Tag Archives: bee shed

And they’re off …

I posted last week on the relative lateness of the start of the beekeeping season here in Scotland 1. Having been away for a few days I was both surprised and disconcerted to find this waiting for me when I arrived at the apiary to conduct the first inspections of the year.

When is a swarm not a swarm?

When is a swarm not a swarm?

Surprised because I’d missed all the seasonal clues that indicated swarming might be imminent.

Disconcerted because, in the interests of full disclosure, I’d have to admit to it ūüėČ

The colony behind the near-invisible one inch entrance hole through the bee shed wall is a double brood colony in an Abelo poly hive. It was headed by a 2018 queen (or had been ūüôĀ ) and had a nice temperament and good manners.

The queen was marked blue and one wing was clipped to prevent her flying off.

But it wouldn’t have stopped her¬†trying to fly off. Instead she would have ignominiously spiralled to the ground 2.

Usually what then happens is she attempts to climb back up and the swarm gathers around her. In a standard hive this is often this is underneath the hive stand.

My guess was that she’d made it up to the¬†landing board and stopped or got stuck there.

I had a gentle prod about in the beard of well-tempered bees but could see no sign of her.

With about 20 more hives to inspect I quickly decided to walk them into a fresh hive … I’d let them do this while I got on with other colonies in the apiary.

Don’t think, do

Walk this way

Walk this way

I put together a new floor and a brood box of mostly foundationless frames. I put one or two frames of drawn comb in and gently dislodged a couple of clumps of bees into the box.

Within a very short time more bees were marching down the wall of the shed and clustering between the frames of drawn comb in the brood box.

What started as a trickle became – if not a torrent – then certainly a determined stream of bees taking up residence in the new box.

To encourage them I balanced a split board across the tops of the frames to provide a welcoming dark ‘cavity’ for them to occupy. Very soon you could see bees fanning strongly at the opening between the split board and the shed wall.

Fanning workers

Fanning workers

I interpreted this as meaning the queen had entered the box and the workers were encouraging others to join her.

After an hour or so I moved the hive a few inches away from the shed wall, placed a crownboard and roof on and carried on inspecting other hives in the apiary. By this time about 75% of the bees had left the ‘swarm’ and entered the brood box.

Not so fast

And that’s when everything ground to a halt.

There were no bees fanning at the hive entrance. No more bees entered the box through the entrance. Instead they started leaving in dribs and drabs.

I’ve hived swarms like this before, or done the classic ‘walk them up a sheet’ having dumped them from a skep outside a hive. Other than this being a real spectacle, one of the striking features is that what starts as a mass of bees ends being an absence of bees … they all enter the hive.

'Walking' a swarm into a hive

‘Walking’ a swarm into a hive

Clearly something was wrong and I was beginning to suspect that there wasn’t a queen in the ‘swarm’ at all.

So I did what I should have done in the first place. I had a look in the original hive.

Hello there!

Blue skinny queen

Blue skinny queen

I smoked the double brood box gently from the bottom, intending to encourage the queen (if she was there) into the upper box.

The box was busy but not packed with bees 3, there were good amounts of sealed brood (and a really nice tight laying pattern on many frames).

There were quite a few ‘play cups’ and a few had eggs in them. This is one of the early signs of swarming.

I found the queen on the 19th of 22 frames.

Perhaps I was too gentle with the smoke¬†ūüôĄ

She was the queen I was expecting. Marked blue, though the paint was beginning to rub off a bit, and with the left wing clipped.

She looked like she had lost a bit of weight.

Big fat queens in full laying mode (which they should be getting to by late April) aren’t very aerodynamic so workers¬†slim the queen down before swarming to improve her flying ability.

This queen looked to me like she’d been on the F-plan diet (but remember I’d not seen her since last August). In addition, the number of eggs in the colony was relatively low. This would also be expected if the colony had been preparing to swarm as queens reduce their laying rate in the few days before swarming.

What else could be seen?

Stores and pollen levels were good.

The notable absence from the hive was of well developed, sealed or unsealed queen cells.

A colony will normally swarm once developing queen cells are capped. A colony with a clipped queen often delays swarming for a few more days. It’s therefore usual to find sealed queen cells in a swarmed colony. There may also be unsealed cells as well.

~3 day old queen cell ...

~3 day old queen cell …

There wasn’t anything close to a sealed queen cell in the colony 4. The best developed were, at the very most, a couple of days old.

So what happened?

Other than the absence of well developed queen cells the colony looked as though it had swarmed.

If it walks like a duck etc.

Since the queen was clipped she had eventually clambered back to the hive and re-entered, leaving many of the workers who had left with her clustered around the hive entrance.

That’s currently my best guess 5.

If that was the case, notwithstanding the current lack of well-developed queen cells, they’d be trying again as soon as the weather was good enough. I therefore decided to preempt them by doing a classic artificial swarm.

I moved the queen on a frame with a small patch of brood into the box I’d used to try and ‘walk’ the swarm into. I then moved the – now queenless – double brood box a couple of metres off to one side in the shed. Finally I placed the queenright box in the place the original colony had occupied.

And what will happen?

Full details are in the description of Pagden’s artificial swarm. The flying bees from the double brood box will return to the box with the queen. The hive bees in the double brood box will start to rear one or more new queens.

And at that point I’ll intervene.

The double brood box has lots of brood and stores spread across 21 frames. The bees are well tempered, stable on the comb and have no significant signs of chalkbrood or other diseases (and¬†Varroa and virus levels are exceptionally low – I’d measured both 6).

They are a good stock to make increase from.

I’ll check them in a ¬†few days and see how queen cells are developing. Once there are good sealed cells I’ll split the colony into several 3-5 frame nucleus colonies. The final number will depend upon the number of good queen cells and the number of bees left in the colony.

It should be possible to generate half a dozen good nucleus colonies from a suitable double brood colony without too much of a problem.

First inspection summary

I got through all my colonies (eventually). With a reasonable number to compare it’s easy to define the good, the bad and the indifferent ones.

It’s much easier to do this once the season is properly underway, which is a good reason not to inspect too soon in the year. Some colonies are very early-starters, others lag bit. If you inspect too early you might consider the slow ones are dud or failed queens.

I was pleased to see that most were good or at least indifferent, with only a couple clearly exhibiting undesirable personality traits – aggression, laziness, running, following – or, in one case, disease (rather too much chalkbrood). These will be destined for prompt requeening and drone brood will be removed to reduce their contribution to the gene pool.

My overwintered 5 frame nucs looked excellent, with a couple needing re-hiving immediately.

Here's one I prepared earlier

Here’s one I prepared earlier

The first inspection is really little more than a check that things are all OK. It doesn’t matter whether I see the queen. If there are eggs present I’m happy.

Eggs? Overt disease? Stores? Brood? Space? … next please!

Overwintering losses

I lost 10% of my colonies this winter – two from 20. This includes both full colonies and overwintered 5 frame nucs.

One colony drowned. The lid and crownboard blew away in a severe storm and they were subjected to a three-day deluge over a long weekend when I was away.

Mea culpa. I should have had more bricks on the roof.

Spot the drone laying queen

Spot the drone laying queen

In the second colony the queen failed and turned into a drone laying queen (DLQ). This had been my worst-tempered colony last year and was scheduled for requeening. However, the queen I found wasn’t the clipped and marked one I’d left there in August. Clearly there had been a late-season supercedure and the replacement queen was poorly mated.

Although she was a bee I didn’t keep it is great to be beekeeping again ūüôā


Colophon

And they’re off! is the phrase used by horse racing commentators at the start of a race. It is also the title of a song composed by William Finn from the musical¬†A New Brain. The song is about the damage gambling does to families. There’s a good cover version by Philip Quast on YouTube.

The new bee shed

It’s not often a backhoe digger and dumper truck are required for apiary construction. Certainly, most of the sites I’ve used over the years have needed little more than a few breeze blocks,¬†Buster (my trusty hivebarrow), some sweating and swearing 1 and a spirit level.

And the spirit level is only required because I want my foundationless frames drawn out straight and true.

Mid December 2017 - foundations and base installed ...

Mid December 2017 – foundations and base installed …

However, our new research apiary has involved some rather impressive¬†‘boys toys’. It is now nearing completion¬†and we will shortly be moving bees onto the site.

One day all this will be under tarmac

Our original research apiary was located in an idyllic spot in the corner of open mature woodland. It was sheltered from prevailing winds, had water nearby – very nearby during some localised flooding – and housed the first ‘bee shed‘.

The bee shed in autumn ...

The bee shed in autumn …

However, a planned extension to the town, the relocation of a large school and the need to keep Council budgets to a minimum, meant that a ‘feeder’ road was proposed to be routed through this apiary in early/mid 2018.

Not near, not around … literally¬†through.

Even if it had been near or around, the prospect of working hives next to a route used by hundreds of children was not appealing. I also didn’t fancy re-drafting risk assessments to include lots of sweaty roadbuilders and their heavy machinery during the construction phase.

So, sometime last year we started scouting around for a new location for the research apiary.

The water table

The one issue we’d had with the old site was minor flooding during winter … and spring, summer and autumn (!) rains. This never threatened the bees, but washed away an access footbridge several times and made wellingtons a necessity in most months I can remember.

To avoid this in the future 2 we opted for a site on a small mound of earth that would place the hives and the bee shed safely above the water table.

A small mound of earth ...

A small mound of earth …

‘Small’ if you have access to a backhoe digger that is … ūüėČ 3

The site was extended and levelled, an access road installed, the base was prepared with a few (very large) lorry loads of hardcore and was then topped with compacted gravel. There’s probably a technical term for this sort of groundwork. It was completed with impressive speed just before an extended cold spell in mid-December.

The frozen ground delayed the installation of security fencing 4 but this, and installation of the new shed, was finally completed a few weeks ago.

Bigger is better

I’m convinced of the benefits that a bee shed offers in solving some of our beekeeping problems. These are primarily security, storage and shelter in increasing order of importance. These might well not be problems¬†you face, but the ‘shelter’ is likely to benefit many who keep bees in temperate and, er,¬†damp climates.

With bees in a shed you can open the colonies and inspect them whatever the weather. This is a huge benefit if time is important; either your own or Рand this is why it is critical for our research Рso we can harvest larvae and pupae at particular times for experiments.

Before we used a bee shed I’d had to harvest brood during weather totally unsuited to beekeeping, including howling gales or thunderstorms. Now, other than periods when the colony is clustered tightly, hives can be opened whenever needed.

Our first bee shed was 12 x 8 feet and turned out to be a bit cramped at times. The new shed Рat 16 x 8 Рis the largest routinely supplied by the excellent Gillies and Mackay. Larger still would have been better, but there were some financial constraints and we needed to keep space on the site to relocate the old shed in due course.

The new bee shed ...

The new bee shed …

The new shed can house seven full colonies.

Fitting out

We’ve learnt a lot since building the first shed in 2015. The old shed suffered from poor lighting and a range of different shapes and styles of entrance. We’ve partly addressed the former by having windows all the way down the South facing side of the shed and we’ve fixed the latter by standardisation.

Where have you heard that before?

The bees enter the shed through a hole in the wall and reach the hive via a simple rectangular section tube (extractor fan ventilation ducting). All the entrances are now identical, consisting of a simple supporting bracket on the inner wall of the shed to cradle one end of the ducting. The other end of the duct is supported by a thin strip of softwood tacked to the front of the hive floor.

Standardised entrance ...

Standardised entrance …

The same entrance design, omitting the ducting, can accommodate nucs if needed.

All our floors are of one design 5 and compatible with most National brood boxes. None of the boxes are fixed to the stands and, unless the hives are badly bumped, this entrance arrangement is essentially ‘bee proof’.

Entrance duct and hive floor ...

Entrance duct and hive floor …

Hive stands

The hive stands are very robust, separated into two (three and four hives respectively) and protrude through the floor to the rest on the slabbed foundations. Consequently, vibrations are minimised. Ideally, I’d have preferred individual stands, but that increases complexity and cost.

A significant change made with the new shed is to raise the height of the stands by 3-4″ making inspections a little less backbreaking. This will make working a double brood box topped with 3 supers a challenging experience, but the colonies very rarely get that big … and the nectar flows simply aren’t good enough.

Welcome home

I like¬†landing boards. Of course, they’re largely unnecessary, but on what would otherwise be a uniform wall punctuated with seven 1″ holes, they provide a good opportunity to make the individual hive entrances readily distinguishable to returning foragers.

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

The landing boards are folded black Correx painted with some surplus-to-requirements bright yellow Hammerite paint. Correx is tricky stuff to get glue or paint to adhere to, so I’m not sure this will have sufficient longevity. However, it’s neater than painting big patterns on the shed wall.

The distinctive colours and patterns were based broadly on the known abilities of bees to discriminate between shapes. The intention of course is to minimise drifting between colonies.

Lightening things up

The windows are of exactly the same design as those used in the first shed. These are formed of two overlapping sheets of polycarbonate, enabling any bees flying in the shed to readily exit simply by crawling upwards to the ‘slot’ at the top of the window. These are an excellent solution to a shed full of bees following an inspection. There’s nothing to open or close afterwards, it’s largely draught-free and totally maintenance-free. Result.

But they probably still don’t allow sufficient light in on a very dull, overcast day. Amazingly, these aren’t unheard of on the East coast of Scotland.

I’ve therefore installed a 12V solar-powered lighting system. This charges a large leisure battery which powers six LED bulbs. It’s like Blackpool illuminations when they’re all fired up. The final tests of this system – and the timer that (should … there are some teething problems here) automatically turn the system off – are currently underway and I’ll post about them separately.

The immediate environment

The apiary has the new bee shed together with sufficient space to accommodate at least half a dozen additional hives – for splits, nucs, queen rearing or teaching – as required. We’ve also installed a separate levelled base to take the old bee shed once the original apiary is vacated. This will primarily be used for storage, but can also accommodate four full colonies if needed.

The site is a little more exposed than I’d like, though it is sheltered from the coldest winds from the North and East. To improve shelter and, more importantly, early season pollen we’ve planted 150 native hedging plants around the site 6. As 80 cm bare-rooted ‘whips’ they look a bit pathetic, but they’ll soon fill out. Two thirds are native goat willow (Salix caprea) which will be coppiced and should provide good quantities of pollen.

Willow and native hedging ...

Willow and native hedging …

With the snow now largely gone and the temperatures slowly increasing I expect to move bees into the new bee shed in the next fortnight.


 

Bee shed 2: the sequel

All good things must come to an end, though this particular one did sooner than I’d hoped.

Our research apiary – affectionately known as The Bee Shed – lies in the path of a recently announced new road development. Not close to, not within sight of, but actually underneath a proposed access road to the new Madras College site to the West of St. Andrews.

Under construction ...

Under construction (mid/late 2015) …

The timing stinks

There are actually two preferred access road routes to the new school, but the Council (who in their infinite wisdom drag everything out to the last possible minute before committing) won’t decide which will be used until about a month or so before development is expected to start. This is intended to be early in 2018¬†i.e. rather too close for comfort if we don’t want our research interrupted.

We’ve known about the possibility of the new road since June, but things never seem to move as fast if there’s not a deadline looming.

We therefore need to prepare a second research apiary, move all the bees across and then disassemble the original one … all within the next few weeks.

Time spent in reconnaissance …

…¬†is seldom wasted‚Ć. And we’ve spent quite a lot of time. We’ve considered a number of alternative sites, some better than others, but none truly ideal.

Given the choice we’d have selected a sheltered, East/South facing site, surrounded by mature open woodland, with water close by, protected from strong winds by the adjacent woodland or walling, with abundant local wildlife, early pollen and …

No, stop, wait!

The bee shed in autumn ...

The bee shed in autumn (2016) …

That’s a description of the current site.

In fairness, there were some issues with the original apiary location. It was low lying and prone to minor flooding. Access was across a rickety set of scaffolding planks that threatened to pitch us into the burn when wet and slippery. Crossing the burn with the hivebarrow – particularly in the dark – required some courage (or stupidity). There was no power in the shed, it was quite remote and it was a bit on the small side.

There were some wonderful orchids though …

Common spotted orchid

Common spotted orchid …

I suspect¬†these will struggle to re-emerge through the tarmac of the new road ūüôĀ

Bigger and better

We’ve had to compromise on the new location, but – in doing so – we’ve managed to correct some of the shortfalls of the original site.

We’ll now have much more space and better drainage. We’ve achieved the former simply by specifying a larger footprint, and the latter by building on an earth mound raised a few feet above the water table. We’ve invested in solar powered lighting systems and have excellent shelter from the cold Easterlies that sweep in off the North Sea.

It’s also better located for outreach activities and closer to the research labs.

The final plans include a 15m x 15m platform to house a new bee shed of 16′ x 8′. Once we’ve vacated the original shed (a tiddly 12′ x 8′) it will also be moved to the new apiary, giving us additional storage and colony space.

In total we should have capacity for about a dozen colonies under cover, with more outside if needed. I should have added earlier … the two primary goals of housing bees within a shed is to ¬†provide greater protection, enabling both a slightly longer brood rearing season¬†and allowing inspections and brood harvesting whatever the weather.

If we absolutely¬†have to inspect/sample on a Monday morning during a downpour, we can. The beekeeper saunters over under an umbrella, dons his/her bee suit and does the work. The bees don’t react badly to inspections in inclement weather. They simply exit the shed via the windows and re-enter the hive by a short tunnel through the shed wall.

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

Over the next few weeks I’ll document some of the developments as we start to prepare for the 2018 season.

Here’s what I prepared earlier

Here are a couple of photos of the apiary in the very early stages of preparation.

Dig and Dug build an apiary

Dig and Dug build an apiary

The compacted grit base and shed foundations are now complete, with the shed and the fencing due shortly … and then it’s my turn to have a dabble preparing the shed for the bees, installing the windows and entrances and the solar power lighting system.

Early/mid December foundations and base installed

Early/mid December foundations and base installed

More of the same.

Shed foundations

Shed foundations

And then there’s the small task of moving the bees in …


‚Ć This quote (Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted) is sometimes¬†attributed to the talented and successful German Field Marshal of World War Two, Erwin Rommel. However, there are numerous other proposed sources …¬†Sir MacPherson (Mac) Robertson (1860 – 1945), Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley The 1st Duke of Wellington (1769 – 1852) or Sun Tzu (544 BC – 496 BC) in¬†The Art of War. Take your pick. The meaning is self-evident … when planning something it’s worth considering all the possibilities, in particular the environment.

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The day job

It’s no secret that I have both amateur and professional interests in bees, bee health and beekeeping.

During the weekend I sweat profusely in my beesuit, rushing between my apiaries in Central and Eastern Fife, checking my colonies – about 15 at the autumn census this year – averting swarms, setting up bait hives, queen rearing and carrying bulging supers back for extraction.

Actually, not so much of the latter in 2017¬† ūüôĀ ¬†I did get very wet though, much like all the other beekeepers in Fife.

The BSRC labs

The BSRC labs …

During the week I sit in front of a large computer screen running (or sometimes running to keep up with) a team of researchers studying the biology of viruses in the Biomedical Sciences Research Complex (BSRC) at the University of St. Andrews. Some of these researchers work on the biology and control of honey bee viruses.

During the winter the beekeeping stops, but the research continues unabated. The apiary visits are replaced with trips in the evenings and weekends to beekeeping associations and conventions to talk about our research … or sometimes to talk about beekeeping.

Or both.

This weekend I’m delighted to be speaking at the South Devon Beekeepers Convention in Totnes on the science that underpins rational and practical¬†Varroa¬†control.

Which came first?

I’ve been a virologist my entire academic career, but I’ve only worked on honey bee viruses for about 6 years. I’ve been a beekeeper for about a decade, so the beekeeping preceded working on the viruses of bees.

However, the two are inextricably entwined. Having a reasonable amount of beekeeping experience provides a unique insight into the problems and practicalities of controlling the virus diseases that bees get.

Being able to “talk beekeeping” with beekeepers has been very useful – both for the communication of our results to a wider audience and in influencing the way we approach our research.

Increasingly, the latter is important. Researchers need to address relevant questions, using their detailed understanding of the science to deliver practical solutions to problems1. There’s no point in coming up with a solution if there’s no way it’s implementation is compatible with beekeeping.

Deformed wing virus

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

The most important virus for most beekeepers in most years is deformed wing virus (DWV). This virus¬†“does what it says on the tin”¬†because, at high levels, it causes developmental defects in pupae that emerge with shrivelled, stunted wings. There are additional developmental defects which are slightly less obvious, but there are additional (largely invisible) changes which are of greater importance.

DWV reduces the lifespan of worker bees. This is probably not hugely significant in workers destined to live only a few weeks in midsummer. However, the winter bees that get the colony through from September through to March must live for months, not weeks. If these bees are heavily infected with DWV they die at a faster rate. Consequently, the colony dwindles and dies out in midwinter or early Spring. At best, it staggers through to March and then never builds up properly. It’s still effectively a winter loss.

Our research focuses on how¬†Varroa influences the virus population. There’s very good evidence now that DWV transmission by¬†Varroa leads to a significant increase in the¬†amount of virus, and a considerable¬†decrease in the diversity of the virus population.

So what?

Well, this is important because if we want to control the virus (i.e. to¬†reduce DWV-associated disease and colony losses)¬†it must help to know the proper identity of the virus we are trying to control. It will also help us¬†measure how well our control works. We know we’re measuring the right thing.

We’re working with researchers around the world to define the important characteristics of DWV strains that cause disease and, closer to home, with entire beekeeping associations to investigate practical strategies to improve colony health.

Chronic bee paralysis virus

CBPV symptoms

CBPV symptoms

We’re about to start a large collaborative project on the biology and control of chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV). This virus is becoming a significant problem for many beekeepers and is increasing globally. It’s a particular problem for some bee farmers.

CBPV causes characteristic symptoms of dark, hairless, oily-looking bees that sometimes shiver, dying in large smelly piles at the hive entrance. It typically affects very strong colonies in the middle of the season. It can be devastating. Hives that should be the most productive ones in the apiary fail catastrophically.

Why is a virus we’ve known about for decades apparently increasing in the amount of disease it causes? Are there new virulent strains of the virus circulating? Are there particular beekeeping practices that facilitate it’s spread? We’re working with collaborators in the University of Newcastle to try and address these and related questions.

I’ll write more about CBPV over the next year or so. It won’t be a running dialogue on the research (which would be crushingly dull for most readers), but will provide some background information on what is a really fascinating virus.

At least to a virologist ūüėČ

And perhaps to beekeepers.

Grow your own

As virologists, we approach the disease by studying the virus. Although we maintain an excellent research apiary, we don’t do many experiments in ‘the field’. Almost all the work is done in test tubes in incubators in the laboratory … or in bees we rear in those incubators.

Grow your own

Grow your own …

We can harvest day-old larvae (or even eggs) from a colony and rear them to emergence as adult bees in small plastic dishes in the laboratory. We use an artificial diet of sugar and pollen to do this. It’s time consuming – they need very regular feeding – but it provides a tightly controllable environment in which to do experiments.

Since we can rear the bees, we can therefore easily test the ability of viruses to replicate in the bees. Do all strains of the virus replicate equally well? Do some strains outcompete others? Does the route by which the virus is acquired influence the location(s) in the bee in which the virus replicates? Or the strains it is susceptible to? Or the level of virus that accumulates?

And if our competitors are reading this, the answer to most of those questions is ‘yes’ ūüėČ

We can even ask questions about why and how DWV causes deformed wings.

Again, so what? We suspect that DWV causes deformed wings because it stops the expression of a gene in the bee that’s needed to make ‘good’ wings. If we can identify that gene we might be able to investigate different strains of honey bee for variation in the gene that would render them less susceptible to being ‘turned off’ by DWV. That might be the basis for a selective breeding project.

It’s a simplistic explanation, but it’s this type of molecular interaction that explains susceptibility to a wide range of human, animal and plant diseases.

Bee observant

Bee health is important, and not fundamentally difficult to achieve. There are some basics to attend to … strong hives, good forage, good apiary hygiene etc. However, it primarily requires good powers of observation – does something look odd? Are there lots of mites present? How does the brood look?

If things aren’t right – and often deducing this means comparisons must be made between hives – then many interventions are relatively straightforward.

Not long for this world ...

Not long for this world …

The most widespread problems (though, interestingly, this doesn’t apply to CBPV) are due to high levels of¬†Varroa infestation. There are effective and relatively inexpensive ways to treat these … if they’re used properly.

More correctly, they’re relatively inexpensive whether they’re used properly or not. However, they’re pretty ineffective if not used properly ūüėČ

Regular checks, good record keeping, comparisons between hives and informed observation are what is needed. Don’t just look, instead look for specific things. Can you see bees with overt symptoms of DWV? Are there bees with¬†Varroa riding around on their backs? The photo above has both of these in plain view. Are some hairless bees staggering around the top bars with glossy abdomens, or clinging to the side bars shaking and twitching?

Don’t wait, act

I’ve no doubt that scientists will be able to develop novel treatments to control or prevent virus infections of bees. I would say that … I’m a scientist ūüėČ ¬†However, I’m not sure beekeepers will be able to afford them, or perhaps even want to use them, or that they’d be compatible with honey production or of any use in Warr√© hives¬†etc.

I’m also not sure how soon these sorts of treatments might become available … so don’t wait.

If there are signs of obvious DWV infection you need to do something. ‘Obvious’ because DWV is always present, but it’s usually harmless or at least tolerated by the bees. My lab have looked at thousands of bees and have yet to find one without detectable levels of DWV. However, healthy bees have only about 1/10,000 the level of DWV present in sick bees … and these are the ones that have obvious symptoms.

I’ve discussed¬†Varroa control elsewhere, and will again.

Unfortunately, if your colony has signs of CBPV disease then Varroa control is not really relevant. The virus is transmitted from bee to bee by direct contact. This probably accounts for the appearance of the disease primarily in very strong colonies.

At the moment there’s little you can do to ‘cure’ a CBPV-afflicted colony. I hope, in 2-3 years we will have a better idea on what interventions might work. We have lots of ideas, but there are a lot of basic questions to be addressed before we can test them.

Field work

Field work

Business and pleasure

The half of my lab that don’t work on bee viruses study fundamental mechanisms of virus replication and evolution. They do this using human viruses, some of which are distant relatives of DWV. They work on human viruses as it’s only these that have excellent model systems to facilitate the types of elegant experiments we try to do. They’re also relatively easy to justify in funding applications, and it allows us to tap into a much bigger pot for funding opportunities (human health R&D costs probably total ¬£2 billion/annum, bees might be ¬£2 million/annum).

And no, my lab don’t get anything like that much per year for our research!

Importantly, the two activities on human and honey bee viruses are related. Our experience with the human viruses related to DWV made us well-qualified to tackle the bee virus. They replicate and evolve in very similar ways, we quantify them in the same way and there may be similarities in some ways we could approach to control them.

And with the bee viruses I can mix business with pleasure. If I’m going to the apiary I’ll get to see and handle bees, despite it being officially “work”. It doesn’t happen as much as I’d like as I’m usually sat behind the computer and all of the ‘bee team’ have been trained to work with bees by the ESBA.

However, at least when I talk to collaborators or to the beekeeping groups we’re fortunate to be working with we – inevitably – talk about bees.

And that’s fun¬† ūüėÄ


1¬†Several years ago I delivered an enthusiastic and rather science-heavy talk at a Bee Farmers Association meeting. I thought it had gone reasonably well and they were kind enough to say some nice things to me … and then I got the question from the back of the room which went something like¬†“That’s all very well young man … but what have you made NOW that I can put into my hives to make them healthy?”.

I’m sure my answer was a bit woolly. These days the presentation would have had a bit less science and bit more justification. We’ve also made some progress and it’s possible to now discuss practical strategies to rationally control viruses in the hive. It’s not rocket science … though some of the science it’s based on is reasonably fancy.

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Too much, too soon

When does the beekeeping season start?

Some would argue that it’s the time of the year when you prepare colonies for the winter. After all, without good winter preparation there’s unlikely to be a beekeeping season. Others might consider it’s the beginning of the calendar year, just after the longest nights of the year when beekeeping is but a distant memory and all you can do is plan (and build frames).

Ribes sanguineum ...

Ribes sanguineum …

However, perhaps a more¬†logical¬†start of the beekeeping season is the first full hive inspection. This varies from year to year, depending upon the weather. Many consider the full flowering of¬†Ribes sanguineum, the ornamental flowering current, to be a good indicator that the season is underway and that colonies can be inspected. However, the time this plant flowers appears to vary depending upon how sheltered its location is (and possibly the particular cultivar). There’s some in a very sheltered spot approaching the bus station in St. Andrews that was flowering in mid-February this year. Too early by far.

Macho beekeeping

It’s worth stressing here that not only is there season to season variation, there’s also geographic variation. It gets warmer in the South before the North (at least for the ~95% of the readers of this site who live in the Northern hemisphere). If you’re fortunate enough to live in the uncluttered, quiet, pollution-free, traffic-free and scenic (clearly I’m biased ūüėČ ) North, don’t be misled by the discussions on the online forums of 8 frames bursting with sealed brood in late March.

Not what it seems ...

Not what it seems …

Firstly, the poster might actually live in Northern Spain. You can be anything you want¬†on the internet … and anywhere you want. Secondly, some contributors exaggerate when describing their activities and successes (or failures for that matter). Some who, while stressing the fantastic build-up of their Carniolan colonies, conveniently omit to mention they are an overseas breeder and exporter of – you guessed it – Carniolan queens. An omission, but also as the late Alan Clark¬†said,¬†somewhat¬†economical with the actualit√©.¬†Finally, there’s also a sort of chest-beating macho amongst some¬†where the poster describes pulling colonies apart very early in the season – essentially bragging about the strength of the colonies and their beekeeping prowess.

Use your own judgement about when to open a colony in the early part of the year. Don’t blindly follow the recommendations of others (or me for that matter). The ‘when’ really needs to be informed by the ‘why’.

Not when, but why?

Opening colonies is disruptive. The propolis-sealed crownboard is removed and the colony – even with the gentlest manipulation – is disturbed. There needs to be a good reason to go rummaging through a brood box.¬†That isn’t a justification to¬†not¬†inspect colonies. Just make sure there’s a good reason to compensate for¬†the disruption.

The first inspection should be¬†a quick progress check. Is everything OK? It shouldn’t be a full-blown inspection in which every frame is carefully scrutinised for signs of brood diseases. You’re simply trying to determine whether the queen is laying well, that she’s laying worker brood rather than drone brood and that the colony have sufficient stores and space to expand

All that can be determined in a couple of minutes. You don’t need to see the queen, though it’s not unusual to spot her as the colony is probably relatively sparsely populated. If the box is stuffed with stores consider replacing a frame on the side of the brood nest with a frame of drawn comb. It’s almost certainly¬†too early to only provide foundation.

Outside and inside

Spring is appreciably later in Fife, Scotland than in the South of England. At the time of writing (~8/9th of April) it’s rarely been much above the low teens Centigrade. Colonies are working well during the warmest part of the day, but there’s still a chill in the wind and little point in opening the majority of¬†hives.

Bee shed ...

Bee shed …

The exception are the hives in the bee shed. Based on my experience last year these colonies are 2-3 weeks more advanced than those outside. On a warm day – yesterday just reached 15¬įC – the temperature inside the shed was almost 20¬įC. Three of the colonies were giving me cause for concern. One was a poly nuc that seemed very active. The other two were hives headed by purchased queens from last season – these had gone into the winter well and had been flying on borderline days in midwinter. However, having been away for most of March, I’d noticed they were much quieter than other hives when I checked the entrances in early April.

The strong nuc was doing reassuringly¬†well. It had nearly four frames of brood and last years’ marked and clipped queen laying well. The brood pattern was a bit patchy, but I’ll reserve judgement until later in the season when there’s ample pollen and nectar coming into the hive, together with a full complement of workers to support the queen.

In contrast, the two hives were almost devoid of bees. Both queens had clearly failed in the winter as there was no brood. There was no sign of overt disease (in the few remaining bees) and mite drop had been low in autumn and during the midwinter treatment. I suspect that the queens were poorly mated. Disappointing, but these things happen.

Looking back

I have yet to look in any other colonies. It needs to warm up significantly before I do. It’s interesting to compare the development of this season with previous years – and to have some notes I can refer back to in the future. As I write this¬†(remember, it’s the 8/9th of April):

  • Fieldfares are still present, although clearly in reduced numbers and drifitng¬†North.
  • I have yet to see any house martins or swallows (update – saw both mid-morning on Friday 14th, but still only 9¬įC).
  • Only about 5% of the¬†oil seed rape is flowering¬†(not necessarily a good comparison as different strains can flower at different times).
  • Primroses are at their peak but neither bluebells or wild garlic are flowering yet.
Primroses ...

Primroses …

Regional climatic differences are a significant influence on colony development. Remember this as you plan your early season inspections and – particularly if you are a relatively new beekeeper – when you compare how your colonies are doing with those reported by others elsewhere.

Finally, it’s also worth remembering the importance of relative colony development between colonies in the same apiary. A single colony that is developing slowly might be being held back because of poor weather. However, if you have two colonies to compare, one that is obviously retarded might be cause for concern … and should be checked for disease or a failing queen.

This is a good example of when it is beneficial to have two colonies to compare.


Too much, too soon

Too much, too soon was a 1958 biographical film about the actress Diana Barrymore starring Dorothy Malone and Errol Flynn. The film, based on a best selling book of the same name, describes the life of the alcoholic movie star and was pretty-much panned by the critics.

Not one to set the recorder for …

German bee houses part 2

In the first instalment I posted a series of pictures (kindly provided by Calum) of bee houses near Lindau in Bavaria, Germany. The images showed ‘properties’ towards the budget end of the market, offering the bare minimum – a roof overhead and sometimes little more. However, with a bit more time, ingenuity, money¬†and a willingness to ruthlessly exploit the planning laws all sorts of¬†things are possible …

Functional minimalism

Here are a couple of bee houses built to a similar design. A solid-looking shed with a good high ceiling (the pent roof design must offer good headroom over the hives, with ample space for the stacked supers or tall beekeepers) and reasonable levels of lighting by replacing the front wall with translucent corrugated plastic. Calum assures me that there is usually enough light in these bee houses for a proper frame inspection i.e. to see if there are eggs present.

Small corrugated bee house

Small corrugated bee house

It’s clear how the bees access the hives which – as last week – simply abut the front wall of the bee house. Since there are no opening windows as such I presume there’s a gap under the eaves through which the bees can escape during inspections.

Large corrugated bee house

Large corrugated bee house

Moving up in the world

The bee houses above are¬†a pretty good size, both in terms of the number of hives they¬†can accommodate and the space to work them and for storage. However, with lots of hives inevitably the space becomes more crowded. The following photograph is of the inside of a 30-hive bee house. The majority of the hives are of a design known as a Zander hive, with a few other Deutsch Normal (which, as Calum says,¬†“is funny as there is no standard in Germany”).

Crowded house

Crowded house

The roof lights provide pretty good illumination (they would be a welcome addition to my own bee shed) which makes it much easier to see the huge amount of additional ‘essentials’ that beekeepers accumulate.

Bee house and bench seat

Bee house and bench seat

And before we move on to the Rolls-Royce‚Ć of bee houses here’s another one (above), this time from the outside. I particularly like the sheltered porch area and bench seat, perfect for relaxing on with a cuppa after working up a sweat.

A luxury bee house

My bee shed starts to look rather plain and dowdy when compared with the nicely decorated side panels in the photograph above. All of the bee houses shown so far have provided basic weather protection together with more or less comfort for the beekeeper and space for storage or relaxation.

The final bee house is spectacular. It houses 40 colonies and has an extractor (centrifuge) room with an adjacent dining room¬†and living room. Upstairs there is space for a flat …¬†“planning laws¬†don‚Äôt really apply to beekeepers in Germany – as the need to keep them very happy is recognised”, says Calum).

Luxury bee house

Luxury bee house

Can you imagine building something like that in the association apiary?

Finally, here’s a close-up view of the entrances to this splendid building. The windows are hinged from the top and the area under the eaves is very shaded. It’s not clear whether the bees that fly during inspections escape through the open windows (in which case hinging them at the bottom would almost certainly be more effective as bees always crawl upwards) or¬†if they exit somehow above the windows.

Hive entrances and windows

Hive entrances and windows

The landing boards are painted to try and reduce drifting which might be a major issue with colonies packed so close together. Some of the brood boxes are also decorated with flowers or motifs to help the bees returning from orientation flights find the correct hive. There are a couple of wasp traps fixed to the front of the bee house, one just out of shot and one about 2/3rd the way along in the picture above.

That’s almost the last of this brief review of German bee houses from the photos that Calum kindly sent me. I’m saving one back for another posting which will appear sometime in the future. I’ve also received some additional images of bee houses from another part of Germany and northern France which I’ll post in due course.

I’m off to check the Scottish planning laws …


‚Ƭ†Actually Calum called this the ‘Mercedes’ of bee houses. This either reflects a German opinion of the relative merits of Daimler Benz Mercedes and Rolls-Royce (who are actually owned by BMW these days), or it might suggest that there are even more luxurious bee houses out there …

German bee houses part 1

After a bit more than a year of use I’m convinced of the benefits of a bee house or shed. They provide protection for both the hives¬†and the beekeeper, enabling inspections in otherwise borderline¬†conditions and – at least from my experience this season – earlier colony build-up and longer brood rearing. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to synchronise¬†colony inspections to¬†idyllic “shirtsleeve” days, with warm sunshine and light winds, either due to work commitments or (in our case) because we need brood at particular times of the week for research.

Learn from others and your own mistakes

My¬†bee shed is a simple re-purposed good quality garden shed¬†on a solid base with some holes cut in the walls and custom-built windows.¬†I’ve discussed the perceived and actual benefits of the bee shed previously, and described the design (and evolution) of the hive entrances and shed exits used by the bees. The functionality was achieved by discussion with contributors to the SBAi beekeeping forum, further informed by a tour of¬†a ‘shed’ owned by a respected and experienced UK beekeeper, and with a bit¬†of trial and error.

Despite being broadly satisfied with my current setup I’m always interested to see how others have¬†approached the problem of providing both shelter and access. I was therefore very interested to receive a series of photographs of bee houses from Calum, a regular reader and contributor, who lives in Lindau, Germany. With Calum’s permission I’m posting these as they might also be of interest to other readers.

A simple shelter from the elements

Lindau is¬†in Bavaria, on the northern shore of Lake Constance (Bodensee). The climate there is “mild and generally warm and¬†temperate”, with average temperatures of 9.1¬įC and rainfall of about 1133mm¬†(according to¬†climate-data.org). The average temperature in the warmest (July) and coldest month (January) is 18.7¬įC and -0.7¬įC‚Ć. This gives an idea of the type of conditions these bee houses were designed for. Calum tells me that there are at least 30 he’s aware of within 10km of Lindau.

This simple shelter provides some protection for the beekeeper working the colonies together with an extended porch area to protect the hive entrances – presumably from snow and sun. The hive entrances simply line up with a gap between the bottom of the front wall and the floor, that doubles as a landing board. I particularly like the solitary bee nestbox on one of the end walls of the shelter.

Here’s another that provides even less shelter for either the beekeeper or the hives, consisting of nothing more than a roof and end walls. Nevertheless, the roof looks pretty sturdy to keep the snow off and the hives are oriented to catch the morning sun.

Barely a bee house ...

Barely a bee house …

Three walls and a roof

Finally, here’s something a little more substantial. This is the bee house that Calum inherited when he started out, complete with the sign which I think reads¬†“Vorsicht Stechgefahr Bienen” (Caution danger stinging bees). Clearly this was a rather robust shed originally. Apparently it was built without the front wall making adding/removing hives a simple task – no need to negotiate the door. Security can be provided by installing a couple of planks from the inside that protect the hives. The¬†hives¬†are¬†higher than on a conventional stand, making inspections of a single/double brood box comfortable, but making the removal of supers from the top of the pile a precarious occupation.

Calum's bee house

Calum’s bee house

In¬†the next instalment (though not next week) I’ll post some rather grander designs, including one with integral dining and living rooms …

 


‚Ć For¬†comparison,¬†I live in Fife which enjoys about half the rainfall of Lindau and has an annual temperature average of 8.3¬įC and January and July averages of 2.5¬įC and 14.7¬įC respectively.

Varroa control in the bee shed

The last colonies to be treated for Varroa¬†this late summer (early autumn?) are those in the bee shed‚Ć. These have had consistently low levels of mites all season … levels were so low that we uncapped two full frames of drone brood (individually) from one of them in June without finding a single mite.

Nevertheless, because …

  • mite levels can rise dramatically from low levels if not tackled – for example, see the modelled expansion of the Varroa¬†population.
  • reduced queen laying at this time of year means mites have fewer pupae to target resulting in elevated infestation levels in the critical winter bees (and why this is important). In recent sampling of pupae we’ve seen an increase in the number of mites in capped in cells which we assume is due to this.
  • we need to keep these colonies with the lowest practical mite levels.

… they were treated anyway. I’m reasonably¬†confident that sublimated oxalic acid (which is the active ingredient in Api-Bioxal) does little or no harm to the colony, and am sure that the mite reduction is always beneficial. I’d therefore prefer to treat than regret not treating at a later stage in the winter or early next season.

Expose the bees to the vapour … not the beekeeper

There’s nothing fundamentally different about treating colonies in the bee shed than those outside. Using a Sublimox vaporiser is very straightforward. However, two points need a little more care than normal.

The first is the sealing of the colony. To be effective the vapour must be evenly spread throughout the hive. Because of the ‘tunnel-like’ entrances there are more potential gaps from which the vapour can escape. I therefore do my best to push the hive tightly against the entrance tunnel after sealing the latter with a block of foam. The floors on these hives were built by Pete Little and have a commendably leakproof Varroa¬†tray, making them ideal for sealing the open mesh floor. As an aside, don’t try squirting the vapour in from the entrance … direct inspection through the Perspex crownboard suggests that (at least in my setup) the vapour only poorly permeates the hive if administered like this. Been there, done that. The goal¬†is to get the oxalic acid crystals spread evenly and thoroughly throughout the hive, ensuring maximum exposure to the mites, and maximising the duration of activity¬†against,

The second point relates to the ‘leakiness’ of the hive and the fact that it’s in an enclosed space (the shed). There’s therefore no chance of standing upwind and allowing escaping vapour to drift away safely. Operator protection is particularly important as the shed is liable to fill with oxalic acid vapour. Eye protection and a suitable particle mask rated for acid particulates¬†are essential. It’s a case of “lighting the blue touch paper and retiring to a safe distance”. With a Sublimox you can simply invert the machine – into the ‘delivery’ mode – and leave it hanging out of a hole through the sidewall of the floor (see photo above right). There’s a couple of seconds before sublimation starts which you can use to¬†step out into the fresh air, only returning once the vapour has cleared.

Finally, if you run your vaporiser off a generator it should also be left outside the shed. Don’t gas the bees when you’re gassing the bees ūüėČ


‚Ć Plus a recalcitrant swarm that’s on it’s second round of treatment due to the stubbornly high mite levels. Grrrr.

Bee shed rules

The first rule of the bee shed ...

The first rule of the bee shed …

The bee shed is getting busy and now houses four full colonies and a nuc or two. With several people involved in sampling colonies for our¬†DWV research we’ve drawn up some simple rules‚Ä° to ensure things stay neat and tidy.

This post – slightly more frivolous than usual¬†– should automagically appear on my Twitter account as well. Normal service will be resumed shortly … with part 2 of “Spot the Queen“.


‚Ä°¬†The first rule¬†there are no rules”¬†is often thought to be¬†a reference to the 1999 film¬†Fight Club where Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) welcomes the unnamed Narrator (Ed Norton)¬†and lists the eight rules that must be followed. In the film,¬†the first rule of Fight Club was: you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club was: you DO NOT talk about Fight Club!¬†Perhaps surprisingly (considering the subject of the film),¬†Fight Club does include a reference to bees … the following quote appears on the screen of the Narrators’ computer “Worker bees can leave. Even drones can fly away. The Queen is their slave”¬†… not entirely¬†biologically accurate.

“The rules are¬†… there are no rules”¬†actually comes from the 1978 film¬†Grease¬†…¬†a rather different film altogether.

Spot the queen competition

I’ve posted before about why clipping the queen helps … here’s a rather more dramatic example. This colony from the bee shed – in the middle of a Pagden artificial swarm – decided it was time to go. Since the queen was clipped they regrouped at the colony entrance so – at least as far as beekeeping is concerned –¬†‘all was not lost’.

Clipped queen swarm

Clipped queen swarm

“Clipping the queen” refers to the slight shortening of one of the queens wings. This prevents her from flying – or at least from flying any distance or with any control. Whilst it’s not possible to determine whether the queen feels any pain when its being done, clipped queens lead long, natural and productive lives, so I don’t think it’s detrimental to them. It’s certainly beneficial for the beekeeper and beekeeping. The wing on a queen is clipped¬†after she is mated … ūüėČ

I’ll discuss swarm control and prevention in the bee shed (when I achieve it) ¬†ūüėČ


This is the first of series of irregular midweek photograph posts.