually they’ll either decide that shaking the colony out is OK and a ‘kinder thing to do’ … or the colony will get robbed out before they act and carpet bomb every strong colony for a mile around.

Killing the colony, shaking it out or letting it get robbed out have the same overall impact on the mite-infested colony, but only slaying them prevents the mites from being spread far and wide.

And, believe me, killing a colony is a distressing thing to do if you care about bees.

In my view beefriendly beekeeping should not involve slaughtering the colony.

Less stress and better health

This is the goal of Darwinian beekeeping. It is a direct quote from final chapter of the book (pp286).

The suggestion is that unnatural beekeeping – swarm prevention and control, mite management, harvesting honey (or beekeeping as some people call it 😉 ) – stresses the bees.

And that this stress is detrimental for the health of the bees.

I’m not sure there’s any evidence that this is the case.

How do we measure stress in bees? Actually, there are suggested ways to measure stress in bees, but I’m not sure anyone has systematically developed these experimentally and compared the stress levels of wild-living and managed colonies.

I’ll explore this topic a bit more in the future.

I do know how to measure bee health … at least in terms of the parasites and pathogens they carry. I also know that there have been comparative studies of managed and feral colonies.

Unsurprisingly for an unapologetic unnatural beekeeper like me ( 😉 ), the feral colonies had higher levels of parasites and pathogens (Catherine Thompson’s PhD thesis [PDF] and Thompson et al., 2014 Parasite Pressures on Feral Honey Bees). By any measurable definition these feral colonies were less healthy.

Less stress and better health sounds good, but I’m not actually sure it’s particularly meaningful.

I’ll wrap up with two closing thoughts.

One of the characteristics of a healthy and unstressed population is that it is numerous, productive and reproduces well. These are all characteristics of strong and well-managed colonies.

Finally, persistently elevated levels of pathogens are detrimental to the individual and the population. It’s one of the reasons we vaccinate … which will be a big part of the post next week.


 

More local bee goodness?

Before the wind-down to the end of the year and the inevitable review of the season I thought I’d write a final post apparently supporting the benefits of local bees. This is based on a recently published paper from the USA 1 that tests whether local bees perform better than non-local stocks.

However, in my view the study is incomplete and – whilst broadly supportive – needs further work before it can really be seen as an example of better performing local bees. I suspect there’s actually a different explanation for their results … that also demonstrates the benefits of local bees.

This is a follow-up to a post three weeks ago that provided evidence that:

  1. Colonies derived from different geographic regions show physiological adaptations (presumably reflecting underlying genetic differences) that seem pretty logical e.g. bees from Saskatchewan express more proteins involved in heat production, whereas Hawaiian bees show higher levels of protein turnover (which would make sense if they had evolved locally to have high metabolic rates).
  2. In a study by Büchler, European colonies survived better overwinter in their local environment; a fact subsequently attributed to the colonies being stronger going into the winter. In turn, this agrees with a recent study that clearly demonstrates the correlation between overwintering success and colony strength.

I suggest re-reading 2 that post as I’m going to try and avoid too much repetition here.

Strong colonies

Strong colonies overwinter better and – if you’re interested in that sort of thing – are much more likely to generate a profit for your honey sales.

So how can you ensure strong colonies at the end of the season?

What influences colony strength?

One thing is colony health. A healthy colony is much more likely to be a strong colony.

In the ambitious 600-colony Büchler study in Europe they didn’t do any disease management. The colonies were monitored over ~2.5 years during which time 84% of colonies perished, at least half due to the ravages of Varroa.

Clearly this is not sustainable beekeeping and doesn’t properly reflect standard beekeeping practices.

Study details

The recent Burnham study makes a nice comparison to the Büchler study.

It was conducted in New York State using 40 balanced 3 colonies requeened in late May.

Queens were sourced from California (~4000 km west) or Vermont (~200km east in the neighbouring state, and therefore considered ‘local’) and colonies were assigned queens randomly.

Unlike some previous studies the authors did not evidence the genetic differences between queens.

A local queen

A local queen

However, the queens looked dissimilar and the stocks were sourced from colonies established in California or Vermont for at least 10-15 generations. I think we can be reasonably confident that the queens were sufficiently distinct to be relevant for the tests being conducted.

Colonies were maintained using standard beekeeping practices, Varroa levels were managed using formic acid (MAQS for European readers) and the colony weight and productivity (frames of bees) was quantified, as was the pathogen load.

In contrast to the Büchler study, Burnham and colleagues only followed colonies over one beekeeping summer season. This was not a test of overwintering survival, but mid-season development.

Results

The take-home message is that colonies headed by the ‘local’ Vermont queens did better. The colonies got heavier faster and brood levels built up better.

Bigger, faster, stronger …

It’s notable that colony weight built up before any brood would have emerged from the new queen (upper panel) and that brood level in colonies headed by the local queen recovered much better after formic acid treatment (arrow in lower panel).

Nosema levels

However, Nosema levels were significantly different (above) as were the levels of Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV; below).

Virus loads (DWV, BQCV and IAPV)

There were no significant differences in the Varroa loads before or after treatment (not shown), or in the levels of DWV or Black Queen Cell Virus (BQCV).

Taken together – bigger, heavier, stronger colonies and lower pathogen loads (at least of some pathogens) – seems good evidence to support the contention that local bees are beneficial.

The benefits are precisely what you want for good overwintering – strong, healthy colonies.

That’s a slam-dunk then?

Case proven?

No.

IAPV is a virus rarely detected in the UK. It causes persistent and systemic infections in honey bees and can be found in every caste (drones, workers, queens) and at every stage of the life cycle.

As IAPV is detectable in eggs and larvae – neither of which are Varroa-exposed – it is assumed to be vertically transmitted from the queen. IAPV is also found in the ovaries of the queen, which is additional evidence for vertical transmission.

At the first timepoint (12 days post requeening) the levels of IAPV are different between the two colony types, but not significantly so. However, by 40 days (T2) the levels are very different. At this later timepoint all the bees in the colony will be have come from the introduced queen.

The authors explain the differences in IAPV levels in terms of local bees being more resistant to ‘local’ pathogens … in much the same way that Pizarro’s 168 conquistadors, being more resistant to smallpox, defeated the might of the Inca Empire with the help of the virus diseases they inadvertently introduced to Peru.

I suspect there’s another explanation.

Perhaps the Californian queens were IAPV infected from the outset?

If this was the case they could introduce a new and virulent strain of IAPV to the research colonies and – over time – the levels would increase as more and more workers in the colony were derived from the new queen. IAPV is present in ~20% of US colonies so it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest it might have been largely absent from the Vermont queens and the test colonies, but present in the queens introduced from California.

How should they have tested that?

The obvious thing to do would be to characterise the IAPV present in the colony. IAPV shows geographic variation across the USA. If the predominant virus was of Californian origin it would suggest it was brought in with the queen. This is a relatively easy test to conduct … a sort of 23andme to determine bee virus provenance.

Alternatively, though less conclusively, you could do the experiment the other way round … ship Vermont queens to California and compare their performance with colonies headed by Californian queens on their own territory. If the Californian queens again performed less well it undermines the ‘local bees do better’ argument and suggests another explanation should be sought.

Nosema is sexually transmitted but it is not vertically transmitted, so the same arguments cannot be made there. Why the Nosema levels drop so convincingly in colonies headed by the local queens is unclear. Nosema was present at the start of the study and was lost over time in the stronger colonies headed by the local queens.

One possibility of course is that the stronger colonies were better fed – more workers, more foragers, more pollen, more nectar. Improved diet leads to a more active and effective immune system and an increased ability to combat pathogens. Simplistic certainly, but it is known that diet influences pathogen resistance and colony performance.

So what does this paper show?

I suspect it doesn’t directly show what the authors claim (in the title) … that local queens head colonies with lower pathogen levels.

This largely reflects the lack of proper or complete controls. However, it does not mean that local bees are not better.

More than anything I think this paper demonstrates the impact queen quality has on colony performance.

Perhaps the Vermont-sourced queens were just better queens. Local certainly (on a USA scale definition of the word local), but not better because they were local, just better because they were better.

However, if my interpretation of the source of the IAPV is correct i.e. introduced from the Californian queens, I think the paper indirectly demonstrates one of the most compelling reasons why local bees are preferable.

If they’re local – your apiary, your neighbours, someone in your association – there is little chance they will be bringing with them some unwanted baggage in the form of an undetected exotic pathogen.

Or a more virulent strain of one already circulating relatively benignly.

Extensive bee movements, whether of queens, packages or full colonies, risks spreading parasites and pathogens.

There is compelling evidence that hosts and pathogens co-evolve to reduce the pathogenicity of the interaction. Naive hosts are always more susceptible to introduced pathogens, or novel strains of pre-existing pathogens. After all, look what happened to the Peruvian Inca when they met the measles- and smallpox-ridden conquistadors.

So, when thinking about the claims being made by bee importers (or, for that matter, strong advocates of local bee breeding), it’s worth considering all of the factors at play – queen quality per se, genetic adaptation of the queen to the local environment and the potential for the introduction of novel pathogens with introduced non-local stock.

And that’s before you also consider the benefits to your beekeeping of being self-sufficient and not reliant on others to produce your stocks.

I never said it was simple 😉


 

Keeping track

It’s mid-May and the beekeeping season in Fife has segued from the early spring ‘phoney war’, where there’s not enough to do, to an earlier-than-normal swarming season where there’s not enough time to do everything needed.

I’ve got more colonies than ever, spread across three apiaries. Work, home and the Naughty Corner 1.

Numbered nuc and production colonies.

I’ve previously written about that stage in a beekeepers ‘career’ when he or she makes the transition from struggling to keep one colony to struggling to keep up with all the bees they have.

Some never achieve this transition.

Most can with suitable help, support and perseverance.

Others are ‘naturals’ – what’s the equivalent of green-fingered for beekeeping? Sticky fingered (er, probably not) or perhaps propolis-fingered? Whatever, these new beginners smoothly progress to a level of competency well above the norm.

Struggling to keep

Beekeeping is easy in principle, but subtly nuanced in practice. The enthusiastic beginner can struggle. They lose their first colony in the first winter. They buy another, it swarms and throws off several casts and they end up queenless in mid-season. A new queen is purchased, but too late for the main nectar flow.

No honey again 🙁

And, it turns out, too late to build up the colony to get through the winter 🙁

Thoroughly demoralised now, they are resigned to more of the same or giving up altogether.

The overwintered nuc of fashionably dark native bees they ordered from Bob’s Craptastic Bees 2 fails to materialise 3.

As does the refund of the £35 deposit 🙁

The empty hive sits forlornly in a patch of weeds at the end of the garden, smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises.

Smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises

And, in mid-May, a huge prime swarm moves in 🙂

The beekeeper has never seen so many bees in their life 4. How on earth do all those bees manage to squeeze into that little box?

Following advice from their new mentor, the beekeeper gently slides 11 frames into the box and is encouraged to treat for Varroa before there is any sealed brood. Considering their previous experience things go surprisingly well, not least because the bees have a lovely temperament.

The bees ignore, or at least gracefully tolerate, the beekeeper’s novice fumblings. Instead they single-mindedly focus on drawing comb, rearing brood and collecting nectar.

Struggling to keep up with

The summer is long and warm, with just enough rain to keep the nectar flowing. The hive gets taller as supers are added. By autumn there’s enough honey for friends and family and a partially capped super to leave for the bees.

The bees are lovely to work with and the confidence and competence of the beekeeper improves further.

After overwintering well, the colony builds up strongly again and by mid-May of the following year the beekeeper has used the nucleus method for swarm control and now has two hives. The bees remain calm, steady on the comb, well tempered and prolific.

Very prolific.

By the end of this second ‘proper’ year the beekeeper has two full colonies and a nuc to overwinter.

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

And so it goes on.

With good bees, good weather, a determination to succeed and supportive training and mentoring the problem should be keeping up with the bees, not keeping them at all.

Stock improvement

Some bees are better than others. Once you have more than one colony – and you should always have at least two – you start to see differences in behaviour and performance.

Frugal colonies overwinter on minimum levels of stores and, if fed properly, don’t need a fondant topup in Spring.

Well behaved colonies are steady on the comb, only get protective when mishandled and don’t follow you around for 200 yards pinging off your veil.

Some bees are great at making more bees but promptly eat all their stores as soon as the weather takes a downturn. Others regularly need three supers per brood box 5.

These traits become apparent over the course of a season and, of course, are diligently recorded in your hive notes 😉

Primarily these characteristics are determined by the genetics of the bees.

Which means you can improve your stock by culling poor queens and uniting colonies and expanding – by splitting or queen rearing – your better bees.

Keeping track

And in between the swarming, splitting, uniting, moving and re-queening the overworked (but now hugely more experienced) beekeeper needs to keep track of everything.

Or, if not everything, then the things that matter.

Which bees are in which box, where that old but good queen was placed for safety while the hive requeened, which box did the overwintered nuc get moved to?

I’ve discussed the importance of record keeping a few years ago 6. I still score colonies by objective (e.g. levels of stores, frames of brood, number of supers added) and subjective (e.g. temper/defensiveness, steadiness on the frame, following) criteria.

This takes just a minute or so. I don’t write an essay, just a simple series of numbers or ticks, followed if necessary by a short statement “Skinny queen, laying rate ⇓, demaree’d” or “Nuc swarm ctrl. O charged QC on W • frame. Knock rest off in 7 days. Emergence ~24th”.

Objective and subjective notes

I still use pretty much the same hive record sheet for these notes (available here as a PDF) as it has served me well.

Numbering colonies, hives, boxes and queens

What hasn’t served me so well are the numbers painted on the side of some of my hives.

These were supposed to help me identify which colony was which when I’m reading my notes or in the apiary.

Trivial in the overall scheme of things I know, but as colony numbers have increase and my memory goes in the opposite direction I’ve realised that numbers painted on boxes can be limiting.

For example:

  • The colony expands from single to double brood. There are now two numbers on the hive. Which do you use?
  • You do a Bailey comb change, consequently changing one brood box for another. Do you record the changed number or continue to refer to it by the old number?
  • You use the nucleus method of swarm control. The nuc is numbered. All good. The nuc expands and has to be moved into a hive. It’s the same colony 7, does the number change? It has to if the numbers are painted on the boxes.
  • Some hives seem to have never been numbered (or the number has worn off) in the first place. These end up being named ‘The pale cedar box’ or ‘Glued Denrosa’. Distinctive, but not necessarily memorable.

And that’s before we’ve even considered keeping track of queens. For work (and for some aspects of practical beekeeping) queens are sometimes moved.

“Easy” some would say. The characteristics of the colony are primarily due to their genetics. These are determined by the queen. The hive number moves with the queen.

It’s easy to move a queen. It’s a bit more work to move the 60,000 bees she’s left behind to free up the numbered box to accompany her.

More work yes, but not impossible 8.

OK, what about a colony that goes queenless and then rears a new queen? If the logic of hive/colony=queen prevails then logically the requeened colony should be renumbered.

There has to be a better way to do this.

Numbered boxes and numbered queens

I purchased some waterproof plastic numbered cards and some small red engraved disks 9. Both are designed for identifying tables in pubs or restaurants.

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

I use the plastic card numbers to identify colonies. These accompany the bees and brood if they move from one apiary to another, or as colonies are split and/or united. It’s the colony I inspect, so this provides the relevant geographic reference and is the thing I’m writing about to when my notes state “Nuc swarm ctrl. O charged QC on W • frame. Knock rest off in 7 days. Emergence ~24th”.

I use the red numbers to identify the queen. A queenless colony will therefore have no red disk on it.

When a nuc is promoted to a full hive the number moves with it. If the colony swarms and  requeens, one red number is ‘retired’ and a new one is applied.

My notes carry both the colony number and the queen number. I have a separate record of queens, with some more generic comments about the performance of the colonies they head.

Colony and queen numbering

The numbers are sold in 50’s … I use them at random 10. About half of them are in use at the moment.

If queen rearing goes well, swarming goes badly or things get out of hand, numbers 51-100 and engraved black disks are also available 😉

Finally, to make life a little simpler I bought a box of stainless steel 11 map pins. These are easy to grip with a gloved hand and don’t need to be prised out with a hive tool. They have the additional advantage of being short enough to not project beyond the handhold recess on the sides of most hive boxes so they can be pushed together if they’re being moved.

I’ve got no excuse for mix-ups now… 😉


 

 

 

We’re moving …

The Apiarist is moving to a new server in the next few days. It’s possible that there might be a little disruption but – going by the access statistics – most beekeepers are now fixated either on the dregs of the Black Friday sales, or the run up to Christmas.

We're moving ...

We’re moving …

To try and make the transition as seamless as possible I’ve closed comments on this and future posts on the current site and will re-open them on the new site as soon as all the changes are in place 1.

Why?

Speed, space, cost and to satisfy the inner geek in me. But mainly speed and cost, or cost and speed depending how things go.

Or speed alone … or cost alone if things go worse than I’d hoped  🙄

What’s new?

There will (or at least should) be a few differences.

  • The first time you access the new site you should be offered a relatively discrete privacy notice about cookies and personal information. OK it (Accept and Close) and you shouldn’t see it again for about a year … unless you use multiple computers.
  • The web address will (eventually) have an https:// rather than http:// prefix. All this means is that information is encrypted when you fill forms in. You shouldn’t need to make any changes to bookmarks or anything else, it should all be handled automagically. Some over-protective web browsers (Chrome in particular) report that the current site/servers ‘are not secure’ (it is, for what it does … I don’t take credit card orders). Google also uses https as a ranking factor, so searches that find stuff here should move from page 232 to the heady heights of page 187  😥
  • There are a few additional behind-the-scenes changes. If these break anything I’ve overlooked drop me an email via the ‘contact’ page and I’ll try and rescue things.

Thank you for your patience.

What? No beekeeping?

Well, almost none. I’ve been doing quite a few winter evening talks and particularly enjoyed the excellent lemon drizzle cake at Fortingall and District beekeepers recently  😀  Next week I’m at Dunblane and Stirling beekeepers on Tuesday and then with Arran beekeepers on Thursday.

I hope they’re both busy baking 😉

I’ve got your number

However, back to the topics of moving and beekeeping … I’ve just received two sets of numbers for hive and queen labelling next season 2.

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

I manage hives in two to three apiaries which, for work purposes, sometimes get moved about during the year. Even more mobile are some of the queens which – for reasons that are too complicated to explain here – might start the season in one hive, spend some time in a nuc midsummer and end the season heading another colony altogether 3.

Keeping track of the hives and the queens was a bit of a nightmare this year. To (hopefully) improve things I’m going to label occupied hives – both production colonies and nucs – with a unique number. In addition, using a separate distinct number, I will “label” the queens in the hives.

The hive number moves with the hive (or at least the brood box) and the queen number will be changed when the queen is moved or the colony is requeened.

What could possibly go wrong?


Colophon

The phrase to “have (got) someone’s number” means to understand someone There’s perhaps a subtle threat in the meaning … effectively “You can’t fool me … and if you try to I know what to do”.

>3 feet and <3 miles

My original bee shed and the new bee shed are about 500 yards apart. There were at least eight colonies that needed to be relocated to the palatial new facility.

En route there was a precariously narrow scaffold plank footbridge, two (not particularly passively) aggressive swans, a large flooded field and a steep earth bank. Thanks to Buster, my trusty hivebarrow, none of these physical barriers were any impediment whatsoever.

Swan ...

Swan …

What potentially caused the problem was that the apiaries were only separated by 500 yards.

Moving colonies: the usual advice

The usual advice when moving colonies is that it is OK to shift the hive less than three feet or more than three miles.

Less than three feet because the final approach to the hive involves the appearance and smell of the colony. Flying bees that have orientated to the hive in their early flights return to the general location using obvious landmarks, but make the final approach using very local features and the characteristic odour of the colony. Just moving the hive 2-3 feet doesn’t change these local features or odour, so the bees very rapidly find the hive entrance.

The bees cope very well with moving the hive forwards or backwards and slightly less well with lateral movements.

It’s worth noting that the hive entrance should remain facing the same way for this to work. If you reverse a hive it does disorientate the bees though they find the new entrance eventually. This is exploited during vertical splits to separate flying bees with the queen.

More than three miles because the maximum foraging distance is probably a bit less than three miles. Therefore, if the hive is moved further away, all of the familiar landmarks will have disappeared and the bees have no choice but to reorientate to their new location.

In practice I’ve regularly moved hives just a couple of miles without issue. These distances aren’t set in stone.

Intermediate distances

But what about intermediate distances? For example, the swan-infested, wobbly-bridged and paddy field-like 500 yards separating my two bee sheds?

The recommended solution to these intermediate distances is to move the colonies to a distant apiary (3+ miles away) for a week or so, then move them back to their final destination. The bees are forced to reorientate, do so, ‘forget’ their original location and then are forced to reorientate again to their final location.

A totally foolproof and absolutely reliable solution to the problem.

And a lot of work.

However, in high summer with good weather and a large force of foraging bees, this is the method I usually use. I’d fit insect mesh travel screens, seal up the colonies late at night or very early in the morning, move them away for a week and then repeat the entire rigamarole to get them to their final location.

Hard physical work, lots of lifting and long days 1.

Alternatively you could move them a yard a day … but that’s only practical over very short distances

Or, more accurately, only bearable over very short distances.

Flat platform ...

Flat platform …

If you’re going to attempt this incremental migration I strongly recommend a hivebarrow with a level platform. No lifting every day. Simply push it another yard across the garden … day after day after day after day.

But this is a typical Scottish Spring …

It’s cold. Very cold at times.

It’s wet. Sometimes wet rain and sometimes wet snow.

Although the colonies are building up they are still relatively small. Because of the weather they don’t get out foraging every day. When they do it’s for an hour or two at most.

With a reasonably accurate weather forecast and careful timing it is possible to take advantage of this to move colonies intermediate distances with no problems.

Early April weather ...

Early April weather …

The Easter weekend was predicted to serve up the usual depressingly poor weather we expect on Bank Holidays. Other than Sunday we were promised intermittent rain or sleet from the Friday to at least the Tuesday.

In contrast, the Thursday before Easter was good with the bees foraging well, though it cooled quite quickly in mid/late afternoon. Importantly, inside the hives, the colonies remained active … they weren’t tightly clustered. I would avoid moving bees that are tightly clustered in very cold weather 2.

Moving in day

The new bee shed was prepared with clean floors for all the colonies that were being moved. The entrances were loosely stuffed with dried grass. The tyre on the hivebarrow was reinflated and I rummaged around in the bee bag to find some ratchet straps to hold things together.

Using just a puff of smoke at the entrance to clear any lingering bees I lifted a colony off its old stand and gently placed it on the hivebarrow. I sealed the entrance with foam3, strapped the hive securely together and then strapped the hive to the hivebarrow.

I then negotiated the flooded field, the stroppy swans, the wobbly bridge across the burn and the earth bank.

Each hive was placed on the floor of the new shed and left to settle while I fetched the remaining colonies.

Moving in day ...

Moving in day …

Finally, after 45 minutes or so, I gave each colony a tiny waft of smoke through the OMF to move the bees up, gently split the brood box from the old floor and lifted the hives onto their new floors.

Hardly a single bee escaped during the entire process … and I wasn’t savaged by the swans.

Settling in

Dried grass ...

Dried grass …

The hives were reassuringly heavy so had sufficient stores. Friday delivered sleet and temperatures no higher than 3°C. The bees stayed warm and snug in the shed. Saturday was particularly rubbish. Sunday was better, but the grass blocking the entrance – now drying in the breeze and weak sunshine – still restrained them. Monday was poor again … by which time they should have forgotten about the original shed. I removed the remainder of the grass on Monday. A few bees appeared, confirmed that the weather was rubbish and quickly returned to the shed.

As I write this the weather is promising to warm up in a week or so, but it’s still unsettled. Any bees venturing out in this first full week of April will be forced to reorientate. They’ll have the brightly painted landing boards to help their final approach.

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

There are still a few more hives to move. Since I need to rearrange colonies between out apiaries for the season ahead I’ll do this by simply swapping distant colonies about.


Colophon

The > (greater than) and < (less than) mathematical symbols were – surprisingly (to me at least) – first used almost 400 years ago. Thomas Harriot, in his snappily titled bestselling treatise on ‘The Analytical Arts Applied to Solving Algebraic Equations’ 4 stated “Signum majoritatis ut a > b significet a majorem quam b” and “Signum minoritatis ut a < b significet a minorem quam b”. Or something like that 😉 Since then, and particularly since the introduction of the computer and programming languages, the greater and less than symbols have been used for a multitude of other things, not least of which is as integral components of the markup tags used in HTML. This controls the appearance of text and links on the web and explains why the page title does not display properly on the tab of my Safari web browser.

HTML fail, though not too epic.

HTML fail, though not too epic.

 

Travel screens

Stressed bees trapped inside a hive generate large amounts of heat which can result in the comb melting and collapsing. If you are moving colonies any distance, for example between distant apiaries (or even nearby apiaries if it’s a warm day), it is really important to provide ample ventilation to the hive.

Abelo hives in transit ...

Abelo hives in transit …

The usual way to do this is to use travel screens. These consist of a wooden-framed metal mesh which is used in place of a crownboard. With a sealed entrance, an open mesh floor and a travel screen, the hive is securely and safely closed up for transport, but air still can circulate freely. On long journeys or particularly hot days (which can be avoided by moving bees at night) water can be poured or sprayed through the mesh travel screen to further aid cooling of the colony.

Moving day

Late evening in the apiary

Late evening in the apiary

I often end up moving colonies in midsummer, either distributing splits to new apiaries or taking my strongest colonies to good areas of forage to exploit the summer flow. Colonies are strapped up during the day and moved either very late in the evening or very early the following morning. This timing ensures that all the flyers are back before sealing the hive and that colonies are moved during the coolest part of the day. In June in Fife this means after 10pm or before 4am if the weather is good.

Nevertheless, despite my moving hives annually, the travel screens would only be in use for a few hours a year. The rest of the time they are simply in the way.

Be flexible

For this reason I don’t use wooden-framed travel screens. I’m not prepared to pay the £15-17 the commercial suppliers charge for something that will languish on top of a stack of supers in storage for almost the entire year.

Instead of framed travel screens I use fibreglass insect mesh (search eBay for that phrase and choose the cheapest – I bet they’re all the same). This is very strong and hardwearing, relatively inexpensive and available by the roll or in a range of sizes. It’s easily cut with strong scissors and you can therefore prepare customs sizes for full hives or nucs. I cut the mesh a few centimetres oversize to allow it to be securely attached to the hive.

I bought mine from eBay a few years ago. Current prices work out at about £1.25 a hive depending on the quantity ordered. It’s usually cut for you from a 1.2 metre wide roll and sold by the metre. Each metre gives you four National-sized travel screens and some offcuts.

Straps or staples

Colonies in transit should be securely strapped – both together and to stop the hive moving in the event of an accident. For full hives I use straps and an eke to hold the mesh in place.

Travel screen mesh and eke

Travel screen mesh and eke …

For nucs, or when I run out of ekes, I staple the mesh in place to keep it secure.

Mesh and staples

The mesh is similar to the stuff sold by Thorne’s to collect propolis (at over £3 a sheet). If left in place for a long period the bees will start to seal the holes up. If you want the propolis put the mesh in a bag in a freezer and scrunch it up to release the frozen propolis.

Foam blocks

While we’re on the subject of transporting hives it’s worth mentioning that the frames must be aligned with the direction of travel. If they’re not, there’s a danger that bees will be crushed as the frames move with the acceleration and deceleration of the car.

You also need to prevent the frames from moving laterally. In a National box, unless heavily propolised, there’s usually space for 11 frames and a dummy board. However, that still leaves a bit of additional space.

On a long journey or on rough roads these can shiggle apart. This causes two problems. Firstly there’s a chance that bees will be crushed as the frames swing from side to side. Secondly, since you won’t be opening the top of the hives immediately upon arrival (the bees need to reorientate rather than have their roof unceremoniously whipped off after the long journey) there’s a chance the bees will build brace comb in the gaps.

Foam block ...

Foam block …

I use closed cell foam blocks wedged tightly into the gap between the dummy board and the side wall – one on each side in line with the side bars of the frames. This keeps everything stable and the blocks can be removed when you first inspect the colony after moving. With nucs, where there’s less to move about, or with very inflexible dummy boards, you can get away with a single block wedged tightly half way along the top bar.

Nuc prepared for transport

Nuc prepared for transport …

If you use Langstroth-sized nucs with integral feeders (like the Thorne’s Everynuc) to allow National frames to fit then it helps to also nail a cross bar over the feeder to stop the frames shifting backwards and forwards during transit.

 

Mobile beekeeping

After the recent long posts on DIY foundationless frames using bamboo skewers, starter strips and hive autopsies, something in a slightly lighter vein this week.

Migratory beekeeping is the term used for moving your bees to places where they are needed e.g. to California for almond pollination, or moving your bees to crops or forage for the nectar – and hence honey – they will collect e.g. taking your bees to the heather.

About 75% of all the colonies in North America are used for almond pollination. This is the largest managed pollination event in the world, with colonies being ‘rented’ for about $200 for the 4-6 week pollination period before being shipped off to pollinate other crops in a near year-long clockwise rotation round North America.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the beekeeper who, at unholy-o’clock sometime in early August, loads a couple of sealed colonies into the car and drives them up to the moors in the hope that the rains hold off and the bees can collect enough nectar for a few jars of heather honey.

There’s more than one way to do it

Here’s the last of the photos that Calum sent me a couple of months ago – a mobile bee caravan in Germany. I love the way it’s simply parked on what looks like the village green, with a bit of tape stretched around it to keep people at a safe distance.

Bee caravan

Bee caravan …

Lorry loads ...

Lorry loads …

It might be a bit small and poorly lit to conduct inspections inside and the photo seems to show the beekeeper looking at a frame standing outside, behind the caravan. However, the simplicity of being able to hitch it to the car and drive off to take advantage of better forage is really appealing. The ‘top opening’ hive we’re familiar with may not be ideal for these types of small trailers where headroom can be limited. One solution is to use a hive that opens from the rear, such as the AZ hive from Slovenia. The AZ acronym is derived from Anton Žnideršič (1874-1947), a famous Slovenian beekeeper and inventor of the hive and hive house. There’s a comprehensive introduction to this hive type by Mark Chorba available online (large PDF) which discusses the benefits (and disadvantages) … and has some excellent illustrations including the truck for mobile beekeeping shown on the right.

While we’re on the topic of mobile beekeeping, I discovered this (poor quality) video of someone moving a hive to the moors … by bicycle. I know one or two beekeepers who travel between apiaries by bike, but this shows a tremendous level of dedication. And strength.

Can you imagine the return journey after a successful early autumn on the heather? The hive, now weighed down by a couple of filled supers, together with the descent from the moors, means you’d need forearms like Popeye to use the brakes and maintain control.

Mobile extracting

In addition to mobile beekeeping using a bike trailer there’s now mobile extracting using a trailer. The snappily-named International Honey Product Ltd. make a 120 frame mobile extractor (jump to ~36s. to skip the intro).

Although there are a few bees flying around inside the trailer in the video it’s not the orgy of robbing you might expect. Apparently this is because the entrances and exits have air curtains that effectively separate the two environments. Clever.

They claim to be able to process over three thousand pounds of honey an hour, so I’ll need to scale up a bit before being able to justify the purchase.

For the moment my mobile beekeeping is restricted to my hivebarrow

 

Apiary moves

When I moved to Fife this summer I didn’t have space properly arranged in advance for my bees – poor planning I acknowledge, but there were quite a few other things I was juggling with at the time. The garden at the new house was just about big enough for a bait hive but I had a number of offers from friends and I had a plot provisionally agreed for my research apiary. However, until these various sites were ready I accepted a generous offer from my local association to ‘squat’ in one of their shared apiaries.

Shared apiary ...

Shared apiary …

This worked very well … I dumped the majority of the hives and nucs early one morning after driving up overnight in mid-July and pretty-much left them to it. The weather in July was very poor, but August picked up considerably. In the intervening period I had to move a few nucs up to full size boxes, I treated for Varroa by OA vaporisation and I fed them up for the winter on fondant. I even got a small amount of honey from a couple of the colonies during a good flow in August. In the meantime I prepared other apiaries, in particular the space for my research colonies. This included a “bee house” – a substantial shed with holes cut in the wall – in which some colonies were to be housed.

Double brood ...

Double brood …

With winter fast approaching and the hives at about their heaviest since they’re now packed with stores (D’oh! … more poor planning) the apiaries were finally ready and I spent a few hours moving colonies about. Buster, my trusty hivebarrow, proved invaluable when shifting colonies. As usual I underestimated the time (yet more poor planning – theres a pattern emerging here) it would take to seal up the entrances, strap the hives together, load them into the car, drive the 15 or so miles separating the temporary and new apiaries and unload everything … meaning I was left moving the last hives in the dark. Note to self: remember that bees are attracted to light when removing the entrance block and wearing a head torch 🙁

Entrance block

Entrance block …

As an aside, the majority of my hives have so-called underfloor entrances, which are sometimes called kewl floors, in which the aperture is a very narrow slot. The easiest way to securely seal these is to make a simple ‘L’ shaped block from softwood, nailed or stapled together, with one piece of wood a full 18″ long (i.e. spanning the full width of the National hive). This can be simply slotted into the entrance and held in place with a couple of short screws at either end … totally secure and foolproof. These are also useful when using OA sublimation, and are certainly faster and more secure than using a hive tool to wedge foam into the entrance.

And that’s more or less the end of the beekeeping year as far as I’m concerned. I have a few more hives to move and a couple of nucs to squeeze into the bee shed. After that it’s just a case of jarring some honey for Christmas, making another batch of mead, reviewing the season and planning for 2016.

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

Imports

Planning

Planning …

Last week I moved more than a dozen colonies to Fife where I’m going to be living and working from the beginning of August. Due to the vagaries of queen rearing this year this was slightly fewer than I’d intended, but – for one person doing all the heavy lifting – was still a reasonable amount of work and a bit of a logistical nightmare (they were spread over 4 different apiaries and were in three different sized boxes). There was also the large piles of additional boxes – supers, broods, a variety of poly nucs, stands, ekes etc. that needed to make the trip.

Rather than use framed travel screens I simply stapled plastic insect netting across the top of all the boxes. This is available by the metre at a reasonable price and can easily be cut to size with a Stanley knife. I took a variety of boxes – 5 and 8 frame poly nucs and four full Nationals, two of which were on double broods. Some of the nucs were expanding so fast I was moving them up to 8 or 11 frame boxes in the week preceding the move. All were on open mesh floors.

A combination of the incorrect sized van being delivered, a large desk making the same trip and a stack of stands and other equipment – floors, supers, roofs etc. – made for a sort of Rubic’s cube packing puzzle. However, late in the evening everything was aboard and secure, although one colony had to sit on the passenger seat. The near 400 mile overnight journey was straightforward, with a single stop midway. It was a cool evening – one of the reasons for travelling overnight, the other being the “sheer weight of traffic” on the M6 – but I still sprayed water over the mesh tops of the hives in the car park of the Tebay service station at about 2am.

 

After arriving and a brief nap I arranged the colonies in temporary apiaries. The travel screens worked well and it was an easy job to prise the staples out of the poly nucs. It was less easy on the cedar boxes and I think a better solution would be to hold the mesh in place with a spare eke, strapped down tight, or perhaps simply pin the overhang down round the sides.

A local queen

A local queen

Are these local bees or are they imports? They’re not local to Fife, that’s for sure, but they’re a damn sight more local than something flown in from the other side of Europe. Some of my stocks are grafted from larvae derived from Colonsay queens but the majority are mongrels, selected on the criteria important to me; temper, health, steadiness. The climate in Fife isn’t hugely different to the Midlands in terms of overall rainfall, average temperatures etc. It’s a bit cooler and quite a bit windier, so it will be interesting to see how they perform in the run up to winter, and how they build up again for the 2016 season.

 

Hivebarrow

Bee bag and hivebarrow ...

Bee bag and hivebarrow …

Beekeeping involves a lot of lifting and carrying. In a good season this hopefully includes removing supers full of honey for extraction, each weighing perhaps 30 lb or more. Carrying these any distance is hard work, and carrying them over rough ground in a full beesuit on a hot day is crippling. Carrying a full hive, alone, any distance is also a thorough test of back, shoulder and arm strength. To make these tasks easier you could:

  • avoid apiaries you can’t get near to in a car
  • buy a Landrover
  • recruit a strong friend to help

All highly commendable, but not necessarily achievable. An alternative is to build a hivebarrow.

Wheelbarrow

B&Q wheelbarrow

Beg, borrow or steal a wheelbarrow (or even buy one, in which case get one with a galvanised frame). The condition of the tray is immaterial, but the frame should be sound. For rough or muddy ground a wheelbarrow with a large pneumatic tyre is preferable. Finally, if you have a choice, get one in which the attachment points of the tray are horizontal when the barrow is standing (why will become obvious later). I bought a galvanised one with a plastic tray from B&Q for about £40.

The precise construction details are dependent upon the wheelbarrow frame you’ve acquired. I built the platform from a single piece of 18mm thick exterior plywood, 52cm x 52cm. I braced this underneath using two pieces of 46mm x 21mm softwood. You should only fit a ‘lip’ at the front – to stop boxes sliding forward when it’s in use – omit them from the sides and the back as this makes lifting boxes on and off easier and allows you to transport items wider than the platform (such as paving slabs). Finally, I fitted four pieces of 9mm stripwood on the top – this again makes lifting boxes easier and means you don’t have to recess the heads of the bolts holding the platform to the frame. Over time I expect these to get damaged but they can easily be replaced if necessary.

M8 bolt and cross brace

M8 bolt & cross brace

M8 nut and washer

M8 nut & washer – top view

I bolted the platform to the frame using M8 bolts, with large washers to spread the load and standard and nylon lock nuts so they don’t shake loose over time. I then gave it several coats of preservative and, before use, took the axle apart, greased it well and reassembled it. You will need to use ratchet straps to stop hives or stacked supers from shifting during transport. Use two, front to back and side to side, and strap them down tight. Believe me, over rough ground, one is not sufficient! Finally, for those “more than three feet but less than three miles” moves (such as across the garden) you can use a hivebarrow with a horizontal platform as a temporary stand, simply moving the colony a few feet every few days.

Oh yes … I’ve named my hivebarrow Buster after the Viz cartoon character, Buster Gonad.