Category Archives: Wasps

More gentle beekeeping

I’ve done less beekeeping this year than any time in the past decade. The Covid-19 lockdown enforced changes to the way we live and work, meaning my contact with the bees has been ‘big and infrequent’ rather than ‘little and often’. 

‘Big and infrequent’ meaning a day or three of intense activity every month or so. I’ll write about this once the season is over as it has meant that the season has, in many ways, been very unrewarding … 🙁

… but nevertheless quite successful 🙂

23,000 iced buns

With the season winding to a close, now is the time to remove the supers of summer honey and prepare to feed the colonies for winter. 

Which means a couple of days of very heavy lifting.

I buy fondant in bulk as it stores well until it is needed. This year ‘bulk’ meant over 400 kg which, based upon this recipe, is enough for over 23,000 iced ‘finger’ buns 1. That’s too much to fit in my car (fondant or finger buns 😉 ), so entailed two trips and manhandling the boxes twice – from the pallet to the car and from the car to the shed.

Load 1 of 2 … there’s more in the passenger footwell!

During all that lifting and carrying I focus on the thought that fondant has a lower water content than syrup (~78% sugar vs ~60% for syrup) so I need to feed less weight to get the same amount of sugar into the hive.

And there’s no preparation needed or fancy (expensive) feeders to store for the rest of the year. 

As convenience foods go, it’s very convenient.

But after a dozen or two blocks, also very heavy 🙁

Beekeeper’s back

There’s a bittersweet irony to the honey harvest.

The more backbreakingly exhausting it is, the better it is. 

Not so much there’s no gain without pain” as “the more pain, the more gain”.

I have two main apiaries about 15 miles apart in Fife. I checked the hives in the first apiary and was disappointed to find the supers were mostly empty. This is a site which usually has good summer forage. The OSR had yielded well in the spring, but the colonies had then all had pre-emptive splits for swarm control, before being united back prior to the main flow.

Which appears not to have happened 🙁

I put clearers on the hives and returned the following day to collect a pathetically small number of full supers. There were some uncapped and part-filled frames, some of which contained fresh nectar 2 which I pooled together in the smallest number of supers possible.

I placed these above the floor but underneath the brood boxes.

This is termed nadiring, which isn’t actually a real word according to the OED. Nadir means the lowest point, but in the 17th Century (now obsolete and probably only used by beekeepers) nadir meant a point directly beneath an object.

The hope and expectation here is that the bees will find the stores beneath the cluster and move it up into the brood box, prior to me treating and feeding them up for winter.

Quick fix clearer board – hive side

On the same day I placed clearers underneath the (much heavier) supers in my second apiary. Actually, under about half the hives as I don’t have enough clearers for all the hives at once, even with a few Correx and gaffer tape bodged efforts to supplement them (shown above).

Clearing supers

I’ve discussed these clearers previously. With no moving parts and a deep rim on the underside the bees move down quickly. It’s not unusual to find the full 5cm depth full of bees the following morning.

Lots of bees

These bees have to be gently shaken back into the hive before replacing the crownboard and roof. This is easy on a calm, warm day with placid bees, but can be a little traumatic for everyone concerned if those three key ingredients are missing.

More lifting 🙁

Filled supers usually weigh between 37 and 50 lb (17-23 kg) each 3. Therefore, moving a dozen from the hives to the car and the car to the honey warming cabinet involves manually lifting about half a metric tonne. 

And that doesn’t include shaking off the few remaining bees which remain on individual frames. It’s not only my back that aches after this, but my fingers as well. Beekeeping, not such a gentle art as some might think.

I’ve previously noticed that more bees tend to remain in the supers if the colony is queenless.

This year the only queenless colony I found was also honeyless 🙁 

There was no need for the bees to remain in the supers … and no real evidence they’d been there in the first place.

This colony had a late queen mating fail (or perhaps lost on a mating flight) so I’ll unite it with a strong colony at the same time as I feed them and treat them for mites.

There’s obviously no point in feeding and treating before uniting or I’d jeopardise the reputation some beekeepers (including me 😉 ) have for being incredibly mean financially astute.

Lugless …

While shaking bees off one frame a lug broke. It’s a lovely frame of capped lime honey. Not close to show quality but pretty respectable all the same. I could scrape it back to the mid-rib and filter the honey or cobble together some sort of nail in place of the lug so I could spin it in the extractor. Instead I’m going to give it to friends who love honey direct from the comb … I’ll let them work out how to hang or stand it at the breakfast table.

The recovered supers were stacked on my honey warming cabinet set to 40°C. By the time heat losses are taken into account this maintains the supers at about 35°C, making the honey much easier to extract.

I usually rotate the stacks top to bottom and bottom to top a day before extracting. More lifting 🙁

Back in the apiary, the freed up clearers were placed under the supers on the remaining hives for collection the following day.

Storm Francis

Storm Francis only really arrived on the east coast of Scotland on Tuesday. It was windy and wet, but nothing like the pounding west Wales received. 

However, on early Tuesday morning when I arrived at the apiary it was wet.

Very wet.

There are few more demoralising sights than an apiary in really grey, wet and miserable conditions.

It was wetter and more miserable than this photo suggests …

There’s work to do and hives to open. Every single bee is ‘at home’. You know you’re going to get wet. It’s too blustery to use an umbrella and, anyhow, social distancing means there’s no-on there to hold one. 

Cold, clammy and heavy … a wet bee suit

The one saving grace is that the bees were incredibly calm.

I’d like to think they’ve been selectively bred over the years to be placid and well behaved, and that my skills as a beekeeper have been honed to the point where they barely know I’m there.

Hogwash.

It was so wet that they caused as little trouble as possible so that I got the roof back on the hive with the minimal delay 😉

Stings

Joking aside, these bees are calm and well behaved. Despite the flow being effectively over they haven’t become defensive. The majority of the colonies are very strong and they’re not being troubled by wasps, though these are searching out spilt honey and stores wherever possible. 

Our colonies in the bee shed are used for research and used to provide larvae and pupae for experiments. Members of my research team harvest brood when needed and, because they aren’t hugely experienced beekeepers, it’s important that the bees are not stroppy.

During the week I commented to a friend that I didn’t think I’ve been stung all season.

There may have been one of those glancing blows to a nitrile glove, but nothing that actually caused any pain or inconvenience.

Partly this is because I’ve done less beekeeping, but it also reflects repeated replacement of queens from stroppy colonies with selected calmer bees over past seasons. 

Aggressive bees do not collect more nectar. They are a menace to non-beekeepers and thoroughly unpleasant to work with. Fortunately, aggression is a relatively easy trait to select against and you can quickly see an improvement in colonies over just a couple of seasons.

Of course, I spoke too soon …

I lifted the lid on a stack of boxes containing old brood frames for melting down. To my complete surprise and considerable pain, I was greeted by a frenzied blitzkrieg of angry wasps.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang … BANG!

Five stings in less time than it takes to say it.

The final BANG was self inflicted as I hit the side of my head to try and squish a wasp before it burrowed into my ear and stung me.

Partial success … I crushed the wasp, but only after it had stung me on the cartilaginous pinna of my ear 🙁

I don’t know which hurt more … the sting or the blow to the side of my head.

These days I no longer bother setting wasp traps in my apiaries, instead relying on strong colonies (and reduced entrances or kewl floors) for defence. However, I’ve discovered that a strong washing up detergent spray is a good deterrent if wasps are getting into stacks of stored boxes. Spray the stripy blighters, stand back and let it do its work before blocking access with whatever you have to hand 4.

More bittersweet season endings

After about four days of intense beekeeping I’d removed all the supers, extracted the honey, collected the fondant, fed and treated all the colonies.

I’ll deal with feeding and treating next week (if I remember) but now need to rest my weary back and fingers … over the week I estimate I’ve lifted a cumulative total of 1200 kg of fondant and at least the same amount again of supers. 

The hives are now busy chucking out drones so they have fewer mouths to feed over the winter.

It’s a tough life being a drone in late August … but not for much longer

But to end on a more uplifting note, the honey crop was pretty good this summer 🙂


 

Bee shed musings

It’s the end of our third season using a bee shed, and the end of the first season using the ‘new and improved’ bee shed mark 2.

What’s worked and what hasn’t?

Why keep bees in a shed at all?

A bee hive provides a secure and weatherproof container to protect the colony 1. Why then keep bee hives inside a building, like the bee shed?

Moving in day ...

Moving in day …

Beekeeping, of necessity, involves regular inspections at 7-10 day intervals throughout the main part of the season. These inspections involve opening the hive and checking for disease, for evidence that the colony is developing as expected 2, for adequate stores and space, and for for the telltale signs that the colony is thinking of swarming.

Since these inspections involve opening the hive the weather needs to be at least half-decent. Heavy rain, low temperatures and cold winds make it a less than pleasant experience – for the bees and for the beekeeper.

That’s not a problem if you have the luxury of being able to pick and choose days with benign conditions to inspect the colony.

But we don’t have that luxury.

The hives in the shed are used for research into the viruses (deformed wing virus and chronic bee paralysis virus) that are the major threats to colony health. Although we don’t conduct experiments in these hives we do use them as a regular source of larvae, pupae and workers for experiments in the laboratory 3.

We therefore must be able to open and work in the hives:

  • very early in the season
  • very late in the season – we’re still harvesting brood as I write this in early November
  • irrespective of the weather at particular times and/or days of the week

This is the east coast of Scotland. If it’s chucking it down with rain, blowing a hoolie 4, really cold or a combination of these (not unusual), then not only is it unpleasant for the beekeeper, but it’s also unpleasant for the bees …

… and they let us know about it.

The bee shed

Welcome ...

Welcome …

To protect the bees and the beekeeper we’ve built a shed to accommodate standard National hives, connected to the outside with simple tunnels.

From the outside it looks like a shed.

From the inside it looks like an apiary with wooden walls and less light 5.

Details of the first shed and its successor are posted elsewhere. The current shed is 16 x 8 feet and houses up to seven full colonies arranged along the south-facing wall.

There are windows along the entire length of this wall of the shed, sufficient storage space for dozens of spare supers, brood boxes, floors, the hivebarrow and a couple of hundred kilograms of fondant.

Hives are all arranged ‘warm way’ on a single full-length stand and inspected from the rear.

How does all this work in practice?

Space

The shed is probably still too small 🙁

Once all of that lovely storage space is in use there’s a relatively narrow passageway between the hives and the stacks of supers and fondant. For a lone beekeeper this isn’t an issue. For training purposes, or with multiple people working at once, it’s distinctly cramped.

Inspections involve lots of walking back and forwards to the door (see below) and this would be made much easier by:

  • not storing spare supers, fondant, broods and the wheelbarrow in the shed
  • only allowing very thin people with no concept of ‘personal space‘ to use the shed
  • having a much wider shed

Of these, the last option is probably the most realistic.

I’ve recently been asked for comments about using a shed for a school beekeeping association. Since this is likely to involve an element of training, with several trainees huddling around the hive, my advice would be:

  • reduce the number of hives to a maximum of three in a 16 foot long shed, each on individual stands with space to access the hive from both behind and the sides
  • buy a wider shed or store all those ‘essential’ spares elsewhere

Lighting

The shed has a solar powered LED lighting system running off a 100Ah ‘leisure’ battery. There are six of the highest power LED lights available (~120W equivalents … each ~700 lumens 6) immediately above the hives.

The lighting is great. It makes working in the shed ‘off grid’ in the evenings or on dull and dingy days much easier.

However, on a bright day this lighting is insignificant when compared to the light streaming in through the windows.

But, whatever the weather, the lighting inside the shed is still less than optimal when you’re looking for eggs or day-old larvae.

Perhaps it’s my increasingly poor eyesight but I find myself nipping out of the shed door to inspect frames for eggs or tiny larvae. It’s so much easier with the sun coming over your shoulder and angling the frame to illuminate the base of the cells.

I’m planning to rearrange the lighting so it runs down the centre of the shed rather than being directly over the hives. That way it will be ‘over the shoulder’ when inspecting frames.

And if that doesn’t work the only option will be to invest in banks of LEDs … or glasses 😎

On a brighter note – no pun intended – the solar panel, charge controller and large lead acid battery, coupled with a door ‘on when open’ switch, have worked flawlessly.

Windows

The shed windows are formed from overlapping sheets of perspex.

The weather cannot get in, but bees can easily get out. They crawl up the large pane, under the overlapping pane, and then fly from the 2cm slot between that and the top of the window aperture. It’s a simple and highly-effective solution to emptying a shed of bees after inspections.

Bee shed window ...

Bee shed window …

But I’ve discovered this year that wasps can learn to enter the shed via the windows.

2018 was a bad year for wasps. I lost a nuc and a queenless (actually a requeening) colony to robbing by wasps in this apiary. At some point during the season wasps learnt to access the shed via the window ‘slot’ and for several weeks we were plagued with them. I think we were partly to blame because we had some comb offcuts in a waste bin that wasn’t properly sealed. Once the wasps had discovered this source of honey/nectar they were very persistent … as wasps are.

This hasn’t been a problem in previous years so I’m hoping that improved apiary hygiene will prevent it being an issue next year.

No smoke …

Our bees are calm and well behaved. However, we still use a limited amount of smoke during inspections 7. Leaving a well-lit smoker standing next to the hive throughout the inspection is a guaranteed way to become as kippered as an Arbroath smokie 8. It doesn’t take long to fill the shed with smoke.

Kippered

Kippered

I therefore leave the smoker standing ‘ready for action’ just outside the shed door. It’s easy (assuming the shed isn’t full of people) to take a couple of steps to the door, recover the smoker, give them a gentle puff, return the smoker and continue.

… without fire

Sheds are made of wood. Beehives are wood or polystyrene. The stacks of spare supers and broods are full of wax-laden frames.

All this has the potential to burn very well indeed.

I’m therefore very careful to leave the smoker, securely plugged with grass, on a non-flammable surface. The wire of a spare open mesh floor is ideal for this.

Smoker still life

Smoker still life

Colony management

Routine colony management – inspections, supering, swarm prevention and control, Varroa treatment – work just as well in the bee shed as outside.

There are a few limitations of course.

Vertical splits for making increase or swarm control aren’t an option as it’s not possible (or at least not practical) to provide an upper entrance with access to the outside world. 

Similarly, space adjacent to a hive is limited so a classic Pagden artificial swarm may not be possible 9. Instead I usually use the nucleus method of swarm control – removing the old queen and a frame of brood and stores to make a nuc, then leaving the hive in the shed to requeen.

Benefits for the bees

I suspect that the main beneficiaries of the bee shed are the beekeepers, not the bees. However, colonies do appear to do well in the shed.

The impression is that brood rearing starts earlier in the season and ends later, though formally we have yet to demonstrate this. We now have some hives inside and outside the shed fitted with Arnia monitors. With these we can monitor brood temperature, humidity, hive weight and activity.

Arnia hive data

Arnia hive data

Brood temperature is an indicator of brood rearing, with temperatures around 33°C showing that the queen is laying. By monitoring colonies over the winter we expect to be able to determine when brood rearing stops and starts again 10 and, by comparison, whether the season is effectively ‘longer’ for bees within the shed.

But it’ll be months until we’ll see this sort of entrance activity again …


 

Robbery

Robber

Robber

Another apiculture-flavoured tale of daylight robbery, literally, to follow the post on hive and bee thefts last week.

However, this time it’s not dodgy bee-suited perps with badly inked prison tats offering cheap nucs down the Dog and Duck.

Like other offenders, the robbers this week wear striped apparel, but this time it’s dark brown and tan, or brown and yellow or black and yellow.

I am of course referring to honey bees and wasps (Vespa vulgaris and V. germanica), both of which can cause major problems at this time of year by robbing weak colonies.

Carb loading

The season here – other than for those who have taken colonies to the heather – is drawing to a close. The main nectar sources have more or less dried up in the last fortnight. There’s a bit of rosebay willow herb and bramble in the hedgerows and some himalayan balsam in the river valleys, but that’s about it.

Colonies are strong, or should be. With the dearth of nectar in the fields, the foragers turn their attention to other colonies as a potential source of carbohydrates. Colonies need large amounts of stores to get through the winter and evolution has selected a behavioural strategy – robbing of weaker colonies – to get as much carbohydrate from the easiest possible sources.

Like the nucs you carefully prepared for overwintering 🙁

At the same time, wasps are also wanting to pile in the carbs before winter 1. In the last fortnight the wasp numbers in my apiaries and equipment stores have increased significantly.

Jekyll and Hyde

Within a few days in late summer/early autumn the mood and attitude of colonies in the apiary changes completely.

During a strong nectar flow the bees single-mindedly pile in the stores. They alight, tail-heavy, on the landing board, enter the hive, unload and set out again. There’s a glut and they ignore almost anything other than bingeing on it. Inspections are easy. Most bees are out foraging and they are – or should be – well-tempered and forgiving. 

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

But then the nectar flow, almost overnight, stops.

Colonies become markedly more defensive. They are packed with bees and they’re tetchy. There’s nothing to distract them, they resent the intrusion and they want to protect their hard-won stores 2.

At the same time, they quickly become more inquisitive, investigating any potential new source of sugar. If you shake the bees off a frame and leave it standing against the leg of the hive stand there will be dozens of foragers – many from nearby colonies – gorging themselves on the nectar.

If you spill unripened nectar from a frame they’re all over it, quickly forming a frenzied mass – probably from several different hives – scrabbling to ‘fill their boots’.

They also closely investigate anything that smells of nectar or honey. Stacks of equipment, empty supers, hive tools, the smoker bellows … anything.

Robbing

And it’s this behaviour that can quickly turn into robbing.

The foragers investigate a small, dark entrance that smells of honey … like a nuc in the corner of the apiary. They enter unchallenged or after a little argy-bargy 3, find the stores, stuff themselves, go back to their colony and then return mob-handed.

Before long, the nuc entrance had a writhing mass of bees trying to get in, any guards present are soon overwhelmed and, in just a few hours, it’s robbed out and probably doomed.

This is the most obvious – and rather distressing – form of robbing. Wasps can do almost exactly the same thing, with similarly devastating consequences.

Prevention is better than cure

Once started (and obvious), robbing is difficult to stop. About the only option is to seal the target hive and remove it to another apiary a good distance away.

Far better to prevent it happening in the first place.

The best way of preventing robbing is to maintain large, strong and healthy colonies. With ample bees there are ample guards and the colony will be able to defend itself from both bees and wasps. Strong colonies are much more likely to be the robbers than the robbed.

For smaller colonies in a full-sized hive, or nucleus colonies or – and these are the most difficult of all to defend – mini-nucs used for queen mating, it’s imperative to make the hive easy to defend and minimise attracting robbers to the apiary in the first place.

The underfloor entrances on kewl floors are much easier to defend than a standard entrance and small entrances are easier to defend than large ones. ‘Small’ might mean as little as one bee-width … i.e. only traversable by a single bee at a time.

Smaller is better ...

Smaller is better …

You can even combine the two; insert a 9mm thick piece of stripwood into the Kewl floor entrance to reduce the space to be defended to a centimetre or two. If – as happened tonight when returning wet supers to the hives – I don’t have a suitable piece of stripwood in the apiary I use a strip of gaffer tape to reduce the entrance 4.

Gaffer tape is also essential to maintain the integrity of the hive if some of the supers are a bit warped. Wasps can squeeze through smaller holes than bees and the quick application of a half metre along the junction between boxes can save the day 5.

The poly nucs I favour have a ridiculously large entrance which I reduce by 90% using foam blocks, dried grass, gaffer tape, wire mesh or Correx.

Correx, the beekeepers friend ...

Correx, the beekeepers friend …

Don’t tempt them

Finally, reduce the inducement robbers – whether bees or wasps – have to investigate everything in the apiary by not leaving open sources of nectar, not spilling honey or syrup, clearing up brace comb and ensuring any stored equipment is ‘bee proof’.

You don’t need to inspect as frequently at this time of the season. The queen will have reduced her laying rate and colonies are no longer expanding. With no nectar coming in they should have sufficient space in the brood nest. There’s little chance they will swarm.

If you don’t need to inspect, then don’t. The ability to judge this comes with experience.

If you do have to inspect (to find, mark and clip a late-season mated queen for example 6 do not leave the colony open for longer than necessary. Any supers that are temporarily removed should be secured so bees and wasps cannot access them.

Wet supers

If you’re returning wet supers after extraction, do it with the minimum disruption late in the evening. These supers absolutely reek of honey and attract robbers from far and wide. Keep the supers covered – top and bottom – gently lift the crownboard, give them a tiny puff of smoke, place the supers on top, replace the roof and leave them be.

Returning wet supers

Returning wet supers …

In my experience wet supers are the most likely thing to trigger a robbing frenzy. I usually reduce the entrance at the same time I put the wet supers back and try to add wet supers to all the colonies in the apiary on the same evening 7.

I generally don’t inspect colonies until the supers are cleaned out and ready for storage.


 

Bait hive – fail

The year continues to be unseasonably cool, with daytime maximum temperatures being at least a couple of degrees (ºC) below the thirty year average for this region. Nevertheless, colonies are building up reasonably well and some are starting to make preparations to swarm – drone brood levels are rising, the number of ‘play cups’ are increasing and one or two had queen cells at the last inspection.

Bait hives deployed

A small swarm

Swarm

In the hope that the temperature will increase and that swarming will occur I always put a few bait hives out in likely locations, including odd corners of my apiaries. Although my queens are all clipped and marked (I think) there’s one I’ve yet to spot this year and she just might have been superseded late last season. Clipping doesn’t stop swarming, but it stops the queen and the prime swarm disappearing over the fence to someone else’s bait hive or, worse, chimney. However, there’s a high density of beekeepers in this area and – going by the number of swarms and successful bait hives in previous seasons – some don’t practise effective swarm control. Last season I caught four swarms, though one was little more than a tiny cast, in bait hives.

Swarmtastic

I always have a bait hive in my garden. The sight of a swarm arriving is one of the truly great experiences in beekeeping and I’m far more likely to witness it there than the corner of a field. A day or two in advance the scout bees check the hive, repeatedly visiting in increasing numbers. They fly around the entrance, going in and out to determine the size of the cavity, then flying round and round the hive checking suitability. Many dozens can appear, standing around on the landing board (if there is one) seemingly discussing whether it is a ‘des res‘. They then disappear altogether. This is either because they’ve chosen a different site (other scout bees have been checking different locations and, as Tom Seeley describes in Honeybee democracy, they reach a consensus for the swarm) or because they’re busy leading the swarm to your bait hive.

Suddenly the sky fills with a whirling mass of bees that descend in a seemingly chaotic yet organised manner to the bait hive, ‘bearding’ at the entrance and gradually entering. This can take an hour or two and is a fantastic sight.

Epic fail

Although I’d seen no scout bees I periodically check all of my bait hives. I also top up the lemongrass oil, adding a couple of drops to the top bar of a frame. The bait hive in the corner of the garden was occupied … by a wasps nest attached to the starter strip in a foundationless frame.

Despite the beautiful architecture and the presence of a dozen or so wriggling larvae, they had to go. In late August this lot, or their progeny, would be terrorising my mini-nucs containing late-mating queens, robbing out weak colonies and causing a general nuisance during the honey harvest.

And the hawthorn is flowering …

Hawthorn

Hawthorn

The beautiful and the damned

Wasp nest …

Wasp nest …

There was a thread on SBAi a year or so ago in which “Kieth” asked for advice on keeping wasps. Kieth never returned to the thread, but there were a number of increasingly surreal contributions on waspkeeping. I was searching through a pile of equipment stacked in a corner and discovered this wasps nest attached to an old Perspex crownboard. The nest is paper-thin, made out of wood pulp (and presumably wasp saliva), beautifully crafted with a double layered entrance and a cluster of larvae in the ‘roof’ (the picture shows the nest upside down).

If you look carefully in the image below you can see the developing larvae. There were perhaps 15 or 20 of them, each occupying a small hexagonal cell … but remember these will return later in the season to wreak havoc with weaker nucs or late season mating nucs.

Developing larvae …

Developing larvae …