Of the polystyrene nucleus hives (polynucs) I’ve seen, owned or butchered, the Everynuc sold by Thorne’s is the one I prefer. They have a separate OMF floor and Varroa tray, are easy to paint and are made from dense, robust and thick (i.e. well-insulating) polystyrene. The entrance is a gaping maw, but that is easily fixed with some wire mesh pinned in place. The beespace is also an issue due to the compromises made to accommodate both long-lugged National and short-lugged Langstroth frames, but again this can be fixed easily and cheaply (though it’s a bit irritating having to ‘fix’ a box that costs almost £50 🙁 ).
Entrance reducer …
Polynucs for overwintering
Colonies overwintered in these boxes did very well and were generally at least as good, and often better, than my colonies in cedar hives†. Although I’ve also purchased a few of the Miller-type feeders it’s actually easier to prise up one end of the crownboard and simply drop fondant – or pour syrup – into the integral feeder in the brood box. Checking the remaining fondant/syrup levels takes seconds through the clear flexible crownboard and barely disturbs the colony at all.
Polynucs for queen mating
Due to work commitments I haven’t had time this season to deal with high-maintenance mini-nucs for queen mating, so have been exclusively using these Everynucs. With the vagaries of the weather in my part of the world it’s good not to have to keep checking them for stores during cold, wet periods. It’s also great to work with full-sized brood frames that allow the laying pattern of the queen to be determined easily. I usually raise a couple of batches of queens in a season and this means I’m going in and out of a dozen or so of these boxes regularly, making them up, priming them with a sealed queen cell, inspecting them for a mated queen etc. I usually start them off as 3 frame nucs, dummied down, to save resources, allowing them to expand with successive batches of queens.
Space for five and a bit frames
Er, no …
One of the nice features of these boxes is their internal width which is almost but not quite sufficient for 6 Hoffmann frames. You therefore need to use five frames together with a dummy board to avoid strong colonies building brace comb in the gaps on one or both sides of the outside frames. One advantage of this additional ‘elbow room’ is that these boxes can accommodate slightly fatter brood frames, for example when the bees build up the corners with stores rather than drawing out foundation of the adjacent frame. There’s also ample space to introduce a queen cell or caged queen, check for emergence – or release – in a day or two and then gently push the frames back together again.
Dummy board needed …
Even better, by removing the dummy board there’s enough space to work from one side of the box to the other without first removing, and leaving aside, a frame to make space. The frames do need to be removed gently and slowly to avoid rolling bees (but you do this anyway of course). However, since I’m generally looking for the recently mated and laying queen ‘slow and steady’ is a definite advantage. In the image below you can see the space available, even when four of the frames are reasonably heavily propilised.
Just enough space …
To make frame manipulation easier it’s worth adding a frame runner on the inside of the feed compartment (it’s the white strip just visible in the photo above) as described previously. Without this the bees tend to stick the frames to the coarse wooden lip of the feeder with propolis, thereby making it more difficult to gently slide the frames together (or apart).
The brood boxes of these Everynuc’s stack, meaning you can easily unite two nucs into a vertical 10-frame unit using newspaper. The vertical beespace is wrong (the boxes are appreciably deeper than a National frame) so the resulting colony should be moved to a standard 10-12 frame brood box before they build extensive brace comb. As the season draws to an end it’s therefore possible to take pairs of boxes, remove the queen from one to requeen another hive, unite the colonies and then – a week or so later – have a good 10-frame colony to prepare for overwintering … or, of course, overwinter them directly in these nucleus hives.
† The only exception were those in the bee shed which were probably 2-3 weeks even further ahead in their development by late March/early April this year.
A brief update on how things have been progressing in the bee shed. This is my first full season keeping colonies full-time within a shed or building though I’ve successfully overwintered mini-nucs in an unheated greenhouse in the past.
Under construction …
When installed at the end of last season there was almost no need to open the hives, so it’s only this Spring that the pros and cons of the bee shed have begun to be properly understood.
The colonies are completely enclosed with simple tunnels leading to exits on the East/South East face of the shed. All the colonies are housed in standard National cedar boxes or poly nucs. Other than clear perspex insulated crownboards, there is no additional insulation and the shed is not heated. The shed is situated in open parkland with woodland and arable land nearby containing good forage and there is a permanent water supply nearby.
Colony development and Varroa loads
Colonies went through the winter in single National brood boxes, fed with fondant and treated with oxalic acid by vaporisation in September (before moving them to the shed) and in midwinter. The first inspection was conducted in late March. Colonies were building up well and were significantly stronger than colonies headed by sister queens in the same apiary or in my other apiary. Between late February and early May colonies dropped only 3-4 mites in total, with Varroa boards located within pull-out trays in the hive floor. I’m sure I missed a few mites, but doubt it was very many. We’ve recently uncapped a full frame of drone brood – each cell uncapped individually – and found no Varroa present. Mite levels are therefore reassuringly low – for reasons to be discussed in a future post – with no signs of DWV-related disease.
Varroa tray …
Since mid-April colony development has been very good and they are now on double National brood boxes with 2-3 supers. A fourth super went onto one colony on the 25th of May and the stack now nearly reaches the shed roof. A four frame nuc has been split off one colony already to cool it down a little. Quite a bit of developing brood has also been harvested at weekly intervals for our research, usually by simply cutting a big slab out of the middle of a frame. This has probably also held the colonies back a bit and it’s only now I’m starting to plan for swarm prevention/control.
Inspections have been easier than expected. These colonies are headed by queens with reasonable genetics (Heinz queens – local mongrels of 57 varieties, reared by me in 2015). The bees are steady on the comb and tend not to fly up at you when the crownboard is lifted. They’re nothing particularly special, but would be considered reasonably placid and non-aggressive.
The colony is gently smoked from outside the shed (through the entrance tunnel) and a small amount is wafted under the crownboard or between the QE and the bottom super. After allowing them to settle the supers and crownboard are removed and placed outside on an overturned roof. The queen excluder and adherent bees are also left standing outside (unless it’s cold when the bees are shaken off into the open hive).
Inspecting the colony is straightforward. Any frames removed to make space are rested on the hive stand. Double brooded colonies are split into two, with one box stood aside on an eke on the roof of an adjacent hive roof. Inevitably, the queenless half of the split tends to get tetchy within a few minutes, so it’s best to deal with them first. When frames need to be shaken free of bees this can be done either over the open hive or, better still, directly into a gap between the frames. If done outside many of the nurse bees on the frame fail to get back to the hive (they’ve probably not been on orientation flights yet).
The smoker is usually stood just outside the shed door … if you keep it in the shed during inspections you can end up being kippered 😎
Perhaps surprisingly, even going through all 22 frames in a double colony, the shed does not fill with a maelstrom of flying bees. Undoubtedly this is partly because they’re reasonably calm colonies. Those that do fly rapidly find the window or open door and make their exit. When I first started doing inspections in the bee shed I’d manually help the stragglers outside after reassembling the hive. It turns out that there’s really no need … almost all the bees quickly vacate the shed by making a beeline ( 😉 ) for the bright lights of the windows or doors.
The great escape …
Just how quickly the bees leave the shed was emphasised last Sunday when selecting larvae for grafting. I opened and inspected a double brooded colony, found a suitable frame with 24 hour larvae on it and placed it in a two frame nuc for protection. Within 5 minutes I could work without a veil (I react very badly to stings to the face so take particular care over this) without interruption from flying bees.
Weather and temperature
I’m sure that the temperature influences the behaviour of the colonies in the shed. They certainly forage – or perhaps collect water to use fondant or crystallised stores – at lower temperatures than those situated outside. When inspections are conducted on a cold day (say 10-11°C) they are even more steady than usual. However, those that do fly take longer to leave the shed and they can end up clustering in small, rather pathetic, little groups which then need to be scooped up on a hive tool and dropped into the colony. On cool days I don’t leave the supers or QE outside the shed as the bees would rapidly get chilled. Work commitments mean that inspections must be conducted on certain days, so I don’t have the luxury of simply waiting until it’s a bit warmer. Although the shed is unheated the temperature differential between the inside and outside is significant – perhaps 4-8°C – or more if the sun is shining on the window side of the shed. On a warm, sunny day the temperature inside the shed can easily reach the mid-20’s which makes inspections a hot and sweaty activity.
Needless to say, inspections on damp or wet days are much better than on colonies located outside. I avoid days when it’s raining hard, partly for my own comfort to avoid getting wet accessing the apiary, but also because I’d prefer not to force the bees to fly on a really wet day. However, on damp or drizzly days, inspections proceed as normal.
And the bad news is …
Almost everything I’ve written above is positive and my overall initial impression is that the bee shed offers very significant advantages for the sort of beekeeping I need to do. However, there are some drawbacks and design issues that either currently cause problems, or might in the future.
The first is that it’s too small. The shed is 12 x 8 feet and I should have got one at least half as long again. This is largely because it’s also used for equipment storage and has a small table for working on. With four hives I need storage for 8-12 supers, additional brood boxes and spare frames. If I was starting again, knowing what I know now, I’d get an 18 x 10 shed with the intention of housing at least 6 colonies and some additional nucs (by contrast mine will accommodate 4 full colonies and 2 nucs down the sunny side of the shed, with the possibility of 2-3 additional nucs at a squeeze). It’s not only equipment storage that takes up the room … you need considerable room to work as well, with space for turning, stacking and temporary placement of hive parts. Working in the bee shed encourages an efficiency of movement – or causes a lot of collisions – I’d not expected.
Essential storage …
Secondly the lighting is – at best – variable. On a sunny morning there’s ample light to see eggs and tiny larvae. However, as the colonies have grown, the added supers restrict the amount of light getting through the windows. On an overcast day, or late in the afternoon, the lighting is pretty hopeless – good enough to see queen cups/cells, good enough to locate the queen, but (particularly on dark frames) too dim to see eggs, small larvae or to check frames for signs of disease. It’s not unusual to have to carry frames outside to inspect them fully. I’m currently investigating 12V LED systems run from a solar panel-charged caravan battery. My only concern is that this might disorientate the bees and slow their exit from the shed during inspections.
Multiple supers …
Thirdly, I should have spent more time designing the hive stands. I made them an inch or so too low which caused some problems with locating the hive entrances centrally in the T&G planks, but was not insurmountable. More problematically, as a consequence of the leg locations it’s difficult to keep the floor clear of hive debris that falls through the OMF. With the Varroa boards in place this isn’t an issue, but when they’re out – which I prefer if there’s a chance of the shed getting very warm – the debris needs to be regularly swept up to keep the shed clean. Some sort of removable debris trays would have been a good addition, but are not easy to fit retrospectively. However, the overall hive stand design – with the legs going through the suspended floor to avoid vibrations – works very well.
Finally, swarm control has yet to be tackled. My preferred simple method is doing a vertical split (or using a Snelgrove board that I’m experimenting with this year) but this requires an upper entrance which, obviously, cannot easily be arranged. One possibility is using the Demaree method of swarm control. Alternatively, it would be straightforward to remove the queen into a nuc and let the colony requeen. Currently I’m trying to postpone the inevitable by removal of some brood, ensuring they have enough space within the brood boxes which I swap (top to bottom, bottom to top) periodically, ensuring they have sufficient space in the supers and keeping a close eye on them. The queens are clipped. If they do swarm they’re likely to end up in a lump outside the hive entrance – the ground is flagged and so they should hopefully be relatively easy to scoop up.
Slow-mo of bees returning to a nucleus colony in the bee shed …
Bee shed …
The bee shed is designed to accommodate a maximum of four National hives along one wall of its twelve foot length. However, space remains at the outermost ends of the stands sufficient to house a couple of nucs, so I made the necessary modifications and installed a nuc recently. They’re a bit squeezed into the corners but there’s still enough space to inspect them. Since there’s almost no time during the year when there aren’t nucs in use these spaces will be well used, and the shelter offered by the bee shed will provide additional protection when overwintering smaller colonies.
Open wide …
Almost all my nucs are of the Everynuc design sold by Thorne’s. With a little modification these Langstroth-sized poly nucs are excellent, though the entrance is far bigger than it needs to be. These nucs have an integral feeder, a separate floor and Varroa tray, a thin polycarbonate inner cover (it’s a bit grand calling it a crownboard) and a good thick roof. Importantly, as far as fitting them into the bee shed, they have a projecting ‘landing board’, which I found could be pushed flush with the wall of the shed so negating the need for an entrance tunnel of any kind. The remaining gap between the nuc body and the shed wall can be filled with a small block of dense foam.
Nuc entrance …
To make sealing the colony easier or to add a queen excluder or single bee-width entrance I bodged together some scrap wood to make a simple holder – fitted onto the inside wall of the shed – into which suitably sized pieces of Correx or QE could be slotted. In the picture (bottom right) the Correx is out of sight behind the nuc but this nuc is ‘overheight’ because it has a Miller-type feeder on. Finally, to ensure the nuc couldn’t be accidentally moved during inspections or when I was pottering around in the shed, I added a couple of tie-down points on the walls and so could run a lightweight strap around the floor of the nuc, securing everything in place.
Correx entrance thingy …
Late on Easter Sunday I visited my out apiary, sealed the nuc entrance with foam and transported it to the apiary with the bee shed – these sites are several miles apart, so there was no issues with the bees returning to the wrong place. The colony was busy dealing with a block of fondant in the feeder compartment. After moving them to the shed I left them to settle for ~20 minutes then gently removed the entrance foam and gave them a small waft of smoke. I then carefully placed the nuc in situ. Not a single bee escaped. Why can’t it always be this simple?
Nuc in the bee shed …
The following morning there were a few bees taking tentative first flights from the simple hole I’d bored through the wall of the shed. I’ve also built them a Correx (no surprises there for regular visitors to this site) landing board, both to help them land – rather than clinging to the shiny paint finish of the shed – and to help them orientate to the entrance. As you can see from the video (top of page), they largely ignore the landing board. The bee shed hive entrances have a variety of coloured landing boards to try and discourage bees from drifting between colonies … but it’s nothing like as distinctively (or artfully) decorated as some of the bee houses on the continent.
The bee shed is a new development in my beekeeping. It was built to house the colonies we need for our work on deformed wing virus. This requires access to larvae and pupae for as long as possible during the year … it therefore seemed worthwhile trying to keep colonies in a sheltered environment in the hope that the queen would rear brood for longer. An additional benefit is that colonies can be opened in poor weather. Due to the timing of the development cycle of bees we almost always have to harvest larvae or brood on a Monday, irrespective of the weather. I’ve previously had to open colonies in the middle of a thunderstorms, getting drenched in the process. The ‘operator protection’ offered by the bee shed will make this a much less unpleasant task in inclement weather (at least for the beekeeper 😉 ).
Location, location …
Bee shed …
The shed is situated in a sheltered corner of thin woodland, with the long side facing approximately south-east to catch the morning sun. The spot is a real sun trap and well sheltered from prevailing winds. There is water nearby and a wide variety of forage available within flying distance. On a warm sunny morning it’s an idyllic spot. However, not everything is perfect. Access is a bit limited and there’s no electricity, so I’ll need to use my Kelly Kettle for making a brew. The shed is built onto a solid slabbed foundation that is pretty-much level so I don’t need to worry about levelling the hives when using foundationless frames which must hang vertically. The shed was built by Gillies and Mackay of Errol and the exterior is ~19mm thick T&G boards. They built it with four window openings all down one side … in retrospect I should have asked for a couple of additional openings on the opposite side as well and I may yet take a jigsaw to the wall if needed. Other than fitting metal edging all around the base to prevent little critters getting underneath, it’s a pretty-much ‘off the shelf’ (albeit custom-built if that isn’t a contradiction) 12′ x 8′ shed, liberally painted with something not particularly environmentally friendly (Sadolin Quick Dry woodstain I think). The fenced off apiary site has space for a further 6-8 colonies, with additional space for storage of spare nuc boxes, supers and all the other paraphernalia that beekeeping requires.
Feet through the floor …
I’ve already briefly described the hive stands. These are completely unexciting. There are two, end to end, down the long-side of the shed. The advantage of two separate stands is that there are fewer colonies sharing the stand to get disturbed during inspections. I considered individual stands but realised that this would prevent the addition of ‘infill’ nucs should we need them. Actually, not really infill, but there’s space at either end for a 5/6 frame poly nuc. The only additional design feature of the hive stands is that the legs reach through the floor of the shed and stand directly on the slabbed foundations. This again reduces vibrations as I potter around in the shed opening other colonies … or brewing tea. This was a suggestion from an experienced bee shed user and contributor to the SBAi forums for which I’m very grateful. I slightly misjudged the height of the stands during design/installation … this has necessitated additional pieces of wood being added along the top runners. Without these the hive entrances were in line with the thinnest part of the wall (the T&G), rather than the thicker centre of the plank. D’oh! In due course I’ll add additional wood along the rails of the stand, incorporating Correx sheets underneath the colonies to catch debris that would otherwise fall onto the floor. These won’t be proper Varroa trays as they’ll be well separated from the open mesh floors, but simply a way of keeping hive rubbish off the floor. The hive floors we use were built by Pete Little and have a particularly well designed Varroa tray that is almost perfect for sealing off the bottom of the colony, both when counting mite drop and during oxalic acid sublimation.
Many bee sheds I’ve seen have rather fancy entrances with sealable doors on the outside, the ability to add mouseguards and all sorts of entrance reducers. I decided that, a) I don’t know yet what features I need so can’t add them from the start and b) I can cobble-together almost anything from Correx if needed. I therefore opted for a simple hole through which I pushed some spare rectangular extractor hood ducting. This abuts the front entrance slot of the hive – I use standard floors on the hives in the shed, rather than my preferred Kewl floors. The ducting is a pretty tight fit through the side of the shed, so isn’t fixed in place. It rests on a small piece of softwood on the front of the hive floor, with the remainder of the hive entrance i.e. “outside” the ducting, sealed off with a piece of Correx nailed in place to both the bottom of the brood box and the top of the hive floor. The Correx has a flap that lifts up to accommodate the ducting. When I move the hives I simply pull them away from the ducting and close the flap.
The ducting is only about 12-14cm in length. I didn’t want rain to be driven into the hive, or for water to run down the smooth-walled ducting. The ducting is therefore inclined upwards towards the hive entrance at about a ~15° angle. Additionally, there’s a ~1cm ‘step’ between the floor of the ramp and the hive entrance. I reckoned that this arrangement wouldn’t interfere with removal of corpses, but would maximise protection from the elements. I sprayed the inside of the outer end of the ducting with some gloss paint and liberally sprinkled it with sand to provide a good grip to bees landing. To seal off the exposed edges of the ducting from the outside I added an external entrance ‘archway’ (see picture) with the inevitable Correx landing board screwed on underneath it. I can add entrance reducers (Correx … no surprises there 😉 ) as needed simply by pinning them in place to the ‘archway’. The entrance was pretty-much bodged together (a speciality of mine) … we’ll see how they get on with them over the course of the season, make running modifications as needed and/or design improvements for the the future.
Bee shed window …
Opening a hive inevitably results in bees flying up and out. I’ve seen a variety of solutions to allow bees to exit bee sheds. These include:
clear roof vents so the bees are attracted up to the roof apex of the shed and can then escape through the vent – if built properly this also hugely increases the available light inside the shed, but does require major roof modifications. These were beyond the budget and I was concerned about maintaining a fully weathertight structure, so didn’t choose this option.
windows that are hinged along the bottom edge and that are left open a couple of inches during inspections. Bees attracted to the light (it’s always pretty dingy in the shed when compared to daylight) walk up the window and fly from the gap. Although the shed was pretty good value, the custom-built windows offered by Gillies and Mackay weren’t … so this option was abandoned as well.
Let there be light …
I wanted a no-moving-parts solution. Therefore, the windows consist of two sheets of Perspex with the outer sheet being 2cm short of the window frame height. This means that bees inside the shed that fly towards the light and crawl up the window eventually reach a gap from which they can fly out. To prevent ingress of rain and draughts the upper gap is overlapped by a short inner pane, perhaps 15cm in height, separated from the outer pane by about 20mm. This arrangement appears to work well. It means there are no moving parts to go wrong, no windows to forget to open (or close afterwards), no thick window frame to further reduce the lighting and yet still provides reasonable weather protection. The inner windows are screwed in place with the outers being secured with waterproof sealant.
Still to do
A combination of flooding, the short day lengths, an arm injury, lethargy and lousy organisation (as a previous student of mine once said, “He couldn’t run a bath”) mean that there are a number of tasks to finish before the season proper starts. These range from adding guttering and storage racks at the rear of the shed to taking a couple of deckchairs over for warmer days. Most importantly I need to prepare additional entrance holes for some nucleus hives. My preferred poly nucs fit flush to the sidewall of the shed (with a bit of bodging) and so should not need the same sort of entrance tunnel. I’m simply going to bore a wine-cork sized hole through the wall … this should be easy to defend and, if needed, seal with a cork. Note to self – drink wine.
But what about swarm control … ?
And all sorts of similar beekeeping questions. I’ve not a Scooby. The classic ‘artificial swarm’ (Pagden method) is out for obvious reasons … this isn’t an issue as it’s not a method I use very often. The two choices would be the vertical Demaree method which I quite like (but which is better with an upper entrance that can’t be provided inside the shed) or simply removing the queen to a nucleus hive. It will be interesting to see what works best. However, since we harvest brood for research during the season these colonies may not get strong enough to swarm until the queen gets pretty old and tired. In the same vein, I don’t expect these colonies to be bulging at the seams and piling in the nectar all season, but – just in case – there’s headroom for about 4 supers 🙂 . It’s not likely that other standard beekeeping activities will be problematic … requeening, uniting, feeding, Varroa treatments and standard inspections should all proceed as required (just out of the rain and wind). The installed colonies are currently in hives identical to those I’d use outside … however, this is likely to change as there’s little need for a roof and so I’m likely to replace the crownboard-insulation-roof with a simple sheet of thick polythene with a block of Kingspan insulation on top.
First impressions last
Perspex crownboard …
The first hives were installed in October last year, so I have almost no experience yet in handling colonies ‘indoors’. On a sunny day the lighting is good enough to see eggs and larvae but I might have to consider installing lighting for late-afternoon apiary sessions. We’ve had a reasonably warm, wet winter – very wet – and the colonies look strong at the time of writing (the image on the right is not representative as it was taken some time ago). Colonies within the shed are significantly more active than colonies headed by sister queens outside the shed in the same apiary. However, there may still be genetic differences between the colonies that account for this. This increased activity is twofold – more bees flying on warm days and more hive debris (presumably due to brood being reared and stores uncapped) on the Varroa trays. Only once the hives are opened will it become clear whether these apparent signs of increased activity really reflect stronger colonies that are rearing more brood.
What is clear though is that on days borderline for flying – the sort of day when only the odd bee ventures out – the colonies in the shed have no more bees flying than those outside. On these sorts of days a peek through the perspex crownboards shows that the clusters within the bee shed are ‘looser’, with more bees wandering about in the hive corners and with the bees spread across more frames. However, this increased activity inside the hive doesn’t appear to translate into more bees venturing out if the weather isn’t really good enough.
This is the second full year that this site has been running. Visitor numbers to the site wax (no pun intended) and wane with the beekeeping season – lower in the winter and higher in the summer. This is perhaps not unsurprising … the online forums are much the same, though there’s a lot less bickering here in the winter and no-ones actually been banned. Yet 😉
Visitor statistics wax and wane with the beekeeping calendar
The site has been visited by beekeepers (or visitors, or at least robots … ) from 132 countries over the course of the year. The most popular individual articles are on honey warming cabinets, Paynes poly nuc boxes, steam wax extractors and the one article I posted on the Saf Natura honey extractor (which continues to perform really well … the extractor, not the article). These were all originally posted in 2014 so have had time to permeate deep into the Googled-psyche of the internet. The most popular 2015 post was about avoiding – or removing – frosting in honey. Tim Foden posted some useful additional comments on this when I recently discussed making soft set honey. There’s also been quite a bit of interest in recent posts on oxalic acid/Api-Bioxal and the relative costs of the various Varroa treatments. Disappointingly, my semi-rants on the need for more sustainable beekeeping practices – including training and controlling imports – particularly in relation to stopping pathogen imports (both the visible ones like small hive beetle and the invisible, and untested, ones like new virus strains) have received relatively little attention (though they do appear to be recommended course material for a Masters degree of some sort). Maybe next year …
The search terms make interesting reading though Google (by far and away the most frequent referrer accounting for 96% of direct searches) hides these for commercial reasons and I can’t be bothered checking Google Analytics. I hope the person who searched for a “cow dummy board” found what they wanted but suspect the visitor who searched for “how to build your own collapsible bin 1.2m by 1.2m plans and designs” was disappointed. There’s been some recent interest how to “demaree nucs” which is a combination of terms I’d not expected to see and can’t see a need for. Can you? If the spelling errors that appear in the visible search terms are representative then it’s fortunate that Google and Bing both use algorithms to take into account common typos, fat fingers and the spektackularly poor spelling of many internet users. I use Akismet for spam filtering of comments and it’s amazing the garbage it’s successfully prevented from appearing online … any number of “free pianos”, “genuine Louise Vuiton” (really?) bags and RayBan sunglasses. Most recently was a long and fascinating post (er, not) about “making your breath smell good” in response to my overview of foundationless frames (shurely shome mishtake?) I’m grateful to those who negotiated the “are you human?” Captcha tests and posted a comment or two. Without using Captcha tests I’d be swamped with more free pianos than I’d know what to do with …
I’ve managed to post a bit more than the once-per-week target I’d set myself (64 posts in total). I suspect this will be throttled back a little next year, though I have a range of new things (oxalic acid/Api-Bioxal treatment regimes, homemade label printing, DIY hive monitors etc.) that I’d like to cover. I’ve tended not to write purely topical posts (“My hives this week”, which sounds more like something you’d find in the comments pages of NHS Choices) – there are much better writers out there already doing this* – instead concentrating on more practical aspects of beekeeping. It’s sometimes difficult to achieve a balance between the ‘flow’ of the beekeeping year – the inactivity of the winter months vs. the never-quite-keeping-up activity in May and June – and writing practical and topical posts, after all, most practical beekeeping happens in that 2-3 months between the OSR starting and the end of the swarming season. I’ve already had some interest in discussing the bee shed (and will try and respond to other requests) and want to expand some aspects of queen rearing as I get more experience of different approaches. In particular I’m interested in looking at practical solutions – like vertical splits – for small scale beekeepers who don’t want to graft but do want to improve their stocks. Having moved to Scotland I also now have potential access to some very scenic apiary sites (at least used by friends, even if my own are relatively dull and boring) and I’m hoping to combine visits to these with my photography interests.
It’s never too late to join the 21st Century …
I’ve finally got round to including a widget (right) to mirror my Twitter account @The_Apiarist. This was created way back in January 2014 but got forgotten and was subsequently suspended by Twitter … presumably due to inactivity. More topical things might end up there (if I remember), leaving the more practical stuff for these pages …
Mid-April 2015 queen … I hope to see her again in about 4 months
As the year draws to a close I hope that in 2016 your mite numbers are low, your colonies docile, your queens visible and your supers heavy.
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
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.
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.
“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:
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.
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.
Buy local bees or queens if you need to buy any. Sell your own surplus locally.
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.
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
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.
The Everynuc 2 accommodates national frames in what is a Langstroth-sized box by having an internal feeder at one end of the box. The frame rests on the upper edge of one side of the feeder and the opposite end of the box – presumably the entrance end of the nuc hive. An 8mm thick piece of stripwood on the lower edge of the feeder stops the frame sliding ‘back’ (because the box is much longer than the top bar of a national frame), potentially crushing bees and certainly destroying beespace. The box is supposed to be top beespace – it’s not really, particularly since the (Bayer manufactured!) plastic crownboard sags a bit. However, in those I currently own the feeder was too close to the crownboard, making it almost top beespace at one end of the frame and something much less at the feeder end (a more complete review and more photographs have been posted here previously). Furthermore, in the three boxes I painted this weekend the combination of incorrect top beespace and the thickness of the stripwood at the bottom of the feeder prevented the frame properly sitting on the frame rest at the opposite end of the box (see photo below right).
Feeder end beespace …
The side supporting lugs for the feeder need to be reduced in depth by removing about 3mm from the bottom of them (the bit in contact with the sidewall of the nuc box). In the half-dozen boxes I’ve modified so far the lugs are all attached using glue and a nail gun. Belt and braces. In about half of them the nail hasn’t been driven in straight and the saw fouls it … simply remove the nail using strong pliers. Both sides need to be cut down by the same amount.
Add a frame runner to the inside of the feeder. I’ve used plastic frame runners and stuck them in places using Gorilla glue. It needs to be just proud of the top of the wooden panel on the feeder (any higher and the bottom of the frame is raised above the wood spacer at the bottom of the feeder). Clamp the runner in place and then trim away any glue that’s oozed out once everything has set.
Add a cross bar of 9mm stripwood to act as a framestop, preventing the frames shifting ‘back’ as described above. It’s easy to add syrup or fondant directly into the feeder, but the crossbar removes any chance of the frame moving.
Reduce depth of lug
Add frame runner
These minor modification fix the top beespace problem and make the frames fit properly. The framestop makes transporting (e.g. by car or hivebarrow) these boxes much easier. The reduction in depth of the supporting lugs doesn’t alter the 1-2mm that the bottom of a frame overlaps the 8mm stripwood on the bottom of the feeder (see the top picture). However, with top beespace, any slight bump lifts the frame clear of this stripwood and it can then slide back, crushing bees between the sidebar of the frame and the feeder. The addition of a framestop across the top of the feeder fixes this defect.
Everynuc feeder …
Note – this post was written originally in March 2015 about Everynucs purchased and delivered in late 2014. I have subsequently purchased and received a further 18 Everynucs (received April 2015) which appear to have a slightly shallower ‘lug’ on the feeder. Those I’ve tested don’t appear to show the problem illustrated above, with the frame not seated on the runner. I can’t make a side-by-side comparison as I’ve already modified all of the original Everynucs I received. However, they all still have the wrong beespace at the non-feeder end, the solution for which is described below.
You’ve not finished yet …
The beespace at the non-feeder end of the nuc box is still wrong. I overwintered a number of colonies in these nucs* and all had built brace comb between the frame end bars and the wall of the box, making frame removal messy and disruptive. The incorrect beespace is due to the long lugs on a National frame being used in a box where the frame rests are designed for the short lugs on a Langstroth frame. To overcome this simply glue a piece of 8-9mm ply onto the end wall of the nuc. A piece of ply 20.4 x 20.5 cm (w x h) restores beespace. I’ve used Gorilla glue to hold it in place in the half-dozen modified recently. Since Gorilla glue doesn’t seem to form an irreversible joint with dense polystyrene I reckon I can take these apart if they are unsuitable (famous last words … and don’t trust me on this, test it yourself first).
Stop wriggling …
That should do it …
Only 18 to go …
It seems a shame to have to modify what is probably one of the most expensive poly-nucs on the market. However, I remain reasonably certain that this is the best currently available. These boxes should last 20+ years if properly maintained and so justify a small amount of effort at the beginning to improve them.
The final task is to design a suitable entrance reducer to prevent robbing by wasps late in the season, to stop mice getting in during the winter and that allows my recently acquired Sublimox oxalic acid vaporiser to be used when required. Since wasps, mice and OA treatment are ages away I’ll leave this exercise for another day …
* I should add in closing that colonies overwintered extremely well in these nucs. Some were stronger coming out of the winter than full colonies that had gone in strong in September. I only fed with fondant, gently dropping slices into the feeder through the autumn.
… pretty much describes my August. Having moved from the Midlands to Fife at the very end of July, with a new house and new job to sort out, I’ve had almost no spare time for my bees. Fortunately, August is usually a pretty quiet month. The swarming urge is more or less over and – with good weather – the colonies should be piling in the nectar. Unless you’re queen rearing – and I’m not – it’s a time to sit back and look forward to the fruits of their labours.
All the colonies I moved up in a van settled well in their new apiaries. The majority are in a temporary site while my beehouse (about which more in a later post) and main apiary are prepared. The remainder are in a friend’s garden, in a lovely sheltered South East facing spot. The fortnight after moving them the weather was very unsettled and there were reports on the SBAi forum about the risk of starvation. It’s been unseasonably wet throughout July (200% of the 30 year average rainfall) and there was nearly no nectar available. Large colonies were OK, surviving on their stores or even collecting a bit here and there. In contrast, nucs were very low on stores and dangerously close to starvation. I’ve noticed this type of threshold effect before, where only the larger colonies have sufficient foragers to exploit limited nectar sources. I know that others think that the colonies most at risk are those with a large proportion of open brood – whether nucs or full colonies. This might be the same thing, just described in a different way. These nucs were expanding fast and had quite a bit of open brood. I gave all of them a block or two of fondant, either dropped directly into the feeder of the Everynucs, or laid across the tops of the frames in Paynes poly nucs.
Within days the weather picked up, the colonies quickly used up their fondant and several of the larger nucs (the 8-framers in butchered Paynes poly nucs) all started running out of space. I moved these into full sized hives. At the same time the full colonies had started piling in the nectar so a few were given extra supers in the hope of getting a bit of honey late in the season.
Give them more supers …
As soon as this period of settled weather looks like ending it’ll be time to start thinking about preparations for the winter. This means taking and extracting any honey, Varroa treatment and feeding up the colonies. I usually like to get my Varroa treatment completed early as Apiguard (which I routinely use) has a tendency to stop the queen from laying. On warm early autumn days the smell of thymol in Apiguard-treated hives can be overpowering. However, this year I’m going to use vaporised oxalic acid on the majority of colonies. I’ve used this a few times already this year – on colonies with undesirably high mite levels early in the season and on swarms – and think it’s very well tolerated by the colony, with no apparent interruption to egg laying by the queen. By treating three times at 5 day intervals – to account for the sealed brood in the colony – at the same time as I feed fondant I hope to let the queen lay well into the autumn, generating the all important winter bees that will get the colony through to the next season.
Note … this post has been sitting unfinished on my Mac for a week or more as I struggle with an endless pile of boxes to unpack. The weather looks to be gradually deteriorating and the supers will probably be taken off this weekend.
Queen mating has been a bit hit and miss for me this year so I was pleased to find a number of mated, laying queens in 5 frame nucs when I checked yesterday evening. The nucs were arranged using a circle split and a couple of queens had clearly failed to return from mating flights (that’s a guess … she had definitely emerged from the cell). These boxes were depleted of bees and the remaining stores were being robbed out. I moved these nucs aside and shook the remaining bees out.
Circle split …
Marked queen …
I’d forgotten my scissors but did find a marking cage and pen in my beesuit, so carefully started queen marking each mated, laying queen. Inevitably when rushed (I’d just got off a delayed flight from Scotland and was running out of evening) I managed to drop one of the queens as I tried to manipulate her into the marking cage. They can fly, just not well and not far … she did a sort of lazy spiral and was easy to spot because of her size. However, I lost sight of her against the low evening sun in the mass of returning foragers. Oops. I stepped carefully outside the circle of nucs – they usually crash to earth nearby – and tidied up the rest of my gear. It would add injury to insult if I’d managed to stand on her … Finally, on my last look around I spotted her clinging to some grasses near the hive entrance. I caged and marked her, reopened the nuc and allowed her to serenely walk back into the colony.
The queen returns …
With the exception of some vertical splits (to be described later) that’s the last of my queen rearing this season. I’ve got all the nucs I need for my move to Fife. The next task is to build a load of travel screens …
Both the churchyard swarm and swarm that delivered itself to a bait hive have mated, laying queens. The initial large drop of phoretic mites – more than 150 from the former – shows how valuable prompt treatment with vaporised oxalic acid is. In 2-3 weeks it will be easy to determine the quality of the laying pattern of the queen and the temper of the colony will start to become apparent. At that point a decision will be made to keep them or unite them with another colony.
I’m aiming to raise 12-24 five-frame nucs this summer to populate new apiaries and provide bees for my day job. These will also provide the stocks to replace early season sales of overwintered nucs and donations to friends struggling with misbehaving colonies. The first round of grafting started relatively late (16/5/15) due to the protracted cool weather this spring – even had I managed to raise queens, the prospect of getting them successfully mated would have been limited.
Select the best, replace the worst
Larvae were selected for grafting from one of my best colonies – chosen on the basis of the desirable characteristics I’m able to easily subjectively judge. These include disease, good behaviour and performance. Disease and behaviour are straightforward – obvious signs of chalkbrood or deformed wing virus, running excessively on the frame, following, pinging off the veil or attacking a hand slowly moved over an open colony would all preclude a colony from being used as a source of larvae for grafting. Performance is far more difficult to judge when comparing a relatively small number of colonies. I look for colonies that overwinter well, that build up strongly in Spring and that are headed by queens that exhibit a good laying pattern.
Good laying pattern …
I chose a strong, healthy colony for queen rearing using the Ben Harden queenright system. Despite their vigour, this colony was also bad tempered and unpleasant to handle. With queens, nature is all-important, whereas nurture is only relevant in terms of feeding the developing larvae … using a bad tempered colony to raise cells does not influence the temper of the colony headed by the resulting queens (at least, this appears to be the case and I’ve not seen anything to suggest otherwise). I therefore sacrificed the queen and split the cell raising colony up to populate the nucs for queen mating.
Vince Cook and circle splits
Queen rearing simplified
A single brood box setup for queenright queen rearing will probably have at least 10 frames of brood at this stage of the season – most of these are in the bottom box, with a frame or two of (now likely sealed) brood adjacent to the cell bar frame in the upper box, flanked by the fat dummies. These brood frames, and the adhering young bees, can be divided approximately equally amongst a number of 5/6 frame nucs arranged in an inward facing circle around the original colony (which is disassembled and removed during the process). The returning or displaced foragers should then distribute themselves roughly equally amongst the nucs. This method was developed by Vince Cook, a New Zealand beekeeper, and is described briefly in his small book Queen rearing simplified.
This was something I’d not previously tried. I usually either make nucs up and move them to an another apiary to prevent the loss of returning foragers, or make up mini-nucs for queen mating by harvesting nurse bees. However, the unpleasant temperament of the cell raising colony meant that this was an ideal opportunity to sacrifice the queen and use the entire colony to populate nucs for mating the newly raised queens.
Circle splits in practice
In preparation for splitting the colony I’d moved the hive to the centre of a large hive stand (containing no other hives) with a reasonable amount of clear space around it. Division of the colony was then relatively straightforward:
On arrival at the apiary I very gently smoked the cell raiser, removed the cell bar frame containing the caged queen cells and placed it – together with a few hundred adhering bees – in a two frame nuc box for safe keeping.
I removed the upper brood box and placed it on an adjacent hive stand and then went quickly through the lower brood box, found the queen and put her in a cage in my pocket.
I stuck a spare hive tool into the ground directly underneath the entrance to the colony destined for division – by marking this spot I was then able to distribute half a dozen 5/6 frame poly nucs approximately evenly around a circle centred on the hive tool. Due to space restrictions in the apiary (the farmer ploughed all the field margins this year) the entrances to the nucs were all about 1.2 metres (i.e. about twice the length of a Langstroth poly nuc lid, which was my measuring device) from the ‘donor’ hive entrance. Furthermore, due to a lack of suitable hive stands the nucs were actually arranged two per side on a rough equilateral triangle. I doubt any of this really matters, but a perfect circle it was not 😉
Each nuc box already contained a frame of stores, a frame of foundation and a dummy board.
It was then a simple case of going through the brood boxes distributing sealed brood and associated bees approximately evenly around the circle of nucs. I didn’t shake any bees into the boxes. Some bees were milling around, but – perhaps because it was relatively late in the day and I used the minimum amount of smoke and was as gentle as practical – the majority stayed on the frames. With something like 11-13 frames of brood – some all sealed, some drone, some frames only recently laid up – this was not an exact science.
Having distributed the brood and frames from the donor colony I then retrieved the sealed queen cells and placed one in each of the nucs, pushed into the comb an inch or two from the top bar, using the ‘ears’ on the Nicot cup holder embedded in the comb and trapped in place with the adjacent frame.
Finally, I made up each nuc box with additional frames of foundation or drawn comb, pushed the frames gently together and replaced the crownboard and roof. Each was then firmly strapped onto the hive stand.
Just starting …
Cell bar frame …
A day or two after the virgin queen should have emerged (but well before any mating flights might occur i.e. 5-6 days after emergence) I checked the – approximate – circle of nucs to ensure they were reasonably well balanced in terms of strength. Using the gentlest waft of smoke I separated the frames and retrieved the – now vacated – queen cell. All the queens had emerged and should get mated over the next couple of weeks … during which time they will be left undisturbed.
All gone …
It was interesting to note that the nucs were all very well behaved when I checked them, despite originating from a colony that has been consistently unpleasant all season. This isn’t unusual – small colonies are almost always better behaved than full colonies and the presence of a queen, even a newly emerged virgin, often noticeably settles a colony down.
What’s next … ?
Queen rearing using a Cloake board, something I’ve not used before.