Category Archives: Principles

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.


 

Oxalic acid (Api Bioxal) preparation

This post updates and replaces one published three years ago (which has now been archived). The registered readership of this site has increased >200% since then and so it will be new to the majority of visitors.

It’s also particularly timely.

I will be treating my own colonies with oxalic acid in the next week or so.

Mites and viruses

Varroa levels in the hive must be controlled for successful overwintering of colonies. If you do not control the mites – and by ‘control’ I mean slaughter 😉 – the viruses they transmit to the overwintering bees will limit the chances of the colony surviving.

The most important virus transmitted by Varroa is deformed wing virus (DWV). At high levels, DWV reduces the lifespan of worker bees.

This is irrelevant in late May – there are huge numbers of workers and they’re only going to live for about 6 weeks anyway.

In contrast, reduced longevity is very significant in the winter where more limited numbers of overwintering bees must survive for months to maintain the colony through to the Spring. If these bees die early (e.g. in weeks, not months), the colony will dwindle to a pathetic little cluster and likely freeze to death on a cold winter night.

Game over. You are now an ex-beekeeper 🙁

To protect the overwintering bees you must reduce mite levels in late summer by applying an appropriate miticide. I’ve discussed this at length previously in When to treat? – the most-read post on this site.

I’d argue that the timing of this late summer treatment is the most important decision about Varroa control that a beekeeper has to make.

However, although the time for that decision is now long-gone, there are still important opportunities for mite control in the coming weeks.

In the bleak midwinter

Miticides are not 100% effective. A proportion of the mites will survive this late summer treatment 1. It’s a percentages game, and the maximum percentage you can hope to kill is 90-95%.

If left unchecked, the surviving mites will replicate in the reducing brood reared between October and the beginning of the following year. That means that your colony will potentially contain more mites in January than it did at the end of the late summer treatment.

Mid September

Late summer mite treatment and no midwinter treatment.

Over several years this is a recipe for disaster. The graph above shows modelled data that indicates the consequences of only treating in late summer. Look at the mite levels (in red, right hand vertical axis) that increase year upon year.

The National Bee Unit states that if mite levels exceed 1000 then immediate treatment is needed to protect the colony. In the modelled data above that’s in the second year 2.

In contrast, here is what happens when you also treat in “midwinter” (I’ll discuss what “midwinter” means shortly).

Two optimal treatments

Two optimal treatments

Mite numbers remain below 1000. This is what you are aiming for.

For the moment ignore the specific timing of the treatment – midwinter, late December etc.

Instead concentrate on the principle that determines when the second treatment should be applied.

During the winter the colony is likely to go through a broodless period 3.

When broodless all the mites in the colony must, by definition, be phoretic.

There’s no brood, so any mites in the colony must be riding around on the backs of workers.

A phoretic mite is an easy mite to kill 4.

A “midwinter” double whammy

A single oxalic acid based treatment applied during the winter broodless period is an ideal way to minimise the mite levels before the start of the following season.

Oxalic acid is easy to administer, relatively inexpensive and well-tolerated by the bees.

The combination – a double whammy – of a late summer treatment with an appropriate miticide and a “midwinter” treatment with oxalic acid should be all that is needed to control mites for the entire season.

However, “midwinter” does not mean midwinter, or shouldn’t.

Historically, winter mite treatments were applied between Christmas and New Year. It’s a convenient time of the year, most beekeepers are on holiday and it’s a good excuse to avoid spending the afternoon scoffing mince pies in front of the TV.

Or with the outlaws inlaws 😉

But by that time of year many colonies will have started brooding again.

With sealed brood, mites have somewhere to hide, so the treatment will be less effective than it might otherwise have been 5.

Why go to all the trouble of treating if it’s going to be less effective than it could be?

The key point is not the timing … it’s the broodlessness of the colony.

If the colony is broodless then it’s an appropriate time to treat. My Fife colonies were broodless this year by mid-October. This is earlier than previous seasons where I usually have waited until the first protracted cold period in the winter – typically the last week in November until the first week in December.

If they remain broodless this week I’ll be treating them. There’s nothing to be gained by waiting.

Oxalic acid (OA) treatment options

In the UK there are several approved oxalic acid-containing treatments. The only one I have experience of is Api-Bioxal, so that’s the only one I’ll discuss.

I also give an overview of the historical method of preparing oxalic acid as it has a bearing on the amount of Api-Bioxal used and will help you (and me) understand the maths.

OA can be delivered by vaporisation (sublimation), or by tricking (dribbling) or spraying a solution of the chemical.

I’ve discussed vaporisation before so won’t rehash things again here.

Trickling has a lot to commend it. It is easy to do, very quick 6 and requires almost no specialised equipment, either for delivery or personal protection (safety).

Trickling is what I always recommend for beginners. It’s what I did for years and is a method I still regularly use.

The process for trickling is very straightforward. You simply trickle a specific strength oxalic acid solution in thin syrup over the bees in the hive.

Beekeepers have used oxalic acid for years as a ‘hive cleaner’, as recommended by the BBKA and a range of other official and semi-official organisations. All that changed when Api-Bioxal was licensed for use by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD).

Oxalic acid and Api-Bioxal, the same but different

Api-Bioxal is the VMD-approved powdered oxalic acid-containing miticide. It is widely available, relatively inexpensive (when compared to other VMD-approved miticides) and very easy to use.

Spot the difference ...

Spot the difference …

It’s very expensive when compared to oxalic acid purchased in bulk.

Both work equally well as both contain exactly the same active ingredient.

Oxalic acid.

Api-Bioxal has other stuff in it (meaning the oxalic acid content is a fraction below 90% by weight) and these additives make it much less suitable for sublimation. I’ll return to these additives in a minute or two. These additives make the maths a bit more tricky when preparing small volumes at the correct concentration – this is the purpose of this post.

How much and how strong?

To trickle or dribble oxalic acid-containing solutions you’ll need to prepare it at home, store it appropriately and administer it correctly.

I’ve dealt with how to administer OA by trickling previously. This is all about preparation and storage.

The how much is easy.

You’ll need 5ml of oxalic acid-containing solution per seam of bees. In cold weather the colony will be reasonably well clustered and its likely there will be a maximum of no more than 8 or 9 seams of bees, even in a very strong colony.

Hold on … what’s a seam of bees?

Three seams of bees

Looking down on the colony from above, a seam of bees is the row visible between the top bars of the frames.

So, for every hive you need 5ml per seam, perhaps 45ml in total … with an extra 10% to cover inevitable spillages. It’s not that expensive, so don’t risk running out.

And the strength?

The recommended concentration to use oxalic acid at in the UK has – for many years – been 3.2% w/v (weight per volume) in 1:1 syrup. This is less concentrated than is recommended in continental Europe (see comments below on Api-Bioxal).

My advice 7 – as it’s the only concentration I’ve used – is to stick to 3.2%.

Calculators at the ready!

The oxalic acid in Api Bioxal is actually oxalic acid dihydrate. Almost all the powdered oxalic acid you can buy is oxalic acid dihydrate.

The molecular formula of oxalic acid is C2H2O4. This has a molecular weight of 90.03. The dihydrated form of oxalic acid has the formula C2H2O4.2H2O 8 which has a molecular weight of 126.07.

Therefore, in one gram of oxalic acid dihydrate powder (NOT Api Bioxal … I’ll get to Api Bioxal in a minute! Have patience Grasshopper) there is:

90.03/126.07 = 0.714 g of oxalic acid.

Therefore, to make up a 3.2% oxalic acid solution in 1:1 syrup you need to use the following recipe, or scale it up as needed.

  • 100 g tap water
  • 100 g white granulated sugar
  • Mix well
  • 7.5 g of oxalic acid dihydrate

The final volume will be 167 ml i.e. sufficient to treat over 30 seams of bees, or between 3 and 4 strong colonies (including the 10% ‘just in case’).

The final concentration is 3.2% w/v oxalic acid

(7.5 * 0.714)/167 * 100 = 3.2% 9.

Check my maths 😉

Recipe to prepare Api-Bioxal solution for trickling

Warning – the recipe on the side of a packet of Api-Bioxal makes up a much stronger solution of oxalic acid than has historically been used in the UK. Stronger isn’t necessarily better. The recipe provided is 35 g Api-Bioxal to 500 ml of 1:1 syrup. By my calculations this recipe makes sufficient solution at a concentration of 4.4% w/v to treat 11 hives. 

There’s an additional complication when preparing an Api-Bioxal solution for trickling. This is because Api-Bioxal contains two additional ingredients – glucose and powdered silica. These cutting agents account for 11.4% of the weight of the Api-Bioxal. The remaining 88.6% is oxalic acid dihydrate.

Using the same logic as above, 1g of Api-Bioxal therefore contains:

(90.03/126.07) * 0.886 = 0.633 g of oxalic acid.

Therefore, to make up 167 ml of a 3.2% Api-Bioxal solution you need to use the following recipe, or scale up/down appropriately:

  • 100 g tap water
  • 100 g white granulated sugar
  • Mix well
  • 8.46 g of Api-Bioxal

Again, check my maths … you need to add (7.5 / 0.886 = 8.46) grams of Api-Bioxal as only 88.6% of the Api-Bioxal is oxalic acid dihydrate.

Scaling up and down

8.46 g is not straightforward to weigh – though see below – and 167 ml may be too much for the number of hives you have. Here’s a handy table showing the amounts of Api-Bioxal to add to 1:1 syrup to make up the amount required.

Api-Bioxal recipes for 3.2% trickling in 1:1 syrup

The Api-Bioxal powder weights shown in bold represent the three packet sizes that can be purchased.

I don’t indicate the amounts of sugar and water to mix to make the syrup up. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader … remember that 100 g of sugar and 100 ml of water make 167 ml of 1:1 (w/v) syrup.

Weighing small amounts of Api-Bioxal

The amount of Api-Bioxal used is important. A few grams here or there matter.

If you are making the mix up for a limited number of hives you will have to weigh just a few grams of Api-Bioxal. You cannot do this on standard digital kitchen scales which work in 5 g increments.

Buy a set of these instead.

Digital scales … perfect for Api-Bioxal (and yeast)

These cost about a tenner and are perfect to weigh out small amounts 10 of Api-Bioxal … or yeast for making pizza dough.

A few words of caution

I don’t want to spoil your fun but please remember to take care when handling or using oxalic acid, either as a powder or when made up as a solution.

Oxalic acid is toxic

  • The lethal dose for humans is reported to be between 15 and 30 g. It causes kidney failure due to precipitation of solid calcium oxalate.
  • Clean up spills of powder or solution immediately.
  • Take care not to inhale the powder.
  • Store in a clearly labelled container out of reach of children.
  • Wear gloves.
  • Do not use containers or utensils you use for food preparation. A well rinsed plastic milk bottle, very clearly labelled, is a good way to store the solution prior to use.

Storage

Storage of oxalic acid syrup at ambient temperatures rapidly results in the acid-mediated breakdown of sugars (particularly fructose) to generate hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF). As this happens the colour of the oxalic acid-containing solution darkens significantly.

This breakdown happens whether you use oxalic acid or Api-Bioxal.

Stored OA solution and colour change

Stored OA solution and colour change …

HMF is toxic to honey bees at high concentrations. Studies from ~40 years ago showed that HMF concentrations below 30 mg/l were safe, but above 150 mg/l were toxic 11.

At 15°C HMF levels in OA solution can reach 150 mg/l in a little over a week. At room temperature this happens much faster, with HMF levels exceeding 150 mg/l in only 2-3 days. In the dark HMF levels build up slightly less quickly … but only slightly 12.

Therefore only make up OA solutions when you need them.

If you must store your oxalic acid-containing syrup for any length of time it should be in the fridge (4°C). Under these conditions HMF levels should remain well below toxic levels for at least one year. However, don’t store it for this long … use it and discard the excess.

Or prepare excess and share it with colleagues in your beekeeping association.

Don’t use discoloured oxalic acid solutions as they’ve been stored incorrectly and may well harm your bees.

Another final few words of caution

I assume you don’t have a fridge dedicated to beekeeping? That being the case please ensure that the bottle containing stored oxalic acid is labelled clearly and kept well out of the reach of children.


Notes

A quick trawl through the Veterinary Medicines Directorate database turns up several oxalic acid-containing solutions for managing Varroa. These include:

  • Oxuvar – approved for trickling or spraying, an aqueous solution of oxalic acid to which you add glucose if you intend to use it for trickling.
  • Oxybee – approved for trickling (and possibly other routes, but the paperwork was a minefield!), contains oxalic acid, glycerol and essential oils and is promoted as having a long shelf life.
  • VarroMed – approved for trickling, contains oxalic acid and formic acid and can be used throughout the year in one way or another.

I’ve not read the documentation provided with these and so don’t know the precise concentration of oxalic acid they contain. It will be listed as an active ingredient. I have not used these products. As with everything else on this site, I only write about methods or products I am familiar with. I therefore cannot comment on their relative efficacy compared to Api-Bioxal, to Apivar or to careful siting of your hives in relation to ley lines … or 5G phone masts.

 

Long distance beekeeping

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

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

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

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

But 2020 has been an exceptional circumstance …

Mid-March madness

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

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

The wild west

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

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

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

Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First inspections

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

Overwintered nuc with brace comb

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

Safely back in the hive

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

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

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

Swarm control

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

Primroses – late April 2020

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

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

A priority this year was not to lose any swarms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New comb with queen already laying it up

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

Getting the timing right … at least partly

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

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

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

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

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

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

A minor catastrophe

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

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

Nuked nucs

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

How is the queen supposed to find the entrance?

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

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

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

Spring honey, nucs and queens

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

A fat frame of spring honey

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

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

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

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

Mid-June and the foxgloves are in flower

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

Late June rearrangements

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

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

Comb in feeder

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

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

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

Good laying pattern

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

Expanded nucs on the left, production hives on the right

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

Summer honey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What didn’t get done?

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

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

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

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

Here’s one I did manage to replace

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

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


 

Trees for bees

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triffids and mad honey

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

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

Pine marten raiding the bird table

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

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

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

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

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

Trees for Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why trees?

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

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

Native trees

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

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

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

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

Alder

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

Alder

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

Hazel

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

Hazel

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

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

Gean

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

Poplar or aspen

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

Poplar or aspen (Populus tremula)

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

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

Inaccessible aspen

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

Willow

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

Willow cuttings ready for planting

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

Willow male catkins

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

Pot grown cutting ready for planting

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

Sabre planting and oversize cuttings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gimme Shelter

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

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

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

Oh deer

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

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

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

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

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

Not beekeeping?

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

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

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

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


Notes

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

 

Aristotle’s hairless black thieves

Aristotle not in his beesuit

Almost every article or review on chronic bee paralysis virus 1 starts with a reference to Aristotle describing the small, black, hairless ‘thieves‘, which he observed in the hives of beekeepers on Lesbos over 2300 years ago 2.

Although Aristotle was a great observer of nature, he didn’t get everything right.

And when it came to bees, he got quite a bit wrong.

He appreciated the concept of a ‘ruling’ bee in the hive, but thought that the queen was actually a king 3. He also recognised different castes, though he thought that drones (which he said “is the largest of them all, has no sting and is stupid”) were a different species.

He also reported that bees stored noises in earthenware jars (!) and carried stones on windy days to avoid getting blown away 4.

However, over subsequent millenia, a disease involving black, hairless honey bees has been recognised by beekeepers around the world, so in this instance Aristotle was probably correct.

Little blacks, maladie noire, schwarzsucht

The names given to the symptomatic bees or the disease include little blacks or black robbers in the UK, mal nero in Italy, maladie noire in France or schwarzsucht (black addiction) in Germany. Sensibly, the Americans termed the disease hairless black syndrome. All describe the characteristic appearance of individual diseased bees.

Evidence that the disease had a viral aetiology came from Burnside in the 1940’s who demonstrated the symptoms could be recapitulated in caged bees by injection, feeding or spraying them with bacterial-free extracts of paralysed bees. Twenty years later, Leslie Bailey isolated and characterised the first two viruses from honey bees. One of these, chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV), caused the characteristic symptoms described first by Aristotle 5.

CBPV causes chronic bee paralysis (CBP), the disease first described by Aristotle.

CBPV infection is reported to present with two different types of symptoms, or syndromes. The first is the hairless, black, often shiny or greasy-looking bees described above 6. The second is more typically abnormal shivering or trembling of the wings, often associated with abdominal bloating 7. These bees are often found on the top bars of the frames during an inspection. Both symptoms can occur in the same hive 8.

CBP onset appears rapid and the first thing many beekeepers know about it is a large pile (literally handfuls) of dead bees beneath the hive entrance.

It’s a distressing sight.

Despite thousands of bees often succumbing to disease, the colony often survives though it may not build up enough again to overwinter successfully.

BeeBase has photographs and videos of the typical symptoms of CBPV infection.

Until recently, CBP was a disease most beekeepers rarely actually encountered.

Emerging and re-emerging disease

I’ve got a few hundred hive year’s worth 9 of beekeeping experience but have only twice seen CBP in a normally-managed colony. One was mine, another was in my association apiary a few years later.

A beekeeper managing 2 to 3 colonies might well never see the disease.

A bee farmer running 2 to 3 hundred (or thousand) colonies is much more likely to have seen the disease.

As will become clear, it is increasingly likely for bee farmers to see CBP in their colonies.

Virologists define viral diseases as emerging if they are new in a population. Covid-19, or more correctly SARS-CoV-2 (the virus), is an emerging virus. They use the term re-emerging if they are known but increasing in incidence.

Ebola is a re-emerging disease. It was first discovered in humans in 1976 and caused a few dozen sporadic outbreaks 10 until the 2013-16 epidemic in West Africa which killed over 11,000 people.

Often the terms are used interchangeably.

Sporadic and rare … but increasing?

Notwithstanding the apparently sporadic and relatively rare incidence of CBP in the UK (and elsewhere; the virus has a global distribution) anecdotal evidence suggested that cases of disease were increasing.

In particular, bee farmers were reporting increasing numbers of hives afflicted with the disease, and academic contacts overseas involved in monitoring bee health also reported increased prevalence.

Something can be rare but definitely increasing if you’re certain about the numbers you are dealing with. If you only have anecdotal evidence to go on you cannot be certain about anything very much.

If the numbers are small but not increasing there are probably other things more important to worry about.

However, if the numbers are small but definitely increasing you might have time to develop strategies to prevent further spread.

Far better you identify and define an increasing threat before it increases too much.

With research grant support from the UKRI/BBSRC (the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) to the Universities of Newcastle (Principle Investigator, Prof. Giles Budge) and St Andrews, and additional backing from the BFA (Bee Farmers’ Association), we set out to determine whether CBPV really was increasing and, if so, what the increase correlated with (if anything).

This component of the study, entitled Chronic bee paralysis as a serious emerging threat to honey bees, was published in Nature Communications last Friday (Budge et al., [2020] Nat. Comms. 11:2164 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-15919-0).

The paper is Open Access and can be downloaded by anyone without charge.

There are additional components of the study involving the biology of CBPV, changes in virus virulence, other factors (e.g.environmental) that contribute to disease and ways to mitigate and potentially treat disease. These are all ongoing and will be published when complete.

Is chronic bee paralysis disease increasing?

Yes.

We ‘mined’ the National Bee Units’ BeeBase database for references to CBPV, or the symptoms associated with CBP disease. The data in BeeBase reflects the thousands of apiary visits, either by call-out or at random, by dedicated (and usually overworked) bee inspectors. In total we reviewed almost 80,000 apiary visits in the period from 2006 to 2017.

There were no cases of CBPV in 2006. In the 11 years from 2007 to 2017 the CBP cases (recorded symptomatically) in BeeBase increased exponentially, with almost twice as much disease reported in commercial apiaries. The majority of this increase in commercial apiaries occured in the last 3 years of data surveyed.

Apiaries recorded with chronic bee paralysis between 2006 and 2017.

BeeBase covers England and Wales only. By 2017 CBPV was being reported in 80% of English and Welsh counties.

During the same period several other countries (the USA, several in Europe and China) have also reported increases in CBPV incidence. This looks like a global trend of increased disease.

But is this disease caused by CBPV?

It should be emphasised that BeeBase records symptoms of disease – black, hairless bees; shaking/shivering bees, piles of bees at the hive entrance etc.

How can we be sure that the reports filed by the many different bee inspectors 11 are actually caused by chronic bee paralysis virus?

Or indeed, any virus?

To do this we asked bee inspectors to collect samples of bees with CBPV-like symptoms during their 2017 apiary visits. We then screened these samples with an exquisitely sensitive and specific qPCR (quantitative polymerase chain reaction) assay.

Almost 90% of colonies that were symptomatically positive for CBP were also found to have very high levels of CBPV present. We are therefore confident that the records of symptoms in the historic BeeBase database really do reflect an exponential increase of chronic bee paralysis disease in England and Wales since 2007.

Interestingly, about 25% of the asymptomatic colonies also tested positive for CBPV. The assay used was very sensitive and specific and allowed the quantity of CBPV to be determined. The amount of virus present in symptomatic bees was 235,000 times higher than those without symptoms.

Further work will be needed to determine whether CBPV is routinely present in similar proportions of ‘healthy’ bees, and whether these go on and develop or transmit disease.

Disease clustering

Using the geospatial and temporal (where and when) data associated with the BeeBase records we investigated whether CBPV symptomatic apiaries were clustered.

For example, in any year were cases more likely to be near other cases?

They were.

Across all years of data analysed together, or for individual years, there was good evidence for spatial clustering of cases.

We also looked at whether cases in one year clustered in the same geographic region in subsequent years.

They did not.

Clustering of CBPV – spatial and temporal analysis.

This was particularly interesting. It appears as though there were increasing numbers of individual clustered outbreaks each year, but that the clusters were not necessarily in the same geographic region as those in previous or subsequent years.

The disease appears somewhere, increases locally and then disappears again.

Apiary-level disease risk factors

The metadata associated with Beebase records is relatively sparse. Details of specific colony management methods are not recorded. Local environmental factors – OSR, borage, June gap etc. – are also missing. Inevitably, some of the factors that may be associated with increased risk are not recorded.

A relatively rare disease that is spatially but not temporally clustered is a tricky problem for which to define risk factors. Steve Rushton, the senior author on the paper, did a sterling job of analysing the data that was available.

The two strongest apiary-level factors that contributed to disease risk were:

  1. Commercial beekeeping – apiaries run by bee farmers had a 1.5 times greater risk of recording CBP disease.
  2. Importing bees – apiaries which had imported bees in the two preceding years had a 1.8 times greater risk of recording CBP disease.

Bee farming is often very different from amateur beekeeping. The colony management strategies are altered for the scale of the operation and for the particular nectar sources being exploited. For example, colonies may already be booming to exploit the early season OSR. This may provide ideal conditions for CBPV transmission which is associated with very strong hives and/or confinement.

Bee imports does not mean disease imports

There are good records of honey bees imported through official channels. This includes queens, packages and nucleus colonies. Between 2007 and 2017 there were over 130,000 imports, 90% of which were queens.

An increased risk of CBP disease in apiaries with imported bees does not mean that the imported bees were the source of the disease.

With the data available it is not possible to distinguish between the following two hypotheses:

  1. imported honey bees are carriers of CBPV or the source of a new more virulent strain(s) of the virus, or
  2. imported honey bees are susceptible to CBPV strain(s) endemic in the UK which they were not exposed to in their native country.

There are ways to tease these two possibilities apart … which is obviously something we are keen to complete.

All publicity is good publicity …

… but not necessarily accurate publicity 🙁

We prepared a press release to coincide with the publication of the paper. Typically this is used verbatim by some reporters whereas others ask for an interview and then include additional quotes.

Some more accurately than others 🙁

The Times, perhaps reflecting the current zeitgeist, seemed to suggest a directionality to the disease that we certainly cannot be sure of:

The Times

Its sister publication, The Sun, “bigged it up” to indicate – again – that bees are being wiped out.

The Sun

And the comments included these references to the current Covid-19 pandemic:

  • “Guess its beevid – 19. I no shocking”
  • “It’s the radiation from 5g..google it”
  • Local honey is supposed to carry antibodies of local virus and colds – it helps humans to eat the stuff or so they say. So it could be that the bees are actually infected by covid. No joke.

All of which I found deeply worrying, on a number of levels.

The Telegraph also used the ‘wiped out’ reference (not a quote, though it looks like one). They combined it with a picture of – why am I not surprised? – a bumble bee. D’oh!

The Telegraph

The Daily Mail (online) had a well-illustrated and pretty extensive article but still slipped in “The lethal condition, which is likely spread from imports of queen bees from overseas …”. The unmoderated comments – 150 and counting – repeatedly refer to the dangers of 5G and EMFs (electric and magnetic fields).

I wonder how many of the comments were posted from a mobile phone on a cellular data or WiFi network?

😉

Conclusions

CBPV is causing increasing incidence of CBP disease in honey bees, both in the UK and abroad. In the UK the risk factors associated with CBP disease are commercial bee farming and bee imports. We do not know whether similar risk factors apply outside the UK.

Knowing that CBP disease is increasing significantly is important. It means that resources – essentially time and money – can be dedicated knowing it is a real issue. It’s felt real to some bee farmers for several years, but we now have a much better idea of the scale of the problem.

We also know that commercial bee farming and bee imports are both somehow involved. How they are involved is the subject of ongoing research.

Practical solutions to mitigate the development of CBP disease can be developed once we understand the disease better.


Full disclosure:

I am an author on the paper discussed here and am the Principle Investigator on one of the two research grants that funds the study. Discussion is restricted to the published study, without too much speculation on broader aspects of the work. I am not going to discuss unpublished or ongoing aspects of the work (including in any answers to comments or questions that are posted). To do so will compromise our ability to publish future studies and, consequently, jeopardise the prospects of the early career researchers in the Universities of St Andrews and Newcastle who are doing all the hard work.

Acknowledgements

This work was funded jointly by BBSRC grants BB/R00482X/1 (Newcastle University) and BB/R00305X/1 (University of St Andrews) in partnership with The Bee Farmers’ Association and the National Bee Unit of the Animal and Plant Health Agency.

Principles of swarm control

Having introduced swarm prevention last week it’s probably timely to now consider the basic principles of swarm control.

This is going to be relatively high level overview of why swarm control works (which it usually does if implemented properly), rather than a detailed ‘how to’ guide.

That’s because knowing what to do and when to do it is so much easier if you understand why you’re doing it.

That way, when faced with a colony clearly committed to swarming, you can manipulate the colony to avert disaster.

Which it isn’t … though losing a swarm might feel like that to a new beekeeper.

Welcome to the club

All beekeepers lose swarms, even those who rigorously and carefully employ swarm prevention methods. I lost one last year and would have lost another two were it not for a clipped queen in one 1 and some particularly unobservant and cackhanded beekeeping with another.

Mea culpa.

However, it’s called swarm prevention because it usually delays and sometimes prevents swarming.

But at some point the enthusiasm of the bees to reproduce often outstrips the possible interventions that can be applied by the beekeeper to the intact colony.

At that point, swarm control becomes necessary.

How do you know when that point has been reached?

Typically, if you carefully inspect the colony on a regular seven day cycle you will easily identify the preliminary stages of swarming. You will then have ample time to take the necessary steps to avoid losing the majority of your bees.

When is swarm control needed?

At some point in late spring 2 a colony is likely to make preparations to swarm.

Triggers for this are many and varied.

The colony may be running out of space because the foragers have backfilled the brood box with nectar during a strong spring flow.

Pheromone levels produced by the ageing queen are reducing. These usually act to suppress the formation of queen cells.

Alternatively, although mechanistically similar, the colony may be so populous that the queen mandibular pheromone concentration is – by being distributed to many more workers – effectively reduced. As described last week, in such strong colonies the queen rarely visits the bottom edges of the comb. Consequently, the levels of queen footprint pheromone – another suppressor of queen cell formation – in this region of the nest is reduced.

Whatever the trigger – and there are probably others – the colony starts producing queen cells.

Sometimes these are very obvious, decorating the lower edges of the drawn comb.

Sealed queen cells

At other times they are hidden in plain sight … in the middle of the comb, with a moving, wiggling, shifting, dancing curtain of bees covering them 3.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

The production of queen cells indicates that swarm prevention has not been successful and that swarm control is now needed.

More specifically, it is the production of charged queen cells with a larva sitting in a deep bed of Royal Jelly, that indicates prompt swarm control is required.

Charged queen cell ...

Charged queen cell …

And remember, there may well be more than one queen cell and they are not always on the same frame.

Unsealed and sealed queen cells

With experience you can ‘age’ queen cells by their size and appearance. The larva in the queen cell in the photo above hatched from the egg about 3-4 days ago.

When the larva is five days old the cell will be sealed and the larva pupates 4.

Queen development

Queen development …

In a further 8 days i.e. 16 days after the egg was originally laid in the cell, the new virgin queen will emerge.

But the colony will have already swarmed.

That is because, under normal circumstances, a colony usually swarms on the day that the queen cell is sealed

There are two events that often delay swarming beyond the day that the queen cell is sealed.

The first you have no control over. It’s the weather. Colonies usually swarm on lovely warm, sunny days. If it’s cold and wet, or blowin’ a hoolie, the swarm will wisely wait for a day with better weather. Wouldn’t you?

If you have a week of poor weather in mid/late May (the peak swarming season around here at least) then the first day of good weather is often chaos with swarms all over the place 🙂

Swarmtastic!

The second thing that delays swarming is if the old queen has a clipped wing. In this instance the swarm usually waits until the new queen emerges before trying to leaving the colony.

The other event, less routine in my experience, that stops swarming 5 is supercedure. In this, the queen is replaced in situ, without the colony swarming. Queen cells are still produced, usually rather few in number 6. I’ll discuss supercedure at some point in the future.

Destroying queen cells is not swarm control

If you simply destroy developing queen cells the colony will eventually swarm.

Either you’ll miss a queen cell – and they can be very hard to spot in a busy colony – or the bees will start one from an older larva and the colony will swarm before your next 7 day inspection.

Beekeeping is full of uncertainties. That’s why these pages are littered with caveats or adverbs like ‘usually’. However, ‘the colony will eventually swarm’ needs no such qualification. If all you do is knock back queen cells you will lose a swarm. 

I said in the opening section that losing a swarm is not a disaster, though it might feel that way to a beginner.

In reality, for a beekeeper who thinks destroying queen cells is a form of swarm control, losing a swarm can be a disaster 7.

When is ‘not a disaster’ actually a disaster?

Here’s the scenario … on one of your regular inspections (delayed a week because of a long weekend in Rome 8) you open the hive and find half a dozen fat, sealed queen cells decorating the lower edges of a couple of frames.

Using your trusty hive tool you swiftly obliterate them.

Job done 😀

But wait … under normal circumstances when does the colony usually swarm?

On the day the queen cell is sealed.

That colony had already swarmed 😥 

She’s gone …

What’s more, it may well have swarmed several days ago. Therefore there will no longer be any eggs or very young larvae in the hive that could be reared as new queens. Without acquiring a new queen (or a frame of eggs and young larvae) from elsewhere that colony is doomed 😥

So … repeat after medestroying queen cells is not swarm control.

If they are sealed, the colony has probably swarmed already and destroying all that are there jeopardises the viability of the colony.

If they are not sealed, then destroying them will not stop them making more and you will miss one tucked away in the corner of a frame.

And the colony will swarm anyway.

Generally, destroying all the queen cells in a colony is a lose-lose situation 🙁

The principles of swarm control

Disappointingly, almost none of the above has been about the principles of swarm control 9. However, the point I make about colony viability allows me to get back on topic in a rather contrived manner 😉

When a colony swarms, ~75% of the adult bees and the mated, laying queen fly away.

They leave behind a much depleted hive containing lots of stores, some sealed brood, some larvae, some eggs and one or more sealed queen cells.

Swarming is colony reproduction. Therefore, both the swarm and the swarmed colony (the bits that are left behind) have the potential to form a new fully viable colony.

The swarm needs to find a new nest site, draw comb, lay eggs and rear foragers. The swarmed colony needs to let the new queen(s) emerge, for one queen to get mated and return to the hive and start laying eggs.

A small swarm

A small swarm …

But importantly these events take time. Therefore, neither the swarm nor the swarmed colony are likely to swarm again in the same season.

And that, in a nutshell, describes the two defining features of many types of swarm control:

  • the colony is manipulated in a way to retain its potential to form a viable colony
  • the colony is unlikely to swarm again until the following season

So, which parts of the hive population have the potential to form a viable colony?

The bees in the colony

A colony contains a mated, laying queen. The thousands of eggs she lays are part of the developing workforce of larvae and pupae, all of which are cared for by the very youngest adult workers in the hive, the nurse bees. Finally, the third component of the colony are the so-called flying bees 10, the foragers responsible for collecting pollen and nectar.

The principles of swarm control

Of those three components – the queen, flying bees, and the combination of developing bees and nurse bees – only the latter has the potential to form a new colony alone. 

The queen cannot, she needs worker bees to do all the work for her.

The flying bees cannot as they’re unmated and cannot therefore lay fertilised eggs.

But if the combination of nurse bees and developing brood contains either eggs or very young larvae they do have the potential to rear a new queen and so create a viable colony.

Furthermore, thanks to their flexible temporal polyethism 11 the combination of the queen and the flying bees also has the potential to create a viable colony.

Divide and conquer

The general principle of many swarm control methods 12 is therefore to divide the colony into two viable parts:

  1. The queen and flying bees – recapitulating, though not entirely, the swarm 13. We’ll call this the artificial swarm.
  2. The developing brood and nurse bees. This component must contain eggs and/or very young larvae from which a new queen can be reared 14. We’ll call this the artificially swarmed colony.

I’ve described two very standard swarm control methods in detail that fit this general principle.

  • The Pagden artificial swarm, probably the standard method taught to beginners up and down the country. 
  • The vertical split, which is a less resource-intensive variant but involves more heavy lifting.

Both initially separate the queen on a single frame and then exploit the exquisite homing ability of the flying bees to separate them from the nurse bees/brood combination that have been moved a short distance away. 

Both methods are effective. Neither is foolproof. 

The artificially swarmed colony almost always raises multiple new queen cells once it realises that the original queen has gone. If the initial colony was very strong there’s a good chance several queens will emerge and that the colony will produce casts – swarms headed by virgin queens.

To avoid this situation (which resembles natural cast production by very strong colonies) a second move of the artificially swarmed colony is often used to reduce further the number of flying bees 15, and so weaken the colony sufficiently that they only produce a single queen.

Alternatively, the beekeeper does this manually, by removing all but one queen cell in the artificially swarmed colony

And the nucleus method?

Astute readers will realise that the nucleus method of swarm control is similar but different.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

It separates the colony into two viable parts but there is no attempt to separate the majority of the flying bees from the brood/nurse bees.

I like the nucleus method of swarm control. It’s easy to understand, very simple to implement and – done properly – very effective.

In particular, I think it is an easier method for beginners to grasp … in a “remove the queen and the colony cannot swarm” sort of way 16.

However, the queenless part of the split colony is inevitably left relatively strong, with brood, nurse bees and a lot of the flying bees. As a consequence there’s a good chance it will produce cast swarms if it’s allowed to rear multiple queens to maturity.

Which is why you must inspect the queenless part of the split colony one week later. As I said in my original post on this method:

The timing and thoroughness of this inspection is important. Don’t do it earlier. Or later. Don’t rush it and don’t leave more than one queen cell.

Which neatly introduces nucleus colonies which is the topic for next week 😉


 

Swarm prevention

Swarm prevention and control are distinct phases in the management of colonies during the next few weeks of the beekeeping season 1.

Not all beekeepers practice them and not all colonies need them.

But most should and will … respectively 😉

Swarm prevention involves strategies to delay or stop the colony from initiating events that lead to swarming.

Swarm control strategies are more direct interventions that are used to prevent the loss of a swarm.

Why do colonies swarm?

Without swarming there would be no honey bees.

Swarming is honey bee colony reproduction. Without management (e.g. splitting colonies) colony numbers would remain static. And, since bees have only been managed for a few thousand years, they must have been successfully reproducing – by swarming – for millions of years before then.

So one of the major drivers of swarming is the innate need to reproduce.

Bees also swarm if their current environment is unable to accommodate further colony expansion. Therefore, another driver of swarming is overcrowding.

And, of course, there is some overlap in these two drivers of swarming.

You can therefore expect that strong, healthy, populous colonies will probably try to swarm on an annual basis.

The mechanics of swarming

When a colony swarms about 75% of the worker bees – of all age groups – leave with the queen. They set up a temporary bivouac near the original hive and subsequently relocate to a new nest site identified by the scout bees.

The original colony is left with all the brood (eggs, larvae and sealed brood), a significantly-depleted adult bee workforce and almost 2 all of the honey stores.

What they lack is a queen.

But what the swarm also leaves behind, amongst the brood, is one – or more often several – newly developing queens. These occupy specially enlarged cells that are located vertically on the edges or face of the comb.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Queen cells look distinctive and their initial appearance – before the swarm leaves – is a clear indication that the time for swarm prevention has gone and swarm control is now urgently needed 3.

This is one of the reasons why regular colony inspections are essential, particularly during mid/late Spring and early summer which is the time of the season when swarming is most likely.

Colony fate and the risks of swarming

But back to the recently swarmed colony. In a few days the new queen(s) emerges. If there’s more than one they usually fight it out to leave just one. She goes on one or more mating flights and a few days later starts laying eggs.

This colony should survive and thrive. They have time to build up strength (and collect more stores) before the end of the season. Under natural conditions 87% of swarmed colonies overwinter successfully 4.

Alternatively, the swarmed colony may swarm again (and again), each with a virgin queen and each further depleting the worker population. Colonies can swarm themselves to destruction like this.

Swarms headed by virgin queens are termed casts. I’m not sure what determines whether a swarmed colony also produces one or more casts. Colony strength is a determinant, but clearly not the only one as some casts contain little more than a cup full of bees.

Under natural conditions swarming is a very risky business. Swarm survival is less than 25% 5 – many will not collect sufficient stores to overwinter – and the survival of casts will be even lower because of their size and the risks associated with queen mating.

But ‘our’ bees don’t live under natural conditions

For beekeeping the ‘risks’ associated with swarming are somewhat different.

When a colony swarms you lose the majority of the workforce. Therefore honey production will be significantly reduced. You’re unlikely to get a surplus from the swarmed colony.

Of course, honey might not interest you but propolis and wax production are also reduced, as is the strength of the colony to provide efficient ecosystem services (pollination).

Secondly, despite swarms being one of the most captivating sights in beekeeping, not everyone appreciates them. Non-beekeepers may be scared and – extraordinary as it may seem – resent the swarm establishing a new nest in the eaves of their house.

Incoming! from The Apiarist on Vimeo.

Inevitably some beekeepers will claim they’ve never met anyone scared of bees, or swarms are always welcomed in the gardens that abut their apiary.

Unfortunately, that does not alter the reality that – to many – swarms are a nuisance, a potential threat and (to a small number of people 6 ) a very real danger.

Therefore, as beekeepers, we have a responsibility to practice both swarm prevention and control. This prevents our hobby/obsession irritating other people and means we have more bees to make delicious honey for family, friends and customers.

Overcrowding

I’ve already defined the event that separates swarm prevention from swarm control. It is the appearance of queen cells during the weekly colony inspection.

Swarm prevention involves managing the colony to delay the appearance of queen cells. Once queen cells are produced, swarm control is required 7

I’ve also defined the two major drivers of swarming – overcrowding and the need to reproduce 8.

How does a colony determine that it is overcrowded? As beekeepers, how can we monitor and prevent overcrowding?

As a colony expands during the spring the queen lays concentric rings of eggs from the centre of the brood nest. Imagine this initially as a kiwi fruit-sized ball, then an orange, then a grapefruit, until it is the size of a large football.

Brood frame

Perhaps a slightly squashed football, but you get the general idea.

Running out of storage space

It takes bees to make bees. The initial brood reared helps feed subsequent larvae and keeps the maturing brood warm.

As the season develops more sources of nectar and pollen become available. These are collected in increasing amounts by the expanding numbers of foragers.

This all needs to be stored somewhere.

One possibility is that the stores are loaded into the cells recently vacated by emerging workers within the brood nest. This is often termed “backfilling”. Sometimes you find a frame in which the central concentric rings of brood have emerged and, before the queen has had a chance to re-lay the frame with new eggs, workers have backfilled the cells with nectar (or, less frequently, pollen).

But, at the same time as the space available for the queen to lay is reducing, the colony population is increasing. Very fast. There are larger numbers of unemployed young bees. Unemployed because there are reduced amounts of brood to rear because the queen is running out of space.

Pheromones

And the increased number of workers means that the pheromones produced by the queen, in particular the queen mandibular pheromone, are effectively diluted. Studies by Mark Winston and colleagues 9 investigated the relationship between queen mandibular pheromone (an inhibitor of queen cell production) and colony congestion. In it he concluded that overcrowding inhibits the transmission of this pheromone, so favouring queen cell production.

Play cup or queen cell?

Play cup or are they planning their escape …?

The distribution of other pheromones is also reduced in overcrowded colonies. Lensky and Slabezki 10 showed that the queen rarely visited the bottom edges of comb in overcrowded colonies. Consequently, the levels of queen footprint pheromone was reduced. This pheromone is an inhibitor of queen cup production, the very earliest stages of queen cell development.

So, overcrowded colonies start to prepare queen cells … and swarm control is needed.

Make space

If the colony is overcrowded then you have to provide more space for colony expansion.

Just piling supers on top may not be sufficient, though it may temporarily ease congestion and partially help. Leaving a colony with no supers during a strong nectar flow is a surefire way to fill the brood box with nectar and trigger swarm preparation.

If the colony is backfilling the brood nest with nectar then the addition of supers is likely to encourage them to move the stores up, providing more space for the queen.

It will additionally have the beneficial effect of moving some bees ‘up’, to store and process the nectar, again reducing congestion in the brood nest.

However, you probably also need to encourage the bees to expand the brood nest by providing frames for them to draw out as comb. Essentially you’re spreading the brood nest by inserting one or two empty frames within it.

Expanding or spreading the brood nest

I routinely do this by removing the outer frames, which often contain stores, and adding new foundationless frames on one or both sides of the centre of the brood nest. Usually I would place these about three to four frames apart 11.

Effectively I’m providing the bees with the space to draw more comb and, in due course, for the queen to lay more eggs.

And all this keeps the workers gainfully employed and so helps alleviate overcrowding.

But what do you do if the box is full of full brood frames?

Brood frame with a good laying pattern

You provide another brood box.

Don’t just dump another brood box on top and expect the bees to immediately move up. It’s a big empty space. Ideally provide some drawn comb and move a frame or two up with emerging bees and the queen. She will rapidly start to lay up the vacated cells and the adjacent frames. Push the original frames together and add new empty frames to fill the box.

You are expanding the brood nest … vertically.

My colonies rarely need this as they are the less prolific, darker bees which tend to perform better overall in Scotland. However, some strains of bees readily fill two stacked brood boxes every season.

It’s worth emphasising again that these swarm prevention interventions are of little or no use for swarm control. If there are queen cells already present adding a frame or two of foundation will have no effect at all.

Young queens

Young queens produce more pheromones than ageing queens. Therefore, all other things being equal, the inhibitory effects of queen mandibular and footprint pheromones will be stronger in a colony headed by a young queen.

This is why colonies are less likely to swarm in their first full season 12.

You can routinely replace queens by purchasing new ones, by rearing your own, or through colony manipulation during swarm control e.g. by reuniting a vertical split.

Of these, I’d strongly recommend one of the last two approaches. It’s more interesting, it’s a whole lot more satisfying and it is a lot easier than many beekeepers realise.

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

You have the additional advantage that the queens produced in your own apiary will – by definition – be local and there is good evidence that local queens are better adapted to local conditions.

Robbing brood and making nucs

There are at least two additional, and related, ways of increasing the space available so helping swarm prevention in a rapidly expanding colony.

The first is stealing a frame of brood 13 and using it to boost a weaker colony.

Take care when doing this.

If the recipient colony is weak due to disease or a failing queen then you’re just wasting the donated brood. However, if the colony is healthy but small it can be a good investment of resources and may help delay swarming in the donor colony as well.

More drastically, it may be possible to remove a frame (or perhaps even two) of brood and adhering bees to make up a nucleus colony. In my experience, a strong donor colony can almost always be used to produce a nuc without compromising honey production, and with the added benefit of delaying swarm preparations.

I’m going to write about nuc production in more detail in a few weeks as it deserves a full post of its own. It’s worth noting here that the nuc should also be provided with sufficient bees and stores to survive and you will need a queen for it (or at least a queen cell).

Do not just dump a couple of brood frames and bees into a box and expect them to rear a half-decent queen on their own.

However, if you have a queen (or mature queen cell) then splitting a nuc off a strong colony is usually a win-win solution for swarm prevention.


 

Time to deploy!

It’s early April. The weather is finally warming up and the crocus and snowdrops are long gone. Depending where you are in the UK the OSR may start flowering in the next fortnight or so.

All of which means that colonies should be expanding well and will probably start thinking of swarming in the next few weeks.

So … just like any normal season really.

Except that the Covid-19 pandemic means that this season is anything but normal.

Keep on keeping on

The clearest guidelines for good beekeeping practice during the Covid-19 pandemic are on the National Bee Unit website. Essentially it is business as usual with the caveats that good hygiene (personal and apiary) and social distancing must be maintained.

Specifically this excludes inspections with more than one person at the hive. Mentoring, at least the really useful “hands-on” mentoring, cannot continue.

A veil is no protection against aerosolised SARS-CoV-2. Don’t even think about risking it.

This means that there will be a lot of new beekeepers (those that acquired bees this year or late last season) inspecting colonies without the benefit of help and advice immediately to hand.

Mistakes will be made.

Queen cells will be missed.

Colonies will swarm 1.

Queen cells

Queen cells …

It’s too early to say whether the current restrictions on society are going to be sufficient to reduce coronavirus spread in the community. It’s clear that some are still flouting the rules. More stringent measures may be needed. For beekeepers who keep their bees in out apiaries, the most concerning would be a very restrictive movement ban. In China and (probably) Italy these measures proved to be effective, although damaging to beekeeping, so the precedent is established.

Many hives and apiaries are already poorly managed 2. I would expect that additional coronavirus-related restrictions would only increase the numbers of colonies allowed to “fend for themselves” over the coming season.

Which brings me back to swarming.

Swarmtastic

The final point of advice on the NBU website is specifically about swarms and swarm management:

You should use husbandry techniques to minimise swarming. If you have to respond to collect a swarm you need to ensure that you use the guidelines on social distancing when collecting the swarm. If that is not possible, then the swarm then should not be collected. Therefore trying to prevent swarms is the best approach. 

Collecting swarms can be difficult enough at the best of times 3. And cutouts of established colonies are even worse.

In normal years I always prefer to reduce the swarms I might be called to 4 by setting out bait hives.

Swarm recently arrived in a bait hive with a planting tray roof …

Let the bees do the work.

Then all you need do is collect them once they’re all neatly tucked away in a hive busy drawing comb.

This year, with who-knows-what happening next, I’ll be setting out more bait hives than usual with the expectation that there may well be additional swarms.

If they’re successful I’ll have more bees to deal with when the ‘old normal’ finally returns. If they remain unused then all I’ve lost is the tiny investment of time made in April to set them out.

Not just any dark box

I’ve discussed the well-established ‘design features’ of a good bait hive several times in the past. Fortunately the requirements are easy to meet.

  • A dark empty void with a volume of about 40 litres.
  • A solid floor.
  • A small entrance of about 10cm2, at the bottom of the void, ideally south facing.
  • Something that ‘smells’ of bees.
  • Ideally located well above the ground.

I ignore the last of these. I’d prefer to have an easy-to-reach bait hive to collect rather than struggle at the top of a ladder. If I wanted to do some vertically-challenging beekeeping I’d go out and collect more swarms 😉

So, ignoring the final point, what I’ve described is the nearly perfect bait hive.

Those paying attention at the back will realise that it’s also a nearly perfect description of a single brood National hive.

How convenient 🙂

All of my bait hives are either single National brood boxes or two stacked National supers. The box does need a solid floor and a crownboard and roof. If you haven’t got a spare solid floor you can easily build them from Correx 5 for a few pence.

Inside ...

Bait hive floor

Alternatively, simply tape down a piece of cardboard or Correx over the mesh of an open mesh floor 6. In some ways this is preferable as it’s convenient to be able to monitor Varroa levels after a swarm arrives.

Do not be tempted to use a nuc box as a bait hive. You can easily fit a small swarm into a brood box, but a really big prime swarm will not fit in a 5 frame nuc box.

Big swarms are better 🙂 7

More to the point, bees are genetically programmed to search for a void of about 40 litres, so many swarms will simply overlook your nuc box for a more spacious nest site.

What’s in the box?

No, this has nothing to do with Gwyneth Paltrow in Se7en.

How do you make your bait hive even more desirable to the scout bees that search out nest sites? How do you encourage those scouts to advertise the bait hive to their sister scouts? Remember, that it’s only once the scouts have reached a democratic consensus on the best local nest site that the bivouacked swarm will move in.

The brood box ideally smells of bees. If it has previously held a colony that might be sufficient.

Bait hive ...

Bait hive …

However, a single old, dark brood frame pushed up against one sidewall not only provides the necessary ‘bee smell’, but also gives the incoming queen space to immediately start laying 8.

You can increase the attractiveness by adding a couple of drops of lemongrass oil to the top bar of this dark brood frame. Lemongrass oil mimics the pheromone produced from the Nasonov gland. There’s no need to Splash it all over … just a drop or two, replenished every couple of weeks. I usually soak the end of a cotton bud, and lay it along the frame top bar.

Lemongrass oil and cotton bud

The old brood frame must not contain stores – you’re trying to attract scouts, not robbers.

The incoming swarm will be keen to draw fresh comb for the queen to lay up with eggs. Whilst you can simply provide some frames and foundation, this has two disadvantages:

  • the vertical sheets of foundation effectively make the void appear smaller than it really is. The scout bees estimate the volume by walking around the perimeter and taking short internal flights. If they crash into a sheet of foundation during the flight the box will seem smaller than it really is.
  • foundation costs money. Quite significant amounts of money if you are setting out half a dozen bait hives. Sure, they’ll use it but – like putting a new carpet into a house you’re trying to sell – it’s certainly not the deal-clincher.

No foundation for that

Rather than filling the box with about £10 worth of premium foundation, a far better idea is to use foundationless frames. Importantly these provide the bees somewhere to draw new comb whilst not reducing the apparent volume of the brood box.

If you’ve not used foundationless frames before, a bait hive is an ideal time to give them a try.

There are two things you should be on the lookout for. The first is that the bait hive is horizontal 9. Bees draw comb vertically down, so if the hive slopes there’s a good chance the comb will be drawn at an angle to the top bar.

And that’s just plain irritating … because it’s avoidable with a bit of care.

Bamboo foundationless frames

Bamboo foundationless frames

The second thing is that the colony needs checking as it starts to draw comb. Sometimes the bees ignore your helpful lollipop stick ‘starter strips’ and decide to go their own way, filling the box with cross comb.

Beautiful … but equally irritating 🙂

Final touches

For real convenience I leave my bait hives ready to move from wherever they’re sited to my quarantine apiary (I’ll deal with both these points in a second).

Wedge the frames together with a small block of expanded cell foam so that they cannot shift about when the hive is moved.

Foam block ...

Foam block …

And then strap the whole lot up tight so you can move them easily and quickly when you need to.

Bait hive location and relocation

Swarms tend to move relatively modest distances from the hives they, er, swarmed from. The initial bivouac is usually just a few metres away. The scout bees survey a wide area, certainly well over a mile in all directions. However, several studies have shown that bees generally choose to move a few hundred yards or less.

It’s therefore a good idea to have a bait hive that sort of distance from your own apiaries.

Or even tucked away in the corner of the apiary itself.

I’ve had bees move out of one box, bivouac a short distance away and then occupy a bait hive on a hive stand adjacent to the original hive.

It’s probably definitely poor form to position a bait hive a short distance from someone else’s apiary 😉

But there’s nothing stopping you putting a bait hive at the bottom of your garden or – whilst maintaining social distancing of course – in the gardens of friends and family.

If you want to move a swarm that has occupied a bait hive the usual “less than 3 feet or more than 3 miles” rule applies unless you move them within the first couple of days of arrival. Swarms have an interesting plasticity of spatial memory (which deserves a post of its own) but will have fully reorientated to the bait hive location within a few days.

So, if the bait hive is in grandma’s garden, but grandma doesn’t want bees permanently, you need to move them promptly … or move them over three miles.

Or move grandma 😉

Lucky dip

Swarms, whether dropped into a skep or attracted to a bait hive, are a bit of a lucky dip. Now and again you get a fantastic prize, but often it’s of rather low value.

The good ones are great, but even the poor ones can be used.

But there’s an additional benefit … every one that arrives self-propelled in your bait hive is one less reported to the BBKA “swarm line” or that becomes an unwelcome tenant in the eaves of a house 10.

As long as they’re healthy, even a bad tempered colony headed by a queen with a poor laying pattern, can usefully be united to create a stronger colony to exploit late season nectar.

Varroa treatment of a new swarm in a bait hive…

But they must be healthy.

Swarms will potentially have a reasonably high mite count and will probably need treating within a week of arrival in the bait hive 11. Dribbled or vaporised oxalic acid/Api-Bioxal would be my choice; it’s effective when the colony has no sealed brood 12 and requires a single treatment.

But swarms can bring even more unwelcome payloads than Varroa mites. If you keep bees in an area where foulbroods are established be extremely careful to confirm that the arriving swarm isn’t affected. This requires letting the colony rear brood while isolated in a quarantine apiary.

How do you know whether there are problems with foulbroods in your area? Register your apiary on Beebase and talk to your local bee inspector.

My bait hives go out in the second or third week of April … but I’m on the cool east coast of Scotland. When I lived in the Midlands they used to be deployed in early April. If you’re in the balmy south they should probably be out already 13.

What are you waiting for 😉 ?


 

Do bees feel pain?

Even the most careful hive manipulations sometimes result in bees getting rolled between frames, or worse, crushed when reassembling the hive. Some beekeepers clip one wing of the queen to reduce the chance of losing a swarm, or uncap drone brood in the search for Varroa.

All of these activities can cause temporary or permanent damage, or may even kill, bees. A careful beekeeper should try and minimise this damage, but have you ever considered whether these damaged bees suffer pain?

Before considering the scientific evidence it’s important to understand the distinction between the detection of, for example, tissue damage and the awareness that the damage causes is painful and causes suffering.

Detection is a physiological response that is present in most animal species, the pain associated with it may not be.

What is pain?

Tissue damage, through chemical, mechanical or thermal stimuli, triggers a signal in the sensory nervous system that travels along nerve fibres to the brain. Or to whatever the animal has that serves as the equivalent of the brain 1.

This response is termed nociception (from the Latin nocēre, meaning ‘to harm’) and has been recorded in mammals, other vertebrates and in all sorts of invertebrates including leeches, worms and fruit flies. It has presumably evolved to detect damaging stimuli and to help the animal avoid it or escape.

But nociception is not pain.

Pain is a subjective experience that may result from the nociceptive response and can be defined as ‘an aversive sensation or feeling associated with actual or potential tissue damage’.

Most humans, being sentient, experience pain following the triggering of a nociceptive response and, understandably, conflate the two.

But they are separate and distinct. How do we know? Perhaps the first hint is that different people experience different levels of pain following the same harmful experience; an excruciatingly painful experience for one might be “just a scratch’ to another.

‘Tis but a scratch

With people it’s easy to demonstrate the distinction between nociception and pain – you simply ask them.

Can you feel that?

Does that hurt?

For the same stimuli you may receive a range of answers to the second question, depending upon their subjective experience of pain.

Painkillers

But you cannot ask a leech, or a worm or a fruit fly or – for the purpose of this post – a bee, whether a particular stimulus hurts.

Well, OK, you can ask but you won’t get an answer 😉

You can determine whether they ‘feel’ the stimulus. Since this is a simply physiological response you can measure all sorts of features of the electrical signal that passes from the nociceptors (the receptors in the tissue that detect damaging events) through the nerve fibres to the brain. This involves electrophysiology, a well established experimental science.

But how can we determine whether animals feel pain?

What do you do when you have a bad headache?

You take a painkiller – an aspirin or paracetamol. You self-medicate to relieve the pain.

Actually, even before you reach for the paracetamol, your body is already self-medicating by the release of endogenous opioids which help suppress the pain.

In cases of extreme pain injection of the opiate morphine may be necessary. Morphine is a very strong painkiller, or analgesic. Opioids bind to opioid receptors and this binding is blocked by a chemical called naloxone, an opiate antagonist. I’ll come back to naloxone in a minute.

But first, back to the unhelpfully unresponsive bee that may or may not feel pain …

It is self-medication with analgesics that forms the basis of the standard experiment to determine whether an animal feels pain.

The principle is straightforward. Two identical foods are prepared, one containing a suitable analgesic (e.g. morphine) and the other a placebo. If an animal is in pain it will preferentially eat the food containing the morphine.

Conversely, if they do not feel pain they will – on average – eat both types of food equally 2.

But this experiment will only work if morphine ‘works’ in bees.

Does morphine ‘work’ in bees?

An unpleasant or harmful stimulus induces a nociceptive response which might include taking defensive action like retreating or flying away. Studies have shown that the magnitude of this defensive action in honey bees is reduced or blocked altogether by prior injection with morphine.

This is a dose-response effect. The more morphine injected the smaller the nociceptive response by the bee. Importantly we know it’s the morphine that is having the effect because it can be counteracted by injection with naloxone.

So, morphine does work in bees 3.

We can therefore test whether bees choose to self-medicate with morphine to determine whether they feel pain.

And this is precisely what Julie Groening and colleagues from the University of Queensland did, and published three years ago in Scientific Reports. The full reference is Groening, J., Venini, D. & Srinivasan, M. In search of evidence for the experience of pain in honeybees: A self-administration study. Sci Rep 7, 45825 (2017); https://doi.org/10.1038/srep45825

Ouch … or not?

The experiment was very simple. Bees were subjected to one of two different injuries; a continuous pinch to the hind leg, or the amputation of part of the middle leg. They were then offered sugar syrup alone and sugar syrup containing morphine.

The hypothesis proposed was that if bees felt pain they would be expected to consume more of the sugar syrup containing morphine.

To ensure statistically relevant results they used lots of bees. Half were injured and half were uninjured and used as controls. If syrup laced with morphine tasted unpleasant you would expect the control group to demonstrate this by eating less.

Throughout the experiments the authors were therefore looking for a difference in syrup alone or syrup with morphine consumption between the injured bee and the uninjured controls.

All of the experiments produced broadly similar results so I’ll just show one data figure.

Relative consumption of morphine (M) and pure sucrose solution (S) by injured (i; amputated) or control (c) bees.

Both groups of bees preferred the pure syrup (the two box plots on the right labelled S_c or S_i) over the morphine-laced syrup (M). However, the bees with the amputation did not consume any more of the morphine-containing syrup (M_i) than the controls (M_c).

Therefore they did not self-medicate.

Very similar results were obtained with the bees carrying the hind leg clip (recapitulating an attack by a competing forager or predator, which often target the rear legs). The injured bees consumed statistically similar amounts of plain or morphine-laced syrup as the control group.

The one significant difference observed was that bees with amputations consumed about 20% more syrup overall than those with the rear leg ‘pinch’ injury. The authors justified this as indicating that the amputation likely induced the innate immune system, necessitating the production of additional proteins (like the antimicrobial peptides that fight infection), so leading to elevated energy needs. Speculation, but it seems reasonable to me.

Feeling no pain

This study, using a pretty standard and well-accepted experimental strategy, strongly suggests that bees do not feel pain.

It does not prove that bees feel pain. It strongly supports the theory that they do not. You cannot prove things with science, you can just disprove them. Evidence either supports or refutes a hypothesis; in this case the evidence (no self-medication) supports the hypothesis that bees do not feel pain because, as has been demonstrated with several other animals, they would self-medicate if they did feel pain.

In the discussion of the paper the authors suggest that further work is necessary. Scientists often make that kind of sweeping statement to:

  • encourage funders to provide money in the future 😉
  • allow them to incorporate additional, perhaps contradictory, evidence that could be interpreted in a different way to their own results.

Skinning a cat

That is painful … but the proverb There’s more than one way to skin a cat 4 means that there is more than one way to do something.

And there are other ways of interpreting behavioural responses as an indication that animals feel pain.

For example, rather than measuring self-medication with an analgesic, you could look at avoidance learning or protective motor reactions as indicators of pain.

Protective motor reactions include things like preferential and prolonged grooming of regions of the body which have been injured 5. There is no evidence that bees do this.

Avoidance learning

However, there is evidence that bees exhibit avoidance learning. This is a behavioural trait in which they learn to avoid a harmful stimulus that might cause injury.

If a forager is attacked by a predator at a food source (and survives) it stops other bees dancing to advertise that food source when it returns to the hive 6.

Whilst avoidance learning does not indicate that bees feel pain, it does imply central processing rather than a simple nociceptive response. It shows that bees are able to weigh up the risk vs. reward of something good (a rich source of nectar) with something bad (the chance of being eaten when collecting the nectar). This type of decision making demonstrates a cognitive capacity that might make pain experience more likely.

We’re now getting into abstruse areas of neuropsychology … dangerous territory.

Let’s assume, as I do based upon the science presented here and in earlier work, that bees do not feel pain. What, if anything, does this mean for practical beekeeping.

Practical beekeeping

It certainly does not mean we should not attempt to conduct hive manipulations in a slow, gentle and controlled manner. Just because rolled bees are not hurting, or crushed bees are not feeling pain, doesn’t give us carte blanche to be heavy handed.

One of the nociceptive responses is the production of alarm pheromones (sting and mandibular) which are part of the defensive response. Alarm pheromones agitate the hive and make the colony aggressive, much more likely to sting and much more difficult to inspect carefully.

So we should conduct inspections carefully, not because we are hurting the bees, but because they might hurt us.

But there are other reasons that care is needed as well. Crushed bees are a potential source of disease in the hive. One reason undertaker bees remove the corpses is to remove the likelihood of disease spreading in the hive. If bees are crushed the heady mix of viruses, bacteria and Nosema they contain are smeared around all over the place, putting other hive members at risk.

And, as we’re all learning at the moment, good hygiene can be a life-saver.


Colophon

This is the first post written under ‘lockdown’. It’s a little bit later than usual as it has had to travel a   v  e  r  y    l  o  n  g   way along the fibre to ‘the internet’. It’s going to be a very different beekeeping season to anything that has gone before.

At least spring is on the way …

Primroses, 27-3-20, Ardnamurchan

 

Bees in the time of corona

I usually write a review of the past year and plans for the year ahead in the middle of winter. This year I reviewed 2019 and intended to write about my plans when they were a little better formulated.

Inevitably, with the coronavirus pandemic, any plans would have had to be rapidly changed. It’s now not clear what the year ahead will involve and, with the speed things are moving at, anything I write today 1 may well be redundant by publication time on Friday.

Nothing I write here should be taken as medical advice or possibly even current information. I teach emerging virus infections and have studied RNA viruses (like DWV, coronavirus also has an RNA genome but it is a fundamentally different beast) for 30 years but defer to the experts when hardcore epidemiology is being discussed.

And it’s the epidemiology, and what we’ve learned from the outbreak in Italy, that is determining the way our society is being restructured for the foreseeable future.

Talking the talk

I gave three invited seminars last week. It was good to see old friends and to meet previously online-only contacts. It was odd not to shake hands with people and to watch people seek out the unoccupied corners of the auditorium to maintain their ‘social distancing’.

All of the beekeeping associations I belong to have cancelled or postponed talks for the next few months. Of course, there are usually far fewer talks during the beekeeping season as we’re all too busy with our bees, but those that were planned are now shelved.

Not me …

I expect that forward-thinking associations will be looking at alternative ways to deliver talks for the autumn season. If they’re not, they perhaps should as there’s no certainty that the virus will not have stopped circulating in the population by then.

I already have an invitation to deliver a Skype presentation in mid/late summer (to an association in the USA) and expect that will become increasingly commonplace. Someone more entrepreneurial than me will work out a way to give seminars in which the (often outrageous 2) speaker fee is replaced by a subscription model, ensuring that the audience can watch from the comfort of their armchairs without needing to meet in a group.

There is a positive spin to put on this. My waistline will benefit from not experiencing some of the delicious homemade cakes some beekeeping associations produce to accompany tea after the talk 😉 … I’m dreaming thinking in particular of a fabulous lemon drizzle cake at Fortingall & District BKA 🙂

It will also reduce the travel involved. For everyone. It’s not unusual for me to have a 2-3 hour journey to a venue 3 and, much as I enjoy talking, the questions, the banter and the cake, driving for 2-3 hours back can be a bit wearing.

At risk populations

Everyone is getting older … but beekeepers often have a head start. In the UK the average age of bee farmers is reported to be 66 years old. In my many visits to beekeeping associations I meet a lot of amateur (backyard) beekeepers and suspect that the majority are the wrong side of 50 4.

And that’s significant as Covid-19 is a more serious infection for those over 50.

Infection outcomes are also worse for men, and the majority (perhaps 65%) of beekeepers are men. The rates of infection appear similar, but men – particularly elderly men – often have less good underlying health; they are more likely to smoke and have less effective immune responses.

Enough gloom and doom, what does this mean for beekeeping?

Mentoring

If you took a ‘beginning beekeeping‘ course this winter you may struggle to find a mentor. If you’ve been allocated one (or someone has generously volunteered) think twice about huddling over an open hive with them.

Actually, don’t huddle with them at all … the veil of a beesuit is no barrier to a virus-loaded 5μm aerosol.

Mentoring is one of the most important mechanisms of support for people starting beekeeping.  I benefitted hugely from the experienced beekeepers who generously answered all my (hundreds of) idiotic questions and helped me with frames of eggs when I’d inadvertently ‘lost’ my queen and knocked back all the queen cells.

Without mentoring, learning to keep bees is a lot more difficult. Not impossible, but certainly more challenging. Beekeeping is fundamentally a practical pastime and learning by demonstration is undoubtedly the best way to clear the initial hurdles.

But thousands before have learnt without the benefit of mentoring.

However, if you can wait, I suggest you do.

If you cannot 5, you need to find a way to compensate for the potential absence of experienced help ‘on hand’.

All of us are going to have to learn to communicate more effectively online. Camera phones are now so good that a quick snap (or video) sent via WhatsApp may well be good enough to diagnose a problem.

Get together (virtually!) with other beginners at a similar stage and compare notes. Discuss how colonies are building up, early signs of swarming and when hives are getting heavier.

Bees in the same environment tend to develop at about the same rate. If your (virtual) ‘bee buddy’ lost a swarm yesterday you should check your colonies as soon as possible.

Getting bees

Thousands of nucs, packages and queens are imported to the UK every year. I’ve no idea what will happen to the supply this season. It might be unaffected, but I suspect it will be reduced.

If you’re waiting for an “overwintered nuc” and your supplier claims now not to be able to supply one 6 all is not lost.

Under offer ...

Under offer …

Set out one or two bait hives. With isolation, movement restrictions, curfews and illness 7 it’s more than likely that some nearby colonies will be poorly managed. If you use a bait hive you can attract a swarm with almost no work and save an overworked beekeeper from having to do a cutout from the roofspace of the house the swarm would have otherwise selected.

At the very least, you can have the pleasure of watching scout bees check out the hive in the isolated comfort of your own garden.

Keeping bees

I think the last few days have shown that the future is anything but predictable. Who knows where we’ll be once the swarming season is here. You can practice swarm control with social distancing in your out apiary unless there are movement controls in place.

In that case, you cannot get there in the first place.

Let us hope that it doesn’t come to that.

What you can do is be prepared. Give the bees plenty of space when the first nectar flow starts. Two supers straight away, or three if your knowledge of local conditions suggests two may not be enough.

Clip one of the wings of the queen. This doesn’t stop the bees swarming (almost nothing does) but it does stop you losing the bees. Although I cannot be certain that queen clipping is painless – because I’m not sure that bees feel pain (evidence suggests they don’t) – I do know that clipped queens have as long and as productive lives as unclipped queens.

There she goes ...

There she goes …

Clipped queens buy you a few days grace. The colony tends to swarm when the new virgin queen emerges rather than when the queen cell was capped. That can make all the difference.

The colony swarms but the queen spirals groundwards and usually then climbs back up the hive stand, around which the swarm then clusters. Sometimes the queen returns to the hive, though it doesn’t always end well for her there in the subsequent duel with the virgin now in residence.

1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, er, where was I? Damn!

Not lost swarm

Honey sales

Selling honey is not without risk of virus transmission, in either direction. When I sell “from the door” it often involves an extended discussion about hay fever, local forage, bumble bees and the weather. All of that can still continue but both parties will have to speak a bit louder to maintain social distancing.

Selling through shops might be easier … if the shops stay open. Farmers markets, village fetes and country fairs (fayres?) are likely to all be cancelled or postponed, at least temporarily.

There’s a neighbourhood initiative here selling high quality local produce, ordered online and collected at a set date and time. Similar things are likely to be developed elsewhere as customers increasingly want to support local producers, to buy quality food and to avoid the panic buying masses fighting over toilet tissue 8 in the supermarkets.

Peter Brookes, Panic Buying, 7-3-20, The Times

An initiative like Neighbourfood might make even more sense if there was a local delivery service to reduce further the need for contact. No doubt these things exist already.

The unknown unknowns

I’ve discussed the unknown knowns previously. These are the things you know will happen during the season, you’re just not quite sure when they’ll happen. Swarming, Varroa management, winter feeding etc.

To add to the uncertainty this year we will have the unknown unknowns … things you didn’t expect and that you might not know anything about. Or have any warning about. Social distancing, quarantine, school closures and potential lockdowns all fall into this category.

Preparing for things that cannot be predicted is always tricky. All we can do is be as resilient and responsible as possible.

My beekeeping season will start in late April or early May. I’m self-sufficient for frames and foundation and can switch entirely to foundationless frames if needed. I have enough boxes, supers, nucs etc 9 to maintain my current colonies.

I’m actually planning to reduce my colony numbers which I’ll achieve by uniting weak colonies or selling off the surplus. With a bit more free time from work (and I’m working very remotely some of the time) I intend to rear some queens when the weather is good. These will be used to requeen a few tetchy colonies for research, though it’s increasingly looking like we’ll lose this field season as the labs are effectively closed.

I’m not dependent on honey sales other than to offset the costs of the hobby. If I cannot buy fondant for autumn feeding I’ll just leave the supers on and let them get on with it.

This is why we treat ...

This is why we treat …

Which leaves only the treatments for Varroa management as essential purchases … and if I cannot mail order Apivar then things have got very serious indeed 🙁 10

In the meantime, I’m planning some more science and beekeeping posts for the future. This includes one on a new collaborative study we’re involved in on chronic bee paralysis virus which, like Covid-19, is classed as causing an emerging viral disease.


Colophon

Love in the time of cholera

The title is a rather contrived pun based on the book Love in the time of cholera by the Columbian author Gabriel García Márquez. There are no other similarities between this post and the Nobel laureates work … cholera isn’t even a virus.

Cholera, which has characteristic and rather unpleasant symptoms, might be an excuse to panic buy toilet rolls.

Covid-19, which has equally characteristic and unpleasant (but totally different) symptoms, is not 😉