More gentle beekeeping

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

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

… but nevertheless quite successful πŸ™‚

23,000 iced buns

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

Which means a couple of days of very heavy lifting.

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

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

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

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

As convenience foods go, it’s very convenient.

But after a dozen or two blocks, also very heavy πŸ™

Beekeeper’s back

There’s a bittersweet irony to the honey harvest.

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

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

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

Which appears not to have happened πŸ™

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

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

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

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

Quick fix clearer board – hive side

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

Clearing supers

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

Lots of bees

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

More lifting πŸ™

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

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

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

This year the only queenless colony I found was also honeyless πŸ™Β 

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

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

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

Lugless …

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

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

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

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

Storm Francis

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

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

Very wet.

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

It was wetter and more miserable than this photo suggests …

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

Cold, clammy and heavy … a wet bee suit

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

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

Hogwash.

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

Stings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, I spoke too soon …

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

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang … BANG!

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

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

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

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

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

More bittersweet season endings

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

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

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

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

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


 

Footnotes

  1. I won’t use 400 kg this year … most colonies get 1 – 1.5 blocks (12.5 – 18 kg), leaving me a reasonable amount to store for emergencies etc.
  2. Rosebay willowherb perhaps?
  3. And contain up to 15 kg of honey. The weight variation is due to the material – cedar or poly – the number of frames and how full those frames are.
  4. Remembering that gaffer tape will no longer stick to things because of the detergent.

18 thoughts on “More gentle beekeeping

  1. Lindsay Bryning

    David – I was interested to see that your correx clearer board had the half-rhombuses attached with duct tape – I tried duct tape to attach a rhombus to a wooden clearer board, and although it looked fine when I put it on, when I came to remove the supers I found them still full of bees because the duct tape had peeled away, and the rhombus had fallen onto the top bars below, leaving the bees free access to the supers. I surmised that the warmth of the hive had softened the glue on the duct tape. has this ever been a problem for you? And if so, do you have a solution? (I ended up using screws to hold the rhombus in place).

    PS really enjoy your posts – keep them coming!

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Lindsay

      I’ve had exactly the same problem. The clearer board pictured is a bodged one … most of mine are wood with the rhombus stuck immovably in place with Gorilla glue. On Correx gaffer tape sticks reasonably well – particularly the cheap stuff from the centre isle in Lidl (!) – but I have had it peel away once or twice. My solution is to use more gaffer tape πŸ˜‰

      What I should do is build more from wood. I’ve even thought that it would be straightforward to make a flat board with the necessary holes and rhombus clearers fixed in place and combine it with a simple eke. I always (or almost always) have enough ekes, and this would save having yet more dedicated equipment to store. Maybe this winter … but I’ve been saying that for the last five years.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  2. Keith

    Looking forward to the feeding article David, nothing like fondant versus syrup to get a good discussion going. I used to syrup feed almost exclusively around treatment time but it was the surest magnet for wasps I could find. I was wondering about storage of syrup by the bees compared to feeding on fondant as required however ?

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Keith

      There’s a lot of rubbish talked about fondant from some people. I’ll discuss it in detail next week. Suffice to say … they store it perfectly well and the fondant I added today will be long gone by the time I next check the colonies.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  3. Janey Bolton

    Hi David
    Do you uncap or bruise any small areas of capped honey in the part filled supers before you place them under the brood box to encourage the bees to take it up into the brood box? And do those supers stay under the brood box for the winter?

    Many thanks for your posts!

    Reply
      1. Janey Bolton

        Thanks – and would the supers stay under the brood box for the winter or would you take them off at some point?

        Reply
        1. David Post author

          It depends how fast the bees vacate it and how late in the season you’re prepared to check. If it’s empty by late October it won’t do any harm to remove it. I usually intend to remove them … and often forget πŸ˜‰

          Cheers
          David

          Reply
  4. Rohit Raja

    Hi David,

    I note you may be writing about feeding next week. I am a little confused on whether to leave only the brood box full of bees for winter or leave a super with frames and a brood box with frames for winter. In some of my colonies there are currently so many bees that by leaving only the brood box for winter with frames there may not be sufficient room for all the bees. Perhaps you may clarify this next week.

    I have tried to find the answer in your previous posts on feeding and I note from the photos that you only leave the brood boxes with frames for winter.

    Thank you very much for your posts. I have learnt so much from them – beyond any books on beekeeping.

    Thanks,

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Rohit

      I’ll discuss this next week. There’s no ‘always right’ answer. I’ve several boxes now with brood and a super because of the number of bees. By winter … which is a long way off yet, I try and have all the boxes as single broods as it suits my bees and my beekeeping.

      But isn’t always possible πŸ™

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Marie

      You can ask … but I wouldn’t know the answer. Assuming rushy pod soil if acidic and damp you could have a look at what Bee Happy Plants suggest.

      My ‘gardening expertise’ goes no further than knowing how to sharpen my chainsaw I’m afraid.

      Good luck
      David

      Reply
  5. ALISTAIR ALEXANDER

    At this time of year, Himalayan balsam is the go to plant for my colonies. The telltale sign that the bees are harvesting from it are foragers appearing to have been coated in flour (pollen from the plant). Apparently it’s an invasive species, and thus there are balsam bashers out there hell bent on its destruction. But they appear to be losing the war and, from a beekeeping perspective, its continued flowering well into the early autumn is a bonus.

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hi Alistair

      As a beekeepers and a fisherman I have mixed feelings about HB. The late season nectar is useful, though where I am there isn’t enough and/or it’s too cold to have a reliable yield from it. However, it’s hugely invasive and ruins the riverbanks, choking them with impenetrable neck-high “weeds”. It smothers everything else and is really environmentally damaging. That’s quite a high cost to feed the bees! I’d prefer it if we didn’t have to rely upon an invasive plant to feed our bees. Far better would be to have better hedgerows and wildflowers/meadows.

      Some areas have been very successful in clearing HB. I think much of the Monnow catchment (a river I know well) on the Welsh borders has been cleared.

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  6. Sarah

    Hello David
    As a newbie I just placed a super with frames of unripe honey above the brood box as I would wet supers. Please explain why nadiring works better – or is it just the right way πŸ€—
    Thank you 😊

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Hello Sarah

      The bees expect to place stores around and above them. Putting unripe honey there will probably mean they’ll just treat it as stores and not take it down into the brood box. Nadiring it puts the stores beneath them and they usually move it up. To encourage them to take it down when the boxes are above them it helps to restrict access to the supers – put an empty super between them and, even better, put a crownboard with a single 10 mm hole in it between the boxes. This makes the bees ‘think’ the honey is outside the hive/nest and move it.

      Actually, to be honest, I don’t know what it makes the bees think, but that’s a common interpretation of their action!

      Cheers
      David

      Reply
  7. Sarah CarrΓ©

    Thank you very much for your explanation David. I shall move my super to below the brood box and watch what happens πŸ€—
    I really enjoy your posts and I learn a lot from them, so please keep writing.
    Your new home looks idyllic 😊

    Reply
    1. David Post author

      Thanks Sarah

      I try and write weekly – not always the post that appears, which might have been written in advance. With longer nights and poorer weather it becomes a bit easier as there’s less to do outside.

      Most places in Scotland are lovely … just some are a bit more lovely than others πŸ˜‰

      Good luck with your bees
      David

      Reply

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