Measure twice, cut once

Swear often 😉

I’ll return to cursing shortly … bear with me.

The autumn solstice is long gone and we’re fast approaching the end of British Summer Time 1. For most northern hemisphere beekeepers this means that there may be five months of ‘not beekeeping’ before we start all over again.

Of course, there are things we have to do with the bees in the intervening period.

The hive entrances must be kept clear so they can get out on the inoffensively named ‘cleansing flights’ when needed. There will be a winter miticide treatment to apply … probably long before midwinter. It is also important to keep an eye on the weight of the hive – particularly as brood rearing starts in earnest in late January and February – to ensure the bees do not starve.

But those three things aren’t going to fill anything like five months, so there is bound to be some time ‘spare’ over the coming months.

The elasticity of time

Although the year contains twelve about equal length months, those of us who keep bees in temperate northern countries experience a strangely warped calendar.

This is what it feels like … the beekeepers year

Apparently the months only vary in length by ±3 days. May and December contain the same number of days, but May disappears in the blink of an eye, whereas December can drag on interminably.

Weirdly there appears to be an inverse relationship between the available daylight to work in, and the amount of time it feels as though you have available to actually get the various beekeeping tasks completed.

This surely defies the laws of physics?

All of which means that beekeepers often have little free time in the summer and ample free time in the winter.

Some wise beekeepers have a busman’s holiday and go to New Zealand to tour apiaries (and – more to the point – vineyards).

Others catch up with all of the non-beekeeping activities that apparently ‘normal’ people do … like the decorating, or building model railways, or flamenco dancing 2.

Getting creative

But if you still want to dabble with a bit of beekeeping – in the broadest sense of the word –  through the cold, dark days of December and January 3 there are all sorts of things you can do. 

Many years ago I wrote an irregular column for my then beekeeping association on do-it-yourself (DIY) for beekeepers.

It was irregular because my use of punctuation has always, been suspect, and because it didn’t appear each month. 

That column eventually morphed into this website 4.

In fact, some of the very earliest articles were almost lifted verbatim from the beekeeping monthly newsletter.

I wrote about DIY because it was something that:

  • brought me a lot of satisfaction
  • saved me a few quid
  • improved my beekeeping

Now, a decade or more later, I still use the winter months to do the majority of my beekeeping-related DIY 5.

It’s only in the winter that I have the time to think things through properly before rummaging through the wood offcuts box and actually building something.

Measure twice, cut once

Which brings me back to the start of this post.

The motto for beekeeping DIY could be something like:

Measure twice, cut once, swear often 6

However, having identified a problem, there’s almost as much enjoyment to be gained from thinking it through to a workable solution than there is from the actual woodwork.

But Think lots, measure twice, cut once etc. doesn’t have quite the same flow.

And, as we’ll see below, it doesn’t have to be woodwork.

So I can happily fill a few hours on a dark November evening thinking about improvements to a hive stand that could cope with 1500 mm of rain a year and very uneven ground 7, or how to best construct the removable slides for a Morris board.

And by best here, I mean for a lot less than the £30 charged for the commercial ones 8.

Morris board … that’s £8.25 please

Part of the thinking involves how to tackle the project with the limited range of tools I have. I don’t have the space or the skill 9 to own a bandsaw, or a thicknesser 10, or a router.

Almost everything I build uses a combination of Gorilla glue, Correx, hand tools, blood 11, wood offcuts and some really rich Anglo-Saxon phrases.

My DIY skills are legendary, and not in a good way, but the great thing is that the bees could not care less

Fat dummies

Most of the various things I build develop from ideas that occur during the ‘active’ beekeeping season.

If it’s needed urgently I’ll cobble something crudely together and use it there and then. However, it’s unlikely to have received much thought (or care in construction) and so I’m more than likely to ponder how it could be improved once I have a bit more time.

I learnt the basics of queen rearing from the late Terry Clare at a BBKA Annual Convention and couldn’t wait to have a go myself.

Fat dummies – mark 1

I used the Ben Harden queenright queen rearing approach. This needs an upper brood box with most of the space ‘dummied down’ to concentrate the bees on the grafted larvae. For this you need a couple of ‘fat dummies’ 12. I built my first fat dummies one afternoon using gaffer tape and Correx (see above) and later that April reared my first queens.

But that winter I had time to do a bit more research. Dave Cushman’s website described fat dummies with integral feeders.

Clever.

These would clearly be an improvement – unless there’s a strong nectar flow you often have to feed the colony – so I built some. 

Fat dummy with integral feeder

Fat dummy mark 2 … with integral feeder and insulation

Mine are still in use … and not just for queen rearing. They are packed with polystyrene insulation … an embellishment I thought up 13. I can use them to reduce ’empty’ space in a brood box occupied by an undersized colony. In fact, with two of them, I can overwinter a four-frame nuc over a strong colony to provide warmth from below.

Problem solving

As I said earlier, the problem solving is part of the fun. 

I use a lot of Correx. That’s the fluted polypropylene board that is used for political posters and For Sale signs.

Sourcing it is often not a problem if you’re prepared to do some homework.

It’s lightweight, strong, available in a range of cheery colours … but most importantly it is used for political posters and For Sale signs.

So, it’s often free.

And that’s a word all beekeepers like 😉

Wait for a general election and seek out a candidate who has suffered an ignominious and humiliating defeat. Ideally one in which they have both lost their deposit and and any remnants of support from the political party they were standing for … and ask politely.

And For Sale signs are even more easily obtained. Always ask … and remember that it’s bad form to remove them if the house has yet to be sold.

But there’s a problem with Correx. You cannot glue it with any normal glues. It’s got some sort of surface coating that prevents glue from adhering properly. 

Believe me, I’ve tried.

There are special glues, but at special prices 🙁

Roofs

I wanted to build some hive roofs from Correx but had to solve how to fold it ‘across’ the longitudinal flutes, and then how to stick it together in a way that would be weatherproof.

Pizza cutter

Pizza cutter … take care scoring the Correx

The folding bit was easy … it turns out that people who keep guinea pigs use this stuff to make the cages and runs for their cavies. And after an hour or two reading about someone else’s (weird) obsession I discovered that a pizza cutter was ideal for scoring Correx prior to folding it.

The glue I worked out for myself. I built a couple of dummy roofs and held the folded corners together with zip ties or regular gaffer tape, zip ties and regular gaffer tape, or some (claimed) waterproof tape.

Of these, the waterproof tape – specifically Unibond Extra Strong Power tape – worked really well. 

Sticky stuff ...

Sticky stuff …

And remains the only one I’ve found to work.

You need to lightly sand the surface of the Correx and ideally degrease it with some solvent. I still have roofs built 8 years ago with the original tape holding them together. They cost me £1.50 each to build as I had to buy 14 the Correx as the only For Sale signs I had were too small.

Here’s one I made earlier

Most of the things I’ve made have been through one or two iterations of ‘improvement’ before I’ve ended up with something I’m satisfied with.

The Kewl floors I almost exclusively use these days were an improvement of the original design I built, but have also had a couple of additional modifications

My honey warming cabinet – one of the first things I ever built – was modified after a few years by the addition of a fan to better circulate the warmed air. This significantly improved it.

The things I’ve discussed above are all good examples of why it’s worth spending some time in the winter doing some creative thinking and DIY 15 :

  • commercial Morris boards are expensive and (I think) have entrances that are too large
  • I’m not aware of any commercially available fat dummies … please correct me if I’m wrong
  • no one sells hive roofs (or super carrying trays) for £1.50
  • my floors are ideal for the beekeeping I do and significantly less expensive than anything similar available commercially
  • my honey warming cabinet is used to warm supers before extraction, to melt set honey and – because the temperature control and heat distribution is good enough – has even been used as a queen cell incubator

Electrickery

This winter I have three projects to entertain me.

The first project is the second iteration of my DIY portable queen cell incubator. The first of these was cobbled together earlier this year. Although it worked – more or less – it was far from satisfactory.

Mark 2 is currently being stress tested.

It is being tested.

I am getting stressed.

Queen cell incubator – mark 2 … a work in progress

I’ve managed to achieve really good temperature control. However, I’m currently struggling with uneven temperatures at different areas within the box. They barely fluctuate, but they’re not the same.

Great temperature control at a range of (different) temperatures

Grrrr.

I’m pretty sure this is solvable 16 and that it will be possible to build something better than is available commercially for about 10-15% of the price 17.

But, almost more important than that, it will be a problem I’ve solved 18 that suits me, my bees and my beekeeping … which will be very satisfying.

The second project is a set of hive scales. Lots of others have tackled this problem and there are some really clever and complicated solutions out there.

The plan is for mine to be the exact opposite.

Simple, and not very clever at all.

Testing is ongoing 😉

Software, not hardware

And the final project is software, not hardware.

All my honey jars have unique batch numbers. These allow the individual apiary (and bucket) to be identified. The batch number is generated by some PHP or perl scripts and used to print a QR code onto a Dymo label affixed to the back of the jar.

QR code containing a batch number

But that monochrome pointillist pattern contains a hidden web address as well. The purchaser will be able to point a mobile phone at the code and get more information about the honey 19

Having sold honey ‘from the door’ for years I’m unsurprised when buyers want to know more about local bees and the available forage … and with these labels they can (and do).

I’ve written the scripts to handle label creation and logging/redirecting ‘views’. I now have to write the programs that create the customised web pages with the local information lifted from the backend database.

And, with only ~165 days until I next expect to open a hive, I think I’m going to have my work cut out to complete any of these projects.


 

Footnotes

  1. The clocks ‘go back’ in a couple of days here in the UK.
  2. You can tell I have no idea what other people do …
  3. Or, for readers from New Zealand – who routinely are placed fifth or sixth in reader numbers of this website each year – June and July.
  4. The punctuation, remained – suspect – but, the frequency of posts increased and the range of topics broadened to include a load of stuff I knew (or know) very little about.
  5. Which, in all honesty, is the only DIY I really do … to the constant annoyance of my better half.
  6. You will get things wrong, but you’ll probably be doing this in the shed or the garage, so don’t hold back … it’s cathartic.
  7. I think I’ve got a solution to this one …
  8. I solved this one last winter and used them this summer.
  9. Or enough spare fingers.
  10. Is that a word?
  11. Oops …
  12. I’ll let you come up with the entirely predictable joke here …
  13. But I guarantee has been thought up before.
  14. Gasp!
  15. And readers who attended my recent talk on DIY for Beekeepers to Kilbarchan and District BKA will be aware of a range of other things that can profitably – and not just meaning financial profit – be made.
  16. Like Baldrick, I have a cunning plan.
  17. Commercial ones are several hundred pounds.
  18. Famous last words …
  19. At the moment it just goes to a generic web page about local honey.

16 thoughts on “Measure twice, cut once

  1. Stephen Sunderland

    Well the fieldfares and redwings you mentioned last week took a week to get to Oban. Advance party arrived on Wednesday and the main gang came yesterday. Abundance of berries maybe slowed their progress?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Stephen

      Big flocks periodically moving through here still, though they don’t stop for long as most of the trees are now bare. The finches are ganging up in their winter flocks, some are now hundreds strong. They cause a real kerfuffle when the resident sparrowhawk is about. Siskins are still scarce at the moment – presumably still feasting on the conifers somewhere – but will be here in strength later in the year.

      Hope things are good in Oban.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. David Woodhouse

    Could the problem be with your probes? Have you swapped them around in the incubator to see if they then report the same temperature as the probe they replaced or you could put them all together in a bowl of water to see if they all read the same temperature then.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi David

      It’s definitely not the DS18B20 probes. I’ve checked them (using the cooling Thermos of hot water method) and they’re +/- no more than 0.5°C over a 50°C range if I remember correctly.

      Testing, testing ...

      I’ve got the data somewhere and can refer back, and would have chucked out any gross outliers. I think I know what the problem(s) is/are and hope to resolve them over the next few weeks. It’s been a bit of fun and a lot of frustration … but I think I’m on the home straight now (except I’ve lost my humidity probe somewhere!).

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. James Reid

    I am intrigued by your integrated fat dummy feeders. I made a few fat dummies but didn’t add a feeder because I was nervous about adding a plywood cavity, assuming that the ‘feed’ would be syrup and knowing my DIY skills, would drain any and leave a right mess. Is your fat dummy feeder for fondant? I can see that could work if you could slice it thinly enough to fit in the feeder. Am I totally confused.com?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi James

      You need to feed cell raisers thin syrup, not fondant. You are tricking them into thinking there’s a good nectar flow. Your DIY skills can’t be any worse than mine. My feeders don’t appear to leak. I slather on waterproof wood glue when I’m building them and then usually melt a load of wax and slosh it around inside to seal it. This seems to have been effective.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  4. Dave Stokes

    Thanks for another excellent episode! I particularly like the pizza cutter.

    “Thicknesser” does seem to be a legitimate word, but I don’t have enough space in the garage for one with all the bee keeping and cycling gear in there.

    Here is a link to my solution for weighing a hive:
    https://www.blipfoto.com/entry/2796547601317496218
    I wonder if it’s the same as yours.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Dave

      Ha! Not the same as mine. Mine is currently a whole lot uglier and about 20 times the size. Clearly I have a bit more development to do 😉

      I’ve also got a few bikes ‘in the way’ … and a canoe. It’s getting a bit crowded.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  5. stuart weston

    I think you need a small fan in the incubator to mix the air and balance out the temprature.

    Seen it in other home made call incubators, and cell carying boxs.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Stuart

      A fan certainly helps. That photo is an old one. The current model has a fan (I didn’t want to give too much away while my team of patent lawyers complete the filing 😉 ). I think the issues are with the airflow and the timing of the fan off/on cycle.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Margaret Cowley

    As I have no woodworking skills at all, I bought some fat dummies from beekeeping.co.uk . They call them two-frame spacers. I use them a lot but they don’t have insulation (other than air) nor a feeder.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Margaret

      I took the liberty of adding a link to those ‘slightly podgy’ dummies – partly because I didn’t know such things were sold, and because they might be useful to others. They’re not what I would call ‘fat dummies’ as they’re only the width of two frames. The fat dummies I use are 3.5 frames wide. Two take up the width of 7 frames and allow 4 frames between them in a standard brood box – which for a Ben Harden setup would be two frames of pollen, a frame of open brood and the frame containing the grafts.

      My woodworking skills really are awful and – as you can see – they don’t even need to be made of wood. The ability to make something that are a seemingly rather weird 3.5 frames wide shows how useful it is to be able to do some DIY.
      However, it’s good to see that these sorts of things are sold for beekeepers who want to avoid losing a finger or two 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. vince poulin

    This post strikes many smiles David. Like you, much of bee keeping is in the journey and for me everything is pretty much DYI. Unlike you – I have a complete woodworking shop and a small backyard apiary. Hives, spacers, feeders and whatever I think needed is built from waste wood, scrapes of every sort. My head turns every time I see an old home being torn down and a new one built. That old cedar fence headed to the dump becomes a colourful new hive ready to house a new NUC. Those framing scraps of 2×8, 2X10, 2X12’s piled ready for garbage are treasures! The downside? Ha, nothing seems is “standard”. Measure once, measure twice, measure three times and still I seem to get things messed up. Quarter inch off here, a half inch there – but bees don’t seem to notice. Water still seems to run down and off the hives. Without question it is half my fun. I know same is true for you and why you have so many inspiring projects.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Vince

      Repurposing things is half the fun … I’m busy finishing my queen cell incubator. Some bits have had to be purchased from new, but I’m currently carving up some old blocks of closed cell foam that a new computer was packed in (someone else’s computer … I just scrounged it from the discard bin) and re-using some small roofing nuts and bolts I had kicking about in the “lucky dip” box in the shed.

      I’m envious of the woodworking shop but also fond of my fingers 😉 I give a talk on DIY for beekeepers which focuses on everything except the boxes. The second quality ones sold over here in the sales* are sufficiently good and cheap enough that I don’t think they are worth building. To do so requires too many power tools and wood is expensive here.

      The other advantage of purchased boxes – usually – is that, chosen well, they will be the right size and have the correct bee space. They will also probably outlast most beekeepers, so over a 20-30-40 year period the costs is negligible.

      Cheers
      David

      * I stress ‘in the sales’ … the full price of first quality wooden hives here is very high, perhaps £250 for the full setup minus frames. Polystyrene are about £150 but you need to take care ensuring they are compatible. New ‘premium’ designs appear now and then which are infuriatingly incompatible with existing boxes.

      Reply
  8. vince poulin

    I hear you David! Two seasons ago my son wanted to start a hive using a Lang system. Wood world wide is expensive even here. However, some number of years ago mountain pine beetle swept through the Province destroying huge swaths of the interior Lodgepole pine stands. Many trees were salvaged to the benefit of bee keepers. Unassembled commercial wooden boxes – to my surprise were only $22 and still now only $24 cnd. Nicely cut box cut joints, clear wood – really – no reason for DYI. And of course all “standard” sized. Frames are more costly but all one has to do is try making your own and they soon become “dirt-cheap”. My worst task in the shop is building frames. There is nothing fun about the tedious nature of cutting hundreds of tiny “sticks”, gluing and tacking them together. Not to mention liking fingers! That said – Warre box sizes and frames are by far to my liking. I am stuck building my own because we have no cost effective supply of components – unlike Langstroth gear. I’m certain I would enjoy your National system. It is quite close in size to my gear. Langstroth’s are good but not enjoyable to me to work with. I find the frames too large, boxes back-breaking heavy – trying finding an unmarked queen, or lifting a full medium super off one in a tight garden space without stomping down your wife’s precious perennials. You UK guys are fortunate – Nationals look sweet, boxes tidy, well designed and more in keeping with my gear. I do have my son’s Langstroth gear which now hosts a nice NUC colony. If it survives winter when split-time comes its off-spring will be propagated in medium boxes and none built by me.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Vince

      Many consider the National box is a bit small and lots of beekeepers run the hives with a ‘deep’ brood box which is similar in volume to a Langstroth. Personally, I quite like Nationals for many of the reasons you mention. My bees are not particularly prolific so many can stay in a single brood box all year. I think only about 25% of my colonies this winter are on double broods, and that’s partly laziness on my part not squashing them into a single box late in the season.

      The prices you quote is about what we pay for second quality cedar boxes. These are perfectly adequate for most beekeeping. I’ve got loads of them. The first quality ones are a different matter altogether … a brood box (flat) costs £58!

      Despite National being a good size, I’ve noticed that the full supers have gradually been getting much heavier over the last few years. I used to be able to lift three together … two now make me wince and it won’t be long until I’ll be moving them one at a time.

      Is honey getting denser?

      Frame making … I find it quite therapeutic, unless it’s mid-season and I need them in a desperate rush 😉

      Cheers
      David

      Reply

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