Category Archives: Records

No risk, no reward

“April showers bring May flowers”, or something close to that, is a poem that has its origins in the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

It means that the Atlantic low pressure systems that roll in from the west during April, often bringing rain, also account for the abundance of flowers that bloom in May.

Not much sign of any April showers last month …

April 2021 sunshine anomaly compared to 1981 – 2010

Most of the country was bathed in spring sunshine, with Scotland and the north of England getting 150-170% of the average seen over the last 30-40 years. 

Unsurprisingly, with that amount of sunshine, rain was in short supply. Much of the country experienced only 20-33% of the usual April rainfall.

Which should be great for beekeeping, right?

Well, not if it’s accompanied by some of the lowest temperatures seen for half a century.

April 2021 average temperature anomaly compared to 1981 – 2010

The entire country was significantly colder than normal, with the bit of Fife my bees are in being 3°C colder than the average over the last decade, with frosts on ~60% of the nights during the month 1.

And, for those of us interested in queen rearing, this sort of start to the season can cause frustrating delays … or encourage a bit of risk taking.

The heady mix of strong colonies, drones and good weather

Queen rearing needs three things to occur at more or less the right time – which doesn’t mean simultaneously.

  1. The colony needs to be strong enough to rear new queens. Good queens – whether reared from grafted larvae or naturally under the swarming or emergency impulse – require lots of nurse bees in the hive to lavish the developing larvae with attention. Three or four frames of brood isn’t enough. The hive really needs to be bursting with bees. A long winter, cold spring or bad weather can hold the colony back. 
  2. Drones need to be available to mate with the virgin queens. Drones take 24 days to develop from egg to emerged adult. However, before they can mate, drones need to reach sexual maturity and learn about the environment around the hive. Sexual maturity takes 6 – 16 days and, at the same time, the drones embark on a number of orientation flights which start a week or so after emergence. 
  3. Good weather for queen mating. After emerging the queen also needs to reach sexual maturity. This takes 5-6 days. She then goes on one or more mating flights, before returning to the hive for a lifetime of egg laying 2. Bad weather – either temperatures significantly below 20°C, rain or strong winds – all prevent these mating flights from taking place. 

With no drones, a weak colony, or lousy weather there’s little chance of producing high quality, well-mated queens.

Or perhaps of producing any queens at all 🙁

Second impressions

My Fife colonies were first inspected in mid-April. Most were doing OK, with at least 5-7 frames of brood and some fresh nectar in the brood box. 

Despite the low temperatures they were making the most of the sunshine and foraging whenever possible.

A week later, at their second inspection on the 25th, the majority of colonies had 1-2 supers 3 and were building up well. All had drone brood and some had adult drones.

By this time I’d identified – from my records, the overwinter performance (stores used, strength and build-up) and their behaviour when inspected under frankly rubbish conditions – which colonies I would be using for queen rearing.

I also knew which colonies would need to be requeened.

My ‘rule of thirds’

My colony selection for stock improvement is simple and straightforward.

Colonies that I consider form the worst third of my stocks are always requeened 4. Furthermore, I do my best to avoid these bees contributing to the gene pool. I don’t use larvae from them for grafting and I don’t split them and allow them to rear their own queens 5.

Ideally (in terms of the gene pool, not in terms of their fate 🙁 ) I’d also remove all drone brood from these colonies. These drones will most likely mate with queens from other hives 6, but if their genes aren’t good enough for me they probably aren’t good enough for the unsuspecting virgin queens in the neighbourhood either.

Colonies I consider in my top one third of stocks are used as a source of larvae for grafting, and can be split and allowed to rear their own new queens.

The ‘middle’ third are requeened if I have spare queens, which I usually do.

It’s surprising how quickly this type of selection results in stock improvement. By focusing on a series of simple traits I favour (e.g. frugal with winter stores, calm when inspected in persistent rain) or dislike (e.g. running on the comb, following, stroppiness) in my bees I’ve ended up with stocks that are pretty good 7.

Queen cells … don’t panic

On April 25th many colonies had play cups but only one had charged queen cells

Considering the 10 day weather forecast, my overall level of preparedness to start queen rearing (!) and the relatively early stage of development of the cells (24-48 hour larvae) I nearly squidged the cells and closed the hive up for another week.

It still felt too early and far too cold.

know that knocking back queen cells is not swarm control (and have suggested this is engraved on all hive tools sold to beginners).

However, swarming also requires good weather. If it’s 9-11°C the colony will not swarm … and I was pretty confident that the weather wasn’t going to warm up significantly in the week until the next inspection.

So, in my typical Do as I say, don’t do as I do” style, I reckoned it was a safe bet to destroy the queen cells and check again a week later.

I would have expected to find more queen cells then, but I’d have been astounded if the colony had swarmed in the intervening period.

Second thoughts

But this was a lovely colony. 

It has always been good, had overwintered on a single 12.5 kg block of fondant and was already on 10 frames of brood in all stages 8. And that was a full box as it’s a Swienty brood box that only takes 10 National frames. To give them more room I would have had to add another brood box.

Not only that, but the bees were calm when inspected under miserable conditions. They didn’t run about on the comb and they weren’t aggressive.

The colony was comfortably near the top of my top third …

If the colony had swarmed, despite the queen being clipped, there’s a good chance I’d have lost her. The apiary is ~140 miles from home and that’s not the sort of journey you can make to ‘quickly check the hives’

So, how could I ensure that I didn’t lose the queen and take advantage of the quality of the stock and its apparent readiness to reproduce?

Plan B

Looking after the queen was straightforward. 

I prepared a 3 frame nucleus colony containing the frame the queen was on and a couple of frames of emerging brood. I added a frame of sealed stores and a new frame of foundation.

A frame of sealed stores … perfect for feeding nucs

I stuffed the entrance of the nuc with grass, wedged the frames together with a foam block and pinned a travel screen over the top.

The travel screen really wasn’t necessary. I had to transport the bees to another apiary and, although there was now weak sunshine the temperature was only just double digits (°C) and my beesuit was still damp from an earlier shower. I didn’t fancy driving for 40 minutes with the windows open to keep the bees cool, so opted to ventilate them better and keep me a bit warmer 😉

This is the nucleus method of swarm control. It’s almost foolproof 9.

It is possible to get it wrong, but you have to try quite hard. 

In my experience it’s the most dependable method and has the added advantage of using the minimal amount of additional equipment.

The queen was safe in a new box. She had space to lay and lots of young bees to support her. The queenless colony had ample stores and 7 frames of brood in all stages. 

This nucleus colony will be used as a source of larvae for grafting in mid/late May. I can easily regulate the strength of this colony – to prevent them swarming – by stealing a frame or two of brood periodically. If replaced by a foundationless frame (or a frame with foundation) they will draw lovely new comb with the help of the nectar flow from the oil seed rape.

The original, and now queenless, colony was given three new frames and closed up.

One week later

In early May the cold, sunny weather was replaced by very cold, very wet weather 🙁

On the 3rd of May I drove through snow and heavy rain to get to the apiary. The following day I started inspecting the colonies in intermittent light drizzle and a temperature of 7°C. 

Not ideal 🙁

The weather gradually improved. By the time I finished in the apiary it had reached a balmy 11°C.

Notwithstanding the conditions, the bees were well behaved. 

With some bees, if you open the hive in poor weather they rush out mob-handed.

Before you get a chance to think “Can I smell bananas?” you’ve collected half a dozen stings and they’re recruiting reinforcements 10.

You know it’s going to be a long and painful day …

However, perhaps because the bees were sick and tired of the low temperatures this spring they just sat on the comb looking mournful … you could almost see their little faces as row upon row of upside down smilies 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁 

This ‘calmness in the face of adversity’ (!) makes these bees easy and tractable to deal with in poor conditions. It’s a byproduct of selection from the ‘best’ third of my stocks year after year.

I don’t actively select bees for bad weather beekeeping, but it’s a nice bonus when it happens.

The queenless colony now contained 7 frames of sealed brood, many of which also contained queen cells. They had almost completely drawn the new frames I’d added the previous week when I made up the nuc.

More nucs

I prepared 3 two frame nucs from the hive, leaving the remaining frames – with some new ones – in the dummied down brood box.

Doing this sort of manipulation in poor weather takes preparation and planning. You do not want to be rushing back to the shed for an extra frame, or searching around for entrance blocks, or doing anything that leaves the bees exposed for longer than necessary.

Ready to go …

The poly nucs were all set up, with the entrances sealed, a frame of capped stores, two new frames and a dummy board. The foam travel blocks (to hold the frames tightly together), plastic crownboards, lids and hive straps were piled up within easy reach.

Making up two frame nucs

All of this was done before I’d even opened the queenless hive 11.

The queen cells were all sealed (as would be expected from the timing of the last inspection, 8-9 days earlier) and had been produced in a busy hive, with lots of nurse bees to attend to them.

The majority would have been reared under the emergency impulse.

I quickly and carefully transferred two frames from the queenless hive to each nuc. I ensured that each nuc received a frame containing a good queen cell.

In practice, the nucs and the colony remnants probably all ended up with several queen cells.

Not another “Do as I say, don’t do as I do?” situation?

I usually leave only one queen cell in a hive to ensure a strong colony doesn’t produce multiple casts.

However, this time I did not thin out any of the queen cells. 

This was a pragmatic decision largely based upon the weather. It was too cold to be searching across every frame to select the best cell. The bees would have been distressed and disturbed, and there was a risk of chilling the brood 12.

It was also a rational decision considering the strength of the colonies I was setting up. With a much-reduced population of bees it’s very unlikely the colony will allow all the queens to emerge. I expect most of the cells to be torn down by the workers.

The nucs were all transferred to an apiary over three miles away. This avoids any risk of them reducing in strength due to flying bees returning to the original site.

These nucs were relatively small colonies so will require some TLC. I’ll check them soon after the new queens emerge. If they look understrength I’ll add a frame of emerging brood (harvested from one of the bottom ‘third’ of colonies. They might not be good enough to split but they are still very useful bees 🙂 ).

I’ll then leave them for at least 2-3 weeks hoping that the weather improves significantly for queen mating.

This is the ‘taking a risk’ bit of the whole process. Mid/late May should offer some suitable days for queen mating, but if this weather continues it’s not guaranteed. 

Somewhere between ~26-33 days after emergence the virgin queen becomes too old to mate successfully.

For these queens, that will take us to the week beginning the 3rd of June.

If we’ve not had any good queen mating days by then things will be getting a bit desperate 🙂

Active queen rearing begins soon

Splitting a colony into nucs containing queen cells is one way of rearing new queens. The quality of the resulting colony is dependent – at least partially – on the quality of the colony you start with.

With a high quality starting stock it is effectively ‘passive’ queen rearing … very little effort with potentially good rewards. 

What’s not to like?

Preliminary setup for Ben Harden queen rearing

But with the weather slowly but inexorably improving (really!) it’s time to start thinking about ‘active’ queen rearing – cell starters, grafting, cell finishers, mini-nucs etc.

With the good quality queen busily laying away in her nuc box it was time to set up a colony for queen rearing using the Ben Harden approach.

In this instance the quality of the colony is largely immaterial. It needs to be strong and healthy, but its genetics will not contribute to the quality of the resulting queens. 

My final task before leaving the apiary was to add the fat dummies and additional frames in preparation for queen rearing using selected grafted larvae.

And that’s what I hope to be doing next week 🙂


 

Winter losses

I lost 10% of my colonies this winter.

It’s always disappointing losing colonies, but it’s sometimes unavoidable.

I suspect the two I lost were unavoidable … though, as you’ll see, they weren’t completely lost.

April showers frosts

Late April may seem like mid-season for many beekeepers based in southern England. While they were adding their second super, the bees here in Scotland were only just starting to take their first few tentative flights of the year.

This April has been significantly cooler in Fife 1 than any year ‘since records began’.

However, the records I’m referring to are from the excellent Auchtermuchty weather report 2 which only date back to about 2013 … I like it because it’s local, not because it’s historically comprehensive 😉

The average April temperate has only been 5.5°C with 15 nights with frost in the first three weeks of the month. In contrast, the same month in 2019 and 2020 averaged over 9°C with only 3-4 nights with frosts 3

In both 2019 and 2020 swarming started at the end of April. Several colonies had queen cells when I first inspected them and I hived my first swarm (not lost from one of my colonies 😉 ) on the last day of the month.

First inspections and winter losses

Unsurprisingly, with appreciably lower temperatures, things are less well advanced this season. None of the colonies I inspected on the 19th were making swarm preparations. Instead, most were 2-4 frames of brood down on the strength I’d expect them to have before they started thinking about swarming.

Nevertheless, most were busy on a lovely spring day … lots of pollen (mainly gorse and some late willow by the looks of things) being delivered by heavily-laden foragers, and fresh nectar in some of the brood frames.

Fresh nectar glistening in a brood frame

The first inspection of the season is an opportunity to not only check on the strength and behaviour of the colony, but also to do some ‘housekeeping’. This includes:

  • swapping out old, dark brood frames (now emptied of stores) and replacing them with new foundationless frames
  • removing excess stores to make space for brood rearing
  • removing the first sealed drone brood in the colony to help hold back Varroa replication

And, as the winter is now clearly over, it’s the time at which the overall number of winter losses can be finally assessed.

Winter losses

Winter losses generally occur for one of four reasons:

  • disease – in particular caused by deformed wing virus (DWV) vectored by high levels of Varroa in the hive. DWV reduces the longevity of the diutinus winter bees, meaning the colony shrinks in size and falls below a threshold for viability. There are too few bees to thermoregulate the colony and too few bees to help the queen rear new larvae. The colony either freezes to death, dwindles to the size of an orange, or starves to death because the cluster cannot reach the stores 4.
  • queen failure – for a variety of reasons queens can fail. They stop laying altogether or they only lay drone brood. Whatever the reason, a queen that doesn’t lay means the colony is doomed.
  • natural disasters – this is a bit of a catch-all category. It includes things like flooded apiaries, falling trees and stampeding livestock. Although these things might be avoidable – don’t site apiaries in flood risk areas, under trees or on grazing land – these lessons are often learnt the hard way 5.
  • unnatural disasters – these are avoidable and generally result from inexperienced, or bad 6 , beekeeping. I’d include providing insufficient stores for winter in this category, or leaving the queen excluder in place resulting in the isolation of the queen, or allowing the entrance to be blocked. These are the things that the beekeeper alone has control over. 

The BBKA run an annual survey of winter losses in the UK. This is usually published in midsummer, so the graph below is from 2020.

BBKA winter survival survey

Over the 13 years of the survey the average losses were 18.2% 7. Long or particularly hard winters result in higher levels of losses.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

I’ve no idea how accurate these winter loss surveys are.

About 10% of the BBKA membership reported their losses, and the BBKA membership is probably a bit over 50% of UK beekeepers. 

I would expect, with precious little evidence to back it up, that the BBKA generally represents the more ‘engaged’ beekeepers in the UK 8. It also probably represents a significant proportion of new beekeepers who were encouraged to join while training.

So, like Amazon reviews, I treat the results of the survey with quite a bit of caution. I suspect beekeepers who have low losses complete it enthusiastically to ‘brag’ about their success (despite its anonymity), while those with large losses either keep quiet or are happy to share their grief. 

Unlike Amazon reviews, I’d be surprised if there are many fake submissions to the BBKA and I’m not aware there’s a living to be made from selling fake colony survival reviews in bulk online.

For comparison, the Bee Informed Partnership in the USA runs a similar survey every year.

Bee Informed Partnership loss and management survey

This survey covers about 10% of the colonies in the USA. Again it is voluntary and likely subject to the same inherent biases that may affect the BBKA survey.

The USA winter colony losses average ~28% over the same 13 year survey period.

Are US beekeepers less good at keeping their colonies alive than beekeepers in the UK?

Perhaps the US climate is less suited to honey bees?

Or, possibly, US beekeepers are simply more honest than their UK counterparts?

I doubt it 9.

Running on empty

My two colony losses were due to queen failures.

Old winter bees and no brood

In the first colony there was no evidence the queen had laid any brood since the previous autumn. There were about 6 seams of bees in the hive, but the outer 2-3 frames were solid with untouched winter stores.

Unused winter stores

This is usually a dead giveaway … literally. The colony hasn’t used the stores because they’ve not had any hungry mouths to feed. With no new brood the colony is doomed.

This queen appears to have simply run out of sperm and stopped laying. She was present (a 2019 marked queen and the same one I’d seen in August last year) and ambling around the frame, but she wasn’t even going through the pretence of inspecting cells before laying.

I removed the queen and united what remained of the colony over a nearby strong colony.

Strong colony ready for uniting

Assuming the queen stopped laying at the end of year all the bees in the hive – and there were a good number – were old, winter bees. These won’t survive long, but will provide a temporary boost to the colony I united them with. 

Every little bit helps 🙂

Even more valuable than the bees were the frames they were on.

Most of the comb in the colony with the failed queen was relatively new. By uniting them I can quickly swap out the old comb (from the stronger hive #34) when I next inspect the hive. At the same time I’ll rescue the frames of sealed stores for use when making up nucs during queen rearing.

Drone laying queen

The second failure was a drone laying queen (DLQ).

These are usually unmistakeable … the brood is clustered, with drone pupae occupying worker brood cells. If the queen has been drone laying for some time there may be lots of undersized ‘runt’ drones present in the hive as well.

Drone laying queen ...

Drone laying queen …

Again, this colony was doomed. With no new queens available and a lot of pretty old bees in the hive they could not be restored to a functioning colony.

However, many of the bees could be saved …

The colony wasn’t overrun with drones. Going by the amount of stores consumed it had probably been rearing worker brood since the winter solstice.

The queen was unmarked and unclipped. I strongly suspect she was a late-season supersedure queen who was very poorly mated.

The 3-4 weeks of drone brood rearing 10 had wrecked quite a few of the frames, but the bees were worth saving.

Under these circumstances I decided to shake the colony out.

When I do this I like to move the original hive and the stand it’s on. If you don’t move the stand the displaced bees tend to cluster near the original hive entrance, festooned from the hive stand. 

In poor weather, or late in the afternoon, this can lead to lots of bees unnecessarily perishing.

However, the stand was shared with two other colonies, so couldn’t be removed. It was also late morning and the weather was excellent.

I moved the hive away and shook the bees out. 

Sure enough … they returned to their original location.

They then marched along the hive stand to the entrance of the adjacent hive.

This way sisters!

And, by the time I left the apiary in mid-afternoon there were only a few diehard bees clustered near where the original hive entrance was.

Why didn’t I just unite them as I’d done with the other failed queen?

Drone brood is a Varroa magnet

Varroa replicate when feeding on developing pupae. The longer development time of drone pupae (when compared with worker pupae) means that you get ~50% more Varroa from drone brood 11

Unsurprisingly perhaps (or not, because that’s the way evolution works) Varroa have therefore evolved to preferentially infest drone brood. When given the choice between a drone or worker pupa to infest, Varroa choose the drone about 10 times more frequently than the worker.

And that ~10:1 ‘preference ratio’ increases when drone brood is limiting … as it is early in the season.

What this means is that the first burst of drone brood production in a colony is very attractive to Varroa.

Unless there are compelling reasons to keep this very early drone brood – for example, a colony with stellar genetics I’d like to contribute as much as possible to the local gene pool – I often try and remove it.

Drone-worker-drone

Drone-worker-drone …

If you use foundationless frames this is often as easy as simply cutting out a single panel of drone brood.

But, in the case of this drone laying queen, it meant that the logical action was to discard all of the drone brood to ensure I discarded the majority of the Varroa also present in the colony 12.

Which is why I shook the colony out, rather than uniting them 🙂

Boxes of bees

Several colonies in one apiary went into the winter on double brood colonies. Inevitably, with the loss of bees during the winter months, the colony contracts and the queen almost invariably ends up laying in the upper box.

The first inspection of the season is often a good time to remove the lower box. It can be removed altogether, or replaced (above the other box) for a Bailey comb change if the weather is suitable.

At this stage of the year the lower box is often reasonably empty of bees and totally empty of brood. 

Emptying a box of bees

If the comb in the lower box is old and dark (see the picture above) I place the upper box on the original floor and add an empty super on top. I then go through the lower box, shaking the bees into the empty super. Good frames are retained, the rest are destined for the wax extractor and firelighters.

Using an empty super helps ‘funnel’ the bees into the brood box.

Sometimes the queen has already laid up a frame or so in the lower box. Under these circumstances – particularly if the comb is relatively new – I’ll simply reverse the boxes, placing the lower box on top of the upper one. This results in the queen quite quickly moving up and laying up the space in the upper brood chamber.

It’s then time to add a queen excluder and the first super.

The beekeeping season has definitely started 🙂


Notes

I commented a fortnight ago about the apparent lateness of the 2021 spring. I’m adding this final note on the afternoon of the 23rd and have still yet to see or hear either cuckoo or chiffchaff on the west coast. Last year they were here in the middle of the month. This, combined with the temperature data (see above) show that everything is a week or two behind events last year.

Which means I can expect to start doing some sort of swarm prevention and control in the next fortnight.

First impressions

There’s always a slight feeling of trepidation when I lift a roof for the first hive inspection of the season.

What’s in the box?

Is the colony going to be thriving or just hanging on?

I know they’ve got sufficient stores and that the bees have been flying on good days, but that’s not the same as the reassurance that comes from finding 3-4 frames of brood in all stages, well-tempered bees, and a marked queen with a good laying pattern.

Iffy weather

It takes bees to make bees, the saying goes. The colony cannot rear large slabs of brood without large numbers of nurse bees to feed them and clean them and cap the cells.

After a midwinter brood break (which we get, but you may not if you live further south than my 56°N) the queen lays a small patch of eggs which eventually develop and emerge. Over the next few weeks the amount of brood slowly but inexorably increases. The numbers of new bees in the hive increases.

But remember that the total number of bees in the hive is actually still decreasing as the winter bees continue to die off.

And, although brood rearing can (and does) continue like this for weeks – through January and February at least – it needs the better weather, warmer temperatures and early forage to really start ramping up.

So the further north your bees are, the later in the season that things get going.

Unlike last year, the weather this spring has been decidedly ‘mixed’. I barely saw a bee until the penultimate day of February and, with average temperatures of ~6.5°C March wasn’t a whole lot better.

And since then it’s got colder …

I’m writing this after four days of ‘sunny periods’. These sunny periods were interspersed with snow, hail and bitingly cold northerly winds.

Sunny periods … but 4°C with squally snow showers being driven down the Sound of Mull

Although the average temperature is under 5°C the bees are busy foraging when the sun is out. I spent some time yesterday trying to (unsuccessfully) photograph pollen-laden foragers returning to the hive in a snow shower.

Shirtsleeve weather

The usual advice is to not rush the first hive inspection. Wait until it’s a warm spring day. Often it’s recommended to choose a day with ‘shirtsleeve weather’.

Which here might mean July … 🙁

Actually, that’s a bit harsh. We often have excellent weather in late April through until early June.

However, this is my first season with bees on the west coast and I was very keen to see how they were progressing. I also wanted to remove the nadired super and check the levels of pollen.

It certainly wasn’t shirtsleeve weather, but I needed no more than one fleece under my beesuit and I haven’t had to wear long johns since mid-March 😉

Ribes ...

Ribes …

The other advice you’ll often hear is that a good time to conduct the first inspection is when the ornamental currant (Ribes sanguineum) is flowering.

Treat this advice 1 with some caution. In St Andrews there’s a large amount of these flowering currants near the bus station that would always be in full bloom by mid/late March, whatever the weather.

We have no Ribes on the west coast. If we had, the deer would eat them all.

But we did have an unseasonably warm day on the first of the month.

So I had a quick look.

Very disturbing

A hive inspection inevitably disturbs the colony.

However gentle you are the activities of the bees are interrupted, the humidity of the hive changes and the temperature decreases.

The odours and pheromones, so critical for the organised functioning of the colony are also affected.

For these reasons alone there must be a good reason to inspect a colony.

And that’s before you consider the increased opportunities for robbing 2, potential damage to the queen, or a myriad of other reasons.

But none of this means that hive inspections should not be conducted if and when they are needed.

What it does mean is that you need to have a plan in mind when conducting a hive inspection. In addition, you need to have all the things you might need close to hand, and have a mental checklist (your hands will be full) of the order you’re going to execute the plan.

All of which sounds very contrived.

It doesn’t need to be.

What you don’t want to be doing is realising half way through the inspection that you need a clearer board … and it’s at home in the shed 3. Or that your queen has been superseded and the new queen needs to be marked … with the non-existent Posca pen which you lost at the end of last season 🙁

Be prepared

So, although I was only having a ‘quick look’ I did make sure I had everything I needed before I removed the hive roof. This included a:

  • smoker with sufficient fuel to last the duration
  • clearer board to allow the simple removal of the nadired super
  • queen marking kit and snips
  • hive tool with a wide blade to clear the floor
  • spare frame or two
  • pollen pattie 4
  • wrapped fondant block ‘just in case’ 5

All this needs to be close to hand but not so close you trip over it. The roof of an adjacent hive is as good a place as any for the small stuff.

Since I was going to rearrange the boxes I kept space immediately adjacent to the hive free to give me room to work.

Ready, steady … Go!

The hives I inspected were single brood Nationals with a nadired 6 super containing (or not containing?) honey from last season.

Nadired super and single National poly hive

Immediately over the top bars of the frames was the remnants of a block of fondant in a ‘carry out’ food container, with the headspace over the hive provided by one of my inverted deep-rimmed perspex crownboards. This was topped by a block of insulation and the roof 7.

The colonies were installed in these hives from 5 frame nucs in July last year. They had built up reasonably well and collected a half super of heather honey.

However, most of the old, dark frames from the nuc were still in the box as I’d not managed to finish rotating them out of the hive before the season ended.

Corpses and accumulated debris

I removed the roof and the insulation. I then lifted both the nadired super and the brood box together and carefully moved them aside.

This gave me access to the floor.

Sometimes the floor is clear at this time in the spring. At other times you can find a thick accumulation of corpses, or a scattering of mummified larvae with chalkbrood.

Rarely you’ll find a dead mouse … or a live one 8. It’s not at all unusual to find slugs in the hive. These appear to particularly like the damp environment underneath the frame lugs in Abelo poly hives.

Old floors …

Old floors …

Usually I’d choose to replace the floor with a recently cleaned one.

One spare is all you need. You place the new floor down, complete the inspection, close the hive and then scrape clean and blowtorch the old floor before using it as a replacement for the next hive in the apiary.

However, despite my careful planning (!) I had no spares as they were all back in the bee shed, 150 miles away. D’oh! At least I was aware of this before I started which is why I’d made sure I had a wide-bladed hive tool with me.

I scraped the floor clean of a few bee corpses and checked that the entrance channel was clear before putting the floor back in its original location.

I gently separated the brood box from the nadired super. During this process I checked the amount of bees in the super, making an immediate judgement whether the brood nest extended that far down in the hive.

Had the super contained a lot of bees (and therefore potentially brood) there would be a risk that the queen was also ‘down below’. This would have necessitated a quick rethink.

As it was, the super had just a couple of hundred bees in it and it was clear – just by looking down the seams between the frames – that there was no brood present.

It was safe to proceed.

Elbow room and the queen

Only now did I remove the crownboard, lifting one edge first and giving the bees a gentle puff from the smoker to encourage them to stay put.

I removed the fondant block and left it nearby. The bees would return to the hive unaided, or I’d shake the last few in before closing the hive.

The colony inspection was brief and focused. The first few frames contained no bees and so were ignored. Other than the outer dark frame – see below – they weren’t even removed from the hive.

Ready for inspection

I quickly and carefully went through the frames occupied by bees, checking for:

  • sufficient stores (there were still stores on some of the frames I’d not lifted from the hive as well)
  • levels of pollen
  • brood in all stages – eggs, larvae and sealed brood
  • the queen (was she the same I’d last seen in the box over 7 months ago?)

which took no more than a minute for each of the 4-5 frames. Each frame was lifted, inspected on each side and – with one exception – replaced in the same position it had come from.

The brood nest was off-centre, pushed up against one of the side walls of the hive. This isn’t unusual with poly hives as they are so well insulated. However, it means that expansion of the brood nest can only go in one direction.

Giving them a little more elbow room

So, the exception was a frame, with some stores but mainly nice empty comb. I placed this between the brood nest and the side wall of the hive. This gives the expanding colony the option of growing in two directions.

Later in the season, when it’s warmer and the colony is growing faster, you can expand the brood nest further. However, this early in the year 9 just giving them the option to go in either direction is a start.

Marked, laying queen

The marked, clipped queen was easy to spot. I managed to disturb her while laying an egg which you can just see at the tip of her abdomen in the picture inset above.

Replacement of dark frames

Unfortunately the queen was laying up one of the old dark frames in the hive. I couldn’t therefore move this to the outside of the brood nest, but made a mental note to in a month or so.

On the opposite side of the hive were a couple of old dark frames that had been largely cleared of stores.

Old dark frames rotated out of the hive and replaced

These were removed and replaced with new frames. In a few weeks I’ll move these close to the centre of the hive. With abundant spring nectar, and warmth, they will draw fresh comb for the expanding brood nest.

Both the frames above show slight signs of mould. This isn’t unusual to see on frames at the end of the winter, and is generally nothing to worry about. The hive is a humid environment and the outer frames often get very little attention from the bees.

Emptying the super

The super contained a few hundred bees. It also clearly contained a bit of residual honey.

On a warm day I might have simply shaken the bees out. Quick and easy and all over in a single visit. However, it was not warm and this would have been even more disruptive. I therefore added a clearer board and placed the super on top of that. I replaced the crown board, the roof and strapped everything up securely.

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

The warmth and odours of the hive quickly draw the bees down to join their nest mates, leaving the super empty. This was removed the following day.

The super still had a bit of capped honey in it, as well as a frame or two of uncapped ‘nectar’.

This wasn’t fresh nectar. There’s precious little about at the moment and any the bees are collecting is being secreted around and above the brood nest so that it’s immediately available. Remember, this super had been underneath the brood box since mid-September.

Much of the nectar could be shaken out of these frames. I assume it was uncapped from last year and that it has absorbed moisture from the atmosphere 10. It didn’t have the wet bubbly, yeasty smell and appearance that fermenting stores have … presumably because it’s been too cold 🙁

Thriving or just hanging on?

The two colonies I inspected were doing OK.

More brood than I’d feared, but less than I’d hoped for.

Beekeeping is greatly influenced by the climate, the geography and the local flora. This was my first west coast spring inspection, so there’s lots new to me. It feels like a colder spring than 2020, but I didn’t have bees here then, so have nothing to compare it with.

Once the spring migrants start arriving I’ll have a better idea how it compares.

All of which emphasises the importance of the final part of the inspection. Writing up the hive records. Comparison of notes about both the bees and the environment will, over time, mean I have a much better idea of what’s happening when. And whether the colonies are doing well or badly considering the state of the season.

Black throated diver (Gavia arctica) in full summer breeding plumage

The sand martens are already here, and there are black throated divers on the hill loch. I expect blackcap, cuckoos and wheatear in the next 7-10 days. Much longer than that and it will officially be a cold, late spring.

I’ll be checking my east coast colonies, including half a dozen that have luxuriated in the bee shed overwinter, in the next fortnight or so.

Fife has been warmer and drier, so I expect those colonies to be further advanced.

I hope I’m not too late 🙁


 

Preparing honey

Whisper it … Christmas is fast approaching.

It may seem premature to be discussing this at the end of November, but there are some things that require a bit of preparation.

I presume you’ve already made the Christmas cake? 1

I sell more honey in the few weeks before Christmas than almost any other time of the year … and I also jar a lot as gifts for family and friends.

Jarring 2 honey is one of those topics that hardly gets a mention on these pages, yet is one of the few ‘real’ beekeeping activities we can do in depths of winter.

Although I’ve written a few posts about jarring honey in the past, they’re scattered around the place and are several years old, so it seemed timely to revisit the subject again.

Quality and quantity

Let’s deal with these in reverse order so you appreciate the scale of things.

The average number of colonies managed by UK beekeepers was about 5. There are about 45 to 50 thousand beekeepers managing a quarter of a million colonies, with a few tens of thousands over that number managed by a small number of bee farmers 3.

BBKA surveys report the average honey production per hive varies from ~8-31 lb per year 4. Let’s assume, as I’ve done previously, that the ‘average’ hive produces 25 lb, so the ‘average’ beekeeper generates 125 lb of honey a season.

However, these averages probably obscure the real distribution of hives and honey. The majority of BBKA survey respondents run only 1-2 colonies, with others running ten or more. The real distribution of hives therefore resembles a U shaped curve.

More experienced beekeepers, running more colonies successfully, will produce disproportionately more honey. Annual averages of 50 – 75 lb of honey per colony are readily achievable with good management and good forage. Honey production is more likely to resemble a J shaped curve.

I’m a small scale beekeeper with 10-12 (honey) production colonies and the same number again for work, queen rearing etc., most of which usually produce little honey.

In a good year I produce enough honey to make jarring and labelling a bit dull and repetitive, but not enough to justify anything more automated than my trusty and long-suffering radial extractor.

No fancy uncapping machine, no automated honey creamer, no computer controlled bottling line and no bottle labeller.

In my dreams perhaps … but in reality just about everything is done manually.

Whether it’s 10 lb or 1000 lb anything I discuss below could be done using the same manual methods, and with the same overall goal.

And that goal is to produce a really top quality honey – in appearance and flavour – that makes an attractive gift or a desirable purchase.

Extracting

In Fife there are two honey harvests. Spring, which is predominantly (though not exclusively) oilseed rape (OSR), and summer which is much more variable. Some years we get an excellent crop from the lime, in other years it’s the more usual Heinz Honey containing 57 varieties of hedgerow and field nectars.

Heinz Honey

My production colonies are in two main apiaries and I extract each separately. That way, distinctive nectars that predominate in particular areas remain separate.

If customers want identical honey, jar after jar after jar, they can buy any amount of the stuff – often at absurdly cheap prices – in the supermarket.

Conversely, if they want a unique, high quality product they buy locally produced honey and expect variation depending upon the apiary and the season.

I run the extractor with the gate open, through coarse and fine filters, directly into buckets for storage. Warming the supers over the honey warming cabinet makes extraction and simultaneous filtering much easier.

I almost never get single crop honey and don’t harvest mid-season.

If you look at different frames it’s not unusual to have dark honey stored in one and lighter honey elsewhere, or as two distinct areas within the same frame. I know I’m missing the opportunity to produce some wonderfully distinct honeys, but pressure of work, queen rearing and a visceral loathing for cleaning the extractor restricts me to two harvest per season.

~90 kg of honey from my home apiary

Wherever possible entire supers are extracted into single 30 lb plastic buckets. Each is weighed, and the water content measured using a refractometer. Both numbers are written on the bucket lid and in my notes (an Excel spreadsheet). This becomes relevant when preparing honey for jarring.

Storage and crystallisation

Honey is stored in a cool location (~12-15°C), sealed tightly to avoid absorbing water from the environment.

High-glucose early season OSR honey crystallises rapidly. It usually sets rock hard well within a month of extraction.

Summer honey is much more variable and often takes many months to fully crystallise. I’ve just checked a few buckets that were extracted in early August and all are still liquid. However, if you looked carefully 5 you would almost certainly find micro-crystals already present.

All good quality honey will eventually crystallise. Tiny impurities – which are different from contaminants – such as pollen grains, act as nuclei onto which the sugars attach. These tiny crystals sink through the viscous honey to the bottom of the bucket.

Over time the honey at the bottom of an undisturbed bucket can be cloudy or gauzy in appearance with diffuse crystals. For the optimal appearance of the final bottled product these will need to be removed.

Clear summer honey

Clear summer honey is warmed and fine filtered again before jarring. I usually filter it through a nylon straining cloth. If you don’t do this then there’s a good chance it will crystallise relatively quickly in the jar.

Clear and not so clear honey

This spoils the appearance (and texture) but has no effect on the flavour.

It will still sell, but it will look less appealing, particularly to customers who are used to the homogenous unwavering bland sameness of supermarket honey.

Soft set honey

Well prepared soft set or creamed honey is a premium product. The fact that it can be prepared from large quantities of predominantly OSR honey is a bonus.

Honey warming cabinet. The Apiarist

Honey warming cabinet …

Many customers automatically choose clear honey. There’s certainly a greater demand for it. However, it’s worth always having a tester jar of soft set available. Disposable plastic coffee stirrers are an efficient way of sampling the tester and avoid the coarseness on the tongue of wooden stirrers.

A surprising number who try soft set honey, buy soft set honey … and then return for repeat business 🙂

The key points when preparing soft set honey are:

  • Have a suitable soft set ‘seed’ prepared. You can use shop bought for this, or grind a crystallised honey in a pestle and mortar 6. You need ~10% by weight of the seed.
  • Warm the set bucket of OSR honey sufficiently to melt the crystals. The honey should be clear and, when tested, leave no grittiness on the tongue. Mix periodically to aid heat transfer. I do this in my honey warming cabinet, but a water bath is much more efficient.
  • Cool the OSR honey to ~36°C and warm the seed honey to the same temperature. Do not melt the seed … you’re dependent upon the crystal structure of the seed to create the final product.
  • Add the seed to the melted OSR and mix thoroughly.
  • Allow the mixed honey to gradually cool to ~12-14°C, with regular stirring (at least twice a day). You can do this with a spoon, but as the honey crystallises and thickens it becomes very hard work. An electric drill and corkscrew or spiral mixer works well 7. This mixing may take several days.
  • Warm the honey to ~36°C and jar it 8.
  • Keep some of the seed for the next batch. If you’re jarring more in the next week or two, just leave 2-3 lb in the bucket. If longer, I store it in clip-seal containers.

Small batches

Honey keeps for years if stored in buckets at a cool temperature.

I tend to bottle honey in relatively small batches. This allows me to be certain the honey will look its very best for the short time it sits on the shelf.

This applies whatever the location of the shelf – by you door, if selling directly to the public, or in an artisan cafe or food store if selling via a third party.

Or even if the shelf is in your cupboard before you give it away to friends or relatives.

Preparing one or two buckets at a time for jarring makes sense. It’s a manageable number of jars (no more than 120 x 227g, or a smaller number of 340g or 454g jars) so I don’t die of boredom when subsequently labelling them. That number also fits into the dishwasher and on the worktop without too much of a problem.

Ready for delivery

I use the stored buckets in order of decreasing water content. Whether this makes a difference I’m unsure as all of my stored honey is below the 20% cutoff when measured. Interestingly, some seasons produce honey with consistently low water content. Spring 2018 was ~2% lower than this season averaged across 10-15 buckets.

Bottling it

I wash jars prior to using them and only use brand new jars. When jarring honey I dry and heat the jars in a 50°C oven so that, by the time they’re under the honey tap, they’re still warm.

Honey bucket tipper

The actual process of bottling honey is made much easier with my honey bucket tipper. I built this several years ago and it’s been used for thousands of jars in the intervening period. Amazingly, for something I built, I got it almost perfect from the start 9. I’ve changed the size of a couple of the wedges to tip the bucket, but that’s about all.

Almost always I can process the full bucket of honey, leaving only one final (incomplete) jar with the remnants of the bubbly scum from the surface of the honey.

The dregs

These are the jars I use for honey to go with my porridge 🙂

It’s worth noting that you can remove excess bubbly scum from a bucket by overlaying it with a sheet of clingfilm, then swiftly and carefully removing the clingfilm. Take care to avoid drips. It requires some deft handwork, but is remarkably effective in leaving just jarrable honey in the bucket.

Settling in, or out

Inevitably the process of jarring honey can introduce bubbles. Even if you take care to run the honey down the pre-warmed side of the jar you can end up with very obvious bubbles in clear honey.

And invisible bubbles in the opaque soft set honey.

These bubbles reduce the attractiveness of the finished product.

I therefore add lids to the jars and return the honey to my honey warming cabinet set at ~35°C for a few hours. The bubbles rise to the top and … pfffft … disappear, leaving the honey bubble free and crystal clear.

Settling out

Except for soft set honey of course. This is full of tiny crystals which produce that magic “melt on the tongue” sensation. However, I think that this final settling period helps minimise frosting in soft set honey.

After a few hours in the warming cabinet the jars are removed, allowed to cool to room temperature and labelled, ready for sale or gifting.

Labelling

The honey labelling regulations are a minefield. I’m pretty confident my labels meet the requirements but – before you ask – will not provide advice on whether yours do 😉 Mine carry a unique batch number, the country of origin, a best before date (two years after the date of jarring), the relevant contact details and the weight of the metric jar contents in a font that is both the right size and properly visible.

Honey label

All my labels are home printed on a Dymo LabelWriter. I’ve got nothing to hide and want the customer to see the honey, rather than some gaudy label covering most of the jar. This works for me, but might not suit you or your customers. I’ve certainly not had any complaints, either from shops, or customers who buy from the door as gifts for their friends or family, and plenty of people return time and again for more.

I always add an anti-tamper label connecting the lid to the jar. Even purchased in rolls of 1000 at a time these are the most expensive of the three labels – front (with weight and origin), anti-tamper and rear (batch number, best before date and QR code). DIY labels cost less than 8p/jar in total.

It should go without saying that the outside of the jar should not be spoiled with sticky fingermarks! If you use black lids, as I do, it’s worth wiping them before attaching a clear anti-tamper seal to avoid fingerprints being preserved forever under the label.

Provenance

The batch number is a unique five character code that allows me to determine the jar weight, bucket (weight and water content), apiary and season/year. If there was a problem with a particular batch 10 this would help recover any sold through a shop. The information is vaguely interesting to me; for example, looking back over the records it shows the inexorable rise in popularity of the 227 g jar as the proportion of these used increases year on year.

However, particularly in times of social distancing and when selling through a third party, this information on the provenance of the honey can be of interest to customers.

How many times did you sell a jar ‘at the door’ and get into a long conversation about whether the long avenue of limes north of the village produced nectar this year? Or whether the bees from my apiary could have pollinated the apple trees in the customers orchard?

Remember … many of the people who purchase local honey, or indeed any honey not carrying the dreaded Produce of EU and non-EU countries warning label, care about the origins of their food or the gifts they are making.

I’ve therefore been exploring linking the batch number to an online information page for the honey. By scanning a QR code on the jar 11 the customer can tell where and when the honey was produced. They can read about the area the bees forage in, the types of forage available and even the pollen types present in the honey. New Zealand beekeepers selling specialist manuka honey have been doing this sort of thing for a few years. My system is not ready for ‘prime time’ yet, but all the coding is done to get the information in and out of the backend database. Some customers already use it.

Even if the customer has no interest whatsoever, I still need to record the batch number, so it’s an example of added value to what I hope is perceived as a premium product.


 

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 😉

Resolutions

It’s that time of the year again. The winter solstice is long passed. Christmas has been and gone. The New Year is here.

Happy New Year 🙂

And New Year is a time to make resolutions (a firm decision to do or not to do something).

There is a long history of making resolutions at the turn of the year. The Babylonians promised to pay their debts and return borrowed objects at their New Year. Of course, their year was based on a lunar calendar and started with the first crescent moon in March/April, but the principle was the same.

Many New Year’s resolutions have religious origins … though the more recent trend to resolve to “drink less alcohol” or “lose weight are somewhat more secular.

About 50% of people in the western world make New Year’s resolutions. This figure is up from ~25% in the 1930’s. Perhaps success increases uptake?

Popular resolutions include improvement to: health (stop smoking, get fit, lose weight), finance or career (reduce debt, get a better job, more education, save more), helpfulness (volunteer more, give more to charity) or self (be less grumpy, less stressed, more friendly) etc.

But since this is a beekeeping website it is perhaps logical to consider what resolutions would lead to improvements in our beekeeping.

Beekeeping resolutions

The short winter days and long, dark nights are an ideal time to develop all sorts of fanciful plans for the season ahead.

How often are these promptly forgotten in the stifling heat of a long June afternoon as your second colony swarms in front of you?

The beekeeping season starts slowly, but very quickly gathers pace. It doesn’t take long before there’s not enough time for what must be done, let alone what you’d like (or had planned) to do.

And then there are all those pesky ‘real life’ things like family holidays, mowing the lawn or visiting relatives etc. that get in the way of essential beekeeping.

So, if you are going to make beekeeping resolutions, it might be best to choose some that allow you to be more proactive rather than reactive. To anticipate what’s about to happen so you’re either ready for it, or can prevent it 1.

Keep better records

I’ve seen all sorts of very complex record keeping – spreadsheets, databases, “inspection to a page” notepads, audio and even video recordings.

Complex isn’t necessarily the same as ‘better’, though I’ve no doubt that proponents of each use them because they suit their particular type of beekeeping.

Objective and subjective notes

My notes are very straightforward. I want them to:

  • Be available. They are in the bee bag and so with me (back of the car, at home or in the apiary) all the time. If I need to refer to them I can 2. They are just printed sheets of A4 paper, stuffed into a plastic envelope. I usually write them up there and then unless I forget a pen, it’s raining and/or very windy or I’m doing detailed inspections of every colony in the apiary. In these cases I use a small dictation machine and transcribe them later that evening.
  • Keep track of colonies and queens. I record the key qualitative features that are important to me – health, temper, steadiness on the comb etc. – using a simple numerical scoring system. Added supers are recorded (+1, +1, -2 etc) and there’s a freeform section for an additional line or two of notes. Colonies and queens are uniquely numbered, so I know what I’m referring to even if I move them between apiaries, unite them or switch from a nuc box to a full hive.
  • Allow season-long comparisons ‘at a glance’. With just a line or two per inspection I can view a complete season on one page. Colonies consistently underperforming towards the bottom of the page usually end up being united in late August/early September.
  • Include seasonal or environmental jottingsMay 4th – first swift of the year”, “June 7th – OSR finished”, “no rain for a fortnight”. These are the notes that, over time, will help relate the status of the colony to the local environment and climate. If the house martins, swallows and swifts are late and it’s rained for a month then swarming will likely be delayed. Gradually I’m learning what to expect and when, so I’m better prepared.

Monitor mites

Varroa remains the near-certain threat that beekeepers have to deal with every season. But you can only deal with them properly if you have an idea of the level of infestation.

Varroa levels in the colony depend upon a number of factors including the rate of brood rearing, the proportion of drone to worker brood and the acquisition of exogenous mites (those acquired through the processes of drifting and robbing).

Pupa (blue) and mite (red) numbers

In turn, these factors vary from colony to colony and from season to season. As I discussed recently, adjacent colonies in the same apiary can have very different levels of mite infestation.

Additional variation can be introduced depending upon the genetically-determined grooming or hygienic activity of the colony, both of which rid the hive of mites.

Since the combined influence of these factors cannot be (easily or accurately) predicted it makes sense to monitor mite levels. If they are too high you can then intervene in a timely and appropriate manner.

Quick and effective ways to monitor mite levels

Any monitoring is better than none.

Easy counting ...

Easy counting …

There are a variety of ways of doing this, some more accurate than others:

  1. Place a Correx tray under the open mesh floor (OMF) and count the natural mite drop over a week or so. Stick the counts into the National Bee Unit’s (appropriately named) Varroa calculator and see what they advise. There are quite a few variables – drone brood amounts, length of season etc – that need to be taken into account and their recommendation comes with some caveats 3. But it’s a lot better than doing nothing.
  2. Uncap drone brood and count the percentage of pupae parasitised by mites. The NBU’s Varroa calculator can use these figures to determine the overall infestation level. The same caveats apply.
  3. Determine phoretic mite levels by performing a sugar roll or alcohol wash. A known number of workers (often ~300) are placed in a jar and the phoretic mites displaced using icing sugar or alcohol (car screenwash is often used). After filtering the sugar or alcohol the mites can be counted. Sugar-treated bees can be returned to the colony 4. Infestation levels of 2-3% (depending upon the time of season) indicate that intervention is required 5.

Does what it says on the tin.

Overwinter nucs

If you keep livestock you can expect dead stock.

Unfortunately colony losses are an inevitability of beekeeping.

They occur through disease, queen failure and simple accidents.

Most losses are avoidable:

  • Monitor mites and intervene before virus levels threaten survival of the colony.
  • Check regularly for poorly mated or failing queens (drone layers) and unite the colony before it dwindles or is targeted by wasps or other robbers.
  • Make sure you close the apiary gate to prevent stock getting in and tipping over hives … or any number of other (D’oh! Slaps forehead 🙄 ) beekeeper-mediated accidents).

But they will occur.

Corpses

Corpses …

And most will occur overwinter. This means that as the new season starts you might be missing one or two hives.

Which could be all of your colonies if you only have a two 6.

Replacing these in April/May is both expensive and too late to ensure a spring honey crop.

Winter colony losses are the gift that keeps on giving taking.

However, if you overwinter an additional 10-25% of your colonies as 5 frame nucs (with a minimum of one), you can easily avoid disaster.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

If you lose a colony you can quickly expand the nuc to a full hive (usually well before a commercially-purchased colony would be ready … or perhaps even available).

And if you don’t lose a colony you can sell the nuc or expand your colony numbers.

Sustainable beekeeping

If you’ve not watched Michael Palmer’s The Sustainable Apiary at the National Honey Show I can recommend it as an entertaining and informative hour for a winter evening.

Michael keeps bees in Vermont … a different country and climate to those of us in the UK. However, his principles of sustainable beekeeping without reliance on bought-in colonies is equally valid.

Overwintering nucs requires a small investment of time and money. The former in providing a little more care and attention in preparation for winter, and the latter in good quality nucleus hives.

I reviewed a range of nuc boxes six years ago. Several of these models have been discontinued or revised, but the general design features to look for remain unchanged.

Here's three I prepared earlier ...

Everynuc poly nucs

Buy dense poly nucs for insulation, make sure the roof isn’t too thin and flimsy and choose one with an entrance that can be readily reduced to a “bee width” 7. Choice (and quality) has improved over the last 5-6 years but I still almost exclusively use Thorne’s Everynuc. I bought 20 a few seasons ago and remain pleased with them, despite a few design weaknesses.

Beekeeping benefits

I do all of the above.

Having learned (often the hard way) that my beekeeping benefits, these habits are now ingrained.

I had about 20 colonies going into the 2019/20 winter, including ~20% nucs. All continue to look good, but it won’t be until late April that I’ll know what my winter losses are.

In the meantime I can review the hive notes from last season and plan for 2020. Some colonies are overwintering with very substandard queens (generally poor temper) because they’re research colonies being monitored for changes in the virus population 8. They will all be requeened or united by mid/late May.

My notes mean I can plan my queen rearing and identify the colonies for requeening. I know which colonies can be used to source larvae from and which will likely be the cell raisers. The timing of all this will be influenced by the state of the colonies and the environmental ‘clues’ I’ve noted in previous years.

Capped queen cells

Capped queen cells

Of course, things might go awry before then, but at least I have a plan to revise rather than making it up on the spur of the moment.

I learned the importance of mite monitoring the hard way. Colonies unexpectedly crashing in early autumn, captured swarms riddled with mites that were then generously distributed to others in the same apiary. Monitoring involves little effort, 2-3 times a season.

So these three things don’t need to be on my New Year’s resolution list.

Be resolute

More people make New Year’s resolutions now than 90 years ago.

However, increasing participation unfortunately does not mean that they are a successful way to achieve your goals.

Richard Wiseman showed that only 12% of those surveyed achieved their goal(s) despite over 50% being confident of doing so at the beginning of the year.

Interestingly, success in males and females was influenced by different things. For men, incremental goal-setting increased the success rate 9 (I will write hive notes on every apiary visit, rather than Keep better notes). For women, the peer pressure resulting from telling friends and family increased success by 10%.

More generally, increased success in achieving the goals resulted from:

  • Making only one New Year’s resolution – so perhaps the three things above is overly ambitious?
  • Setting specific goals and avoiding resolutions you’re previously failed at.

My New Year’s (beekeeping) resolutions?

Since I’m a man, the chance of achieving my goals is not influenced by peer pressure so I’m not publishing them. We’ll have to see in 12 months whether I’m in the 12% that succeed … or the 88% that fail 😉


 

2019 in retrospect

The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, is tomorrow. It will be a long time until there’s any active beekeeping, but at least the days are getting longer again 🙂 

The queens in your colonies will soon – or may already – be laying again.

What better time to look back over the past season? How did the bees do? How did you do as a beekeeper? What could be done better next time?

Were there any catastrophic errors that really must not be repeated?

Overview of the season

Overall, in my part of Scotland, it was about average.

But that, of course, obscures all sorts of detail.

Spring was warm and swarming started early. I hived my first swarm before the end of April and my last in early July. This is about twice the length of the usual swarming season I’ve come to expect in Scotland. However, it wasn’t all frantic swarm management as there was a prolonged ‘June gap’ during which colonies were much more subdued.

The summer nectar, particularly the lime, was helped by some rain, but the season was effectively over by mid-August. I don’t take my colonies to the heather. Overall, the honey crop was 50-60% that of the (exceptional) 2018 season.

Looking at the yields from different apiaries for spring and summer it’s clear that – despite the warm spring – colonies did less well on the early season nectar (~40% that of 2018). I suspect this is due to their being less oil seed rape (OSR) grown within range of my apiaries. The colonies were strong, but the OSR just wasn’t close enough to be fully exploited..

Over recent years the area of OSR grown has reduced, a trend that is likely to continue.

Winter oil seed rape – the potential is not obvious

The winter rape is already sitting soggily in the fields; I’ve chatted to a couple of the local farmers and will move some hives onto these fields if colonies are strong enough and the weather looks promising.

Bait hives

Every year I’ve been back in Scotland I’ve put a bait hive in the garden.

Every year it has attracted a swarm.

This year – with the extended swarming season – it led to the capture of three swarms in about 10 days. As the June gap ended the weather got quite hot and sultry 1 and the first swarm arrived near the end of that month.

One week after the first swarm arrived there was lots more scout bee activity. There were also quite a few dead or dying bees littering the ground underneath the bait hive. It turned out that these were the walking wounded (or worse) scout bees from two different hives fighting.

Gone but not forgotten

Within 48 hours another swarm arrived and I was fortunate enough to watch it descend.

Incoming!

I moved the hive that evening, placing another bait hive on the same spot. By the following morning there were yet more scout bees checking the entrance and a third swarm – by far the biggest of the three – arrived later that day.

Each was a prime swarm and none were from my own hives which are in the only apiary 2 within a mile of the bait hive.

Watching the scout bees check out a bait hive is always interesting. There’s a fuller account of the observations and lessons learnt – of which there were several – written in the post titled BOGOF (buy one get one free 😉 ).

Swarm prevention

My swarm prevention this year either used the nucleus method or vertical splits (with an occasional Demaree for good measure) for most hives. All prevented the loss of swarms and queen mating went about as well – or badly – as it usually does i.e. never as fast as I’d like, but (eventually) all were successful.

Split board

Split board …

I did miss a couple of swarms. One relocated underneath the OMF of the hive it originated from because the queen was clipped and, having fallen ignominiously to the ground, she just clambered up the hive stand again.

The second swarm was also not lost as I inadvertently trapped the queen on the wrong side of the queen excluder. D’oh! In my defence, I’ve had a rather busy year at work 3 and it’s little short of a miracle that I got any beekeeping – let alone swarm control – done at all.

Mites

Considering the extended June gap, which resulted in a brood break for some colonies, mite levels were appreciably higher this year than last. I think this can largely be attributed to the warm Spring which allowed colonies to build up fast. Several colonies were strong enough to swarm in late April.

I do a limited amount of mite counting during the season but also monitor virus loads in emerging bees in our research colonies. In most colonies these stayed resolutely low and no production colonies needed any mid-season interventions for mite control.

Poly Varroa tray from Thorne's Everynuc with visible mites.

Gotcha! …

Newly-arrived swarms were treated as were some broodless splits. The former because many swarms carry a larger than expected mite population 4 and the latter because it’s an ideal opportunity to target mites as – in the absence of brood – all will be phoretic.

All colonies were treated with Apivar immediately after the summer honey came off. At the same time they were fed copious amount of fondant in preparation for the winter ahead.

In late November most colonies were broodless and were treated with a vaporised OA-containing miticide.

What worked well

In what was a pretty tough year for non-beekeeping reasons even small beekeeping successes have assumed a significance out of all proportion to the effort expended on them.

In my first year or two of beekeeping honey extraction was an unbridled pleasure. As hive numbers increased it because more of a chore. An electric extractor marginally improved things.

However, there was still the never-ending juggling of frames trying to balance the extractor and jiggling of the unbalanced machine as it sashayed across the floor.

Rubber-wheeled castor with brake

Two years ago I purchased some rubber braked wheels to add to the extractor legs.

This year I finally got round to fitting them.

The jiggle-free revolutions were a revelation 🙂

I know some beekeepers who stand their extractors on foam pads. Others who have them bolted to a triangular wooden platform. I can’t imagine either solution works better than these castors, which also make moving the extractor to and from storage much easier.

I changed my hive numbering system this season. I’d previously referred to hives by position or with a number written on the box. This caused some issues with the (sometimes shambolic) way I do my beekeeping.

If the hive moves and it’s numbered by position then its number should change. Manageable, but a bit of a pain.

If the position does not change but they’re expanded from a nuc to a full brood box do they get a new number or retain the old one? A problem if it’s written on the box.

And what happens when you move queens about in the apiary (which we sometimes need to do for work)?

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

All hives and queens were assigned a number – small red discs for the queen and big, bold numbers for the box. They stay with the colony or the queen … and the records 😉

This has worked very well. As colonies expand the numbers move, if queens are moved I know from and to where (and keep a separate record of queen performance). When colonies are united the queenless component loses both the queen number and the colony number.

The numbering has been a great success. The numbers themselves less so. Most of the red discs have faded very badly and a few of the hive numbers have cracked and/or blown away.

Numbered nuc and production colonies.

Never mind … the system works as intended and it has significantly improved my record keeping. I now know which hive and queen I’m referring to 😉

The Apiarist in 2019

I might squeeze in a more thorough overview of funny search terms and page accesses before the New Year. Briefly … there are significantly more subscribers and an increase of ~20% in overall page reads.

This year marks the sixth full season of The Apiarist which still surprises me. There still seem to be things to write about. Post length continues to increase, though the overall number of posts remain almost exactly one a week. Amazingly I’ve written nearly 95,000 words this year.

Words, words, words …

We had some server issues but most of these appear to have been resolved. Spam remains a problem and the machine auto-filters several hundred messages a day to keep my inbox only unmanageably overflowing. It has meant I’ve had to add some “I am not a robot” CAPTCHA trickery to the contact and/or comment forms. I’m aware that this has caused some problems making contact but can’t find an alternative solution that doesn’t swamp me in adverts for fake sunglasses, Bitcoins or Russian brides.

I live in Scotland and have no use for any of these things 😉 5

The year ahead

There are three main items on the ‘to do’ list for 2020 6.

The first is to start queen rearing again. Pressure of work has prevented this from happening over the last couple of seasons and I’m missing both the huge satisfaction it brings and the improved control over stock improvement. I’ve done lots of queen rearing in the past, but work has muscled its way in to too many weekends and evenings recently 7.

3 day old QCs ...

3 day old QCs …

I now have some perfectly adequate bees.

Actually, although they’re far from ‘perfect’ they are also far better than ‘adequate’.

I’ve got a couple of lines that have too much chalkbrood and almost all of them are less stable on the comb than I’d like. They don’t fall in wriggling gloops off the corner of the frame as some do, but they’re more active than I’d prefer. It’s a trait that has crept into some stocks over the last couple of years and I need to try and get rid of it.

The second is to provide better information on the provenance of my honey to potential and actual purchasers. There’s increasing interest in sourcing high quality local food and, as I’ve discussed recently on honey pricing, we should be aiming to provide a premium product (at a premium price 😉 ). The public are also increasingly aware that some of the major supermarkets have been reported to be selling adulterated honey. Providing details of the batch, the apiary and the area in which it was produced should help define it as a quality local product.

And generate repeat business.

Local honey

Finally, I’m planting up a new apiary on the west coast with dozens of pollen-bearing trees before I start beekeeping there. This has been a long and protracted process as it has involved clearing large areas of invasive rhododendron. The first 125+ native trees go in this winter – a mix of alder, loads of willow, hazel, blackthorn and wild cherry. More will follow if I manage to stop the deer eating them all.

Only another few acres of rhododendron to clear 🙁

The new apiary is in a Varroa-free region so I will not be moving my current bees there, but instead sourcing them from other areas fortunate enough to be mite-free. This is a long-term project.

Bee shed #3 … bigger and better.

The trees will need a few years to mature but the bee shed (bigger than all that have gone before 🙂 ) foundations are finished and the shed will be assembled sometime in March.

Holibobs

The holiday period is almost here. Many beekeepers will be thinking about fondant top-ups and oxalic acid mite treatment. I’ve done the latter already and – if your colonies are also broodless – hope you’ve done the same. All my hives remain reassuringly heavy but as the weather warms and brood rearing gears up I’ll have some fondant ready ‘just in case’.

I’ve covered last-minute beekeeping gifts in previous years. I think the (digital edition) American Bee Journal remains good value and provides a different perspective for UK beekeepers of what happens in the US.

And with that I’ll pour another glass of mead red wine 8 and wish you all Happy Christmas/Holidays (delete as appropriate).

David


 

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”.

Say “cheese”

A famous photographer was visiting a famous writer …

“Hello”, said the writer, “you’re the famous photographer. You must have a really good camera.”

“Hello”, said the photographer, “you’re the world-renowned writer. You must have a really good pen.”

Meaning of course that the quality of the camera is not the rate-limiting step in taking great photographs. The camera is just a tool.

I’m not a famous photographer. I’ve not even achieved the status of a totally-unknown photographer. But I do like taking photographs. About 99% of the images used on this site are mine, and I probably take a few thousand photographs a year (keeping several hundred and printing a handful 1).

Light and dark, Loch Sunart

Light and dark, Loch Sunart

I particularly enjoy landscape photography, but a large proportion of my photographs are of bees, beehives, apiaries and beekeeping. These are used in talks, here and elsewhere online and as an aide memoir to compensate for my patchy note taking and even patchier memory.

A picture is worth a thousand words

If you give beekeeping talks they really have to be illustrated. There’s nothing much worse (root canal treatment?) than sitting through an hour of Powerpoint slides containing nothing but text 2.

This website would be pretty turgid without the pictures. Some might say that even with the pictures … oh, never mind 😉

But most readers of this site probably give few talks and write fewer articles. That doesn’t mean a camera can’t come in useful.

My note taking – despite my best efforts – is often less than ideal. A quick snap of the apiary as I leave indicates which hive is where 3. It shows more or less how each hive is setup. Numbers of supers, type of split etc. If the hive numbering is also visible (more on that shortly) it can provide a useful memory boost when completing the notes … or a sanity check that the notes recorded actually relate to the hive in question.

Photographs are particularly useful when identifying diseases and pathogens. A good quality image of a questionable frame makes subsequent diagnosis much easier than relying on your memory. It might also be useful for the bee inspectors or the association’s disease maestro.

Martyn Hocking used a photograph to support his find of an Asian Hornet in Devon last year. A reasonable quality photo sent to alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk would undoubtedly help prioritise efforts to repel this new and unwelcome invader.

Tools of the trade

I rarely go anywhere without a camera. Sometimes it’s only my ageing phone, but even that’s got a reasonable camera. Newer smartphones have much better cameras with good video capabilities.

However, although the tale of the photographer and the writer has a lot of truth in it, there are certain circumstances when the limitations of the camera are rate-limiting 4.

For photographing bees or detail (e.g suspected disease) in the hive the usual limitations are accurately focusing on small objects close up and the amount of light that reaches the sensor. For these reasons I usually have a compact camera in the bee bag.

Sony RX100

For years I’ve been using a Sony RX100 5 which has a fast (i.e. wide aperture) short zoom Zeiss lens. This is an amazingly competent camera. It’s little bigger than a pack of playing cards, but the combination of a 20 megapixel sensor (5472 x 3648 pixels) and the exceptional lens generates outstanding quality images 6.

Used in one of the automatic modes the camera generally produces reasonably well-focused and exposed images, automagically increasing the ‘film speed’ (ISO) if the lighting is poor.

Sony RX100 mark 1

Sony RX100 mark 1

Unfortunately, a year or so ago I dropped the Sony onto a tiled floor and it’s never been quite the same since. The lens cover doesn’t always open or close and it has developed some unpredictable electronic hiccups. Although it’s still my ‘go to’ day-to-day camera these problems prompted me to look at an alternative.

Panasonic LX15

This is another 20 megapixel quality compact camera. It has four features that are really useful for the photography of bees and beekeeping. It has a fold-out LCD screen that helps compose the image at waist level. The LCD is also a touchscreen so you can simply tap it to select the focus point and take the image. It has excellent video capabilities, including 4k and slo-mo (high speed, 120 frames/second – e.g. these scout bees inspecting a bait hive entrance).

Finally, it has a feature called ‘post focus’ which allows you to take a photograph and choose the point of focus after recording the shot – more on this later.

However, although the LX15 is a very competent camera, the quality of the lens is not as good as the Sony 7. Although this isn’t usually an issue for images that will be displayed at a small size or online, it’s rather obvious when viewed enlarged or printed.

If you go to the trouble of taking a camera with you and find yourself in front of a stunning sunset or a breathtaking panorama (or mother and daughter queens on the same frame or an Asian hornet), you want to have confidence that the quality of the lens is good enough to record the scene.

RAW

Smartphones and most point and shoot cameras record the image in JPEG format. The image has an automatic amount of contrast enhancement, colour enrichment and sharpening applied by the camera. These changes to the image are irreversible and they usually result in a reasonable satisfactory picture 8.

However, for real flexibility the two cameras above (and many other reasonable quality cameras) have the option to record the image in RAW format i.e. the native data from the sensor. These can subsequently be processed (often quite quickly) on a computer to create the desired final image.

This post-processing allows local and global changes in exposure, cropping, colour, sharpness and contrast. All of my RAW images are post-processed with Adobe Lightroom. Those used online take no more than a minute to manipulate, while those destined for printing and framing get a lot more attention.

The one thing you cannot correct during post-processing is focus. If the subject of a picture is out of focus you’re scuppered 9.

Close ups

Taking close up handheld photographs of a moving subject, like a queen on a frame of bees, is not easy.

There she goes ...

There she goes …

This is due to a combination of the available lighting, the shallow depth of field and the movement of the subject.

Because the bees are moving you need a reasonably fast shutter speed to freeze them. A fast shutter speed – unless the lighting is exceptionally bright – means that the aperture 10 must be set to maximise the light getting to the sensor. You’ll often hear photographers talk about wide aperture, or using the lens ‘wide open’.

And this is where the problems really start. Due to the laws of physics, the wider the aperture, the smaller the depth of field.

Depth of field

The depth of field refers to the vertical slice of the image that is in focus. Anything in front or behind this will be out of focus.

Not only does depth of field depend upon the aperture, but it is also influenced by the distance between the lens and the subject. The closer the subject, the shallower the depth of field.

Shallow depth of field

Shallow depth of field – heavily cropped image

As an example, using a camera 11 focused on a subject 10 metres away the depth of field is 5.79 m (from ~7.8 to ~13.6 m). Everything between these distances will be in focus.

At 1 metre the depth of field is 11 cm (from 0.95 to 1.06 m).

At 30 cm the depth of field is 4mm (from ~29.8 to ~ 30.2 cm).

At anything less than 15 cm the depth of field is 1 mm or less.

Can you hold a camera steady enough to keep the subject within the 1 mm depth of field you have?

What about if you are holding the frame with one hand and the camera with the other?

Inevitably, many close-ups are out of focus 🙁

LX15 post focus capabilities

Probably the greatest recent advances in compact digital cameras have been in their video capabilities. The Panasonic LX15 takes advantage of these to allow you to record the scene and decide afterwards which part of the final image you want to be in focus.

It achieves this by analysing the scene and determining the closest and the most distant objects in the field of view. When you press the shutter it then takes a 1-2 second 4k (3840 x 2160 pixels) resolution video, changing the point of focus throughout.

This short video shows how this looks (the camera was handheld).

You can then, in camera or during post-processing, scroll through the video and choose precisely the frame that has the desired subject in focus. The three images below are all from the video above. The originals are cropped to ~4 megapixels, but reduced further in size and quality to present here.

This is pretty remarkable technology.

It’s worth remembering that, for any individual captured frame, the depth of field is still determined by the aperture the lens is set at. The images above are all at f1.6 (i.e. just about wide open).

LX15 focus stacking

You can even combine frames from the video with different planes of focus to make a composite image with a deeper overall depth of focus, just covering the area of the image you are interested in.

This focus stacking feature, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work well with a moving subject like bees on a frame. Similarly, you either need a very steady hand or (better) a tripod. I’ve only used this feature a few times and don’t see a routine application for it. I’d prefer to modify the depth of field by changing the aperture to achieve the same end result.

Limitations of post-focus and focus-stacking

Post-focus sounds like the perfect solution to solve the problems with close up photography.

The two biggest limitations are the size and format of the final images. These are in JPEG format and ‘only’ 3840 x 2160 pixels (8 megapixels, rather than the 20 megapixels that the camera is capable of with still pictures). These significantly reduce the options for subsequent enlargement and negate most options for post-processing. However, for online use (or emailing to the regional bee inspector) they are more than adequate.

The combination of changing the plane of focus during the short video and the movement of a handheld camera can mean that the desired subject is only fleetingly – if ever – in focus.

Or is in focus at the precise moment a big fat drone toddles in front of your beautiful queen 🙁

I suspect that post-focus will become commonplace on cameras (and smartphones). It’s got a lot to offer, but isn’t yet a perfect solution.

Propolis

Both the cameras mentioned cope well with a periodic liberal coating of propolis. You can scrape it off the camera body easily, but it’s worth trying to keep it off the rear LCD panel. In particular, try to keep the touchscreen LCD of the LX15 propolis-free.

Panasonic LX15

Panasonic LX15

Real bee photography

If you want to see some better quality beekeeping photography have a look at the images by Simon Croson or the wonderful pictures by Eric Tourneret in Cueillers de Miel.

Finally … remember that the best camera is the one that you have with you 😉


Colophon

Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye

Walker Evans: The Hungry Eye

Saying “cheese” makes your mouth adopt a shape roughly approximating a smile. It is therefore an instruction given by photographers to help create more appealing images.

It’s not essential. Walker Evans, a great photographer famous for his work for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930’s didn’t ask his subjects to say “cheese”. His portraits and photojournalism are outstanding.

In languages other than English different instructions are sometimes given e.g. most Latin American countries use Diga whiskey (say “whiskey”), Sweden Säg omelett (say “omelette”) and Bulgaria Zele (“Cabbage”). Lots of countries use a variant of Watch the birdy or Smile at the little bird.

The idiom A picture is worth a thousand words dates back over 100 years to a newspaper article in 1911 about journalism and publicity where the phrase “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words” was used. Even earlier, Napoleon (1769-1821) is reported to have said Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours” (A good sketch is better than a long speech).