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.
The weather continues to be unseasonably cool, with this week being pretty typical of what we’ve recently been experiencing.
More of the same
Nevertheless, I’m assuming it will pick up when we get to June so have finally started queen rearing. In previous years I’ve had mated queens in the first week of May, so we’re nearly a month late. I set up a strong colony (with poor temper – these are destined for requeening as a priority) as a queenright cell raiser using the Ben Harden system, grafted on Saturday and checked them 24 hours later.
Mixed success …
Seven or eight of the 10 grafts appear to have taken, with a 3-4mm collar of fresh wax around the lip of the plastic cell cup. In the image above the two covered with bees and #4 and #6 have this collar. If you look inside the cell you can see a larva floating in a bed of Royal Jelly. In contrast, #3 and #5 have only a very short wax collar and the cells are empty – for whatever reason these larvae have been rejected. I’m a little concerned that #4 and #6 aren’t getting a lot of attention from bees … time will tell if these have worked.
These cells should be capped on Thursday. Until then, despite the remaining OSR in the surrounding fields, I’ll feed the colony with thin syrup. As I write this it’s raining again …
Usually by this time of the year I’ve got a reasonable idea of how the season will unroll. I’ll know how many colonies are looking strong coming out of the winter. I’ll be planning to boost the colonies (usually about now) that are closest to the oil seed rape with thin syrup and pollen to maximise the colony build up and honey yield. Finally, I’ll have an idea of how many colonies I’ll be selling off (usually as nucs) and so need to replace during the course of the coming season. The vagaries of the weather will slow things down or speed things up, but broadly things can be expected to proceed much as they’ve done over the last few years.
Go West North young man
Room for a couple more
But 2015 is going to be very different as I’m moving to Fife in Scotland. In addition to the usual house selling, house buying, new job, removals etc. I’ll be moving all of my beekeeping activities in about the middle of the season to a small village about 20 miles from St. Andrews. This has necessitated a major rethink of the beekeeping year, with the emphasis on having the majority of my colonies ready to move in late July.
I’m still at the planning stage but am currently intending to do some or all of the following:
accept that the year is likely to be a write-off as far as the main season honey crop is concerned … the last thing I want to do is to be moving colonies piled high with half filled supers.
review colony behaviour and performance early in the season – health, temper, strength etc. with the intention of only keeping the best. With no need to generate honey I should be able to concentrate on stock improvement.
start queen rearing from the best colonies as soon as possible, culling the really unsuitable queens, giving away those that are passable and splitting the colonies hard to make up nucs.
if bees are in short supply for queen rearing try and capture a few swarms in bait hives, replacing the swarmy (by definition) queens with home reared ones. Actually, I’ll be doing this anyway … there’s something wonderful about bees just arriving and setting up home in an empty box you’ve set out for them 🙂
aim to generate sufficient 5-8 frame nucs (the latter in butchered Paynes boxes), the rest in a motley collection of cedar, plywood and poly nuc boxes. I’m not really sure yet what ‘sufficient’ is …
get nucs well established by mid/late June so they can be checked over by the regional bee inspector before moving them to Scotland.
fill a Transit van with nucs and drive up the M6.
The intention is to move nucs in time for them to be well established, putting the very strong ones into full hives before the season ends, with the rest being overwintered for 2016.
How many is sufficient?
Overwintering Everynuc …
I usually have 8-12 production colonies, depending upon the time of the season, the amount of queen rearing I’ve done and the number of swarms that have generously been contributed by neighbouring beekeepers. However, I also need bees for my day job and need to significantly expand my work apiary. So ‘sufficient’ is probably somewhere between 12 and 24 nucs, the upper number possibly defined by the amount I can readily (and safely) accommodate in a van to move north.
I’ve transported nucs from Scottish islands to the Midlands before now, so the move back north shouldn’t be a problem. With a suitable travel screen (most of which I’ll have to build this spring), a van and a cool night it’s a straightforward procedure. It’s certainly a lot less backbreaking than moving full colonies, particularly when they’re piled high with supers. I wouldn’t make the journey in really hot weather or when there might be heavy traffic – although you can spray colonies with water through the travel screen, the high temperatures that occur due to lack of airflow need to be avoided to prevent over-stressing the bees.
It’s always a reassuring sight to manhandle the nucs into the new apiary in the early dawn of a summers day and seeing the first few bees exploring their new environment.
An alternative to all this would be to leave full colonies here until the end of the season, then return to collect them. By July the swarming season is pretty-much over so they are reasonably self-contained. With clipped queens and sufficient supers it should be possible to leave the bees to get on with things while I move, returning to collect them in early/mid September. However, the workload in doing this is considerable … 12+ full colonies, 36-48 (hopefully) full supers and a large number of robust hive stands. The prospect of securing a dozen or more colonies for transport together with supers containing perhaps hundreds of pounds of honey is a bit worrying. I realise this is second nature to many who practice migratory beekeeping, but they’re presumably set up with the necessary trailers, straps and experience … most of which I lack.
5 frame nuc colony …
There may yet be other options … whatever, it promises to be a very different beekeeping season.
2014 was a pretty good year for beekeeping. The winter was not overly long or cold and colonies came through it in good condition. Spring was cool and damp – although colony build up was about normal it was difficult to find good enough weather for inspections. Despite the weather the OSR yielded well. The summer flows were good, with excellent lime and blackberry which persisted for a long time (and necessitated frantic frame and super assembly in mid-summer). I took the honey harvest off in mid-August but – in retrospect – should have left it longer to get more from the himalayan balsam. The autumn ivy was excellent, with the bees working it here until at least mid-November. I’ve ended the season with more honey than I’ve had in the last 4 years, a dozen strong colonies and some overwintering nucs. As always, some things went well and some things went badly (or at least, less well) and I hope I’ve learnt from both.
Three day old grafts
Queen rearing was patchy to say the least. This was entirely my fault. Although I achieved consistently high ‘take’ rates for grafting my work commitments meant I lost a couple of batches of queens by not caging the cells early enough. With queen rearing, timing is critical. I used a mixture of Kieler mini-nucs and 3 frame nucs for queen mating, losing some of the former to wasps and – stupidly – getting a 50% return of mated queens from the latter because the plastic crownboard (pinned down along the central wooden divider) buckled or stretched from the heat of the colony allowing one of the virgin queens to slaughter the other. D’oh! Needless to say, this is being fixed for the 2015 season.
Morris board …
On a more positive note both preventing and capturing swarms went very well. The combination of clipped queens and prompt use of the Demaree method kept my production colonies under control and I’m only aware of losing one swarm from an over-stuffed 5 frame nuc early in the season. I increasingly favour the Demaree system (or versions of it, such as the use of a Morris board) for swarm control – it requires minimal additional equipment and keeps the colony together. My bait hives for capturing swarms worked well, particularly as I’ve learnt the best way to set them up is to use foundationless frames. The incoming swarm has somewhere to build immediately and they only need to be checked every few days. The combination of a nail gun (for frame assembly) and foundationless frames was a revelation – the former slashing frame building times and the latter providing the obvious benefit of reduced foundation costs, and a number of less obvious (but greater) benefits in terms of improved colony vigour.
The first inspections of the 2015 season are still several months away so there’s ample time yet for preparation. This includes painting several more poly nucs, frame building and wax filtering. I’ll make an annual batch of mead in the hope that – one year – it will be drinkable. Beekeeping is too dependent upon the vagaries in the weather to make definitive plans or resolutions. However, I do intend to experiment with upper entrances during Bailey comb changes and Demaree swarm control, to use more foundationless super frames and to overwinter more nucs for the 2016 season.
Finally, this website has been running for about a year. Looking at the visitor stats it’s clear that the most popular posts have been on honey warming cabinets and Paynes poly nuc boxes (though in fairness, these were also some of the earliest posts), with visitors from over 100 countries in total. I hope you found something useful here.
I believe that the importation of bees is detrimental to the quality of beekeeping in the UK. I think the beekeeping associations – national and local – should do more to discourage imports, that they should strongly encourage rearing local bees, and that they should have more emphasis on promoting the practical skills necessary for sustainable beekeeping in the UK.
This post was going to be called something like “Benefits of a ban” but I think the present title better reflects the problems in UK beekeeping and my views that readily available imported bees actually reduces the standard of beekeeping in the UK. The ban mentioned in the provisional title refers of course to a (potential at the time of writing) ban on the importation of bees and queens due to the recent discovery of Small Hive Beetle (SHB) in southern Italy.
Will there be a ban on imports and is this post relevant if there is no ban?
The European Union allows free trade between member states. However, it might be possible to impose a ban temporarily under Article 36 of the Lisbon Treaty which allows import restrictions for “the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants”. However, whether there is a ban imposed to prevent SHB entering the country or not, I believe that the importation of bees is detrimental to the standard of beekeeping in the UK.
This is a longer-than-usual article, so here’s a summary in four easy-to-digest points:
Thousands of queens and packages of bees are imported into the UK annually to meet the demands of; i) newly trained beekeepers, ii) beekeepers who lose stocks overwinter, or iii) beekeepers wanting to increase of improve their stocks.
Our temperate climate provides a five month window for queen rearing. This creates a supply and demand problem, with maximum demand at a time when supply is limited. Cheap imported bees and queens act as a disincentive to rebalance this supply and demand.
If imports were not available we would have to become better beekeepers, raising more nucs for overwintering, managing and meeting expectations for newly trained beekeepers, improving colony health and hence overwintering success and raising many more quality locally bred queens. Conversely, if the supply and quality of local bees and queens was better in the UK there would be fewer imports needed. We are in a Catch22 situation.
Sustainable UK beekeeping (i.e. beekeeping that is no longer reliant on imports) does not mean reductions in numbers of colonies or numbers of beekeepers. Instead it requires, and would result in, an improvement in practical beekeeping skills.
That’s it in a nutshell … however, if you want the unabridged version, read on.
Introduction and disclaimers
I would support a ban on the importation of bees and queens … not only from Italy, but from other countries as well. My primary reason in supporting such a ban is to restrict the chance that Small Hive Beetle (SHB) will arrive here. I fully appreciate that there are some commercial beekeeping operations that would likely be decimated by such a ban. In particular, it would destroy the business model of the commercial suppliers of early season queens and nucleus colonies (nucs). This is clearly undesirable on an individual basis and I regret the impact a ban would have on the livelihood of the individuals concerned. However, I consider this business model exploits underlying weaknesses in UK beekeeping and a ban would have long-term benefits in the creation of better beekeepers practising a more sustainable type of beekeeping in the UK.
My support for a ban is not to increase the number of queens I sell each season. My queen rearing is very much a hobby-sized activity, limited by my full-time employment, unpredictable deadlines and regular absences on the conference circuit. In many seasons – 2014 being a case in point – I barely generated enough queens for my own use. I would gain nothing from a ban on imports. In contrast, I think UK beekeepers and beekeeping have a lot to gain from becoming more self-sufficient.
UK imports of bees and queens
Annual imports …
Thousands of queens raised overseas are imported to the UK every year. In 2014 alone nearly 10,000 queens were imported from Slovenia, Greece, Italy, Denmark and Cyprus (only listing the countries from which >1000 queens were imported). In addition a further 580 nucs and 1402 ‘packages’ were imported. I’m assuming that the National Bee Unit (NBU) defines a package in the same way they do in the USA – a mesh-sided shipping box containing 1-2kg of bees and a caged queen. 2014 saw the greatest number of imports of the last 8 years and there has been a steady increase since 2007, with queen imports only numbering less than 5000 in 2011. Why is demand so high?
Beekeeping has seen a recent rise in popularity, with hundreds of new beekeepers being trained every year in associations across the country. Many courses recruit 30-50 trainees each winter. Not all these fledgling beekeepers will end up getting their own bees – some accompany partners, some discover they’re allergic to stings and some are horrified the first time they’re suited up and standing next to an open hive – however, many of them do. Inevitably this generates a large demand for nucs early in the season to satisfy the enthusiasm of these new trainees. I was no different … I completed a course between January and March and then waited impatiently for a nuc to be ready. I bought a 5 frame nuc headed by an imported queen from an association member and started my beekeeping in mid-May. Demand for imports is likely to be generated by new trainees, compounded by the recent increase in the popularity of beekeeping and the timing of ‘Begin Beekeeping’ courses.
Annual colony losses
Over the last 7 years overwintering colony losses in England have averaged about 20% with – unsurprisingly – the greatest losses during the hardest/longest winter (2012/13). Inevitably some beekeepers, particularly those who are inexperienced or who have only one hive, might lose all their colonies. The most significant cause of overwintering colony loss is high levels of the parasitic mite Varroa and the consequent high level of pathogenic viruses such as Deformed Wing Virus. Understandably, enthusiastic beekeepers want to replace their overwintering losses, again driving up demand for bees early in the season.
I think there are additional potential causes of demand, though these are perhaps spread throughout the season. These are beekeepers a) wanting to increase their stocks or b) improve their stocks by replacement of an existing queen with a particular strain chosen for perceived docility, honey yield or a number of other reasons. There may also be additional demand to replace failing queens – drone layers for example – often identified when the colony is first opened in spring. Enthusiastic newcomers to beekeeping (perhaps entering their second year) as well as beekeepers who have had bees for many years probably contribute to this demand for imported bees and queens to increase or improve stocks.
In addition to the demand from ‘amateur’ beekeepers there is additional demand from some bee farmers, by which I mean individuals who make some or all of their living from honey production and pollination services (rather than individuals who import bees for resale). For example, £200,000 was provided by the Scottish government to import package bees after the 2012/13 winter. I know some bee farmers are entirely self-sufficient, raising queens and nucs to make increase, to replace their own losses and to sell if there is excess. However, with the exception of the large number of packages imported to Scotland over the last two years I have no idea how many bee farmers are reliant on imports. Since hobby beekeepers far outnumber bee farmers I will restrict the majority of my comments to this sector – a group that presumably also includes all newcomers to beekeeping.
Where do bees come from? In the absence of imports the demand for new queens, nucs and colonies would have to be met by taking advantage of the natural ways that bees reproduce i.e. by splitting strong colonies that are at risk of swarming, by capturing swarms that escape and by forcing the bees to raise one or more new queens by making a colony queenless (or at least think it’s queenless). Since splitting colonies reduces the foraging workforce it may impact on the amount of honey generated; in a normal season a beekeeper generally must choose between making new bees or making honey from any one colony.
Queen cells …
The rate limiting step in making new bees is the provision of newly mated queens. This generally requires warm, settled weather and fertile drones. In this area (the Midlands) we sometimes have suitable weather in April, but rarely have mature drones until May. In contrast, it’s not unusual to have both drones and good weather in September. Therefore home-grown bees – whether mated queens, nucs (and possibly swarms) – should be readily available in the five months May to September. Inevitably these dates cannot be precise – it’s good to let a newly mated queen demonstrate a good laying pattern which takes 7-14 days after she first gets going. Over the last five years the earliest and latest dates I’ve had queens mated on was about the 22nd of April and September respectively.
Mid- to late May or early June is probably 4-6 weeks too late for the peak demand for new queens and nucs. It’s during this critical early season period that overwintering losses and failed queens are detected, it’s the time when keen new beginners want their first bees and when the more experienced want to increase their colony numbers to exploit on the summer flows. The supply of locally-raised bees is currently unlikely to meet this early season demand due to weather restrictions on queen mating.
How can we better match supply and demand?
Or, more importantly, how do we match supply and demand without resorting to imported bees and queens every year? This is unlikely to be solved overnight, but there are several very obvious solutions that would help both meet the demand and improve local beekeeping.
Matching supply and demand requires a combination of increasing supplyandreducing demand at critical points in the season.Effectively this should result in supply and demand balancing out over the course of the season. I suspect that the overall demand for new bees and queens could be relatively easily met from locally, or at least UK-raised, bees and queens. However, our temperate climate limits supply at the time of current highest demand. This needs to be addressed to achieve sustainability in UK beekeeping. Dealing with the four types of demand identified above in turn, here are some potential solutions:
Bees for beginners. One obvious solution would be for associations to only train as many beekeepers as they can realistically provide overwintered nucs for the following spring. This would have a number of immediate benefits. It would generate revenue for the association members who provided the nucs. The revenue might also be shared with the association who trained the new beekeeper – they after all ‘created’ the buyer – potentially offsetting the financial losses of a reduction in the total numbers taking the training course. Furthermore, as established members recognise the annual demand from new trainees and invest in the equipment and skills needed to provide the nucs, increased numbers of beginners could again be accommodated on winter training courses. Since the nuc would be provided from locally-raised bees, they should be from a trusted and disease-free source, suited to local conditions and they could be inspected before purchase. If the nuc was overwintered the queen would presumably be well-established and her quality would be obvious. If the nuc was generated early in the same season the beginner would have to wait a little longer, but could be mentored during this period, even working alongside the experienced beekeeper to generate the nuc and monitor its development. Mentoring of beginners and their nucs (and in due course colonies) should then be extended throughout the first season to include the important preparation for overwintering, which takes us to the second cause of high early season demand for new queens and nucs.
Bees to replace overwintering losses. Some losses are perhaps inevitable. However, they can certainly be minimised by good preparation for the winter. This starts as early as midsummer by careful attention to the following points; queen vigour, colony health, stores and the hive. Taking these in the reverse order, it goes without saying that the hive should be watertight, secure and protected against damage (for example, from grazing stock or woodpeckers). There should be sufficient stores present in the hive, either from syrup or fondant fed early enough and generously enough for the brood box to be stuffed at the beginning of winter. Knowing when to start feeding requires experience – too soon and you’re needlessly increasing your expenditure (the bees will still be foraging), too late and the colony may not lay down enough stores and so starve overwinter. During the winter it is also essential to ensure that the stores are not exhausted, by regularly ‘hefting’ the hive and providing fondant as required. It’s critical that the health of the colony is good going into the winter. This primarily means monitoring the Varroa mite numbers regularly during the season, minimising the mite load in August/September – to help raise a generation of bees for overwintering with low viral loads – and treating again in mid-winter during the broodless period to further reduce mite numbers. Weak colonies in mid/late summer are unlikely to overwinter well – there’s little point in mollycoddling them and (assuming they are healthy) it is almost always better to cull the queen and unite them with a stronger colony instead. The stronger colony will benefit and the weak colony, even if it did survive, would have been slow to develop in the spring. Finally, young vigorous queens generally lay later into the autumn, overwinter better and lay earlier and more strongly the following spring. Therefore it makes sense to replace ageing queens in the summer, rather than risk losing the colony due to her failing in the winter. This doesn’t necessarily mean culling her … she could be moved to head a nuc for overwintering for example, keeping a desirable line going for queen rearing the following season. Ted Hooper (in Guide to Bees and Honey) was a strong advocate of the benefits of young queens for overwintering success, recommending requeening in early September.
Making increase. With a little planning and preparation it is possible to exploit the natural tendency of strong colonies to swarm in April-June to make increase. Although this might reduce honey yield it works with the bees to increase colony numbers. With experience, it’s usually possible to split a well-timed nuc from a strong colony without significantly impacting nectar gathering, with the nuc likely to build up to a full colony for overwintering. In addition, any area with reasonable numbers of beekeepers (and just look on BeeBase to see how saturated your local area is … there are 207 apiaries within 10km of my main out apiary) is likely to yield a number of swarms that will need collecting or can be caught in bait hives. If you divide colonies about to swarm or collect/attract swarms you might end up with swarmy bees, and you have no control of the quality of bees you acquire. However, queen rearing is not difficult and it is easy to requeen swarmy colonies or swarms of dubious quality … which takes us neatly on to improvement of stock.
Stock improvement. Why is an open-mated queen purchased in early May for £40 and flown 1600 miles from Southern Italy likely to be better quality than a locally-bred queen from an association member or group who have been rearing queens in the area for several years, culling their poorest stocks and breeding from their best? Which queen is more likely to raise brood that suits the local environment? Which queen is likely to head a colony with the correct balance of stores and bees to overwinter best? Which queen is more likely, in due course, to yield daughter queens that better suit your local environment, that are placid and exhibit other desirable traits? I have no doubt that a locally raised quality queen would usually be better than an imported queen. However, not all locally raised queens are of good enough quality. This takes us onto the benefits to UK beekeepers of practising sustainable beekeeping.
Capped queen cells
Benefits of sustainable (i.e. no imported bees) beekeeping
If an imported queen cost £500 and package was double that there would be a healthy market for local bees and queens. It would be too expensive to rely on imports to make up for overwintering losses. Beginners would happily wait a week or two or three extra for a locally-raised nuc. What if they were even more expensive than that? What if they were priced beyond the reach of any beekeepers? Or what if imports of any bees were banned entirely? If this were the case there would be real pressure for UK beekeepers to generate sufficient numbers of good quality nucs and queens to meet demands throughout the season. This would involve more beekeepers overwintering nucs to make up losses, to make increase or to sell on in the spring. It would result in more beekeepers learning some of the easy methods of queen rearing (not those involving grafting, mini-nucs or instrumental insemination), so they could become self-sufficient, and would encourage individuals or groups to undertake active stock improvement to raise much better quality queens.
Nucs are more difficult to overwinter than full colonies. But not much more difficult. They have limited space for stores and the winter cluster is smaller. However, high quality poly nucs are now available from a number of suppliers and provide much better insulation to the colony, reducing the rate at which stores are consumed and increasing overwintering success rates. With UK-raised overwintered nucs costing up to £195 in recent years from reputable commercial suppliers the cost of the actual nuc would very soon be recouped even if sold on within the association at a more reasonable cost. If more beekeepers learned how relatively easy it was to prepare and successfully overwinter a couple of nucs it would go some way to meeting the early season demand for bees.
Record keeping …
Most swarm control methods can be readily modified to split a colony, with the queenless ‘half’ raising a new queen in due course. All it requires is a minimum of additional equipment, an appreciation of the timing of the egg-larvae-pupae cycle and the necessary weather and drones for successful queen mating. It also requires reasonable quality bees to avoid propagating unpleasant stock. There’s no point in generating bees that run frantically over the frames, that have a lousy brood pattern, that are aggressive or – my least favourite trait – that follow for hundreds of yards. Any of these take the pleasure out of beekeeping, if combined they are a nightmare (but certainly not unknown). This requires that individuals improve their record keeping, they should improve how they judge their colonies and should then select from their best stock to raise new queens. This doesn’t mean they necessarily have to split (and so weaken) their best colonies … it simply means taking a frame of eggs from their best colony and placing it into a well-populated nuc, then ensuring that queen cells are only raised from the introduced frame of eggs. These small changes in beekeeping practice will enable individual beekeepers to make increase without resorting to imported bees and will – over time – improve both their stocks and their beekeeping.
Tom’s Tables …
Finally, relatively few individual beekeepers keep sufficient numbers of colonies to undertake rational or large scale queen rearing and strain improvement. I certainly don’t. I don’t know how many colonies would be required to start this process off but would suspect it would be at least 50 or perhaps double that number. However, beekeepers with even a handful of colonies can improve their stocks year by year. By routinely selecting from bees with desirable traits for queen rearing and rigorously culling queens with undesirable characteristics – I’ve heard it suggested that the worst 25-30% of stocks should always be requeened – the overall quality of the bees will improve. However, a small group of like-minded beekeepers would easily be managing the 50-100 colonies between them necessary to start more ambitious stock selection. The resources for actually raising queens are relatively limited and could be undertaken in several different apiaries if needed. They would need to agree the quality criteria to judge their colonies against and would need to undertake some joint inspections to decide the desirable lines to keep and the undesirable lines to cull. Groups working together like this already exist, for example several groups work like this in the Native Irish Honey Bee Society.
One of the end products
Beekeeping is not difficult. It’s a hugely engrossing pastime in which the best results are achieved by working with the bees, not against them or by forcing them. Quick fixes, such as importing queens early in the season, reduces the requirement for good bee husbandry and the need to be observant and gradually improve your stock. Although I think that imports should be banned to limit the chances of small hive beetle reaching the UK, I think a far greater benefit of such a ban would be the resulting improvements in the quality of UK beekeeping. These improvements are not achieved by taking more exams or qualifications. They are almost all practical skills, readily acquired by observation, good record keeping, talking with your friends and learning from more experienced beekeepers already practising sustainable beekeeping.
I would like to see national and local associations more actively promoting the benefits of locally-raised bees. These are the organisations that should be coordinating efforts to become less reliant on imported bees, that should be teaching the practical skills necessary for sustainable beekeeping and that will eventually also benefit from improvements in beekeeping in this country.
Readers interested in some of the ideas above should consider attending one of the BIBBA-organized Bee Improvement for All Days this winter. The goal of these workshops is to encourage “beekeepers of all abilities to improve their bees, using simple techniques without the need for specialist equipment“.
I have previously described an easy-to-build honey warming cabinet. Having reviewed the links that bring visitors to these pages it’s clear that many are Google searches for honey warming cabinet plans. Despite the original pages having a reasonable straightforward description I’ve put together a set of plans and basic building instructions. If you intend to use the cabinet to pre-warm supers prior to extraction then the box needs to be a suitable size to stack two supers side-by-side. I use National hives and the plans describe a cabinet that is of a suitable size for these.
The plans and the illustrations on the original pages describing the honey warming cabinet are pretty-much self-explanatory. If you get a local wood merchant to cut the ply to the correct sizes the only tools needed are a screwdriver and a drill. All joints should be glued and screwed. Once constructed the cabinet is very strong. I’ve stacked 18 full supers on mine and regularly stand on the top when stacking things on the shelves behind it. Most of the 5cm thick insulation (Jablight, Kingspan etc.) can be cut easily with a sharp long-bladed knife. However, most of these types of insulation are easily damaged so cover all the exposed edges with strong self-adhesive duck tape (or similar). If you intend to add a small mains powered fan to improve heat circulation you will need to add another hole for the wiring. With the fan installed and a thermostatically controlled Ecostat heater element temperature control is extremely good.
The West Sussex Beekeepers Association have proposed the following motion to the BBKA Annual Delegates Meeting (ADM) in January “Following the discovery of Small Hive Beetle, Aethina tumida, (SHB) in Italy in September 2014 this ADM instructs BBKA to urgently seek a ban on the importation of bees and unprocessed bee products into the U.K”. Further details can be found in their newsletter (under the heading Jim’s Jottings, from the illogically named Jim Norfolk, Chairman of the West Sussex BKA). The full proposition from West Sussex BKA, the supporting notes and the response from the BBKA Executive Committee can be found here on the Beekeeping Forum. The Executive Committee of the BBKA does not support the proposition – as summarised in the sentence “At this point in time the Executive does not consider it appropriate to seek or it be possible to achieve a ban on the importation of honey bees and unprocessed honey bee products and does not support the proposition“.
There is little justification explaining why the BBKA Executive Committee do not consider it appropriate to seek a ban on imports. As explained in a recent post, the National Bee Unit have conducted a risk assessment (in 2009) which concluded that “The pathway likely to present the greatest risk of introduction [of SHB] was the movement and importation of honey bees”.
Time is short … discuss this with your association
Please discuss the potential introduction of SHB and how it might be prevented with your own local association. If you feel strongly about it persuade your delegate at the January BBKA ADM to support the motion proposed by the West Sussex BKA. Remember that the UK imports thousands of queens and bees from Europe every year, many are from Italy, but others are from countries like France that also import thousands of queens and bees from Italy. Do you know where the nuc you or enthusiastic beginners purchased in April/May originated from?
The precautionary principle
The precautionary principle is that there “is a social responsibility to protect the [public or environment] from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result“. There is a plausible risk of SHB entering the UK during the importation of bees. Until evidence is provided to the contrary – presumably by the BBKA and others who do not support a ban on bee imports – the precautionary principle should be applied.
The Native Irish Honey Bee Society has “calling for an immediate ban on imports of honey bees on animal health protection grounds“. Malta has already banned imports from Southern Italy. The Local Association Secretaries of the SBA have discussed the threat of SHB where there was considerable support for the following proposition “The SBA urges that all possible measures are taken to prevent the introduction of small hive beetle into the UK. These should include a cessation of trade in live bees from the rest of Europe for 2015 until the true spread of the pest is better known“. The Welsh BKA are discussing the issue shortly.
Eradication after arrival …
With the exception of the introduction of SHB to Portugal in 2004, no country has managed to eradicate the beetle after it has been introduced. In Portugal the beetle was introduced as larvae with a single shipment of queens (illegally) imported from Texas to a single apiary. All colonies in the apiary were destroyed and the ground was ploughed up and soaked in insecticide. Rather than rely on the contingency plans and sentinel apiaries in the UK to detect the beetle after arrival we should use the age-old doctrine of prevention being better than cure … we should do our best to stop the beetle getting here in the first place.
Other benefits of a ban on imports
Decreased reliance on imported bees and queens is likely to significantly benefit UK beekeeping in the long run. We may have to alter the way we train beginners, we might have to do a lot more autumn requeening, we might have to improve our integrated pest management, we will have to increase local queen rearing activities … however, none of these are insurmountable problems and all are likely to improve the quality of UK beekeeping. Bees and queens might become more expensive, but only until local association queen and nuc rearing activities have geared up to cope with the additional demand. I would think that any increase would be insignificant if compared to the cost of lost colonies should SHB arrive and become established in the UK. I accept that there might be issues for commercial beekeepers, but am unconvinced that a business model that relies upon cheap imports is sustainable in the long-term.
Further details on the biology of Small Hive Beetle can be found in this recent Current Zoology paper (PDF download) written by NBU scientists.
Small hive beetle (SHB; Aethina tumida) is a small, invasive beetle originally from Africa that infests colonies, eating brood, pollen and honey, destroying comb and causing honey to ferment. Without control, infestation leads to destruction of the colony. SHB is now present globally and, since the 1990’s, has been distributed with bees and bee products (e.g. beeswax) resulting in infestations in the USA and Hawaii, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Jamaica and Cuba. SHB was introduced to Portugal in 2004 (in a consignment of queens from Texas) but very rapidly detected and eradicated. This was the first time SHB was present on mainland Europe … it’s now back.
SHB has been detected in Southern Italy and appears to be well established. The UK imports large numbers of bee packages and queens from Italy. There is a very real threat to UK beekeeping … the summary of an article by the National Bee Unit concluded that “Its arrival in the United Kingdom would pose a significant threat to the long-term sustainability and economic prosperity of beekeeping and, as a consequence, to agriculture and the environment through disruption to pollination services”. My opinion is that the export of bees and queens from Italy should be banned until the extent of infestation is known. In addition, the import of bees and queens to the UK (from all countries, not just Italy) should be banned to reduce the chance of inadvertently acquiring the beetle from a third country.
The impact of SHB and its presence in Italy
In the USA, SHB was first detected in Florida in 1998. Within two years it had resulted in the destruction of 20,000 colonies in the USA. Like Varroa, once established, SHB will probably be impossible to eradicate. The National Bee Unit has produced an excellent (and recently updated) guide to SHB (PDF download) which should be compulsory reading for all beekeepers. It describes the identification of the beetle, the consequences of infestation, the likely impact on UK beekeepers and beekeeping, methods of detection (to be covered in another post) and control.
It appears as though the early infestation in the Calabria region of Southern Italy was overlooked, resulting in the beetle becoming quite widely distributed. The beetle was first detected on the 11th of September 2014, a protection zone (20km) and eradication zone (100km) were established with compulsory colony destruction of infested colonies in the former. Over 1500 colonies have been destroyed, but the protection zone has recently been extended to include much of eastern Sicily. SHB is clearly widespread in Southern Italy and COLOSS – the honeybee research organisation – have recently announced that SHB is in Europe to stay.
Southern Italy has a lot of migratory beekeeping meaning that the beetle is quite possibly even more widespread. Particularly worrying for UK beekeepers is that many bees and queens are imported from Italy, either directly or via a third country. In 2014 over 1200 packages of bees and 1750 batches of queens were imported from Italy, in 27 separate consignments. Only 8 of these consignments were inspected. The total imports from EU countries to the UK in 2014 was much larger, with 1400 packages of bees, 580 nucs and nearly 10,000 queens. Many thousands of queens are exported from Italy to France each year, with some perhaps being used to head the increasing number of French-sourced nucs being imported to the UK each year.
I do not think that UK beekeepers need to import bees or queens from abroad. I suspect that many of the imported queens are used to head early-season nucs being sold to enthusiastic new beekeepers at the beginning of the season, or to beekeepers making up for winter losses. I think the currently popularity of beekeeping, the “pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap” nature of some training courses and, possibly, poor standards of colony preparation for winter and patchy integrated pest management procedures, are the underlying causes for the high demand for early season nucs and queens. I will write separately about this during the winter.
The BBKA have released a statement to the effect that beekeepers should be vigilant, but that the most likely route by which the beetle will be imported is with fruit, vegetables and plant material from the affected area (25th September statement; PDF). There was no suggestion that import of bees from Italy to the UK should be banned. There may be several reasons for this, not least that current EU legislation may not allow such a ban to be imposed. I’m disappointed by failure of the BBKA to take a more aggressive stance to protect UK beekeepers and beekeeping. Although SHB can be transmitted by at least 8 different routes (including flying up to 10km) a published analysis by DEFRA (“Development of an evidence based risk assessment for small hive beetle“) on the threat from SHB to the UK includes the quote “The pathway likely to present the greatest risk of introduction was the movement and importation of honey bees”. This report was published in 2009.
This situation is developing, but there are only a few months until the new season starts. There are active threads discussing it on the Beekeeping Forum and the – often better informed – SBAi forum. The SBAi forum contains links to a number of maps showing distribution of the beetle in Italy and translations of the pages from reports on Italian beekeeping websites.
What can UK beekeepers and associations do?
Beekeeping associations should discuss their assessment of the risk of SHB to UK beekeeping (as should individuals). Don’t leave this until next season … it may be too late by then. If SHB was to be introduced to the UK I would expect colony destruction to be used as a means of controlling spread, at least initially. Does your association want to risk this? Bee Diseases Insurance (BDI) will cover colony destruction necessitated by the presence of SHB, but the cover is limited to only £50,000 (this is nationally, not per beekeeper). What else could an association do to help prevent SHB changing UK beekeeping?
Encourage association member not to import bees or queens. Ideally, don’t import bees or queens at all (do you know where your French-sourced nuc actually originated?) but at the very least don’t import from Italy.
Do not allow imported bees to be housed on association apiaries. These often have higher hive densities and so provide ample opportunity for spread. This may also encourage beekeepers to source local bees, rather than having to move from a shared association apiary.
Encourage active queen rearers in the association to make queens available to association members who would otherwise purchase imported queens. Allow free adverts in your newsletter? Provide lists of queen and nuc suppliers.
Start a queen rearing group so association members become more self-sufficient. Locally bred queens are likely to be better suited to the local conditions, so this makes sense anyway.
Encourage beginners on winter beekeeping courses to source local bees from association members rather than purchasing them from an unknown source at the earliest opportunity. They might have to wait a few extra weeks (and I appreciate the urge to get started as soon as possible) but they can get some experience with their mentor during this time and will be much better prepared when the nuc is ready.
Overwinter 5 frame nucs for use or sale in the spring. This is too late for this year but requires only a little preparation during the mid/late summer season. This could be done both at the individual and association level … “guaranteeing” local bees for attendees on winter beginners courses.
Watch the excellent talk that Michael Palmer gave at the National Honey Show in 2013 on The Sustainable Apiary.
Encourage your national beekeeping association (BBKA, SBA, WBKA) to take a pro-active stance to limit the chances of the beetle being imported.
Monitor colonies using Correx SHB traps on a regular basis – more on this in a later post.
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.
And suddenly the season is almost over. The lime and bramble are finished, the rosebay willowherb (fireweed for those from the USA) is nearly over, honey has been harvested (but in my case not yet extracted) and queens are starting to slow down their laying rate. There’s almost nothing to do in the apiary. Colonies are unlikely to swarm this late and so inspections can be reduced in frequency. Drones are getting chucked out of the hives and queen rearing becomes a bit hit and miss, with poorer weather, cooler temperatures and the real probability that they won’t get mated properly.
This is when I prepare nucs for overwintering and rationalise my colonies to keep the stocks I want to feed up for winter. I split up my weaker colonies, using the brood and bees to populate 5 frame poly nucs to which I introduce a recently mated queen. Although established queens heading big colonies may well be slowing down, queens mated in the last few weeks will probably be laying really well. It’s therefore possible to start the nuc with just a frame of sealed brood, a frame of stores, a frame of drawn comb together with another frame of bees shaken on top. I use a dummy board to restrict the space the bees have to the three frames and introduce a mated queen in a sealed JzBz introduction cage, hanging from the top bars on a cocktail stick carefully (to avoid impaling the queen!) pushed through the JzBz cage.
I either move the nuc to another apiary (>3 miles away) or stuff the entrance with grass to stop too many of the flying bees from returning to the colony they were harvested from … the reality being that the colony has almost certainly been split up completely and no longer exists. If you put the nuc boxes back on the original stand one usually ends up being much stronger as the flying bees preferentially return to it. A day or two later I return and remove the cap from the JzBz cage, allowing the workers to release the queen by chewing through the queen candy the cage neck is packed with. By this time the bees will probably have found a way out and will be busy foraging … if they have to struggle through the grass for too long they lose lots of pollen at the colony entrance.
Loads of pollen
A week or so later I check the queen is out and laying well, adding two further frames – usually one of stores and one of drawn comb, depending on the weather. This is the five frame colony that will be overwintered.
5 frame colony in an Everynuc …
Through late August and early September these nucs need to be monitored reasonably carefully. If there’s no forage they will almost certainly need feeding. They will also need protection from wasps. Finally, once the colony is strong with good numbers of bees for overwintering they need to be fed with syrup. This year I’m using the recently introduced Thorne’s Everynuc with an integral feeder (see the picture above). I’ll use this to feed Ambrosia and work out a way to provide additional fondant in mid-winter if needed.