Matchstick miscellany

White propolis

What is propolis for?

Why, when you go to open a hive that you’ve not visited for some time, is the crownboard invariably stuck down with propolis?

Are the bees trying to stop you looking in? Do they think a thin bead of propolis is defence against a well-aimed hive tool?

Of course not.

What they are doing is sealing up every tiny nook and cranny, every gap and interstice.

You might think the crownboard is a snug fit.

The bees don’t.

Even the brand new, smooth, flat plastic interface between an Abelo crownboard and brood box get glued together within days.

Every fissure through which wasps 1 could gain access or heat could escape or water enter or whatever is gummed shut with a liberal helping of propolis.

Propolis is of course also antibacterial and has a host of other great properties, but for the purpose of this post I’m restricting myself to its use as a sort of “No Nonsense Decorators Caulk” of the bee world 2.

Mind the gap

Additional evidence that bees really do ‘mind the gap’ is easy to find if you use crownboards with holes in them.

Not the great gaping opening(s) designed to accommodate a porter bee escape (I’ll return to these shortly), but instead something like the ventilated disks in the grossly over-engineered Abelo poly crownboards.

Abelo poly National crownboard ...

Abelo poly National crownboard …

Here’s a brand new one, just out of the packing, with all the little fiddly ventilated plastic disks and poly plugs to cover them.

And this is what one of those ventilated holes looks like after a few weeks use …

Exhibit A … ventilated hole in an Abelo crownboard

And the same thing applies to wire mesh screens when I use split boards as crownboards (because I’ve run out … even of the 25p polythene ones).

Split board

Split board …

Which end up looking like this …

Exhibit B … are you getting the message?

Matchsticks … don’t try this at home

I’m an increasingly irregular visitor and even less frequent contributor to the online beekeeping discussion forums. On one 3 there’s a perennial discussion thread around this time of year concerning matchsticks.

Matchless matches

Essentially the discussion starts with a question or comment on the need for matchsticks as spacers to separate the crownboard from the brood box during the winter.

You’ll find this advice in many beekeeping books going back more than half a century and you’ll hear it in many ‘Start beekeeping’ winter courses … often taught by beekeepers who learned their beekeeping half a century ago.

In many cases the online forum discussion is started by a recommendation in the monthly BBKA 4 newsletter, or another online forum or Facebook group (again often BBKA-based).

The subsequent ‘discussion’ is generally nothing of the sort. The advice is (in my view rightly) criticised but as much or more effort goes into bashing the BBKA as evidencing why the advice is wrong.

I’m not here to bash the BBKA and I’ve already provided the unequivocal evidence why it’s wrong.

Much better use …

If you provide a narrow space or gap over the top of the colony they will try and seal the gap closed with propolis.

So don’t.

If you want to use matchsticks in the winter … build a model of Notre Dame instead. The bees will appreciate it more.

What are the bees telling you?

The speed with which bees seal up gaps and crevices tells you that that they ‘prefer’ not to have have these types of spaces overhead.

I’m using the word ‘prefer’ here in place of some convoluted justification around evolutionary selection of traits that benefit the long-term survival of the colony and maintenance/transmission of the genes in the environment.

They seal the gaps because to not do so, over eons, is detrimental to Apis mellifera. Not necessarily to that colony per se, but to the species.

Whether they do it to reduce robbing, to stop draughts or rain entering or to prevent the loss of warm air is, in many ways, irrelevant.

Do beekeepers really know better than millions of years of evolution?

No.

The “I always used matchsticks and my bees do well” justification

Is so deeply flawed it barely deserves contradicting.

But since I’m here, I will.

Bees have a fantastic ability to survive and even flourish despite the most cackhanded fumbling by beekeepers 5.

Just because your bees overwintered successfully with a gaping void in the crownboard does not mean they need that gaping void to survive 6.

Observe what the bees do and apply it to your beekeeping.

But what about crownboards with a big hole in for a porter bee escape? The bees don’t block those with propolis.

No, they don’t. But that’s still not justification to leave a void above the cluster. Bees seal gaps smaller than ‘bee space’ (say 8-9 mm) with propolis.

Perhaps they don’t seal up these large holes in the crownboard because the ‘triggers’ that make them seal smaller gaps aren’t present.

As an aside, I wonder if they deploy guard bees to defend these large holes above the cluster? 7

But back to the matchsticks; these create a gap significantly less than 8mm and the bees clearly demonstrate – each and every time you crack open the crownboard – that this is far from optimal.

I’m not going to get into the chimney effect, lost heat, holes in trees, water ingress, draughts etc.

Whether it’s a good idea to ventilate the winter cluster, to get rid of excess humidity or anything else, the evidence is compelling 8the bees would rather you didn’t.

Winter preparation miscellany

The two propolis-adorned crownboard pictures above were taken during an apiary visit in mid-October. I was opening hives for the final time this year. It was 12-13°C and bees were flying, bringing back pollen I presumed was largely from the ivy flowering nearby.

They fancied that fondant

Most had finished their final half block of fondant. The empty wrapper, eke and QE 9 were removed.

Others still had fondant left. In this case I bodily lifted off the QE, fondant and eke/super to give me access to the brood box.

Unfinished fondant

If you feed fondant above a QE you can balance it on an eke or empty super, so avoiding crushing the hundreds of bees clustered underneath the fondant 10

And the reason I needed access to the brood box was to recover the Apivar strips.

If the strip is fixed near the top of the frame this takes just seconds and a small amount of dexterity with a suitable hive tool.

The strips also have a small hole top and centre allowing them to be hung between frames on a matchstick.

But I don’t have matchsticks in the apiary 😉 so instead use the spike to fix them in the comb.

Apivar strips should not be left in for longer than the approved treatment period (6 – 10 weeks; these went in on the 28th of August, so are being removed after 7 weeks). This is important to avoid the reduced levels of amitraz in the ageing strips selecting for Apivar-resistant mites.

The few colonies I checked more thoroughly had little or no brood. All boxes were reassuringly heavy.

I saw a single drone amongst the dozen or so colonies I opened. Not long for this world I fear.

Since there was still pollen coming in I delayed fitting mouseguards to the colonies that need them.

I’ll deal with that once the frosts start 11.

Not long now 🙁


 

Footnotes

  1. Actually, not just wasps. A gap that anything could access the hive and would therefore need defending against.
  2. Other DIY products also have propolis-like characteristics.
  3. That shall remain nameless here, but that will be discussed in a future post.
  4. British Beekeepers Association.
  5. Believe me … if I could possibly get it wrong, I have. Yet the bees continue to do well.
  6. In much the same way as I’ve had colonies rear a perfectly good new queen despite me dropping the frame bearing the only queen cell, not because I dropped the frame.
  7. Interesting … how could this be tested? Has someone already worked this out? How might the bees discriminate between a hole that’s “safe” (because there’s a roof overhead) and one that’s not? Does an entrance need to be breached to be defended?
  8. I refer you back to exhibit A and exhibit B …
  9. Queen excluder.
  10. It’s also a darned sight easier to get access to the brood box if the fondant block is not glued to the frame topbars.
  11. Note added just prior to posting … which started last night.

16 thoughts on “Matchstick miscellany

  1. Alan Riach

    Whilst agreeing with most of David’s anti- matchstick piece, I have found that I do need them between the plastic Swienty crown boards and brood chamber to avoid getting mould on the side frames.
    Why are poly hives vulnerable to moisture problems – perhaps because they are totally resistant to letting water vapour pass, which wooden hives (and trees) are not.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Alan

      I’ve got a lot of ‘plastic’ hives, including some Swienty, though I’ve not got their crownboards. I’ve not had any moisture problems in these hives, though it’s clear that the sealed space under the frame lugs in Abelo brood boxes traps water. I’m not aware of ever seeing mould on the side bars of frames.

      One thing that all of my hives have is a large block of insulation directly over the crownboard. This is probably the warmest spot in the hive, meaning condensation doesn’t collect there but instead runs down the walls (if there is any condensation) and away through the OMF.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Eric Beaumont

    David,

    Sound words; if only they would reach the ears of those who replicate outdated and wrong advice, especially those at the BBKA who fail to move with the times.

    I have heard that the origin of the use of matchsticks was when solid floors dominated the market. That nobody considered the consequence of combining matchsticks with OMFs (when they became popular in the 1990s) says much about the thinking of the average UK beekeeper.

    I have or manage hives (cedar, Abelo poly, Swienty poly) with a mixture of solid floors and OMFs; nearly all have unvented roofs, and my own sealed crownboards are insulated one way or another; occasionally floors are damp in spring, or lug gulleys wet, but it’s not a problem.

    Good to hear the latest news that high humidity benefits a colony; I understand that it restricts varroa breeding to some extent; of course, no chance of that in a matchstick hive.

    Regards,
    Eric.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Eric

      I have a cunning plan to ‘reach the ears’ … watch this space 😉

      With a clear crownboard (no holes) and a big lump of insulation on top you can have a peek at the cluster during the coldest times of the year. Two things are notable. Firstly the cluster are immediately under the crownboard in a big flattish pancake (that presumably hangs down into the spaces between the frames). They are located in the warmest area of the hive. They’re largely immobile and clustered, but the shape isn’t football-like with space above them. Secondly, there’s no condensation on the underside of the crownboard. With good insulation any damp presumably condenses on the sidewalls (which are thinner and cooler) and then runs away to and through the floor.

      I’ll try and dig to some photos I have of this …

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Dave Stokes

    When I first started bee keeping Bernhard Mobus was making exactly the same point and, long before varroa reached Scotland, was advocating mesh floors. If I remember correctly, Brother Adam was recommending the match sticks; oh, the irony of having the initials BA.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Dave

      I’m well aware the points above have been made before … the key point I think is to interpret what the bees are trying to ‘tell us’. If they are sealing the spaces above them with propolis then adding matchsticks makes no senses whatsoever.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Patrick

    Hi,

    On the issue of fondant above an excluder – have you never found that the bees have left the queen below, as per the classic warning ?

    Am thinking next year of going fondant-only, as mixing syrup for ~20 colonies is getting very old !

    Regards,

    Patrick

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Patrick

      Never.

      They won’t because there’s no comb above the excluder.

      They don’t use fondant to draw more comb, they just take it down and store it. Over the last decade or so I’ve used fondant hundreds of times without issue.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
        1. David Post author

          Hi Patrick

          Having answered your earlier comment I then saw the question from Karen (above). I should have qualified things. I’ve never seen them draw significant amounts of comb above the QE when being fed fondant. At most you get a tiny bit – almost always empty – sticking the underside of the bag to the QE.

          However, if it is very warm (remember I’m in Scotland so this doesn’t happen 😉 ) and there’s a flow on and the brood box is already full I suppose there’s a chance they might build comb.

          I think you’ll be OK if you keep an eye on them and, yes, mixing syrup for 20 colonies is not fun (I gave up at four and switched entirely to fondant and have never used anything else for autumn feed).

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  5. Karen Alexander

    Hi David
    I saw the photo of your opened hive with fondant. I have been trying the fondant method of feeding. In my out apiary I have 4 hives that were requeened this year. It’s a new apiary for me and now I’m realising there is more forage and shelter than my home apiary. Two are in standard brood boxes and two in deeps. The two deep hives looked exactly like your photo but the other two had taken all the fondant down quickly then having a super of space and mildish Autumn weather, they have built out a huge amount of honey filled wild comb attached to the crown board. On one, some of the comb fell off when I inspected. I was not equipped literally and cognitively to deal with it so quickly propped up fallen comb and reset the crown board with the remaining comb. A sticky mess. I couldn’t get to the Apivar strips because of this. Following this I had to leave for Canada and am back on 4th Nov. I’m still working out what to do. Any thoughts?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Karen

      There are two issues here … you’ve got stores above the crownboard and you’ve got Apivar strips still in the brood box. The former isn’t really a problem. On a cold day the bees are likely to retreat into the brood box. You can them remove and replace the crownboard, having also removed the Apivar strips. If you leave the latter in place the reducing levels of Amitraz might contribute to Varroa resistance … definitely something to be avoided.

      If the comb is very fragile and there are loads of bees over it you could always try placing an empty super between the crownboard and the brood box. If there’s not too much overhead insulation this should force the bees down and you can then close them up for winter.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Karen Alexander

    Thanks David
    Sadly I placed the half block of fondant on the QX with a super as an eke, so the comb was hanging down into it once the fondant was taken down. It’s below and attached (now partly) to the crown board. I’ve learned from this but still have to clear up the mess! 🤪

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Karen

      I’d separate it with another super from the brood box and the bees will probably take it down. Don’t leave it too late though as they’ll become reluctant to move as it gets colder. If the comb is capped they might ignore it unless you ‘bruise’ it with a hive tool.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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