I’m very pleased to be speaking on the 24th of November (this Thursday) to members of the Helensburgh and District BKA. The talk will be at the rather splendid looking Rhu Parish Church at 7.15pm. The title of the talk is “Bees, viruses and Varroa: the biology and control of deformed wing virus (DWV)”. I’ll discuss aspects of the biology of DWV, particularly relating to its transmission by Varroa, and will then explore potential ways in which bees could be ‘protected’ using either high-tech or low-tech approaches. If you’re attending please introduce yourself when we’re all having a cuppa at the end of the evening … don’t leave it too late though, I’ve got a 2 hour drive home afterwards.
The drive from the east coast to Helensburgh was stunning, with a fantastic pink-tinged sunset lighting up the snow-covered hills around Crainlarich (Stuc a’ Chroin, Ben Vorlich and Ben Ledi). It was bitterly cold and clear.
Stuc a’ Chroin and Ben Vorlich …
There was a slight delay due to an absentee projector. During this we discussed oxalic acid-containing treatments for Varroa control and the problems caused by the lack of a ready-mixed preparation of Api-Bioxal. Once the projector arrived we were up and running and I covered viruses and Varroa, why we treat when we treat (or perhaps more correctly ‘when should we treat for maximum effect?’) and the influence of drifting and robbing on parasite and pathogen transmission between colonies. That’s quite a lot to get through in an hour … and I didn’t. The audience were rewarded for their patience with a well-earned cup of tea and a question and answer session.
The return trip was less visually pleasing other than a great view of a barn owl ghosting along the verges of the A977 near Rumbling Bridge. With thanks to Cameron Macallum and colleagues for their hospitality and a very enjoyable evening.
Dr. Bodgit is the name my wife gives my alter ego … the bloke who spends the first few days each week nursing the cuts and gouges in his hands from a weekend spent butchering pieces of wood for beekeeping purposes. In a past life I was asked to talk about ‘DIY for beekeepers’ for the Warwick and Leamington BKA … something relatively lightweight to follow their AGM. As any BKA member knows, these are usually very tense events, with huge competition to get onto the executive committee … or not. That talk lead to an irregular Dr. Bodgit column in the otherwise excellent WLBK Bee Talk newsletter which in turn prompted me to start this website … if you go back to some of the early posts they were often about DIY for beekeepers. Now, a few years later, I’m dusting off the same talk for the Fife BKA at their 2016 AGM (10/3/16), updated to include a further 5 years of tips and tricks and a large amount of additional scar tissue.
Paynes poly nuc …
In the spectrum of beekeeping DIY – ranging from badly carving up a block of polystyrene for hive insulation to crafting beautiful cedar broods and supers from wood I’ve felled, matured, dried, cut and planed – I’m firmly positioned at the (rank) amateur end. Nevertheless I reckon there are a large number of items that can be easily, relatively inexpensively and usefully built – these both potentially improve your beekeeping (enjoyment at least) and give you something to do in the long, cold, dark winters.
Tools of the trade
Clearer boards …
Over the years I’ve developed some fairly basic boundaries to the types of DIY I attempt. I’m restricted on time, space and very restricted on ability. Furthermore, since I don’t really trust myself with power tools I don’t own too many (though see below). Therefore the vast majority of the things I attempt can be constructed – a rather grand word meaning ‘bodged together’, hence Dr. Bodgit – using the sorts of tools most people already have available:
cutting tools – a good tenon saw, a Stanley knife and a breadknife
measuring tools – tape measure and set square
joining tools – hand drill, screwdriver and small hammer
The breadknife is really for working with polystyrene – either carving insulation or butchering Paynes poly nucs to improve them. To these tools I’d add a list of ‘consumables’ that will need regular replacement:
pencil for marking stuff – you will inevitably lose it … it’s behind you ear 😉
screws – buy them in bulk from Screwfix in a couple of convenient sizes
nails – almost exclusively the gimp pins for frame construction
sticky stuff – Evostick wood glue, Gorilla glue and Unibond Power tape (for Correx)
Elastoplast (though Unibond Power tape and tissues work well) and antiseptic cream
tea – critical to keep hydrated properly … you might also need fruit cake
Tacwise nail gun …
The ‘joining tools’ is where I have gradually made concessions on power tools. A reasonable quality rechargeable electric drill/screwdriver is a huge timesaver and a nail/staple gun makes assembling everything from brood boxes to frames extremely easy (you’ll need to add nails/staples to the consumables list above). However, these power tools are a luxury and not a necessity. I’m also having to consider a table saw as I now no longer have an excellent local timber merchant (or anything but the big chain, big price, rubbish) who stocks a wide variety of ‘bee space friendly’ planed softwood. It’s only the affection I have for my fingers that’s stopping me …
Don’t do this at home
Don’t do this at home …
There are a number of things I think that are simply not worth attempting … these are items that are either already inexpensive, that are difficult to make without a lot of investment in tools or where it is difficult to make them at a quality good enough to justify the effort. In my view brood boxes and supers tick all three of these ‘exclusion’ rules … the cedar seconds are pretty inexpensive and readily available, they’re well made and go together easily and they should last pretty-much forever. I’ve made plywood boxes previously and wouldn’t do it again … too heavy and nothing like as long-lasting.
I think the best things to build are those that meet one or more of the following criteria:
items that cannot be purchased at all (there are lots of these)
items that can be purchased but that are poorly designed and/or built (few of these)
items that can be purchased but only for silly money (lots of these)
For me, considering hive components, it turns out that it’s the parts that are essentially horizontal in the hive that seem to most often meet these criteria. These include:
Kewl floors – these are floors with a so-called ‘Dartington-type’ underfloor entrance. I think they offer advantages for the bees in terms of reduced robbing and wasp problems, and for the beekeeper by obviating the need for mouseguards and making transporting hives and vaporising oxalic acid easier. You can buy these from one supplier but the price is ridiculous and the design is sub-optimal in my opinion (so I’m not including a link).
a variety of split or division boards – these include conventional single entrance split boards, multi-entrance Snelgrove boards, slightly more complicated Horsley boards and clearer boards. I’d also include Cloake boards for queen rearing in this category. In all cases, these meet one or more of the qualifying criteria – some cannot be bought, those that can are not ideal and the prices are always simply daft. Thorne’s Snelgrove boards are about £35 each and can probably be made (better) for about a fiver … that’s one of my jobs for this winter. Their Cloake board is the same price. It does come with a queen excluder (but you’ve got lots of those already) but the shallow eke and Correx removable slide can be built from scavenged materials for almost nothing. There’s a very recent thread on the SBAi about building so-called ‘flight boards‘ from thick Correx for ~£2.70 each – these are dual entrance, dual-use, split boards which can be used as crownboards or used to divide strong colonies for swarm control or making increase.
perspex, insulated crownboards – unavailable to my knowledge (all of those for sale are uninsulated), very useful and relatively easy and inexpensive to build.
inexpensive, totally weatherproof, lightweight roofs – these can be built from Correx for well under £2, less than 25% of the price of the metalwork alone from Beehive bits or about 10% of the price of the – disappointingly poor quality – Thorne’s sale quality cedar roofs.
Split board …
Perspex crownboard …
Cloake board …
I only list Thorne’s above for convenience – their offerings are usually no worse or better (or differently priced) than any of the major beekeeping equipment suppliers. The second quality cedar broods and supers they sell at BeeTradex and the big annual shows are – with a little picking and choosing to avoid the terminally-warped (note that you’re well-advised to take care avoiding the terminally-warped at any of the annual beekeeping jamborees) – perfectly usable. Their first quality cedar broods, of which I have a few, are lovely (and so they should be at £42).
If you move away from hive components there are lots of additional opportunities for exploiting a little DIY skill and/or experiencing a little blood loss:
my honey warming cabinet was first described on this site over two years ago and is consistently the most searched-for (and possibly even read) page. With a little careful planning you can build one that’s far better insulated than commercially available, with better thermostatic control and heat circulation, that will also treble up (is there such a term?) as a super-heater to aid extraction and as a queen cell incubator. If you source the individual components carefully you can build one for 25-33% of the prices listed by big T or Maisemore’s.
honey bucket tippers are now available commercially – they can look beautiful but are eyewateringly expensive – but are a doddle to build for the price of a few scrap pieces of wood and two hinges.
my hivebarrow has more than paid for itself in saving hours of backbreaking work … one of the most useful things I’ve built and, as I get more decrepit, getting more useful by the year.
Returning wet supers …
Honey warming cabinet …
Honey bucket tipper …
So, there you have it, you’ve now no need to attend the Fife Beekeepers AGM in early March … I’ll attribute the tiny audience for my talk to the fact you’ve all read about it in advance, rather than it being of no interest to anyone.
Of course, the three or four who do turn up are going to have trouble avoiding being voted onto the committee 😉
Finally, if you need any more convincing that beekeeping DIY makes sound financial sense, I present my final exhibit …
Dummy boards …
… these cost £6-7 from the beekeeping suppliers. No wonder they’re called dummy boards 😉
I spent last Friday and Saturday attending the Midland and South West Counties Convention at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester. It was a good venue for a meeting, complemented by an interesting and entertaining programme of talks. I presented our research on the influence of Varroa on the transmission of pathogenic strains of deformed wing virus, together with brief coverage of both high and low-tech solutions that might be useful in mitigating the detrimental impact of the mite on the virus population (and hence, the colony).
Queen rearing course
On the Saturday I donned my beekeepers hat (veil?) and discussed queenright queen rearing methods – a talk really aimed at encouraging beginners to ‘have a go’. I’m was aware there were people in the audience who earn their living from bees whereas I largely dabble at the weekends, and that they’ve probably forgotten more about queen rearing than I’m ever likely to learn. I’m always (silently) grateful they don’t ask tricky questions or interrupt with a “You don’t want to be doing that …” comment. I think only about 10% of beekeepers actively raise queens – by which I mean select suitable larvae and generate ‘spares’ for increase, sale or giving away. Without more learning how relatively easy it is to raise queen we cannot hope to be self-sufficient and will remain reliant on imported stocks, of largely unknown provenance (and with an unknown pathogen payload), particularly at the beginning and end of the season. There were excellent presentations on the analysis of pollen in forensic studies (Michael Keith-Lucas) and the use of the shook swarm (Bob Smith), together with a very interesting mead tasting event. I unfortunately missed the workshops and the Saturday afternoon presentations as I had to waste hours hanging around for three delayed trains to eventually get to Heathrow a few minutes after my flight back to Scotland departed 🙁
The MSWCC 2016 event will be running again next year (on the Gower) in mid-October hosted by Swansea and District BKA. The theme is “Meet the Natives” and – if this year is anything to go by – it promises to be a very worthwhile event.
I’m delighted to be sharing the programme with Michael Palmer and Celia Davies at the Somerset BKA lecture day in Cheddar this Saturday (21st February ’15). I’ll be adding a small bit of science to the day and no doubt benefiting significantly from their wealth of beekeeping expertise. It should be a very enjoyable event.
Update – it was a very enjoyable event. Aside from a few audio problems with a misbehaving microphone a packed hall enjoyed two talks by Celia Davies on Summer and Winter Bees and A World of Scents and a further two from Michael Palmer on the Sustainable Apiary and Queen rearing.
If you’ve not heard Michael talk about the importance of overwintering nucs for sustainable beekeeping then you should either try and catch him on his current UK tour or watch him deliver the talk at the 2013 National Honey Show on YouTube. I think I’ve heard this talk three times and have learnt something new every time. The methods Michael uses directly address the problems (lack of early-season queens, overwintering losses etc.) I’ve previously outlined in a post on the impact of imported bees and queens on the quality of UK beekeeping in Supply and Demand.
All the talks – including the science of Varroa and deformed wing virus I presented – generated lots of questions and discussions. With thanks to Sharon Blake for the invitation and organisation of the day.
I’m delighted to be speaking at the CABK Stratford Conference (the Central Association of Beekeepers; Bringing Science to the Beekeeper) on Saturday and Sunday 22/23 November 2014. I’ll be discussing the identification of a virulent strain of deformed wing virus, characteristics of its transmission and potential ways it might be controlled in the future. The CABK website doesn’t yet appear to list other speakers, but the provisional programme I’ve seen lists Alison Haughton from Rothamsted, Ben Jones from FERA, Jochen Plugfelder from Bern and Bob Smith from Kent.
There should be ample time for discussions so please introduce yourself if you want to chat.
Despite the best efforts of the Falcon Hotel (who appeared to have reserved far too few rooms for the registered delegates) the meeting was very enjoyable. The talks I heard were excellent, with ample time for discussion. In particular I enjoyed listening to Bob Smith who showed us the differences between DN5 frames from two of the major manufacturers … one made to British Standard sizes with the wrong beespace (Thorne’s), and the other with the correct beespace between the top bars, the rebated side bars and the wide bottom bars (National Bee Supplies if I remember correctly). Bob’s talk was the only beekeeping talk I’ve heard with psychedelic imagery and a guitar riff. Bob also demonstrated his enviable woodworking skills with an elegant little (mating nuc sized) observation hive. Jochen Plugfelder gave two fascinating presentations on improved formulations of formic acid for Varroa treatment and the chemistry of queen fighting, the latter supported by excellent video. Ben Jones discussed his studies on dietary influences on foragers and – in a commendably dedicated way – rushed off early to complete a time course experiment. Finally (although it was actually the first talk of the meeting in place of Alison Haughton) Robert Pickard presented a wide ranging overview of social and solitary bees and their mimics. The talk was actually so wide ranging that it was difficult to categorise it and was illustrated with a range of interesting slides.
I’m looking forward to speaking at Birmingham and District Beekeepers Association on Friday 31st October. My talk is titled “Dr. Bodgit goes beekeeping: make the stuff you can’t buy … that works better … with as little blood loss as possible“. It’s a gentle introduction to building some of your own equipment, saving a few bob and making things that work better than the equipment you can buy from the major suppliers. Aside from the financial benefits (e.g.DIY insulated crownboard for about £8, Thorne’s uninsulated polycarbonate quilt for nearly £20) there’s a lot of satisfaction to be gained from building your own equipment. Almost no specialised tools are required and certainly almost no power tools … all helping avoid blood loss.
Clearer boards …
Update … Thanks to BDBKA for their hospitality on Friday evening. Considering the wealth of experience in the room I was pleased there were a few things that were new to them in the talk. I hope to hear of their success with Kewl floors and foundationless frames when I next visit.
Update – it was a very enjoyable meeting and I’d like to thank the YBKA, Roger Chappel and Michael Badger for their excellent hospitality. My talk on queenright queen rearing using the Ben Harden system was well attended and generated some interesting questions. Abelo had a small trade stand selling all sorts of ‘essentials’ including some competitively priced radial extractors.
‘Grafting’ is the transfer of selected larvae from a donor colony into artificial cups from which new queens will be raised. It is probably the aspect of queen rearing that beginners find most daunting in prospect – perhaps not surprisingly as it involves manually moving a less-than day-old larvae (about the size of a comma in 12 pt. Times New Roman font) to a new location. However, it’s a lot easier to do than to describe, is easy to practice and you can tell if you’ve been successful within 24 hours.
In my opinion the preparation and maintenance of the cell raising colony and the use of mini mating nucs both require more skill than actually grafting the larvae for queen rearing.
Things that are needed for successful grafting
a source of suitable larvae
good lighting and good eyesight (help is available with both)
a grafting tool of some sort
a cell bar frame with cell cups to transfer larvae into
a warm, damp cloth and somewhere to sit
Source of suitable larvae
There are essentially two criteria that are important here – the age and the genetic quality of the selected larvae. The first of these is straightforward – you need to use larvae that are as young as possible, perhaps 12-18 hours after hatching from the egg. How do you determine the age of the larva? The easiest way is to choose the smallestlarvae possible from a frame containing brood in all stages. Because the queen generally lays in rings you’ll usually find the smallest larvae right next to the oldest eggs on the frame. Fresh eggs stand up from the bottom of the cell, older eggs lie horizontally. Look around the cells containing the horizontal eggs. Suitable larvae are the same size as an egg, or perhaps even fractionally smaller. These larvae are so small they haven’t yet adopted the fully curved ‘c’ shape.
Keep good records
One of the reasons to rear your own queens is to have bees with the characteristics you want. This is the genetic quality of the starting material. This means you need to keep records of the behaviour of your colonies, scoring them for desirable or undesirable traits. This can get very complicated, but doesn’t need to be. In addition to general aspects of colony health (chalkbrood, viral diseases, Varroa levels) I keep records of temper, following and running on the frame as my primary interest is working with bees that are docile and easy to handle. Temper and running are scored on a simple 5 point scale and I use colonies with consistently the best scores for grafting. Following is scored as a simple yes/no … and any that score yes are re-queened.
Good lighting and good eyesight
Suitable larvae are small and you need to be able to see them clearly. You need both hands free, so do not rely on a magnifying glass. Buy a cheap set of strong reading glasses. Don’t be self-conscious about this … style doesn’t matter (anyway, you probably wouldn’t be a beekeeper if you worry too much about appearance) but strength does. Check the strength you need by looking for commas on a page in a standard paperback book, probably at a closer distance than you would read a book. I don’t need reading glasses for reading, but have +2.5 dioptre glasses for grafting.
Good lighting is critical. Don’t rely on the sun for this … you’ll inevitably be grafting on dull overcast days at some point. Get a battery powered LED head torch as used by campers. Ideally get one with at least 4 white LEDs and 2 red LEDs. The white ones are usually divided into two highly directional ones, and two providing general illumination. Use them all on together. You’ll need the red LEDs later …
Use size 00 or 000
There are all sorts of tools available for grafting, ranging from the cheap and cheerful – and nearly ubiquitous – Chinese grafting tool to very expensive cranked, left or right hand-specific specialist items with exotic wood handles. Try a range of different types (at least the affordable ones) to see which you get on with best. However, I recommend you first try a 00 sable artists brush. Of all the grafting tools I’ve used, this is by far the easiest in my view. Protect the bristles using the sleeve stripped from a short piece of electric flex when it’s not in use.
Cell bar frame
Nicot Cupkit system
You can make artificial wax cups from melted beeswax and a rounded dowel former. Far easier though are the plastic cups available from beekeeping suppliers like JzBz. Better still are those provided as part of the Nicot Cupkit system, consisting of a dark brown spigot, a cream coloured socket, translucent brown cups and a ‘hair roller’ cage. These are available separately from suppliers like ModernBeekeeping and are inexpensive.
The cell bar frame consists of a standard brood frame with one or two cross-bars to which the cups for grafting are attached. You need to be able to easily access the base of the cups. Therefore either hold the cross bar in place with a single gimp pin at either end (so it rotates), or make the cross bars slot in and out of the side bars.
For the Ben Harden queenright method of queen rearing I usually graft 10-20 larvae in rows of five or ten. Firstly this type of cell raiser isn’t as strong as the sort of three box queenless monstrosities some people use, secondly I can only conveniently get about a dozen or so queens mated at any one time.
Cell bar frame
Attach the spigot firmly to the cross-bar with gimp pins. Push-fit the socket onto the spigot and push the cell cup into the socket. If you have two cross-bars and intend to use the hair roller cages to protect the sealed cells make sure there is enough ‘headspace’ to fit them easily – remember the bars will be covered with bees when you do this. Probably the best way to achieve this is to have the cross-bars rotate along their axis.
Are you sitting comfortably … ?
Take a seat
The goal of grafting is to move good larvae from the cell in which the egg was laid into a new artificial cell, without damaging or chilling the larva. To do this you need to work quickly, carefully and efficiently. Find somewhere to sit near the donor hive that it is in light shade. Take a stool or folding chair to sit on and a piece of thin wood to lay in your lap on which the cell bar frame and the frame with larvae can be placed. Take off your veil. Make sure the things you need are close to hand – a hive tool or scalpel, your grafting tool of choice, glasses and head torch. Lay a damp cloth across the board to keep both the frame with larvae and the grafted larvae in a humid environment. I usually leave the cloth hanging over each end of the board, and fold these ends over to protect the frames.
Grafting in practice
Retrieve the acclimatised cell bar frame from the cell raising colony. Don’t bother putting anything in its place – you’ll be returning it within 30 minutes or so (but do close the hive up). Go through the donor hive until you find a frame with eggs and young larvae on it. I try and avoid shaking the frame hard, so give it a gentle shake to remove the flying bees, then brush off the adhering nurse bees (again, don’t push the frames together, but do close the colony). Take the frame to the location where you’re going to be grafting. Arrange your glasses and head torch, the wooden ‘table’, damp cloth and cell bar frame. Relax! Find a patch of suitable larvae …
Arrange the frame with the top bar towards you – that way the cells also slope towards you making it easier to see into the base.
Cut down the cells using a scalpel or your hive tool – the aim here should be to improve access to the larvae in the base of the cell. I usually simply lever apart a row of cells.
Working calmly and efficiently pick individual larvae from the donor frame and transfer them to the cell bar frame.
The precise way you manipulate the larva differs depending upon the particular type of grafting tool in use. If you’re using a paintbrush dampen and straighten the bristles (in your mouth), slide it underneath the larva, lift it out, lower it to the base of the new cell cup and release the larva by gently rotating the brush.
When you’re not searching for suitable larvae from the donor frame keep it covered with the damp cloth. Likewise, keep the grafted larvae covered other than when you’re transferring them. This way you minimise the chance of them drying out.
If you have trouble transferring a larva, if you end up rolling it around the cell cup, if it sticks to the side wall or if there’s any doubt at all about it then flick it away, lick the brush again and choose another.
It probably takes 30-45 seconds per larva when they’re easy to find. You can minimise this time by cutting down the wall of a row of cells and then working your way along the row, grafting each in turn. Don’t worry if it takes longer. The more practice you get the more efficient you will become at finding and transferring larvae. An acceptance rate of 80-90% should be expected with a little practice.
Gently return the cell bar frame with the grafted larvae to the cell raising colony. Use minimal smoke … you want the larvae to be accepted straight away and fed with copious amount of jelly. Remember that the cell cups containing the grafted larvae must be vertical.
Don’t forget to return the frame of unused larvae and eggs to the donor colony.
Did they work?
24 hours later
You can (and indeed should) check whether the grafted larvae have been accepted 24 hours after introducing them to the cell raising colony. Open the colony with the minimum use of smoke, gently raise the cell bar frame and look for a 3-4mm wax ‘collar’ around the edge of the plastic cell cup. If you look into the cell there will be a good bed of Royal Jelly with the larva floating on top. Grafts that have not been accepted might have a thin trace of wax around the cup edge, but nothing like 3-4mm.
If the overall acceptance level is low consider grafting again straight away. There is no need to reacclimatise the frame, simply pull out the cell cups and replace them with fresh ones. You even know which frames have day old larvae in them … they’re the ones which had horizontal eggs yesterday.
On Friday 31st. of January I presented a talk at Birmingham and District Beekeeping Association on Queen rearing for beginners. After a bit of rushing around to procure a projector and cable to allow my Mac laptop to work we had an enjoyable evening and I’d like to thank them for their hospitality. It was good to talk about something for warm sunny summer days on such a filthy wet evening.