Eats, sleeps, bees

Synopsis : The beekeeping season is starting to get busy. Swarm control is not only essential to keep your hives productive, but also offers easy opportunities to improve the quality of your bees. Good records and a choice of bees is all you need. This week I discuss stock improvement together with a few semi-random thoughts on honey labelling, colony behaviour and wax foundation. Something for everyone. Perhaps.

Introduction

May is usually a lovely month in Scotland. It is often dry and sunny enough to spend much of the time outdoors, the days are long enough 1 to get a lot done and it’s early enough in the year to avoid the dreaded midges 2.

Usually and often.

Unfortunately, the weather so far this month has been unseasonably cool. It was probably better for much of March than it’s been for the first half of May.

But that good weather in March gave the bees a real boost – particularly in my apiaries on the east coast of Scotland.

Consequently, there’s still a lot of beekeeping to do now – swarm control, preparations for queen rearing, catching up with all the things I didn’t do in the winter ( 🙁 ) – often in between some rather iffy weather 3.

The next couple of months are usually pretty much full on … hence Eats, sleeps, bees 4.

Latitude …

The differences I discussed in Latitude and longitude a month ago are particularly marked now.

Beekeepers in Sussex or Kent have been complaining about running out of supers since mid-April. Other have been proudly displaying their first (or second) round of grafted queen cells.

In contrast, a few of my west coast colonies are still only on 6-7 frames of brood. It will be at least another fortnight until I even think about whether they’ll need swarm control.

Which might be a fortnight before they’ll actually need it.

These are perfectly healthy west coast native bees, adapted to the climate and forage available here.

The wonderful west coast of Scotland

They are classic late developers, evolution having timed colony expansion to fit with the local forage and the availability of weather good enough for queen mating.

There’s insufficient forage to produce oodles of brood in late April and many colonies have yet to produce any mature drones (though they all now have drone brood). Instead, they build up rather slowly, and are probably at the peak in July when the heather starts to yield.

This is all reasonably new to me and I feel I’m still learning how the season develops here on the west coast. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it.

Eventually 😉

Going by the rate colonies are currently building up, and their performance last year, I expect to be rearing queens from these colonies in June and early July 5.

… and longitude

Meanwhile, in Fife things are progressing much faster.

My apiaries there are about 160 miles east and at a similar latitude, but most of the colonies are already overflowing their boxes. Swarm prevention is a distant memory and I’m now busy with swarm control.

The genetics are different. My east coast bees are all local mongrels, again adapted to local conditions.

However, I suspect an even greater difference is the early season forage and – although it’ll be finished in the next week or so – the oil seed rape (OSR).

Oil seed rape … and rain

The OSR gives colonies a massive boost. They gorge on it – both the nectar and pollen – quickly filling supers and a multitude of hungry larval mouths. Reasonably strong nucs made up for swarm control on the 1st of May are now in a full brood box and will be more than ready for the summer nectar flow when it starts.

Queen rearing would have started already if the two boxes I’d earmarked for cell raising hadn’t become a little overcooked and produced queen cells at the beginning of the month 🙁 .

The best laid plans etc. 6.

And, to add insult to injury, the (lovely quality) colony I’d intended to source larvae from produced queen cells the following week.

D’oh!

Quality control

One of the (nominal) cell raising colonies – we’ll call it colony #6 for convenience 7 was borderline in terms of temperament.

On a balmy afternoon, with a good nectar flow, the bees were calm, unflustered and a pleasure to handle.

However in cool, damp or blustery weather they weren’t so great.

This is one of the reasons that record keeping is so important. Although I’d not inspected them this season in very poor conditions 8, my records from last year also showed they were, shall we say, ’suboptimal’. Not psychotic or even hugely aggressive, but certainly hotter than I’d prefer and nothing like as stable on the comb as I like 9.

Of course, the simple answer is not to go burrowing through the box in cool, damp or blustery weather’ 🙂

However, I don’t always have a choice as these bees are 160 miles away. Met Office forecasts are good for tomorrow, questionable for next week and essentially guesswork for next month (which is when I’m booking the hotels).

So, having realised that both swarm control and quality control were needed, how have I tried to improve the quality of this colony?

Controlling quality

I discovered open, charged queen cells in colony #6 on the 1st of May. Without intervention the colony would have swarmed before the end of the first week of the month 10. The queen was clipped but, as I hope I made clear last week, queen clipping does not stop swarming.

Swarm control

I used my preferred swarm control method by making up a nuc with the old queen and a couple of frames of emerging brood with the adhering bees. I put these, together with a frame of stores and a couple of new frames into a nuc box and moved them to an out apiary several miles away.

By moving the nuc away I don’t have to worry about losing bees back to the original hive. I can therefore make the nuc up a little weaker than I would otherwise need to. An out apiary (or two) isn’t essential, but it makes some tasks a lot easier.

I then went carefully through colony #6, shaking all the bees off each frame and destroying every queen cell. There were still eggs and young larvae present, so they would undoubtedly make more queen cells before my visit a week later. However, by shaking every frame and being rigorous about destroying every queen cell I ensured:

  • there would be a bit less work to do the following week
  • I’d not missed a more mature cell somewhere that could have left a virgin queen running about at my next visit. This was unlikely, based upon the timing of brood development, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Colony #6 is in a double brood box. While ransacking the brood nest for queen cells I also hoiked out a frame of drone brood and cut out yet more drone brood from a foundationless frame or two. Since the genetics of this colony was questionable it made sense to try and stop these undesirable genes being spread far and wide.

At the same time I rearranged the frames, moving all the unsealed brood into the top box.

One week later

Early on the morning of the 8th of May I checked the colony again. As expected there were more queen cells reared from eggs and larvae I’d left the week before.

The vast majority of these queen cells were in the top box, but – since I’m a belt and braces beekeeper – I checked the bottom box as well. Again, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

All of the queen cells were again destroyed.

Tough love … but if you want to improve the quality of your bees you have to exclude those with undesirable characteristics.

Importantly, by now the youngest larvae in the colony would be at least four days old. This is really too old – at least given the choice (and I was going to give them a choice) – to rear a new queen from.

Room for one more …

I rearranged the frames, leaving a gap in the middle of the top box, closed colony #6 up and completed my inspection of the other colonies in the apiary.

The last colony I checked was my chosen ‘donor’ colony with desirable genetics.

More swarm control 🙂 and a few days saved

The donor colony (#7) had started queen cells sometime during the first week of May and so also needed swarm control. However, very conveniently it had produced two nice looking cells on separate frames.

Both these queen cells were 3-4 days old and so would be capped in the next 24-48 hours.

A three and a bit day old queen cell

I could therefore use my standard nucleus swarm control (to ‘save’ the queen ‘just in case’), leaving one queen cell in colony #7 and donating the other queen cell to colony #6.

Which is exactly what I did.

Having gently brushed off the adhering bees from the frame (you should never vigorously shake a frame containing a queen cell you want 11 ) I gently slotted it into the gap I’d left in the upper brood box of colony #6. I also marked the frame to make my subsequent check (on the 15th) easier.

The frame marked QC is the only one that needs to be checked next week

By adding a well developed, but unsealed, queen cell to colony #6 I’ve saved the few days they would have taken to rear a queen from an egg or a day old larva.

Because the cell was open I was certain it was ‘charged’ i.e. it contained a fat larva sitting contentedly in a deep bed of Royal Jelly 12.

Better to be safe than sorry (again)

There were also eggs and a few larvae on the frame containing the queen cell (which was otherwise largely filled with sealed brood). It was likely that some of these would also be selected to rear new queens.

And they were when I checked on the 15th.

There was my chosen – and now nicely sculpted and sealed – cell and a few less well developed cells on the donated frame.

I know the cell I selected was charged and the larva well nourished.

In addition, I also had total confidence that the bees had selected a suitable larva to raise as a queen in the first place. After all, the survival of the resulting colony depends on it.

Therefore, I didn’t need any backups.

No ’just in case’ cells.

Rather than risking multiple queens emerging and fighting, or the strong colony throwing casts, I (again) destroyed all but the cell I had originally selected.

I’m writing this on the 17th and she should have emerged today … so my records carry a note to check for a laying queen during my first inspection in June.

This shows how simple and easy stock improvement can be.

No grafting, no Nicot cages, no mini-nucs and almost no colony manipulations etc. Instead, just an appreciation of the timings and the availability of a frame from a good colony (and this could be from a friend who has lovely bees … ).

And in between all that

That was about 1400 words on requeening one colony 🙁 . That was not quite what I intended when I sat down to write a post entitled Eats, sleeps, bees.

My east coast beekeeping – including 8-9 hours driving – takes a couple of days a week at this time of the season. On the west coast I have fewer colonies and – as outlined above – they are less well advanced, so there’s a bit less to do 13.

However, there are always additional bee-related activities that appear to fill in the gaps between active colony inspections.

I’ll end this post with a few random and half thought out comments or questions on stuff that’s been entertaining or infuriating me in the last week or so.

In between the writing, inspections, Teams meetings, editing, reviewing and writing … 😉

Honey labelling

I use a simple black and white thermal printer – a Dymo LabelWriter 450 – to produce labels that don’t detract from (or obscure) the jar contents.

Dymo thermal label (and a jar of honey)

I’ve used these for over 6 years and been very happy with the:

  • cost of the labels (a few pence per jar)
  • flexibility of the system. I can change the best before date, the batch number or other details for each print run; whether it’s 1 or 1000.
  • ability to include QR codes containing embedded information, like a website address or details of the particular batch of honey.

However Dymo, in their never ending quest for more profits a ‘better consumer experience’ have recently upgraded their printers and label printing software 14.

The newest incarnation of the printer I use – now the Dymo LabelWriter 550 – only works with authentic Dymo labels.

A more accurate spelling of authentic is  e x p e n s i v e , at least if you only buy labels in small quantities (100’s, not 1000’s).

If you fancied adding a little square label on the cap of 100 jars claiming ”Delicious RAW honey” you’d not only be falling foul of the Honey Labelling Regulation, you’d also have to cough up £18 for a roll of labels.

Dymo labels are great quality. Smudge proof, easy to remove and sharp black on white. In bulk they are reasonably priced (~3p – the same cost as an anti-tamper label – if you buy >3000 at a time).

However, you can get similar labels for a third of the price … but they won’t be usable in the new printer.

The Dymo LabelWriter 450 has no such restrictions and is still available if you look around.

I’m tempted to buy a spare.

Colony to colony variation

I started this post with a discussion of variation due to latitude and longitude. However, individual colonies in a single location can also show variation (in addition to temperament, running, following etc.) that I don’t really understand.

I have three colonies in a row behind the house here on the west coast. I can see whether they are busy or not when I’m making coffee, doing the washing up or pottering in the work room (two of these activities are more common than the other 😉 ).

All in a row (though not the colonies referred to in the text as they’re camera shy)

And they are consistently different, despite being pretty similar in terms of colony strength and development.

One colony typically starts foraging before the others and another, probably the weakest of the three, forages later and in worse weather.

Early in the season these differences were so marked I thought that one of the colonies had died.

I assume – because a) I’ve not got the imagination to think of other reasons, b) it’s the justification I use for anything I don’t properly comprehend, and c) I’ve not done any experiments to actually test what else it could be – that this is due to genetics.

It’s only because I’m fortunate enough to look out on these colonies dozens of times a day that I’ve noticed these consistent behavioural differences. I suspect my other colonies show it, but that I’ve never looked carefully or frequently enough.

Attractive foundation

I’m busy making up nucs for swarm control and sale. Although many of the frames I use are foundationless I also use a lot with standard foundation. The frames are built (or should be built!) in the winter, but I add the foundation once the weather improves and there’s less risk of cracking the brittle sheets due to low temperatures.

I buy foundation once every season or so and carefully store it somewhere cool and flat. Some of these sheets are quite old by the time I get round to using them and they often develop a white powdery ‘bloom’ on their surface.

Before (bottom) and after (top) 30 minutes in the honey warming cabinet

I used to run a hairdryer over the frames containing these bloomed sheets. The warm air brings out the oils in the wax and makes they much more attractive to the bees. They smell great!

Frames in the honey warming cabinet (W = worker foundation, to distinguish them from D = drone)

These days I just stick a ‘box full’ of frames at a time into my honey warming cabinet set at about 40°C for 30 minutes. Not necessarily quicker, but a whole lot easier … so freeing up time to do something else related to bees 🙂


Note

Today is World Bee Day. The 20th of May was Anton Janša’s (1734-1773) birthday. He was a beekeeper – teaching beekeeping in the Hapsburg court in Vienna –  and painter from Carniola (now Slovenia). He promoted migratory beekeeping, painted his hives and invented a stackable hive. 

Footnotes

  1. The sun currently rises at 5 am and sets after 9:30 pm.
  2. Which are only really a problem on the west coast during calm, humid days following a damp Spring.
  3. 40 mm of rain yesterday as London basked at 27°C.
  4. Remembering that I not only keep bees, but also lead a research group studying deformed wing virus and chronic bee paralysis virus as well as writing (scientific papers, this site and some other projects) extensively – sometimes too extensively – on them.

     

    And talks … don’t forget the talks ;-)

  5. In fact, Morris boards went in the strongest colonies today and I might risk an early round of grafts at the end of next week.
  6. Some Robbie Burns seemed appropriate for a comment on Scottish bees. The original is “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley”, from the poem ”To a mouse”.
  7. And because that’s its number … this blog is nothing if not authentic.
  8. Remembering that normal April weather might be 12°C and intermittent rain.
  9. Have you noticed that temper often varies between inspections whereas steadiness on the comb is reasonably consistent? … Runners gotta run.
  10. In retrospect, having looked at the local weather, they would probably have gone on the 4th.
  11. At least, that’s what everyone says, but like everything in beekeeping, there are few absolutes. I’ve previously dropped a frame containing a queen cell, without any apparent adverse effects for the resulting queen.
  12. OK, I’ll admit that the contentedly was anthropomorphic, but you can almost imagine her laying there in the warm, humid atmosphere, troffing hungrily on sickly sweet Royal Jelly and periodically belching. Sorry.
  13. Until there isn’t.
  14. I won’t bother discussing the latter … it’s got some weird bugs in it.

10 thoughts on “Eats, sleeps, bees

  1. Ivan Marples

    Thank you for the humungous post

    It’s good to be reminded that keeping bees in less favourable conditions and with locally developed genetics means those bees are not working to the same timetable as their sisters in warmer climes

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Ivan

      I’m hoping humungous doesn’t mean ‘too long’ 😉

      I think there’s also a “mine’s bigger than yours” attitude that can pervade social media, and even some one-to-one discussions with beekeepers. To do it well, our hobby requires a lot of learning and understanding, and some individuals want to make this wealth of knowledge – or at least the 16 supers they’ve got piled on top of a triple-brooded hive – very obvious. The reality for most beekeepers is much more modest, and is nevertheless extremely rewarding.

      The ‘less favourable conditions’ is an interesting phrase. Our beekeeping season in Scotland is undoubtedly shorter than in more southerly regions. However, I’m not convinced that makes it less favourable. We have longer and colder winters. The brood break here is very much more marked (and dependable) than when I kept bees in the Midlands. Consequently, mite control is correspondingly easier.

      Eigg and Rum

      It’s also a lot more beautiful 🙂

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. vince poulin

    David a great post!!!!!!!! It wants me to once again express a deep sense of gratitude for the knowledge you provided me and without question many others. Reading I was struck by your influence – 3-weeks ago I set up for the first time a Vertical Split as described in your earlier posts. I built 2 split boards with multiple doors (I have other “Snell-boards – similar) mainly because I needed a better fit for the hive box sizes. The effort was rewarded in 8 queen cells which were all removed and placed in 4-mating Condos. One with 4-cells, another with 2-cells and two more with single cells. On first emergence day I the Condo with 2 cells were opened but failed to have a queen. Next to that unit was the 4-cell unit. It had a lovely virgin queen and 3 remaining non-hatched cells. I captured that queen and placed her “next door”. Today – returning the unit with the remaining 3-cells contained a virgin queen. The other 2-Condos both had virgin queens. A total of 4-new virgin queens. I did purchase 2 new queens and set those up in NUC’s. This level of effort – albeit on a smaller scale mirrors your activities and happy to say I’m getting better at this thanks to the likes of your writings. On another note – Nosema has hit our area quite hard due most probably to the coldest and wettest spring we have had in decades. That said, nursing one hive back to health has been an enlightening experience. Hey, lastly!!!! I learned you gave a well received talk to our local Richmond Bee Keepers Association a few weeks ago on viruses. I would have much appreciated hearing it but I’m not a member so didn’t know until just a few days ago.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Vince

      I generally only leave one cell in whatever I’ve set up. If you leave multiple cells there’s a risk the Q’s will emerge and fight. One might prevail, but it’s not unheard of for both – assuming there were two – to get damaged/killed. However, in some colonies the workers ‘hold back’ the later Q and stop her from emerging, presumably to let a cast go headed with the first virgin to emerge. The queens signal to each other using ‘quacks and tweets‘, and it’s not unusual to find a virgin queen ‘piping’ when wandering around the comb (I’ve got a great video of this which I should incorporate into a post later in the year).

      If you managed to get two queens out of the box that received 4 you did well … often the first out tears down the other cells and kills the queens.

      I’ve got very little experience of Nosema. I think I’ve seen it only a couple of times in the last 10-15 years (and we have lots of damp!).

      I think I spoke to Richmond beekeepers in March. I always have a dilemma about broadcasting talks … the association that hosts me should send out invitations to members and locals. Some also invite neighbouring associations, which is OK within reason (though can risk swamping the Zoom licence). The nice people at Richmond possibly recorded the talk so you could join and ask to listen perhaps?

      Have fun with all those new queens. I’m hoping to start grafting this week … 🙂

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. vince poulin

        David – I know your preference for one cell but a “leap of faith” for some of us. I would have cut out at least one of the 4 cells but too tightly stacked. I did estimate day of emergence and arrived early enough to catch the queen. An adjacent unit had 2 cells that were open – but no successful queen in the Condo. I decided to move that first queen to that empty unit and went back that evening to find the second queen. She did not destroyed the remaining cells but I removed them – I was reluctant because 2 other Condos had single cells that had not hatched by that time. They were single cells – as you like them. A day later each contained a virgin queen. Nosema is challenge especially in our wet-cold climate. A local science class does Nosema counts for me. Of 3 checks 2 were well under treatment thresholds. One had a spore count of 3 million/bee. Here a >1 million spore counts elicits a treatment recommendation. Fumagilin is licensed in Canada. That result was despite a “Fall treatment” of Fumagilin – one month earlier. I checked for Nosema following those results using microscope scans but failed to identify it. I was baffled. What was I missing? What does Nosema look like? A mystery to me despite hours of searching. Then dysentery on 3-hives – not much just some spotting and streaks at upper entrances not inside. Then 2 of the 3 went into a tail-spin – dead bees and declining numbers. I nursed them using donor frames from other hives. I also used Nozevit/Apivit in sprays. With the extra bees those hives returned to average densities and now good spring hives. Then to my surprise on May 6 in a 3rd hive (a strong one!) 500-600+ dead bees were piled on the bottom screen. A week earlier that screen was cleaned. This hive had low fall to winter mite counts (N=602) but unfortunately not sampled for Nosema by the school kids. However, I checked sample bees all winter. Out of that 600+ bee pile I randomly grabbed a single bee and quickly put it under the microscope. Holy Batman – this is what Nosema looks like! It put Randy Oliver’s images to shame. I could see on the order of 2,500 spores in a single field of view. There was no mistaking Nosema. That day was followed by a die-off of 200+-300+/day. Squash samples (N=50 bees) for Nosem produced quick and dirty estimates of 2-4.5 million spores/bee. How to treat? I gave them an internal feeder jar of Fumigilan but would not take it. I then decided to force spray using a mixture of Nozevit/Apivit+Fumagilin. I repeated – 3 treatments. Dead bee counts have dropped from 200+-300+ per day to now 19-27/day. It is anyone’s guess as to whether the treatment worked but 6-19 bees/day for the last 6-days suggest it may well have helped. Dead are sampled daily. It is as if Nosema disappeared. I can hardly find a spore. Is this simply the natural pattern of Nosema? Peaking then declining? Or alternatively – did the application of Fumagilin and Nozevit trigger the recovery? I’d like to think the latter. One thing is certain – a single bee can turn an entire colony on its nose.

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Vince

          Interesting that the Nosema problems can appear and disappear so rapidly. As I said in an earlier reply I’ve barely ever seen it. I also live in a cool, damp climate, but my only real experience of it was before I moved to Scotland. Fumagillin has been banned – or at least not approved – in the UK for several years now and there are no approved Nosema-specific treatments (at least that I’m aware of).

          Some beekeepers incorporate thymol into autumn syrup as a preventative and there’s evidence that thymol is effective against Nosema, though the thymol-containing miticides approved for use in the UK are not approved for Nosema. Go figure.

          I’m not familiar with Nozevit so looked it up. The bottle sold in the UK carries the words “Your partner in treating Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae” but as the contents are only vaguely described ‘vitamins, essential oils, citric acid’ it’s not clear which is the active or most important ingredient. The contents of Nozevit means it does not need to be licensed for use by our Veterinary Medicines Directorate (at least, that’s my understanding).

          I like the idea of getting a local science class to do your spore counts. Perhaps I should recruit some here to do RNA extractions for Deformed wing virus quantification?

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  3. Graeme Yule

    Thanks for another great read David. Keep up the good work as its much appreciated.

    Can you tell me why a best by date is needed on your labels? I thought honey lasted for ever!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Graeme

      Honey might last for ever (or at least a very long time) but the Honey Labelling regulations require a best before date if it’s sold by a third party.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Tom Evans

    Another great read, thank you.

    Our frame marking differs. My W stands for Wired, and a D in a circle is drone sized cell.

    At least that’s what it means this year. Next year I’ll have forgotten the codes, then after a few messy goes in the frame spinner I’ll be writing full, unambiguous sentences on the top bars!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Tom

      I also use FF for foundationless frame, but I only label brood frames. I don’t do cut comb (though might this season if things pick up) and so all my super frames are either wired (and lots are on drone foundation) or foundationless, but still have supports. As long as I get to the OSR honey before it crystallises I get very few frames collapsing in the extractor.

      Famous last words 🙂

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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