Category Archives: Responsibility

Leave and let die

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

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

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

The principle is straightforward. It goes something like this:

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

A crude oversimplification?

Yes, I don’t deny it.

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

But won’t.

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

But I’ll start with a simple question …

How many colonies have you got?

One? (in which case, get another)

Two?

Ten?

One hundred?

Eight-two thousand? 3

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

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

This is why we treat ...

This is why we treat …

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

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

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

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

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

Where ‘likely to be’ means will be.

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

It could be you … but it’s unlikely

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

And so on.

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

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

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

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

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

Apologies. Let’s not go there.

Let’s cut to the chase …

Comparison of treated vs untreated colonies over 3 years

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

Amitraz

Amitraz …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treatment and seasonal variation

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

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

The fourth group were the untreated controls.

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

The apiary in winter ...

The apiary in winter …

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

Results …

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

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

Out, damn'd mite ...

Out, damn’d mite …

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

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

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

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

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

… and some additional observations

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

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

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

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

Evolution …

March of Progress

Evolution …

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

Does this start to sound familiar?

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

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

Lots of colonies.

Actually, almost all of them.

… takes time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost all the colonies died.

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


 

A tale of two swarms

Or … why it’s good practice to clip the wing of the queen.

After a cool start to May it’s now (s)warmed up nicely. Colonies are piling in nectar, mainly from the OSR, and building up really strongly.

It’s at times like these that vigilance is needed. A skipped inspection, a missed queen cell, and the season can go from boom to bust as 75% of your workforce departs in a swarm.

Not the entire season … but certainly the first half of it.

All beekeepers lose swarms … but should try not to

Natural comb

Natural comb …

All beekeepers lose swarms.

At least, all honest ones do 😉

However, I can think of at least four reasons why it’s pretty shoddy beekeeping practice to repeatedly lose swarms 1.

  1. Beekeepers like bees, but some of the general public do not. Some are frightened of bees and a few risk a severe (or even fatal) anaphylactic reaction if stung. Beekeepers have a responsibility not to frighten or possibly endanger non-beekeepers.
  2. Most swarms do not survive. Studies of ‘wild’ bees have shown that swarming is an inherently risky business 2. The swarm needs to find a suitable new home and then collect sufficient nectar to draw enough comb to build up the colony and store food for the  winter. The vagaries of the weather, forage availability and disease ensure that most swarms do not overwinter successfully.
  3. Swarms have a high Varroa load. The mites transfer a heady mix of unpleasant viruses within the colony, shortening the lives of the overwintering bees. With high virus and mite loads the swarm colony is likely to be robbed by nearby strong colonies. This effectively transfers the mites and viruses to nearby managed colonies, so risking their survival.
  4. The swarmed colony is left with a new virgin queen. She has to mate successfully to ensure the continued survival of the colony. Again, the vagaries of the weather mean that this isn’t certain.

And you get less honey 🙁

Regular inspections help prevent the loss of swarms. But it’s good to get all the help you can.

Here’s a brief account of two recent events that illustrate the differences between swarms from colonies with clipped queens or unclipped queens.

Swarm in an out apiary

I have an out apiary in a reasonably remote spot containing half a dozen colonies. I keep my poorly behaved bees there 🙂 There are other apiaries in the area as the forage is good.

I went to inspect the hives at the end of April. This was only the second inspection of the year. On arriving I found most colonies were very active, but one was suspiciously quiet.

Thirty metres away there was a swirling mass of bees settling in the low branches of a conifer.

My three initial thoughts were “Aren’t swarms a great sight?”“Dammit, they shouldn’t have swarmed!” and “Perfect timing, where’s the skep?”.

Skep and swarm

Skep and swarm

The skep was in the car. It usually lives there during the swarming season. The bees were spread over two or three branches, all drooping under the weight. After a bit of gardening I managed to drop the majority of the bees into the upturned skep 3.

I inverted the skep over a white sheet laid out on the grass and propped one side up using a bit of wood.

The air was full of bees. While I busied myself inspecting the lively (in more ways than one 😉 ) colonies, the swarm gradually started to settle into the skep.

Skep and swarm

Skep and swarm

There were lots of bees exposing the Nasonov’s gland at the end of the abdomen, fanning frantically at the entrance to the upturned skep. This is a pretty certain indication that I’d managed to get the queen into the skep.

Fanning bees

Fanning bees

An hour later I’d finished all but one inspection – the quiet colony – it was beginning to get cool and the light was fading.

I could no longer see eggs, not because there weren’t any but because I’m not an owl.

The swarm still needed to be hived so I left the quiet colony until the following day, wrapped the skep in the sheet and took it to another apiary.

Brrrr!

And then the temperature plummeted. For the following week the daytime highs barely reached double figures. Nighttime temperatures were low single digit Centigrade.

The swarm would likely have perished and had a virgin queen emerged in the ‘quiet hive’ she’d have not got out to mate.

I didn’t look in another hive until the 7th, but when I did I got a surprise.

The ‘quiet hive’ contained a marked laying queen. I’d requeened this colony late in 2018 and my notes were a little, er, shambolic 🙁

I’d not recorded whether the queen was clipped and marked (the usual situation), marked only (not entirely unusual) or clipped only (not unknown!).

Whatever, they hadn’t swarmed after all 🙂

They were quiet because they had a high Varroa load with overt signs of DWV infection. Mite and virus levels in late September had been checked and confirmed to be very low. Presumably the mites had been acquired by drifting or robbing late in the season 4.

The hived swarm contained an unmarked laying queen and are lovely calm bees 🙂

A swarm in my home apiary

Fewer photos for this one as I didn’t have a camera with me …

I arrange my hives with the frames oriented ‘warm way’ 5 and inspect them standing behind the hive to avoid returning foragers.

Number 29, your time is up.

Number 29, your time is up.

Earlier this week I noticed a few bees flying under the DIY open mesh floor (OMF) from behind one hive. It’s not unusual to have bees at knee height during inspections but since all I was doing was dropping a nuc off in the apiary I didn’t give it much more thought.

Later in the week I returned to do the weekly inspection.

There were more bees going underneath the hive.

With a bit of effort I peered under the floor to find a 5cm deep slab of bees almost entirely filling the space under the OMF.

Better notes means you know what to expect

My notes were much more comprehensive this time 😉

I knew that the colony had a 2018 white marked and clipped queen.

I removed the supers (which were reassuringly heavy) and quickly inspected the brood box.

Lots of bees, lots of sealed brood, some late-stage larvae but no eggs.

In addition I could see two queen cells … one sealed and one about 3-4 days old, unsealed and with a fat larva sitting in a thick bed of Royal Jelly.

Don’t panic

It was pretty obvious what had happened.

The colony had swarmed 6 but the clipped queen, being unable to fly, had crashed to the ground in a very unregal manner, climbed back up the hive stand and sheltered under the OMF. The swarm had then clustered around her.

They had probably been there for a few days.

Another swarm hived

I placed a new floor and brood box next to the swarmed colony, with the entrance facing the ‘back’. I removed the swarmed brood box and, with a sharp shake, dumped the entire slab of swarmed bees from underneath the OMF into the new hive.

Before adding back all the brood frames I peered into the box as a tsunami of bees started moving from the floor up the side walls.

There! A white marked clipped queen 🙂

White clipped and marked queen returning to the colony

You’ll now have a better chance of finding and keeping her if they swarm.

It’s always reassuring to know where the queen is … and to have good enough notes to know what to look for 😉

I assembled and closed up the new hive and put the swarmed hive back in its place. I then carefully went through every frame checking for queen cells again.

There were only two. I destroyed the sealed cell. I didn’t know how old it was and couldn’t be certain it contained a developing queen.

In contrast, I could ‘age’ the unsealed cell (3-4 days) and knew it contained a larva and copious amounts of food.

I prefer to know when a queen emerges rather than save a few days by leaving the sealed cell. I only generally leave one cell to prevent casts being lost.

There were very young larvae in the colony. It is therefore possible the bees could generate more queen cells in the next day or so. Since I know when the queen will emerge I can check the colony before then and destroy any further cells they generate.

Two swarms, the same outcome … lessons learned

As far as this beekeeper (and I hope the bees 7) is concerned both swarms had a satisfactory outcome.

A number of lessons can be learned from events like these:

  • All beekeepers ‘lose’ swarms. Weather, work, emergencies and life generally can conspire to interrupt the 7 day inspection cycle. Sod’s Law dictates that when it does, the colony will swarm. I’m reasonably conscientious about inspections but I completely missed the signs the home apiary colony was about to swarm.
  • The weather can change suddenly. The swarm in the conifer would have probably perished from the cold in early May. If the weather had stayed warm the scout bees would have found a welcoming church tower or roof space to occupy in a day or so. In both cases the swarm would have been truly lost.
  • It’s always good to carry equipment to capture a swarm. A sheet and a skep, or a large nuc box. Secateurs make ‘gardening’ easier (mine are no longer AWOL). Spare equipment (hives) is essential during the swarm season.
  • An obviously smaller-than-expected colony and a nearby swarm may well be completely unrelated. Check why the colony is weak and take remedial action if needed (mine has Apivar strips in now).
  • Colonies near my out apiary appear to have high mite levels. Since that’s where the conifer swarm came from this also now has Apivar strips in.
  • When is a lost swarm not lost? When the queen is clipped. The queen cannot go far so neither can the swarm. If she returns to the hive stand or the underside of the floor, so will the swarm. If she perishes for some reason the swarm usually returns to the original hive.
  • You can keep bees without knowing where the queen is, but it’s easier if you do. Marking her helps find her, clipping her wing helps keep her there 8.
  • Similarly, knowing when the queen will emerge allows you to predict when she will be mated and start laying. You can avoid interrupting her returning from her mating flight and – before then – you can remove other queen cells to prevent the loss of a cast from a strong colony.
  • Good notes help. Keep them 😉

It’s relatively easy to find unmarked queens in smallish colonies early in the season. It’s a lot harder to find them in a strong colony in mid-May.

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

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

But it’s worth finding her, marking her and clipping one wing.

If you don’t the swarm you lose might really be lost 😉


 

 

Bait hive guide

Spring this year is developing well. Even here on the chilly east coast of Scotland colonies are looking good and flying strongly when the sun is out. Large amounts of pollen are being taken in and there’s every sign that the hives are queenright and rearing lots of brood 1.

It’s too soon 2 to open the colonies but it’s not too soon to be thinking about the consequences of the inevitable continued expansion over the next few weeks.

Most healthy colonies will make preparations to swarm, often between late April and mid-June. The timing varies depending upon a host of factors including colony strength, climate, weather, forage, build up and beekeeper interventions.

Swarm prevention and control

You, like all responsible beekeepers, will use appropriate swarm prevention methods. Supers added early, ensure the brood box has space for laying etc.

In due course, once the colony gets bigger and stronger, you’ll notice queen cells and immediately deploy your chosen swarm control method e.g. the classic Pagden artificial swarm, the nucleus method I described last week, Demaree, vertical splits or – if you’re feeling ambitious – a Taranov board 3.

Which will of course be totally successful 😉

But just in case it isn’t …

… and just in case the beekeeper a couple of fields away is forgetful, unobservant, clumsy, on holiday, in prison or has some other half-baked excuse, be prepared for swarms.

As an aside, other than just walking around the fields, you can easily find hives near you by searching on Google maps and you can get an idea of the local beekeeper density 4 using the National Bee Unit’s Beebase.

You might think you know all the local beekeepers through your association, but it’s surprising the number who just ‘do their own thing’.

Swarms

This isn’t the place to discuss swarms in much detail. Here’s a quick reminder:

  1. The colony ‘decides’ to swarm and starts to make queen cells.
  2. Almost certainly, scout bees start to check out likely sites the swarm could occupy in the future 5.
  3. The swarm leaves the hive on the first calm, warm, sunny day, usually early in the afternoon, once the queen cells are capped. The prime swarm contains the mated, laying queen and about 75% of the worker bees 6.
  4. The swarm gathers around the queen and sets up a bivouac hanging from a convenient spot (tree, gatepost, bush, fence etc.) near to the hive. They rarely move more than 50 metres. It’s worth emphasising here that the spot they choose is convenient to the bees, but may be at the top of a 60 foot cypress. It may not be particularly convenient for the beekeeper 😉
  5. Scout bees continue to check out likely final sites to establish the new colony, returning to the swarm and ‘persuading’ other scouts (by doing a version of the waggle dance) so that, finally, a consensus is reached. This consensus is essentially based upon the suitability of the sites being surveyed.
  6. The scout bees lead the swarm to the new location, they move in and establish a new colony.

If you’re lucky you will be able to recapture the swarm if the spot they choose for their bivouac is within reach, not above a stream, in a huge thorny bush or on an electricity pylon.

A small swarm ...

A small swarm …

I say ‘recapture’ because, since the bivouac is usually near the issuing hive, it’s probably come from one of your own hives (unless you are snooping around your neighbouring apiaries 7).

But what if you miss the bivouacked swarm? Or if your neighbour misses it?

Those bees are going to look for a suitable location to set up home.

If you provide a suitable location, you can get them to hive themselves without the grief of falling off a ladder, toppling into a stream, getting lacerated with thorns or electrocution

This is where the bait hive comes in. Leave a couple in suitable locations and you can lure your own and other swarms to them.

Freebees 🙂

What do scouts look for?

The scout bees look for the following:

  1. A dark empty void with a volume of about 40 litres.
  2. Ideally located reasonably high up.
  3. A solid floor.
  4. A small entrance of about 10cm2, at the bottom of the void, ideally south facing.
  5. Something that ‘smells’ of bees.

What I’ve just described is … a used beehive 8.

More specifically, it’s a single National brood box (or two stacked supers) with a solid floor and a roof, containing one old dark frame of drawn comb pushed up against the back wall.

No stores, no pollen 9, just a manky old dark comb. The sort of thing you should be turning into firelighters.

That’s all you need.

However, you can improve things by giving the bees somewhere to start drawing comb and siting the hive in a location that makes your beekeeping easier.

Des Res

The first thing swarms do when they move in is start drawing comb. You can populate the bait hive with a few foundationless frames so they’ve got somewhere to start.

Bait hive ...

Bait hive …

In my view foundationless frames are much better than frames with foundation for bait hives. The scout bees measure the size of the void by flying around randomly inside 10. If you have sheets of foundation they’ll crash into it frequently, effectively giving them the impression that the void is smaller than it really is. And therefore making it less attractive to the scouts.

You can improve the smell of the hive by adding a little lemongrass oil to the top bar of one of the frames. Don’t overdo it. A drop or two every 7-10 days is more than ample.

If you do use foundationless frames make sure the hive is level. If you don’t the comb will be drawn at an angle to the frames which makes everything harder work later in the season. Your smartphone probably contains a spirit level function that makes levelling the bait hive very easy.

Location

But not if it’s above head height, or you’re teetering on top of a ladder …

It was Tom Seeley who worked out most things about scout bees and swarms (see his excellent book Honeybee Democracy). This included the observations that they favoured bait hives situated high up.

Believe me, it’s a whole lot easier if the bait hive is on a standard hive stand. It’s easier to level, it’s easier to check and it’s easier – in due course – to retrieve.

Bait hive

Bait hive

I’ve previously discussed how far swarms prefer to move from their original hive. Contrary to popular opinion (and perhaps illogically) they tend to prefer to move shorter distances i.e. 20m >> 200m >> 400m. However, there are also studies that show swarms moving a kilometre or more.

Don’t get hung up on this detail. Stick out a bait hive or two and, if there are swarming colonies in range, they’ll find it.

I always leave a bait hive in my apiaries and one or two in odd corners of the garden. In the last few years I’ve never failed to attract swarms to the bait hives, and know for certain that some have moved in from over a mile away as the bee flies (thanks Emma 😉 ).

Mites and swarms

Assuming you don’t have the luxury of living in Varroa-free areas of the UK (or anywhere in Australia) then the incoming swarm will contain mites. Studies have shown that ~35% of the mite population of a colony leaves with the swarm.

But, for about the first week after the swarm sets up home in your bait hive, what’s missing from the new arrivals is sealed brood. Therefore the mites are all phoretic.

Do not delay. Treat the swarm with an appropriate miticide to knock back the mite population by ~95%. An oxalic acid-containing treatment is ideal. Single dose, relatively inexpensive, easy to administer (trickled or vaporised) and well tolerated by the bees.

Varroa treatment ...

Varroa treatment …

You have eight days from the swarm arriving to there being sealed brood in the colony

Far better to slaughter the mites now. In a few months their numbers will have increased exponentially and the majority will be in capped cells and more difficult to treat.


 

Unknown knowns

If there’s one thing that can be almost guaranteed about the beekeeping season ahead it’s that it will be unpredictably predictable. I can be pretty sure what is going to happen, but not precisely when it’s going to happen.

These are the unknown knowns.

The one thing I can be sure about is that once things get started it will go faster than I’d like … both in terms of things needing attention now (or yesterday 🙁 ) and in the overall duration of the season.

So, if you know what is coming – spring build up, early nectar flow, swarming, queen rearing, splits, summer nectar flow, robbing, uniting, wasps, Varroa control and feeding colonies up for winter – you can be prepared.

As Benjamin Franklin said …

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail

Preparation involves planning for the range of events that the season will (or could) produce.

It also involves ensuring you have additional equipment to cope with the events you’ve planned for.

Ideally, you’ll also have sufficient for the events you failed to include in your plans but that happened anyway 😉

Finally, it involves purchasing the food and treatments you need to manage the health and winter feeding of the colony 1 .

So what do you need to plan for?

Death and taxes 2

The two utterly dependable events in the beekeeping season are – and this is likely to be a big disappointment for new 3 beekeepers – Varroa control and feeding.

Not an outrageous early spring honey crop, not ten weeks of uninterrupted balmy days for queen rearing, not even lots of swarms in your bait hives (freebees) … and certainly not supers-full of fabulous lime or heather honey.

Sorry 😉

So … plan now how you are going to feed the colony and how you are going to monitor and manage mites during the season.

Feeding usually involves a choice between purchased syrup, homemade syrup or fondant. I almost exclusively use fondant and so always have fondant in stock. I also keep a few kilograms of sugar to make syrup if needed.

Buy it in advance because you might need it in advance. If it rains for a month in May there’s a real chance that colonies will starve and you’ll need to feed them.

Early June 2017 ...

Early June 2017 …

I’ve discussed mites a lot on this site. Plan in advance how you will treat after the summer honey comes off and again in midwinter. Buy an appropriate 4 treatment in advance 5. That way, should your regular mite-monitoring indicate that levels are alarmingly high, you can intervene immediately.

Having planned for the nailed-on certainties you can now turn your attention to the more enjoyable events in the beekeeping year … honey production and reproduction.

Honey production

Preparing for the season primarily means ensuring you have sufficient equipment, spares and space for whatever the year produces.

In a good season – long sunny days and seemingly endless nectar flows – this means having more than enough supers, each with a full complement of frames.

How many is more than enough?

More supers

More supers

Here on the east coast of Scotland I’ve not needed more than three and a bit per hive i.e. a few hives might need four in an exceptional summer (like 2018). When I lived in the Midlands it was more.

Running out of supers in the middle of the nectar-flow-to-end-all-nectar-flows is a frustrating experience. Boxes get overcrowded, the bees pack the brood box with nectar, the queen runs out of laying space and the honey takes longer to ripen 6.

Without sufficient supers 7 you’ll have to beg, borrow or steal some mid-season.

Which is necessary because … it’s exactly the time the equipment suppliers have run out of the supers, frames and foundation you desperately need.

And so will all of your beekeeping friends …

Ready to extract

Ready to extract …

Not that you’ve necessarily got the time to assemble the things anyway 😉

Don’t forget the brood frames

You’ll need more brood frames every season. A good rule of thumb is to replace a third of these every year.

There are a variety of ways of achieving this. They can be rotated out (moving the oldest, blackest frames to the edge of the box) during regular inspections, or you can remove frames following splits/uniting or through Bailey comb changes.

Irrespective of how it’s achieved, you will need more brood frames and – if you use foundation – you’ll need more of that as well.

Foundationless frames

Foundationless frames …

And the suppliers will sell out of these as well 🙁

But that’s not all …

You will also need sufficient additional brood frames for use during swarm prevention and control and – if that didn’t work – subsequent rescue of the swarm from the hedge.

Swarmtastic

In a typical year the colony will reproduce. Reproduction involves swarming. If the colony swarms you may lose the bees that would have produced your honey.

You can make bees or you can make honey, but it takes real skill and a good year to make both.

And to make both you’ll need spare equipment.

Pagdens' artificial swarm ...

Pagdens’ artificial swarm …

Knowing that the colony is likely to swarm in late spring, you need to plan in advance how you will manage the hive to control or prevent swarming. This generally means providing them with ample space (a second brood box … so yet more brood frames) and, if that doesn’t work 8, manipulating the colony so that it doesn’t swarm.

Which means an additional complete hive (floor, brood box, yet more brood frames, crownboard, roof) if you plan to use Pagdens’ artificial swarm.

Alternatively, with slightly less equipment, you can conduct a vertical split which is essentially a vertically orientated artificial swarm.

Or you can use a nucleus (nuc) box to house the old queen … a very straightforward method I’ll discuss in more detail later this season.

Bait hives and skeps

I don’t like losing swarms. I’ve previously discussed the responsibilities of beekeepers, which includes not subjecting the general public to swarms that might harm or frighten them, or establish a colony in their roof space.

But I do like both attracting swarms and re-hiving swarms of mine that ‘escaped’ (temporarily 😉 ). I always set out bait hives near my apiaries. If properly set up these efficiently attract swarms (your own or from other beekeepers) and save you the trouble of teetering at the top of a ladder to recover the swarm from an apple tree.

But if you end up doing the latter you’ll need a skep 9 or a nice, light, large poly nuc box to carefully drop the swarm into.

Paynes nuc box ...

Paynes nuc box …

Don’t forget the additional brood frames you will need in your bait hive or in the hive you eventually place the colony in the skep into 😉

Planned reproduction

You’re probably getting the idea by now … beekeeping involves a bit more than one hive tucked away in the corner of the garden.

Not least because you really need a minimum of two colonies.

A quick peek inside the shed of any beekeeper with more than 3 years experience will give you an idea of what might be needed. Probably together with a lot of stuff that isn’t needed 😉

Storage shed

Storage shed

By planned reproduction I mean ‘making increase’ i.e. deliberately increasing your colony numbers, or rearing queens for improving your own stocks (or those of others).

This can be as simple as a vertical split or as complicated as cell raising colonies, grafting and mini mating nucs.

By the time most beekeepers get involved in this aspect of the hobby 10 they will have a good idea of the additional specialised equipment needed. This need not be complicated and it certainly is not expensive.

I’ve covered some aspects of queen rearing previously and will write more about it this season.

3 day old QCs ...

3 day old QCs …

Of course, once you start increasing your colony numbers you will need additional brood boxes, supers, nuc boxes, floors, roofs, stands, crownboards, queen excluders and – of course – frames.

And a bigger shed 😉


Colophon

The title of this post is an inelegant butchering of part of a famous statement from Donald Rumsfeld, erstwhile US Secretary of Defense. While discussing evidence for Iraqi provision of weapons of mass destruction Rumsfeld made the following convoluted pronouncement:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

The unknown known

The unknown known

If you can be bothered to read through that lot you’ll realise the one thing Rumsfeld didn’t mention are the unknown knowns.

However, as shown in the image, this was the title of the 2013 Errol Morris documentary on Rumsfeld’s political career. In this, Rumsfeld defined the “unknown knowns” [as] “things that you know, that you don’t know you know.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State, claimed that Rumsfeld doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” ... though she wasn’t referring to the unknown knowns.

 

Responsibilities

In draughty church halls the length and breadth of the country potential apiarists are just starting their “Beginning beekeeping” courses run by local associations. The content of these courses varies a bit but usually contains (in no particular order):

  • The Beekeeping Year
  • The hive and/or beekeeping equipment
  • The life cycle of the honey bee
  • Colony inspections
  • Pests and diseases
  • Swarm prevention and control
  • Products of the hive

I’ve seen these courses from both sides. I took one before I started beekeeping and I’ve subsequently taught on them.

Although I’m not convinced the seven topics above are the optimal way to cover the basics of beekeeping (perhaps that’s something for a future post?), I am a strong supporter of the need to educate new beekeepers.

Theory and practice

You can learn some of the theoretical aspects of beekeeping on dark winter evenings. In my experience a liberal supply of tea and digestives hugely helps this learning process 😉

However, beekeeping is essentially a practical subject and any responsible association will offer apiary-based training sessions once the season starts. A good association will run these throughout the season, enabling beginners to experience all aspects of the beekeeping year.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

If they don’t, they should (both run them and run them through the season).

The reason is simple … ‘hands on’ with the bees is a much better way of appreciating some of the most important characteristics of the colony. It’s strength and temperament, the rate at which it’s developing, the levels of stores etc.

But all this takes time. A couple of early-season apiary sessions might be held on cool evenings in failing light, or dodging Spring weekend showers. This means that ‘hive time’ is often restricted and beginners only get a small snapshot of the beekeeping season.

Curb your enthusiasm

Inevitably, many new beekeepers are desperate to get their own bees as soon as possible. After all, the season has started and there are kilograms of nectar out there waiting to be collected and converted into delicious honey for friends and family.

Demand for overwintered nucs is very high (usually significantly outstripping supply, meaning a considerable price premium) and a purchased colony, which should be strong and building up fast, becomes the property of someone who potentially has yet to see an open hive.

The seasonal nature of the hobby and the way we train beginners creates a very steep learning curve for new beekeepers 1. Almost as soon as they’re out of the classroom (or draughty church hall) they’re faced with the start of their first swarm season.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Their inevitable – and completely understandable – enthusiasm to start practical beekeeping reaches a crescendo at a time when they are singularly poorly equipped to manage the colony 2.

What’s missing?

The emphasis on the theory and practical aspects of beekeeping is understandable. There’s a lot to learn in a relatively short time.

However, this focus on the practicalities often overlooks emphasising the responsibilities of beekeepers.

In the frenetic early-season enthusiasm to ‘become a beekeeper’ these might seem unimportant, superfluous or entirely obvious.

But they’re not.

Oil seed rape (OSR) ...

Oil seed rape (OSR) …

Later in the season the colony can become bad tempered, unmanageably large or ignored. Some or all of these happen with new (and not-so-new) beekeepers. The OSR goes over and colonies get stroppy, April’s 5-frame nuc “explodes” to occupy a towering double brood monstrosity or a new-found enthusiasm for dahlias or crown green bowls becomes all-consuming.

Bees? What bees? Have you seen my dahlias?

Bees? What bees? Have you seen my dahlias?

This is when the responsibilities of beekeepers become really important.

What are the responsibilities of beekeepers?

As I see it, as beekeepers we have responsibilities to:

  • The general public
  • Other beekeepers
  • The bees 3

As I stated above, these might seem entirely obvious. However, every year new beekeepers start with the best of intentions but some have a near-total lack of awareness of what these responsibilities are (or mean).

The general public

The combination of calm bees, careful handling and appropriate protective clothing means that bees essentially pose no risk to the beekeeper.

However, strange as it may seem to a beekeeper, some people are terrified of bees (mellisophobics). Others, due to adverse allergic reactions (anaphylactic shock), may have their lives endangered by bee stings. Finally – and thankfully by far the largest group – are the remainder of the public who should never feel bothered or threatened by our bees, whether we consider this a rational response or not.

What does this mean in terms of practical beekeeping? I think it can be distilled to just three points:

  1. Keep calm bees
  2. Keep bees and the public well-separated
  3. Restrict beekeeping activities to times when the public are not inconvenienced

The first point is sensible, whether or not there’s anyone else around. It makes beekeeping a much more relaxing and rewarding experience.

The second point involves either keeping bees in unfrequented locations (infinitely preferable) or ensuring that bees are forced to fly up and away from the hives (by suitable screening) and well-away from passers-by.

The final point is the most inconvenient, but also the most important. If there are members of the public around who might be bothered by your bees – walkers strolling across the field towards your apiary, kids playing in the garden next door – don’t open the hives.

My apiaries have generally been in large rural gardens, private farmland and very well screened. I’ve also kept bees in urban environments, with no problems from the neighbours. However, I have always maintained out apiaries to move my bees to should they exhibit poor temper. Additionally, I’d only conduct inspections when the adjacent gardens were empty … meaning inspections were often carried out in sub-optimal weather or late in the evening.

Finally, while many beekeepers consider the sight of a swarm is one of the truly great sights of beekeeping, this isn’t a sentiment shared by most non-beekeepers.

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

Keep non-swarmy bees, clip the queen and keep a bait hive prepared to lure any swarms that do emerge.

Other beekeepers

The responsibilities beekeepers have to other beekeepers are probably restricted to:

  1. Courtesy
  2. Disease

The first is straightforward. Don’t do things that negatively impact other beekeepers 4. For example, don’t plonk two dozen hives over the fence from an established apiary, unless you’ve first discussed it with the beekeeper and you’re both happy that the local forage is sufficient.

And, of course, don’t steal hives or colonies 5.

Disease is perhaps less obvious and more insidious. The health of your bees influences the health of other colonies in the area. Over short distances bees drift from one hive to another. Over much longer distances strong colonies can rob weaker colonies.

All these bee exchanges also move the parasites and diseases they carry between hives. This includes VarroaNosema, a panoply of pathogenic viruses and European and American foulbrood.

Of these, the foulbroods are statutory notifiable diseases and beekeepers are legally required to report suspected diseased colonies under the Bee Diseases and Pests Control Order 2006 (and amendments). Responsible beekeepers will register their apiaries on the National Bee Unit’s Beebase so they are notified of local outbreaks, and so the bee inspectors can check their colonies if there is a nearby outbreak.

National Bee Unit Beebase

National Bee Unit Beebase

Whilst not notifiable, the remaining parasites and pathogens are also best avoided … and certainly should not be foisted upon other local beekeepers.

If your colony is weak, disease-riddled and poorly managed it may get robbed-out by other local strong colonies. In doing so, your bees will transfer (some of) the pathogen load to the stronger colony.

That is irresponsible beekeeping.

US beekeepers use the term ‘mite bomb’ to refer to an unmanaged, Varroa-riddled, collapsing colony that introduces significantly higher mite levels to local strong colonies as it’s robbed. This is more extreme, but not dissimilar, to beekeepers that treat with miticides far too late in the season. Their colonies retain high mite levels and can spread them to nearby hives. One way to avoid this is to coordinately treat mites in the same geographic area.

The bees

Bees may or may not be classified as livestock. The standard definition 6 of “domestic animals kept on a farm for use or profit; esp. cattle, sheep, and pigs” is perhaps a little restrictive 7 so lets accept for the moment that they are livestock.

If you keep livestock you usually need to register them and vaccinate them, and you always need to look after their health, feed and transport them properly and generally take responsibility for them.

If you don’t look after their welfare you may be prosecuted.

Of course, bees are invertebrates, not mammals or animals with backbones. Legally invertebrates are not usually considered as animals in the Animal Welfare Act 2006 8 which defines the law on animal welfare.

But all these definitions are a distraction.

In my view, if you keep bees you have a responsibility to look after them properly.

Even if this isn’t a legal requirement, its a moral responsibility.

This responsibility to your bees includes – but is not restricted to – preventing and treating them for disease when appropriate and ensuring they have sufficient stores going into winter (and during periods with no nectar).

If you can’t do this perhaps take up crown green bowls instead.

Blimey, this is all getting a bit heavy isn’t it?

Bees are not ‘fit and forget’.

Actually, they’re quite the opposite.

Proper management means that there are certain things that must be done at a particular time. This includes treating for mites at the end of the summer honey season, feeding the colony up for winter and swarm prevention and control.

If you work abroad for April and May or if you holiday on the Maldives for six weeks every autumn you’re unlikely to become a successful beekeeper.

Powder blue surgeonfish, Maldives

Bees? What bees? They’ll be OK …

And you’re certainly unlikely to be a responsible beekeeper.

You might start with bees, but you’re unlikely to keep them …

What prompted this post? A combination of things … cabin fever and online discussion forum posts from beekeepers puzzling why their colonies all died (no mite treatment, ever) or starved (no feeding before winter) or hadn’t been inspected in the last 15 months (“I’ve been busy”).

It’s going to be a long winter … 9


 

Botulism

Do not feed to infants

Do not feed to infants

I was recently asked, Why can’t you give young babies honey?

You can.

But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

And on this point the NHS guidelines are very clear. You should not give honey to babies under 12 months of age because there is a risk that they might get botulism.

Bacteria, toxins and Botox

Botulism is a serious, sometimes fatal, disease caused by infection with a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. As it grows, C. botulinum produces neurotoxins which cause a flaccid (floppy) paralysis and can result in respiratory failure. About 5-10% of cases are fatal, but infections thankfully very are rare.

Symptoms include fatigue, weakness, blurred vision and difficulty speaking and swallowing. The paralysis is ‘descending’, generally starting in the head and neck, then moving to the shoulders, arms, chest and lower limbs.

Botulinum toxin

Botulinum toxin

Unusually for a bacterial infection there is no fever. This reflects the fact that there’s probably only limited bacterial growth (which typically induces fever) and the potent neurotoxicity of the botulinum toxin. This toxin stops the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from the nerve endings, thereby causing paralysis.

Botulinum toxin is one of the most acutely lethal toxins known. The lethal dose depends upon the route of administration, but is between 1.3 and 13 ng/kg 1.

Remember, botulinum toxin is the active ingredient in Botox.

No thanks. I’ll stick with the wrinkles 😉

Botulism cases in the UK/Europe

Botulism is a notifiable disease. Consequently, we have good data on the incidence of botulism in the UK and Europe. In 2014 there were 91 confirmed cases in the EU, with 14 cases reported in the UK between 2010 and 2014. Other than injecting drug users, a significant proportion of the cases are in infants – see below.

C. botulinum is widespread in the environment and infection usually occurs by ingestion of improperly prepared food e.g. undercooked or improperly canned foods, in which the bacteria survives.

Clostridium botulinum

Clostridium botulinum

The bacteria grows in the absence of oxygen and produces the toxin during growth. Although the toxin is heat-inactivated if properly cooked (over 85°C), the bacterium also produces heat-resistant spores during growth. These spores can withstand temperatures over 100°C for long periods and usually require both high temperatures and pressures to inactivate them.

As a consequence of this the spores are also very widespread in the environment … cue the Jaws soundtrack … just waiting to encounter the correct conditions to germinate and initiate a new round of bacterial growth (and toxin production).

Botulism cases in children

About a third of all cases of botulism are in the 0-4 age group. I’ve been unable to find a more detailed breakdown by age, but there have been 19 cases of infant (children less than 12 months old) botulism in the UK since 1978.

In many cases of infant botulism the source of the spores is unknown. However, other than well-documented cases of contaminated milk powder, honey is the only food regarded as a significant risk factor. About 60% of cases of infant botulism are in babies with a history of honey consumption 2 and, in several cases, epidemiological follow-up has confirmed that honey was the source of the infection.

Treatment is not with antibiotics as it’s the toxin that causes the symptoms, not the bacteria. Instead patients are treated with immunoglobulin (antibodies) specific for the toxin. These inactivate toxicity fast and recovery is usually complete, but can be protracted.

C. botulinum spores in honey

Oxygen inhibits the growth of C. botulinum. So do acidic conditions. Honey is acidic, with a pH of about 3.9, which is too low for the bacterium to grow. However, the spores remain viable at low  pH. It is this contamination of honey with C. botulinum spores that poses a risk for infants.

It is possible to microbiologically examine honey for contamination with C. botulinum spores. When this has been done, 6-10% of honey samples tested were contaminated, with contamination levels estimated at 5 to 80 spores per gram of honey. The infectious dose for a human is estimated at 10-100 spores 3.

So … much less than one teaspoon of contaminated honey.

Despite this, there is no requirement for honey to carry a label warning that it should not be fed to infants. Instead, the Food Standards Agency recommend honey carries a warning that it is unsuitable for children under one year of age.

Why is infant botulism so rare?

If up to 10% of honey is contaminated with C. botulinum spores, why are there not many more cases of botulism in infants? After all, European paediatricians have even been known  to recommend honey – a long-standing traditional solution – as a means of soothing crying babies4.

The intestine of the developing baby is full of bacteria – the so-called commensal microbiota – all competing to get established and to lead a long, happy and healthy association with their human host. The spores of C. botulinum have to germinate and establish an infection in the face of this competition and, usually, they fail. A likely possibility is that infant botulism only occurs in babies in which the commensal microbiota have not properly developed … either because they are so young, because broad-spectrum antibiotic use has prevented the development of the microbiota or for a pre-existing genetic condition.


 

Survival of the fattest

Winter bees have high levels of vitellogenin, a glycolipoprotein 1, deposited in their fat bodies which act as a food reservoir for the long winter.

These fat winter bees are essential for the successful overwintering of the colony.

Last week I discussed the major points that need attention for overwintering i.e. strong, healthy colonies with ample food in a weathertight hive.

This week I want to explore the relationship between colony strength, health – specifically with regard to Varroa and deformed wing virus (DWV) – and isolation starvation.

Isolation starvation describes the phenomenon where a small colony of tightly clustered honey bees gets isolated from the honey stores laid down in autumn, resulting – typically during protracted cold periods – in the colony starving to death.

Isolation starvation ...

Isolation starvation …

It’s both a pathetic and distressing sight. Bees, with their heads crammed into the bottom of cells searching for food, dying from starvation when literally inches away from capped stores.

Deaths and births

In temperate climates the winter is characterised by low temperatures and little or no forage for the bees. The queen usually stops laying sometime in autumn and starts again around the turn of the year. During the intervening period she may lay intermittently, but generally in limited amounts.

The fat bodied winter bees that are reared in late summer and early autumn are long-lived (about 6 months) and are responsible for getting the colony through the winter. They protect the queen, thermoregulate the hive and they help rear the brood raised in the autumn and through the winter.

In their absence – or if there are just too few of them – the colony will perish.

Winter bees do not all live for 6 months. The usual figure quoted is ~175 days 2. Some live shorter lives, some longer … up to 9 months under certain conditions.

Importantly, in studies I’ve discussed at length previously, high levels of DWV reduces the lifespan of winter bees. We know this because, in Varroa-infested colonies, researchers 3 have shown that the winter bees die off faster 4.

Live fast, die young

Winter bees with high levels of DWV don’t really live fast … but they do die young. In the studies above the average lifespan of winter bees was reduced by 20% in the colonies that died overwinter.

There are a couple of important things to note here. Dainat and colleagues were not looking at bees in the presence or absence of Varroa, or in the presence or absence of high or low levels of DWV. They simply looked at hives that succumbed in the winter or that survived, then measured DWV and Varroa levels. It’s a subtle but important difference. Their surviving colonies still had Varroa and DWV.

From analysis of hives that died or survived, and having marked known numbers of bees in late summer, they could determine the life expectancy of workers – in their surviving colonies it was ~88 days, in those that died it was ~71 days.

Healthy colonies

The gradual death of bees through the winter coupled with the reduced lifespan of winter bees with high levels of DWV explains why colonies need to be strong and healthy.

The following graphs are based upon modelled data 5, but show the influence of colony size and winter bee lifespan.

The first graph – the least important – simply shows the lifespan of bees. The graph plots the number of bees (on the vertical axis) in a population that die at a particular time (on the horizontal axis) after the start of the experiment. The blue bees have a longer average lifespan than the red bees 6.

Lifespan of winter bees

Lifespan of winter bees

In the following graphs remember that the blue bees are healthy, with low levels of Varroa and – consequently – low levels of DWV. The red bees are unhealthy and have high levels of Varroa and DWV.

Using this lifespan data we can look at the influence on the total number of winter bees in a colony (on the vertical axis) over time (horizontal). Imagine that the horizontal axis is the long, dark, wet and cold months of winter. Starting in early September and running through until late March.

Brrrr 🙁

Winter bee numbers in healthy (blue) and unhealthy (red) colonies

Winter bee numbers in healthy (blue) and unhealthy (red) colonies

It is clear, and of course entirely predictable, that the numbers of bees in the healthy (blue) colony are higher than those in the unhealthy colony at each time point. If the average lifespan is reduced (by disease) more bees will have died by a particular time point when compared with a healthy colony at the same timepoint.

Finally, consider that the shaded section of the graph represents the lower limit of bee numbers for viability. If the number of bees in the colony drops into this region the colony will perish.

Simplistically – and in reality – starting with similar numbers of bees a healthy colony will survive longer than an unhealthy colony.

Strong colonies

Using a similar approach we can also look at the influence of the average lifespan of winter bees on the survival of strong or weak colonies.

The following graph shows the numbers of bees in the colony over time for a strong colony (solid line) and a weak colony (dashed line) where worker bee lifespan is identical 7.

Winter bee numbers in strong and weak colonies.

Winter bee numbers in large (strong) and small (weak) colonies with the same average lifespan.

The shaded section of the graph again represents colony oblivion.

Large (strong) colonies take longer to drop below the threshold for viability and so – all other things being equal – will survive longer 8.

Mix’n’match

A strong colony with high levels of Varroa and DWV might actually survive less well than a weak but healthy colony.

Strong unhealthy colonies might survive less well than weak healthy colonies.

Large unhealthy colonies might survive less well than small healthy colonies.

In this graph the weak but healthy colony drops below the ‘viability threshold’ after the strong but unhealthy colony 9.

Winter bees and brood rearing

This is modelled data, but it makes the point clearly. Large and/or healthy colonies retain more of the all-important winter bees and so survive longer.

Simples.

The differences might not appear marked. However, for convenience 10 I’ve omitted the influence of winter bee numbers on the ability of the colony to rear brood.

If there are more winter bees, the colony is able to thermoregulate the hive better. It’s therefore able to keep any brood present warm. It’s therefore able to rear more brood.

As a consequence, the differences in bee numbers between the large or small, or the healthy and unhealthy, colonies will be much more striking.

Critically 11 the strength of the colony coming out of the winter is often the rate-limiting determinant for spring build-up to exploit early season nectar flows. Weak colonies develop less well.

Isolation starvation

Finally, returning to that pathetic little cluster of starving bees in the image at the top of the page. What is the relationship between colony health, strength and isolation starvation?

It’s now time to dust off my weak-to-non-existent Powerpoint skills …

Isolation starvation schematic

Isolation starvation schematic

Again, it’s straightforward. A large (strong) overwintering colony (A above) only has to move a short distance to access stores in midwinter. In contrast, a small (weak) overwintering colony has to move much further.

Consequently, small colonies become isolated from their stores during long, cold periods when the colony is clustered.

Prediction

Many beekeepers will be familiar with isolation starvation of overwintering colonies.

Most would explain this in terms of “very cold weather and the cluster was unable to reach its stores”.

Some would explain this in terms of “the colony was far too small to reach the stores when clustered”.

Very few would explain this in terms of “the Varroa and DWV levels were too high because of poor disease management last autumn. Inevitably most of my winter bees died off early in the winter, leaving a very small cluster of bees that were unable to reach the stores..

I suspect the real cause of isolation starvation is probably disease … specifically poor management of Varroa levels and consequently high levels of DWV in the colony.


Colophon

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer

Another post, another poor pun in the title. Survival of the fittest encapsulates the Darwinian evolutionary principle that the form of an organism that survives is the one able to leave the most copies of itself in future generations. Darwin didn’t actually use the term until the 5th edition (1869) of his book On the origin of the species. Instead, the phrase was first used by Herbert Spencer in 1864 after reading Darwin’s book. Whilst ‘survival of the fittest’ suggests natural selection, Spencer was also a proponent of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, Lamarckism.

In perpetuity

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

As I write this we’re approaching midsummer of one of the best years beekeeping I’ve had in a decade. In Fife we’ve had excellent weather, and consequently excellent nectar flows, for weeks. Queen mating has been very dependable. I’ve run out of supers twice and have been building frames like a man possessed.

I’m not complaining 😉 1

In a few short weeks it will be all over. The season won’t have ended, but this non-stop cycle of inspections, adding supers, building frames, splitting colonies, making up nucs, taking off laden supers, extracting and more inspections will be largely finished.

We’re in clover

Busy bees ...

Busy bees …

Literally, as it’s been yielding really well recently.

I’ve written previously about The Goldilocks principlenot too much, not too little – and bees. As an individuals’ competence improves over successive seasons, colony numbers can quickly change from too few to too many.

A single production 2 colony in a good year should probably also be able to generate a nuc for overwintering and possibly a new queen for re-queening without significantly compromising honey production.

That’s certainly been the case this year. I’ve got a few colonies that produced nucs in May, were requeened (through vertical splits) in late June or early July and that have produced several supers of honey, either from spring or summer flows.

Or in a few cases, from both. And it’s not quite over yet 🙂

But, there’s always a but …

I said in the opening paragraph it’s an exceptional year. The ability to produce a surfeit of both bees and honey requires some skill, some luck and some good timing.

In a bad year, just getting one of the three – a new nuc, a new queen or a honey surplus – from a colony should be regarded as a major success.

How do you cope with problems encountered in these bad years?

Self-sufficiency

I’m a strong supporter of self-sufficiency in beekeeping. Although I’m not fundamentally opposed to purchasing queens or nucs, I do have concerns about importation of new virus strains and other ‘exotics’ that do or will threaten our beekeeping. However, buying in high quality bees for stock improvement is understandable, expensive at times and the foundation of at least some commercial (and amateur, but commercially viable) beekeeping.

I See You Baby

I See You Baby

What I’m far less keen on is purchasing bees – a significant proportion of which are imported – to compensate for lazy, slapdash or negligent beekeeping.

And there’s too much of that about … anyone who has been keeping bees successfully will have heard these types of comments:

  • Surely I can get away with less frequent inspections? I always have six weeks sailing in May and June … but I do want to make my own honey and mead
  • They all died from starvation sometime last year but I’ll buy some more in March from that online supplier of cheap bees (Bob’s Craptastic Nucs … Bees for the Truly Impatient)
  • Varroa treatment? Nope, not in the last couple of years mate. I’ve never seen one of them Verona, er, Verruca thingies so I don’t think my bees are infected with them anyway
  • I knocked off all the queen cells to stop them swarming in June and July. They just might be queenless. I know it’s early October but do you have a mated queen spare?

I’ve heard variants of all the above in the last few months.

In perpetuity

This stop-start beekeeping is not really beekeeping. I’ve discussed this in Principles and Practice extensively. I’ve called them beehadders before but perhaps the term ‘serial ex-beekeeper’ might be more accurate.

The reality is that, with a little skill, a little luck and just reasonable timing you can have bees in perpetuity … the real topic of this post.

In perpetuity meaning you are self-sufficient for stock and for spares.

You’re able to exploit the good years and survive the bad. You only need to buy in bees for stock improvement or to increase genetic diversity (which may be the same thing).

Once you’ve got bees, you’ve always got bees.

It’s a good position to be in. It gives you security to survive accidents, self-inflicted snafu’s and even the odd fubar 3. You are no longer dependent upon the importer, the supplier or your mate in the local association to bail you out. It gives you confidence to try new things. It means you can cope with vagaries in the weather, forage availability or simple bad luck.

How is this nirvana-like state of beekeeping self-sufficiency achieved?

I think it can be distilled to just two things – one is easy, the other slightly more challenging.

Firstly, you need to maintain a minimum of two hives. Secondly, you need to develop an appreciation of how the colony develops and understand when interventions and manipulations are most likely to be successful.

One is not enough

I’ve discussed the importance of a second hive previously. With one hive, beekeeping errors (or just plain bad luck) that result in a queenless, broodless and eggless colony might well be a catastrophe.

With two hives, you can simply take a frame of eggs from the second colony and voila, they’ll raise a new queen and your imminent categorisation as an ex-beekeeper is postponed.

Two are better than one …

The benefits of two colonies far outweigh the expense of the additional equipment and time taken to manage them. In a good year you’ll get twice as much honey to impress your friends and neighbours at Christmas, or to sell in the village fete. In a bad year, the ability to unite a weak colony headed by a failing queen in late September, might mean the difference between being a beekeeper and being an ex-beekeeper the following Spring.

Maintaining two colonies in the same apiary significantly increases your chances of having bees in perpetuity.

The art of the probable 4

Beekeeping isn’t really very difficult. You provide the colony with somewhere to live. You give them sufficient extra space to dissuade them from swarming (swarm prevention), or intervene in a timely manner to stop them swarming (swarm control). If you harvest some or all of the honey you provide them with more than they need of an alternative source of sugar(s) at the right time. Finally, you monitor and control the pathogens that afflict them and apply appropriate treatments, at the right time, to minimise their impact.

As you can see, timing is important. Do things at the right time and they work … at the wrong time they don’t.

Timing is also important in terms of the frequency of inspections (which I’ve briefly discussed before, so won’t repeat here), and in the manipulations of the colony.

These colony manipulations include – but aren’t restricted to – providing them space to expand, spreading the brood nest, making nucs, rearing queens or at least getting queens mated, adding supers, uniting weak colonies and feeding them up for the winter.

Again, if you do the manipulations at the right time they will probably work. Hence the ‘art of the probable’.

The time is right

For many of these manipulations, the ‘right time’ essentially depends upon the development of the colony and weather. And, of course, colony development is itself very much influenced by the weather.

Consider queen mating. Of the various manipulations listed above, this is one upon which the future viability of the colony is absolutely dependent.

Queen mating usually occurs mid-afternoon during dry, preferably sunny weather, on days with relatively light winds and temperatures of at least 18°C. Therefore if there’s a mature virgin queen in your hive 5, the weather is suitable and there are drones flying, she’ll probably get mated.

Good laying pattern ...

Good laying pattern …

Days like this occur pretty dependably in late May and June. It’s no coincidence that this is the peak swarming season.

Conversely, if through carelessness or neglect your colony goes queenless in late September, the probability of getting a warm, dry, calm afternoon are much less. It’s therefore less probable (and potentially highly improbable) that the new queen will get mated.

That’s not to say it won’t happen … it might, but it is less probable 6.

Beekeeping nirvana

In re-reading this post I feel as though I’ve skirted around the core of the issue, without satisfactorily tackling it.

Having bees in perpetuity is readily achievable if you have a backup hive and you understand how colony development and the weather determines what you can and cannot do to the colony during the season 7.

Having two hives but inadvertently damaging both queens in March during heavy-handed inspections will not provide bees in perpetuity.

Conversely, irrespective of your best efforts, a single terminally broodless and queenless colony at the peak of the swarming season cannot magically create a new queen … meaning you’re about to become an ex-beekeeper.

Another one for the extractor ...

Another one for the extractor …

I’ve used queen mating as an example because it’s a binary event … she’s mated successfully or she’s not, and colony survival absolutely depends upon it.

However, the timing of many of the other manipulations can also influence the strength, health and robustness of the colony. Providing too much space in cold weather delays expansion as there are too few bees to keep the brood warm. Trying to feed syrup very late in the season may mean it’s too cold for them to access the feeder, leading to starvation. Finally, using the wrong miticide at the wrong time is a guaranteed way to ensure more mites survive to damage the colony in the future.

Learn to do the right thing at the right time … to both your colonies. The recipe to having bees in perpetuity.


Colophon

In (for or to) perpetuity means “for all time, for ever; for an unlimited or indefinitely long period” and  has origins in Latin and French with English usage dating back to the early 15th Century.

‘Unlimited or indefinitely long’ could also refer to the length of this post or the delay to my flight last Sunday. You can thank EasyJet for providing me with more than ample time to write this magnum opus.

Or write and complain for the very same reason 😉

Urbane bees

Urbane as in ‘of the city‘ as well as ‘polite and courteous‘.

Over 80% of the UK population live in towns. Although it’s unlikely that beekeepers are evenly distributed between urban and rural areas, it still means that most beekeepers (or wannabe beekeepers) probably live in towns. With the increase in the popularity of beekeeping over the last few years this inevitably means that more bees are being kept in towns than ever before.

Bees can do very well in towns

Cities have higher ambient temperatures 1 which effectively extends the season, starting earlier and finishing later in the year. These higher temperatures also provide more protection from extended cold periods during the winter.

Despite the depressingly obvious acres of grey concrete, cities can be remarkably ‘green’, with large parks and gardens in even some of the most densely populated areas. Satellite mapping analysis shows that cities like Liverpool, London and Edinburgh have 16 – 49% ‘green space’.

Many towns and cities have large numbers of well established trees, including lime and sycamore, both of which can give great honey. In addition, there are thousands of suburban gardens with a wide range of ornamental flowering plants.

As a consequence, city bees have access to a range of nectars throughout the season, helping create some strikingly good honey. There are entire businesses built around supplying honey from bees in the city – or cities – including the London Honey Company, Bermondsey Street Bees and the Sheffield Honey Company.

City rooftop bees

City rooftop bees …

But it’s not all roses … or begonias or geraniums

However, a quick look at the honey sold by ‘city’ honey companies shows that only some of it originates from, er, cities. They also sell Suffolk coastal honey, heather honey, borage honey etc. Of course, this probably – and rightly – reflects demand. There’s a wonderful range of different honey produced in the UK, so why not sell it alongside honey from the city?

Except there isn’t any honey from the city available at the moment. All gone. Neither of the two London-based companies listed above have any London honey for sale 2. Demand clearly outstrips supply.

And this is probably because supply is limited. Cities are surprisingly green, but many of the ornamental flowers favoured by gardeners are poor nectar producers and the trees are often planes, which produce no nectar for bees. With the increase in interest in beekeeping it’s been suggested that there are too many bees in cities 3.

I don’t think the data to support this conclusion is good enough (yet). Hive numbers are certainly up significantly, but perhaps not as high as some think. Whether they’re at saturation level for the forage available will require analysis over several years, taking account of the actual honey yields, the weather and accurate information on colony density.

It’s interesting to note that Fera’s Beebase report the apiary density around my local apiary in rural Fife is 1/25th that of Central London (29 vs. 710 within a 10km radius). These figures aren’t reliable or even accurate … each apiary may have very different numbers of hives and significant numbers of beekeepers (perhaps as many as 50%) aren’t even registered on Beebase. Nevertheless, it probably gives a general indication of the relative density of hives.

Being neighbourly

There are more important issues than potentially poor honey yields with urban bees. Bees aren’t domesticated 4 and they can’t really be controlled. They forage where nectar and pollen is available, they drink water when they need it, they swarm when the colony is doing well and – there’s no real way to be delicate about this – they crap wherever they want. They can also get tetchy when forage becomes limiting, during stormy weather or when poorly handled.

All of which means that your bees might cause problems for your neighbours.

Poop target ...

Poop target …

They’ll forage freely in their gardens, drink water from the bird bath or jacuzzi 5, swarm en masse and hang pendulously from the climbing frame, and they’ll defecate repeatedly on the neighbours recently waxed and polished BMW.

These are not insignificant issues and they shouldn’t be ignored.

If you’ve got bees, 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 ...

Swarm on a swing …

Guilty until proven innocent.

Good urban beekeeping practice

I’ve kept bees in an urban garden and, while I can’t really advise on how you establish and maintain good relations with your neighbours 6, I can provide some beekeeping hints to make their life – and yours – a bit easier.

These are more or less in order of importance …

  1. Make sure you have access to an out apiary over three miles away. Perhaps the training apiary for your association, or a friend with a large rural garden. Arrange this in advance, not when an angry neighbour is remonstrating with you about his toddler and anaphylaxis. Seriously. Some problems are only solved by moving bees away and you might need to do this in a hurry.
  2. Put out a bait hive at the beginning of the season. You might stop a swarm from your own bees disappearing over the fence (but see 3). More importantly, another swarm from the neighbourhood might neatly hive themselves rather than ending up in the neighbours garden. Brownie points 7 for you and no blame can be attached! I’ve never failed to catch swarms with bait hives in urban or semi-urban gardens … and they weren’t mine because I always clip my queens. Which brings me to …
  3. Always clip your queens. Although clipping the wing of a queen does not stop swarming, it does stop the swarm flying off. They’ll usually end up on the hive stand or underneath the floor.
  4. Learn, and get good at, swarm prevention and control. Provide space for the colony before it’s needed, replace queens regularly, control colony expansion by taking off a nuc, conduct timely splits to control swarming and reunite to requeen. If you don’t yet know what these things are then there’s quite a bit to learn. Are you ready to keep bees in your town garden?
  5. Keep well-tempered bees and keep them well-tempered (see 8). Aggressive bees are unpleasant at the best of times. They make beekeeping a chore if you’re in the corner of a remote field. In town they’re an abomination. Requeen or move them immediately with any repeated tendency to show signs of bad behaviour.
  6. Engineer the flight lines to force bees up and away. If you situate the hive(s) in a corner facing into a fence or wall the foragers will be forced to fly up and over the obstacle, ideally well over head height. I’ve seen this done very successfully using an open-topped netting cage. My bee shed is surrounded by security fencing with 2″x6″ mesh … >95% of the foragers choose to fly over this rather than through the mesh 8.
  7. Be sensible about when you conduct your weekly inspections. Not when there’s a children’s party next door, not on the first warm, sunny day for a fortnight (when everyone is outside) and not when there’s a thunderstorm predicted and the bees are already agitated. You’ll find this is surprisingly restrictive. You’ll want to inspect your colony on the same day everyone else is enjoying the good weather. I used to keep my bees about six feet from where my neighbour parked their car to unload the shopping … I lost count of the number of times I had to abandon an inspection as they returned from Sainsburys. And they seemed to do a lot of shopping 🙁
  8. Learn to inspect your colonies well. This is perhaps the most difficult thing to achieve for a beginner. The idea is that you conduct a thorough inspection while causing the minimum disruption to the colony. ‘Thorough‘ so you’re confident about what’s happening in the colony (and so don’t need to do it too frequently). The ‘minimum disruption‘ is important so you don’t leave agitated bees flying around for ages afterwards. This is a skill and is generally only learned with lots of experience – minimal smoke, gentle handling of the frames, proper examination of each frame, no crushed bees (so no alarm pheromone) … with all this being achieved quickly.
  9. Good Varroa management. Controlling Varroa means your colonies are likely to stay strong, so they are less likely to be robbed out by the dozens of other colonies in the area. This is both responsible beekeeping and stops the sort of frenzied mobbing of bees around the hive that are likely to really worry the neighbours.

Forewarned is forearmed

As I’ve said before, the principles of beekeeping are really rather simple. It’s practice – lots of it – that is needed to acquire the necessary skills to keep bees well. I’d argue that good beekeeping is particularly important in towns because your mistakes, or the intransigence of the bees, don’t just cause you a problem. They potentially cause problems – or at least concerns – for your neighbours.

That’s neither fair or responsible.

Some of the best beekeepers I know keep quite large numbers of colonies in surprisingly small suburban gardens. Do not underestimate the skill needed to achieve this. All of them have somehow arrived at a method of beekeeping that addresses all of the points above.

But I’ve also been asked to urgently requeen double brood colonies in tiny town gardens that were so aggressive they needed a double beesuit over a fleece for protection, where the garden was off-limits and where inspections had been completely abandoned.

I hate to think of the problems this caused their neighbours … or the additional bad publicity for beekeeping in general.


Colophon

Urbane means (of a person, especially a man) courteous and refined in manner. It’s derived from Middle French urbain which meant both polite, courteous, elegant and belonging to a city. This in turn is derived from Classical Latin urbanus meaning much the same. For an article about bees in towns the word seemed remarkably appropriate, referencing both cities and the need for courteous and refined behaviour.

Of the bees … and the beekeeper 😉

About the only thing wrong with the current use of the word is that it is usually applied to males.

🙄

 

Principles and practice

There’s a high level of ‘churn’ amongst new beekeepers. Beekeeping is relatively easy and inexpensive to start. The principles of beekeeping appear straightforward. But large numbers of beginners give up after a season or two.

Here I argue that the colonies and hives some of these beginners abandon pose a threat to other beekeepers, sometimes for years …

A better appreciation of the commitment required to successfully practice the principles of beekeeping might increase the success rates of beginners, though it might also dissuade some from starting in the first place.

Save the bees, save humanity

Supermarket bees

Supermarket bees …

Bees are popular. You only need to visit the supermarket, spend time on the High Street or browse the web, to find bees or pollinators mentioned. The plight of the honey bee is extensively documented in the press. In places some of these references are little more than thinly-veiled adverts … there are any number of beers or ales that now include ‘local honey’ to support bees and beekeeping.

So, public awareness is high.

A good thing

In some ways this is a good thing. The public are aware that, for a variety of reasons, our honey bees (and other pollinators, but I’m going to restrict myself to honey bees for the remainder of this post) are facing real problems. Habitat destruction, monoculture, disease, farming practices, global warming, mobile phone masts, parasites, imports and – the current favourite – neonicotinoids, are all/solely (delete as appropriate) to blame for the problems faced by our cute little bees.

Monoculture ... beelicious ...

Monoculture … beelicious …

It’s a good thing because you might get to sell more local honey which, as a consequence, means you’ll look after your bees carefully and manage them to make more honey next year. It’s a good thing – and I’ll declare a vested interest here – because the Government is encouraged to spend money on research to discover what the real threats to honey bees are (hint, it’s probably not mobile phone masts). This money will also help develop ways to mitigate these threats in due course.

There are a lots of other reasons why it’s a good thing. People are designing bee-friendly gardens, they’re planting wild-flower meadows, they’re reducing pesticide usage and favouring biological control or other pest management techniques. Farmers are being encouraged to leave wide field margins or build beetle banks … and some might even be doing this.

Too much of a good thing?

Some people are so concerned about the plight of the honey bee they decide to do the obvious thing and buy a hive and bees for the bottom of their garden. Obvious, because they’ve increased the number of hives and they’ll be getting lots of delicious honey at the end of the summer.

Some attend a winter ‘start beekeeping’ course (or fully intend to next year, once they’ve kept bees for the current season). Some think they’ll be OK with generous offer of telephone support from the person who sold them a midsummer nuc.

Others do this without any training, without any advice and without anyone to mentor them. 

What could possibly go wrong?

These new beekeepers are certainly well-intentioned. They fully intend to help bees. They really think they’re going to help. They love the idea of their own local honey.

Unfortunately, although many might think they appreciate the basic principles of keeping bees, they know very little about the practice of beekeeping.

Principles

Actually, the principles of beekeeping are a little more complicated than buying a hive, dumping a nuc into it and harvesting the honey at the end of the season.

The bees need to be fed when there’s a dearth of nectar, or in preparation for winter. They need to be protected from pests and diseases. They need space to expand. They need to be monitored in case they’re thinking of swarming. If they are, action is needed. And all this needs to be regularly and repeatedly checked throughout the Spring and Summer.

In short, they need to be properly managed. This management is the practice of successful beekeeping.

Without proper management I’d argue that one of the biggest threats to bees and beekeeping is the unmanaged colony (or hive) lurking in the corner of a field.

Practice

It’s easy to overgeneralise here. The following paragraphs are really describing beekeepers in their first few seasons. Experienced beekeepers can modify their management practices to one that suits their bees, environment, climate and strategy. Bear with me.

Inspections need to start before colonies build up too strongly in the Spring. Queens should ideally be found and marked (and clipped in my view, but some prefer not to do this). Inspections continue at 7 day intervals until the swarming season is well and truly over.

Not 11 day intervals … not when “the weather is better than today”, not when “I get back from the  fortnight in Crete”, not when “I can be bothered” … and certainly not only when “the neighbour is angry about the swarm clustered on their garden swing”.

Inspections have to be conducted thoroughly and with a purpose. It’s not a cursory glance in the top of the box. There’s a reason you’re doing it, so do it well.

Inspections must be done even if it’s 32°C in the shade and you’re melting in your beesuit, when the bees are stroppy as the OSR has just gone over and there’s no nectar coming in, when the weather is (again) miserable and all 50,000 will be ‘at home’ (and possibly tetchy as well) and even if you think “surely they’ll be OK for another day or two?”.

They probably won’t.

Hard labour

Beekeeping is hard work. If you’re lucky and the supers are bulging full it can be backbreaking.

You have to work reasonably fast and carefully. Manage only one of these two and, for different reasons, inspections can become tiresome.

You will get stung, though not often if you’re fast and careful and if you have well-tempered bees.

It can be hot as hell in summer and you can get wet, miserable and cold at any time of the season.

Uh oh ... swarming ...

Uh oh … swarming …

It’s not only physically hard, it is also mentally hard. Not like quantum physics, but it still requires quite a bit of thought. Bees are not ‘fit and forget’.

Using a combination of observation, experience and knowledge (and perhaps a little inspired guesswork) you need to determine what’s going on in a forty litre box containing over 50,000 bees. Is there disease present? Is it one you can do anything about? Is it notifiable? Is the queen present and laying well? Is the colony thinking of swarming (hint, a dozen sealed cells is usually an indication the colony has swarmed, not that it’s thinking of swarming 😉 ). Do they have enough stores? Do they need more space?

You need to be prepared for disappointment (and have a contingency plan). Despite your best efforts the colony may swarm. An extended period of lousy summer weather prevents the new queen from getting mated properly. The colony dwindles, is too weak to defend itself and is robbed out by another colony. Any number of things can go wrong.

Bees are managed, not domesticated.

That’s the reality of beekeeping. That’s the practice that underlies the principle of just dumping a nuc of bees in a box in late April and harvesting pound after pound of golden honey in early September.

If only it were that simple!

Beeless “beekeepers”

I regularly meet people who ‘once kept bees’. I’m sure you do to. Further discussion often shows that they certainly once had bees, but that they failed to keep them.

The colony died, was robbed out, repeatedly swarmed, absconded or – much more frequently – these beekeephaders simply lost interest.

Often they aren’t actually sure what happened to the colony. Have you ever asked them?

Their initial enthusiasm was tempered a bit by the first couple of inspections. The colony was getting much bigger, much faster than their experience made them comfortable with. They got a bit frightened but wouldn’t actually admit that. They missed an inspection (or two) as they were in Crete for the family holiday. The colony swarmed. They’d read somewhere that the colony shouldn’t be disturbed for a month, so they didn’t. They remembered again three months later but were then too late for the autumn Varroa treatment. Have you got any fondant to spare? They’ll have another go next year.

Definitely.

It’s not unusual for these hives to be simply abandoned. You find them in the corners of fields or tucked up against the hedge in a large sprawling garden.

Out of sight and out of mind.

Forgotten, but not gone

Forgotten, but not gone …

The gift that keeps on giving

Sometimes the colony limps on for a season or two. More often though it expires in the winter. The hive may then be repopulated the following year by a swarm. They flourish, or more likely perish and are repopulated again. Even if mice move in for winter and wax moth trashes the comb they still attract swarms.

duunnn dunnn ...

duunnn dunnn …

There’s a dozen or more hives like this on private land I know of. Some local beekeepers visit every year or so to collect any swarms that have moved in. I can’t imagine the state of the comb … or the colonies they collect.

But (queue Jaws music … duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun… duuunnnnnnnn dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dunnnnnnnnnnn dunnnn) these abandoned and unmanaged hives mainly provide a great opportunity for Varroa to flourish. Together with both the foul broods, Nosema and goodness knows what else.

The abandoned hives effectively act as bait hives, attracting swarms which become established feral colonies. Most will eventually be decimated by Varroa and its viral payload, but many will chuck out a swarm or two first, or drones that drift from colony to colony. Some will get robbed out as they collapse – perhaps by one of your strong colonies – leading to a huge infestation with phoretic mites carried by the returning robbers.

They’re like a 40 litre cedar version of Typhoid Mary.


† And my extensive market research suggests they are very delicious too 😉

‡ After all, there’s no time like the present to start and the sooner you buy and populate that lovely cedar hive, the faster honey bee colonies numbers will increase. But they will definitely attend the beekeeping course next winter. Absolutely!

Telephone support. Really?! Have you ever tried to give telephone advice to a new beekeeper who’s standing by an open hive, mobile clamped to their ear, desperately looking for eggs, or deciding whether the queen cells are capped or uncapped? I’ve tried … don’t bother. Grab the beesuit and get to the apiary 😉

There are others I know of and have access to. The entrances to these have miraculously become stuffed tight with grass, so preventing their repopulation. How did that happen? 😉

A poor analogy, but it makes the point. Typhoid Mary (Mary Mallon) was an Irish immigrant  New York cook in the early part of the 20th Century. She was also an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, a bacterial infection. During the period 1900-07 she infected at least 51 people, three of whom died. Investigative epidemiology traced a series of typhoid fever outbreaks to places where Mary Mallon worked. She was named Typhoid Mary in a 1908 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon refused to accept that she was infected, was forcibly incarcerated (quarantined) twice and eventually died after three decades of isolation. The analogy is poor because Mary Mallon appeared in good health, whereas these abandoned hives (and the bees they contain) are often pretty skanky. However, the term “like Typhoid Mary” is often used to indicate a source of repeated infection … which is spot on.

 

 

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