Category Archives: Principles

Beekeeping economics

You are not going to make a million being a beekeeper. Or even a fraction of that.

I know a couple of beekeepers who have all the trappings of wealth … the big house, the big car with the personal number plate, the holiday place in France and the beesuit with no smoker-induced holes in the veil.

Neither of them made their money beekeeping.

Anyone aboard Murray?

I’ve met a few of the large commercial beekeepers here and abroad, operations with 500 to 1000 times the number of hives I’ve got.

None of them seemed to have yachts or Ferraris.

Or any free time to enjoy them if they had ūüėČ

If you want to have a lot of money when you finally lose your last hive tool you probably need to start with lots more 1.

But the vast majority of beekeepers aren’t commercial. Most are hobbyists.

A hobby that (sometimes) makes a profit

In the UK there are ~25,000 beekeepers. Of these, the Bee Farmers Association represent the interests of the ~400 commercial beekeeping businesses.

Over 98% of UK beekeepers therefore do not consider themselves as commercial. These amateur or hobby beekeepers have on average 3-5 hives each, according to relatively recent surveys. Most probably have just one or two, with a few having more 2.

It’s worth emphasising (again) that it is¬†always better to have more than one colony. The small increase in work involved – the apiary visits, the inspections, extracting all that honey ūüėČ – is more than justified by the experience and resilience it brings to your beekeeping.

Two are better than one …

For the remainder of the post I’m going to consider a (hypothetical) beekeeper with four colonies.

What are the costs involved in running four colonies and how much ‘profit’ might be expected?

Inevitably, this is going to be very, very approximate.

I’m going to make a load of assumptions, some loosely based on real data. I’ll discuss some of the more important assumptions where appropriate.

I’m also going to ignore a load of variables that would be little more than guesstimates anyway e.g.¬†petrol costs to get to your apiary 3, the purchase of additional hive hardware or rent for the apiary.

Why four hives?

I’ve chosen four hives for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it’s a small enough number you could house them in a small(ish) suburban garden and, wherever they’re sited, they will not exploit all the forage in range.

Abelo poly hives

Abelo poly hives on wooden pallets

Secondly, it’s a manageable number for one beekeeper with a full time job and lots of other commitments. However, it’s not so many you have to buy an electric extractor or build a honey-processing room 4.

Finally, some expenses are for items sold in multiples e.g. frames or miticides, and it saves me having to¬†slice’n’dice every outgoing cost too much.

This hypothetical four hive beekeeper also, very sensibly, belongs to her local association. She therefore has access to the shared equipment (e.g. a honey extractor) that the association owns.

The costs of starting beekeeping

I’ve covered this before and will just summarise it here.

I reckon the minimum outlay is a bit less than ¬£500. This covers the purchase of two hives (Thorne’s Bees on a Budget @ ¬£160 for a complete hive, two supers, frames, foundation¬†etc.), a good quality beesuit (perhaps another ¬£100) together with the peripheral, but nevertheless essential, smoker, hive tool and gloves. It does not cover the cost of bees.

Two hives really should be considered the minimum. Even if you only start with one colony, swarm control or colony splits in your second year will necessitate the purchase of a second hive.

So, for the purpose of these back of an envelope calculations I’ll assume our hypothetical beekeeper has already spent about ¬£1000 on starting up and then doubling up the numbers of hives.

Cedar or polystyrene hives should last more than 25 years. I’m not going to work out the depreciation on this initial outlay 5.

So, let’s get back on track.

In an average year, what is the expenditure and potential income from these four hives.

Expenditure

The outgoing costs are associated with maintaining a good environment for the bees, minimising disease and ensuring they have sufficient food for the winter (or during a nectar dearth).

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

The first annual expense is the replacement of ~30% of the brood comb every season. This is necessary to reduce the pathogen load in the hive and to replace the old, black comb with fresh new comb.

Frames and the foundation to go in them are generally bought in 10’s or 50’s. With four hives (assuming Nationals) that means you need a fraction over 13 new frames a season. First quality frames bought in 10’s, together with premium quality foundation 6, work out at ¬£2.99 each i.e. ~¬£40 for the year.

To control mites you need to use miticides 7. For the purpose of this exercise we’ll assume our beekeeper chooses to use Apivar in the autumn. This costs ¬£31 for 5 hive treatments 8 and is required once per year. In midwinter our beekeeper wisely chooses to use an oxalic acid trickle as well, knowing that – while the colony is broodless – the mites are easier to slay. ¬£13 buys you a ten-hive (35 g) pack of Api-Bioxal 9 which has a shelf-life of more than a year, so for one year the expense is ¬£6.50 (which for convenience I’ve rounded up to ¬£7).

Food is essentially sugar in some form or another. A single colony needs 10-20 kg of stores for the winter (depending Рvery much Рupon the strain of bee, the harshness of the winter etc.). You therefore need to feed about 12.5 litres of heavy syrup (2:1 by weight, sugar to water) which weighs about 16kg (and finally generates ~14 kg of stores) and contains about 10 kg of sugar. Tesco sell granulated sugar for 64p per kilogram. So, for four colonies, our beekeeper needs to purchase ~£26 of granulated sugar.

Remember two of those figures in particular – 14 kg of stores and the 10 kg of sugar that needs to be purchased to make them 10.

Expenditure totals

In total, four hives are likely to cost about £104 to maintain per year.

Yes, I know I’ve omitted all sorts of things such as stimulative feeding in the spring, replacement super frames and hive tools. I’ve not costed in the honey buckets or any number of other¬†‘odds and sods’ like replacement Posca pens for queen marking. Let’s keep this simple ūüôā

The essentials work out at a little over £25 per hive.

But wait … there is something I’ve omitted.

Not expenditure per se, but losses that have to be made good to ensure that our beekeeper still has 4 colonies in subsequent seasons.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

These are the ‘losses’ due to colonies dying overwinter or during the season. I think these should be included because they are the reality for most beekeepers. On average ~20-25% of colonies are lost each season. Not by everyone (which I’ll cover in a follow-up article on¬†economies in¬†beekeeping) of course, but winter losses are so common for most beekeepers that they need to be factored in – either by making increase or by avoiding losing them in the first place.

Enough on these hidden costs, what about the the income?

Products of the hive

Bees, as well as providing critical ecosystem services (pollination) and being fascinating animals, also produce very valuable products.

The best known and most obvious product is of course honey. However, the products of the hive also includes wax, propolis and Royal Jelly.

Local honey

I’m going to ignore everything but the honey. Royal Jelly and propolis are too specialised for the sort of ‘average beekeeper’ we’re considering and four hives produce relatively small amounts of wax each year.

There’s an additional product of the hive … bees. Don’t forget these as they can be the most valuable product made in any quantity.

You can sell complete hives, small nucleus colonies (nucs) and mated queen bees 11. For convenience I’m going to assume the only ‘live’ product of the hive our beekeeper might sell is a five frame nuc if they have one spare. What’s more, I’m going to assume that our beekeeper either recoups the cost of the box or has it returned (but pays ¬£15 for the frames and foundation in the nuc).

So, how much honey and how many bees?

Income from honey

The average honey yield in 2018 in the UK was ~31 lb per hive.

2018 was a very good season.

The annual BBKA survey of 2017 showed the average that year was ~24 lb per hive.

Yields vary year by year and according to where you keep bees. The 2010 figure was ~31 lb, 2012 was a measly 8 lb per hive and 2014 was ~31 lb. I can’t find a record of the 2016 figure (but haven’t looked too hard).

Yields are higher in the south and lower in the north.

I’m going to err on the slightly generous side and assume that the honey yield per hive is 25 lb and that¬†our hypothetical beekeeper therefore generates 100 lb of honey per year.

More local honey

As we saw last week, honey prices vary considerably across the country.  For the purposes of these calculations we can use the BBKA survey which showed that ~56% of beekeepers sold honey at an average price of £5.49 per lb (cf. £5.67 in 2017).

And here’s the first dilemma … did the 44% of beekeepers who did not sell honey not have any honey to sell?

How does this affect the average per hive?

Or did they simply give everything away?

Or just eat it themselves ūüėČ

The annual BBKA surveys are not ideal datasets to base these calculations on. They are voluntary and self-selecting. Perhaps the 23,000 beekeepers who did not complete the survey 12 produced 150 lb per colony.

No, I don’t think so either.

I’m going to make the assumption that the average yield per hive was 25 lb and that our beekeeper chooses to sell her honey at an average price of ¬£5.50.

So the gross income from honey is £550 13.

However, selling this honey requires packaging Рjars, labels etc. Like everything else, costs vary, but 12 oz hexagonal honey jars plus lids from C Wynne Jones cost ~39p each, with a standard custom label and a plain anti-tamper label adding a further 10p per jar.  Therefore to sell that 100 lb of honey our beekeeper will have an outlay of £63, reducing the net income to £487.

Income from bees

A strong hive in a good year should be able to produce both bees and honey. With good beekeeping, good forage and good weather it is possible to generate a super or two of honey and a nuc colony for sale or to make increase.

However, you can’t produce large amounts of both from a single hive … it’s an either or situation if you want to maximise your production of honey or nucs.

I’m not aware of any good statistics on nuc production by amateur beekeepers (or even poor statistics). My assumption – justified below – is that the majority of beekeepers produce few, if any, surplus nucs.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Why do I think that?

Firstly, nuc and package imports from overseas are very high. Demand is enormous and is clearly not met by local supply 14. Secondly, winter losses (25%, discussed above) need to be made good. I presume that this is what many/most nucs are used for.

If they’re produced at all.

There are some major gaps in the available information meaning that the next bit is a guesstimate with a capital G.

For the purpose of this exercise I’m going to assume that our hypothetical beekeeper produces one nuc per year that it is used to compensate for overwintering losses, thereby keeping colony numbers stable.

In addition, she generates one surplus nuc every four years for sale.

I’ve chosen four years as it’s approximately every four years that there is a ‘good bee season’ giving high yields of honey and the opportunity for good queen mating and surplus nuc production.

This surplus nuc is sold locally for £175 which, after subtraction of £15 for the frames, leaves an annual profit from bees of £40 (£160 every 4 years).

Income totals and overall ‘profit’

That was all a bit turgid wasn’t it?

Here are the final figures. Remember, this is for a four hive apiary, per annum (4 year average).

Item Expenditure (£) Income (£)
Frames and foundation 40.00
Miticides 38.00
Food 26.00
Honey (jars/labelling) and gross 63.00 550.00
Nucleus colony 15.00 40.00
Sub totals 182.00 590.00
Profit 408.00

Experienced beekeepers reading this far 15 will appreciate some of the assumptions that have been made. There are many.

They’ll also probably disagree with half of the figures quoted, considering them too high.

And with the other half, considering them too low.

They’ll certainly consider the average ‘profit’ per hive per year is underestimated.

Mid-May ... 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen ... now marked

Mid-May … 45,000 bees, 17 frames of brood, one queen … now marked and clipped

But remember, our hypothetical beekeeper is based upon the average productivity and number of hives reported in the BBKA annual surveys.

As you will probably realise, a limited amount of travel to and from the apiary, or to shops/markets to sell honey, very quickly eats into the rather measly ¬£102 “profit” per hive.

Observations

I think there are two key things worth noting immediately:

  1. Miticide treatments cost ~¬£7.50 per hive per annum. Even at the rather derisory ¬£5.50/lb honey price quoted, this is still less than one and a half jars of honey. It is false economy to not treat colonies for¬†Varroa infestation. If you compare the cost of the treatment¬†vs. the ‘value’ of a replacement nuc to make up losses (¬£175) it further emphasises how unwise it is to ignore the mites.
  2. Some beekeepers leave a super or two at the end of the season ‘for the bees’. This is also false economy if you want to have any profit. The ~14 kg of stores (honey) needed will be replaced with a heavy syrup feed containing 10 kg of granulated sugar. At ¬£5.50 per pound this honey could be sold for ~¬£170 16. The granulated sugar costs about ¬£6.40. Do the maths, as they say. There is no compelling (or even vaguely convincing) evidence that bees overwinter more successfully on honey rather than after a granulated sugar feed. None 17.

Summary

This article highlights some of the major expenses involved in beekeeping. Where possible I’ve based the figures on a hypothetical ‘average’ beekeeper with an average number of hives.

I’ve assumed that all outgoing costs were at list price from large suppliers (and excluded shipping costs).

I’ve left out the almost invaluable¬†pleasure you get from working with the bees to produce lovely delicious local honey (or wax, or propolis, or bees or queens).

Do not underestimate this ūüôā Many – and I’m one – would keep some bees simply for this pleasure and the odd jar of honey.

No one is going to get rich quickly on ¬£100 per hive per year 18. However, the¬†purpose of this post was to provide a framework to consider where potential¬†cost savings can be made. In addition, it will allow me to emphasise the benefits, to the bees and the beekeeper (and potentially her bank balance), of strong, healthy, highly productive colonies rather than the ‘average’ 25% colony losses per autumn with less than a full super per hive honey … which is then sold for less than it’s worth.

But that’s for another time …


Colophon

Beekeeping economics as in “The management of private or domestic finances; (also) financial position.” which is distinct from economy¬†in beekeeping (which I will cover in a later post) meaning¬†“The careful management of resources; sparingness”.

Honey pricing

The best way to start beekeeping is to learn by example.

Join an association, go to a¬†Beginning beekeeping’ course over the winter and browse the catalogues.

Get a mentor, buy a nuc of well-behaved local bees in May/June and enjoy yourself.

And talk beekeeping with other beekeepers.

Ask questions, lots of them

In case you’ve not noticed, if there’s enough tea and digestives available, beekeepers can talk¬†a lot. Ask three beekeepers a question and you’ll get at least five answers 1.

They’ll talk about swarming and queen rearing, about how imports are ruining beekeeping and about hive designs.

They’ll discuss how imported queens head calm and productive colonies and why ‘brood and a half’ is the solution to most beekeeping problems 2.

Some will enthusiastically talk about half-assed DIY ‘solutions’ to barely existent problems or why comparisons between treatment-free beekeeping and anti-vaxxers is unfair 3.

Local honey

They’ll talk about anything, agreeing and disagreeing in equal measure.

Well, not quite anything

The observant tyro will notice that there are a few topics on which experienced beekeepers are a bit less opinionated or, er, helpful.

Could you help me requeen my ‘colony of sociopaths’ this weekend?

Can you give me the phone number of the farmer with 40 acres of borage?

How did you prepare that prizewinning wax block for the annual honey show?

How much do you charge for your honey?

And not just unhelpful … they can be downright evasive.

Healthy competition

Topics like these are where beekeeping becomes a competitive pastime (except for the requeening one, which is simply self-preservation).

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We want the best forage for our bees so that colonies are strong and healthy. We want good nectar sources so that supers are heavy and numerous. We want to win ‘Best in Show’ so we can add the magic words ‘Prizewinning local honey’ to our labels which – for some at least – means we’ll be able to charge a premium for our honey.

Vulture

And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.

But think back to when you were a beginner.

That first year you had a real surplus of honey 4.

After the circling vultures of friends and family had had a jar or two for their porridge/tea/toast or acne 5. After you’ve sold half a dozen jars at the village fete, or to colleagues at work.

When you’ve actually got quite a few jars left over you’d like to sell ‘at the door’, or through an excellent¬†local organic cafe or outstanding¬†artisan cheese shop 6.

How much do you charge for your honey?

Firstly, if you’re in precisely this situation, don’t expect any simple answers here.

But also don’t necessarily expect any straight answer from your beekeeping colleagues.

Assuming you’re not actually dependent upon the income, in a way it doesn’t really matter what you charge. As long as you recoup your costs – jars, labels, petrol, Apivar, fondant¬†etc. – you’ll have a hobby that pays for itself and gives you enjoyment 7.

That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

You can’t really ask for any more than that.

Except you can.

If you charge £3 a pound and cover your costs you might be able to charge £4.50 a pound and buy a new hive tool.

Or hive.

In your dreams

Or something totally unrelated to beekeeping that you’ve always wanted.

Like a Harley Davidson Softail Fat Boy ūüėČ

Or you could charge ¬£9 a pound and have a busman’s holiday in New Zealand every winter with the Manuka honey farmers.

Or you could charge ¬£12.50 a pound … and sell virtually none of it because the beekeeper down the road is only charging ¬£3 and you can buy *&%$¬£’s Everyday Essentials honey for 99p 8.

Tricky.

What is the competition?

Not inexpensive

With few exceptions, supermarket honey is cheap. Where there are exceptions it’s because the honey is either inexpensive … or exorbitantly priced Manuka.

Cheap and inexpensive aren’t the same thing at all. The former is produced down to a price, like the jar mentioned above priced just below the psychologically important ¬£1 threshold.

I’d bet that any almost honey produced by a local beekeeper, whatever the forage available, however poorly it had been filtered or presented, would be better than most of these cheap supermarket honeys.

I should note in passing that any comments I make here assume the honey¬†is actually honey (it’s not corn syrup for example) and that it’s not fermenting and hasn’t been overheated during preparation. The first of these regularly occur in the millions of tons of ‘honey’ traded globally each year, whereas the other two are more likely to be problems encountered – or caused – by inexperienced amateur beekeepers.

The inexpensive supermarket honey is (usually) bought and sold in bulk, blended, often nicely labelled and attractively packaged. It’s perfectly good honey. It’ll probably taste OK and it might sell for ¬£3 to ¬£4 for 340 g.

The exorbitantly priced Manuka honey is an oddity. It might well be fake and it tastes pretty awful in my view. It’s a marketing triumph of hype over substance.

So is £4 a jar the baseline?

It depends upon the size of the jar ūüėČ

It also depends upon the effort you are prepared to make on the bottling, labelling and marketing 9.

But you’re not bottling, labelling and marketing bulk produced, blended, imported¬†‘Produce of EU and non EU countries’.

What you have is a far, far more valuable product than that.

You’ve had complete control over its production from start to finish – from siting the hives, through extracting, storage and jarring.

Local apiary, mid-July 2018

The provenance of the honey is without question.

There’s very few products sitting on supermarket shelves that you could say that about.

It’s very rare. This doesn’t in itself make it valuable. After all,¬† Ebola is thankfully very rare in the UK. However, for some people (actually many people) buying something that’s not available in every supermarket across the country is a distinct plus point.

It’s rare and its availability is limited because it’s¬†local honey. You’ve not got 5,000 colonies spread over half a dozen postcodes in the county 10. There aren’t barrels of the same stuff in warehouses across the country 11.

What you’ve got is a few buckets of mixed floral honey from about 9 square miles (at most, probably significantly less) of the countryside around your apiary.

Known provenance

And local honey should attract a premium price.

Many people want to buy local produce and eat local food. Their definition of local and the one I use above may not align perfectly. For me, local might be the two shallow valleys and the arable farmland my bees forage in.

For the potential buyer, ‘local’ might be anything within Fife (about¬†500 square miles).

And Fife has a population of about a third of a million people. Which is a lot of potential customers wanting ‘local’ honey. Which means demand should or could be high.

Which, in turn, increases the price you could sell your honey for.

So, I reckon that £4 a jar is about the lowest amount you should charge.

If you can find small enough jars ūüėČ

The £10 ceiling

But what about slightly larger jars? After all, small jars are a pain to fill. How much can you realistically charge for a one pound (454 g) jar of honey?

At the moment the upper limit seems to be about a tenner.

If you look at ‘high-end’ outlets selling good quality local produce you’ll find that there appears to be an upper price limit of about ¬£10.

Remember that this price includes a shop markup of perhaps 20-30%. After all, they have staff, rent, insurance and other costs to cover.

Which perhaps finally gets near the answer to How much do you (or can I) charge for honey?’

Go and look in local outlets and see what they are charging for truly local honey. Not the (perfectly fine quality) honey from the larger regional suppliers (this isn’t local, it’s regional at best and, more likely, national), but the stuff from individuals within 10-15 miles or so.

Take off the guesstimated markup and that’s a reasonable guide to the price 12.

What?

There isn’t any on the shelves?

This can only mean one of three things:

  • They’ve already sold out because demand is so high = opportunity ūüôā
  • There aren’t any local beekeepers selling local honey = opportunity ūüôā
  • The shopkeeper has yet to realise the benefits of selling local honey = (yes, you guessed it) opportunity ūüôā

I’m going to return to this topic several times over the winter.

In the meantime, back to the borage and that prizewinning wax block …

Oh dear, I’ve just reached 1500 words which is my (oft-ignored) self-imposed cutoff for waffle each week.

Those subjects will have to wait ūüėČ


 

Cabinet reshuffle

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about the totally dysfunctional state of British politics at the moment 1.

Once the honey supers are removed there’s seemingly little to do in the apiary. There is a temptation to catch up on all those other jobs postponed because I was¬†“just off to the bees”.

Well, maybe temptation is a bit strong. After all, like all good procrastinators, I can usually find an excuse to postpone until next week something that could be left until at least tomorrow.

However, as I said last week, preparations for winter are very important and should not be delayed.

I covered feeding and the all-important late summer mite treatments in that post. Here I’m going to briefly discuss the various late season hive rearrangements that might be needed.

Clearing additional supers

I use very simple clearer boards to get the bees out of my supers. However, there are a couple of instances when not all the supers end up being removed:

  1. If some frames are empty or fail the ‘shake test’ I’ll rearrange these into the bottom super 2. I then clear the bees down into the bottom super and leave it for the bees.
  2. If the colony is really strong and is unlikely to fit into the brood box(es) I’ll often add a super above the queen excluder to clear the bees down into. Sometimes the bees will add a few dribbles of nectar to this … not enough to ever extract, and I’d prefer they put it in the brood box instead.

In both these situations I’ll want to remove the additional super before winter. I don’t want the bees to have a cold empty space above their heads.

Feed & clear together

I usually do this at the same time that I feed the bees.

I rearrange the boxes so that the ‘leftover’ super is above a crownboard on top of the super that is providing the headspace to accommodate the fondant blocks.

Since access to this top super is through a small hole the bees consider it is ‘outside’ the hive and so empty the remaining nectar and bring it down to the brood box 3.

If there are sealed stores in any of these super frames I bruise 4 the cappings with a hive tool and they’ll then move the stores down.

Substandard colonies

A very good piece of advice to all beekeepers is to¬†“take your winter losses in the autumn”. This means assess colonies in the late summer/early autumn and get rid of those that are weak or substandard 5.

Substandard might mean those with a poor temper.

This is the colony which you put up with all season (despite their yobbo tendencies) because you believe that aggressive bees are productive bees’.

Were they?

Was that one half-filled super of partially-capped honey really worth the grief they gave you all summer?

Unless substandard (not just aggression … running, following, insufficiently frugal in winter¬†etc.)¬†colonies are replaced the overall standard of your bees will never improve.

I’ll discuss how to ‘remove’ them in a few paragraphs.

It’s probably a reasonable estimate to suggest that the ‘best’ third of your colonies should be used to rear more queens and the ‘worst’ third should be re-queened with these 6.

Over time 7 the quality will improve.

Of course, a substandard colony might well make it through the winter perfectly successfully. The same cannot be said for weak colonies.

TLC or tough love?

At the end of the summer colonies should be strong. If they are not then there is probably something wrong. A poorly mated queen, an old and failing queen, disease?

The exception might be a recently requeened colony or a new 5 frame nuc.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Colonies that are weak at this stage of the season for no obvious reason need attention. Without it they are likely to succumb during the winter. And they’ll do this after you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of feeding and treating them … 8

There are essentially two choices:

  1. Mollycoddle them and hope they pick up. Boosting them with a frame or two of emerging brood may help (but make sure you don’t weaken the donor colony significantly). Moving them from a full hive to a nuc – preferably poly to provide better insulation – may also be beneficial. In a nuc they have less dead space to heat. An analogous strategy is to fill the space in the brood box with ‘fat dummies‘ or – low-tech but just as effective – a big wodge of bubble wrap with a standard dummy board to hold it in place.
  2. Sacrifice the queen from the weak hive and unite them with a strong colony.

Sentimentalism

Of the two I’d almost always recommend uniting colonies.

It’s less work. There’s no potentially wasted outlay on food and miticides. Most importantly, it’s¬†much more likely to result in a strong colony the following spring.

However, we all get attached to our bees. It’s not unusual to give a fading favourite old queen¬†‘one more chance’ in the hope that next year will be her last hurrah.

Uniting notes

I’ve covered uniting before and so will only add some additional notes here …

Uniting a nuc with a full colony

Uniting a nuc with a full colony …

  • You cannot generate a strong colony by uniting two weak colonies. They’re weak for a reason. Whether they’re weak for the¬†same or different reasons uniting them is unlikely to help.
  • Never unite a colony with signs of disease. All you do is jeopardise the healthy colony.
  • Find the queen and permanently remove her from the weak or poor quality (substandard) colony.
  • If you can’t find the queen unite them with a queen excluder between the colonies. In my limited experience (I usually manage to find the unwanted queen) the bees usually do away with a failing queen when offered a better one, but best to check in a week or so.
  • I generally move the de-queened colony and put it on top of the strong queenright colony.
  • Unite over newspaper and don’t interfere with the hive for at least another week.
  • You can unite one strong colony and two weak colonies simultaneously.
  • Uniting and feeding at the same time is possible.
  • You can unite and treat with a miticide like Amitraz simultaneously. You will have to make a judgement call on whether both boxes need miticide treatment, depending on the strength of the weak colony.
  • If you’re uniting a strong substandard colony and a strong good colony you¬†will need to use an amount of miticide appropriate for a double brood colony (four strips in the case of Amitraz).
Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

The goal of all of the above is to go into autumn with strong, healthy, well-fed colonies that will survive the winter and build up strongly again in the spring.

A very small or weak colony 9 in autumn may survive, but it’s unlikely to flourish the following spring.

“It takes bees to make bees.”

And a weak colony in spring lacks bees, so cannot build up fast.

In contrast, an overwintered strong colony can often yield a nuc in May the following year. You’ve regained your colony numbers, but have a new, young queen in one hive with most of the season ahead for her to prove her worth.

I’ve merged three topics here – clearing supers, stock improvement and getting rid of weak colonies before winter – because all involve some sort of hive manipulation in the early autumn. I usually complete this in late September or early October, with the intention of overwintering strong colonies in single brood boxes packed with bees and stores.


Colophon

The heading of the final paragraph is the opening line of To Autumn by John Keats (1795-1821). Keats wrote To Autumn exactly two hundred years ago (September 1819, his last poem) while gradually succumbing to tuberculosis. Despite this, and his doomed relationship with Fanny Brawne, the poem is not about sadness at the end of summer but instead revels in the ripeness and bounteousness of the season.

Of course, all beekeepers know that the first stanza of To Autumn closes with a reference to bees.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
¬†¬†¬†¬†For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

 

Women without men

The title of the post last week was The end is nigh which, looking at the fate of drones this week, was prophetic.

Shallow depth of field

Watch your back mate … !

After the ‘June gap’ ended queens started laying again with gusto. However, there are differences in the pattern of egg laying when compared to the late spring and early summer.

Inspections in mid/late August 1 show clear signs of colonies making preparations for the winter ahead.

For at least a month the amount of drone brood in colonies has been reducing (though the proportions do not change dramatically). As drones emerge the cells are being back-filled with nectar.

Seasonal production of sealed brood in Aberdeen, Scotland.

The data in the graph above was collected over 50 years ago 2. It remains equally valid today with the usual caveats about year-to-year variation, the influence of latitude and local climate.

Drones are valuable …

Drones are vital to the health of the colony.

Honey bees are polyandrous, meaning the queen mates with multiple males so increasing the genetic diversity of the resulting workers.

There are well documented associations between colony fitness and polyandry, including improvements in population growth, weight gain (foraging efficiency) and disease resistance.

The average number of drones mating with a queen is probably somewhere between 12 and 15 under real world conditions. However studies have shown that hyperpolyandry further enhances the benefits of polyandry. Instrumentally inseminated queens “mated” with 30 or 60 drones show greater numbers of brood per bee and reduced levels of¬†Varroa infestation.

Why don’t queens¬†always mate with 30-60 drones then?

Presumably this is a balance between access, predation and availability of drones. For example, more mating would likely necessitate a longer visit to a drone congregation area so increasing the chance of predation.

In addition, increasing the numbers of matings might necessitate increasing the number of drones available for mating 3.

… and expensive

But there’s a cost to increasing the numbers of drones.

Colonies already invest a huge amount in drone rearing. If you consider that this investment is for colony reproduction it is possible to make comparisons with the investment made in workers for reproduction i.e. the swarm that represents the reproductive unit of the colony.

Comparison of the numbers of workers or drones alone is insufficient. As the graph above shows, workers clearly outnumber drones. Remember that drones are significantly bigger than workers. In addition, some workers are not part of the ‘reproductive unit’ (the swarm).

A better comparison is between the dry weight of workers in a swarm and the drones produced by a colony during the season.

It’s worth noting that these comparisons must be made on colonies that make as many drones as they want. Many beekeepers artificially reduce the drone population by only providing worker foundation or culling drone brood (which I will return to later).

In natural colonies the dry weight of workers and drones involved in colony reproduction is just about 1:1 4.

Smaller numbers of drones are produced, but they are individually larger, live a bit longer and need to be fed through this entire period. That is a big investment.

Your days are numbered

And it’s an investment that is no longer needed once the swarming season is over. All those extra mouths that need feeding are a drain on the colony.

Even though the majority of beekeepers see the occasional drone in an overwintering colony, the vast majority of drones are ejected from the hive in late summer or early autumn.

About now in Fife.

In the video above you can see two drones being harassed and evicted. One flies off, the second drops to the ground.

As do many others.

There’s a small, sad pile of dead and dying drones outside the hive entrance at this time of the season. All perfectly normal and not something to worry about 5.

Drones are big, strong bees. These evictions are only possible because the workers have stopped feeding them and they are starved and consequently weakened.

A drone’s life … going out with a bang … or a whimper.

An expense that should be afforded

Some of the original data on colony sex ratios (and absolute numbers) comes from work conducted by Delia Allen in the early 1960’s.

Other colonies in these studies were treated to minimise the numbers of drones reared. Perhaps unexpectedly these colonies did not use the resources (pollen, nectar, bee bread, nurse bee time etc) to rear more worker bees.

In fact, drone-free or low-drone colonies produced more bees overall, a greater weight of bees overall and collected a bit more honey. This strongly suggests that colonies prevented from rearing drones are not able to operate at their maximum potential.

This has interesting implications for our understanding of how resources are divided between drone and worker brood production. It’s obviously not a single ‘pot’ divided according to the numbers of mouths to feed. Rather it suggests that there are independent ‘pots’ dedicated to drone or worker production.

Late season mating and preparations for winter

The summer honey is off and safely in buckets. Colonies are light and a bit lethargic. With little forage about (a bit of balsam and some fireweed perhaps) colonies now need some TLC to prepare them for the winter.

If there’s any reason to delay feeding it’s important that colonies are not allowed to starve. We had a week of bad weather in mid-August. One or two colonies became dangerously light and were given a kilogram of fondant to tide them over until the supers were off all colonies and feeding and treating could begin. I’ll deal with these important activities next week.

In the meantime there are still sufficient drones about to mate with late season queens. The artificial swarm from strong colony in the bee shed was left with a charged, sealed queen cell.

Going by the amount of pollen going in and the fanning workers at the entrance – see the slo-mo movie above – the queen is now mated and the colony will build up sufficiently to overwinter successfully.


Colophon

Men without Women

Men without women was the title of Ernest Hemingway’s second published collection of short stories. They are written in the characteristically pared back, slightly macho and bleak style that Hemingway was famous for.

Many of these stories have a rather unsatisfactory ending.

Not unlike the fate of many of the drones in our colonies.

Women without men is obviously a reworking of the Hemingway title which seemed appropriate considering the gender-balance of colonies going into the winter.

If I’d been restricted to writing using the title¬†Men without Women I’d probably have discussed the wasps that plague our picnics and hives at this time of the year. These are largely males, indulging in an orgy of late-season carbohydrate bingeing.

It doesn’t do them any good … they perish and the hibernating overwintering mated queens single-handedly start a new colony the following spring.

The end is nigh

A brief triptych of items this week as I’m struggling with an intermittent broadband connection on the remote west coast 1.

Great view but no signal

There are worse places to be cutoff …

Summer honey

There are no significant amounts of heather in central Fife and there’s none within range of my colonies. Work and other commitments mean it’s not practical to take my colonies to the Angus glens, so when the summer nectar flow finishes so does my beekeeping season.

The summer honey I produce is clear, runny honey. It is best described as mixed floral or blossom honey. In some years it has a significant amount of lime in it.

Lime honey has a greenish tinge and a wonderful zesty flavour. In other years it lacks the lime but is no less delicious.

Honey

Honey

Last year it was “Heinz”¬†honey¬†i.e. 57 varieties. I looked at the pollen content during the excellent Scottish Beekeepers Microscopy course and there was a very wide range of tree and flower pollens, most of which remained unidentified.

What was striking was the relative abundance of pollen in contrast to the ‘control’ samples of supermarket honey. Most of these had probably been subjected to significant filtration during processing.

I’ll return to pollen in honey, and more specifically pollen in¬†local honey shortly.

Following a judicious amount of ‘on the spot’ testing (i.e. dipping my finger into broken honey comb and tasting ūüėČ ) some of the honey this year has the ‘lime zest’ and, with the flow over, it’s now time to collect it for extraction.

Clearing supers

Towards the end of the summer colonies should be strong. A double brood National hive with three or four supers contains a lot of bees.

To remove the supers it’s first necessary to remove the bees.

Porter bee escape

Some beekeepers use smelly pads to achieve this, some use modified leaf blowers and many use a crownboard with a Porter bee escape (a sort of one-way valve for bees).

I’ve never liked the idea of putting a¬†non-toxic blend of natural oils and herb extracts (the description of Bee Quick) anywhere near my delicately flavoured honey. I know most is capped. However, I want to avoid any risk of tainting the final product.

A leaf blower seems pretty barbaric to me. Shaking bees off the super frames leaves a lot of disorientated bees flying around the apiary. Blasting them halfway to the other side of the field is a poor way to thank them for all their hard work over the last few weeks.

I described the Porter bee escape as a ‘sort of’ one way valve. That’s because they don’t always work dependably. Big fat drones (why were they in the supers anyway?) get stuck, they get jammed with propolis and they’re very inefficient.

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

I use a simple clearer board with no moving parts, two large ‘entrances’ and two very small ‘exits’. These clear a stack of supers overnight.

I don’t have enough for all my hives 2 so clear a few at a time.

I stack the supers on top of my honey warming cabinet set at 34¬įC. This delays crystallisation 3 and significantly improves the efficiency of extraction as the honey flows much more easily.

Honey filled supers

Honey filled supers …

Before leaving the subject of clearing supers it’s worth remembering that colonies can get a bit tetchy once the flow is over. Don’t be surprised if they don’t thank you for pinching all their hard earned stores.

In addition, it is very important to avoid spilling honey from broken comb or exposing colonies – particularly weak ones – which may induce robbing.

I prefer to  add the clearers in good weather and then remove the supers in poor weather the following day, or early or late the next day. Both ensure that there are fewer bees about.

Local honey

I get a lot of requests for ‘local honey’. Many of these are to alleviate or prevent hay fever. This is based on the belief that the pollen in honey primes the immune system and prevents the adverse responses seen in hay fever.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence supporting any beneficial effect, the repeated anecdotal evidence is reassuring … and certainly helps honey sales ūüėČ

Le client n’a jamais tort4

And, whether it helps hay fever or not, it certainly tastes good ūüôā

I only produce local honey, but am regularly asked for more details.

Where do the bees forage? How far do they fly?

What is local anyway?

British?

Scottish?

Fife?

Certainly not the first two, even if we do all now live in the global village¬†5.¬†Local means ‘the neighbourhood’ or a particular area.

Area, of course, isn’t defined.

It might not even mean Fife. The honey produced from the town gardens in St Andrews or Dunfermline will be different from the honey produced from the small villages in the flat agricultural land of the Howe of Fife.

Fife and Kinross Shires Civil Parish map

And the honey produced in the spring is very different from summer honey, or in different years.

There’s a lot of interest in eating locally produced food. Just consider the millions of posts using the hashtags #eatlocal on Twitter or Instagram.

Artisan shops that sell local produce tend to sell it at a significant premium. That’s something worth remembering ūüėČ Customers are prepared to pay more because they know something about the provenance of the produce, or they want to be reassured it has not been transported half way across the globe.

For those who want more information about ‘local’ honey, it would be good to be able to provide it – even if they purchase it in a shop 6. For those who don’t, who aren’t interested, or who just want to spread it thickly on toast 7 then the information is superfluous and should not spoil the appearance of the jar or label.

I’ve been toying with solutions to this over the last couple of years. It provides a bee-related diversion during the long winter evenings.

Some of the commercial Manuka honey producers already have a labelling system that incorporates links to this sort of additional information. With a bit of interweb geekery, a suitable server and a functioning broadband connection it should be relatively straightforward to engineer.

Watch this space …

But for the moment this will have to wait … I have honey supers to collect and no functioning broadband ūüôĀ


 

Queen includer

By definition the queen excluder should be an impassable barrier for the queen.

“Why not put one under the brood box 1¬†to prevent the loss of a swarm?”, asks the beginner beekeeper.

Framed wire QE ...

Framed wire QE …

A perfectly logical question, and one to which you will hear 2 a variety of answers. These include the adverse effect on pollen collection, the possibility of an undersize virgin getting through anyway (with the loss of a swarm) and the distressing consequences it has for drones in the hive.

The late David Cushman covers these and other reasons.

Just because you probably shouldn’t, doesn’t mean you can’t … and this is what happens when you do.

Hot and bothered

I recently discussed my current thoughts on using a bee shed for teaching purposes. In it I made the point that it can get unbearably hot in a beesuit on a warm day.

Phew!

A couple of weeks ago I spent a sweltering hour or so inspecting the seven colonies in our larger shed.

It’s midsummer. It was a hot sunny day and the shed thermometer was reading over 32¬įC.

Some of the colonies were on double brood and had at least three supers on.¬†Those that didn’t were recently installed and were a bit “temperamental”. These are research colonies and they came from a collaborator 3.

One colony should have recently requeened and I wanted to find, mark and clip her before the colony built up again.

I worked my way through the single boxes first. I found the queen in each of them except the one that had requeened.

Typical ūüôĀ

My excuse was that I was half-blind with sweat. However, it’s not unusual to not find the queen when you actually need to 4.

I didn’t dally, I still had the 5-6 box towers to get through.

The tower of power

In my dreams

Finally I was left with colony #6. This had been strong from the start of the season and was now probably the strongest hive in the apiary. The double brood box was bulging with bees with at least 18 frames of brood in all stages.

The supers were very heavy.

At the beginning of the afternoon I’d intended to find the queen and prepare the box to be split once the flow was over (any day now). However, after more than an hour in stifling conditions I was struggling and starting to hallucinate about ice cold beer.

Inevitably I couldn’t find the queen ūüôĀ

With sweat stinging my eyes and dripping off my nose onto the inside of the veil I could barely see the comb, let alone the queen. I did find eggs, so I knew she was present (or had been 2-3 days ago) and there were no obvious signs of swarm preparation. The colony was very busy, but the queen definitely still had space to lay.

I decided to pop a queen includer excluder between the brood boxes with the intention of returning 3-4 days later to look for eggs as an indicator of where the queen was.

I packed up, returned home and slaked my thirst.

Oh no they’re not … Oh yes they are …

Two days later my PhD student calls me from the apiary to tell me that colony #6 is swarming.

“Oh no they’re not … I checked them a couple of days ago and all was well”, I replied smugly.

But of course I visited the apiary to check anyway.

They were swarming ūüôĀ

Oh yes they are!

Unlike a ‘typical’ swarm this appeared to have no centre or focus (where I’d usually expect to find the queen). The bees were spread over a wide area, hanging in a large clump under the landing board and on the edges and corners of the shed.

They weren’t clustering in any real sense of the word, but they also weren’t re-entering the hive.

I had a prod about around the entrance looking for the queen, gently removing handfuls of bees. The bees were very calm as you usually expect of swarms 5 and I could move them aside in my search.

But there was no sign of her.

Bees fanning at the hive entrance .. obviously a different hive as I had my hands full with the swarm.

However, there were a number of bees fanning busily at the hive entrance. Each was facing the entrance with the abdomen pointing up and away from the hive and the Nasanov gland exposed at the tip of the abdomen.

The Nasonov pheromone is a mix of terpenoids that attracts workers. It is left as an attractant by honey bees on nectar-rich flowers and – when produced by fanning bees at the hive entrance – it is usually a good indication that the queen is inside.¬†An artificial version forms the commercial ‘swarm lure’ you can buy.¬†

What’s (probably) in the box?

By now I could make a fair guess at what had happened.

I assumed the queen was somewhere in the double brood box, either because she was clipped and had returned there or because she was trapped above the queen excluder.

Or, of course, both 6.

They’d presumably swarmed because I’d missed a queen cell.¬†D’oh!

I therefore expected to find both a queen and one or more queen cells in the box … and I needed to quickly make a decision about how to resolve the situation.

Swarm control rescue

Pagdens' artificial swarm ...

Pagdens’ artificial swarm …

Swarm control usually refers to a hive manipulation that prevents the colony from swarming. For example, the classic Pagden artificial swarm.

Despite the fact that this colony had swarmed 7, if I could find the queen I could divide the colony like a Pagden artificial swarm and (hopefully) rescue the situation.

I removed the supers and put them to the side. I assembled a new floor and brood box with 10 mixed frames 8 and substituted this for the original floor and double brood box.

I took the double brood box outside 9, separated the two boxes and went through them carefully.

The¬†upper box contained the queen … above the queen excluder. I put her on the frame she occupied back into the new empty brood box in the shed.

The¬†lower box had a handful of queen cells along the edge of a partially drawn foundationless frame. I’d missed these in the previous inspection. I’ll blame it on the heat, but I may need to visit Specsavers

I added a queen excluder to the new brood box and carefully placed the supers back on top. All the flying bees, which includes the foragers, would return to the original location within a day or two so the supers were there if the flow continued.

All’s well that ends well

I inspected the colonies a few days later. The queenright colony in the original location in the shed was busy, the queen was laying the well 10 and there was still nectar coming in.

I carefully went though the queenless colony to see if there were any additional queen cells and knocked all back except one which I know was charged (i.e. contained a developing larvae).

With a bit of good weather there should be a new mated queen in the box by mid/late August. If there isn’t I’ll unite the colony back with the one containing the original queen.

Lessons learned

As always there are lessons to be learned. The lessons this time are reasonably obvious:

  • Expiring from heat exhaustion is no reason to cut corners when inspecting a colony. I wasn’t aware that I’d cut corners, but the queen cells were reasonably obvious and would have been more than play cups at inspection 11. Perhaps I should have left it for a cooler day? But perhaps they would have then swarmed anyway … ? Beekeeping might appear like a gentle pastime (and it can be), but it can also be very hard work.
  • Moving a strong colony away from its original location usually helps reduce the bee numbers, so making inspections easier. This was undoubtedly helped by the absentee swarming bees as well 12.
  • Be prepared. Keep spares in the apiary so you can deal with the unexpected without making a return trip. I always try and keep a bait hive in the apiary and happily steal any or all of it to deal with these sorts of situations. You can always replace the bait hive at your leisure. Inevitably a busy swarm season can deplete your spares and it’s always worth remembering that the bees will cope with all sorts of sub-standard accommodation for a short period. A piece of ply as a roof, a crownboard as a floor (assuming it has a hole in it!), two stacked supers rather than a brood box, no crownboard (perhaps because it’s being used as a floor), an incomplete box of frames¬†etc. Improvise if you need to …¬†the bees will not mind.

Queen includers

Instead of a queen excluder, Thorne’s sell a “swarm trap” that consists of a box to fit over the hive entrance which has both a queen excluder¬†and an exit for drones. They market it as being¬†developed with the hobby beekeeper in mind who finds weekly inspections to remove queen cells almost impossible.

Swarm trap

I’ve not seen one in use so cannot comment on it. However, in my opinion there’s¬†“no gain without pain” … if you are going to keep bees you need to appreciate that the principles of the hobby involve the need for regular inspections. It would probably be better to just purchase local honey rather than relying on this type of swarm trap for missed inspections.

Some beekeepers place a queen excluder under a brood box after hiving a captured swarm onto undrawn foundation. This helps prevent the colony from absconding while the bees draw some comb. After that the queen will start laying and the risk of the swarm disappearing is much reduced.

I’ve never used a queen excluder like this as I don’t routinely collect swarms. Those I acquire generally arrive under their own steam in a bait hive. Since these already have one drawn comb a mated queen can start laying without delay.

I don’t ever remember having a swarm from a bait hive abscond. Casts (a swarm with an unmated queen) also seem to stay if they have chosen their destination and moved there voluntarily.

The alternative way to encourage a hived swarm to stay put is to give them a frame of open brood. I have done this but prefer not to 13 as I treat all swarms with a miticide soon after they are hived to reduce Varroa levels. To ensure this treatment is really effective I want to be certain there is no sealed brood in the hive.


 

Teaching in the bee shed

An observant beekeeper never stops learning. How the colony responds to changes in forage and weather, how swarm preparations are made, how the colony regulates the local environment of the hive etc.

Sometimes the learning is simple reinforcement of things you should know anyway.

Or knew, but forgot. Possibly more than once.

If you forget the dummy board they¬†will build brace comb in the gap ūüôĀ

There’s nothing wrong with learning by reinforcement though some beekeepers never seem to get the message that knocking back swarm cells¬†is not an effective method of swarm control ūüėČ

Learning from bees and beekeeping

More generally, bees (and their management) make a very good subject for education purposes. Depending upon the level taught they provide practical examples for:

  • Biology – (almost too numerous to mention) pollination, caste structure, the superorganism, disease and disease management, behaviour
  • Chemistry – pheromones, sugars, fermentation, forensic analysis
  • Geography and communication – the waggle dance, land use, agriculture
  • Economics – division of labour (so much more interesting than Adam Smith and pin making), international trade
  • Engineering and/or woodwork – bee space, hive construction, comb building, the catenary arch

There are of course numerous other examples, not forgetting actual vocational training in beekeeping.

This is offered by the¬†Scottish Qualifications Authority in a level 5 National Progression Award in Beekeeping¬†and I’ve received some enquiries recently about using a bee shed for teaching beekeeping.

Shed life

For our research we’ve built and used two large sheds to accommodate 5 to 7 colonies. The primary reason for housing colonies in a shed is to provide some protection to the bees and the beekeeper/scientist when harvesting brood for experiments.

On a balmy summer day there’s no need for this protection … the colonies are foraging strongly, well behaved and good tempered.

But in mid-March or mid-November, on a cool, breezy day with continuous light rain it’s pretty grim working with colonies outdoors. Similarly – like yesterday – intermittent thunderstorms and heavy rain are not good conditions to be hunched over a strong colony searching for a suitable patch containing 200 two day old larvae.

Despite the soaking you get the colonies are still very exposed and you risk chilling brood … to say nothing of the effect it has on their temper.

Or yours.

Bee shed inspections

Here’s a photo from late yesterday afternoon while I worked with three colonies in the bee shed. The Met Office had issued “yellow warnings” of thunderstorms and slow moving heavy rain showers that were predicted to drift in from the coast all afternoon.

All of which was surprisingly accurate.

Bee shed inspections in the rain

For a research facility this is a great setup. The adverse weather doesn’t seem to affect the colonies to anything like the same degree as those exposed to the elements. Here’s a queenless colony opened minutes before the photo above was taken …

Open colony in the bee shed

Inside the shed the bees were calmly going about their business. I could spend time on each frame and wasn’t bombarded with angry bees irritated that the rain was pouring in through their roof.

Even an inexperienced or nervous beekeeper would have felt unthreatened, despite the poor conditions outside.

So surely this would be an ideal environment to teach some of the practical skills of beekeeping?

Seeing and understanding

Practical beekeeping involves a lot of observation.

Is the queen present? Is there brood in all stages? Are there signs of disease?

All of these things need both good eyesight and good illumination. The former is generally an attribute of the young but can be corrected or augmented in the old.

But even 20:20 vision is of little use if there is not enough light to see by.

The current bee shed is 16′ x 8′. It is illuminated by the equivalent of seven 120W bulbs, one situated ‘over the shoulder’ of a beekeeper inspecting each of the seven hives.

On a bright day the contrast with the light coming in through the windows makes it difficult to see eggs. On a dull day the bulbs only provide sufficient light to see eggs in freshly drawn comb. In older or used frames – at least with my not-so-young eyesight – it usually involves a trip to the door of the shed (unless it is raining).

It may be possible to increase the artificial lighting using LED panels but whether this would be sufficient (or affordable) is unclear.

Access

Observation also requires access. The layout of my bee shed has the hives in a row along one wall. The frames are all arranged ‘warm way’ and the hives are easily worked from behind.

Hives in the bee shed

Inevitably this means that the best view is from directly behind the hive. If the shed was used as a training/teaching environment there’s no opportunity to stand beside the hive (as you would around a colony in a field), so necessitating the circulation of students within a rather limited space to get a better view.

A wider shed would improve things, but it’s still far from ideal and I think it would be impractical for groups of any size.

And remember, you’re periodically walking to and from the door with frames …

Kippered

If you refer back to the first photograph in this post you can see a smoker standing right outside the door of the shed.

If you use or need a smoker to inspect the colonies (and I appreciate this isn’t always necessary, or that there are alternative solutions) then it doesn’t take long to realise that the smoker must be kept¬†outside the shed.

Even with the door open air circulation is limited and the shed quickly fills with smoke.

If you’ve mastered the art of lighting a properly fuelled efficient smoker the wisp of smoke curling gently up from the nozzle soon reduces visibility and nearly asphyxiates those in the shed.

Which brings us back to access again.

Inspections involve shuttling to and from the door with frames or the smoker, all of which is more difficult if the shed is full of students.

Or bees … which is why the queen excluder is standing outside the shed as well. I usually remove this, check it for the queen and then stand it outside out of the way.

Broiled

In mid-March or November the shed is a great place to work. The sheltered environment consistently keeps the temperature a little above ambient.

Colonies seem to develop sooner and rear brood later into the autumn 1.

But in direct sunlight the shed can rapidly become unbearably warm.

Phew!

All the hives have open mesh floors and I’ve not had any problems with colonies being unable to properly regulate their temperature.

The same cannot be said of the beekeeper.

Working for any period at temperatures in the low thirties (Centigrade) is unpleasant. Under these conditions the shed singularly fails to keep the beekeeper dry … though it’s sweat not rain that accumulates in my boots on days like this.

Bee shelters

For one or two users a bee shed makes a lot of sense if you:

  • live in an area with high rainfall (or that is very windy and exposed) and/or conditions where hives would benefit from protection in winter
  • need to inspect or work with colonies at fixed times and days
  • want the convenience of equipment storage, space for grafting and somewhere quiet to sit listening to the combined hum of the bees in the hives and¬†Test Match Special ūüėČ

But for teaching groups of students there may be better solutions.

In continental Europe 2 bee houses and bee shelters are far more common than they are in the UK.

I’ve previously posted a couple of articles on German bee houses – both basic and deluxe. The former include a range of simple shelters, open on one or more sides.

A bee shelter

Something more like this, with fewer hives allowing access on three sides and a roof – perhaps glazed or corrugated clear sheeting to maximise the light – to keep the rain off, might provide many of the benefits of a bee shed with few of the drawbacks.


 

Leave and let die

If you follow some of the online discussions on Varroa¬†you’ll see numerous examples of amateur beekeepers choosing not to treat so as to ‘select for mite-resistant bees’.

For starters it’s worth looking at the ‘treatment-free’ forums on Beesource.

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

The principle is straightforward. It goes something like this:

  • Varroa is a relatively new 1 pathogen of honey bees who therefore naturally have no resistance to it (or the viruses it transmits).
  • Miticide treatment kills mites, so favouring the survival of bees.
  • Consequently, traits that confer partial or complete resistance to¬†Varroa are not actively selected¬†for (which would otherwise happen if an untreated colony died out).
  • Treatment is therefore detrimental, at the population level if not the individual level, to the development of¬†Varroa-resistant bees.
  • Therefore, don’t treat and – with a bit of luck – a resistant strain of bees will appear.

A crude oversimplification?

Yes, I don’t deny it.

There are all sorts of subtleties here. These range from the open mating of queens, isolation of apiaries, desirable traits (with regards to both disease resistance and honey production 2), livestock management ethics, our responsibilities to other beekeepers and other pollinators. I could go on.

But won’t.

Instead I’ll discuss a short paper published in the Journal of Apicultural Research. It’s not particularly novel and the results are very much in the “No sh*t Sherlock” category. However, it neatly emphasises the futility of the ‘do nothing and expect evolution to find a solution’ approach.

But I’ll start with a simple question …

How many colonies have you got?

One? (in which case, get another)

Two?

Ten?

One hundred?

Eight-two thousand? 3

Numbers matters because evolution is a numbers game. The evolutionary processes that result in alteration of genes (the genotype of an organism) that confer different traits or characteristics (the phenotype of an organism) are rare.

For example, viruses are some of the fastest evolving organisms and, during their replication, mutations (errors) occur at a rate of about 1 in 104 at the genetic level 4.

This is why we treat ...

This is why we treat …

But so-called higher organisms (like humans or bees) have much more efficient replication machinery and make very many fewer errors. A conservative figure for bees might be about 10,000 times less than in these viruses (i.e. 1 in 108), though it could be as much as a million times less error-prone 5

There are lots of other evolutionary mechanisms in addition to mutation but the principle remains broadly the same. The chance changes that are acquired by copying or mixing up genetic material are very, very infrequent.

If they weren’t, most replication would result – literally – in a dead end.

OK, OK, enough numbers … what about my two colonies?

So, since the evolutionary¬†mechanisms make small, infrequent changes, the¬†chance of a beneficial change occurring is very small. If you start with small numbers of colonies and expect success you’re likely to be disappointed.

Where¬†‘likely to be’¬†means¬†will be.

The chances of picking the Lotto jackpot is about 1 in 45 million for each ticket purchased. If you expect to win you will be disappointed.

It could be you … but it’s unlikely

If you buy two tickets (with different numbers!) your chances are doubled. But realistically, they’re still not great 6.

And so on.

Likewise, the more colonies you have, the more likely you’ll get one that might – by chance – acquire a beneficial mutation that confers some level of resistance to¬†Varroa.

Of course, we don’t really know much about the genetic basis for resistance (or tolerance?) to¬†Varroa in honey bees. We know that there are behavioural changes that increase survival. We also know that¬†Apis cerana can cope with¬†Varroa because it has a shorter duration replication cycle and exhibits¬†social apoptosis.

There are certainly ‘hygienic’ and other traits in bees that may be beneficial, but at a genetic level I don’t think we know the number of genes that are altered to confer these, or how much each might contribute.

So we don’t know how many mutations will be needed … One? One hundred? One thousand?

If the benefit of an individual mutation is very subtle it might offer relatively little selective advantage, which brings us back to the numbers again.

Apologies. Let’s not go there.

Let’s cut to the chase …

Comparison of treated vs untreated colonies over 3 years

Miticides – whether hard chemicals like Amitraz or Apistan or organic acids like formic or oxalic acid – work by exhibiting differential toxicity to mites than to their host, the bee. They are not so specific that they only kill mites. They can harm other things as well … e.g.¬†if you ingest enough oxalic acid (5 – 15g) it can kill you.

Amitraz

Amitraz …

Jerzy Wilde and colleagues published their study 7¬†comparing colonies treated or untreated over a three year period. The underlying question addressed in the paper is “What’s more damaging, treating with potentially toxic miticides or not treating at all?”

The study was straightforward. They started with 100 colonies, requeened them and divided them randomly into 4 groups of 25 colonies each. Three received treatment and one was a control.

The ‘condition’ of the colonies was measured in a variety of ways, including:

  • Colony size in Spring (number of combs occupied)
  • Nosema levels (quantified by numbers of spores)
  • Mite drop over the winter (dead mites per 100g of ‘hive debris’)
  • Colony size in autumn (post-treatment) and egg laying rate by the queen
  • Winter losses

The last one needs some explanation because in one group (guess which?) there were more winter losses than they started the experiment with.

Overwintering colony losses were made up from splits of colonies in the same group the following year, so that each year 25 colonies went into the winter i.e. surviving colonies were used to generate additional colonies for the same treatment group.

Treatment and seasonal variation

To add a little complexity to the study the authors compared three treatment regimes:

  1. Hard chemicals only – active ingredients amitraz or the pyrethroid flumethrin (the research group are Polish, so the particular formulations are those licensed in Poland – Apiwarol, Bayvarol and Biowar).
  2. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – a range of treatments including Api Life Var (primarily a thymol-based treatment) in spring, drone brood removal early/mid season, hard chemical or formic acid in late summer/autumn and oxalic acid in midwinter.
  3. Organic (natural) treatments only – Api Life Var in spring, the same or formic acid in late summer and a midwinter oxalic acid treatment.

The fourth group were the untreated controls.

To avoid season-specific variation they conducted the experiment over three complete seasons (2010-2012).

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

The results of the study are shown in a series of rather dense tables with standard deviation and statistic significance … so I’ll give a narrative account of the important ones.

Results …

The strength of surviving colonies in Spring was unaffected by prior treatment (or absence of treatment) but varied significantly between seasons. In contrast, late summer colony strength was significantly worse in the untreated control colonies. In addition, the number of post-treatment eggs laid by the queen was significantly lower (by ~30%) in untreated control colonies 8.

Remember that early autumn treatment is needed to reduce Varroa infestation and so protect the winter bees that are being reared at this time from the mite-transmitted viruses.

Out, damn'd mite ...

Out, damn’d mite …

The most dramatic effects were seen in winter losses and (unsurprisingly) mite counts.

Mites were counted in the hive debris falling through the open mesh floor during the winter. In the first year the treated and untreated controls had similar numbers of mites per 100g of debris (~12). In all treated colonies this remained about the same in each subsequent season. Conversely, untreated controls showed mite drop increasing to ~43 in the second year and ~114 in the final year of the study.

During the three years of the study 30 untreated colonies died. In contrast, a total of 37 colonies from the three treatment groups died.

The summary sentence of the abstract to the paper neatly sums up these results: 

Failing to apply varroa treatment results in the gradual and systematic decrease in the number of combs inhabited by bees and condition of bee colonies and consequently, in their death.

… and some additional observations

Other than oxalic acid, none of the treatments used significantly affected the late season egg laying by the queen. Api Life Var contains thymol and many beekeepers are aware that the thymol in Apiguard quite often stops the queen from laying. Interesting …

I commented last week on queen losses with MAQS. In this Polish study, 8 of 50 colonies treated with formic acid suffered queen losses.

In the third season (2012) 45% of the 100 colonies died. More than half of these lost colonies were in the untreated controls. In contrast, overall colony losses in the first two years were only 9% and 13%. Survival of untreated colonies for a year or two is expected, but once the Varroa levels increase significantly the colony is doomed.

Overall, colonies receiving integrated pest management or hard chemical treatment survived best.

Evolution …

March of Progress

Evolution …

Remind yourself where the colonies came from that were used to make up the losses in the treatment (or control) groups … they were splits from colonies within the same group. So, colonies that survived without treatment were used to produce more colonies to not be treated the following season.

Does this start to sound familiar?

Jerzy Wilde and colleagues started with 25 colonies in the untreated group. They lost 30 colonies over a 3 year period and ended up with just two colonies. Had they wanted to continue the study they would have been unable to recover their losses from these two remaining colonies.

If you don’t treat you must expect to lose colonies.

Lots of colonies.

Actually, almost all of them.

… takes time

This study lasted only three years.¬†That’s not very long in evolutionary terms (unless you are a bacterium with a 20 minute replication cycle).¬†

It would be unrealistic to expect Varroa resistance to almost spontaneously appear. After all, there are about 91 million colonies worldwide, the majority of which are in countries with Varroa. Lots of these colonies will not be treated. If it was that easy it would have happened many times already.

What happens when you start with more colonies and allow more time to elapse?

Well, this ‘experiment’ has been done. There are a number of regions that have well-documented populations of feral honey bees that are living with, if not actually resistant to,¬†Varroa.

One well known population are the bees in the Arnot Forest studied by Thomas Seeley. These bees have behavioural adaptations Рsmall, swarmy colonies Рthat lessen the impact of Varroa on the colony 9.

Finally, returning to the title of this post, there is the so-called “Bond experiment” conducted on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Scientists established 150 colonies of mite-infested bees and let them get on with it with no intervention at all. Over the subsequent six years they followed the co-evolution of the mite and the bee 10.

It’s called the “Bond experiment” or the¬†Live and Let Die¬†study for very obvious reasons.

Almost all the colonies died.

Which is why the title of this post is more appropriate for those of us with only small numbers of colonies.


 

The hairdryer treatment

I must be missing a couple of fingers. When I wrote the last post on hive and queen numbering I counted off the days to the end of this week, scheduled the post and was then quite surprised when it appeared on Wednesday.

D’oh!

That Friday feeling

That’s spoilt the pattern a bit.

To get back on schedule here’s a note about the well-known trick to revitalise foundation 1.

Frames and foundation

It’s the time of the season when many beekeepers will be running out of frames as they try and keep up with splits and swarming.

It’s sometimes difficult to get new foundation precisely when you need it. The suppliers sell out or delivery takes a week and you need it¬†that afternoon 2.¬†I therefore usually buy in bulk and store it somewhere cool and flat.

If you look after it properly foundation lasts for ages. Don’t go piling things on top of the stack and try not to damage the fragile edges. However, over time it becomes brittle and develops a pale waxy bloom on the surface. It also loses that lovely ‘new foundation’ smell.

The bees draw out this old rather tired foundation appreciably less well than they do new fragrant sheets. In my experience this is particularly noticeable in supers.

However, a few seconds with a hairdryer on a medium setting quickly restores the foundation to its original state.

Revitalising foundation

Don’t overheat it. The sheet will bow slightly as it is warmed. Treat both sides to try and keep it as flat as possible. The foundation will become slightly translucent and regains that lovely ‘new foundation’ smell as oils are released from the warmed wax.

It’s easier to do this once the foundation is fitted in the frame. However, old, brittle foundation is less easy to work with when you’re making up frames in the first place.

Or you could use foundationless frames ūüėČ

Your call.


Colophon

The phrase ‘hairdryer treatment’ is most often associated with the last but one, two, three, four 3 managers of Manchester United FC, Sir Alex Ferguson. The BBC’s Learning English website describes it very well …¬†When Sir Alex Ferguson was angry with his players, he shouted at them with such force, it was like having a hairdryer switched on in their faces.

Since I’m interested in etymology 4 and not football I’ve no idea what prompted the rise in use of the term in May 2013, visualised below on Google Trends.

Hairdryer treatment – Google Trends

Perhaps the May 2013 peak wasn’t Fergie or football at all … perhaps it was a flurry of articles on restoring old wax foundation ūüėČ

Keeping track

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

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

Numbered nuc and production colonies.

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

Some never achieve this transition.

Most can with suitable help, support and perseverance.

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

Struggling to keep

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

No honey again ūüôĀ

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

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

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

As does the refund of the ¬£35 deposit ūüôĀ

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

Smelling faintly of propolis and unmet promises

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

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

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

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

Struggling to keep up with

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

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

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

Very prolific.

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

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

Overwintering 5 frame poly nuc

And so it goes on.

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

Stock improvement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping track

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

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

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

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

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

Objective and subjective notes

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

Numbering colonies, hives, boxes and queens

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

More work yes, but not impossible 8.

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

There has to be a better way to do this.

Numbered boxes and numbered queens

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

Numbers for hives and queens

Numbers for hives and queens

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

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

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

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

Colony and queen numbering

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

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

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

I’ve got no excuse for mix-ups now… ūüėČ