Category Archives: Training

Tragedies and triumphs

Synopsis: Beekeeping shouldn’t be “a series of calamities then winter”, though it sometimes feels like that. In the first of a two-part post I look at the real and imagined disasters that can befall you during the season. The reality is that the observant and well-prepared beekeeper can avoid most of the ‘tragedies’, and recover from almost all of them.

Introduction

A few weeks ago I did a live-streamed Q&A with Laurence Edwards from Black Mountain Honey. Some of the questions were both good and interesting, some of the answers were perhaps less so. Before any readers think I’m being rude here I should point out that Laurence was asking the questions – often on behalf of others – and I was answering them.

There were quite a few questions on non-chemical treatment which I was singularly ill-equipped to deal with. Not because I don’t know anything about it, but because I don’t practice it 1 and because I suspect I’m not a good enough beekeeper to be successful if I did try it. There’s clearly a lot of interest in the topic, though I fear much of this is also from beekeepers who are not sufficiently experienced to succeed with it either.

However, there were two questions – or perhaps it was one merged question – that went something like this:

What is your greatest beekeeping success and your biggest beekeeping disaster?

I’m paraphrasing here. I can’t remember the precise wording and daren’t review it on YouTube as I’d then have to listen to my erudite insights inchoate waffle … which would be excruciating.

My answer probably involved asking whether I was restricted to just one disaster … 😉

Let’s get some perspective first

New beekeepers in particular are likely to worry about the “disasters” and overlook some of the “successes” in their first season or two. I therefore thought I’d discuss what I consider are the highs and lows – abbreviated to tragedies and triumphs’ to give the post a snappy title – of the first few years of beekeeping.

Obviously this is biased and based upon my own experience, and from mentoring others. Your experience may be very different … or you may have yet to experience the highs and lows of a beekeeping season.

But before I start using superlatives to describe the chaos of my early efforts at swarm control it’s worth remembering – particularly as the war in Ukraine enters its third week – that I’m only talking about beekeeping here.

In the overall scheme of things it’s simply not very important.

What might feel like a disaster of biblical proportions in the apiary … isn’t.

Yes, it might threaten the productivity, or even the survival, of the colony, but it is only beekeeping 2.

So, having got that out of the way, which do you want first?

The good news or the bad news?

The bad news … how mature 😉

The loss of a hive tool

Clearly I’m being flippant here.

The loss of a hive tool is a minor inconvenience rather than a tragedy.

There you are!

Unless you don’t have a spare and/or you’re about to inspect a dozen heavily-supered hives in the apiary … in which case it’s a major inconvenience.

It’s remarkably easy for a hive tool to fall out of those tall, thin pockets in the sleeve or thigh of your beesuit. Inevitably it falls, not onto closely cropped sward, but into tangled tussocks of rarely-mown grass.

You will probably find it again.

You could spend 15 minutes on your hands and knees retracing your steps since you left the car or you could become a detectorist and conduct a grid-based search, sweeping the area for metal objects.

Neither method is guaranteed to work.

To be certain, you must cut the grass.

But be careful. A glancing contact with the lawnmower or brush cutter and a half-buried hive tool will be damaging at best, and potentially a lot worse 🙁

Hive tools soaking

Hive tools soaking in a solution of soda crystal

Or you can avoid all this grief by keeping a covered bucket in the apiary – a honey bucket is ideal – containing a strong solution of soda crystals. You know exactly where the hive tools are and you soon get into the habit of dropping it back in after an inspection.

Better still, keep two hive tools in the bucket and alternate them as you look at your colonies. The soaking in soda will clean the hive tool, reduce any potential cross-contamination and improve your apiary hygiene.

The loss of a queen

This can be anything from a minor inconvenience to a bit of a calamity.

It very much depends upon the:

  • time of the season
  • whether you notice she’s missing
  • availability of a spare colony

How do you lose a queen? Other than by losing a swarm (see below) the two most likely reasons are cackhanded beekeeping or a queen that fails due to being poorly mated.

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

Losing a queen mid-season, for whatever reason, should be little more than a minor inconvenience. Assuming you notice she’s missing in action you can remove unwanted queen cells, leaving a single charged (i.e. known to contain a fat larva lounging around on a comfortable bed of Royal Jelly) cell, and wait while she pupates, emerges, mates and starts laying.

Nerve racking? Perhaps slightly, but it’s usually a pretty safe bet that things will work out OK.

If, through clumsiness or stupidity 3, you kill the queen during an inspection there should be ample eggs and young larvae for the colony to use when rearing one or more replacements.

Keep your eyes peeled …

But what if you don’t notice she’s missing? You assume she’s there and blithely knock back all the queen cells you can find 4.

Sealed queen cells

You return the next week … all looks good, no more queen cells.

But wait a minute … there are no eggs either 🙁

Under these circumstances you realise the importance of having at least two colonies. You can rescue the queenless colony by donating a frame of eggs from a queenright colony.

With two hives a crisis is rarely a disaster

Queens also fail because they are poorly mated. They either stop laying, or they stop laying fertilised eggs (i.e.they continue to lay unfertilised ones, leaving you with ever-increasing numbers of drones in the colony). The colony might realise and supersede her, or you might be able to rescue the situation with a donated frame of eggs.

I’ll deal with the consequences of a failed or slaughtered queen at the extremities of the season – early or late – below.

The loss of a swarm

It happens to the best of us, and it sometimes seems to happen even if you do your swarm prevention and control by the book 5.

I’ve turned up in the apiary on a warm May afternoon to discover a whirling mass of bees swarming from one of my hives 6.

It’s not a disaster … in fact it’s one of the greatest sights in beekeeping.

With luck the swarm will bivouac nearby and you’ll be able to collect them in a skep and re-hive them late in the afternoon.

A small swarm

A small swarm …

At least it shouldn’t be a disaster, but Sod’s Law usually dictates that …

  1. if you’re there when the swarm emerges, and
  2. you have a skep and sheet with you

… the swarm will alight 45 feet up a Leylandii 🙁

Even then it might end well if you’ve got a suitable bait hive set out nearby.

The time when losing a swarm is a disaster 7 is when you don’t realise you’ve lost a swarm. You find some queen cells, hurriedly knock them all back 8 and then wonder why there are no eggs the following week.

Déjà vu

At which point you’re in a similar situation to the ‘loss of the queen’ I described above … except you’ve also lost up to 75% of the workers from the colony. The situation is still rescuable with a frame of eggs from your other hive 9 but you’re likely to miss out on the major nectar flow.

Could the situation be any worse?

Oh no it can’t … Oh yes it can!

You miss the lost the swarm, you knock back all those queen cells and you then fail to realise there are no eggs or young larvae in the colony until only sealed brood remains (i.e at least 9 days).

Or worse still, until no brood remains (i.e at most 21 days).

With no brood pheromone being produced there’s now a real danger that the colony will develop laying workers. Things now get an order of magnitude more difficult as a colony with laying workers is very difficult to requeen (and generally will not even attempt to rear their own if presented with a frame of eggs).

Drone laying workers ...

Multiple eggs per cell = laying workers (usually)

You’re fast approaching the next of the beekeeping ‘disasters’ …

The loss of a colony

How do you lose a colony?

What was it Elizabeth Barrett Browning said? ’Let me count the ways’ 10.

Natural disasters such as falling trees, winter gales, raging floods, woodpeckers, honey badgers and stampeding elephants 11 can destroy a colony.

Hive toppled by a summer storm

However much care you take – avoiding floodplains, strapping the hives down, seeking shelter (but not near shallow-rooted trees) – sometimes sh1t just happens 12.

You did your best and nature did her worst.

See what you can rescue and try again next year.

Queen loss at the start or end of the season

Losing a queen very early or very late in the season – for whatever reason – is a problem. There’s no chance of the colony rearing another – it’s too cold and/or there are no drones available. I suppose there’s an outside chance you could requeen the colony – if you had a queen available 13 – but doing so involves quite a bit of risk.

If the queen fails overwinter, all the bees in the box will be very old by the time your colony inspection confirms she’s firing blanks, or not firing at all. The chances of successfully requeening the hive are slim at best.

Although that colony is effectively lost – at least if it happens late in the season – it’s not an unmitigated disaster if you have another hive 14. You can unite the queenless colony over a queenright colony very late into the autumn, strengthening the latter and (at least) using the bees from the former, rather than condemning them to a lingering death.

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/Swienty hybrid hive … uniting colonies in midsummer

I wouldn’t bother trying to unite a queenless colony (or one with a failed queen) at the very beginning of the season. The remaining bees will be pretty decrepit and there won’t be many of them. It’s unlikely they would contribute in a meaningful way to the successful build-up of another colony.

Winter losses through starvation

These are unfortunately common and often entirely avoidable.

Small-scale surveys from the BBKA and SBA often report winter colony losses of 20-30%, and up to 50% in some years. Large scale surveys, like the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) one in the USA, have reported annual colony losses – the majority of which occur in the winter – exceeding 40% in all but two years since 2013.

Bee Informed Partnership loss and management survey

I’ve lost colonies through both starvation and disease.

In both cases it was entirely my fault 🙁

It was a disaster for the bees and it was a sobering and educational experience for me.

I discussed starvation, and how to avoid it, in winter weight a couple of weeks ago. I won’t rehash it here, but I will repeat again that the bees are still in the ‘danger zone’.

Time for another?

Time for another? Definitely.

There’s little nectar available and they are busy rearing brood. Their need for stores is probably higher now than at any time over the last 4-5 months.

At best, a shortage will hold the colony back. At worst they’ll die of starvation.

All of which is completely avoidable by ensuring they have ample stores at the beginning of the winter, and then by keeping an eye on the weight of the colony as they enter the spring. If you’re adding fondant in late December it’s likely the colony had insufficient stores to start with … but at least you’re keeping a check on the weight of the colony.

Winter losses due to disease

I suspect that the majority of winter losses are not due to starvation but are instead due to inadequate or incorrect Varroa management.

This is a topic that has been covered numerous times in posts here. The most recent overarching review of the topic is probably Rational Varroa Control. Versions of this appeared in the August 2020 BBKA Newsletter and in The Scottish Beekeeper in the same month.

Successful Varroa control requires an understanding of the treatments available and the pros and cons of using them on your bees and in your location/climate. Too many beekeepers simply want to know whether they should add Apiguard in the third week of August or middle of September.

Apivar strip on wire hangar

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.

But that doesn’t mean it’s particularly difficult either.

Unlike many of the other diseases of honey bees – e.g. chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV), Nosema and the foulbroods – there are effective treatments to control Varroa and the damaging viruses that it transmits.

Losing a colony in June to CBPV is possibly unavoidable (it’s just bad luck) but losing one to Varroa/DWV in January – which is largely avoidable – might well be bad beekeeping.

In both cases of course it’s a disaster for the colony 🙁

Disaster

The meaning of disaster is ‘An event or occurrence of a ruinous or very distressing nature; a calamity; esp. a sudden accident or natural catastrophe that causes great damage or loss of life’. Its origins date back to the mid-16th Century.

Some of the ‘disasters’ I’ve described above involve the loss of just one life – that of the queen. For the reasons I describe, they’re not really disasters at all, or shouldn’t be for the observant and well prepared beekeeper.

Locally bred queen ...

Locally bred queen …

They become disasters i.e. causing great damage or loss of life, if you miss the tell-tale signs and so contribute to the eventual demise of the colony.

The avoidable loss of a queen or a colony is a distressing experience, or at least it should be 15.

If it is distressing then it will probably also be a learning experience.

Analyse what went wrong and work out how you might prevent it happening again in the future.

We have a duty of care for the bees we manage. I don’t like losing colonies, but it still happens infrequently. When it does I try and determine whether it was just fate … or my incompetence (or – let’s be generous – my actions or inactions) that caused the loss.

And the times you manage to work out where you went wrong are the foundations for your beekeeping triumphs in the future … which is what we’ll return to next week.


 

What they don’t tell you

Synopsis: The details they don’t tell you on a ’Start beekeeping’ course are almost as important as the things they do teach. By definition these courses tend to be ‘fact heavy’. They omit some of the less tangible, and sometimes less pleasant, aspects of our hobby. These are mine, but all experienced beekeepers will have their own list of what they learnt after the course ended.

Introduction

I’ve only taken one ’Start beekeeping’ course. It was well organised, it got most of the basics right (in retrospect … I obviously no idea at the time 😉 ) and it provided a good foundation for my first season. Like many of these winter courses, it was spread over two months and timed to produce a ‘swarm’ of novice beekeepers when it was almost warm enough to open some hives for the practical sessions.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

It was held on weekday evenings and consisted of two 45-60 minute sessions separated by tea and biscuits. The refreshments were an integral and essential part of the course. Biscuits – or, better yet, cake – and tea hugely improve the beekeeping experience.

I’ll return to tea and biscuits in a minute.

The basics included talks on the biology of the honey bee, the beekeeping year, equipment, swarm control, diseases, honey and wax (and a bunch of stuff I’ve forgotten by now). It was therefore probably like most other courses that are being held up and down the country at the moment.

However, good though the course was, there are a bunch of things the course didn’t cover, but perhaps could have.

Here are some of them …

You will spend a lot more than you expect

Beekeeping can be practised relatively inexpensively, but it often isn’t.

The lure of the mail-order catalogue is strong.

The ‘must haves’ are too numerous to mention.

By the time a new beekeeper has bought a hive, a beesuit, some bees, a nuc box, frames, hive tool, smoker and one of those essential combo sugar-duster and frame-brushes, there’s probably not a lot of change out of £500 1.

And it could be a whole lot more. A cedar assembled National hive alone costs almost £500 these days.

At the beginning it makes sense to buy secondhand if you can. As long as the equipment comes from a disease-free source the bees will do just as well in a 30 year old cedar box as one purchased new. Ask around your association if there are beginners from the course last year who decided beekeeping wasn’t for them …

Thorne's budget hive ...

Thorne’s ‘bees on a budget’ hive …

… and if you have spare equipment, offer it to a new beekeeper rather than finding a corner of the shed to hide it in for another year or two. When I left the Midlands 2 I gave away lots of homemade 3 nuc boxes and other kit, much of which was perfectly serviceable and is still in use now.

And remember that although you often buy beekeeping equipment flat-packed, you can’t store it flat-packed … all those boxes take lots of space and you’re going to need a bigger shed.

Late November in the bee (storage) shed …

Remember also that the ’speculate to accumulate’ justification i.e you need more supers/nuc boxes or whatever to make money from your bees, can be easily undermined by lousy swarm control or a cool, wet summer.

It might work for a year or two … but I can guarantee it does not work for a decade 😉

Observe, think, have a cuppa, then do …

There are few things in beekeeping that need immediate attention.

’Act in haste, repent at leisure’ is an aphorism that’s worth remembering.

If 4 you’re faced with a problem you don’t understand it’s often a good idea to close up the hive and take some time to think about things.

The classic ’Aargh! panic’ situation for new beekeepers is discovering sealed queen cells in the hive and immediately squidging them all to prevent the imminent loss of a swarm.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

What else was in the hive?

Did you see the queen? No … but then you’ve not seen her for weeks, so what’s new?

But you don’t need to see the queen to be reasonably certain that the colony is queenright. All you need to see are eggs. An egg takes three days to hatch after, so if you can see eggs you can be certain that there was a queen present within the last 3 days 5.

Did you see eggs? Er, no.

What about developing larvae? You can’t remember?

Of course, the likely scenario is that the queen cells were sealed because the colony has already swarmed. There are no eggs or young larvae (or possibly any larvae) because the old queen vamoosed with the swarm several days ago.

So, by acting in haste – and crushing all those sealed queen cells – the colony is left with no developing queens and no larvae from which to produce a new queen.

In fact, the colony is now terminally queenless 🙁

Far better – on discovering the queen cells – to have a good look through the rest of the hive, close it up and have a think and a cuppa while you work out the correct course of action.

Then act …

You will make mistakes

“We learn from failure, not from success!” 6.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes when beekeeping.

I’ve had a lot of failures.

But, by thinking about where I went wrong, I’ve often learnt how to avoid doing it again 7.

Probably my first real clanger was inadvertently and unknowingly crushing the queen on my second or third ever inspection.

Oops.

But it gets worse.

At the next inspection, a week later, I (unsurprisingly) discovered a load of queen cells.

Uh oh! Swarming already?

If you re-read the section above I describe exactly how I dealt with that little conundrum 😉

D’Oh!

I knocked back all the queen cells and only retrospectively wondered why there were no eggs or larvae in the hive.

It was a useful learning experience.

Beekeeping looks quite easy, but there’s a lot to learn and the bees don’t always do quite what’s expected of them. A combination of good observation, good record keeping and retrospective thought should mean that the mistakes you will inevitably make aren’t wasted opportunities to learn how to avoid a repeat performance.

I don’t think I’ve ever left a colony terminally queenless in the same way again, but I’ve had ample other ’learning opportunities’ in subsequent years.

Perhaps fewer each year, but enough to keep me entertained … and educated.

Don’t underestimate the benefits of mentoring

Most well organised and responsible associations will ‘buddy up’ trainee beekeepers with a more experienced mentor. The idea is that the mentor is available to provide help and advice as and when needed. When it works well it’s a great arrangement.

You might get your first nuc from your mentor, and you may get some help with your first couple of hive inspections. If things go wrong, and they will (see above), your mentor should be able to provide the advice needed to avoid turning a drama into a crisis.

I wrote about Better mentoring several years ago. It’s a post that could probably do with an update.

However, the real ’benefits of mentoring’ are probably to be gained when you’re the mentor, not the mentee.

Mentor and mentee

Mentors do not need to be hugely experienced beekeepers. In fact, I’d argue that it’s sometimes better if they only have a season or two of successful beekeeping under their belt.

A very experienced beekeeper probably knows all the answers 8, but the mentee will only properly learn when they’re helped rather than told. In contrast, with one or two (successful) years experience, the mentor knows enough of the the basics to avoid disasters, but is more likely to do the ‘thinking out loud’ and work through the problem with the mentee.

And, while doing this ‘thinking out loud’ the mentor also learns.

Did I already say that tea and cake helps? It does.

I learnt more about beekeeping when mentoring others than when being mentored 9.

Lots more.

If and when you get the opportunity to mentor a new beekeeper grab it. You might feel you don’t know it all (you don’t), but you probably know enough. And, by being a mentor, you’ll get to know a whole lot more.

It can be hard physical work

Unless you’re young and fit and strong, and even if you’re young and fit and strong, beekeeping will be tough on your back. Hives are heavy, but moved relatively infrequently. Supers can be very heavy and – with luck – you’ll be lifting a lot once or twice a season.

And it’s not just your back.

Unused winter stores … surprisingly heavy

Frames, particularly frames full of stores, are heavy. Unless I’m careful I get aches and pains in my fingers from the strain of handling lots of frames during inspections 10.

I don’t remember any of this being discussed in my ’Start beekeeping’ course.

I’ve had one or two seasons spoilt by a bad back. Most recently it was due to tripping over something 11 in long grass when carrying three full supers. This is definitely not recommended. The bees were upset and I had back pains until the end of the season.

Learn how to lift properly. Make sure you have clear space around your feet and somewhere suitable to place the moved boxes. All entirely obvious and very much a case of do as I say, don’t do as I do.

But the physical nature of beekeeping doesn’t stop with lifting.

Most beesuits provide good protection against bees, but only by being made of rather thick material. Therefore, on a hot day, they can get very warm indeed. The veil reduces air movement around your head, so the natural cooling from perspiration isn’t very effective.

Sweating in a beesuit

Admittedly they’re not needed a lot in Scotland, but these gel-filled, water-soaked neck wraps are excellent. They provide cooling for hours at a time. I’ve had mine for about 20 years now and I’m not sure if there’s a UK distributor, though you can get them in Holland.

Or just leave the inspection to a cooler day 😉

You will lose swarms

In about my third season I had about half a dozen colonies. I’d done some splits the year before and had my first tentative go at queen rearing.

I was beginning to really enjoy beekeeping.

Which didn’t mean I necessarily was any good at it, or had much of a clue about what to do 😉

My swarm prevention was poor and my swarm control was hopeless (bordering on non-existent).

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

At one point in late May or early June I didn’t have a single hive with a laying queen in it. They’d all swarmed.

I had at least learned not to knock back all the queen cells. A small victory.

Queen open mating success is about 75-80% and I think all the hives were eventually queenright. However, I still felt both helpless and hopeless standing in an apiary with 6 hives and no queens.

I think the secret of swarm prevention is to start early … young queens, give them space etc.

I know the secret of swarm control is to use a method you absolutely understand and have total confidence in. Learn why it works, learn the wrinkles. Understand the timing of whatever hive manipulations are needed.

It might be something as simple as making up a nuc with the old queen and letting the colony re-queen itself. Or it might involve a Snelgrove board, a 47 page manual and visits to the apiary every 21 hours for 3 weeks to open and close all those damned doors.

Whatever floats your boat.

Whatever floats your boat

Unsurprisingly I use the nucleus method for 90% of my swarm control, and in many years use nothing else.

In my hands it’s idiot proof. It needs to be.

Since you will lose a swarm or two, set out bait hives. If you’re lucky your swarm will take up residence and you can pretend you never lost it in the first place.

Swarm arriving at bait hive ...

Swarm arriving at bait hive …

If you’re really lucky you’ll notice scout bees checking out your bait hive, realise there’s a colony thinking of swarming nearby, check your own hives and discover an unsealed queen cell.

Keep your veil on to hide that smug smile 😉

Joseph Merrick

One of the skills new beekeepers need to acquire is how to judge the temperament of a colony. Some bees are naturally feisty and, knowing this, you don your beesuit and gloves well in advance 12. Other bees are calm and stay calm whatever abuses are visited upon them. You drop a frame – or a super – they buzz around a little but remain remarkably unfazed.

But most bees are between these extremes. They’re fine until they say ’enough’s enough’.

The first secret of not getting stung is to avoid forcing the bees to become defensive. Don’t crush bees when manipulating frames or replacing queen excluders. It takes a few seconds more to do it gently having brushed/encouraged the bees out of the way. Avoid opening the hive in thundery weather.

But the other secret of not getting stung is being able to judge that the colony is getting riled up. If you realise they’re getting agitated you’ll take extra care.

You might even decide to close up the colony and start again another day.

There’s no shame in a tactical withdrawal …

If they’re really agitated the other thing to take care with is removing your beesuit. I generally don’t react to stings on the hand, forearm, ankle or upper thigh 13, but I react badly when stung on the face.

Stings around the lips, eyes or tongue can be temporarily disfiguring and, for some, dangerous or even life-threatening.

The few really bad stings I’ve received were to the face after removing my veil too soon after inspecting a poorly tempered colony 14.

This is the reason I consider ‘following’ one of the worst possible traits in bees, and something I rigorously exclude when selecting stock for queen rearing (or colonies for requeening).

You will be amazed how good your first honey is

If you get to late August with a strong queenright colony and a frame or three of honey, well done. You’re half way to becoming a beekeeper.

12ox hex jar with clear (runny) honey. The Apiarist

12ox hex jar …

Enjoy the honey. It tastes even better knowing that you worked with the colony to produce it.

You will miraculously develop a wider circle of friends, and long-lost family members will appear wanting to know all about your new hobby.

And test the honey 😉

In your first season just buy 4 oz or 8 oz jars … any larger and there won’t be enough to go round 😉

Get the bees through the winter, healthy, queenright and expanding well, and you’ll have successfully completed your first full year.

Now you’re a beekeeper 🙂


 

Why keep bees

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In April they should get to see inside a hive.

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

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

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

But for most it will be something in between.

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

In the beginning

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

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

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

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

However, I was interested in bees.

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

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

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

Save the bees, save humanity

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

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

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

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

Define ‘recognisable’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self sufficiency

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

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

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

I’m beginning to realise it isn’t 😉

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

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

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

Not unlike gold … liquid gold.

Honey

Honey

And, like gold, other people value it.

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

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

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

Profit

Are you mad?

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

But they are beekeepers, not accountants 13.

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

The losses, the bad years, the bad back?

Winter losses

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

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

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

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

I suspect rather few achieve their ambition 🙁

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

Why I keep bees now

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

There is always something more to learn.

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

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

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

Moving to higher ground ...

Moving to higher ground …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zen and the science of honey bees

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

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

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

And there are many others.

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

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

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

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

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

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

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

Everyone is interested in bees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Beekeeping fantasy vs. reality

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

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

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

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

Not the best time to start beekeeping

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

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

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

Competitive beekeeping

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

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

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

Think about the annual honey shows.

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

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

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

And I lost … a lot 🙁

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

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

3 … 2 … 1 … GO!

With Martha Kearney doing the commentary … 3

The best hive

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

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

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

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

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

The B-BOX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philips Urban beehive

Wow. 

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

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

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

Smart hives

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

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

The Beewise ‘Beehome’ robotic beehive

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

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

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

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

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

What?

I thought you’d never ask … $400.

A month.

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

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

It’s more like factory farming.

Save the bees

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

Hives in reality

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

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

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

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

Like a hollow tree.

Or a dustbin.

Or a variety of beehive types …

Gaffer tape apiary

Gaffer tape apiary …

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

Aesthetically perhaps less attractive, but perfectly functional.

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

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

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

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

Uniting with newspaper ...

Uniting with newspaper …

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

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

And the crownboard is a piece of thick polythene.

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

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

Suits you Sir!

What about the protective clothing?

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

The reality is a little less flattering. 

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

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

And now back to reality 😉

Beesuits aren’t particularly flattering.

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

Everything … looks big in a beesuit.

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

Angelina Jolie and some slightly grubbier beekeepers

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

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

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

And it doesn’t stop there

I’ve had a great beekeeping year.

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

Show me the Honey!

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

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

I’m being polite there.

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

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

Good morning Glenrothes

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

Ewwww

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

Go west young man …

That’s the reality of a beekeeping season.

It’s been fantastic.

I wouldn’t have it any other way 🙂


 

Waiting

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

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

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

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

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

A spring swarm in a skep

Not always successfully 🙁

Latitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignore Twitter

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

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

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

No flying today

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

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

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

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

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

Worrying times.

Fretting

Perhaps they’ve gone queenless?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting

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

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

The non-flying colony just sat there and sulked 🙁

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

What a relief …

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the sulking?

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

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

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

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

Patience, young grasshopper

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

You can’t rush them.

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

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

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

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

Queen rearing

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

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

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

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

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

OSR ... can you believe it?!

Late April 2016 … OSR and snow

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

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

It pays to wait.

Queen mating

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

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

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

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

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

Returning a marked and clipped queen to a nuc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enthusiastic beginners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could possibly go wrong?

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

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

Or worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D’oh!

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

Altogether not ideal.

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

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

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


 

“Start beekeeping” courses

It’s mid-January. If you are an experienced beekeeper in the UK you’re being battered by the remnants of Storm Brendan and wondering whether the roofs are still on your hives.

If my experience is anything to go by, they’re not 🙁

But if you’re a trainee beekeeper you may well be attending a course on Starting Beekeeping, run by your local beekeeping association. Typically these run through the first 1- 3 months of the year, culminating in an apiary visit in April.

Trainee beekeepers

Trainee beekeepers

Sometimes a not-really-warm-enough-to-be doing-this apiary visit in April 🙁

Beekeeping, just like driving a car

Many years ago I attended the Warwick and Leamington Beekeepers Introduction to Beekeeping course. It was a lot of fun and I met some very helpful beekeepers.

But I learnt my beekeeping in their training apiary over the following years; initially as a new beekeeper, and subsequently helping instruct the cohort of trainees attending the course and apiary sessions the following year(s).

Teaching someone else is the best way to learn.

The distinction between the theoretical and practical aspects of the subject are important. You can learn the theory in a classroom, refreshed with tea and digestive biscuits, with the wind howling around outside.

Plain chocolate are preferable

However, it is practical experience that makes you a beekeeper, and you can only acquire these skills by opening hives up – lots of them – and understanding what’s going on.

Some choose never to go this far 1, others try but never achieve it. Only a proportion are successful – this is evident from the large number who take winter courses compared to the relatively modest growth in beekeeper numbers (or association memberships).

Beekeeping is like driving a car. You can learn the theory from a book, but that doesn’t mean you are able to drive. Indeed, the practical skills you lack may mean you are a liability to yourself and others.

Fortunately, the consequences of insufficient experience in beekeeping are trivial in comparison to inexperienced drivers and road safety.

Theoretical beekeeping

What should an ‘introduction to beekeeping’ course contain?

Which bits are necessary? What is superfluous?

Should it attempt to be all encompassing (queen rearing methods, Taranov swarm control, Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus) or pared back to the bare minimum?

Who should deliver it?

I don’t necessarily know, but for a variety of reasons I’ve been giving it some thought(s) … and here they are.

The audience and the intended outcome

You have to assume that those attending the course know little or nothing about bees or beekeeping. If you don’t there’s a good chance some of the audience will be alienated before you start 2.

When I started I had never seen inside a beehive. I don’t think I even knew what a removable frame was. Others on the course had read half a dozen books already. Some had already purchased a hive.

Some even had bees (or ‘hoped they were still alive’ as it was their first winter) 😯

I felt ignorant when others on the course were asking Wouldn’t brood and a half be better? or I’ve read that wire framed queen excluders are preferable.

Framed wire QE ...

Preferable to what?

What’s a queen excluder?

By working from first principles you know what has been covered, you ensure what is covered is important and you keep everyone together.

Some on the course like the idea of keeping bees, but will soon get put off by the practicalities of the discipline. That doesn’t mean they can’t still be catered for on the course. It can still be interesting without being exclusive 3.

But, of course, the primary audience are the people who want to learn how to keep bees successfully.

For that reason I think the intended outcome is to teach sufficient theory so that a new beekeeper, with suitable mentoring, can:

  • acquire and house a colony
  • inspect it properly
  • prevent it swarming, or know what to do if it does
  • manage disease in the colony
  • prepare the colony for winter and overwinter it successfully

The only thing I’d add to that list is an indication of how to collect honey … but don’t get their hopes up by discussing which 18 frame extractor to purchase or how to use the Apimelter 😉

Course contents

I’m not going to give an in-depth breakdown of my views of what an introduction to beekeeping course should contain, but I will expand on a few areas that I think are important.

The beekeeping year and the principles of beekeeping

I’d start with an overview of a typical beekeeping year. This shouldn’t be hugely detailed, it simply sets out what happens and when.

It provides the temporal context to which the rest of the course can refer. It emphasises the seasonality of beekeeping. The long periods of inactivity and the manic days in May and early June. It can be quite ‘light touch’ and might even end with a honey tasting session.

Or mead … 😉

‘Typical’ means you don’t need to qualify everything – if the spring is particularly warm or unless there’s no oil seed rape near you – just focus on an idealised year with normal weather, the expected forage and the usual beekeeping challenges.

The normal beekeeping challenges

But this part of the course should also aim to clearly emphasise the principles and practice of beekeeping.

Success, whether measured by jars of honey or overwintered colonies, requires effort. It doesn’t just happen.

Hive inspections are not optional. They cannot be postponed because of family holidays 4, weekend breaks in Bruges, or going to the beach because the weather is great.

Great weather … good for swarming and swimming

Quite the opposite. From late April until sometime in July you have to inspect colonies at weekly intervals.

Whatever the weather (within reason).

Not every 9-12 days.

Not just before and when you return from a fortnight in Madeira 🙁

Andalucian apiary

While you’re looking at these Andalusian hives your colony might be swarming.

And hive inspections involve heavy lifting (if you’re lucky), and inadvertently squidging a few bees when putting the hive back together, and possibly getting stung 5.

The discussion of the typical year must mention Varroa management. This is a reality for 99% of beekeepers and it is our responsibility to take appropriate action in a timely manner (though the details of how and when can be saved for a later discussion of disease).

Finally, this part of the course should emphasise the importance of preparing colonies properly for the winter. This again necessitates mentioning disease control.

By covering the principles and practice of a typical year in beekeeping the trainee beekeepers should be prepared from the outset for the workload involved, and have an appreciation for the importance of timing.

We have to keep up with the bees … and the pace they go (or grow) at may not be the same every year, or may not quite fit our diaries.

Bees and beekeeping

There is a long an interesting history of beekeeping and an almost limitless number of fascinating things about bees. Some things I’d argue are essential, others are really not needed and can be safely ignored.

Bee boles in Kellie Castle, Fife, Scotland … skep beekeeping probably isn’t an essential course component.

Of the essential historical details I’d consider the development of the removable frame hive is probably the most important. Inevitably this also involves a discussion of bee space – a gap that the bees do not fill with propolis or wax. Of course, bee space was known about long before Langstroth found a way to exploit it with the removable frame hive.

The other historical area often covered is the waggle dance, but I’d argue that this is of peripheral relevance to beekeeping per se. However, it could be used to introduce the concept of communication in bees.

And once the topic turns to bees there’s almost no limit what could be included. Clearly an appreciation of the composition of the colony and how it changes during the season is important. This leads to division of labour and the caste system.

It also develops the idea of the colony as a superorganism, which has a bearing on swarm preparation, management and control.

Queen development

Queen development …

Probably most important is the development cycle of the queen, workers and drones. A proper understanding of this allows an appreciation of colony build-up, the timing of swarming and queen replacement, and is very important for the correct management of Varroa.

As with the beekeeping year, sticking to what is ‘typical’ avoids confusion. No need to mention laying workers, two-queen hives, or thelytokous parthenogenesis.

Keep on message!

Equipment

What a minefield?!

As long as the importance of compatibility is repeatedly stressed you should be OK.

An Abelo/cedar hybrid hive ...

An Abelo/cedar hybrid hive …

A little forethought is needed here. Are you (or the association) going to provide your beginners with bees?

I’d argue, and have before, that you really should.

Will the bees be on National frames? 14 x 12’s? One of several different Langstroth frames? Smiths?

Or packages?

I said it was a minefield.

Beginners want to be ready for the season ahead. They want to buy some of that lovely cedar and start building boxes. They need advice on what to buy.

What they buy must be influenced by how they’re going to start with bees. One of the easiest ways around this is to allocate them a mentor and let them lead on the specifics (assuming they’ll be getting bees from their mentor).

One thing that should be stressed is the importance of having sufficient compatible equipment to deal with swarming (which we’ll be coming to shortly).

Dummy board needed ...

5 frame poly nucleus hive needing a dummy board …

My recommendation would be to buy a full hive with three supers and a compatible polystyrene nucleus hive. In due course beginners will probably need a second hive, but (if you teach the simplest form of swarm control – see below) not in the first year. A nuc box will be sufficient.

Swarming and swarm control

Swarming is often considered to be confusing 6.

It doesn’t need to be.

The life cycle of the bee and the colony have been covered already. Swarming and queen cells is just honey bee reproduction … or it’s not swarming at all but an attempt to rescue the otherwise catastrophic loss of a queen 🙁

Deciding which is important and should influence the action(s) taken.

The determinants that drive swarming are reasonably well understood – space, age of the queen etc. The timing of the events, and the importance of the timing of the events leading to swarming is very well understood.

Preventative measures are therefore easy to discuss. Ample space. Super early. Super often.

It’s swarm control that often causes the problem.

And I think one of the major issues here is the attempts to explain the classic Pagden artificial swarm. Inevitably this involves some sort of re-enactment, or an animated Powerpoint slide, or a Tommy Cooper-esque “Glass, bottle … bottle, glass” demonstration 7.

Often this is confounded by the presenters’ left and right being the audiences right and left.

Confused? You will be.

Far better to simply teach a nucleus hive-based swarm control method. Remove the old queen, a frame of emerging brood, a frame of stores and a few shakes of bees. Take it to a distant apiary (or block the entrance with grass etc. but this adds confusion) and leave a single open charged queen cell in the original hive.

This method uses less equipment, involves fewer apiary visits, but still emphasises the need for a thorough understanding of the queen development cycle.

And, to avoid confusion, I wouldn’t teach any other forms of swarm control.

Yes, there are loads that work, but beginners need to understand one that will always work for them. Hopefully they’ve got dozens of summers of beekeeping ahead of them to try alternatives.

I think swarm control is one area where the KISS principle should be rigorously applied.

Disease prevention and management

Colony disease is a reality but you need to achieve a balance between inducing paranoia and encouraging complacency.

This means knowing how to deal with the inevitable, how to identify the possible and largely ignoring the rest.

The inevitable is Varroa and the viruses it transmits. And, of at least half a dozen viruses it does transmit, only deformed wing virus needs to be discussed. The symptoms are readily identifiable and if you have symptomatic bees – and there can be no other diagnosis – you have a Varroa problem and need to take action promptly.

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

Worker bee with DWV symptoms

In an introductory course for new beekeepers I think it is inexcusable to promote alternate methods of Varroa control other than VMD-approved treatments.

And, even then, I’d stick to just two.

Apivar in late summer and a trickle of Api-Bioxal solution in midwinter.

Used properly, at the right time and according to the manufacturer’s instructions, these provide excellent mite management.

Don’t promote icing sugar shaking, drone brood removal, small cell foundation, Old Ron’s snake oil or anything else that isn’t documented properly 8.

Almost always there will be questions about treatment-free beekeeping.

My view is that this has no place in a beginners course for beekeepers.

The goal is to get a colony successfully through the full season. An inexperienced beekeeper attempting to keep bees without treatment in their first year is a guaranteed way to lose both the colony and, probably, a disillusioned trainee beekeeper from the hobby.

To lose one may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness. 9

Once they know how to keep bees alive they can explore ways to keep them alive without treatment … and they will have the experience necessary to make up for the colony losses.

In terms of other diseases worth discussing then Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus (CBPV) is rapidly increasing in prevalence. Again the symptoms are pretty characteristic. Unlike DWV and Varroa it’s not yet clear what to do about it. Expect to see more of it in the next few years.

Nosema should probably be mentioned as should the foulbroods. The latter are sufficiently uncommon to be a minor concern, but sufficiently devastating to justify caution.

By focusing on the things that might kill the colony – or result in it being destroyed 🙁 – you’re obviously only scratching the surface of honey bee pests and pathogens. But it’s a start and it covers the most important things.

Most beginners have colonies that never get strong enough for CBPV to be a problem. Conversely, their weakness means that wasps might threaten them towards the end of the season, so should probably be discussed.

And, of course, the Asian hornet if you’re in an area ‘at risk’.

My beekeeping year

By this time the beginners have an overview of an idealised beekeeping year, an appreciation of the major events in the year – swarming, disease management, the honey harvest and preparation for winter.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

But an ideal wrap-up session to a starting beekeeping course would be the account of a real first year from a new beekeeper.

What were the problems? How did they attempt to solve them? What happened in the end?

This asks a lot of a relatively inexperienced beekeeper. Not least of which is good record keeping (but of course, they learnt this on the course the previous year 😉 ).

However, the comparison between the ‘textbook’ account delivered during the course with the ‘sweating in a beesuit’ reality of someone standing by an open hive feeling totally clueless is very enlightening.

Sweating in a beesuit

With sufficient preparation you could even turn it into a quiz to test what the trainees have understood.

I’ve seen several ‘starting beekeeping’ courses. All have had some of the things described above. None have had all of them. Most have included superfluous information, or in some cases, dangerous misinformation.

Which brings neatly me to the question of who should teach the course?

If you can do, if you can’t teach

Ensuring that everything is covered at the right time, avoiding duplication and maintaining the correct emphasis takes skill for one person. For a group of individuals it requires a lot of preparation and strict instructions not to drift off topic.

You might have noticed that many experienced beekeepers like to talk.

A lot.

A course handbook becomes an essential – both to help the students and as a guide to keep “on message” for the tutors.

Often it is some of the most experienced beekeepers who teach these courses.

Some are outstanding. Others less so.

Their years of experience often means they take for granted the subtleties that are critical. The difference between play cups and a 1-2 day old queen cell. A reduced laying rate by the queen. How to tell when there is a nectar flow on, and when it stops.

All of this, to them, is obvious.

They forget just how much they have learned from the hundreds of hives they have opened and the thousands of frames they have examined. They’ve reached the stage when it looks like they have a sixth sense when it comes to finding the queen.

Queen rearing course

Listen up Grasshopper!

As Grasshopper says to the old, blind master 10 “He said you could teach me a great knowledge”.

Possibly.

But sometimes they’ve retained some archaic approaches that should have been long-forgotten. They were wrong then, they still are. Paint your cedar hives with creosote. Use matchsticks to ventilate the hive in winter. Apistan is all you need for Varroa control.

 

Matchless matches

If any readers of this post have had these suggested on a course they are currently attending then question the other things that have been taught.

Get a good book that focuses on the essentials. I still think Get started in beekeeping by Adrian and Claire Waring is the best book for beginners that I’ve read 11.

Get a good mentor … you’re going to need one.

And good luck!


 

Teaching in the bee shed

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

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

Or knew, but forgot. Possibly more than once.

If you forget the dummy board they will build brace comb in the gap 🙁

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

Learning from bees and beekeeping

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

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

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

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

Shed life

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

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

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

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

Or yours.

Bee shed inspections

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

All of which was surprisingly accurate.

Bee shed inspections in the rain

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

Open colony in the bee shed

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

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

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

Seeing and understanding

Practical beekeeping involves a lot of observation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Access

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

Hives in the bee shed

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

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

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

Kippered

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

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

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

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

Which brings us back to access again.

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

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

Broiled

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

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

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

Phew!

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

The same cannot be said of the beekeeper.

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

Bee shelters

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

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

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

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

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

A bee shelter

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


 

Queen marking

You don’t need to see the queen during your weekly inspection of the colony. There are clues that are usually enough to tell you the colony is queenright. These include the general temper and demeanour of the colony, the presence of ‘polished’ cells ready for the queen to lay eggs in and, of course, the presence of eggs.

Of these, temper can be influenced by weather or forage availability 1 so might be less trustworthy.

Queenright?

Queenright?

And, of course, eggs only tell you the queen was present when they were laid … so sometime in the last three days.

Seeing is believing

If you really want to be certain there is a queen present – for example, because you need to put her in a specific place for swarm control using a Pagden artificial swarm or the nucleus method – then you need to find the queen.

I’ve discussed this before so won’t cover the subject again.

Having found her, how can you make it easier to find her again?

The obvious (pun intended) thing to do it to mark her in a way that makes her distinctive. She will therefore be easy to see amongst the thousands of her daughters running around the hive.

Marked queen surrounded by a retinue of workers.

Her majesty …

There are additional advantages to marking the queen.

The presence of a blob of paint also provides some temporal information.

If you find an unmarked queen in a hive that you know was previously occupied by a marked queen then:

  • the colony has swarmed and requeened itself … and your inspections are too infrequent!
  • the marked queen has been superceded 2. It’s not unusual to find an unmarked queen in a hive at the first inspection of the season, suggesting that the colony superceded the queen late in the previous year, or …
  • the paint has worn away 😉

If you use different coloured markings for different years you can even determine the age of the queen.

Tipp-Ex, Humbrol or Posca

You mark the queen by placing a contrasting spot of coloured paint on the top of her thorax.

Tipp-Ex (typing correction fluid) works perfectly well though the usual applicator brush is a bit too broad. It dries rapidly and the aliphatic hydrocarbon solvents it contains do not appear to adversely affect the odour of the queen.

Tipp-Ex is only available in white. Contrasting certainly, but this gives no opportunity to indicate the year the queen was reared.

As an alternative you can use one of the ~180 Humbrol Enamel paints. These are used by model makers to paint their locomotives, toy soldiers or Airfix kits and so are available in a wide range of not very useful shades like Dark Camouflage Grey or RAF Blue.

Fortunately they are also sold in some rather strident yellows, reds and greens that should be visible in the hive.

Humbrol Enamel paints are sold in small, rather fiddly little tins. Not ideal when you’re wearing gloves and a beesuit. They need shaking/mixing before use, open easily with the thin blade of a hive tool and can be applied with the end of a matchstick.

Despite the solvent base of Humbrol Enamel paint, it doesn’t dry particularly fast. I’ve only used it a few times and abandoned it in favour of …

Posca are water-based art pens. Their model PC-5M has a bullet tip ~2.5mm in diameter and so combines paint and applicator in one easy-to-use package. These pens also come in a wide range of colours.

Shock news! Beekeepers in agreement.

Beekeepers use different colours to indicate the year a particular queen was reared. Since queens rarely live more than 3 years a total of 5 different colours are sufficient to age-mark queens without confusion.

Amazingly 3, as far as I’m aware all beekeepers use the same queen marking colour scheme.

Colour Use in Year ending
White 1 or 6
Yellow 2 or 7
Red 3 or 8
Green 4 or 9
Blue 5 or 0

Queens reared this year (2019) should therefore be marked green.

Any colour as long as it’s white

Or blue.

I’m red-green colourblind. This means I struggle to discriminate between some reds and greens. It also means that I ‘trust’ colours (or my ability to distinguish between them) less. Subtle differences are often ignored 4.

A bright yellow dot on the thorax of a queen is easy to see … except in a colony that is piling in lots of OSR pollen, when every fifth worker is loaded down with bright yellow corbiculae.

I therefore only mark my queens white or blue.

These are both colours that I find easy to see, that are rarely present in pollen baskets or elsewhere in the hive, and so are very distinctive.

I used to alternate odd and even years until my blue Posca pen stopped working 🙁

Failing Posca queen marking pen

My white Posca pen has just starting playing up. If you search you can find them for about £5 for three and they last for years.

Easier said than done

I started an earlier section with the words “You mark the queen by placing a contrasting spot of coloured paint on the top of her thorax”.

Beginners can find this a daunting task.

After all, isn’t the queen the most important and precious member of the hive?

What if you squash her by accident? Or the other bees don’t like the smell of the paint and attack her? What if she flies away?

OK, the first of these is a disaster 5, but is relatively easily avoided using one of the methods described below. The second is unlikely if you let the paint dry properly and very unlikely if you use a water-based Posca pen.

The third is also unlikely … (mated) queens are generally reluctant to fly and, if they do, they fly poorly. You can generally pick her up from the grass near your feet 6. If you lose sight of her, close up the hive and carefully leave the area (watch where you step). She will usually return to the hive.

So, although it is easier said than done, marking queens is not that difficult and is a very useful skill to become competent and confident at 7.

To mark the queen she must be immobilised. There are essentially three ways to do this:

  1. On the frame, using a press in cage. Also called a crown of thorns (or crown of thorne’s, depending where you purchased it 😉 ) cage.
  2. Off the frame in a handheld queen marking cage.
  3. Off the frame simply holding her between your thumb and forefinger.

Crown of thorns or press in cage

Press in cage

Press in cage

The press in cage is a wood, plastic or metal ring with spikes protruding from one side. Over the top is a thread (or plastic in cheaper versions) mesh. You find the queen on the frame, place the press in cage over her without spearing her, or her retinue, push down gently to immobilise her and then apply a dab of paint to her thorax.

This is easier said than done.

Firstly, there are usually lots of bees on the frame the queen is on. Isolating her from her daughters can be tricky. The more you chase her around the frame the faster she runs … and then she disappears around the side bar and you have to start all over again.

You need three hands. You cannot hold the frame, the cage and the pen. The cage needs to be held when you use the pen. You therefore must place the frame down horizontally (usually on the top bars of the other frames) and the bees on the underside may not appreciate this.

As soon as you’ve isolated her the workers clamber on top of the press in cage, obscuring your view of the queen.

Your view isn’t good anyhow as you are hunched over the frame, almost certainly blocking the light and making everything more difficult to see.

Is it obvious I’m not a big fan of the press in cage?

I know I still carry one as I periodically stick the spikes through my fingers when rummaging around in my bee bag. However, I’ve not used it for years and far prefer to use a handheld queen marking cage.

Handheld queen marking cage

The simplest of these consist of a cylinder with one end covered in a thin open mesh made of thread and a foam-topped plunger.

Alternatively, and my favourite, the thread mesh is replaced with a series of horizontal plastic bars that are too narrow for the queen to crawl between.

Handheld queen marking cage

Handheld queen marking cage

You pick the queen off the frame, drop her into the cylinder, insert the plunger, immobilise her gently against the mesh/bars and apply the paint to her thorax.

Hold on.

Wait a minute.

You pick the queen off the frame?

That’s the easy part. Queen bees are naturally equipped with two convenient handles.

The wings.

The thumb and forefinger of an ungloved or thinly gloved hand are fabulously dextrous. It is easy to pick up the queen by one or both wings, move her away from the frame, put the frame down, pick up the queen marking cage and drop her in.

From frame to cage in a few seconds

I’m right-handed and this description is for right-handers.

Hold the frame (usually by the lug) with the queen on it in your left hand. Gently rotate the frame so the face is well-lit 8. Wait for the queen to be away from the edge of the frame. Wait until she’s walking towards you. Gently clench your third, fourth and fifth fingers, extending you ‘pincer-like’ thumb and forefinger. Slowly approach the queen from behind with this hand as she calmly walks across the frame 9.

Without grabbing or snatching calmly grasp her by the wing (or wings) and lift her from the frame. If you miss and just nudge her or she turns away at the last moment don’t harry her across the frame trying repeatedly.

Let her calm down.

Get your breath back.

Try again.

Gently put the frame down. Ideally, place it protruding at an angle in between the frames of the brood box. Take your time. Don’t drop the frame or allow it to tip over. If you balance it nicely with the lug wedged inside the box edge and the bottom bar balanced on the runner you’ll easily be able to reintroduce the queen after marking her.

Once your left hand is free pick up the cylinder of the queen marking cage. Drop the queen in. Cover it with two fingers (holding it between your thumb and fourth and fifth fingers). Pick up the plunger with your right hand and, after gently shaking the queen to the bottom of the cage, insert the plunger. Invert the cage, gently push the plunger up to trap the queen – thorax uppermost – and hold the plunger in place between your fourth and fifth fingers and palm, while holding the cage cylinder between thumb and forefinger (see the image further up the page).

There she goes ...

There she goes …

You can then use your right hand to apply the paint.

Handheld

Once you have learnt to pick the queen off the frame it’s an easy transition to do away with the queen marking cage and simply hold her on the back of your left forefinger, trapping her legs – so immobilising her – with your thumb and third finger. Ted Hooper’s book Guide to Bees and Honey has a good description of this 10.

This is easier without gloves. Even very thin nitrile gloves makes holding the queen immobile more difficult 11. Since I always wear gloves to reduce propolis staining and potential pathogen transmission I use a handheld queen marking cage.

Final comments on handling the queen

Picking the queen up with gloves on is straightforward if the gloves are thin enough. It’s easy with nitrile gloves and possible with Marigold-type washing up gloves.

Don’t try it with the large leather ‘beekeeping gauntlets’ as they give you hands like feet as a PhD student once said of the dexterity of my laboratory skills 🙁

If you hold the queen by both wings she will wave her legs in the air and curl her abdomen, but be unable to do much else.

If you pick her up by one wing she usually manages to swivel round and grab your thumb with her feet. Don’t worry, you won’t pull her wing off.

But thinking that will might make you lessen your grip … at which point she will calmly (or not so calmly) walk up your thumb. Don’t panic. She won’t sting and is very unlikely to take flight.

Queen marking

However you immobilise her the actual marking is straightforward. The goal is to place a small dab of paint on the top of her thorax.

Not on her head, her abdomen or her wings.

Small means 2-3 mm across. Don’t overload whatever you are using to apply the paint.

If it’s a matchstick just touch the surface of the paint (or Tipp-Ex).

If it’s a Posca pen, press the nib a couple of times against a firm surface (hive lid, thumb etc) to load the pen, check that it delivers the right amount with a light touch and then mark the queen.

I like to step away from the hive to mark the queen, perhaps to a corner of the apiary in light shade. This separates me from the flying bees and so I can focus on the job, literally, in hand 12.

Releasing the queen

Allow the paint to dry for a few minutes before releasing the queen.

If you’re holding the queen you’ll have to stay holding her while this happens (or put her in a matchbox). Enjoy your time with her … she’s going to be working hard for you 🙂

With a handheld queen marking cage I move the plunger down an inch or so and place her in the shade while I get on with something else for a couple of minutes.

With a press in cage just leave it a couple of minutes before gently lifting it off. This is the easiest and least traumatic way to release the queen (and one of the only advantages of this marking method). The queen is already on the frame and surrounded by bees, so there are no shocks or surprises.

The important thing to avoid when releasing the queen is to suddenly drop her onto the top bars or into the hive. There’s a possibility the the workers will ball and kill her.

Gently offer her to a gap between the top bars, or to the face of the frame you left protruding from the top of the hive. With the handheld cage it’s easy to just rest it on the top bars and watch.

She will usually calmly walk in and disappear from sight.

Calmly walks in …

Job done.


 

 

Equipment for beginners

As a new beekeeping season gears up we’re approaching the time of year when beginners will start acquiring nucs or swarms to start their own colonies.

Beekeeping is an excellent hobby. It involves physical work outdoors. It is cerebral, requiring good observation, thought and interpretation. You produce delicious honey for your breakfast, your family and friends.

Honey

Honey

You can even recoup your – not inconsiderable – costs by selling products from the hive.

Beekeeping is not an inexpensive hobby and it’s not one you can dependably make money from. Dependably is the important word here. You can certainly make money, by selling honey, bees, wax or propolis, but doing so needs a combination of a good season and the beekeeping expertise to exploit it.

The former is out of your control whereas the latter takes a combination of luck and practise.

You also need the time to develop the customers to sell your products (and not give everything away to friends and family 😉 ).

Hobbies and investments

If you’re interested in starting beekeeping to make money, think again. Instead, buy a 50:50 combination of index-linked gilts and global equity tracker funds. Leave this invested for 20 to 30 years and you’ll make money.

But if you’re starting beekeeping as a hobby (which might make you money in the dim and distant future) then it is worth investing in a minimum amount of good quality equipment.

If beekeeping is for you then you’ll continue using it.

If beekeeping isn’t for you 1 then you’ll be able to sell the equipment without too great a loss.

Buy cheap, buy twice … but this doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive either.

Hives

There are two main decisions to be made here. The material the hive is made from and the type of hive.

The material is immaterial 😉  The main choice is between polystyrene or cedar. Both have advantages and disadvantages. The bees will do fine in either if prepared properly for the winter.

In my view cedar is nicer to handle and a bit more robust. It looks and ‘feels’ more traditional. Poly might be better if you have very harsh winters. I use both more or less interchangeably.

Thorne's budget hive ...

Thorne’s budget hive …

There are some really lovely cedar hives made, but for starters you cannot go far wrong with the Thorne’s ‘Bees on a Budget‘ hive. I bought my first one (second hand from a beginner who was giving up) and it’s still going strong. I have had hundreds of pounds of honey from that hive over the years.

The best of the poly hives that I’ve used is from Abelo. However, it’s an evolving market and there are lots of poly hives I’ve neither used or even seen.

Abelo poly hives

Abelo poly hives

The type of hive – National, Langstroth, Smiths etc. – is one of the most important beekeeping decisions you will make … and one of the first. It doesn’t really matter what type of hive you use 2, but the investment involved commits you to either continuing with that hive type, buying everything again or a lifetime of compatibility problems and frustration 😉

Use what the beekeepers around you use. You should be getting your bees locally and compatibility with them makes buying (and selling in due course) bees easier. It also makes cadging a frame of eggs to ‘rescue’ a queenless hive – or improve your stock – straightforward as the frame will fit into your hive.

Finally, it makes borrowing equipment e.g. spare supers to cope with a phenomenal nectar flow, possible … which brings me on to the an important point …

More hives

You will need some or all of an additional hive the first time you do swarm control. Vertical splits only need an additional brood body, but the classic Pagden artificial swarm requires an additional hive (floor, brood body, crownboard and roof).

In a good year you will also need more than the standard two supers that most ‘complete’ hives are sold with.

Two are better than one …

So … right at the outset it probably makes sense to purchase two complete hives.

Kerching!

Frames

You will need frames of the right size for all boxes you’ve bought. Super frames can be used year after year. Brood frames need replacing about every three years (or the comb does, the frame can be re-used).

Capped honey super frame ...

Capped honey super frame …

Helpfully frames are sold in tens, whereas many boxes require eleven frames. D’oh! At least you’ll have some spares.

You will also need foundation for the frames. Buy the best quality you can get. The bees are going to ‘live’ in it and store your honey in it. There have been problems with poor quality foundation which may contain lots of impurities or chemicals.

In due course, but not right from the start 3, consider using foundationless frames. You will save money and have confidence that the wax is the best possible quality as the bees made it all themselves.

I emboldened all in the opening paragraph of this section deliberately.

There are few things more frustrating than grabbing an empty brood box (expecting a full one) when you’re in the middle of the swarming season.

Another one of those Don’t do as I do, do as I say statements 😉

Miscellaneous hive parts and other equipment

Some ‘complete’ hives (like the Abelo) are sold without a queen excluder.

So, not complete then 😉

The cheapo plastic queen excluders are OK, but a wood-framed metal excluder is easier to use, squashes far fewer bees and is much easier to clean.

You will also need a way to clear the supers of bees before the honey harvest. The Thorne’s Bees on a Budget hive comes with a couple of porter bee escapes and a suitable crownboard, but you’ll need to beg, steal or build something suitable if you buy the Abelo.

Hive tools are a very personal item. There are dozens of different designs and it will take some time to decide which best suits your beekeeping and your hands. Some are big and heavy, some are small and light. Choose a simple medium sized inexpensive one for starters.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

And then buy another as you’ll probably lose it in the long grass 😉

Buy a honey bucket and keep your hive tools, together with a small serrated knife and a pair of scissors, in strong washing soda. You can leave this in the apiary. The tools will stay pathogen-free and be nice and clean when you next use them.

I’ve owned three smokers since starting. The first was small, a nightmare to start and worse to keep alight. The other two are the little and large Dadant smokers. These aren’t inexpensive, but they are easy to use and last forever.

Smoker still life

Smoker still life

Unless you reverse your car over it 🙁

Get another honey bucket to keep your smoker fuel in – once you’ve spent months deciding what works best.

That’s it … no bee brush, frame stand, powdered sugar shaker, queen clip or the 1001 ‘essentials‘ you find listed in the catalogues.

The sting and confidence

Bees sting and you will get stung. When you do  get stung it generally means you’ve done something wrong or you have temperamental bees. The latter can be due to the weather, the forage (or lack of it) or bad genes.

Working confidently with bees comes with practice and with the knowledge that you are wearing sufficient protection to keep the bees away from the most sensitive spots.

A good bee suit costs about as much as a complete hive and should last as long. BBwear and BJ Sherriff bee suits are high quality, well made, repairable and come in a myriad of colours. I’d recommend their basic models in a full suit style … as you gain experience you might progress to a jacket or even just a veil.

I still use the first BBwear suit I bought. It’s been washed hundreds of times and is a bit tatty but it has at least another decade of use in it.

Paradoxically, the gloves that give me the most confidence when working with bees are the thinnest I own. These are long-cuff blue nitrile gloves. They are thin enough to feel a bee if you’ve trapped it, rather than just squishing it as you would wearing thick gauntlets.

BBwear used to offer ‘free’ gauntlets with their suits. They were like welders mittens! Ask for a discount instead and use standard Marigold-type washing up gloves to start with. Stings can just about penetrate, but are attenuated. You’ll be reminded when you’re doing something wrong, but they enable far more dexterity than the sting-pheremone-accumulating leather gauntlets.

Winnie the Pooh

Winnie the Pooh

Don’t, whatever you do, buy heavy duty, black, long cuff household gloves.

Why not?

Remember that most bears don’t look (or behave) like Winnie the Pooh … 😉

Is that it?

More or less. I reckon everything above is essential for beginners (including a duplicate hive). I’ve only included the specialist beekeeping equipment and have excluded items you should borrow from your local association (or mentor … you do have a mentor?) such as an extractor. I’ve also excluded Varroa treatments, sugar/fondant for winter stores and the non-specialist stuff like a notepad, wellington boots or a bag to carry everything to the apiary.

There won’t be much change out of £500, but there should be some.

And you still have to get some bees 🙁

As I said, not inexpensive. I’ve got a half-written post on the economics of hobby beekeeping, including indications of where you can save money (and where you can make money).

Remember also that keeping two colonies is highly recommended, so doubling the equipment needed. Perhaps not in your first year, but – perhaps after a successful artificial swarm – something to plan for your second full season.

Luxury item

If this was Desert Island Discs you’d be allowed one luxury item. Although not a luxury as such, the one nearly invaluable additional item I’d add to the list above is a poly nucleus box.

Nuc boxes are probably the most useful pieces of equipment in beekeeping. You can overwinter colonies in them, catch swarms, keep the queen safe and use them for a very effective form of swarm control.

Again, like the poly hives there are lots of makes, all with their own particular quirks. You need one that takes the same frame size as the hives. However, unlike full size hives I’d only recommend polystyrene, not cedar. They are lighter and much better insulated.

Paynes nuc box ...

Paynes nuc box …

They are also more reasonably priced, so drop some hints before Christmas after your first full season of beekeeping.


 

 

 

 

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 😉