Tag Archives: health

Oxalic acid and LSD

Api-Bioxal has recently been approved by the UK Veterinary Medicines Directorate and is available from the usual suspects. At a price.

Oxalic acid ...

Oxalic acid …

OA crystals on bee ...

OA crystals on bee …

Many beekeepers use oxalic acid (OA) to control Varroa numbers, by trickling a low percentage (w/v) solution over colonies in winter, or by vaporisation/sublimation. Oxalic acid dihydrate (a white crystalline powder) has been sold by most of the large beekeeping suppliers for years, and the BBKA have provided instructions on its use as a ‘cleanser’. Until recently OA has not been licensed by the UK’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) for use as a Varroa control (hence use of the term ‘cleanser’ by the BBKA) but was available under the EU Cascade Scheme as the product Api-Bioxal from Italy, where it was licensed. Api-Bioxal was licensed by the UK VMD in September 2015.


Librae, solidi, denarii … pounds, shillings and pence

Sublimox vaporiser

Sublimox vaporiser

Assuming the largest quantity available is the most economic way to purchase OA (which may or may not be correct) then Api-Bioxal currently costs about £0.21/g from E.M. Thorne. The same supplier are selling generic OA crystals for £0.016/g. The recommended dose for Api-Bioxal vaporisation is 2.3g/colony (stated on the product label), though the size of the colony isn’t indicated. Aside from the problem of weighing out 2.3g in the apiary, this makes single treatments with Api-Bioxal cost about 50p a shot. My Sublimox vaporiser was provided with a small scoop which dollops out 1.5g at a time of OA (confirmed on a laboratory balance), which is about all that can be conveniently loaded into the white plastic thingy (my poor translation from the original Italian … see the photo right) from which it drops into the heating pan. That’s the amount I use for one treatment of a single brood National hive. Thomas Radetzki has looked at the efficacy of 1.4g and 2.8g doses – most conveniently found in this graph from Randy Oliver’s Scientific Beekeeping website – which are effectively indistinguishable, so I choose to use the lesser amount. Therefore, using generic OA supplied by E.M. Thorne makes treatments cost less than 2.5p each. Quite a difference.

OA is available from other suppliers as well, and is also widely available as a boat deck cleanser … and if you’ve got a large enough yacht you can probably justify buying 25 kg of the stuff for less than £70. Or a lot of hives … at that price it works out at less than 0.5p/treatment 🙂

Time to stock up?

This is why we treat ...

This is why we treat …

The licensing of Api-Bioxal as the first approved OA miticide in the UK is to be welcomed if it encourages beekeepers to reduce mite levels in their colonies. It is, after all, the viral payload the mite transfers between bees, that causes significant levels of overwintering colony losses for beekeepers. I’ve no doubt that the licensing (and the associated testing needed for getting this approval), the packaging and the marketing have added significantly to the costs of the oxalic acid dihydrate. However, at about 20 times the price of the generic powder from the same beekeeping suppliers, there are some who will consider this profiteering.

Over the next few months and years it will be interesting to see whether generic OA disappears from beekeeping suppliers because their customers have all switched to using Api-Bioxal, which they meticulously record in their hive notes under ‘medicines’ … or whether Api-Bioxal fails to succeed because beekeepers continue using the same stuff, admittedly unapproved and unlicensed, they been using for many years without any problems.

* and you thought MAQS was expensive?

Small Hive Beetle update

Disappointingly, but not altogether surprisingly, small hive beetle (SHB) has reappeared in Southern Italy again.

Just when you thought it was safe to import bees again

Just when you thought it was safe to import bees again


The beetle was first detected in mid-September 2014 in the Calabria region. The following couple of months saw a further 60 reported infested apiaries in Calabria and neighbouring regions, with a single apiary in Sicily – containing migratory hives – in which the beetle was also detected. The Italian authorities surveyed over 1200 apiaries during the last four months of 2014 with over 3200 hives in infested apiaries being destroyed. Beekeepers were compensated, but this must have been devastating for those involved.

Then everything went quiet … Spring testing (March to May), which involved both a national surveillance programme and specific activity – including sentinel nucs – in Calabria and Sicily, didn’t detect any infested apiaries.

September 2015


SHB 2015 Calabria

In mid-September this year (English link in the top right corner of page) an apiary was discovered with hives containing both larvae and adult beetles. At the time of writing (23/8/15) a further 16 infested apiaries have subsequently been discovered, all within the western part of Calabria (PDF map of the current situation) in the ‘toe’ of Italy. This is a disappointing development as it suggests strongly that the beetle remains well established in Italy and that eradication was not achieved.

An alternative suggestion – promoted by the Federazione Apicoltori Italiani (FAI) – is that this new detection represents a re-introduction of the beetle to Italy. This seems a bit far fetched … the infested apiaries are some distance from the coastal ports or large cargo airports but are instead slap-bang in the middle of the area with the largest number of infested apiaries in 2014. If it walks like a duck etc.

Unlike Varroa the beetle isn’t restricted to honeybee colonies. It can fly long distances (kilometres) and, although the larvae feed on pollen, brood and honey in the hive, they pupate outside the hive buried 10-20cm deep in soil and have been known to crawl 200m in search of suitable soil in which to pupate. Presumably the reappearance of the beetle in Italy is either due to low level infestations being missed or to beetles emerging after pupation and re-infesting colonies. Or both.

Is eradication possible?

Probably not. I commented in a posting last November that:

“Once here it is unlikely that we will be able to eradicate SHB. The USA failed, Hawaii failed, Australia failed, Canada failed and it looks almost certain that Italy has failed.”

Indeed, the only time I’m aware that ‘eradication’ was achieved was when the beetle was introduced in an illegal shipment from queens to a single apiary in the UK. In addition to destroying the colonies, the ground was ploughed up, soil removed and the area drenched in insecticide1. I’m not aware in this case whether the beetles had even become established after introduction. In contrast, by the end of 2014 the beetle was widely distributed and well established and it is therefore not surprising, despite the concerted efforts of the Italian authorities, that they have failed to eradicate the beetle.

The National Bee Unit also consider that eradication is almost certainly impossible. In their excellent guide to the beetle (PDF), under the heading “Could we eradicate the Small Hive beetle from the UK?” they state:

“Probably not. Unless the Small hive beetle is detected very soon after its arrival, it will rapidly spread into the surrounding honey bee population, making eradication very difficult. A major limiting factor to eradication would be the unknown distribution of managed bee hives and the potential for populations of the beetle to survive in wild hosts (eg. feral bees and bumble bees).”

So what can be done?

In time-honoured EU tradition an export ban on the affected region had been imposed, but it’s seemingly difficult – if not impossible – to impose an import ban to protect our bees and beekeeping. My concern is that nucs or packages imported to the UK from a region not currently under an EU-imposed movement ban might introduce the beetle into this country. The original movement ban on Calabria and Sicily (actually, not on the entire areas, but instead lying within a 20km radius from the known infested apiaries) was due to end in November 2015. Had the beetle not been detected it would have been at least theoretically possible to import bees from these regions, either directly or indirectly, for the start of the 2016 season. Presumably the movement ban will be extended in light of the failure to eradicate.

It’s also worth noting that only about 10% of imports are checked as they come into the UK and that the volume of illegal imports is not known.

There’s already discussion on the various beekeeping web forums about “when, not if, the beetle arrives” and that UK beekeepers will “cope with it”, just as they’ve coped with Varroa*. There’s a sort of resigned acceptance that, sooner or later, SHB will arrive. If it does, I expect we’ll attempt eradication by destroying colonies in infested apiaries. Again, devastating for the beekeepers involved …

* This is a pretty weak statement in my view … although we do cope with Varroa I’m sure the vast majority of beekeepers would much prefer to not have to deal with the mite.

In the meantime, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the chances of the beetle arriving in the UK, or make us better prepared should it arrive. These include:

  1. Registering your apiaries on Beebase. The National Bee Unit will then both keep you informed of developments and know where colonies are should there be an outbreak and the regional inspector needs to check them.
  2. Plan to become self-sufficient as a beekeeper … perhaps forego a little honey by preparing an additional nuc to overwinter for security, learn how to raise queens or – if you do already – raise a couple of additional queens.
  3. Buy local bees or queens if you need to buy any. Sell your own surplus locally.
  4. Encourage your association to become self-sufficient for bees and queens – establish a queen rearing group, or guarantee all those attending a beekeeping winter training course will be provided with a locally raised nuc for the following season.
  5. Don’t buy imported queens or bees and discourage others from doing the same, for example by not allowing imported stocks in association apiaries.
Locally raised queen

Locally raised queen

Obviously points 2-4 are all aimed at avoiding the need to import bees or queens. This is because the most likely route by which SHB will get to the UK is in imported nucs, packages, queens or other beekeeping materials (e.g. wax). Don’t believe some of the nonsense about ‘pupae in contaminated soil’ as the most likely route … the NBU have conducted a thorough risk assessment (PDF) and by far and away the most probable route the beetle will gain access to the UK is with bees or beekeeping (hive) products. Where known, this is how it got into all other countries that currently have the beetle.

Is there any good news?

Not about small hive beetle I’m afraid. Other than it’s not here … yet.

However, taking some of the steps listed above will both improve your beekeeping skills and provide lots of enjoyment. Queen rearing can be incredibly simple … you can modify a straightforward vertical split to generate a number of queen cells and divide these with some frames of bees and stores into nucs. No grafting, no handling anything smaller than a brood frame and no need to find the queen more than once. Simple, satisfying and self-sufficient …


Michael Palmer started a discussion on the Beesource forum with the prophetic words “The UK will soon have Small Hive Beetles in their area” helpfully requesting comparisons in climate between US locations that find the beetle a nuisance and those that do not. It’s worth watching. Clearly climate is only part of the equation … soil type – and temperature (as pointed out by knowledgeable contributors to the BKF thread on this) also has a significant influence, with the beetle preferring light and/or sandy soils to pupate in.

But all this would be irrelevant if we manage to keep the beetle out of the UK …


1.Murilhas, A (2005) Aethina tumida arrives in Portugal. Will it be eradicated? EurBee Newsletter: 7‑9.

MSWCC 2015

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

I spent last Friday and Saturday attending the Midland and South West Counties Convention at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester. It was a good venue for a meeting, complemented by an interesting and entertaining programme of talks. I presented our research on the influence of Varroa on the transmission of pathogenic strains of deformed wing virus, together with brief coverage of both high and low-tech solutions that might be useful in mitigating the detrimental impact of the mite on the virus population (and hence, the colony).

Queen rearing course

Queen rearing course

On the Saturday I donned my beekeepers hat (veil?) and discussed queenright queen rearing methods – a talk really aimed at encouraging beginners to ‘have a go’. I’m was aware there were people in the audience who earn their living from bees whereas I largely dabble at the weekends, and that they’ve probably forgotten more about queen rearing than I’m ever likely to learn. I’m always (silently) grateful they don’t ask tricky questions or interrupt with a “You don’t want to be doing that …” comment. I think only about 10% of beekeepers actively raise queens – by which I mean select suitable larvae and generate ‘spares’ for increase, sale or giving away. Without more learning how relatively easy it is to raise queen we cannot hope to be self-sufficient and will remain reliant on imported stocks, of largely unknown provenance (and with an unknown pathogen payload), particularly at the beginning and end of the season. There were excellent presentations on the analysis of pollen in forensic studies (Michael Keith-Lucas) and the use of the shook swarm (Bob Smith), together with a very interesting mead tasting event. I unfortunately missed the workshops and the Saturday afternoon presentations as I had to waste hours hanging around for three delayed trains to eventually get to Heathrow a few minutes after my flight back to Scotland departed 🙁

The MSWCC 2016 event will be running again next year (on the Gower) in mid-October hosted by Swansea and District BKA. The theme is “Meet the Natives” and – if this year is anything to go by – it promises to be a very worthwhile event.

Late arrivals

Stacked boxes

Stacked boxes …

I’m moving house in a couple of weeks and so stacked unused ‘bee equipment’ in a pile on the patio for packing. Some of the supers contained drawn comb from previous years, some of the broods were empty and some contained prepared foundationless frames. I thought I’d taken care to align everything reasonably well to ensure they were ‘beetight‘ when I finished up late on Thursday evening. However, I’d misaligned a chest high stack in the middle and unknowingly left a finger-width crack which allowed some scouts to decide it was a desirable site. Sometime mid-morning on Friday – when I was in the office – a good sized swarm arrived. I hadn’t noticed any scouts checking out the location. I originally thought it was robbers cleaning out honey from the supers, but a quick peek under the roof (there was no crownboard on the stack) showed they were busy drawing comb. Going by the numbers of bees present it looked like a prime swarm, but you can’t be sure unless you find the laying queen.

They couldn’t have chosen a much less suitable (for me … it obviously suited them 😉 ) stack to set up home in. The bottom three boxes were empty broods, topped with three supers, two of which were part filled with drawn drone foundation. Inevitably the spacing of the frames in the supers was all over the place. Removing the roof gently showed they were already building brace comb, attached to the roof and/or the frames. The bees were accessing the stack somewhere in the middle, on the face against the wall. What a mess.

Rearranging the hive

Rearranging the hive …

I fired up the smoker and got kitted up. It was relatively easy to split the stack and put a temporary floor below the supers (with the entrance facing the wall) and put a crownboard in place. The colony were agitated but not aggressive. There were far too many bees to try and find the queen. It was a hot day and there was a whirling maelstrom of bees. I was concerned that the queen – if she was mated – would start laying up the drawn drone foundation in the supers. By evening the stack was quietly humming away, with all the bees inside, so I moved them a few feet away to a purpose-built stand (the ubiquitous milk crate) … swarms can be relocated within 24-48 hours of arrival during which time the “3 foot, 3 mile rule” can be safely ignored.


Blackberry …

Early on Saturday morning I put a new floor and brood box filled with frames on the stand, then added a clearer board and put the two supers full of bees on top. The hope was that many of the foragers would move down into the brood box, leaving the queen and attendants above the clearer. I peeked through the perspex crownboard on Sunday morning and the number of bees in the supers was much reduced. A quick inspection located a very dark unmarked laying queen in the supers. One wing was pretty tatty so she might be quite old. To my surprise the bees had re-engineered a big patch of the drawn drone comb in the super frame to make worker-sized cells and that was the area she’d laid up. In addition, they’d also piled in a surprisingly large amount of nectar – presumably from blackberry which is just developing well at the moment. I rearranged the brood box, moving the queen on the laid-up super frame into the bottom box, then shook the remaining bees off the super frames and closed the colony up.

Ready for OA treatment ...

Ready for OA treatment …

Finally, late on Sunday evening I treated the colony by oxalic acid vaporisation. With no sealed brood in the hive it’s a perfect time to reduce the phoretic mite numbers by at least 95%. Since I have no idea about the provenance of the swarm – other than being sure its not from one of my colonies, all of which have marked and/or clipped queens – this gives at least some peace of mind that a range of unpleasant diseases aren’t being introduced to the apiary with the bees, or the mites they’re carrying. I’ll check the Varroa drop over the next few days and monitor the quality of sealed brood before deciding what to do with them. However, I suspect they’ll either be requeened or given away to an association member still wanting bees, or quite possibly both as I unite other colonies in preparation for moving.

The faint sniffing is my hay fever … I’m not testing the OA vapour. The latter is a significant lung irritant and I’m wearing safety goggles and a mask for personal protection. I’ll post something separately on the Sublimox vaporiser later in the season.

Note Unlike an earlier swarm only about ten mites dropped after OA vaporisation within the first 24 hours which is very reassuring. Some claim that only healthy colonies swarm and, although there is some truth in this (i.e. only strong healthy colonies build up sufficiently to swarm), it doesn’t mean the swarm won’t have a high phoretic mite load. Since, by definition, swarms are brood-free it’s an ideal time to treat them.

Frame building

Beautiful ...

Beautiful …

It’s 3-4 weeks until the first full hive inspections (around about when the ornamental Ribes starts flowering) … after that it’s startling how fast the season takes off. I’m never as well prepared as I should be and often run out of frames and have to build them on the day they’re needed. This doesn’t make for relaxing beekeeping and is something I hope to avoid this season.

Brood frame replacement

The recommendation from the National Bee Unit is to replace at least one third of brood comb a year (PDF). Unless brood comb is nearly unused – for example, frames that have only had stores and/or pollen in – I  usually try and replace it more frequently than this. This helps prevent the build-up of pathogens such as Nosema. In addition to fresh floors, many of my colonies will therefore also be getting either a Bailey comb change or will be ‘treated’ to a shook swarm early in the season. This ensures they are on new, fresh, disease-free comb and gives them the best possible start to the year. This means another 11 frames are required for every overwintered colony. Furthermore, because I’m concentrating on making nucs this season I’m going to need even more frames than usual.

Remember to keep a few empty old dark brood frames for your bait hives. Keep the wax moths away by freezing them, using DiPel or wrapping them up securely.

Reusing old frames

Old frames can be reused if sterilised. I use a homemade steam wax extractor to clean them up and then scrape away any remaining old propolis. After 15-30 minutes in boiling steam they should be sterilised. The frames look a bit tatty but are perfectly serviceable. Foundationless frames need re-‘wiring’ (actually fishing monofilament) as it tends to lose tension in the heat.

I’m gradually switching over to predominantly foundationless frames (as they did so well last year) so also needed to prepare more sidebars – if you drill them in pairs and then put staples/nails into each of the pair (to take the tensioned nylon) it speeds the entire process … but nothing like as much as using a nail gun for assembly. I also now use wood glue on the joints, leaving just one bottom bar unglued and held in with gimp pins. This makes disassembly after steaming easier and means the frame can be used with a full sheet of foundation if needed.

Less foundation …

I’ve not got round to making my own foundation starter strips this year. Instead, I’ve bought unwired brood foundation. A single sheet is easily sufficient for 10 frames and could probably be eked out further. At Thorne’s full price for premier quality unwired deep wax, the small strip of foundation in a foundationless frame costs costs about 1p (and much less if your association has a co-operative purchasing scheme, or you trade-in recovered wax). Cost is certainly not a reason to delay brood frame replacement.

Frame building is quite therapeutic when you have a bit of spare time. The large pile of neatly bundled, slightly fragrant pine is gradually reduced as the tottering pile of assembled frames grows. It’s far better to do this on a cold, wet winter day with the radio and copious mugs of tea for company than rushing around in late May when you’ll have much less time.

Only another 120 to go … 🙂

Wake up and smell the coffee

The BBKA’s Worker Bee newsletter last week makes a brief reference to the health risks to UK beekeeping associated with importing bees infested with Small Hive Beetle (SHB) …

Worker Bee statement on SHB

Worker Bee statement on SHB

… a very brief reference. It’s particularly disappointing that they don’t even take the opportunity to emphasise their opposition to honeybee imports. This newsletter will have been distributed to the recently signed-up trainee beekeepers who have taken courses in the 2014/15 winter. These new beekeepers, quite understandably, want their own bees as soon as possible and may buy imports, perhaps unknowingly.

I have written extensively on the risk posed to beekeepers from the importation of SHB and the damage I think cheap imports do to the quality of UK beekeeping. If you’re a beginner reading this please try and source a local raised nuc, even if it means you have to wait a couple more weeks for bees. Ask the following simple questions:

  • do you know where the nuc originated from? Many nucs are exported from Southern Italy to France for subsequent selling-on.
  • wouldn’t you prefer bees adapted to the local conditions in your area? You’re also more likely to get advice and support from a local beekeeper you buy a nuc from.
  • do you really need bees in late March/early April? It’s often too cold to inspect them properly and a nuc acquired in mid/late May will build up just as well and may even give you honey from the summer nectar flow.

SHB has never been eradicated from any country it has been imported to. Where known, importation has previously occurred with queens, bees or bee-related products and equipment. The National Bee Unit reviewed the most likely route of importation to the UK and reported that – big surprise – it is with queens, bees or bee-related products and equipment.

Buy local bees … please!


Sign of the times?

Spraying oil seed rape

Spraying oil seed rape

Farmers are complaining that the current ban on three neonicotinoids by the EU is making the crop more susceptible to pests and diseases (of which there are no shortage), so necessitating additional pesticide spraying with pyrethroid-based chemicals. Yesterday was a lovely day, with the bees flying strongly for the first time this year. Just over the hedge from one of my apiaries the farmer was out spraying. The crop looked healthy enough to me and there was no real risk to the bees as there’s nothing in the field to interest them at the moment. However, in a few weeks this field will be dazzling yellow colour and will be full of bees* … I hope that if additional spraying is necessary, for example to suppress pollen or flea beetles, the spraying can be done late in the evening to minimise spray damage to my bees.

* and should yield many supers-full of honey.

Somerset BKA lecture day

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

I’m delighted to be sharing the programme with Michael Palmer and Celia Davies at the Somerset BKA lecture day in Cheddar this Saturday (21st February ’15). I’ll be adding a small bit of science to the day and no doubt benefiting significantly from their wealth of beekeeping expertise. It should be a very enjoyable event.

Update – it was a very enjoyable event.  Aside from a few audio problems with a misbehaving microphone a packed hall enjoyed two talks by Celia Davies on Summer and Winter Bees and A World of Scents and a  further two from Michael Palmer on the Sustainable Apiary and Queen rearing.

If you’ve not heard Michael talk about the importance of overwintering nucs for sustainable beekeeping then you should either try and catch him on his current UK tour or watch him deliver the talk at the 2013 National Honey Show on YouTube. I think I’ve heard this talk three times and have learnt something new every time. The methods Michael uses directly address the problems (lack of early-season queens, overwintering losses etc.) I’ve previously outlined in a post on the impact of imported bees and queens on the quality of UK beekeeping in Supply and Demand.

All the talks – including the science of Varroa and deformed wing virus I presented – generated lots of questions and discussions. With thanks to Sharon Blake for the invitation and organisation of the day.

Midwinter blues

The short days of late December and early January are a time for working in the shed, drinking copious mugs of scalding tea and preparing for the coming season. I haven’t done a full colony inspection since late August and don’t expect to start until late March or early April (usually about when the ornamental current, RIbes, is in full flower). Other than feeding fondant in the autumn and ensuring the hives are weathertight and woodpecker-proof there’s little to do.

Oxalic acid

I almost always treat colonies with oxalic acid in midwinter, irrespective of whether the colony was treated with Apiguard in the autumn. I did this a week or so ago during a period of cold, settled weather. The weather was ideal, 3ºC with no wind. Together this ensures that the bees are clustered tightly and are discouraged from flying. I prepare 3.2% oxalic acid solution in 1:1 w/v syrup (for a dozen or so colonies 500g sugar, 500ml water and 37.5g oxalic acid dihydrate should be ample), warmed to about 30ºC and transported in a well-labelled Thermos flask. I use a Trickle 2 dispenser from Thorne’s to deliver 5ml per seam of bees. The colony must be opened gently and there’s usually no need to use smoke. I always wear a beesuit for protection just incase they’re more lively than expected. However, the low temperature usually means they are both clustered tightly and less likely to fly – both make the task of application easier. The entire process takes under a minute per colony and hardly disturbs the bees, as shown in this video I prepared last year for a talk on Varroa.

There is an additional video showing treatment of a larger colony and use of the Trickle 2 dispenser. While the crownboard is off I scan the tops of the visible comb for remaining sealed stores. I carefully close the colony up and insert a Varroa tray to monitor mite drop over the following few days.

Of the colonies treated this year, all but one had a mite drop of <30 in the first 24 hours. This included a couple of nucs that were not treated with Apiguard. The mites continue to drop over the next 2-4 weeks and I usually monitor for a maximum of about 5 days, by which time the daily drop should be tailing off significantly. The number that drop is related to the number in the colony accessible to treatment … in turn this must be due to the number present in the colony after the autumn Apiguard treatment, the amount of brood rearing that has gone on subsequently and the amount of sealed brood present at the time OA was added. I therefore keep the mite drop records and look carefully at colonies with high winter levels during the spring build up. These may be candidates for a shook swarm – to give a brood break – in due course.

Routine winter checks

I only infrequently check my colonies over the winter. I ensure the entrances of the hives with Kewl floors are clear using a bent piece of wire (I lost a double brood colony a few years ago after the entrance got blocked with corpses during a very long cold spell). I sometimes check the movement of the cluster by peering through the Perspex crownboard. Finally, I “heft” the colony to check there are sufficient stores present. This is a rather inexact process – particularly with a mix of equipment and colonies on single brood or brood and a half – and so I’ve started weighing colonies using a set of digital luggage scales. There are 6mm holes each side of the floor into which a bolt – attached to the scales – can be pushed (see pictures) allowing the colony to be gently lifted, one side at a time, recording the sum of the weights. This is largely to record the rate they are using stores, rather than identify dangerously light colonies. Stores usage should increase once they start rearing new brood early in the season.

All of these checks take only a few minutes per apiary, meaning I can get back to the warmth of shed for more tinkering (and another cup of tea) for the season ahead.

Two are better than one

What’s the most useful item a new beekeeper can acquire in his or her second year? A nucleus box? A fancy smoker? An extractor? A settling tank? I’d argue that it’s none of these. I think the most useful acquisition for the second year beekeeper is a second colony*.

Two colonies

Two colonies

Although it’s said that the majority of beekeeping problems can be resolved using a nuc colony (actually I’m not sure where this comes from, Hooper? Waring? Clamp?) I think the addition of a second full colony actually makes beekeeping easier. The only significant drawback is the additional equipment needed … at the bare minimum an additional floor, brood box, queen excluder, supers (realistically three), crownboard and roof. Remember that these will all be in use and that you’ll need further spares for the swarm control method you employ. This could be as little as one additional brood box for the Demaree method. Don’t skimp on these spares … you might need them for both hives at the same time.

The two major advantages of a second colony are that they are unlikely to, a) build up or behave identically, or b) to develop problems simultaneously. Of these, the former can provide reassurance to the inexperienced beekeeper whereas the latter can rescue what would otherwise be a disastrous situation.

Patchy brood pattern

Patchy brood & QC’s …

A lot of beekeeping involves judging how a colony is performing … are they building up well enough, do they have enough space, is the queen laying well, is the colony well behaved, do they have sufficient stores? These are almost all easier to determine if you have a second colony on the same site to make the comparisons against. For example, a poorly behaved or aggressive colony makes for miserable beekeeping. Is this because of poor genetics (in which case you really should requeen the colony)? Alternatively, is it because of recent stormy weather or the nectar flow stopping? If the latter, it’s likely that all the colonies in an apiary will be equally effected. Comparing two colonies subject to the same environmental conditions makes this much easier.

Eggs and young larvae

Eggs and young larvae

Some of the most common problems encountered by new beekeepers involve dealing with queenless or weak colonies … these are situations in which a second colony can save you from disaster. How many new beekeepers panic when they find queen cells during an inspection? It’s not uncommon and I did in my first year. The natural response is to destroy all the queen cells before confirming whether the colony has already swarmed. If this happened more than four or five days previously there will be no young larvae to raise a new queen from. Without intervention the colony is doomed. However, a frame of eggs transferred from a second colony will rescue the colony (or, if ignored, will confirm that there is likely a virgin queen already present and that a little patience is required to allow her to get out and mate). In you’re in an active beekeeping association you will probably be able to scrounge a frame of eggs from another association member, but it’s a whole lot easier taking one from your second colony.

A strong colony

A strong colony

Weak colonies overwinter poorly. Not only are they less likely to survive, they also generally build up slowly the following Spring. This means you might miss the oil seed rape harvest or, more seriously, that the colony is less able to cope with a sudden cold-snap resulting in chilled brood, chalkbrood problems and a decline in colony health. Strong colonies generally overwinter well, are less susceptible to disease and collect significantly more honey. With one weak colony in late summer you have few options other than nursing it through the winter. With two colonies, only one of which is weak, you have the option of uniting them to make a single strong colony.

Finally, if the season progresses without a hitch, not only will your two colonies yield more honey but (with careful timing) you’ll be able to steal a frame or so of brood and stores from each to generate a nucleus colony to overwinter … either as a backup, to make increase or for sale the following Spring.


* this assumes the new beekeeper ended the first year by successfully overwintering a single colony.