Category Archives: Principles

Why keep bees

Synopsis : What makes people want to start beekeeping? Is it to Save the bees, or because they just like honey? Is their persistence and long-term success influenced by their initial motivation to keep bees. Do they keep beekeeping for the same reasons they start beekeeping?

Introduction

Hundreds of potential new beekeepers, spread across the country, are now enrolled on ’Beekeeping for beginners’ or ’Start beekeeping’ events. In the next few weeks they will take weekly or weekend theory courses.

Life cycle, swarming, the hive, Varroa, foulbroods, candles, honey … the whole nine yards 1.

They will read and re-read every page in the Thorne’s catalogue until they can recite it verbatim.

If they’re sensible they will not ’splash the cash’ until they can discriminate between what they actually need, what they might want (but not need), and what will be a total waste of money  2.

With luck, and a responsible beekeeping association, they will be appointed a mentor to provide help, advice, reassurance, cups of tea, a starter nucleus of bees, cake, commiserations and/or antihistamines 3.

It’s an exciting time. There’s a lot to learn 4 and so every reason to be a little apprehensive.

And, if they’re not, perhaps they should be?

In April they should get to see inside a hive.

Will they experience the same heady combination of wonder and bewilderment that I still sometimes feel when lifting a crownboard?

For some it will be a truly life-changing experience 🙂

For others it will confirm that they should have never taken the course in the first place 🙁

But for most it will be something in between.

I’ve often wondered whether the reaction during these early apiary sessions, and the subsequent beekeeping progress, is related to their original motivation to keep bees.

In the beginning

I don’t remember why I was interested in beekeeping. Other than my grandmother, there was no history of beekeeping in my family, and I don’t think my gran kept bees for many years.

I have a faint memory of a couple of lovely WBC hives on a patch of grass overlooking the valley, but never discussed them with her or did anything other than watch the bees going in and out.

When I signed up for a ’Start beekeeping’ course I knew less than nothing about beekeeping or beehives. I didn’t know about removable frames, or supers, or anything about plants or nectar or forage 5.

In fact, I didn’t have a Scooby Doo what was actually inside a beehive, other than a heck of a lot of bees.

However, I was interested in bees.

With a background and education in biology and employment as a biologist 6 I was always fascinated by living things. I’d read Konrad Lorenz and some other books on animal behaviour, I knew a bit about communication in higher animals and I’d heard – and probably been taught the rudiments of – the waggle dance.

I also had a sweet tooth and a long history of starting things enthusiastically and then – over time – moving on to something else. There’s nothing wrong with this approach to life/hobbies/jobs 7 though it can get rather expensive if those interests are sports cars or yachts.

As it turns out … it can also get quite expensive if your interests are bees 🙁

Save the bees, save humanity

I started keeping bees well over a decade ago 8. This was a long time before the marketing departments and rent-a-hive greenwashers had realised that there was serious money in honey bees.

Not in beefarming per se but in using honey bees as a sort of environmental imprimatur. If a product states it is bee friendly, or has ’Save the bees’ stamped on it, sales will increase.

Or it will sell at a higher price … or both.

Assuming the (inevitable) illustration used to decorate the product is recognisable, it will probably be a honey bee.

Define ‘recognisable’

Equally inevitably, this constant reinforcement means that the public 9 start to believe that honey bees are threatened and that their numbers are declining.

The reality of course is that honey bee numbers are actually increasing (globally, though not necessarily in all countries), and have been for at least the last 50 years. That doesn’t mean they’re not threatened 10 … but they’re hardly in imminent danger of disappearing.

But at least some decide that the best way to Save the bees’ would be to start beekeeping.

That wasn’t what made me want to start, but I know it’s motivation for some.

Responsible beekeeping associations should stress the potential impact competition from honey bees may have on wild pollinators … those who take up beekeeping to ’Save the bees’ may be doing precisely the opposite.

And those who start and then abandon their bees, leaving hives containing Varroa-ridden colonies to re-infest the neighbourhood, are definitely not Saving the bees … or humanity.

Self sufficiency

Beekeeping often appeals to people who want to be at least vaguely self-sufficient … in much the same way as keeping chickens or growing carrots does. Subconsciously, this may well have been the driver that encouraged me to sign up for a winter course on keeping bees.

I’d always wanted to keep chickens and had already failed spectacularly at growing carrots 11.

My attempts at allotment self-sufficiency had been marred by copious amounts of ground elder, a prolonged drought and frequent overseas travel. Surely beekeeping would be less time-consuming?

I’m beginning to realise it isn’t 😉

But the great thing about beekeeping is that – with a bit of effort – you can do better than achieve self-sufficiency.

I’ve been self-sufficient in honey since my first summer. Unless you eat vast amounts of the stuff it would be difficult not to be.

But the great thing about honey is that it’s a highly valued 12 product, with a long shelf-life.

Not unlike gold … liquid gold.

Honey

Honey

And, like gold, other people value it.

Gifts for dinner parties, thank-yous for the loan of a log splitter, even payment for odd jobs. I’ve used honey for all these things in the last couple of months.

A surplus of honey also opens up a wonderful world of barter and exchange. A jar of honey for some fresh eggs, or to help reduce the glut of runner beans or carrots, is both enriching and saves me the grief of digging and watering an allotment.

Not only is this a compelling reason to start beekeeping, it also means you get to meet like-minded people who are actually good at keeping chickens or growing carrots, and they are almost always interesting to chat with.

Profit

Are you mad?

I’m sure many amateur beekeepers think they make (at least some) money from their bees, and some probably do.

But they are beekeepers, not accountants 13.

Have they factored in the outgoings as well as the income? The cost of their time, the petrol for the van, the ongoing costs of frames and foundation and Apivar?

The losses, the bad years, the bad back?

Winter losses

Over my (relatively short) beekeeping career only about one year in four provides a real bonanza of honey. In the years you don’t run out of supers and honey buckets, you still have the same effort and outgoings. Or possibly more of both.

Even taking these things into account, I’m sure it’s possible to make some money … but would it be enough to live on?

I’ve discussed my back-of-an-envelope attempt at determining the economics of amateur beekeeping. I don’t claim it’s close to accurate, but it does give an idea of just how little ‘profit’ might be made per hive in a poor year, or conversely, how many hives you’d have to run to make more than the state pension.

I’m sure there are a few 14 individuals who take a ’Start beekeeping’ course with the dream of making a good living from bee farming.

I suspect rather few achieve their ambition 🙁

And one of the reasons it’s unlikely to be achieved is that beekeeping – at least beekeeping well – is difficult. It might seem easy in principle, or in a book (or from a website 😉 ), or during a Start beekeeping’ course, but in practice it can seem like an intractable combination of art, science and witchcraft.

Why I keep bees now

Which explains at least part of my ongoing fascination with bees and beekeeping.

There is always something more to learn.

I’ve written before that there is rarely, if ever, a trip to the apiary that does not result in me learning something new. Or learning that my current understanding of some aspect of beekeeping is inadequate, and that there is therefore more to know.

Which, of course, is half the trick about learning … if you realise what you don’t know, you’ll be alert for an opportunity to fill the gap(s) in your knowledge.

And part of the reason there’s so much to learn is that every season is different.

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

The weather varies; cold springs, hard winters, wet summers … all change the times that nectars and pollens are available, so influencing colony development.

Or the farmers get less subsidy for cattle feed and more for biofuel, so they abandon growing field beans and start growing more oil seed rape.

Our colonies respond by swarming earlier, or later, or (typically) at the time we’re least expecting.

Keeping bees means I am more in tune with the rhythm of the seasons.

I’m more aware of the arrival and departure of migrant birds, the flowering of trees or when the mackerel shoals appear in the loch. Most of this is subconscious, assisted by a little bit of note taking in my hive records:

April 10 : Colony #21 Q #7 : Gorse and late willow pollen, 5+ frames BIAS 15, first cuckoo of the season

All of which is actually rather nice. You become acutely aware of the environment around you. This provides an invaluable ‘grounding’ if your weekly existence usually involves shuttling between an air conditioned office and an air conditioned car 16.

Zen and the science of honey bees

I’ve worked on the biology of honey bee viruses for over a decade. The ability to mix ‘work and (p)leisure’ has been great. I’m certain that being a beekeeper has enabled me to write more successful funding applications 17.

My beekeeping has certainly helped my scientific interactions with other beekeepers … the many individuals and associations I’ve scrounged samples from, or who have acted as ‘guinea pigs’ for my PhD student’s projects.

One of the good things about the science of honey bees is that there are some excellent communicators on the subject. Thomas Seeley and Mark Winston are well worth reading, and if you have a subscription to American Bee Journal you can also read Jamie Ellis, Randy Oliver and Wyatt Mangum.

And there are many others.

An understanding of the biology or behaviour of bees can help you understand the science.

Lakes, for example … bees don’t like flying long distances over expanses of water. In fact, if they try to they often crash land in the water and perish. I’ve discussed optic flow and distance measurement by bees in a previous post. The mirror-like lake provides insufficient visual clues crossing their retinas, causing them to fly closer (and closer) to the surface to help estimate speed and distance … and take an early bath.

On a more practical level, the need for regular samples of larvae and pupae for research prompted me to investigate, and eventually build, a bee shed (or three).

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

These have been a revelation for many aspects of beekeeping, and are particularly useful in areas with unpredictable weather, or for beekeepers who only have limited time each week for their bees.

My most recently completed shed has still to accommodate any hives, but will be used for queen rearing in the, er, ’changeable’ climate I now enjoy on the west coast of Scotland.

I didn’t even know that queen rearing was a ‘thing’ when I started beekeeping, but it now brings me more enjoyment than many other aspects of the hobby.

Everyone is interested in bees

Finally, and this might be a byproduct of the Save the bees, save humanity’ marketing hype you see in the supermarket or read in the newspaper, lots of non-beekeepers are interested in bees.

When I used to live in a small village and sell honey ‘from the door’ it would sometimes involve a 45 minute conversation to sell a half pound jar.

My honey sales were earning me less than the national minimum wage 🙁

“Where are your hives? What sort of nectar do they collect? Do they fly far? Is it true that honey is antibacterial? Have you a recipe for thin syrup? 18 Why are honey bees threatened?

Which brings me almost full circle to the start of this rambling discourse …

And, of course, the other question beekeepers are regularly asked is Do you get stung a lot?”

You can play it cool and discuss the rigorous selection criteria you’ve used to produce the benign, laid back, mellow colonies of bees in your hives.

Or you can lay it on thick and make it sound akin to alligator wrestling … in a veil.

You think this croc is feisty? … You should see my Buckfasts

You’ll need to judge the customer to work out which is more likely to generate additional sales.

I now cannot imagine not keeping bees, even though I’m not entirely sure why I started in the first place. They are an integral part of my life, though they are by no means my only pastime/hobby/obsession.

The rhythm of the seasons means that my beekeeping is ever-changing; colony expansion in the spring, queen rearing, the honey harvest, talks, feeding them up for winter, DIY projects, more talks, jarring honey and then starting all over again.

If it was the same thing, week in, week out, I’d have probably given up years ago and kept chickens instead.


 

Frames

How have I managed to write over 450 posts without having one specifically dedicated to the bane of every beekeeper’s life … frame building?

Actually, that’s not quite correct.

It’s sometimes the bane of my life 1.

Building frames in the height of the season can be a rather stressful process.

I belatedly realise I need 20 frames for swarm control, or making up new nucs, or simply to replace some grotty old ones.

I’m short of time.

I can’t find the hammer … or the nails … or the foundation 🙁

Perhaps it’s only me that’s so disorganised?

But frame building isn’t always like that, and it doesn’t have to be like that.

When there’s no rush, when you have the right tools for the job and the time to do it properly, it can be quite a pleasant way to spend half an afternoon.

And the winter is the time to build frames, so this seemed a logical time to write this post.

Single use or reuasble?

Frames are a semi-disposable 2 consumable for beekeeping.

At least brood frames are. You’ll need new ones during swarm control and when making increase. These brood frames should then be replaced every 3-4 years, depending upon how dark and manky 3 they are getting.

‘Semi-disposable’ because brood frames can be recycled a few times through the steam wax extractor, but eventually the joints get a bit rickety and they should be consigned to the stove.

Super frames are a bit different because they can be reused year after year. I still have some (frames with drawn comb) in use from my first summer of beekeeping.

However, whether I’m making brood or super frames, I build them in essentially the same way. I also build my foundationless frames in a broadly similar manner.

If you build them properly they will remain square and relatively rigid even after a couple of passes through the steam wax extractor. This makes financial sense as frame costs can quickly escalate if you are not careful.

If you build them the way I describe below, you can put them through the steam wax extractor, push off the ‘nailed only’ bottom bar, scrape back any remaining propolis and wax, add a fresh sheet of foundation and refit the bottom bar.

Tools of the trade

You need somewhere with a reasonable amount of space to work and just a few very unspecialised tools. I like building frames in the garden if it’s warm and dry. The banging 4 is less intrusive for those indoors.

Of course, if you’re (sensibly) building them in midwinter – when you have time and little else to do – then you need to plan things accordingly i.e. not late in the evening, or when the crochet/poker club are meeting downstairs.

Tools of the trade

A sharp knife, a pair of pliers and a small lightweight hammer are the essentials. I use a 110 g (4 oz) cross pein hammer, though anything similar is suitable. Even if you end up using a nail gun for most of the work (see below) you will still need a hammer.

You will be surprised (I was) how much easier it is to build frames with a small hammer like this.

You don’t need force …  you need accuracy.

Every frame requires 11 nails, so a brood box or super-full of frames will mean you’re going to be using it a minimum of 121 times.

So buy and use a lightweight hammer 🙂

And then, after a thousand frames, buy a nail gun and ask yourself “Why didn’t I do this years ago?”.

Tacwise nail gun

Tacwise nail gun …

The Tacwise model I use has worked well, but I know some prefer a compressed air (rather than ‘lecky) powered gun.

I wasn’t joking when I said make a thousand frames first. Frame building is a sort of rite of passage for a beekeeper. You won’t make better frames with a nail gun, but you will make them faster (and more noisily).

I also suggest you use some wood glue 5 such as the blue indoor/outdoor Evo Stick or the equivalent stuff from Gorilla.

Of the two, I prefer the Gorilla glue as the nozzle is more clog-free 6.

OK … any readers who have made a few hundred frames up already can skip ahead to some of the concluding comments. You will know all of the following … or you should.

Building frames

Get organised first.

Make sure everything is to hand and logically arranged.

Put a hundred or so gimp pins (frame nails) into a container that has low sides and a wide open top, ideally quite heavy. You want them to be easy to pick up, but not easy to vibrate off the worksurface with all the hammering.

Gimp pins

And, if they do fall off, you only want to pick up a few dozen, not a 500 g box full.

I strongly recommend a Charlie Bigham’s pie container 7 for this purpose 🙂

How many frames should you make at a time?

I do them in batches of 10 as that number fits on the top of my Black and Decker Workmate. It’s also the number of sheets of foundation in a packet. And it’s a convenient number to put in a brood box so you don’t trip over them when building the next 10.

I usually make 5-10 batches and then give up from boredom 8.

Seconds out

You can save a chunk of cash by purchasing second quality frames in the sales. Most of the major suppliers sell them in batches of 50.

You can expect that a small proportion of the frame bars will have defects – knots, shakes, splits or warps.

If any of these are significant, and particularly if there are defects near the frame lugs or warps or twists in the top bar, discard them. It will only be 1-2% of the frame bars and it will save you the hassle of a broken lug or an ill-fitting frame later in the season.

I learnt this the hard way, so you don’t have to 😉

Prepare the top bars

  • Use the knife to remove the foundation retaining wedge from the top bars. Don’t just pull the wedge off as they sometimes break.
  • Put the foundation wedges somewhere nearby but out of the way 9.
  • Tidy up the remaining sliver of wood that is attached to the top bar with another careful swipe of the knife.
  • Lie the top bars – all in the same orientation – upside down on a flat surface.

Top bars – lined up and ready to go

  • Add a small dab of wood glue to the recess cut into the top bar where the side bars attach. Do both sides at once.

Add the side bars

  • Working down one side, then the other, of the aligned top bars, push fit the side bars in place.
  • Make sure you orientate the side bars with foundation groove on the inside 10.
  • They will be a tight fit and don’t worry if they’re not all perfectly aligned or fully pushed down. They need to be a tight fit to ensure that the frames will be square once assembled.
  • Once all the side bars are in place, take each frame and turn it over, standing on a hard surface and use the hammer to tap down on the top bar to ‘seat’ the side bars properly. Don’t hit the lug, just aim for the narrowest part of the top bar.

Properly ‘seated’ side bar

  • Some frames won’t need this, others will need a couple of smart taps to ‘seat’ them properly.
  • Return the frames to the inverted position.

Add the bottom bars

  • Add a dab of glue to the recess in the side bars that will take the bottom bar above the ‘non wedge’ side of the top bar.

Glue for one of the bottom bars only – note the orientation of the top bar

  • Add one bottom bar to every frame in the glued recesses. If the bottom bar is a very tight fit then the frames are good quality. If it’s so tight that the side bar splits then they are not such good quality.
  • A sharp tap with the hammer at the ends of the bottom bar before offering it to the glued recess will make it slightly thinner and so it may be easier to fit.
  • It is important that the ends of the bottom bars are flush with the side bars. If they are not the frame will taper and you will struggle fitting the foundation.

Check frame alignment

  • Check the alignment of the frames. They should all be square, with equal gaps between the bottom bars as shown in the photo above.
  • If any are wonky give them a twist to straighten them up.

Nail the frames

  • I nail each frame in turn, rather than doing all bottom bar nails first, then all side bars. It involves less frame handling and so is faster.
  • Use two gimp pins, one each side, to attach the bottom bar to the side bar. Drive the pin in vertically through the bottom bar into the end grain of the side bar.

Bottom bar nailing

  • Use four pins, two each side, to attach the two side bars to the top bar. One pin goes through the flat edge of the side bar.

One of four pins attaching the side bars and the top bar

  • The other – assuming you are using Hoffman self-spacing frames – is driven through the angled wedge-shaped spacer. Alternatively, some drive it in to the apex of the wedge. Either way works.

And the other face of the frame

  • All of the nails should be driven in flush with the wood. You do not want the heads protruding to catch on the hive tool when (if) you scrape the frames of propolis.
  • Some gimp pins are poor quality and have ‘spade ends’. These tend to drive in at weird angles and are best avoided.

Some good and bad gimp pins – the four on the left might be tricky to drive in straight

  • If the gimp pin does go in at an angle then don’t worry … unless it protrudes through the side bar or into the foundation groove.

Wonky pin … rip it out and start again

  • In these cases replace the pin or you will inevitably catch it with the hive tool, or rip your vinyl glove on it.

Fitting the foundation

I only fit foundation shortly before I need to use the frames. Foundation is relatively fragile. It goes brittle in the cold and develops a white(ish) bloom on the surface which makes it less attractive to the bees.

If you are building frames in the winter 11 then wait until you need the frames before fitting the foundation.

I use diagonally wired foundation. If you remove a sheet from the packet you will see that there are small or large loops of wire on the long edge of the sheet. The large loop goes adjacent to the top bar of the frame, trapped under the foundation wedge.

  • Fold the three large loops at 90° to the sheet and slide the sheet down the foundation grooves in the side bar so that the the wire loops lay flat against the underside of the top bar.

Placement of the wire loop against the underside of the top bar

  • Refit the foundation wedge. You usually have to squeeze it into the gap between the side bars, trapping the wire loops underneath it.
  • Fix the foundation wedge in place with three gimp pins driven through the wedge and each of the trapped wire loops. This stops the foundation from slipping down in the frame.

Pin through the foundation wedge and the trapped wire loop

  • Add the second bottom bar to the frame. This should not be glued as you want to be able to remove it to replace the foundation. Just use one gimp pin at each end.
  • Take care adding this second bottom bar as there is (or at least I have) a tendency to crumple the lower edge of the sheet of foundation. Push fit one end of the bottom bar and then offer it into position by prising it apart from the already fitted bottom bar, so making space for the foundation to fit. You quickly get the hang of this after messing up a couple of sheets of premium quality foundation 🙁

Second bottom bar fitted … do not use glue.

  • Some sheets of foundation are fractionally too wide for the frames. I’ve only ever used Thorne’s DN/SN4’s and DN/SN5’s – both first and second quality – and their premium foundation, and still they are sometimes too wide. In that case lay the foundation on a flat surface and cut ~1mm off one of the shorter edges.

Trimming super foundation to fit the frame

  • I suspect this poor fit is because the sheets of foundation ‘stretch’ slightly during storage 12. Since I usually need to trim down every sheet in a packet I find I can do 3-4 sheets at a time.

Foundationless frames

I’ve discussed these in detail before. I use a lot of them. I don’t have time or space or energy to justify their use again here … I’ve written lots about their construction and use previously which I hope should answer any questions you have.

I make these frames in the same way except for the addition of a couple of vertical bamboo supports. These are added after I fit both bottom bars. I then add back the foundation wedge to leave a narrow slot into which I glue a simple wooden ‘tongue depressor’ starter strip.

Why wood?

Why not a strip of commercial foundation?

Or a hand crafted wax starter strip?

Or at least a wax-painted wooden strip?

Because a plain wooden strip made from a tongue depressor works better and is less effort than any of the other ‘solutions’ 13 above.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

And I know this because I’ve done a side-by-side comparison (see above) to determine which the bees preferentially use … and they simply do not care.

I made a dozen or so frames up like those above and added them to hives and observed which of the options the bees ‘chose’ to draw comb from.

They chose the plain wood as frequently as any others … and since that’s the easiest to prepare, that’s what I do.

Let the bees tell you … 😉

Storing frames

If you’re paying full price for the frames and foundation (rather than buying in bulk, or buying second quality) a frame will cost about £3.30.

Look after them!

Storing 10-20 frames is easy … just put them in empty brood boxes. Except these might get pressed into service during swarm control, or to make bait hives, so then where do you store the frames?

Foundationless frames are relatively easy as they are more robust than frames with foundation. Just stack them up in a pile and use as needed.

Bamboo foundationless frames

Bamboo foundationless frames

Ideally do the same with the built frames before you add the foundation.

However, with a little ingenuity you can devise a solution … here’s mine.

Frame storage

I can store a couple of hundred frames hanging from the shed roof. This has worked well, but needs a reasonable amount of ‘head space’ – either a high roof, or something underneath them (like a bench, or in my case a canoe) that stops you from walking/standing directly below them.

Here are some I made earlier

I’m sure there are lots of other equally good solutions …

Final thoughts

If you use a nail gun to assemble frames do not use it for the second of the bottom bars (other than for foundationless frames). The gun drives the nails in deep and they are very difficult to remove. Attach the unglued second bottom bar with gimp pins as described above.

Nailed

Nailed …

I use 20 mm 18g nails for the nail gun.

The nail gun speeds up frame building.

It can get quite competitive … can I build the next 10 frames in less time than it took the last 10?

Come on .. give me a break. It’s the winter and I need some sort of entertainment to get me through the dark days until I’m beekeeping again 😉


 

Beekeeping fantasy vs. reality

There have been a couple of stories in the press recently that have made me think about the idealised version of beekeeping that is often promoted … with the reality of a lot of amateur beekeeping 1.

Most recently was the announcement of the new CBBC show titled Show Me the Honey! which will be available at the end of this month on iPlayer.

Information is a bit limited at the moment. It’s clearly a programme featuring and for children. According the The Guardian it “features five children and their families taking part in a series of weekly challenges to create the best hive and tastiest honey, with the winner taking home the beekeeper of the year trophy”.

Undoubtedly this will increase interest in beekeeping. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, though the timing is a bit off. The seven week series will end with much of the winter left to run.

Not the best time to start beekeeping

Will those watching who are captivated by the thought of keeping bees go for the ‘quick fix’ of an expensive mid-March nuc thinking “What can be so difficult? One of those kids became the ‘Beekeeper of the Year’ in just seven weeks”.

Or, will they do their homework, attend a Start beekeeping course with a local association, go to a couple of ‘bee handling’ sessions in the association apiary, find a mentor … and only then order a locally sourced nuc?

I’m pretty sure I know which route is more likely to produce a future ‘beekeeper of the year’ 😉

Competitive beekeeping

Just like Show Me the Honey!, my beekeeping often involves a set of ‘weekly challenges’.

  • Where is my bloody hive tool?
  • Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is “To find, mark and clip the queen in this double brood monster of a hive, bulging with psychopathic bees … before the rain starts”.
  • Can I lift these three full supers together without causing permanent damage? 

The concept of competitive beekeeping grated a bit when I first read about it, but the reality is that beekeeping can be competitive.

Think about the annual honey shows.

A bit of lighthearted entertainment for the end of the season?

Or a cutthroat affair, with lashings of deviousness and skulduggery to produce the best 1 oz wax blocks?

That sort of competition I can cope with, although I no longer partake as I’m a very bad loser.

And I lost … a lot 🙁

But think about what’s happened to climbing, and the huge success it was at the Olympics. The speed climbing event is probably now the fastest non-gravity-assisted 2 Olympic sport. 

Perhaps the inevitable adult or celebrity spin-offs of Show Me the Honey! will involve speed inspections?

3 … 2 … 1 … GO!

With Martha Kearney doing the commentary … 3

The best hive

So let’s return to that quote from The Guardian … ‘the best hive’.

Are they going to start with a Thorne’s Bees on a Budget flatpack cedar hive, a mismatched pile of nails, a hammer and a set of IKEA-ish hieroglyphic 4 instructions?

Is the winner the one who gets everything square and true? Does beespace matter? What about injuries? 5

Or perhaps it will be to dream up ‘the best’ new hive design … and there’s lots of competition for that.

How about the urban-friendly 6 B-Box the first ever beehive designed for home beekeeping’.

The B-BOX

Hang on a sec … I’m currently at home.

Let me just check what’s in that blue and yellow box by the shed.

Don’t do this at home … this beehive is designed for other locations

Yep … just as I thought. Bees. It’s a beehive. 

Am I doing something wrong? Have I got a hive designed for beekeeping somewhere other than home? 

There are some grand claims made for the B-BOX and the website is awash with buzzwords 7. I’m not sure the 16 small honey ‘supers’ would be sufficient during a strong nectar flow from the lime trees found in many cities.

These hives are about €480 (plus an extra €580 or so if you want a ‘swarm’ of bees with it … and I think they probably do mean swarm from the description. Yikes!).

Or what about this Philips design – another Urban beehive – that “consists of two parts, a tinted glass shell that houses the honeycomb frames and a flower pot with an entry passage to the glass vessel. You can then harvest the honey produced, simply pull on the smoke actuator chain to calm the bees before it is opened”

Philips Urban beehive

Wow. 

I was sure that bees draw comb in a vertical plane? 

This one is a ‘concept’ hive, so is effectively priceless. 

Which would also be my reaction if I had to do a shook swarm on it 😉

Smart hives

I’m not sure that last hive is entirely practical. 

Instead, how about this ‘robotic’ hive – or Beehome as they call it – from Israeli startup Beewise? This is a container 8 housing 24 colonies which are constantly monitored.

The Beewise ‘Beehome’ robotic beehive

The technology is clearly pretty clever as they appear to be able (or claim) to:

  • provide climate and humidity control
  • monitor brood development on every frame of every hive
  • apply pest control (non-chemical, but it’s not clear what) to control Varroa
  • deliver swarm prevention by ‘changing the conditions in the hive’
  • automatically harvest honey … when the 100 gallon tank is full the Beehome calls you to come and collect

When you think of some of the manipulations needed for successful swarm control you wonder – well, I wonder – how on earth a robot could do it by simply ‘changing the conditions in the hive’

Their website shows a screenshot of an app displaying digital images of frames, together with schematics of the distribution of the various types of brood (capped/uncapped) and stores within the hive.

Very clever … though I do wonder whether the robot takes quite as much care as I do returning frames to the hive without crushing or rolling bees in the process.

What?

I thought you’d never ask … $400.

A month.

At least, that’s the price quoted on the website. I’ve no idea if that’s ‘all in’, or if there are hidden costs involved, like custom frames, software licenses. If it is ‘all in’ and every hive generates a good crop of honey each season it seems very reasonable.

But, and this is a biggy as far as I’m concerned, it seems to to rip the soul out of all that is special about keeping bees.

It’s more like factory farming.

Save the bees

But, inevitably, it ‘saves the bees’ … so that’s OK then 🙁  9

Hives in reality

So those are the fantasy hives that the public read about in the newspapers and that adorn press releases.

Super-clean and shiny and described in glowing terms as bee friendly, bee-centric, sustainable, healthier or a nature-based solution.

In many ways these are what shape their expectation and understanding of beekeeping.

The reality is that bees do just fine in almost any relatively secure container.

Like a hollow tree.

Or a dustbin.

Or a variety of beehive types …

Gaffer tape apiary

Gaffer tape apiary …

… including some that appear to consist mainly of gaffer tape.

Aesthetically perhaps less attractive, but perfectly functional.

I’ve discussed the concept of the ‘the best’ hive previously 10.

The 12-13 pages of different hive types in the Thorne’s catalogue describe a plethora of different sizes and designs. As long as they have the correct bee space and the boxes are broadly compatible – which really means flat interfaces – I’d be happy to keep bees in any of them.

Sure, some might suit my beekeeping a little better than others, but I reckon I’d do OK with them all. 

But, of course, I’d want more than one … which is where the compatibility becomes critical. I’d inevitably end up mixing ‘n’ matching different boxes during swarm control, autumn uniting or simply when running out of equipment.

Uniting with newspaper ...

Uniting with newspaper …

And it’s this reality that never appears in that glossy advertising on promotional websites. The ‘cobbling stuff together’ to make something that’ll do. In the picture above I’m uniting a queenless double hive with a queenright poly hive.

The poly hive is actually a bait hive built from two stacked supers. They are the Paradise/ModernBeekeeping design with an overhanging lip on the lower face, hence the thin, wide, wooden shim between the boxes.

And the crownboard is a piece of thick polythene.

All perfectly functional, but not quite as glossy, organised and coordinated as is often displayed in print or online 11.

But this neat, clean and pristine presentation doesn’t stop with the hives … 

Suits you Sir!

What about the protective clothing?

If you look at the photos above you’d think you could harvest honey (from the B-BOX) wearing a T-shirt and jeans, or inspect your Philips urban hive in a slinky Christian Dior LBD.

The reality is a little less flattering. 

Bees can sting, and agitated bees – with dodgy parentage or through sloppy handling 12 – can sting quite a lot. 

As a quick aside, I note that one of the presenters of Show Me the Honey! has apparently been ‘keeping bees for 15 years and has never been stung’.

And now back to reality 😉

Beesuits aren’t particularly flattering.

Does my bum look big in this? … doesn’t even come close. 

Everything … looks big in a beesuit.

And usually the beesuits are completely pristine, not stained with propolis, held together with gaffer tape or with pockets hanging off from hive tool damage 13.

Angelina Jolie and some slightly grubbier beekeepers

The beesuit Angelina Jolie is wearing is what they typically look like in ‘fantasy beekeeping world’. No broken zips, no propolis staining, no pockets bulging with emptied queen cages and old gloves.

Those worn by the beekeepers around her are probably a bit more normal, though I also have a sneaking suspicion they’ve worn their ‘Sunday best’ beesuits for the photo op.

As another aside, Angelia Jolie is promoting the UNESCO programme ‘Women for Bees’. This teaches beekeeping and entrepreneurship to women in UNESCO designated biosphere reserves around the world. Further details also in National Geographic.

And it doesn’t stop there

I’ve had a great beekeeping year.

There have been some notable successes – in queen rearing and mating, in preparing nucs and in a really excellent honey crop.

Show me the Honey!

However, it wasn’t all the clean, neat and tidy affair depicted in the press.

And, to be honest, parts of it could best be described as an omnishambles.

I’m being polite there.

Here are just a few examples where my beekeeping reality didn’t quite match the glossy, propolis-free, beautifully ordered and presented world of beekeeping fantasy.

  • Wrenching my back during the spring honey harvest by trying to carry too many supers. I walked hunched over for a month and spent quite a lot of time lying flat on my back.
  • Glenrothes – my base when beekeeping on the east coast. Underwhelming 14

Good morning Glenrothes

  • Installing a ‘lively’ nuc in a full hive before securing my veil. No stings, but a pretty close call with several bees agitatedly struggling to escape the space they’d seemingly so easily entered.
  • Lifting three supers off a hive in late July and carelessly 15 tripping over a hive roof. I dropped the lot and fell flat on my face. A very sticky mess but the bees were extraordinarily tolerant of my clumsiness.
  • Sweating so much during July inspections that my gloves filled with perspiration and my wrinkly fingers stopped ‘unlocking’ the phone.

Ewwww

  • Consequently dropping more queens in the grass than ever before. I was so cackhanded that it became unusual not to drop them on the ground before getting them into the marking cage.
  • Watching a much-needed virgin queen fly off out of sight while – stupidly – trying to get her into an introduction cage with the shed door open. D’oh!
  • Chasing another virgin queen around the shed – after closing the door 16 – for five minutes before getting her into a cage. 
  • Going half crazy trying to keep wasps out of cleared supers before stacking them in the car.
  • The hole in the hive pocket and no trousers debacle. Enough said 🙁
  • More lifting, more sweating, more wasps …
  • The long evening drive back to the west coast, tired, dehydrated and smelling of smoke and propolis 17.

Go west young man …

That’s the reality of a beekeeping season.

It’s been fantastic.

I wouldn’t have it any other way 🙂


 

Cut more losses

This is a follow-on to the post last week, this time focusing on feeding and a few ‘odds and sods’ that failed to make it into the first 3000 words on reducing overwintering colony losses.

Both posts should be read in conjunction with one (or more 1 ) of my earlier posts on disease management for winter. Primarily this involves hammering down the mite levels before the winter bees are produced, so ensuring their longevity.

But also don’t forget to treat your colonies during a broodless period in midwinter to mop up mites that survived the autumn treatment, or have reproduced since then.

Why feed colonies?

All colonies need sufficient stores to get the colony through the winter until suitable nectar sources and good enough weather make foraging profitable the following spring.

How much the colony needs depends upon the bees themselves – some strains are more frugal than others – and the duration of the winter. If there is no forage available, or the weather is too poor for the bees to fly, then they will be dependent upon stores in the hive.

A reasonable estimate would probably be somewhere around 20 kg of stores, but this isn’t a precise science.

It’s better for the colony to have too much than too little. 

If the colony has stores left over at winter’s end you can always remove them and use them when you make up nucs later in the season. Just pull out the frames and store them safely until needed.

Unused winter stores

In contrast, if the colony starts the winter with too few stores there are only two possible outcomes:

  • the colony will starve to death, usually in late winter/early spring (see below)
  • you will spend your winter having to regularly check the colony weight and opening the hive to add “emergency rations” to get them through the winter

Neither of these is desirable, though you should expect to have to check the colony periodically in winter anyway.

Feeding honey for the winter … and meaningless anecdotes

By the end of the summer the queen has reduced her laying rate and the bees should be backfilling brood comb with honey stores. If you assume there’s about 5 kg of stores 2 in the brood box then they’ll need about another 15 kg. 

15 kg is about the amount of honey you can extract from a well-filled super. 

Convenient 😉

Some beekeepers leave a full super of honey on the hive, claiming the “it’s better for the bees than syrup”

Of course, it’s a free world, but there are two things wrong with doing this:

  • where is the evidence that demonstrates that honey is better than sugar-based stores?
  • it’s an eye-wateringly expensive way to feed your colonies

By evidence, I mean statistically-valid studies that show improved overwintering on honey rather than sugar.

Not ‘my hive with a honey super was strong in spring but I heard that Fred lost his colony that was fed syrup’ 3.

That’s not evidence, that’s anecdote.

If you want to get this sort of evidence you’d need to start with a lot of hives, all headed by queens of a similar age and provenance, all with balanced numbers of brood frames/strength, all with similar mite levels and other pathogens.

For starters I’d suggest 200 hives; feed 50% with honey, 50% with sugar … and then repeat the study for the two following winters.

Then do the stats 4.

The economics of feeding honey

If I were a rich man …

The 300 supers of honey used for that experiment would contain honey valued at about £80,000.

That’s profit, not sale price (though it doesn’t include labour costs as I – and many amateur beekeepers – work for free).

The honey in a single full super has a value of £250-275 … that’s an expensive way to feed your bees 5.

Particularly when it’s not demonstrably better than a tenner or so of granulated sugar 🙁

But there are more costs to consider

The economic arguments made above are simplistic in the extreme. However, there are other costs to consider when feeding colonies.

  • time taken to prepare and store whatever you will be feeding them with 6
  • feeders needed to dispense the food (and storage of these when not in use)
  • energetic costs for the colony in converting the food to stores

Years ago I stopped worrying (or even thinking much) about any of this and settled on feeding colonies fondant in the autumn.

Fondant mountain ...

Fondant mountain …

Fondant is ~78% sugar, so a 12.5 kg block contains about 9.75 kg of sugar.

This year I’m paying £11.75 for fondant which equates to ~£1.20 / kg for the sugar it contains.

In contrast, granulated sugar is currently about £0.63 / kg at Tesco.

The benefits of fondant

Although my sugar costs are about double this is a relatively small price I’m (more than) prepared to accept when you take into account the additional benefits.

  • zero preparation time and no container costs. Fondant comes ready-wrapped and stores for years in the box it is purchased in
  • no need for jerry cans, plastic buckets or anything to prepare or store it in before use
  • no need for expensive Ashforth-type feeders that sit around for 95% of the year unused When I last checked an Ashforth feeder cost £66 😯 
  • it takes less than 2 minutes to add fondant to a colony
  • no risk of spillages – in the kitchen, the car or the apiary 7.
  • fondant is taken down more slowly than syrup, so providing more space for the queen to continue laying. In addition, in the event of an early cold snap, fondant remains accessible whereas bees often stop taking syrup down

Regarding the energetic costs for the colony in storing fondant rather than syrup … I assume this is the case based upon the similarity of the water content of fondant to capped stores (22% vs. 18%), whereas syrup contains much more water and so needs to be ripened before capping to avoid fermentation.

Fondant block under inverted perspex crownboard – insulation to be added on top.

Whether this is correct or not 8, the colony has no problem taking down the fondant over a 2-4 week period and storing it.

What are the disadvantages of using fondant? 

The only one I’m really aware of is that the colony will not draw fresh comb when feeding on fondant (or at least, not enthusiastically). In contrast, bees fed syrup in the autumn and provided with fresh foundation will draw lovely worker brood comb. 

Do not underestimate this benefit.

They fancied that fondant

Brood frames of drawn comb are a very valuable resource. Every time you make up a nuc, or shift a nuc to a full-sized box, providing drawn comb significantly speeds up the expansion of the resulting colony.

Nevertheless, for me, the advantages of fondant far outweigh the disadvantages …

Finally, in closing, I’ve not purchased or used invert syrup for feeding colonies. Other than no prep time this has the same drawbacks as syrup made from granulated sugar. Having learnt to use fondant a decade or so ago from Peter Edwards (Stratford BKA) I’ve never felt the need to look at other options.

Let’s move on …

Ventilation and insulation

Bees can withstand very cold temperatures if healthy and provided with sufficient stores. In northern Canada bees may experience only 120 frost-free days a year, and cope with 3-4 week periods in winter when the temperature is -25°C (and colder if you consider the wind chill).

That makes anywhere in the UK look positively balmy.

Margate vs. the Maldives … a similar temperature difference to Margate vs. Manitoba in the winter

I’ve overwintered colonies in cedar or poly boxes for a decade and not noticed a difference in survival rates. Like the honey vs. sugar argument above, if there is a difference it is probably minor. 

However, colony expansion in poly boxes in the spring is usually better in my experience, and they often fill the outer frames with brood well before cedar boxes in the same apiary get there.

Whether cedar or poly I take care with three aspects of their insulation/ventilation:

  • the colonies have open mesh floors and the Varroa tray is only in place when I’m actively monitoring mite drop
  • all have insulation above the crownboard in the form of a 50 mm thick block of Kingspan (or Recticel, or Celotex), either integrated into the crownboard itself, placed above it or built into the roof
  • I ensure there is no upper ventilation – no matchsticks under the crownboard, no holes etc.
  • excess empty space in the brood box is reduced to minimise the dead air space the bees might lose heat to

In my experience bees actively dislike ventilation in the crownboard. They fill mesh with propolis …

Exhibit A … are you getting the message?

… and block up the holes in those over-engineered Abelo crownboards …

Exhibit B … ventilated hole in an Abelo crownboard

Take notice of what the bees are telling you … 😉

Insulation over the colony

I’ve described my insulated perspex crownboards before. They work well and – when inverted – can just about accomodate a flattened 9, halved block of fondant.

Perspex crownboard with integrated insulation

Finally, if it’s a small colony in a brood box 10 then I reduce the dead space in the brood box using a fat dummy

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy …

I build these filled with polystyrene chips.

You don’t need this sort of high-tech solution … some polystyrene wrapped tightly in a thick plastic bag and sealed up with gaffer tape works just as well.

Insulation ...

Insulation …

I’ve even used bubblewrap or that air-filled plastic packaging to fill the space around a top up block of fondant in a super ‘eke’ before now.

However, remember that a small weak colony in autumn is unlikely to overwinter as well as a strong colony. Why is it weak? Would you be better uniting it before winter starts?

Nucleus colonies

Everything written above applies equally well to nucleus colonies.

A strong, healthy nuc should overwinter well and be ready in the spring for sale or promoting to a full colony.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier … an overcrowded overwintered nuc in April

Although I have overwintered nucs in cedar boxes I now almost exclusively use polystyrene. This is another economic decision … a well made cedar nuc costs about double the price of the best poly nucs

I feed my nucs fondant in preparation for the winter, typically by adding 1-2 kg blocks to the integral feeder.

Everynuc fondant topup

Everynuc fondant topup

Because of the absence of storage space in the nuc brood box it’s not unusual to have to supplement this several times during the autumn and winter.

You can even overwinter queens in mini-mating nucs like Apidea’s and Kieler’s.

Kieler mini-nuc with overwintering queen

This deserves a post of its own. Briefly, the mini-nuc needs to be very strong and usually double- or triple- height. I build fondant frame feeders for Kieler’s that can be quickly swapped in/out to compensate for the limited amounts of stores present in the brood box.

Kieler mini-nuc frame feeders

My greatest success in overwintering these was in winters when I provided additional shelter by placing the nucs in an unheated greenhouse. A tunnel provided access to the outside. However, I know several beekeepers who overwinter them without this sort of additional protection (and have done so myself).

Just because this can be done doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do.

I’d always prefer to overwinter a colony as a 5 frame nuc. The survival rates are much better, their resilience to long periods of adverse weather is significantly greater, and they are generally much more useful in the spring.

Miscellaneous musings

Hive weight

A colony starting the winter with ample stores can still starve if the bees are particularly extravagant, or if they rear lots of brood but cannot forage.

The rate at which stores are used is slow late in the year and speeds up once brood rearing starts again in earnest early the following spring (though actually in late winter).

Colony weight in early spring

As should be obvious, this is a Craptastic™ sketch simply to illustrate a point 😉

The inflection point might be mid-December or even early February.

The important message is that, once brood rearing starts, consumption of stores increases. Keep checking the colony weight overwinter and supplement with fondant as needed.

I’m going to return to overwinter colony weights sometime this winter as I’m dabbling with a weather station and set of hive scales … watch this space.

An empty super cuts down draughts

Periodically it’s suggested that an empty super under the (open mesh) floor of the hive ‘cuts down draughts’, and is therefore beneficial for the colony.

It might be.

But like the ‘overwintering on honey’ (and being a pedant scientist) I’d always want to see the evidence.

There are two claims being made here:

  • a super under the floor cuts down draughts
  • fewer draughts benefits the colony which consequently overwinters better

Really?

There are ways to measure draughts but has anyone ever done so? Remember, the key point is that the airflow around the winter cluster would be reduced if there are fewer draughts. 

Does a super reduce this airflow significantly over and above that already caused by the sidewalls of the floor?

And, even if it does, perhaps the colony ‘reshapes’ itself to accommodate the draught from an open mesh floor.

What shape is the winter cluster?

For example, in an uninsulated hive (including no insulation over the cluster) with a solid floor the cluster is likely to be roughly spherical. They minimise the surface area.

With an open mesh floor are they more ellipsoid, so avoiding draughts from below? If so, is this improved much by an empty super below the open mesh floor? Does the cluster change shape or position? I don’t know as I’ve not compared cluster shapes in solid vs. open mesh floors plus/minus a super underneath.

And anyway, an open mesh floor looks very like a baffle to me … how much better can it get? How draughty is it in the first place?

Is this example 8,639 for my ‘Beekeeping Myths’ book?

I do know that top insulation tends to flatten the cluster against the warm underside of the crownboard.

Midwinter cluster

A strong colony in midwinter

Having worked out that draughts are (or are not) reduced … you still need another couple of hundred hives to test whether overwintering success rates are improved!

More winter bees

Finally, always remember that the survival of the colony is dependent upon the winter bees. All other things being equal (stores, disease etc.), a colony with lots of winter bees will overwinter better than one with fewer.

This is one of the reasons I stopped using Apiguard for mite control in autumn. Apiguard contains thymol and quite regularly (30-50% of the time in my experience) stopped the queen from laying, particularly in warmer weather. 

Apiguard works well for mite control, but I became wary that I was potentially stopping the queen at a time critical for late-season colony development. I worried that, once treatment was finished, a cold snap would shut down brood rearing leaving it with suboptimal numbers of winter bees.

I never checked to see whether the queen ‘made good’ any shortfall after removal of the treatment … instead I moved to Scotland where it’s too cold to use Apiguard effectively 🙁


 

Cut your losses

The stats for winter losses in the UK, Europe and USA can make for rather sobering reading.

In the UK, losses over the last 12 years have fluctuated between 9% and 34%. This self-selecting survey includes responses from about 10% of the British Beekeepers Association membership (primarily England and Wales, despite the name). The average number of hives maintained by a BBKA member is about 5, meaning – all other things being equal 1 – that most beekeepers should expect to lose about 1 hive every winter.

BBKA winter losses survey

About 30 countries, mainly Northern hemisphere, contribute to the COLOSS survey which is significantly larger scale. The most recent 2 data published (for the ’16/’17 winter) had data from ~15,000 respondents 3 managing over 400,000 hives. Of these, ~21% were lost for a variety of reasons. COLOSS data is presented as an unwieldy table, rather than graphically. Further details, including recently published results, are linked from their website.

In the USA the Bee Informed Partnership surveys losses – both winter and summer – and claims to have results that cover ~10% of all the colonies in the country (so probably between 250,000 and 275,000 hives). Winter losses in the USA are rarely reported at less than 20% and were as high as 35% in the ’18/’19 winter 4.

Bee Informed Partnership annual colony losses

Are these figures to be trusted?

Who knows?

Each survey is accompanied by a variety of statistics. However, since they all appear to be based upon voluntary reporting by a subset of beekeepers, there are opportunities for all sorts of data to be included (and even more to be missed entirely). 

The problem with surveys

Is the successful beekeeper who managed to get all her colonies through the winter more likely to respond?

A form of ‘bragging rights’.

What about the beekeeper that lost all his colonies?

Does he respond out of a sense of responsibility?

Or does he keep quiet because he doesn’t want to be reminded of those cold, quiet, mouldy boxes opened on the first warm day of spring?

One and two year beekeepers

What about the high level of annual ‘churn’ amongst beekeepers? They buy a nuc in May, filled with enthusiasm about the jars of golden honey they’ll have for family and friends in late summer.

To say nothing of all the “saving the bees” they’ll be doing.

But by late summer the colony is queenless and has an unpleasant temperament

Beekeeping should be enjoyable ...

Beekeeping should be enjoyable …

Psychopathic you might say … if you were feeling uncharitable.

Consequently the Varroa treatment goes on far too late,. Or is quietly forgotten. The winter bees have high viral loads and ‘die like flies’ 5, resulting in the colony succumbing by the year end.

But this colony loss is never recorded on any surveys.

The once enthusiastic beekeeper has moved on and is now passionate about growing prize-winning vegetables or cheesemaking or keeping chickens. 

Beekeeping associations train lots of new beekeepers and – although membership numbers are increasing – it’s well below the rate they’re trained at.

Some may not be ‘joiners’ and go their own way.

Many just quietly stop after a year or two.

How many people have you met that say “Oh yes, I used to keep bees”

Did you ask them whether they ever completed a winter losses survey?

I’m not sure any of the surveys listed above do much ‘groundtruthing’ to establish whether the data they collect is truly representative of the population actually surveyed. With large numbers of respondents spread across a wide geographic and climatic range it’s not an easy thing to do.

So, treat these surveys with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Undoubtedly there are high levels of winter losses – at least sometimes – and the overall level of losses varies from year to year.

Losses and costs

The direct financial cost of these colony losses to beekeepers is very high.

Ignoring time invested and ‘consumables’ like food, miticides and foundation these costs in ’16/’17 for just Austria, the Czech Republic and Macedonia were estimated at €56 million 😯  

These figures simply reflect lost honey production and the value of the lost colonies. They do not include the indirect costs resulting from lost pollination.

But, for the small scale beekeeper, these economic losses are irrelevant.

Most of these beekeepers do not rely on bees for their income.

The real cost is emotional 🙁

It still saddens me when I lose a colony, particularly when I think that the loss was avoidable or due to my incompetence, carelessness or stupidity 6.

Little snow, big snow. Big snow, little snow.

Your hives should be quiet in winter, but it hurts when they are silent in spring.

Anatomy of a death

The COLOSS surveys give a breakdown of winter losses in three categories:

  • natural disasters
  • queen problems
  • dead colonies

Natural disasters are things like bears, honey badgers, flooding or falling trees.

We can probably safely ignore honey badgers in the UK, but climate change is increasing the weather extremes that causes flooding and falling trees.

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

Don’t assume that poly hives are the answer to potential flooding.

They do float, though not necessarily the right way up 🙁

Queen problems cover a variety of issues ranging from reduced fecundity to poor mating (and consequent drone laying) to very early or late – and failed – supersedure 7.

Beekeepers with a lot more experience than me report that queen problems are increasing.

Drone laying queen ...

Drone laying queen …

Perhaps the issues with fecundity and drone laying are related to toxic levels of miticides in commercial foundation? It’s certainly known that these residues reduce drone sperm fertility significantly. I intend to return to this topic sometime during the approaching winter … perhaps in time to encourage the use of some foundationless frames for (fertile) drone production 😉

In the ’16/’17 COLOSS data, natural disasters accounted for 1.6% of all overwintered colonies (so ~7.5% of losses), queen problems resulted in the loss of 5.1% of colonies (i.e. ~24% of losses) and the remainder (14.1% of colonies, ~68% of losses) just died.

Just died?

We’ll return to natural disasters (but not bears or honey badgers) and queen problems shortly. What about the majority of losses in which the colony ‘just died’?

If you discuss colony post-mortems with beekeepers they sometimes divide the ‘just died’ category (i.e. those not readily attributable to failed queens, marauding grizzlies or tsunamis) into four groups:

  • disease
  • isolation starvation
  • starvation
  • don’t know 

The most important disease associated with overwintering colony losses is high levels of Deformed wing virus (DWV). This results from uncontrolled or inadequately controlled Varroa infestation. For any new readers of this site, please refer back to many of the articles I’ve already written on Varroa management 8.

I strongly suspect that a significant proportion of the reported isolation starvation is actually also due to disease, rather than isolation per se.

A consequence of high levels of DWV is that winter bees die prematurely. Consequently, the colony shrinks faster than it would otherwise do. It starts the size of a basketball but (too) rapidly ends up the size of a grapefruit … or an orange.

Isolation starvation and disease

The small cluster is then unable to remain in contact with stores, and so starves. 

Yes, the colony died from ‘isolation starvation’, but the cause was the high levels of Varroa and the viruses it transmits.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

What about regular starvation?

Not because the cluster became isolated from the stores, but simply because they had insufficient stores to get through the winter.

Whose fault was that?

And the last category, the “don’t knows”?

I bet most of these are due to high levels of Varroa and DWV as well 🙁

Yes, there will be other reasons … but probably not a huge number. 

What’s more … if you don’t know the reason for the colony loss there’s very little you can do to mitigate against it in future seasons.

And, other than wild and increasingly vague speculation, there’s little I can write about if the reason for the loss remains unknown 9.

Avoiding winter losses

So, let’s rationalise those earlier lists into the probable (known) major causes of overwintering colony losses:

  • natural disasters
  • queen problems
  • starvation
  • disease (but probably mainly DWV and Varroa

As the long, hot days of summer gradually shorten and cool as early autumn approaches, you should be thinking about each of these potential causes of overwintering colony loss … and doing what you can to ensure it doesn’t happen to you (or, more correctly, your bees).

Ardnamurchan autumn

Ardnamurchan autumn

Some are easier to deal with than others.

Here’s a whistle-stop tour of some more specific problems and some practical solutions 10. Some, all or none may apply to your bees – it depends upon your location, your climate, your experience and future plans as a beekeeper. 

Natural disasters

These fall into two broad groups:

  • things you can do almost nothing about (but might be able to avoid)
  • things you can relatively easily solve

Flooding, falling trees, lightning, landslides, earthquakes, volcanoes, meteor strikes etc. all fall into the first group.

If you can avoid them, do. 

Your local council will have information on areas at risk from flooding. There are also searchable maps available from SEPA. Do not underestimate the severity of some of the recent flooding. Some parts of Scotland and Northern England had 600 mm of rain in two days in 2015.

You might be surprised (and from an insurance aspect, devastated) at the classification of some areas now ‘at risk’. 

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Where did Noah keep his bees? In his Ark hive.

Consider moving hives to higher ground before the winter rains start. One consequence of climate change is that heavy rainfall is now ~20% heavier than it was a few decades ago. This means that floods occur more frequently, are more extensive and the water levels rise faster. You might not have a chance to move the hives if flooding does occur,

More rain and stronger winds (particularly before leaf fall) mean more trees will come down. You might be able to identify trees potentially at risk from falling. It makes sense to remove them (or site your hives elsewhere). 

No risk of this larch tree falling on my hives

Lightning, earthquakes, volcanoes, meteor strikes … all a possibility though I would 11 probably worry about Varroa and woodpeckers first 😉

Solvable natural disasters

The ‘solvable’ natural disasters include preventing your colonies being robbed by other bees or wasps. Or ransacked by mice or woodpeckers after the first hard frosts start. A solution to many of these are ‘reduced size entrances’ which either enable the colony to better defend itself, or physically restricts access to critters.

The L-shaped ‘kewl floors‘ I use prevent mice from accessing the brood box. They are also easier for the colony to defend from bees/wasps, but can also easily be reduced in size with a narrow piece of hardwood. If you don’t use these types of floor you should probably use a mouseguard.

Polyhives and polythene

Polyhives and polythene …

Woodpeckers 12 need to cling onto the outside of the hive to hammer their way through the side. You can either place a wire mesh cage around the hive, or wrap the box in something like damp proof membrane (or polythene) to prevent them gaining purchase on the side walls.

Keep off Woody

Keep off Woody

Doing both is probably overkill though 😉

Strong colonies

Before we move onto queen problems – though it is related – it’s worth emphasising that an even better solution to prevent robbing by bees or wasps is to maintain really strong colonies.

Strong colonies with a well balanced population of bees can almost always defend themselves successfully against wasps and robbing bees.

Nucs, that are both weaker and – at least shortly after being made up – unbalanced, are far less able to defend themselves and need some sort of access restriction.

By ‘balanced’ I mean that the numbers and proportions of bees fulfilling the various roles in the nucleus colony are reflective of a full hive e.g. nurse bees, foragers, guard bees. 

Reduced entrance ...

Reduced entrance …

But the benefits of strong colonies are far greater than just being able to prevent wasps or robbing bees. There is compelling scientific evidence that strong colonies overwinter better

I don’t mean strong summer colonies, I mean colonies that are strong in the late autumn when they are fully populated with the winter bees.

Almost the entire complement of bees in the hive are replaced between late summer and late autumn. Remember that a really strong summer colony may not be strong in the winter if Varroa and virus levels have not been controlled.

How do you ensure your colonies are strong?

  1. Minimise disease by controlling Varroa levels in early autumn to guarantee the all-important winter bees are reared without being exposed to high levels of DWV.
  2. Try and use a miticide treatment that does not reduce the laying rate of the queen.
  3. Avoid blocking the brood nest with stores where the queen should be laying eggs.
  4. Requeen your colonies regularly. Young queens lay more eggs later into the autumn. As a consequence the colonies have increased populations of winter bees.
  5. Unite weak colonies (assuming they are disease-free) with stronger colonies. The former may well not survive anyway, and the latter will have a better chance of surviving if it is even stronger – see below. 
  6. Use local bees. There’s good evidence that local bees (i.e. reared locally, not imported from elsewhere) overwinter better, not least because they produce stronger colonies.

Uniting – take your losses in the autumn

My regular colony inspections every 7-10 days during May and June are pretty much abandoned by July. The risk of swarming is very much reduced after the ‘June gap’ in my experience. 

I still check the colonies periodically and I’m usually still rearing queens. However, the rigour with which I check for queen cells is much reduced. By July my colonies are usually committed to single-mindedly filling the supers with summer nectar.

They are already making their own preparations for the long winter ahead.

Although the inspections are less rigorous, I do keep a careful watch on the strength of each colony. Often this is directly related to the number of supers I’ve had to pile on top.

Colonies that are underperforming, and – more specifically – understrength are almost always united with a stronger colony.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive …

Experience has taught me that an understrength colony is usually more trouble than it’s worth. If it’s disease-free it may well overwinter reasonably well. However, it’s likely to start brood rearing more slowly and build up less well. It may also need more mollycoddling 13 in the autumn e.g. protection from wasps or robbing bees.

However, a colony that is not flourishing in the summer is much more likely to struggle and fail during the winter. Perhaps the queen is not quite ‘firing on all cylinders’ and laying at a really good rate, or she might be poorly mated.

Far better that the workforce contributes to strengthening another hive, rather than collect an underwhelming amount of honey before entering the winter and eventually becoming a statistic.

My winter losses are low and, over the last decade, reducing.

That’s partly because my Varroa management is reasonably thorough.

However, it’s probably mainly due to ensuring only strong colonies go into the winter in the first place.

Newspaper

I’ve dealt with uniting in several previous posts.

It’s a two minute job. 

You remove the queen from the weak colony, stack one brood box over the other separated by a sheet or two of newspaper with a very small (~3mm) hole in the middle. Add the roof and leave them to get on with things.

I don’t think it makes any difference whether the strong colony goes on the top or the bottom.

I place the colony I’m moving above the box I’m uniting it with. My – wildly unscientific – rationale being that the bees in the top box will have to negotiate the route to the hive entrance and, in doing so, will help them orientate to the new location faster 14.

If you unite colonies early or late in the day most foragers will be ‘at home’ so not too many bees will return to find their hive missing.

If there are supers on one or both hives you can separate them with newspaper as well. Alternatively, use a clearer the day before to empty the supers prior to uniting the colonies. You can then add back the supers you want and redistribute the remainder to other hives in the apiary.

Successful uniting ...

Successful uniting …

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to check for successful uniting.

Leave them a week. The last thing you want is for the queen to get killed in an unseemly melee caused by you disturbing them before they have properly settled.

Done properly, uniting is almost foolproof. I reckon over 95% of colonies I unite are successful.

That’s all folks … more on ‘Cutting your losses’ next week 🙂


Notes

At just over 3000 words this post got a bit out of control … I’ll deal with more significant queen problems, feeding colonies, the weather and some miscellaneous ‘odds and sods’ next week.

Less is more

The season here started late after a a long, cold spring, and it’s giving every impression of ending early. A couple of low pressure systems have slowly drifted in from the west, replacing the settled calm weather with something a lot more changeable.

On the west coast of Scotland the heather has still to really get started. That is if it’s going to get started at all 🙁

It was so dry earlier in the summer that the recent rain may be too little, too late. I’m not unduly worried as I’m busy making bees rather than making honey this year.

Although the temperature hasn’t dropped much 1 it’s starting to feel quite autumnal. 

Siskin

The mixed woodland around us is now quiet most of the time, with very few small birds about. When you do see them, siskin and goldfinch are starting to form large jittery flocks, bounding away at the slightest provocation. The longer nights 2 are busy with the calls of tawny owls as the young leave the nest.

My infrequent visits to the east coast are short and packed with beekeeping and work commitments so I see much less wildlife. However, it’s very clear that the season is ‘all over bar the shouting’. The bees are getting defensive, there are lots of wasps about and the nectar flow is finished.

Let the heavy lifting begin … and Correx

On my last visit to Fife I cleared the supers and removed them for extraction.

I’ve described my clearer boards before 3. They have no moving parts, a deep lower rim providing space for the bees to clear to, and two well-separated exits.

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

I usually try and clear all the hives in a single apiary at once. It increases the workload, but it saves making more than two visits. This of course means that I need sufficient clearer boards for every hive in the apiary … and on this trip I didn’t 4.

At the last minute I therefore built a few extra using Correx, some butchered rhombus escapes, spare ekes and gaffer tape. 

Quick fix clearer board – hive side

If you’re going to do this here are a couple of tips:

  1. Do not use standard 3M gaffer tape as sold in the ‘Middle of Lidl’ and elsewhere. It can’t cope with the warmth and humidity of the hive – at least when stuck to Correx – and the escape usually detaches within 24 hours. Unsurprisingly these things work a whole lot less well (i.e. not at all) without the rhombus escape. The best gaffer tape I’ve found for Correx is Unibond Power Tape (which is waterproof and very long lasting).
  2. Don’t try and save time/save rhombus escapes/cut corners by using only one exit hole and half a rhombus escape. The hives I tried this with still had hundreds of bees in the supers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉

I have to transport all my supers to the west coast for extraction. Emptying them of bees, keeping the wasps away and loading them into my little car was a fraught and exhausting process.

More Correx

Whatever the opposite of a hot hatchback is … is what I drive.

It’s a great little car and very economical 5.  However, it’s not really ideal as a beemobile. I can only get a maximum of about 16 supers in it whilst still being able to see out of at least some of the windows.

To save the already filthy upholstery from contaminating all that lovely honey in the supers I use more Correx …

The multi-purpose Correx hive roof

… in this case an upturned Correx hive roof.

These are simplicity itself to construct using Correx and more Unibond Power Tape. Correx is remarkably UV resistant and I have roofs originally built in 2013/14 still going strong. A single 1.2 x 2.4 m sheet of Correx will yield half a dozen roofs and cost you the grand sum of about £1.70 each 6.

When you’re clearing and transporting supers these lightweight roofs/trays are invaluable. They keep the wasps out of the top of the stack and stop the honey dripping out of the bottom.

And a bit more Correx

It’s much easier to extract honey if it’s warm. I therefore stack the supers on top of my honey warming cabinet until I’m ready to do the extracting … or until my back recovers after lifting all those supers off the hives and into the car.

Honey supers waiting to be extracted

I built my honey warming cabinet several years ago. It is probably one of the most useful (and used) pieces of beekeeping ‘stuff’ I’ve got. It’s got excellent temperature control and I’ve even used it to incubate queen cells. However, it is primarily used for honey and every bucket I process and jar goes through it, often more than once 7.

Because of the size of available plywood sheet, the depth needed to house the element and insulation, coupled with a generous helping of my incompetence, I built the cabinet slightly too small. 

This resulted in the classic ‘good news and bad news’.

The good news is that I don’t need to be absolutely precise in terms of positioning the edge of the supers on the thin upper edges of the cabinet. Any mistakes here would result in the insulation getting crushed. 

The bad news is that some supers can leave a slight gap at the bottom through which heat escapes. This depends upon the particular design of the supers. Paradise/Denrosa poly supers and Abelo supers are reasonably flat on the underside, but red cedar boxes leave lots of unwanted gaps.

Correx gap-filler on the honey warming cabinet

A simple shim of Correx is an easy solution to this issue. As an added benefit, this also stops the upper edges of the cabinet from getting sticky.

A wheely useful trolley

A honey warming cabinet takes up quite a bit of space when not in use. Mine conveniently fits onto a robust ‘trolley’ that allows me to easily wheel it out of the way when needed.

Wheely useful trolley under the honey warming cabinet

When pre-warming supers for extraction it has to be moved off this onto the floor. The 18 supers in the picture above probably weigh over 300 kg. Neither the tiled floor nor the castors would be able to support this.

However, when just warming a couple of buckets of OSR honey prior to creaming this allows me to tuck the cabinet out of the way until needed.

I’ve got a couple of these trolleys. I stack the empty supers on them after extraction and so can move them about without excess bending and lifting.

Extracting

I uncap supers using a hot air gun. This is fast and efficient. The cappings melt almost instantaneously but can generate wax ‘shrapnel’ which tends to fly off in all directions. I strongly recommend wearing an apron to avoid getting peppered with tiny specs of molten wax.

A 10 frame super … but I actually squeezed the bottom one in from another box.

Almost all my supers are arranged to contain 9 frames. I start them with 11, reduce them to 10 once the comb is drawn, and take one more frame out once they start fattening up. Drawn super comb is reused year after year and it’s always nice to see a frame dated a decade or more ago going though the extractor. 

The 9 frames in a super conveniently fills my 9 frame extractor (funny that). Of course, sometimes the bees fail to completely fill the outer frames, so there may be a little juggling to try and get the machine reasonably well balanced before starting the run.

It’s surprising how quickly you learn to judge the weight of a filled frame and to calculate where it should be placed in the extractor to achieve the best balance.

‘Best’ as in ‘best that can be achieved with these 9 frames without spending an interminable amount of time shifting the frames about’.

Thank goodness for extractors on castors 🙂

Rubber-wheeled castor with brake

An unbalanced extractor on castors gently wiggles back and forth, rather than walking boldly across the room. Leave the castors unbraked during use.

My extractor is pretty basic. On/off and speed control. No timed runs or other snazzy settings. Because some honey extracts more easily (perhaps because it was lower down in the stack of warming supers?) I use an LED headtorch 8 to look down the inner sidewall of the machine to judge when I should stop the run.

Extractor and headtorch

You can see the drops of honey hitting the sidewall as tiny pinpricks of reflected light. Once they’ve reduced to almost nothing I reverse the machine for a minute or two, or remove the frames and reload it.

Why is less more?

As I suggested in the opening paragraph, this has felt like a very short season. Because of my move to the west coast I’ve also got far fewer honey production colonies this year than any time in the last decade.

Nevertheless, it’s been an outstanding year for honey 🙂

My total crop is the best I’ve had since returning to Scotland in 2015, though this was largely due to a fantastic spring harvest. I’m also hopeful there may be a little bit of heather honey before the end of the season … we’ll see.

The priority now is to ensure that the bees are given sufficient fondant to store for the winter ahead, and that the mites are treated promptly and effectively. I’ll write about these important aspects of preparing for winter in the next week or three.

But before I go …

With all those winter bees to rear over the next couple of months the colony will need lots of pollen. 

The United colours of Benetton pollen in one of my hives

This frame made me smile. I counted just 20 developing larvae in the centre, surrounded by a pointillist sea of different pollen types. These will be well-nourished bees 🙂

Although not absolute, the bees tend to store similar pollens in individual cells. Since it takes many corbiculae-full to fill one cell this must involve a degree of ‘sorting’ by the bees during pollen storage. This all happens in the dark, so presumably is based upon a characteristic other than the colour of the pollen.

Pollen close up

I don’t know how they do this but will read a bit more during the winter and report back. This was one of the outer frames in the colony. Most of the rest are still packed with brood, ensuring the colonies will be strong going into the winter.

Wasps are starting to pester the hives. On the west coast I have several colonies recently promoted from nucs to a full hive. Most are in hives with kewl floors 9 which have an L-shaped tunnel entrance, making them easier to defend.

However, to improve things further I often add an entrance reducer. The ‘roof’ of the horizontal part of the L-shaped entrance has two small screws set into it 10 which act as ‘stops’ for the entrance reducer which I build out of the bottom bar of a frame.

A case of misdirection …

My quality control is a bit shonky and these reducers sometimes fit rather poorly. To make them a better fit I added a few wraps of gaffer tape. Initially I used black tape. However, it was clear that this looked sufficiently like the dark entrance to the hive that the bees were getting ‘misdirected’ away from the real entrance to the black tape.

That’s better …

To avoid further confusion I added an overwrap of a lighter coloured tape. All of which resulted in me revisiting some of the scientific literature on bee vision … which I’ll save for another day.


 

Rational Varroa control

It’s the end of July … in the next two to three weeks the first eggs will be laid that will develop into the winter bees that get your colonies through to next spring. Protecting these winter bees is necessary to prevent overwintering colony losses.

I’ve written and lectured extensively on Varroa control and related topics for at least 5 years. The following article is published in August’s BBKA Newsletter and The Scottish Beekeeper. It provides an overview of what I term rational Varroa control.

I define this as effective mite management based upon our current understanding of the biology of bees and Varroa. The goal of this control is to minimise winter losses due to Varroa and viruses.

It is not a recipe with easy to follow if this, then that instructions. Neither does it provide a calendar-based guide of what to do and when to do it.

It does not even tell you what you should use for mite control.

Instead it focuses on the principles … understanding these will enable you to implement control strategies that help your bees, in your environment, survive.

This version is hyperlinked to additional, more expansive, posts on particular topics, is slightly better illustrated than those that appeared in print and contains some additional footnotes with caveats and exceptions.


Introduction

Despite almost 30 years experience of Varroa in the UK, this ectoparasitic mite of honey bees remains the greatest threat to bees and beekeeping. With the exception of those fortunate to live in mite-free regions, all beekeepers must manage the mite population in their hives or risk losing the colony to the viruses transmitted when Varroa feeds on developing pupae. 

Fortunately, Varroa control is relatively straightforward; there are a range of approved and effective miticides that – used appropriately – reduce mite infestation levels significantly. The key words in that last sentence are ‘approved’, ‘effective’ and ‘used appropriately’. In reality annual colony losses, primarily occurring in the winter, often exceed 20% (Figure 1) and may be significantly higher in long or harsh winters 1. Many of these losses are attributable to Varroa and viruses. It is therefore clear that many beekeepers are not successful in managing Varroa; either they are not treating at all, or they are treating inappropriately.

Figure 1. BBKA winter survival survey – larger studies (COLOSS and BIP) often show much higher losses

This article is primarily aimed at relatively inexperienced beekeepers, but may also help the more experienced who still suffer with high levels of winter losses. It emphasises the importance of two, correctly timed, appropriate miticide treatments per season that should ensure colony survival. It is not going to deal with treatments of questionable or minor efficacy. These include the use of small cell foundation, drone brood culling or sugar dusting. These may reduce mite levels, but insufficiently to benefit colony health. Nor will it discuss the use of any miticides (or application methods) that are not approved by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. I will also not discuss treatment-free beekeeping, selection of mite-resistant bees or advanced colony manipulations like queen trapping. In my view any or all of these could or should be tried … but only once a beekeeper can routinely successfully overwinter colonies using strategies similar to those described here.

The problem

Varroa is an ectoparasitic mite that feeds on developing honey bee pupae. During feeding it transmits a range of honey bee viruses, the most important of which is deformed wing virus (DWV). DWV is present in honey bees in the absence of Varroa. In our studies, using sensitive PCR-based detection methods, we never detect bees – even those from mite-free regions of Scotland – without DWV. The virus is transmitted horizontally between bees during trophallaxis, and vertically from drones or the queen through sperm or eggs. These routes of transmission are rarely if ever associated with any significant levels of disease and virus only replicates to modest levels (perhaps 1-10 thousand viruses per bee). However, when Varroa transmits DWV the virus bypasses the bee’s natural defence mechanisms and replicates to very high levels in recipient pupae (billions per pupa, 1 – 10 million times higher than in unparasitised pupae). Studies from our laboratory have shown that ~75% of pupae with these high virus loads either do not emerge, or emerge exhibiting the characteristic “deformed wings” that give the virus its name (Figure 2; Gusachenko et al., Viruses 2020, 12, 532; doi:10.3390/v12050532). The ~25% of bees that do emerge and appear ‘normal’ exhibit a range of symptoms including reduced fitness, impaired learning and reduced foraging. However, most importantly they also exhibit reduced longevity. During the summer this is probably not critical; the lifespan of a worker is only ~6 weeks and, assuming the queen is laying well, there are thousands of half-sisters around with more being produced every day.

DWV symptoms

Figure 2. DWV symptoms

But during the winter, brood rearing either stops completely or drops to a very low level. The bees reared from late summer onwards are physiologically very different. These are the ‘winter bees’, also termed the diutinus bees (from the Latin meaning long-lived). Physiologically these bees resemble juvenile workers and they can survive for many months. And they need to … it is these bees that get the colony through the autumn, winter and into the following spring. They protect the queen, they thermoregulate the hive and, usually around the winter solstice, they start to rear small amounts of new brood for the season ahead.

The longevity of the bees in the hive in winter is critical to colony survival. If the winter bees have high DWV levels their longevity is reduced (in addition to the reduced numbers due to overt disease or non-viability). This means that the winter cluster shrinks in size faster than it would do otherwise. With reduced numbers of bees it cannot keep brood warm enough and so the colony fails to expand early the following season. In cold spells it may be unable to reach the food stores resulting in the colony perishing from ‘isolation starvation’. It may not be able to maintain sufficient warmth to protect the queen, or may simply freeze to death.

The goal of rational Varroa control

Successful overwintering requires lots of winter bees. The size of the winter cluster is directly related to its survival chances. Therefore the goal of rational Varroa control is to prevent the winter bees from being exposed to mites and mite-transmitted viruses during their development. Winter bee production is induced by a range of factors including photoperiod, nectar and pollen availability, brood and forager pheromones. Together these induce slowed behavioural maturation of the winter bees. This is not like flicking a switch, instead it is a seamless transition occurring as late summer segues into early autumn (Figure 3). Winter bee production is also influenced by the queen. Young queens lay later into the autumn, so increasing the numbers of winter bees. 

Figure 3. Colony age structure from August to December.

It is important to note that these events are environment-driven, not calendar-driven. It will not happen at precisely the same time each year, or at the same time in different locations (or latitudes) each year.

To protect these winter bees the colony needs to be treated with an effective miticide before the majority of the winter bees are produced. This ensures that the developing winter bee pupae are not parasitised by virus-laden mites and so do not suffer from reduced longevity. 

When are winter bees produced in the UK? 

Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any direct studies of this. Scientists in Bern (49.9°N) in 2007/08, where the average temperatures in November and December were ~3°C, showed that the Varroa- and virus-reduced longevity of bees was first measurable in mid-November, 50 days after emergence. By extrapolation, the eggs must have been laid in the first week of September. 

Doing large scale experiments of Varroa control is time-consuming and subject to the vagaries of the climate (and, as a molecular virologist, beyond me in terms of the resources needed). I have therefore used the well-established BEEHAVE program of colony development (from scientists in the University of Exeter; https://beehave-model.net/) to model the numbers of developing and adult bees, and the mite numbers in a colony. BEEHAVE by default uses environmental parameters (climate and forage) based upon data from Rothamsted (51.8°N). Using results from this model system, the bees present in the hive at the end of December – by definition the diutinus winter bees – were produced from eggs laid from early/mid August (Figure 4).

Whatever the precise date – and it will vary from season to season as indicated above – at some point in September the adult bee population starts to be entirely replaced with winter bees. Large numbers of these need to live until the following February or March to ensure the colony survives and is able to build up again once the queen starts laying.

When to treat – late summer

The numbers of pupae and adult bees present in the colony are plotted in Figure 4 using dashed lines. Adult bee number decrease in early spring until new brood is reared. The influence of the ‘June gap’ on pupal numbers is obvious. Brood rearing gradually tails off from early July and stops altogether sometime in late October or early November. The shaded area represents the period of winter bee production – from early/mid August until brood rearing stops. 

Figure 4. Winter bee production and mite levels – see key and text for further details

Mite levels are indicated using solid lines. The impact on the mite population of treating in the middle of each month from July to November is shown (arrowed and labelled J, A, S, O and N) using the colours green, blue, red, cyan and black respectively. The absolute numbers of bees or mites is irrelevant, but bees (pupae and adults) are plotted on the left, and mites on the right hand axis, so they cannot be directly compared. The miticide treatment modelled was ‘applied’ for one month and was 95% effective, reproducing many licensed and approved products.

Mite levels peak in the colony in late September to October. If treatment does not occur until this time of the season then the majority of winter bees will have been reared in the presence of large amounts of mites. Unsurprisingly, the earlier the treatment is applied, the lower the mite levels during the period of winter bee production. 

Rational Varroa control therefore involves treatment soon after the summer blossom honey is removed from the hive, so maximising the winter bees produced in the presence of low mite numbers. If you leave treatment until mid-September, you risk exposing the majority of winter bees to high levels of Varroa in the hive. If your primary crop is heather honey, which is not harvested until September, you may need to consider treating earlier in the summer – for example during the brood break when requeening or during swarm control.

Why treat in midwinter?

A key point to notice from Figure 4 is that, paradoxically, the earlier the miticide is applied, the higher the mite levels are at the end of the year. Compare the August (blue) and October (cyan) lines at year end for example. This is because mites that survive treatment – and some always do – subsequently reproduce in the small amount of brood reared late in the season. This is what necessitates a ‘midwinter’ treatment. Without it, mite levels increase inexorably year upon year, and cannot be controlled by a single late-summer treatment. Beekeepers bragging on social media that their mite drop after the winter treatment was zero probably applied the summer treatment too late to effectively protect their winter bees.

And when is midwinter?

Historically beekeepers apply the ‘midwinter’ treatment between Christmas and New Year. This is probably too late. The usual miticide used at this time is oxalic acid, a ‘one shot’ treatment that is ineffective against mites in capped cells. For maximum efficacy this must be applied when the colony is broodless. Brood rearing usually starts (if it ends at all, again this is climate-dependent) around the winter solstice. By delaying treatment until a lull in the Christmas festivities or even early January some mites will already be inaccessible in capped cells. 

Figure 5. Biscuit coloured (or a bit darker) cappings indicating brood rearing in this colony

I check my colonies for brood – either by looking for biscuit-coloured cappings on the Varroa tray (Figure 5) or by quickly inspecting frames in the centre of the cluster – and usually treat in November or very early December. If I cannot check visually I apply the treatment during the first extended cold spell of the winter. By treating when the colony is broodless I can be certain my intervention will have maximal effect.

What to treat with?

I have deliberately avoided – other than mentioning oxalic acid – specific miticides. Rational Varroa control involves the choice of an appropriate miticide and its correct application. Examples of incorrect or inappropriate miticide choice include; use of Apistan when resistance is known to be very widespread, use of Apiguard when the average ambient temperature is below 15°C (which makes Apiguard of little use for effective control in much of Scotland) or the use of Api-Bioxal when there is capped brood present. In addition, use of a half-dose or a reduced period of application will both reduce efficacy and potentially lead to the selection of resistance in the mite population. Used correctly – the right dose at the right time and for the right duration – the majority of the currently licensed miticides are be capable of reducing mite levels by over 90%. If they do not, use one that does. Miticide choice should be dictated by your environment and the state of the colony.

All together now

Most beekeepers grossly underestimate the movement of bees (and their phoretic mites) between colonies. Numerous studies have shown that drifting and (to an even greater extent) robbing can result in the transfer of large numbers of mites from adjacent and, in the case of robbing, more distant colonies. 

Gaffer tape apiary

Figure 6. Gaffer tape apiary …

Rational Varroa control therefore involves treating all colonies within an apiary, and ideally the wider landscape, in a coordinated manner. In communal association apiaries (Figure 6), where beekeeping experience and therefore colony management and health can vary significantly, this is particularly important. Coordinated treatment is only relevant in late summer when bees are freely flying.

Swarms

Swarms originating from unmanaged or poorly managed colonies will have high mite levels. The bee population in a swarm is biased towards younger bees; these are the bees that phoretic mites preferentially associate with. Studies have shown that ~35% of the mite population of a colony leaves with the swarm.

Figure 7. Varroa treatment of a new swarm in a bait hive…

Since swarms contain no sealed brood until ~9 days after they are hived oxalic acid is the most appropriate treatment. I usually treat them using vaporised oxalic acid late in the evening soon after they are hived (Figure 7). Even casts get this treatment and I have not experienced any issues with the queen not subsequently mating successfully. I’d prefer to have a queenless low-mite colony than a queenright one potentially riddled with Varroa.

Midseason mite treatment

The text above describes the mite management strategies I have used for several years. I apply Apivar immediately the summer honey is removed and treat with oxalic acid when broodless before the end of the year. Doing this has almost never required any additional midseason treatments; if mite levels are sufficiently low at the beginning of the season they cannot rise to dangerous levels before the late summer treatment. I still get winter colony losses, but they are almost always due to poor queen mating and rarely due to Varroa and viruses.

Figure 8. Queenright splits and the window(s) of opportunity

However, if midseason treatments are required – either because there are signs of overt infestation, because regular mite counts have shown there is a problem, or to have low mite colonies after the heather honey is collected – then there are two choices. Treat with MAQS which is approved for use when there are supers on the hive and, more importantly, is effective against mites in capped cells 2. Alternatively, treat during swarm control. With care, the majority of splits (e.g. the Pagden artificial swarm or the nucleus method) can be performed to give a broodless period for both the queenright (Figure 8) and queenless partitions. That being the case, a single application of an oxalic acid-containing miticide can be very effective in controlling the mite population.

Costs

Many beekeepers complain about the cost of licensed and approved miticides. However, some perspective is needed. A colony with low levels of mites will be more likely to survive overwinter, so reducing the costs of replacement bees. In addition, a healthy colony will be a stronger colony, and therefore much more likely to produce a good crop of honey (and potentially an additional nuc). Over the last 5-6 years my miticide costs are equivalent to one jar of honey per colony per year. This is an insignificant amount to pay for healthy colonies.

Summary

Rational Varroa control requires an understanding of the goals of treatment – protecting the winter bees and minimising mite levels for the beginning of the following season – and an appreciation of how this can best be achieved using miticides appropriate for the environment and the state of the colony. Like so much of beekeeping, it involves judgement of the colony and will vary from season to season and your location. I’ve applied my midwinter treatment as early as the end of October or as late as mid-December, reflecting variation in timing of the broodless period. Rational Varroa control also involves an understanding of the biology of bees and an awareness of the influence of beekeeping (e.g. crowding colonies in apiaries which increases mite and disease transmission) on our bees. However, none of this is difficult, expensive or time consuming … and the benefits in terms of strong, healthy, productive colonies are considerable.


Note

A version of this post appeared in the BBKA Newsletter, August 2021

A version of this post appeared in The Scottish Beekeeper, August 2021

Supering

Something short and sweet this week 1 … though perhaps ‘tall and sweet’ would be preferable as I’m going to discuss supering.

The noun supering means ‘the action or practice of fitting a super to a beehive’ and dates back to 1840:

Duncan, James. Natural History of Bees Naturalist’s Library VoI. 223   The empty story which is added, may be placed above, instead of below the original stock, and the honey will thus be of a superior kind. This mode of operating is called super-ing, in contra-distinction to nadir-ing.

I don’t quite understand the description provided by here. Adding a super underneath the colony (original stock) is unlikely to lead to it being used as a honey store. Bees naturally store honey to the side and above the brood nest.

And does James Duncan mean the honey is superior because it’s better? Or is he using superior in its zoological sense meaning ‘at or near the highest point’? 2

So … let’s get a few definitions out of the way first.

  • Supering – the addition of a super to a hive, which could be either:
    • Top-supering – adding a super to the top of a stack of existing supers, or
    • Bottom-supering – adding a super below any existing supers, but above the brood box(es) 
  • Nadiring – the addition of a super below an existing brood box (which won’t be mentioned again in this post 3.

Supering … click for legend

I prefer the term top- or bottom-supering as the alternative over- or under-supering could be misinterpreted as the amount of supers being excessive or insufficient.

Which is better – top- or bottom-supering?

Let’s get the science out of the way first.

There’s an assumption that bottom supering should be ‘better’ (in terms of honey yield) as it reduces the distance bees have to travel before they are relieved of their nectar. 

A study conducted two decades ago by Jennifer Berry and Keith Delaplane 4 showed that – in terms of the amount of honey stored – it makes no statistical difference whether top- or bottom-supering is used.

This study was conducted at the University of Georgia (USA). It used 60 hives – 3 different apiaries each containing 10 hives over two distinct nectar flows. 

Note the deliberate inclusion of the term ‘statistical’ above … the bottom-supered hives did end up with ~10% more honey in total but, considering the scale of the experiment, this was not statistically significant. 

To determine if this difference was real you’d need to do a much larger scale experiment.

This was not simply weighing a few hives with the supers added on top or below … each colony used was balanced in terms of frames of brood, numbers of bees and levels of stores in the brood box for each nectar flow. That’s not my idea of fun when it would involve a few thousand colonies 🙁   5.

The Berry & Delaplane study reached the same conclusion as earlier research by Szabo and Sporns (1994) who were working in Alberta, Canada 6. They had concluded that the failure to see a significant difference in terms of honey stored was because the nectar flows were rather poor. However, this seems unlikely as the Berry & Delaplane study covered two nectar flows, one of which was much stronger than the other (measured in terms of honey yield).

Before we leave the science there’s a minor additional detail to discuss about the Berry & Delaplane study. All their hives consisted of a single Langstroth brood box with a honey super on top underneath the queen excluder (refer to C. in the figure above).

This first honey super was termed the ‘food super’. The remaining supers were the ‘honey supers’. It’s not clear from the description in the paper whether the queen ever moved up to lay in the ‘food super’. I’m assuming she did not.

That being the case, the bottom supering employed by Berry & Delaplane is probably not quite the same as understood by most UK beekeepers.

When I talk about bottom-supering (here and elsewhere) I mean adding the super directly above the box that the queen is laying in (refer to A. in the figure above).

Whether ‘true’ bottom-supering leads to increased honey yields I’ll leave to someone much stronger than me. It’s an experiment that will involve a lot of lifting … and a lot of hives 😉

Which brings us to other benefits associated with where the super is added …

Benefits of bottom supering

I can think of two obvious ones.

The first is that the frames are immediately above the warmth of the broodnest. This might help get new foundation drawn a bit faster. However, if the flow is so good you’re piling the supers on it’s likely that the bees will draw comb for fun.

Note also the comments below about frame spacing and brace comb. I start new supers with 11 frames and subsequently reduce the number to 9. To avoid brace comb it’s easier to get undrawn supers built when there are no other supers on the hive. However, if that’s not possible I usually bottom-super them … it can’t do any harm. 

The second benefit is that by bottom-supering the cappings on the lowest supers always stay pristine and white. This is important if you’re preparing cut comb honey. It’s surprising how stained the cappings get with the passage of hundreds of thousands of little feet as the foragers move up to unload their cargo in top-supered colonies. 

Benefits of top supering

Generally I think these outweigh those of bottom-supering (but I don’t make cut comb honey and I’d expect the sale price of cut comb with bright white cappings trumps any of the benefits discussed below).

The first is that it’s a whole lot easier on your back 🙂

No need to remove the stack of supers first to slide another in at the bottom. This is a significant benefit … if the colony needs a fourth super there’s probably the best part of 50 kg of full/filling supers to remove first 7

Lifting lots of heavy supers is hard work. A decade ago I’d tackle three full supers at a time without an issue.

More recently, honey seems to be getting much denser 😉 … three full supers, particularly if on top of a double brood box, are usually split into two (or even three) for lifting. 

Secondly, because top-supering is easier it’s therefore much quicker.

Pop the crownboard off, add another super, close up and move on. 

Some claim an additional benefit is that you can determine whether the colony needs an additional super simply by lifting off the crownboard and having a peek. That might work with a single brood box and one super 8, but it’s not possible on a double brood monster hive already topped with four supers 9.

Of course, all of the benefits in terms of ease of addition and/or lack of lifting are null and void if you are going to be inspecting the colony and therefore removing the supers anyway.

Frame spacing in supers

Assuming a standard bee space between drawn, filled, capped honey stores, the more frames you have in the super the smaller the amount of honey the super will contain. 

This might never be an issue for many beekeepers.

However, those that scale up to perhaps half a dozen hives soon realise that more frames per super means more time spent extracting. 

That’s exactly what happened with me. My epiphany came when faced with about 18 supers containing almost 200 frames and a manual (hand cranked) three-frame extractor 🙁

By the next nectar flow I’d invested in an electric 9 frame radial extractor and started spacing my frames further apart.

That first ‘semi-automated’ honey harvest paid for the extractor and my physique became (just) slightly less Charles Atlas-like.

With undrawn foundation I start with a full box of 11 frames. However, once drawn I space the frames further apart, usually 9 per super. The bees draw out deeper comb and fill it perfectly happily … and I’ve got less frames to extract 🙂

I know some beekeepers use 8 frames in their supers. I struggle with this and usually find the bees draw brace comb or very uneven frames. This might be because our nectar flows aren’t strong enough, but I suspect I’ve spaced the frames too far apart in one go, rather than doing it gradually.

Frame alignment of supers

Speaking of brace comb … remember to observe the correct bee space in the supers. Adding a super with mismatched frame numbers will result in brace comb being built at the junction. The same thing happens if frames are misaligned.

Frame spacing and alignment in the supers.

Inevitably this brace comb ends up fusing the two supers together and causes a ‘right mess’ 10 when you eventually prize them apart.

And you’ll have to because they’re probably too heavy to lift together.

Brace comb

Brace comb …

The example above is particularly bad due to the use of misaligned foundationless super frames. The comb is, as always, beautiful … and unusually in this example the bees built from the bottom upwards.

Note that the frame alignment between adjacent boxes does not appear to apply to the brood box and the first super. At least, it doesn’t when you’re using a queen excluder. I presume this is because the queen excluder acts as a sort of ‘false floor’. It disrupts the vertical bee space sufficiently that the bees don’t feel the need to build lots of brace comb.

You can use castellations to space the frames in the supers. I don’t (and got rid of my stock of used and unused castellations recently) as they prevent re-spacing the frames as needed 11. The bees quickly propolise up the frame lugs meaning the frames are effectively immovable without the application of significant force.

Oops ...

Oops …

Like with a hive tool … or if you drop the super 🙁  12.

Caring for out of use supers

After drawn brood comb, drawn supers are probably the most valuable resource a beekeeper has.

You can’t buy replacement so it makes sense to look after it.

Of course, having written the sentence above I realised I was almost certainly wrong. A quick Google search turned up this Bad Beekeeping post from Ron Miksha who described commercially (machine) produced drawn comb.

Three Langstroth-sized combs are €26 😯 

There’s also this stuff … 

OK, so I stand corrected. You can buy replacement drawn comb, but a single super will cost you about €78 13 so they should be looked after.

Empty drawn supers should be stored somewhere bee, wasp and rodent-free. I store mine in a shed with a solid floor underneath the stack and a spare roof on top. 

Late November in the bee (storage) shed …

I have friends who wrap their supers in clingfilm … not 30 cm kitchen roll, but the metre wide stuff they use in airports to wrap suitcases 14.

Wax moth infestation of drawn supers is generally not a problem. They much prefer used brood frames. However, it makes sense to try and make the stacks as insect-proof as possible.

Caring for in use supers

If the supers are full of bees and honey then the drawn comb is only the third most important thing in the box.

Don’t just pile the supers on the ground next to the hive. The lower edges of the frames will be festooned with bees which will get crushed. You’ll also pick up dirt from the ground which will then be transferred to the hive.

Instead, use an inverted roof. Stand the super(s) on it, angled so they’re supported just by the edges of the roof. This minimises the opportunities for bees to get squashed.

If you’re removing a stack of supers individually (because they’re too heavy to lift together) do not stack them up in a neat pile as you’re very likely to crush bees. It’s better to support the super on one edge, propped up against the edge/corner of the first super I removed.

Again, this minimises the chances of crushing bees. It’s distressing for the beekeeper, it’s definitely distressing for the bee(s) and it’s a potential route for disease transmission.

The multi-purpose Correx hive roof

Once the supers are emptied of bees but full of capped honey you’ll need to transport them home from the apiary. I use spare Correx hive roofs to catch the inevitable drips that another more caring member of the household would otherwise discover 🙁

These Correx hive roofs aren’t strong enough to stack supers on. I always ensure there’s at least one or two conventional roofs in each apiary to act as temporary super stands during inspections.

Final thoughts

Tidy comb

At the end of the season it’s worth tidying the super frames before stacking them away for the year.

Before - brace comb

Super frames before tidying and storage

I use a hive tool to scrape off any bits of brace comb from the top and bottom bars of each frame. I also use a breadknife to level up the face of the comb. The combs are then arranged in boxes of nine and stored away for the winter.

A small amount of time invested on the supers saves time and effort doing much the same thing when you need them.

Drone foundation in supers

Over 50% of my supers are drawn from drone foundation.

There are two advantages to using drone foundation in the supers. The first is that there’s less wax and more honey; it takes less effort for the bees to build the comb in the first place and the larger cell volume stores more honey.

In addition, with less surface area in each cell, it’s at least theoretically possible to get a greater efficiency of extraction 15.

The second benefit is that bees do not store pollen in drone comb. In a strong colony you sometimes get an arch of pollen stored in the bottom super, and this is avoided by using drone comb.

Drone comb in super

That doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily fill the comb with nectar. Quite often they just leave an empty arch of cells above the brood nest 🙁

The major problem with using drone comb in the supers occurs when the queen gets above the queen excluder. You end up with my million drones fiasco and a lot of comb to melt down and recycle.

The super frame shuffle

Bees often draw and fill the central frames in the super before those at the sides. This can lead to very unevenly drawn comb (which can be ‘fixed’ with a breadknife as described above), and grossly unbalanced comb when extracting.

Full super ready for extraction

Full super ready for extraction …

To avoid this simply shuffle the outer frames into the centre of the super and vice versa. The frames will be much more evenly filled.

Spares

If you have an out apiary, keep spare supers in an insect-proof stack in the apiary.

Spare supers … only one now, on hive #29

Alternatively, keep spares under the roof but over the crownboard. As a strong nectar flow tails off, or if the weather is changeable, it might save a trip back to base, or having to carry yet another thing on your rounds.


Note

I’ve now done the calculation … 11 National super frames have an area of ~5500 cm2 which would require 6.5 Langstroth-sized sheets of drawn commercial comb. At the prices quoted above (€26 for three) that would only cost about €56 … but you’d still have to slice’n’dice them into the frames.

Hmmm … almost 3000 words … not so short and sweet after all 🙁

First impressions

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

What’s in the box?

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

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

Iffy weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

And since then it’s got colder …

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

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

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

Shirtsleeve weather

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

Which here might mean July … 🙁

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

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

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

Ribes ...

Ribes …

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

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

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

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

So I had a quick look.

Very disturbing

A hive inspection inevitably disturbs the colony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of which sounds very contrived.

It doesn’t need to be.

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

Be prepared

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

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

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

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

Ready, steady … Go!

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

Nadired super and single National poly hive

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

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

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

Corpses and accumulated debris

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

This gave me access to the floor.

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

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

Old floors …

Old floors …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was safe to proceed.

Elbow room and the queen

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

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

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

Ready for inspection

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

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

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

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

Giving them a little more elbow room

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

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

Marked, laying queen

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

Replacement of dark frames

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

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

Old dark frames rotated out of the hive and replaced

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

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

Emptying the super

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

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

Clearer boards

Clearer boards …

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

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

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

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

Thriving or just hanging on?

The two colonies I inspected were doing OK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope I’m not too late 🙁


 

Waiting

Beekeepers will be familiar with the strange distortion of time that occurs during the season. The months with the shortest days appear to drag on interminably. In contrast, the long days of summer whizz by in a flurry of activity 1.

Beekeepers timewarp – perceived month length in blue and actual day length in red.

This is due to the indirect influence of latitude on our bees.

In winter, they’re largely inactive … and so are we, and time drags.

In summer, they’re busy foraging and breeding and reproducing (swarming) and foraging more and robbing … and we’re running around like headless chickens 2 trying to keep up. 

A spring swarm in a skep

Not always successfully 🙁

Latitude

The UK is a small country. The distance between the extremities – Jersey 3 and the Shetlands (both islands, some distance from the mainland 4 ) – is only about 800 miles, or a bit less than the long diagonal across California.

Nevertheless, this has a profound effect on daylength and temperature … and therefore on the bees.

On the winter solstice the day length in Jersey is about 8 hr 11 min. On the Shetlands it’s less than 5 hr 50 min. But that is reversed by the summer solstice. The longest day on the Shetlands is over 2.5 hours longer than the 16 hr 14 min that the poor crepuscular folk in Jersey enjoy 5.

For convenience, let’s assume that bees need an average maximum temperature of 10°C to fly freely 6. That being the case, bees in St Helier, Jersey, might fly for 9 months of the year, whereas those in Lerwick, Shetland, fly for less than 6 months of the year 7

Think back to those headless chickens. All of that “foraging and breeding and reproducing (swarming) and foraging more and robbing is being squeezed into about one third less time in Lerwick than in St Helier.

The winters are not fundamentally different. But the transition to spring happens much earlier in the south.

All of which makes this time of the year hard going for those of us living at northern latitudes … which, in a roundabout way, was what I was pondering while I stared at a depressingly inactive entrance to one of my colonies a fortnight or so ago. 

Ignore Twitter

For a few days Twitter had been littered with short videos of bees piling into hive entrances laden with pollen.

Helpful comments like “Girls are very busy today” or “15°C today and all colonies flying well” accompanied the videos.

I was ankle deep in snow and we’d recently had overnight temperatures below -14°C.

No flying today

Bees from one of my colonies on the west coast had been out on cleansing flights 8 but the other was suspiciously quiet. 

Obviously it was quiet when there was snow on the ground, but this situation continued as the weather warmed and the snow disappeared.

Despite a reasonable amount of experience in keeping bees in Scotland, and an awareness that the Twitter posts might have been from a beekeeper in St Helier, I was starting to get concerned about this second colony 9.

I knew there were live bees in the box as it has a clear crownboard. I could remove the roof and block of insulation and see the bees. However, the bees appeared to still be clustered and, having added a tray under the open mesh floor, there was little evidence of brood emerging.

In contrast, the other colony was flying well, collecting pollen and the cluster was largely dispersed.

Worrying times.

Fretting

Perhaps they’ve gone queenless?

Do queenless colonies tend not to break cluster as early in the season?

Do they not have any need to collect pollen because there’s no brood to be reared?

That’s scuppered my queen rearing plans for the season ahead … is it too late to order a couple more nucs?

Is it too early in the season to unite them and at least use the surviving bees?

Should I have a quick look in the centre of the cluster?

Should I wait until tomorrow when the weather is looking a little better? 10

Waiting

This went on for the better part of a week. The weather was not great, but was steadily improving. I was working outside much of the day.

The flying colony continued to fly. There was ample evidence they were rearing brood. 

The non-flying colony just sat there and sulked 🙁

And then, on the penultimate day of February, out they came …

What a relief …

The day was no warmer than the preceding one, it was certainly no sunnier. If anything it was actually a bit worse. 

But the bees came out as though someone had uncorked a bottle 🙂

First a couple around midday, then a dozen or two by 1pm and finally reaching a few hundred by 2pm (just after the picture above was taken 11 ).

Almost all the flying bees appeared to be taking orientation flights. Only a very few were collecting pollen.

And from that point on it’s been a case of ‘normal service is resumed’.

The colonies have continued to fly on the good less bad days. Both colonies are busy with the gorse pollen. Both – by the look of the trays under the OMF 12 – are rearing reasonable amounts of brood. 

Why the sulking?

Both my west coast colonies were obtained from the same source, though I know the queens are from different lineages. I suspect the fact that one was flying well before the other simply reflects differences in their genetics.

It’s notable that after the first day or two of strong flying activity, both colonies have quietened down significantly. The proportion of bees taking orientation flights compared with foragers has decreased significantly.

I interpret that burst of flying activity as a mix of new bees taking their first flights and older bees reorienting after a long period confined to the hive.

I’m no longer worried that the queen failed in midwinter 🙂

Patience, young grasshopper

This trivial example is just one of many where the beekeeper has to wait for the bees.

You can’t rush them.

They will go at their own pace and, usually (or possibly even, almost always) it will work out OK.

I was concerned about that apparently inactive colony. Had I intervened I would have done more harm than good. 

Since there was little I could do that would constructively help the situation I simply had to wait.

Which made me think about other examples where waiting is usually the best policy in beekeeping.

Queen rearing

I’ve given a couple of talks recently on queen rearing and am already well-advanced with my own plans for the season.

Queen rearing involves several key events, all of which must more or less coincide. The colony (and other colonies in the region) must have sexually mature drones present. There really needs to be a good nectar flow to ensure the developing queens are well nourished. Finally, the weather must be suitable for queen mating.

Again, you can’t rush these things. You might have no influence on them at all …

The swarm in the skep (above) was captured on the last day of April 2019. It was an unusually early spring in Scotland and the earliest swarm I’ve seen since 2015. 

The bees had judged that conditions were right. There were reasonable numbers of drones about and the weather remained pretty good for at least the first half of May. The swarm was a prime swarm, and I fully expect that the virgin queen that emerged in the originating colony got successfully mated 13.

OSR ... can you believe it?!

Late April 2016 … OSR and snow

In contrast, three years earlier the conditions at the end of April are shown above. Colonies contained few drones and swarming first occurred in late May.

Under these conditions, starting queen rearing is a pointless exercise. The colonies aren’t ready, the environment is hostile and there is probably insufficient nectar being collected. 

It pays to wait.

Queen mating

Anyone who has kept bees for a year or two will be familiar with the often interminable wait while a virgin queen gets mated.

Assuming a colony swarms on the day that the developing queen cell(s) is capped 14, the queen that follows her must emerge, mature, go on her mating flight(s) and then start laying.

My calculations are that this takes an absolute minimum of 14 days.

For the first seven days the new queen is pupating, she then emerges and matures for 5-6 days before going on one (or more) mating flights. After mating it then takes a further 2-3 days before she starts laying.

I’ve not looked through my records but cannot remember it ever taking 14 days. In reality, even with ideal conditions, at least 17-18 days is more usual and 21 days is not at all uncommon.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

It’s worth remembering that there’s a time window within which the queen must mate. This opens 5-6 days after emergence (when she becomes sexually mature) and closes at 26-33 days after emergence, after which time she’s too old to dependably mate well.

A variety of factors can influence the speed with which the queen gets mated. 

Bad weather is the most obvious. If the weather is poor (rain, cool, very windy etc.) she won’t venture forth. For Scottish beekeepers, there’s a nice study by Gavin Ramsay 15 of the total number of ‘good’ queen mating days we enjoy in our brief summers … it can be very few indeed.

Queens mate faster from smaller hives. Queens in mini-nucs mate faster than those in 5-frame nucs which, in turn, mate faster than those in full hives. 

And, as far as the beekeeper is concerned, these few days drag by very slowly 16

There’s nothing to be gained by checking and re-checking. There’s potentially a lot to be lost if you get in the way of a queen returning from a mating flight.

Just wait … and more often than not it will all be just fine.

Enthusiastic beginners

The final example where there’s a benefit from waiting is for the beginner beekeeper getting their very first colony 17.

They’ve attended a winter ‘Introduction to beekeeping’ course, they’ve read and re-read the Thorne’s catalogue (and ordered loads of stuff they don’t need) and they are desperate to start keeping bees.

I know the feeling, I was exactly the same when I started.

Every year I get requests for nucs in March, or “as soon as possible” or “so I can install them in the hive at Easter”.

The commercial suppliers offer bees early in the season, often from April onwards. 

Or did, before the ban on imports, though some still do.

But in my opinion I think there are real benefits from waiting until a little later in the season.

In the absence of imported packages or nucs, there are only two sources of nuc colonies early in the season:

  • Overwintered nucs. These are usually in very short supply and therefore command a significant price premium. The queen will be from the previous year … not in itself a major problem, though they are probably more likely to swarm than a nuc headed by a current year queen.
  • Bees in a box headed by a queen that was imported. The proportion of bees in the box related to the queen depends upon the time that has elapsed since the queen was added to the box. Think about the timing of brood development … it takes three weeks from adding the queen to have any adult bees related to her. It takes six weeks or more to re-populate the box.

I think the price premium of an overwintered nuc is justified because they have already successfully overwintered. However, a similar box of bees would be perhaps half the price two months later 18.

It’s an expensive way to start if things go wrong.

What could possibly go wrong?

An overwintered nuc will probably build up very fast, perhaps outstripping the skills (or confidence) of the tyro beekeeper. 

If the weather is bad the new beekeeper potentially has a large, poorly-tempered, colony to manage. It’s daunting enough for some beginners doing their first few inspections, but if they’re struggling with a fast-expanding colony – potentially already making swarm preparations – on cool or wet days, then it can become a bit of a chore.

Or worse.

A few stings, a bee or two in the veil and the beekeeper gets a bad fright. The next inspection is missed or delayed. The colony inevitably swarms as the weather picks up.

Suddenly 75% of their £300 investment has disappeared over the fence 19 and they’re left with a hive full of queen cells.

In contrast, the beginner who starts with a nuc later in the season, headed by a ‘this years’ queen, avoids all those problems. 

The new queen is pumping out the pheromones and there’s very little chance the colony will swarm. They’ve arrived in late May or early June, the weather is perfect and the bees are wonderfully calm. 

They still build up at quite a pace, surprising the beginner. They’ve drawn out all the comb in a full brood box within a fortnight and will need a super just about in time for the summer nectar flow.

Beginners often open their colonies too frequently. They dabble, they fuss, they make little tweaks and adjustments. 

My first ever colony – late May. I still feel guilty about that first queen 🙁

Sometimes – like I did with my first colony – they inadvertently crush the queen during a particularly cack handed colony inspection.

D’oh!

It’s still early in the season so mated queens are difficult to get. Pinching a frame of young brood from another colony weakens it at a critical time in its build up, and leaves the beekeeper reliant on excellent weather to get a new queen mated 20.

Altogether not ideal.

So beginners should wait. By all means attend the apiary sessions or tag along with an experienced beekeeper during April and May. You’ll learn a lot.

The wait will do you and, indirectly, the bees good.

At the very least it’s great preparation for the waiting you’ll do for queens to get mated, or for a colonies to start flying well next spring 😉