It’s the little things …

When I first started keeping bees colony inspections were a special occasion.

There was quite a bit of preparation beforehand, collecting together the paraphernalia the catalogues all described as essential for effective beekeeping. I’d fuss over the hives, sometimes opening them a second time (or twice in a weekend) to check things. I’d write up some notes afterwards that – like certain websites 😉 – tended to verbosity.

Despite this, things went well.

Honey happened.

Splits worked.

Swarms didn’t … or were re-hived.

Larvae were grafted and queens were mated.

Colony numbers increased. 

Ready for inspection … are you?

Inspections moved from being a special occasion to, at times, something of a chore. 

Never not enjoyable or not a learning experience, but not quite the event they’d once been. 

There were also a lot more of them.

Twenty or so a week, many more if you count the nucs and the mini-nucs some years.

During all this time I was learning a whole lot more about bees.

But as importantly, I was learning a lot more about keeping and managing bees.

The KISS principle

This US Navy acronym (for Keep it simple, stupid) means that things work best if they are kept uncomplicated.

And beekeeping, and particularly the essential weekly 1 inspections are one area where the KISS principle can be beneficial.

A combination of better (but less) preparation, greater efficiency during the time spent hunched over the hive(s) and improved (but less) record keeping, reflects improvements in my beekeeping over the last decade or so.

All of which have resulted in hive inspections again being a pleasure rather than a chore.

Most of these improvements are subconscious.

I’ve unknowingly ‘learned’ that doing things a particular way works better for me or the bees. None of the lessons have been learned the hard way – they’re definitely evolution, not revolution.

Described below are a few I’m aware of 2.

Remember, these suit my style 3 of beekeeping (whatever that is 🙂 ) and may not be relevant to you.

However, for all of the things listed below I’m aware the way I’ve done things has changed over time.

Or, I’m aware that the way I do things now seems to work well though I’ve no idea how I used to do them 😉

Preparation

My essentials now fit easily into my bee bag. Partly because I now need less and partly because they never live anywhere else.

Stuff that was in the bag but wasn’t used, was ditched long ago.

I now have two boxes (2 litre ice cream tubs) in the bag, one for “daily” items and one for “queen-related” things. Neither box is full.

There’s not much in the daily container. Hive tools are kept in the apiary in a bucket of washing soda, with a spare tiddler in the bee bag to cover the inevitable losses. I now always carry a roll of gaffer tape and some staple-free newspaper. The former has all sorts of uses and the latter is for uniting colonies. 

Staple-free to save the hassle of separating sheets, and potentially ripping them, when trying to unite colonies. You want one very small hole in the sheet … they’ll easily expand this and gently mingle.

The “queen” box contains things for grafting larvae (which haven’t changed since I last wrote about them, a lifetime ago) together with the things I need for queen marking and clipping 4.

The smoker and blowtorch live together in a metal box. I have matches in the “daily” box, but never use them. A blowtorch is a much better way to light a smoker properly.

Smoker fuel lives in a plastic tub. I’ve discovered that the plastic tubs sold full of suet balls make excellent containers for smoker fuel. They are square(ish), have a handle and a convenient tab to help prise up the lid. Altogether better than a honey bucket.

Two final things come under the heading ‘preparation’.

The first is learning to fuel and light the smoker so that it stays lit. Exactly how you achieve this depends upon the fuel you are using. Practice makes perfect.

Buy a large smoker, prime it with something that smoulders well (dried rotten wood for example), light it with a blowtorch and then pack it reasonably tightly with additional combustible material. Dried grass, animal bedding, woodturning shavings etc. Top the lot off with a handful of fresh grass. 

Once lit, stays lit … bigger is better

Once it’s going, my Dadant smoker will stay lit for one to two hours without more than the occasional squeeze of the bellows … or laying on its side if burning too fiercely.

It’s ironic that the more experience you get, the less you need the smoker … however the more experience you get, the more likely the smoker will actually work when you do need it 🙂

The final preparation involves reading the notes in advance from the last inspection … the ones that I made to remind me what will be needed next time I visit the apiary.

Don’t barbeque the bees 😉

Less is definitely more when you open the hive.

The less smoke, the less knocks, bumps or sudden jarring, the less squashed bees, the less adjusting and readjusting the frames … all of these make the inspection more useful and effective.

The bees (and the beekeeper) will be calmer.

They’ll be behaving better 5

… not running manically around the frame or pinging off your veil.

You’ll see a whole lot more and, after all, what else is an inspection for if it’s not to see things?

Smoking the colony does not mean kippering them 6.

One gentle puff at the hive entrance or under the open mesh floor is enough. However these both drive the bees up.

As useful, and arguably more so, is a gentle puff in the gap created when you first lifted the crownboard 7. This eases the bees away from the top bars of the frames, making your next task easier.

OK, let’s find the queen …

You need space to work and an orderly approach. 

Think about what you’re doing. The colony, with all its darkness, smells, sounds and vibrations, is pulled apart during an inspection. 

If I wanted to be anthropomorphic I’d say it’s a very distressing experience … like having a tornado ripping the roof off and rearranging the furniture while you were frying bacon and listening to some gentle jazz 8

But I’m not anthropomorphic. 

What you need to avoid is the bees getting defensive. That just makes the looking part of the inspection more difficult. 

And if the looking is difficult, finding the queen is going to be very tricky.

Except you don’t usually need to find the queen.

If the colony contains recently laid eggs and no queen cells you can be confident the queen is in residence and will remain so … so there’s no need to look for her. 

But if your inspection is gentle and methodical, and the colony remains calm, you’ll usually see her anyway 🙂

Frame management

Remove the dummy board, shake the bees off it (onto the top bars) and lay it aside 9.

Remove the outer frame. It probably contains stores and so it’s unlikely the queen is in residence. Check, then put it aside and get on with the inspection. 

But where and how do you ‘put it aside’? Standing on end, leaning against the leg of the hive stand? Preferably not.

Most of my hive stands are a frame-width wide so you can hang a frame by the lugs, secure in the knowledge that the frame cannot be knocked over, kicked or stood on.

But I usually don’t hang the frame by the lugs.

To do so takes two hands when you put the frame down, and two when you pick the frame up. If you don’t use two hands it’s a clumsy procedure and you need a very strong grip – there’s a risk of crushing bees on the side bars.

Whilst I do have two hands (!) it’s actually usually easier to balance the frame at an angle, supported on a frame lug and the sidebar on one end, and the bottom bars on the other. There’s less reaching involved and one lug can be used as a very effective handle.

Easy to put down and pick up

The frame is held clear of vegetation below the hive stand. The protruding lug provides excellent grip. It can be put down and picked up with one hand. 

When putting the frame down, gently place the lug on the further frame bar, slide the frame away from you until the further sidebar touches the hive stand (gently, allow the bees to move aside) then lower the bottom bar towards the nearer frame bar, gently moving the frame from side to side in a narrow arc. The bees will clear the lower bar rather than get crushed.

No crushed bees

It takes much longer to describe than to actually do.

If it’s blowing a gale, frames balanced like this might topple … but if it’s blowing a gale it’s really not an ideal day to be inspecting the colony.

Unless they’re in a bee shed 😉

Removing and returning frames

With space to work you can now start the inspection. 

The frames are probably propolised together. Even with good finger strength they can be difficult to separate. 

Hive tools ...

Hive tools …

Don’t try … use the hive tool, it’s what it’s for.

Gently break the propolis seal between every frame. Do all the frame lugs on one side first, then do the other. That way you don’t pass your hands repeatedly over the open hive, which can distress the bees make them defensive.

You don’t need to lever the frames far apart. Breaking the propolis seal only involves moving the frame a millimeter or two. The smaller the distance, the less chance a bee will sneak into the gap you’ve created and get crushed as you separate other frames.

Again, less is more.

With all the frames now ‘free’ you can do the inspection.

Slide the next frame a short distance along the frame runners into your working ‘gap’. You shouldn’t just lift the frame as bees at the interface with the adjacent frame will get “rolled” 10. Grip the frame by the lugs, inspect one face, turn, inspect the other face, turn again.

The frame is now in the same orientation as when it was lifted out of the hive. It can therefore be returned easily to minimise the disruption to the brood nest. By using the same routine for every frame the colony is reassembled with the minimum unnecessary disturbance.

Wrong

Don’t just put the frame back ‘near’ it’s neighbour and squeeze them altogether when you put the dummy board back at the end of the inspection. Return it so the Hoffman spacers directly contact the neighbouring frame. That way, no bees get crushed when additional frames are added back later in the inspection.

That’s better

You’ll find that you can gently return the frame, pushing the bees aside between the Hoffman spacers as you lower it into the hive. You have a better view (more light and an oblique viewing angle) when returning the frame into the gap than when the frame is hanging by the lugs in the hive. 

Gently shiggling 11 the frame from side to side as you lower it helps move the bees aside between the spacers.

By returning the frame right next to its neighbour you’ve also retained all your working space to move the next frame into.

You handle most frames only once, increasing the efficiency of your inspection but – more importantly – minimising the likelihood of crushing bees and agitating the colony.

Once through all the frames, you can even replace the removed frame of stores at the opposite end of the box to minimise further disturbance.

Finishing up

If there are supers on the hive there is probably a queen excluder separating them from the brood box. 

I’ve got a big stack of plastic queen excluders in the bee shed, but no metal wired, wooden framed ones. 

Framed wire QE ...

Framed wire QE …

That’s because all of the metal wired, wooden framed queen excluders are in use.

They are easier to remove and easier to replace on the hive. The bee space created by the frame prevents bees being crushed. The rigid frame means they can be replaced obliquely, then gently turned until square on the hive. In doing so, bees on the upper rim of the brood box are pushed aside, rather than squished below.

With the supers, crownboard and roof back in place there are only three things left to do:

  1. Make the hive secure. Will the roof stay on, and the hive stay upright, if there’s a gale … or a cow or deer ambles into it at night? The zephyr-like breeze when you inspect might be replaced with 50 mph gusts in 48 hours. Ratchet straps really do help, though tall stacks of boxes can still topple if top-heavy with honey.
  2. Put the smoker out. Plug it with grass and let it cool before putting it away. If you do this immediately after closing the last hive it will be ready by the time you …
  3. Write up the hive notes. Less really is more here. No verbiage 12. You need to record the current ‘state’ of the colony – strength, health, stores. Ideally, also record its behaviour – defensiveness, running (are the bees stable on the frame?) and unpleasant traits such as following. All of this can be achieved with a simple scoring system. An additional sentence of freehand might also be needed – “Defensive – don’t use for grafting”. Importantly, make sure you note down anything needed at the next visit … 

Objective and subjective notes

Which neatly takes us back to preparation.

I’m sure there are a million other things I do now that are an improvement on what I used to do. I’m also certain there are better ways to do some of the things I now do 13.

Are you aware of changes to your beekeeping practices that have improved things, for you or – more importantly – for the bees?


Notes

Today (10th July) is Don’t step on a bee day … that improves colony inspections as well 😉

Footnotes

  1. At times during the season weekly colony inspections are more-or-less essential. Yes, I know that you can extend the interval to 10 days if the queen is clipped. I know many commercials work to a more extended schedule. Yes, my own timetable has been monthly during Covid … but all those are exceptions to the rule. Many queens are not clipped (and 7 days still works fine if they are), commercials know a lot more about their colonies than most amateurs (and don’t worry about losing a swarm or three) and I appear to have contrived a very successful and swarm-free ‘lockdown’ beekeeping year which I’ll write about once it’s over.
  2. Lockdown has meant my beekeeping has been very restricted this year. Inspections have been few and far between. During the most recent I became aware of some of the good habits that I’ve evolved over the years … and perhaps ignored the bad habits due to the pleasure of working with bees again.
  3. Or lack of style.
  4. Which I was going to discuss, but won’t because I’ve run out of space and time. Be prepared. Have things ready. Finding an elusive, recently-mated queen in an overflowing brood box is an opportunity to make her much less elusive. Don’t waste it looking for the Posca pen!
  5. The bees that is … I could comment on badly behaved beekeepers, but I’ve signed an NDA so cannot name names.
  6. Having used this word, I’m delighted to say (I checked the OED) that kippering is a real word. First used in 1795 The kippering of salmon is successfully practised …”, but seemingly not used much since then. Perhaps Smoking the colony does not mean kippering them” should be engraved on all smokers sold to beginners.
  7. I’m assuming here your crownboard is properly designed without holes.
  8. Substitute your own favourite cooking smells and background music here.
  9. With my Correx roofs I often stand the smoker on the dummy board on an adjacent hive to avoid melting the roof (been there, done that), whilst keeping the smoker close to hand ‘just in case’.
  10. And they really hate that, er, get defensive.
  11. Disappointingly, not a real word.
  12. Superabundant or superfluous wording; profusion of words without good cause, or without helping to make the intended meaning clearer or more precise; excessive wordiness or elaborateness of language (OED, 2020), see here for working examples.
  13. Uniting with air freshener in 20 seconds? Done it and it works. I’ll discuss it sometime in the future.

27 thoughts on “It’s the little things …

  1. Emily

    There’s some brilliant tips here, thank you. I really need to work on my smoker lighting. Can you recommend a supplier of the metal wired and wood framed queen excluder? I’ve looked for them in the past and struggled to find them from local suppliers.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Emily

      I made my framed excluders and they’re almost certainly worse than any you could buy 🙁 Thorne’s sell them with both stainless or normal wires. Stainless steel is more chemical resistant (think MAQS), but since I almost never treat with a QE in place I’d save a few quid and buy the standard wired excluder. Thorne’s also do a plastic QE with standoffs which I’ve written about previously – a good design but poorly implemented as mine all warped badly (as, by the looks of things, has the one in the catalogue).

      As long as the corners are made well on the frame of the QE there’s little to go wrong. I’m sure there are other suppliers as well.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Emily

        Thanks David. I just tried out your nuc method of swarm control today. Gosh I could have done with you looking over my shoulder here when I was struggling to find the queen and had a small child running up asking if I’m finished yet!

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          What could possibly go wrong?

          😉

          There are swarm control methods for when you cannot find the queen … I should write about one or two of them. Not sure they’d be any less susceptible to interruption though.

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  2. Shirley Sharpe

    Ha! Thank you. I’ve been doing left side release, right side release, inspect etc. But love the idea of left, left, left… right right right … inspect ….. so will definitely be trying it for my next inspections.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Shirley

      One side, then the other, is much better. You can even put the hive tool down after releasing all the frames if it makes things easier for your handling of the frames.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Richard Elliott

    May I ask just for clarity, do the dummy board and the frame of stores get put back at the opposite end from which they started?
    If that is the case, do you stand in the same place relative to the hive, whichever end the dummy board is at?
    Thanks so much for your superb articles.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Richard

      All my production hives are organised ‘warm way’ (frames parallel to the entrance). I alway stand behind the hive when inspecting them. I usually have the dummy board at the ‘back’ of the hive i.e. closest to me when inspecting. It and the first frame are removed, making space to work the next frame. The stores frame is put back either in its original position or at the other end of the hive, but the dummy board goes in again at the back. In all honesty I don’t think it makes a huge difference which end of the hive the stores frame is returned – of course, if you always put it back at the opposite side of the broodnest to where it started you’ll effectively rotate the central frames of the colony to the outside.

      Which reminds me that it’s worth also noting that these inspections are an opportunity to rotate old, dark frames out of the hive.

      This is something I’ve done very badly at this year due to the limited number of inspections.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    1. David Post author

      They certainly are, though Posca pens work as well. I’ve switched to using map pins for all my hive numbers are they’re easier to grip with a gloved hand. Of course, they don’t work inside the hive 🙁

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Fred

    If Carlsberg did inspections….that is the perfect description of how to work thru a box of bees!
    Sadly, I don’t have hives on stands so can’t balance first frame as suggested (car tyres & bricks = Instagram non friendly) so I do have the anxious thought constantly darting “is the queen definitely NOT on that food frame casually leaning at side of box ?”

    Q1 – should I then shake bees from dummy and food frame into box before proceeding ? or does that get them defensive?

    I only smoke under the crown board and then find something to do for a few mins (read notes on hive from last inspection / take roof off next hive in preparation/pretend I am doing something like in work when boss is about) , to give bees chance to settle down again, people often (over)smoke then pile into the hive seconds later (and then smoke again)

    Loved and laughed at the reference to staples in newspaper , how many times has that happened to me and still I didn’t learn from it until reading your blog , tho thanks to same blog I always fixed the tears with gaffer tape.

    However, not looking forward at all to future blog on aerosol uniting, will never have the nerve to try it …tho of course I will, having read your blog

    Thanks so much for weekly article, always thought provoking and my bees can now look forward to being shiggled at future inspections (it’s far better that it’s a made up word, they’re the best sort there is)

    All best

    Fred

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Fred

      You could always build a two-frame nuc rather than lean the frame against the side of the box. I’ve made a couple of these and, at times, they’re invaluable. When queen rearing particularly … as I then sometimes need to isolate the frame with the queen on it while I do other things to the hive.

      There are no hard and fast rules about any of this stuff of course. It’s very much ‘what works for you and the bees’. I tend not to shake the bees off the removed frame. They’re fine there and no causing a problem. If the queen is there (and I missed her) then it’s one less chance to lose or damage her. I do shake them off the dummy board because I usually lay it flat to stand the smoker on.

      You’re absolutely right about ‘oversmoking’ … rarely, if ever, needed … and usually makes inspections more difficult.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
      1. Dorothie

        I always have a cheap cardboard nuc at the ready. Handy for putting that extra frame in if there’s nowhere suitable. Or a frame of eggs/brood destined for another hive.
        Also if needing to isolate the queen, when you spot her you can whiz her in there on the frame and know you can retrieve her when ready for whatever you want to do with her. Beats chasing her about to catch her in panic mode (still me I’m afraid!)

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          I should have mentioned my two-frame nuc boxes … these are an ideal place to keep a frame + queen safe or, as you say, transfer a frame with eggs for grafting to another apiary.

          Two frame nuc box

          The only advantage of this over a cardboard one is that it doesn’t dissolve in the rain 😉

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  5. Iain

    Nice post David, good reminder that it really is the simple things that make life easier. Thinning down the stuff I take to the apiary to reduce weight and bulk always works, but slowly over the next visits I add this and that back, just in case, but never use half of it!! 😀

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Iain

      The other thing that happens of course is that the bag accumulates all sorts of rubbish left over from apiary visits – bits of screwed up gaffer tape, burr comb (in a bag), the hive tool I lost in 2018 etc. Periodically I have a clearout to return it to the ‘lean and mean’ state … and going by the weight of the bag this morning, a clearout is overdue 🙂

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Dana Josephson

    David, do you make your inspection notes immediately after closing each hive? Or after several/all have been inspected? Where/how do you keep your notes? Are they on paper, card, plastic, or what?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Dana

      Usually after each hive. I have a memory like a sieve.

      If the weather is poor (and the notes would get wet or blown away) I record them on a dictaphone (after each hive). I then transcribe them on my return home. All my notes are on good, old-fashioned, paper. There’s a Word template linked from the record keeping post – it has the basic information I record. I’ve used these for many years and they work best for me. The notes stay with me and the bee bag, not the hive.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. Lisa Stinson

    We share several similar habits, but my take away from this post, is gaffer tape! That’s genius! Finally, a better alternative to duct tape!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Lisa

      I think I’m using the term generically … any tape is better than none, and the best are the waterproof but tearable ones. I build roofs from Correx and use Unibond power tape, which withstands rain, sun and frost for years.

      Unibond Power Tape

      Great stuff.
      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  8. Edward

    Re: lighting the smoker a Beekeeper once asked me why do you need a flame thrower to light the smoker and a match to burn down a hay shed and when it really gets going it takes ages for it to stop smoking, I have been that soldier in the car when I thought it was out, until I saw smoke emitting from the rear of the car. Lesson learnt.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      I’ve seen pictures of at least two beekeepers cars torched due to poor smoker management … or forgetfulness. I was recently given an Abelo smoker box which is excellent (though mine now has a broken catch, so is now securely held together with a strap).

      Abelo Smoker Box

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  9. Archie McLellan

    Hello David

    You asked about changes we had made to our beekeeping. I’ve been trying out a couple of ideas – though it could be hard to really know if they make a difference.

    The first is ‘slatted racks’ – an old idea, popular in the US. There is a comprehensive article on Honey Bee Suite. I like the thinking behind these (‘a place to gather inside the hive without crowding the brood area’, ‘in winter, moves the brood nest further from the cold and drafty hive entrance’, and much more). Although they are readily available for Langstroth, you have to make your own for other hive sizes. The drawings on the web are ridiculously over-designed. I was able to build some cheaply and easily.

    The second is Filipe Salbany’s UD intrance. The philosophy here derives from nests (rather than hives) with their smaller entrances and dark cavities. Because there are baffles behind each entrance, they give good protection from predators. They should be used in conjunction with solid floors but I’ve retained my open mesh floors (with that entrance completely blocked). I have this (crazy) idea that if the bees had the option of OMFs in natural nests, they would choose them!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Archie

      I took the liberty of adding links to your comment to help other readers. I’m familiar with the concept of slatted racks, though have never tried them. My floors do have a reasonably deep sides, but that provides space under the open mesh floor, not between the floor and the bottom of the frames. I’ll be interested to know how you think they perform after a year or two.

      The UD intrances I’d seen advertised (BeeSpaceX) but, again, I’ve not tried. It’s certainly true that most floors have an entrance that is far bigger than needed. Even my (copied) underfloor entrances on my preferred kewl floors (Yikes … that page is 7 years old) are usually full width, but can be easily reduced when needed. They do offer the advantage of being very much narrower than a standard entrance, so I don’t need to use mouse guards and have very few problems with wasps. My bee shed has a 1″ diameter entrance and often houses strong, double brood colonies, so I know something that small is perfectly acceptable.

      The design of the UD entrances shows an internal baffle that appears to protrude into the brood box by 8mm. I’d think that this is suboptimal, leading to potentially crushing bees between the side bars and the entrance. If I’m right, I’d be tempted to investigate a protruding entrance that incorporated the baffle.

      Again, interested to hear how you get on with them.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  10. Shirley

    I very much enjoy reading your blogs and always take something from them, this time it’s releasing the frames down the left side and then the right…. I tried it out on my next inspect and the bees were noticeably calmer. Thank you.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Excellent … though as a scientist I’d have to ask what the control was? Perhaps they’re just calmer because there’s a good flow of nectar at the moment 😉

      It’s very noticeable the difference this makes to an aggressive colony. The constant waving of gloved hands and hive tools over the brood box often otherwise has them leaping off the top bars at you.

      Delighted you enjoy the posts.
      David

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *