Category Archives: Efficiency

Is queen clipping cruel?

Synopsis : Is clipping the queen a cruel and barbaric practice? Does it cause pain to the queen? Surely it’s a good way to stop swarming? This is an emotive and sometimes misunderstood topic. What do scientific studies tell us about clipped queens and swarming?

Introduction

After the contention-free zone of the last couple of weeks I thought I’d write something about queen clipping.

This is a topic that some beekeepers feel very strongly about, claiming that it is cruel and barbaric, that it causes pain to the queen and – by damaging her – induces supersedure.

Advocates of queen clipping sometimes recommend it as a practice because it stops swarming and is a useful way to mark the queen 1.

I thought it would be worth exploring some of these claims, almost all of which I think are wrong in one way or another.

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

Here’s one I didn’t lose earlier – swarm with a clipped queen from the bee shed

I clip and mark my queens.

You can do what you want.

This post is not a recommendation that you should clip your queens. Instead, it’s an exploration of the claimed pros and cons of the practice, informed with a smattering of science to help balance the more emotional responses I sometimes hear.

By all means do what you want, but if you oppose the practice do so from an informed position.

Having considered things, I believe that the benefits to my bees outweigh the disadvantages.

And I deliberately used the word ‘bees’ rather than ‘me’ in the line above … for reasons that should become clear shortly.

What is queen clipping?

Bees have four wings. The forewings 2 are larger and provide the most propulsive power.

Each wing consists of a thin membrane supported by a system of veins. The veins – at least the larger veins – have a nerve and a trachea running along them. Remaining ‘space’ in the vein is filled with haemolymph as the veins are connected to the haemocele.

Queen ‘clipping’ involves using a sharp pair of scissors to remove a third to a half of just one of the forewings.

Done properly – by which I mean cutting enough from one wing only whilst not amputating anything else (!) – significantly impairs the ability of the queen to fly.

She will still attempt to fly but she will have little directional stability and is unable to fly any distance.

Easy to see

Easy to see – clipped and marked queen

It shouldn’t need stating 3 but it’s only sensible to clip the wing of a mated, laying queen.

Although you can mark virgin queens soon after emergence – before orientation and mating flights 4 – clipping her wing will curtail all mating activity 5.

How to clip the queen

If I know I want to mark and clip a queen I find my Turn and Mark cage, Posca pen and scissors. The cage is kept close to hand, the pen and scissors are left in a semi-shaded corner of the apiary.

Tools of the trade – Turn and Mark cage, Posca pen and sharp scissors

Then all you need to do is:

  • Find the queen, pick her up and place her in the cage. Leave the caged queen with the pen/scissors while the frame is returned to the hive 6.
  • Holding the cage in my left hand and scissors in my right I gently depress the plunger and wait until she reverses, lifting one forewing through the bars of the cage. At that point I depress the plunger a fraction more to hold her firmly in place.
  • Cut across the forewing to reduce its length by 1/3 to 1/2. Be scrupulously careful not to touch the abdomen with the scissors, or to sever a leg by accident 7.
  • Mark the queen with a single spot of paint on her thorax then leave the queen in the cage for a few minutes while the paint dries.
  • Return the queen to the hive. The simplest way to do this is to remove the plunger and lay the barrel of the cage on the top bars of the frame over a frame of brood. The workers will welcome her and, in due course, she’ll wander out and down into a seam of bees.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

Don’t real beekeepers just hold the queen with their fingers?

Probably.

Maybe I’m not a real beekeeper 😉

I prefer to cage the queen before clipping and marking her.

I wear nitrile or Marigold gloves (or one of each) to keep my fingers propolis free. If the gloves are sticky with propolis I don’t want this coating the queen. I also prefer to keep my scents and odour off the queen 8.

The other reason I prefer to cage the queen is to reduce the potential for damaging her with the scissors.

You’d have to be even more cackhanded than me 9 to pierce the abdomen of a caged queen with the scissors. In addition, her ability to raise a hind leg up and through the bars of the cage is restricted. In contrast, when held in the fingers, both these can be more problematic.

Mr Blobby goes beekeeping

Finally, briefly caging the queen allows me to use both my hands for other things – like completing the colony inspection without any risk of crushing the queen.

Yes, I could unglove before clipping and marking the queen, but it’s almost impossible to get nitriles back on if your hands are damp.

Does queen clipping stop swarming?

No.

Is that it? Nothing more to say about swarming?

OK, OK 😉

If the queen is not clipped the colony will typically swarm on the first suitable day after the new queen cell(s) in the hive are sealed. The swarm bivouacs nearby, the scout bees find and select a suitable new nest site and the bivouacked swarm departs – often never to be seen again – to set up home.

I’ll return to the subsequent fate of the swarm at the end of this post.

A colony with a clipped queen usually swarms – by which I mean the queen and up to 75% of the workers leave the hive – several days after the new queen cell(s) is capped.

Ted Hooper 10 claims a colony headed by a clipped queen “swarm(s) when the first virgin queen is ready to emerge” 11. This is not quite the same as when the first virgin emerges.

Since queen development takes 16 days from the egg being laid this theoretically means you could conduct inspections on, at least, a fortnightly rota. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple as bees could choose an older larva to rear as a new queen.

Hooper has a page or so of discussion on why a 10 day inspection interval achieves a good balance between never losing a swarm and minimising the disturbance to the colony. 12.

What happens when a colony with a clipped queen swarms?

A clipped queen cannot fly, so when she leaves the hive with a swarm she crashes rather unmajesterially 13 to the ground.

In my experience there are two potential outcomes:

  • the bees eventually abandon her and return to the hive. Usually the queen will perish. They are still likely to swarm when the virgin queen(s) emerge. All together now … “queen clipping does not stop swarming”.
  • the queen climbs the leg of the hive stand and often ends up underneath the hive floor. The bees join her. In this case you can easily retrieve the swarm together with the clipped queen. Temporarily set aside the brood box and supers and knock the clustered bees from underneath the floor into a nuc box.

I spy with my little eye … a clipped queen that swarmed AND was abandoned by the bees. It’s a tough life.

Sometimes both the queen and the swarm re-enter the hive (or I return them to the hive). In my experience these queens often don’t survive, presumably being slaughtered by a virgin queen.

So that addresses the swarming issue 14. What about the more contentious aspect of queen clipping causing pain?

Do queens feel pain?

I discussed whether bees feel pain a couple of years ago. The studies on self-medication with morphine following amputation are relevant here. Those studies were on worker bees, but I’ve no reason to think queens would be any different 15. I’m not aware of more recent literature on pain perception by honey bees though it’s well outside my area of expertise, so I may have missed something.

Therefore, based upon my current understanding of the scientific literature, I do not think that worker bees feel pain and I’m reasonably confident that queens are also unlikely to feel pain.

It’s worth noting here that it’s easy to be anthropomorphic here, particularly since we (hopefully) all care about our bees. Saying that your bees are happy, or grumpy or in pain, because it’s a nice day, or raining or you’ve just cut her wing off, are classic examples of ascribing human characteristics to something that is non-human.

We might think like that 16 but it’s a dangerous trap to fall into.

Is clipping queens cruel and barbaric?

According to my trusty OED, cruel means “Of conditions, circumstances: Causing or characterized by great suffering; extremely painful or distressing.”

Therefore, if clipping a queen’s wing causes pain and distress then it should be considered a cruel practice.

I’ve discussed pain perception previously (see above). If bees, including queens, do not feel pain then clipping her wing cannot be considered as cruelty.

Someone who is barbaric is uncultured, uncivilised or unpolished … which surely couldn’t apply to any beekeepers? In the context of queen clipping it presumably means a practise known to cause pain and distress.

Having already dealt with pain that brings me to ‘distress’.

How might you determine whether a queen with a clipped wing is distressed?

Perhaps you could observe her after returning her to the colony? Does she run about wildly or does she settle back immediately and start laying again?

Returning a marked and clipped queen – no apparent distress, just calmly disappearing into a seam of bees

But, let’s take that question a stage further, how would you determine that it was the clipped wing that was the cause of the distress? 17

That pretty much rules out direct observation. Queens are naturally photophobic 18 so you’d need to use red light and an observation hive. I’m not aware that this has been done.

Instead, scientists have observed the performance of colonies headed by clipped and unclipped queens. I’d argue that this is a convenient and suitable surrogate marker for distress. You (or at least I) would expect that a queen that was in distress would perform less well – perhaps laying fewer eggs, heading a smaller colony that collected less honey etc.

Are clipped queens distressed? Is their performance impaired?

Which finally brings us to some science. I’ve found very little in the scientific literature about queen clipping, but there is one study dating back over 50 years from Dr I.W. Forster of the Wallaceville Animal Research Centre, Wellington, New Zealand 19. I can’t find a photo of Dr. Forster, but there’s an interesting archive of photos from the WARC provided online from the Upper Hutt City Library.

Wallaceville Animal Research Centre staff photo 1972. Presumably Dr. Forster is somewhere in the group.

The paper has a commendably short 37 word results and discussion section 😉  20

The study involved comparing performance of colonies headed by clipped or unclipped queens over three seasons (1968-1970), a total of 124 colony years. They 21 scored colony size (brood area), honey per hive (weight) and the the number of supersedures.

I’ll quote the single sentence in the results/discussion on honey production in its entirety:

There was no significant variation in honey production between hives headed by clipped and unclipped queens.

Forster 22 didn’t specifically comment on colony size/strength in the discussion. Had it differed significantly some convoluted explaining would have been needed to justify the similarity in honey production.

Comparative colony strength of colonies headed by clipped or unclipped queens.

And it doesn’t.

Each column represents the average number of frames of brood in 6-29 colonies headed by clipped or unclipped queens. Statistically there’s no also difference in this aspect of performance (entirely unsurprisingly).

Colonies headed by clipped queens are not impaired in strength or honey production, so I think it’s reasonable to assume that the queen is probably not distressed.

Do clipped queens get superseded (more) frequently?

I suspect most beekeepers underestimate supersedure rates in their colonies.

I clipped and marked a queen last weekend. In early August last year my notes recorded her as ’BMCLQ’ i.e. a blue marked clipped laying queen 23. In mid/late April this year she was unmarked and unclipped … and stayed that way until it was warm enough to rummage through the hive properly.

She’s now a YMCLQ 24 and was clearly the result of a late season supersedure.

Every spring I find two or three unmarked queens in colonies. Sometimes it’s because I’d failed to find and mark them the previous season. More usually it’s because they have been superseded.

The Forster study recorded supersedure of clipped and unclipped queens. It varied from 10-25% across the two seasons tested (’68 and ’69) and was fractionally lower in the clipped queens (20% vs. 22.5%) though the difference was not significant.

So, to answer the question that heads this section … yes, clipped queens do get superseded 25. However, done properly they do not show increased levels of supersedure 26.

Let’s discuss swarming again

In closing let’s again consider the fate of swarms headed by clipped or unclipped queens.

If a colony with the clipped queen swarms the queen will either perish on the ground, or attempt to return to the hive. If the swarm abandons her they will return to the hive … but may swarm again when the first virgin emerges.

If she gets back to the hive she may be killed anyway by a virgin queen.

You might lose the queen, but you will have gained a few days.

If a colony with an unclipped queen swarms … they’re gone.

Yes, you might manage to intercept them when they’re bivouacked. Yes, they might end up in your bait hive. But, failing those two relatively unlikely events, you’ve lost both the queen and 50-75% of the colony.

What is the likely fate of these lost swarms?

They will probably perish … either by not surviving the winter in the first place, or from Varroa-transmitted viruses the following season.

Studies by Tom Seeley suggest that only 23% of natural swarms survive their first winter. Furthermore, the survival rates of previously managed colonies that are subsequently unmanaged – for example, the Gotland ‘Bond’ experiment – is less than 5%.

Let’s be generous … a lost swarm might have a 1 in 4 chance of surviving the winter, but its chances of surviving to swarm again are very slim.

Anecdotal accounts of ’a swarm occupying a hollow tree for years’ are common. I’m sure some are valid, but tens of thousands of swarms are probably lost every season.

Where does that number come from?

There are 50,000 beekeepers in the UK managing 250,000 colonies. On average I estimate I lose swarms from 5-10% of my colonies a season, and my swarm control is rigorous and reasonably effective 27. If there were over 25,000 swarms ‘lost’ a year in the UK I would not be surprised.

Free living colonies are not that common, strongly suggesting most perish.

Where do these ‘lost’ swarms go?

There are four obvious possibilities. They:

  1. voluntarily occupying a bait hive and become managed colonies
  2. occupy a hollow tree or similar ‘natural’ void
  3. set up a new colony in an ‘unnatural’ void like the roof space of a children’s nursery or the church tower
  4. fail to find a new nest site and perish
Natural comb

A colony settled here and subsequently perished

Of these, the first means that it’s likely the colony will be managed for pests and disease, so their longer term survival chances should be reasonably good.

In contrast, the survival prospects for unmanaged colonies are bleak. They will almost certainly die of starvation or disease.

What about the lost swarm that occupies the loft space in the nursery or the church tower? Whether they survive or not is a moot point (and the same arguments used for ‘bees in trees’ apply here as well). What is more important is that they potentially cause problems for the nursery or the church … all of which can be avoided, or certainly reduced, if the queen is clipped.

And if you conduct a timely inspection regime.

Why I clip my queens

Although it is convenient to reduce the frequency of colony inspections, that is not the main reason I clip my queens.

I clip my queens to help keep my worker population together, either to increase honey production or to provide good strong colonies for making nucs (or queen rearing).

This has the additional benefit of not imposing my swarms and bees on anyone else. Whilst I love my bees, others may not.

An additional, and not insignificant, benefit is that the prospects for survival of a ‘lost’ swarm are very low.

By reducing the loss of swarms I’m “saving the bees”.

More correctly of course, I’m preventing the loss of an entire colony. I think clipping queens is therefore an example of responsible beekeeping.

I also think queen clipping is acceptable as I’ve seen no evidence – from my own beekeeping or in the literature – that it is detrimental to the queen or the colony.

Thou shalt not kill

Finally, there are some that argue you should never harm or kill a bee. I have two questions in response to that view;

  • What do you do with a queen heading up a truly psychotic colony? Do you kill her and replace her or do you put up with the aggravation and make the area around the hive a ‘no go zone’ for anyone not wearing a beesuit?
  • How many beekeepers can honestly say that no bees are harmed when returning frames during an inspection, or putting heavy supers back on a hive? 28

I would have no hesitation in killing and replacing a queen heading an aggressive colony.

Again, I think that’s responsible beekeeping.

Similarly, although I’m as careful and gentle as I can be when conducting inspections or returning supers, to think that no bees are ever injured or killed is fantasy beekeeping.


Note

This is an emotive topic and I’ve written far more than I’d intended – that’s due to a couple of days of rain and the ‘expectant father’ wait for my new queens to start laying. I could have written half as much again.

The time spent writing meant I’ve not done an exhaustive literature search. I know that Brother Adam wrote in 1969 that he’d clipped queens for over 50 years without noticing any disadvantages. I realised during the week that my American Bee Journal subscription has lapsed so I’ve not managed to go through back issues, though I have searched almost 30 years of correspondence on Bee-L. If an ABJ turns up more relevant information I’ll revisit the subject.

Brood in all stages

Synopsis : The presence of brood in all stages (of development) is an important indicator of the state of your colony. Is it queenright? Is it expanding or contracting? Quantifying the various developmental stages – eggs, larvae and pupae – is not necessary, but being able to determine changes in their proportions is very useful.

Introduction

There’s something very reassuring about the words ’brood in all stages’ to a beekeeper, or at least to this beekeeper.

It means, literally, that there is brood in all stages of development i.e. eggs, larvae and pupae.

Record keeping

Update the notes …

As far as I’m concerned, it’s such an important feature of the hive that it gets its own column in my hive records, though the column heading is conveniently abbreviated to BIAS.

And BIAS is what I’ll mostly use for the remainder of this post, again for convenience.

Why is it so important?

Why, when you conduct an inspection of the colony, is the presence of BIAS so important?

And why should you be reassured if it is present?

Broadly I think there are two reasons:

  • it tells you the likely queenright status of the hive. Is there a laying queen present?
  • (with a little more work) you can determine the egg laying rate of the queen and whether it’s changing. This is important as it provides information of the likely adult worker strength of the colony in a few weeks’ time. Are there going to be enough bees to exploit the expected nectar flow? Will there be sufficient young bees for queen rearing?

Of course, detailed scrutiny of the eggs, larvae or pupae in the hive can provide a wealth of information about the health of the colony. I will mention one specific example later, but it’s not the main focus of this post.

The development cycle of the honey bee

The post last week emphasised the variation – from year to year – in the climate 1. In contrast, despite the temperature fluctuating outside the hive, the environment inside the hive is remarkably stable. Partly as a consequence of this the development of the brood is very predictable.

Honey bee development

Honey bee development

Worker bees take 21 days to develop, by which I mean that an egg laid on day 1 will – assuming development is successful – result in an adult worker emerging 2 on day 21. There can be a few hours variation, largely influenced by temperature, but as far as we need to be concerned here worker bee development takes 21 days.

Days 1 to 3 are spent as an egg. The egg then hatches to release a larva which is fed for a little over five days before capping. The developing bee then pupates for about 13 days before emergence.

For simplicity it helps to think of the development cycle as 3 days as an egg, 5 days as a larva and 13 days as a pupa. EEELLLLLPPPPPPPPPPPPP 3 or 3:5:13 … I’ll return to these numbers later.

In fact it’s a little more complicated than that. The larva actually pupates after the cell is capped, so it exists in two states; an open larval stage during which is is fed by nurse bees and a capped larval stage which is more correctly termed the pre-pupal stage. The larva then metamorphoses into a pupa within the capped cell.

None of this really matters as far as your interpretation of the ’brood in all stages’ you see in the colony during a regular inspection. However, it’s reassuring to know that there’s lots of complicated things with weird names and confusing terminology going on in there … which I’ve simplistically distilled to 3:5:13.

But, if you do want to know more you could have a read of this article by Rusty Burlew which also appeared in the American Bee Journal 160:509-511 (2020).

Queenright or not?

So, if there are eggs present there must be a queen present, right?

Wrong 🙁

But it is more than likely 🙂

In fact, if there are eggs, larvae and sealed brood present i.e. BIAS, then you can be pretty confident there is a queen present.

Or, more correctly, that there was a queen present within the last 3 days.

If an egg takes three days to hatch then it is possible that the queen laid the eggs and has subsequently disappeared.

For example, the colony may have swarmed in the intervening period.

Alternatively, during that ’quick-but-entirely-unnecessary-peek’ you took inside the hive two days ago you inadvertently crushed the queen between the bars of a Hoffman frame.

Oops … eggs but no queen 🙁

Slim Jim Jane and pre-swarming egg laying activity

When a colony swarms the mated, laying queen leaves with the swarm. To ensure that she can fly sufficiently well she is slimmed down in the days before swarming and her egg laying rate slows significantly.

Despite searching – both the literature and my own memory banks 4 – I’ve failed to find any detailed information on how long before swarming her laying rate slows. It appears as though she generally does not stop laying before swarming, but it’s down to just a trickle (if that’s the right word) in comparison to when she’s ‘firing on all cylinders’.

Queen cells and laying workers

The other telltale sign that a swarmed colony leaves is the presence of one or (usually) more queen cells. Typically some of these are capped, with the colony swarming on the first suitable day after the first cell is capped.

Queen cells – good and bad

So, back to your colony that may or may not be queenright … the presence of only a small number of eggs compared to capped brood levels and one or more queen cells suggests that they have swarmed within the last 3 days.

In contrast, If there are ‘normal looking’ eggs present, even if few in number, and you didn’t have a ’quick-but-entirely-unnecessary-and-actually-a-bit-clumsy-peek’ two days ago, it’s likely that your colony is queenright.

I prefixed eggs (above) with ‘normal looking’ because there is one further situation when the colony has no queen but there are eggs present. That’s when the colony has developed laying workers.

Under certain conditions unmated worker bees can lay unfertilised eggs.

However, in contrast to the queen, workers have short, dumpy abdomens and cannot judge whether the cell already contains an egg. As a consequence they lay multiple eggs in cells and many of these eggs are in unusual positions – rather than being central at the bottom of the cell they are on the sidewalls, or the sloping edges of the base of the cell.

Drone laying workers ...

Multiple eggs per cell = laying workers (usually)

These eggs are usually laid in worker cells. Being unfertilised they can only develop into drones, and since they are in cells that are too small for drones they end up protruding like little bullets from the comb.

Laying workers ...

Laying workers …

They are also scattered randomly around the frame, rather than being in the concentric ring pattern used when the queen lays up a frame.

BIAS and the queenright status of the colony

So, let’s summarise that lot before (finally) getting back to 3:5:13.

If:

  • there is BIAS and no queen cells present and you’ve not disturbed the colony in the last few days … then the colony is most likely queenright. Yes, there’s an outside chance she recently dropped dead, but it’s much more likely that you just can’t find her. Don’t worry, the presence of BIAS and the other supporting signs tell you all you need to know … there’s a queen present and she’s laying. All is good with the world. Be reassured 🙂
  • there is BIAS and capped queen cells … then it’s likely they swarmed very recently 🙁
  • eggs are present, possibly together with some small, unsealed queen cells and you had a ’quick-but-entirely-unnecessary-and-frankly-a-bit-stupid-in-retrospect-peek’ two days ago … then all bets are off. The colony may or may not be queenright. Only inspect when you need to and be very careful returning frames to the hive 5. If you didn’t open the hive in the last few days (and accidentally obliterate the queen) the presence of BIAS and unsealed queen cells usually means that the colony is queenright but is preparing to swarm. Swarm control is urgently needed.
  • multiple eggs are present in strange places in cells, coupled with scattered bullet-shaped capped cells (and oversized larvae in worker cells) … then there are laying workers present. Your colony is not queenright. Technically I suppose there is brood in all stages, but the brood looks odd. But there’s somethings else as well … laying workers develop in the absence of pheromones produced by open brood (larvae). Therefore to develop laying workers a colony transitions through a period when there is not brood in all stages. In my experience laying workers usually develop after a colony experiences a protracted period when it is totally broodless i.e. no eggs, larvae or pupae.

Let’s move on.

3:5:13

If the queen is laying at a steady rate i.e. the same number of eggs per day, then the ratio of eggs to larvae to sealed brood will be about 3:5:13.

This means for every egg present you should expect to find just less than two larvae and slightly more than four capped worker cells.

I’m not suggesting you count them, but you should be able to judge the approximate proportions of the three brood types during your inspections.

This is more complicated than it sounds (and it already sounds quite complicated). The queen lays eggs in an expanding 3D rugby-ball shaped space – the ellipsoid broodnest – moving from frame to frame. Consequently, individual frames will contain different proportions of eggs, larvae and capped pupae, but the overall proportions should work out to be about 3:5:13.

And this is where things start to get a little more interesting 6.

A picture is worth a thousand words

I’ve drawn some simple Excel charts to illustrate some of the points I want to make. For each of the charts I’ve assumed the queen lays at 1000 eggs per day for the first 5 days and then she either stops altogether (perhaps one of those ’quick-but-entirely-unnecessary-and-frankly-idiotic-peek’ queen-meets-Hoffman-frame scenarios), or either speeds up or slows down her laying rate by 200 eggs per day.

The numbers don’t matter, just focus on the proportions of different classes of brood.

Speeding up

If there are more eggs and larvae expected – when compared to the levels of capped brood – then the laying rate of the queen is increasing. For example, here is what happens when she increases her laying rate from 1000 to 2000 eggs/day over 5 days.

Queen increasing her laying rate

The line graph is perhaps less clear than a simple plot of the percentages of the three types of brood. Note the relative reduction in capped brood (pupae) around day 15.

Changes in percentages of brood as queen increases her laying rate

If this occurs it means that the colony has the resources – pollen and nectar – to expand and that you’ll have more young adult workers in another fortnight or so, and an increased foraging force in 4-5 weeks. These things are important if you are thinking about the ability to exploit a summer nectar flow, or perhaps to rear queens in the colony.

Slowing down

Conversely, if eggs and larvae are much less than about 40% of the total brood 7, then the queen is reducing her laying rate. Perhaps there is a dearth of nectar or pollen? Does the colony have sufficient stores? Do you need to feed – little and often – some thin syrup to stimulate brood rearing?

Queen slowing her laying rate (e.g. prior to swarming)

Or is the colony slimming down the queen in preparation for swarming? Do they have sufficient space? Is the colony backfilling brood cells with nectar?

Changes in percentage of brood as the queen slows her laying rate (e.g. prior to swarming)

Note how 12 days after the Q slows her laying rate (assuming she stops entirely 8 ) then the only things left in the colony is sealed brood.

Queen-meets-Hoffman-frame scenario

This is essentially the same as slowing down, except it all happens more abruptly.

Disappearance of brood after the queen abruptly disappears

If you inadvertently kill the queen the colony very quickly runs out of eggs and larvae. Using the emergency response you would expect the colony to raise queen cells promptly.

Estimating brood area during inspections

I’m not suggesting you count eggs, larvae or sealed brood. Inspections are best when they are relatively non-intrusive. It disturbs the colony, it can agitate the bees and it changes the pheromone concentrations and distribution which control so much of what happens in the hive.

But it is worth learning how to determine whether there is more or less sealed brood than open brood and eggs.

Scientists have developed a number of ways to accurately quantify colony strength and population dynamics.

The classic approach, developed between the 1960’s and 1980’s is termed the Liebefeld Method and was nicely reviewed by Ben Dainat and colleagues in a recent paper in Apidologie 9. More recent strategies include the use of digital photography and image analysis, either using ImageJ or semi-automated python scripts such as CombCount.

But none of those approaches are really practical during a normal colony inspection.

I guesstimate the relative proportions of eggs + larvae and sealed brood, and also try and work out the approximate total levels of BIAS present in the colony.

If about 60% of the brood is sealed and there are 3 full frames and about 6 half frames of brood in all stages I would be happy that the colony was queenright, that the laying rate of the queen was probably stable and I’d record the total levels of BIAS as 6 (full frames in total).

Eyeballing sealed brood levels

When you get a frame like the one below it’s easy to work out how much brood it contains.

That'll do nicely

That’ll do nicely …

It’s as near as makes no difference one full frame (assuming the other side looks similar).

But most frames contain a more or less oval brood pattern, some of which may have already emerged.

Brood frame

In these instances it helps to guesstimate what halves, quarters, eighths look like. Or use the diagrams of brood patches on Dave Cushman’s site to work out the approximate total levels.

It’s also worth remembering that the presence of adult bees on the frames will confound things.

Lots of capped brood … somewhere under all those bees

To properly judges the levels of brood you need to shake the bees off the frames. This adds even more disruption to the inspection and I only ever really do it in two specific situations:

  • when looking for signs of brood disease, such as foulbrood
  • when I have to find every single queen cell in the colony

During normal inspections I work with what I can see … and if I need to see more (eggs, larvae or sealed brood) I gently run the back of my hand over the attached workers, or blow gently on them. Both these methods encourages them to move aside, without the ignominy of being dumped in a writhing heap at the bottom of the brood box.

In conclusion

As described – other than the Liebefeld Method – estimating the amount of brood in all stages (BIAS) is a rather inexact process. However, despite this, it’s a useful exercise that helps you judge the state of the colony, and gives you some insight into what is likely to happen over the next few weeks.

And, let’s face it, anything that gives us a better idea of what to expect is useful 😉


Note

Eagle eyed readers will realise there’s a slight glitch in the numbers graphed above. I realised this as silly o’clock 10 this morning and haven’t had time to go back and butcher the spreadsheet and redraw all the graphs. My error does not fundamentally change the patterns observed, but just alters the percentages slightly. I’ll update them once I’ve had a nap 😉

The bee bag

Synopsis: Preparing for the season ahead should include making sure you have everything you need in the bee bag for apiary visits, but that you are not carrying things you never use. A place for everything, and everything in its place … at least until swarming starts.

Introduction

I think there’s sometimes a misconception that those who write (or talk) about a topic are the most knowledgeable on that topic.

After all, why else would they feel qualified to write?

And, if they’re knowledgeable – even if not all knowing – then they also have the luxury of time (to write, or to enjoy the scenery or whatever). Rather than repeatedly struggling doing the wrong thing, they briefly and efficiently do the right thing™.

Their incisive and unwavering decision making, coupled with a calm and measured confidence, means difficult tasks are made easier and routine activities are rendered trivial.

And this efficiency of thought and activity is complemented by an impressive level of organisation and preparedness. After all, how else would they be able to achieve what they do, without being prepared for all eventualities … and have the tools immediately to hand that are needed?

I’m sure that’s true of some who write … and it might even be true of some who write and talk about beekeeping … but it’s not true of me 🙁

At least, not often.

I might write about how I did something, making it sound trivial and unexciting:

“… pick the queen up by her wings and place her in the JzBz cage, add a few nurse bees to keep her company and place the cage safely in your pocket.”

But I omitted to describe the times I couldn’t find a JzBz cage, or got stung repeatedly grabbing workers, or let the virgin queen fly around the shed for 5 minutes before she disappeared out of the door.

Or when the cage fell through the hole in my pocket (caused by a razor sharp hive tool), down my trouser leg and into my boot.

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach

The luxury of writing means I can skip over those things that make me sound like the author of the bestselling Slapstick beekeeping, and instead present a coherent vision of what beekeeping should be like.

Think of it as a sort of sanitised version of beekeeping, with the swearing bowdlerised and the Charlie Chaplin-style antics omitted to make me look vaguely competent.

Not, I should add, that every visit to the apiary looks like Laurel and Hardy 1 in beesuits.

I do my best to learn from my mistakes, or at least not forget them, and – every winter – I incrementally improve my organisation for the season ahead.

I review my notes from the season just finished and I make general, and sometimes very specific, plans for the following year. If these necessitate buying or building new equipment then I try and do that during the seemingly interminable short winter days (if that isn’t oxymoronic).

This winter this has involved completing my queen rearing incubator and building some cell punches for queen rearing.

Cell punches

The organisation involves preparing this new ‘stuff’ as well as sorting out some of the accumulated debris from the season just finished.

End of season squalor – yes, that is a small bag of fondant buried in the bee bag

In particular, I sort through, tidy and hopefully streamline, the contents of the bee bag.

The beekeepers box

When you visit the apiary there are a few tools you will almost always need – for example, a smoker and a hive tool. You’ll need something combustible in the smoker and some way of igniting it. And you should have something to carry that lot in that is itself non-flammable, so you don’t risk self-immolation when driving back home.

I’ve discussed the fireproof box I use for my smoker previously. I now keep smoker fuel and a kitchen ‘creme brûlée’ blowtorch in a clear plastic box. Bitter experience – you can guess what – taught me that a clear box enables me to easily check the blowtorch is present before I drive 150 miles to the apiary.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

The easiest – and most hygienic – way to store your hive tool is in a strong solution of washing soda in the apiary. It’s always there and it’s always clean.

But there are times in the apiary when you’ll need a lot more than a smoker and a hive tool.

I’m not referring here to the large items – the spare brood boxes, the supers, the split boards or queen excluders 2.

Instead, I’m referring to the smaller stuff … like the JzBz cage to put the queen into, or the (wickedly sharp) scissors to clip her wing or the Posca pen to mark her.

Just add fingers and thumb for a complete queen marking and clipping kit

Beekeepers have come up with all sorts of fancy carrying boxes made from wood or metal. Jim Berndt described a typical one in Bee Culture a few years ago. Built from 3/4” pine, and with space for the smoker, frame brush, frame hanger and any number of other things.

It must have weighed a ton.

Jim admitted as much when he acknowledged that he’d build the next one from thinner wood.

I’ve seen boxes with integrated seats, or was it a seat with an integrated beekeepers box?

The bee bag

But anything rigid, by definition, lacks flexibility.

If there’s not space in the box for Thorne’s-must-have-gadget-of-2022 (something you only need every other month in the apiary) then you have to carry it separately. If there is space in the box but you only need Thorne’s-must-have-gadget-of-2022 twice a season then the box is heavier and bigger than it need be.

All of which can be avoided by using a cheap bag to carry the necessities down to the apiary.

And what could be cheaper than a supermarket ‘bag for life’ ? 3

A bag for life … or at least 3 years of beekeeping

These bags are light and easy to carry, with strong woven handles. Although they aren’t cavernous (they never have quite enough space for my shopping) they are certainly big enough to carry the essentials, and not-so-essentials, to and from the apiary.

Importantly, they are strong.

Being open and flexible you can, if needed, squeeze all sorts of additional things in.

Although I described them as cheap a better term would be inexpensive. I think they started at about 25p, but they seem to be £1 to £1.25 now.

Being made of polypropylene they are easily rinsed out or wiped clean should they get dirty.

And they will get dirty.

And since they are so cheap inexpensive, it’s not the end of the world if you melt them with the smoker or perforate them with a hive tool.

I’ve used this sort of bag for my beekeeping – not the same one, though they tend to last several seasons – for many years. The Tesco’s centenary was in 2019 and the bag above will certainly get me through to the end of the 2022 season.

Bringing order to entropy

Each winter I sort through the debris that accumulates at the bottom of the bag. I clean everything and get rid of anything that’s been carried around unused for the season. Finally, I replenish the perishables, the worn out or the irreparably damaged.

And then I’m ready for the season ahead 🙂

I don’t just carry around a bag containing a pick’n’mix of jumbled beekeeping paraphernalia 4. The items in the bag are separated into logically-labelled containers for my beekeeping activities.

And long, much repeated and enjoyable field testing has shown that the very best type of containers to use are those designed for ice cream 🙂

Not, I hasten to add, your ’fancy Dan’ Ben and Jerry’s ‘£5 for a couple of scoops’ ice cream in those pathetic cardboardy tubs 5.

Instead, what you need are plastic, square or rectangular (for efficient packing) and with well-fitting lids. Two litre containers are much better than anything much smaller, not just because they’re more fun to empty, but also because they are likely to themselves house smaller containers.

I’m still using some 2.5 litre containers that were sold full of Lidl Gelatelli Vanilla (see the photo above). The ice cream was pretty good but they appear to have stopped making it 6.

I’m sure, if you work hard, you’ll be able to find something equally good … it’s a thankless task, but someone has to do it 😉

What’s in the bag?

I can get everything small I need into two of these boxes – one marked ‘daily’ and the other labelled ‘queen stuff’.

I like to keep the labelling simple to avoid confusion.

Daily

These are the things I use, or might use, on every trip to the apiary:

  • a box containing drawing pins (difficult to use with gloves) and map tacks (easy to use with gloves), together with the red numbered disks I use to label the queen in the hive 7.

A variety of pins, some numbers for queens (see text) and two tubes for sampling weird-looking bees

  • numbers for the outside of the hive
  • marker pen for labelling anything except queens
  • a wired queen excluder cleaner 8 and an uncapping fork for checking drone brood for Varroa
  • spirit level for levelling a hive. This is important if you use foundationless frames. Once you’ve tried to rearrange the frames in an wonky hive full of drawn foundationless frames you’ll realise how useful a small spirit level is 9

Not needed on a daily basis admittedly, but kept in the ‘daily’ box – QE scraper, level and uncapping fork

  • a selection of closed cell foam blocks to hold frames together when transporting hives. These are simply wedged tightly between the top bar and the sidewall of the hive and thereby minimise the risk of crushing the queen (or other bees) when moving the hive.
  • screw cap sample tubes, just in case I see any weird, sick or odd looking bees during inspections
  • a couple of JzBz queen cages
  • digital voice recorder for taking hive notes

Closed cell foam blocks.

Queen stuff

Since a lot of my season is taken up with queen rearing this box contains both the tools for queen rearing and the used-less-than-daily tools needed for marking and clipping the queen:

  • queen marking cage (I like the push and twist ones best, as you can tell from the amount of propolis and paint covering mine)
  • dressmakers snips (Fiskar’s) for clipping the queen. These are very sharp. Don’t leave them in you bee suit pocket or you will get injured 🙁
  • Posca marking pens. Check these in the winter and make sure they haven’t dried up or gone super-gloopy. Either outcome makes for frustration when marking the queen. I only routinely use white, blue or yellow and buy whatever is cheapest or easiest to get, and use that colour for the season (or until the pen expires)
  • tools for grafting larvae and, new this season, the cell punches shown above

Grafting tools. Of these, only the middle (a 000 sable artists brush) one is needed.

  • USB rechargeable head torch (for use when grafting 10 )
  • magnifying glasses 11
  • more JzBz queen cages and some Nicot cages to protect soon-to-emerge cells

What’s in the bag but not in the box?

Inevitably, not everything fits into one of these two conveniently-sized ice cream containers 12.

The base of the bag contains some folded sheets of newspaper which are used when uniting colonies. Before the broadsheets became the same size as the Daily Mail they were preferable as a single sheet would cover a brood box. Now they’ve been shrunk you have to overlap two sheets.

Or read the Financial Times … and there’s very little point in me doing that 🙁

Unstapled newspaper … pictures of an enthusiastic Angela Merkel contrasting nicely with a John Cleese stereotype.

Avoid newspapers that are stapled.

Inevitably when pulling them apart (in a stiff breeze, with an open hive ready to be united) they tear at the staple, increasing your frustration and making you look more like Laurel or Hardy.

I also carry a couple of pieces of fibreglass insect mesh. This stuff is sold by the metre to cover open windows and so keep mosquitoes out, but is ideal for covering an open hive when moving colonies on a hot day. A Thorne’s travelling screen costs £19.40 and works no better than a piece of this mesh which costs £19 less 13. By some sort of miracle I’ve ended up with two colours of mesh, one for standard brood boxes and one for nucs 14.

Fibreglass mesh for use as travel screens (that’s £19 you owe me).

I wear gloves while beekeeping so the bag contains a box of disposable long cuffed latex-type gloves for routine use. There is also be a pair of Marigold washing up gloves for any colonies that are a bit rambunctious 15.

At least there should be a pair of Marigold’s in there … something else to order.

I try and keep a couple of hive straps in the bag.

Finally, you can never have enough gaffer tape … so there’s always a roll in the bee bag. It’s ideal for temporarily sealing hive entrances, strapping nucleus roofs down for transport or patching up holes in the bee bag.

Rejects for 2022

Having sorted through the bee bag I collected a small pile of stuff that wasn’t used last season.

And don’t let me see you in there again! Rejects from the bee bag.

In the case of the ‘crown of thorns’ queen marking torture chamber I don’t think I’ve used it for years. I’ve no idea why it was still in the bag. There’s probably more of my blood on the needle-sharp points than there is paint on the mesh … and there’s clearly no point in me carrying it around for another year.

The awful ‘Chinese’ grafting tool goes out as well, as do some JzBz queen cups, a dodgy pink sparkly Posca pen 16, an ill-fitting pair of magnifying glasses and a shonky magnifier.

And that ‘clip catcher’ … again, almost never used.

Elementary my dear Watson

As I slowly approach very (very) early middle age 17 my presbyopia is becoming more noticeable. I’ve needed magnifying glasses for grafting for several years and, increasingly, in poor light can struggle to see eggs. Unfortunately, about half my beekeeping is done in sub-optimal lighting … the colonies I keep in the bee shed are easy to inspect, whatever the weather, but the lighting is far from ideal.

LED hand magnifier (with some Nicot cups for using when testing if a colony is queenright).

Having chucked out one magnifying glass I’ve found an LED illuminated magnifying glass to try this season. This has a good quality glass lens and a dazzlingly bright set of warm/cool/both LED’s around the rim, powered by a rechargeable lithium battery.

Let there be light. USB rechargeable LED magnifier.

With a choice between wearing reading glasses for all my colony inspections – and inevitably tripping over a super I fail to notice at my feet – or periodically using a magnifying glass if the lighting is poor, I’ve chosen the latter route.

I’ll report back later in the season whether it was the right route to choose.

I’m ready, but the season isn’t

With the unwanted stuff discarded, and the wanted stuff checked and tidied, the bee bag is now ready for the season ahead. I’ve ordered some new Posca pens, charged the magnifying glass and the digital voice recorder …

I’ll probably still look like Fred Karno when I’m floundering around in the apiary, but at least I’ll have the things I need with me.

Unfortunately, it currently looks as though the season isn’t ready for me.

Where did all that lovely weather go?

The last 7-10 days have been stunning, but it’s currently 3°C and snowing 🙁

Which is probably fortunate as I still have a couple of hundred frames to build …


Note

I first wrote about the bee bag way back in November 2016. Time has passed, the contents of the bag have changed a bit (though the jokes are largely the same) so that page now redirects here.

Location, location, location

Synopsis: Finding a good apiary location involves homework and legwork. What should you look for and what to avoid? A good apiary will ensure your bees are more productive and your beekeeping is much more enjoyable, so finding one is time well invested.

Introduction

It was the writer and diarist John Evelyn (1620 – 1706) who, in 1697, first used the term apiary to mean a place where hives are kept. Apiary also means a bee house 1, but for the purpose of this post I’m going to restrict myself to outdoor locations where bees are kept.

How should you go about finding a good apiary location?

Remember … bees are not pets.

They are working livestock.

That sting.

They are also quite high maintenance.

Despite what some seem to suggest, you cannot just dump them in any old field and return months later to harvest buckets of beautiful honey. For about six months of the year they need regular checks to ensure they have enough space, to prevent them from swarming and to make sure they are healthy.

If Carlsberg did apiaries … an apiary in Andalucia

All of these things – their work needs 2, the maintenance, the stinging – need to be taken into account when deciding where to site your beehives.

Since I’m in the process of finding and setting up a new apiary I thought it might be timely 3 to discuss the topic in a little more detail.

The garden … perhaps not the best choice

Many beekeepers keep their bees in their garden.

It’s certainly convenient.

However, as I’ve discussed before, there are a number of disadvantages. If you have a small urban garden you can be certain that ” … whatever the evidence (or lack of it), it will be your bees that sting your neighbours grandchild, poop on their Beemer and swarm onto the garden swing.”

Swarm on a swing ... not ideal if it's in the next door garden

Swarm on a swing … not ideal if it’s in the next door garden

Although I always site bait hives in my garden, until I moved to the remote west coast I’ve never kept bees there permanently 4.

My bees are generally well behaved and my swarm control is reasonably good. However, even the most benign bees can have a bad day, and reasonably good means that there is still room for improvement 5.

It just takes one stung grandchild, one BMW getting the pointillism with poop treatment, or one missed queen cell, to potentially sour relationships forever with your neighbours.

Why risk it?

Yes, it’s convenient 6.

Yes, it’s wonderful to be able to see the bees busily flying in and out.

But disputes with neighbours can get ugly and are cited as the reason for over 350,000 people moving house each year.

Is that a risk worth taking?

The garden … you’ll still need an out apiary

If you do intend to keep bees in the garden, check the deeds to make sure that it’s allowed. Some preclude ‘keeping livestock’ which, from a legal perspective, probably means bees 7.

And, if you do keep bees in your garden, I’d argue you still need an additional, or ‘out’, apiary 8. There are two reasons for this:

  • If and when you need to move your bees you will potentially have to do so at very short notice 9. If the colony goes queenless and gets stroppy, or a child develops an anaphylactic reaction, the neighbours are not going to accept being told ”It’ll be OK in 3-4 weeks … and it might not be my bees anyway”. Remember, it’s the summer and they want to have a BBQ.
  • Some beekeeping manipulations (like making up nucs for swarm control) are made easier by simply moving bees to a distant site.

For the rest of this post I’m going to focus on the features I look for in an apiary location, largely concentrating on rural or semi-rural areas 10. I’ll focus on the needs of both the bees and the beekeeper, and I’ll include some suggestions to make your searches a little easier.

Food and water

Other than in very specific circumstances 11 the area around the apiary must have good forage.

Without ample pollen and nectar being available the colony will not thrive, and they certainly will not collect excess nectar to provide you with a honey crop.

If the intention is to use the apiary year-round then there must be forage available throughout the period of the year when the bees are active.

Of course, the bees will range far and wide to find suitable forage, but the closer they are to it the better they will do.

My hives in this field margin did fantastically well on the oil seed rape (OSR), but they also benefitted from hedgerow flowers and tree pollens, and from ample dandelion, clover and blackberry. Even without the OSR, it was a good spot.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

In additional to good forage, bees also need to have access to water. My bees spend hours collecting water from a natural pool a dozen yards from the hives. It is possible to provide water from an artificial source – like a moss-filled bucket in the apiary – but a natural source doesn’t need topping up unless there’s a serious drought.

Marooned ...

Marooned …

But don’t site your hives too close to water if there is any risk of flooding.

Hives, particularly poly hives, do float. However, they don’t necessarily float the right way up.

Searching for a new apiary location in midwinter can help exclude some sites where flooding might be an issue.

In contrast, identifying suitable forage in midwinter is more difficult. In my experience the only ways to identify whether an area has suitable year-round forage are to:

  • learn what the major forage types are (even when they’re not in flower), and then spend time reconnoitering likely areas 12.
  • ask other beekeepers 13.

But where do you start looking?

Near … but not too near

If you are looking for an out apiary i.e. one located some distance from your ‘home’ apiary 14 then it makes sense to search at least 3 miles away. This is because, although bees can return to a hive from further away, if their originating hive is moved at least three miles they reorientate to the new location. This means you can make up nucs or move mating hives to the out apiary without the risk of the flying bees returning to their original location.

But, if you are looking for your first apiary, it makes sense to choose an area close enough to home so that travel doesn’t become a big part of your beekeeping. It’s surprising how often you forget things, or how often you just need to nip back to the bees to do something trivial.

Some of my apiaries are 130 miles from home and I write lists of what I need to take with me. Just ‘nipping back’ is not an option … all my colony manipulations have to be completed during scheduled visits.

Setting up a new apiary

There’s one more thing to consider when thinking about the general area in which to search for a suitable apiary site … where do other beekeepers keep their bees?

Ask some of the ‘old hands’ in your association. They might not tell you exactly where their bees are, but they are likely to be able to give you some general pointers.

In addition, keep your eyes peeled 15 when you are out and about on your travels.

I enjoy walking and it’s surprising the number of field margins, copses and rough land where you can find a few hives tucked away out of plain sight. Take a note of where they are and then start to focus in on areas that might be suitable for you.

Google it

Google and Microsoft both have excellent mapping facilities and these can help you find a suitable location for an apiary.

If you know where your home apiary is and/or the location of other hives in the area, you can plot the potential foraging range of bees from these apiaries, and look for likely looking gaps.

The following example is entirely hypothetical. It’s based upon an apiary of mine (blue circle) in Warwickshire, now vacated. The red circles mark other apiaries and the black circle is the limit beyond which I wasn’t prepared to travel 16.

Spheres of influence

If you find likely looking gaps in the overlapping circles they might be a good place to start your detailed search for an apiary. 

It’s also worth noting that the high resolution satellite images available from Google and Microsoft allow a much more detailed search for suitable apiary sites. This type of online searching cannot replace walking around a few fields, but they might well help you decide which side of the field to start at.

Look for access tracks that fade away to nothing, wide field margins, corners of agricultural land that remain unploughed, large clearings in small woods or copses etc.

A potential access track to a new apiary?

Remember, you might have to do this in the ‘off season’ so it’s worth learning to identify likely forage (or at least potential forage) when the area looks a lot less bee-friendly than it would in midseason.

Hi-res can help (you and the bad guys)

And also look for signs that other beekeepers have already placed hives in the area.

I can see you …

In the areas with the highest resolution mapping it is possible to ‘find’ hives that may be invisible from a cursory drive past or walk through an area. It’s worth using both Microsoft and Google maps for these detailed searches as they use different satellite images (and update them relatively frequently) and so details can be visible on one that are invisible on the other.

The photo above shows a few hives in a field on a Google satellite images. The photo below shows the Microsoft image of the same site.

I can see a lot more of you …

The half dozen hives visible in the first of these two pictures wouldn’t have stopped me looking for a suitable apiary nearby. The fifteen or more additional hives in the lee of the hedge (hidden in shade in the first picture) suggests that the area might be saturated with bees and that I should look elsewhere.

In places, the detail on these satellite images is amazing. Here’s the Google image of my first bee shed within a fenced area also containing half a dozen hives.

My bee shed

Be aware that anyone can view these images and that they therefore potentially pose a security risk 17. If you already have an established apiary check to see how visible it is … you might be surprised (and disappointed).

Boots on the ground

Once you’ve done enough homework it’s time to start visiting a few likely looking locations to see if they might be suitable.

Obviously you should not trespass (and the freedom to roam rights in Scotland are a huge bonus here) but it’s usually quite easy to determine whether an area is a non-starter or has some real promise.

A site that looked good in theory, but not in practice

You might need use your imagination. What will it look like on a dry May afternoon, rather than a dreich morning in January?

The site above looked semi-promising on the map. However, the conifers were larger than I’d expected and the site would have been too shaded.

When will the sun first appear? In hilly areas you can calculate when the sun will appear and disappear over the horizon using a combination of this tool to determine the trajectory of the sun and this tool to calculate the horizon.

How good is access? Remember, you might want access late evening or early morning to move hives. If it’s close to the farmhouse/stately home that might not be possible.

And, conversely, how secure is the site likely to be?

Is there safe parking nearby?

Can you drive right up to the (likely spot for the) hives, or will there be carrying involved?

In either case, how soft is the ground? Will you need wellies, a hivebarrow, a Toyota Hilux or a canoe?

Is the area likely to be a frost pocket? If so, look elsewhere.

What is the shelter like in the direction of the prevailing weather?

Is there sufficient space? You might start with just a couple of hives, but if your ambition is to have a dozen this makes additional demands on the space and forage needed.

Time spent in reconnaissance etc.

I try and work out all of the above before I approach the landowner 18.

Rather than asking Can I put some bees on your land?, when the answer might be affirmative but you might be offered an unsuitable location, it’s better to ask ”Can I put some hives in the north-west corner of the field with the large dead oak tree in it?

You’ve already worked out that access is good and the ground is well drained, you can face the hives in a south easterly direction to get the morning sun, there’s excellent shelter to the west, the site isn’t overlooked and there are no footpaths or bridleways nearby.

Nice wide field margins … but is that a footpath?

By all means justify your choice to the landowner, and consider other locations if offered. However, don’t just accept somewhere without considering all the pros and cons first.

You probably have a much better idea of what your bees need. You certainly have a better idea of what you (as the beekeeper) need. Don’t lose sight of these in your discussions.

A jar or two of honey to sweeten the deal always helps. You should expect to pay a ground rent which you should agree when you start.

Exchange contact details and tell the landowner your vehicle registration so they don’t mistake you for a poacher or flytipper … and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Final considerations

Most of what I’ve written above largely applies to finding apiary sites in rural areas. That’s because those are the locations I’ve used for 95% of my beekeeping. I’ve never kept bees on an allotment 19 and the bees I’ve kept in gardens have been – and still are – in gardens surrounded by open countryside or farmland.

In the latter cases I talked to the landowner first, often after they bought honey from me and then asked whether I was looking for another site for hives. I explain in detail the type of location(s) I’m looking for and then have a guided tour of their land.

If you explain in advance that you want a south-east facing sunny site you can avoid sounding too negative when they offer you a heavily shaded damp corner behind the compost bins 20.

The search for a suitable apiary location can take weeks or months … or you might find it at the very first gateway you stop at.

It’s certainly well worth investing time in finding a suitable site. A well chosen apiary will make your beekeeping a much more enjoyable experience and should make your bees a lot more productive.


 

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 😉


 

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.


 

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 🙁


 

Creamed honey

Which of these is the odd one out?

Comb honey, chunk honey, baker’s honey, creamed honey, blossom honey, borage honey, Scottish honey, honeydew honey?

Anyone?

Reserved descriptions

Honey that is for sale needs to be labelled properly.

I don’t intend to discuss the labelling regulations as, a) they may be different here in Scotland to wherever you live, b) they’re a bit of a minefield, and c) if revised this page would quickly become out of date.

However, logicall, honey that is for sale needs to have a label that includes the word ‘honey’.

Makes sense so far 😉

In addition, there are a number of reserved descriptions such as comb honey, borage honey, Scottish honey that are allowed.

These reserved descriptions may be only used ‘where the product meets the definition’.

So, you can only use the words ‘comb honey‘ when the honey is sold wholly or partly in the comb. You can only use the reserved description ‘borage honey‘ if the honey is primarily made from nectar collected from borage etc.

Similarly, the honey must be collected entirely within a certain geographic area to be named after the area.

The odd one out is ‘creamed honey‘.

My understanding is that this used to be allowed 1 but is no longer an acceptable reserved description. It’s certainly not listed as such on the Trading Standards website 2.

It’s no longer acceptable because honey doesn’t contain cream.

Creamed honey

I think this is disappointing … after all, creamed honey never contained cream as far as I’m aware.

Instead the description was meant to indicate the smooth consistency of the product, the ‘melt on your tongue’ creamy texture.

Soft set (spring) local honey

Why should food names and labels be literal? After all, we eat hot dogs and sweetbreads 3.

When I last checked these weren’t made from dogs … or bread 4.

But it was clearly too confusing for some, so – inevitably – the word ‘creamed’ was banned from use as a reserved description on honey labels 🙁

But creamed has another meaning.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes the following definition of ‘creamed’ …

To deal with vigorously and with success, esp. to beat or thrash; to defeat heavily, as in sporting contexts; to ruin or wreck (a motor vehicle, etc.). colloquial (originally U.S.).

… the usage of which dates back to 1929.

And this is a perfect description of an easy way to produce a really high quality honey from coarse- and fast-granulating nectars like oil seed rape.

Oil seed rape (OSR)

For many beekeepers OSR provides a bumper early season honey harvest. The honey is extracted in late May or early June, allowed to set and then processed for sale.

Anyone who has bees near OSR will know that the honey, without processing, is spoonbendingly 5 hard.

Mid-April in the apiary ...

Mid-April in a Warwickshire apiary …

To make it spreadable (and saleable) I usually use a version of the Dyce method for producing soft set honey.

Frankly, this is a bit of a palaver 6.

Soft set honey

You need to completely melt the honey, cool it to 34°C, seed it with a honey with a suitable fine crystal structure, mix it thoroughly and then allow it to set at ~13°C with very regular stirring.

This whole process takes several days.

It’s not constant work and it’s not particularly hard work, but it is all a bit protracted. Done properly it produces honey with a good texture that sells well … and is outstanding on crumpets.

All gone … soft set honey from OSR

There are other ways of achieving this … such as buying an automated machine which does all the intermittent stirring for you.

At a price … perhaps £2500 with full temperature control.

But I don’t want to produce 50 or 100 kg of honey at a time. And I don’t want yet another piece of equipment sitting around taking up valuable space.

Like the majority of the 45,000 beekeepers in the UK, I produce nothing like the quantities of honey to justify this commercial-scale equipment.

And, like the majority of those 45,000 beekeepers, I don’t want to spend all of my time producing honey to pay for this sort of equipment. I want to rear some queens, walk in the hills, go sailing or drink coffee on the patio.

Frosting in soft set honey

Furthermore, in my experience soft set honey can show significant batch-to-batch variation in terms of its tendency to develop frosting in the jar. Some batches never show frosting, others develop the unsightly appearance (that has no influence on the flavour) within a week or two.

Honey with frosting

Honey with frosting

In my experience, I and third party sellers are more concerned about the unsightly appearance than the customers are.

I want to produce a honey that tastes and looks good.

The shopkeeper wants a honey that they know is going to sell well.

It’s not entirely clear to me what causes frosting. Some has the distribution and appearance that suggests minute bubbles have risen through the honey, getting trapped under the shoulders of the jar.

At other times it looks as though the honey has contracted slightly, pulling away from the sidewalls of the jar.

The example above is particularly unsightly and looks very like the honey is re-crystallising again, losing the ‘melt on your tongue’ crystal structure for something altogether coarser. Whatever, they went back to the furthest recesses of the cupboard where I found them 😉

Creaming honey

There’s another way to generate a fine crystal structure from a coarsely crystallised honey.

You cream it … in the OED sense of the word:

You vigorously beat it … 

Which neatly brings me to the Rapido / Rasant Honey Creamer.

Rapido / Rasant honey creamer

A few months ago Calum – who regularly submits insightful comments to posts on this site – recommended this honey creamer for processing oil seed rape honey (OSR). Calum called it the Rapido. It’s produced by Germerott Bienentechnik and they appear to call it the ‘Rasant‘ (and have what looks like a second variant available since I purchased mine).

The Rapido is a stainless steel paddle that is used to vigorously beat the honey. It’s about 9 cm in diameter and is securely mounted on a 60 cm shaft. The non-honey end of the shaft is hexagonal and can therefore be secured in the chuck of a powerful drill.

The instructions indicated a 1000 W drill was required, or – with a different fitting at the non-honey end of the shaft – you can use a plasterers mixer 7.

And it works a treat:

This is a 30 lb bucket of honey converted from coarsely crystallised to a beautifully fine crystal structure in a little under four minutes.

Usage

It’s not quite as quick as I’ve described as you still need to pre-warm the honey and allow time for it to settle.

Here’s the full process I’ve used for about four buckets (~60 kg) of OSR honey in the last month.

  1. Warm the bucket in a honey warming cabinet at 30-33°C. It must be warmed right through, so leave for at least 12-15 hours.
  2. Remove any surface scum if there is any. The majority of my buckets don’t have any, so this can be skipped. My set OSR honey has already been through a coarse and fine stainless steel filters during extraction.
  3. Starting slowly as shown above, mix with the Rapido. Make sure all the honey is mixed, which may involve pushing the non-rotating paddle down the sidewalls of the bucket to loosen it slightly 8.
  4. Continue mixing for 3-4 minutes until the honey is the consistency shown at the end of the video.
  5. Pour into a bucket with tap.
  6. Return to the honey warming cabinet at 30-33°C for a further 12-15 hours to allow bubbles to settle out (or is that rise out?). I’m not certain this stage is needed … but since it involves me doing nothing it’s easy to do.
  7. Jar the honey.
  8. Allow to cool. Add labels.
  9. Sell the honey and wait for the plaudits and repeat custom 🙂 It will happen.

Once the resulting honey cools it has a wonderful texture – easy to spoon and spread, but does not drip off the spoon.

Just perfect for crumpets or homemade bread 🙂

This really is honey that has been ‘creamed’ … beaten vigorously and with success.

I’d like to end with a “big shout out” (as the young people say) to Calum for the recommendation in the first place.

Thanks mate 🙂


Notes

A shorter post than usual this week as I’m moving house 9. I’m writing this when I should be packing boxes … or trying to find things I now need that were packed into boxes yesterday. Assuming things have gone to plan I’m no longer a permanent resident of Fife (though I’ll continue to work there) and now live in the wild west 🙂

Germerott Bienentechnik don’t have a UK distributor for the Rasant honey creamer (I know, because I’ve chatted with them about it) so it needs to be purchased direct from Germany. It costs ~€50 but is quite heavy so shipping costs are high. Post-Brexit there may also be additional taxes involved 🙁

UPDATE (23/2/21) As indicated in the comments below, Thorne’s now appear to be selling this as a honey churner … at least it looks identical to me. I’ve also been in contact with Werner and Klaus at Bienentechnik and they are happy to take your order and can be contacted on info@bienentechnik.com. Inevitably, there may be some post-Brexit shipping issues to overcome 🙁

Finally, there’s always a demand for raw honey. Although I still wouldn’t call this honey ‘raw‘, I can claim honestly that it’s not been heated to temperatures higher than would naturally occur in the hive. Some customers will prefer this.