Author Archives: David

Downstairs? Upstairs?

Colony inspections usually concentrate on the brood box. This is where all the action is. This is where the queen is and where there needs to be sufficient space for the colony to expand.

Or, if times are lean, sufficient stores and pollen to survive.

In contrast, the honey supers get no more than a cursory glance. There’s little of interest going on up there until it’s time to harvest the honey for extraction.

If the supers are light there’s nothing more to do other than hope for a good nectar flow in the future. In contrast, if they’re really heavy they might be ready to remove for extraction. If the frames are all capped the honey is ready.

Usually the supers are not heavy enough (a full super weighs something like 25kg) and they often don’t even get a glance, instead being bodily lifted off and left in a pile while the brood box is inspected.

Checking supers

Nectar has a high water content which the bees evaporate off during the production of honey. If they didn’t get rid of the water the stores would ferment. Since honey is hygroscopic they then add a wax ‘cap’ to the honey-filled cell to protect their stores for the winter.

Nectar is generally stored in the supers, starting in the middle of the middle frames and moving towards the periphery. This is the warmest part of the hive and presumably the easiest to evaporate water from. Therefore, the central frames in the super are most likely to contain capped honey stores.

Ready to extract

Ready to extract …

All I do when checking a heavy super is to first briefly look at the central frame to see if the stores are capped. If they are not then there’s no point in looking anywhere else in the super.

If the central frame is capped then it’s worth looking to see if the outside frames are as well. If so a clearer board can be placed below the super and you can take the honey for extraction.

Actually, there’s a bit more complexity as sometimes the honey is ready to extract, but isn’t capped. I’ll deal with that another time. The point I’m (slowly) trying to make is that supers are rarely checked in any detail … until they’re full.

It’s therefore interesting what turns up when you do remove them for extraction.

Pollen and stores-free area

With a strong colony, the bottom super i.e. the one immediately above the queen excluder, often has no honey stored in a semi-circular area immediately above the brood nest. Sometimes the edge of this clear area, adjacent to the honey, contains a band of stored pollen.

This clear area indicates that the colony need more space. The workers are keeping it clear for the queen to lay, but the queen excluder prevents her from accessing it. Sometimes you can get the bees to backfill this area by switching the super with one higher in the stack.

“Billy no mates” brood

It’s not unusual to find a very few scattered capped pupae in a stack of supers. These are almost invariably drone pupae, irrespective of whether the drawn super comb is on worker or drone foundation. In ~24 supers I extracted last weekend I saw three or four.

Billy no-mates ...

Billy no-mates …

I’ve always assumed that these were due to laying worker activity. There are always a few laying workers in a colony, but their numbers are suppressed by a pheromone produced by unsealed brood. Laying workers can be a significant problem in queenless and broodless colonies.

Since workers are unmated, the eggs that laying workers produce are unfertilised and so develop as drones 1.

There may be other explanations for these singleton pupae e.g. workers moving eggs up from the brood box. However, this doesn’t explain why they are almost always drones 2.

Clustered brood

Sometimes you’ll find a super packed with brood in all stages … wall to wall eggs, open and sealed brood. This happens when the queen has somehow sneaked above the queen excluder.

When this has happened to me I usually put it down to a lack of attentiveness in checking the underside of the queen excluder when opening the box. If the queen was on the underside and the QE is leant against the hive stand she can easily wander round to the other side, thereby giving her access to the supers.

Spot the queen

While checking supers for extraction last month I found one box – the lowest super of a stack of three – contained two or three frames with small amounts of clustered brood 3.

Another example of inattentiveness? Possibly, but there were some oddities about this colony.

Eggs and sealed brood ...

Eggs and sealed brood …

Firstly, there was no open brood … just eggs and sealed brood. I uncapped a few cells and the pupae were all just at the purple eyed stage. This is day 15 for workers and day 16 for drones. Since eggs hatch after 3 days this means that there had been a gap of at least 12 days when the queen wasn’t laying.

Half-sisters of the same age ...

Half-sisters of the same age …

Secondly, there was both worker and drone sealed brood present, but it was on separate frames. There was no drone brood in worker cells, which have characteristically domed caps 4.

Finally, I checked the brood box. There was plenty of brood in all stages – eggs, larvae and sealed pupae – in a busy hive. However, I didn’t see the queen (who was nominally marked and clipped) but by this time I was in a bit of a rush.

A partial solution

Some of these apparent oddities have a straightforward explanation.

The separation of drone and worker brood is because I use a range of different frames in my supers – worker foundation, drone foundation and foundationless. They start as matched boxes, but over the years have got completely mixed up.

All the drone brood was in a super frame originally drawn from drone foundation.

That was easy 😉

However, why was there brood at all in the super if the brood box contained the laying queen?

Or should that read a laying queen?

Perhaps there was another queen in the super?

Aside from speculating about how she got there, or – if she was the original queen in the box – where the one ‘downstairs’ came from, there’s also the puzzle about why she’d taken a 12 day holiday from egg laying.

And where the hell was she now?

She’d been in the top box sometime in the last 3 days (because there were eggs present). However, although I’m reasonably good at finding queens, I searched in vain in this super (and the two above) and couldn’t find her.

Time to be pragmatic

Carefully looking through ~30 super frames takes time and I was running out of both time and patience. These three supers were ready for extraction and I still had half a dozen colonies to check.

I could continue looking and eventually find her … if she was there at all.

If she wasn’t, I’d obviously never find her.

What did I do?

I shook all the bees off the super frames – directly over the brood box5 – and took them away for extraction.

I’m a great believer in Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is probably the correct one.

I reasoned that there was probably one queen in the box. Any other explanation was going to get convoluted.

If there was only one queen she was either in the brood box or the supers.

If she was in the brood box then all was well.

If she was in the supers she’d hopefully end up in the brood box.

There was little point in using a clearer board if the queen was in the supers. Firstly, with brood present many bees would probably remain. Secondly, if the queen was present in the supers, they’d definitely not clear.

Super frames with brood ...

Super frames with brood …

And … what happened?

I got well over 60 lb of honey from the colony 🙂

There was a blue marked and clipped queen in the bottom box when I checked the colony a few days later.

She was (still) laying well.

Unsatisfactory explanation

I suspect that the queen excluder was faulty or damaged. It was a wooden-framed wire one. If the wires were prised apart during cleaning or through carelessness the queen could get up into the super.

She could also therefore return to the brood box.

The 12 day gap in laying was probably explained by the queen returning to the brood box during this period.

The two short stints when she’d been ‘upstairs’ hadn’t noticeably left gaps in the brood pattern in the brood box – she might have only nipped up for a few hours or so. There were only a few hundred cells with eggs or pupae in the super.

And the most unsatisfactory thing of all … I thoughtlessly stacked the queen excluder with five others from the same apiary and so now need to carefully inspect all of them for damage 🙁


 

Robbery

Robber

Robber

Another apiculture-flavoured tale of daylight robbery, literally, to follow the post on hive and bee thefts last week.

However, this time it’s not dodgy bee-suited perps with badly inked prison tats offering cheap nucs down the Dog and Duck.

Like other offenders, the robbers this week wear striped apparel, but this time it’s dark brown and tan, or brown and yellow or black and yellow.

I am of course referring to honey bees and wasps (Vespa vulgaris and V. germanica), both of which can cause major problems at this time of year by robbing weak colonies.

Carb loading

The season here – other than for those who have taken colonies to the heather – is drawing to a close. The main nectar sources have more or less dried up in the last fortnight. There’s a bit of rosebay willow herb and bramble in the hedgerows and some himalayan balsam in the river valleys, but that’s about it.

Colonies are strong, or should be. With the dearth of nectar in the fields, the foragers turn their attention to other colonies as a potential source of carbohydrates. Colonies need large amounts of stores to get through the winter and evolution has selected a behavioural strategy – robbing of weaker colonies – to get as much carbohydrate from the easiest possible sources.

Like the nucs you carefully prepared for overwintering 🙁

At the same time, wasps are also wanting to pile in the carbs before winter 1. In the last fortnight the wasp numbers in my apiaries and equipment stores have increased significantly.

Jekyll and Hyde

Within a few days in late summer/early autumn the mood and attitude of colonies in the apiary changes completely.

During a strong nectar flow the bees single-mindedly pile in the stores. They alight, tail-heavy, on the landing board, enter the hive, unload and set out again. There’s a glut and they ignore almost anything other than bingeing on it. Inspections are easy. Most bees are out foraging and they are – or should be – well-tempered and forgiving. 

Laden foragers returning ...

Laden foragers returning …

But then the nectar flow, almost overnight, stops.

Colonies become markedly more defensive. They are packed with bees and they’re tetchy. There’s nothing to distract them, they resent the intrusion and they want to protect their hard-won stores 2.

At the same time, they quickly become more inquisitive, investigating any potential new source of sugar. If you shake the bees off a frame and leave it standing against the leg of the hive stand there will be dozens of foragers – many from nearby colonies – gorging themselves on the nectar.

If you spill unripened nectar from a frame they’re all over it, quickly forming a frenzied mass – probably from several different hives – scrabbling to ‘fill their boots’.

They also closely investigate anything that smells of nectar or honey. Stacks of equipment, empty supers, hive tools, the smoker bellows … anything.

Robbing

And it’s this behaviour that can quickly turn into robbing.

The foragers investigate a small, dark entrance that smells of honey … like a nuc in the corner of the apiary. They enter unchallenged or after a little argy-bargy 3, find the stores, stuff themselves, go back to their colony and then return mob-handed.

Before long, the nuc entrance had a writhing mass of bees trying to get in, any guards present are soon overwhelmed and, in just a few hours, it’s robbed out and probably doomed.

This is the most obvious – and rather distressing – form of robbing. Wasps can do almost exactly the same thing, with similarly devastating consequences.

Prevention is better than cure

Once started (and obvious), robbing is difficult to stop. About the only option is to seal the target hive and remove it to another apiary a good distance away.

Far better to prevent it happening in the first place.

The best way of preventing robbing is to maintain large, strong and healthy colonies. With ample bees there are ample guards and the colony will be able to defend itself from both bees and wasps. Strong colonies are much more likely to be the robbers than the robbed.

For smaller colonies in a full-sized hive, or nucleus colonies or – and these are the most difficult of all to defend – mini-nucs used for queen mating, it’s imperative to make the hive easy to defend and minimise attracting robbers to the apiary in the first place.

The underfloor entrances on kewl floors are much easier to defend than a standard entrance and small entrances are easier to defend than large ones. ‘Small’ might mean as little as one bee-width … i.e. only traversable by a single bee at a time.

Smaller is better ...

Smaller is better …

You can even combine the two; insert a 9mm thick piece of stripwood into the Kewl floor entrance to reduce the space to be defended to a centimetre or two. If – as happened tonight when returning wet supers to the hives – I don’t have a suitable piece of stripwood in the apiary I use a strip of gaffer tape to reduce the entrance 4.

Gaffer tape is also essential to maintain the integrity of the hive if some of the supers are a bit warped. Wasps can squeeze through smaller holes than bees and the quick application of a half metre along the junction between boxes can save the day 5.

The poly nucs I favour have a ridiculously large entrance which I reduce by 90% using foam blocks, dried grass, gaffer tape, wire mesh or Correx.

Correx, the beekeepers friend ...

Correx, the beekeepers friend …

Don’t tempt them

Finally, reduce the inducement robbers – whether bees or wasps – have to investigate everything in the apiary by not leaving open sources of nectar, not spilling honey or syrup, clearing up brace comb and ensuring any stored equipment is ‘bee proof’.

You don’t need to inspect as frequently at this time of the season. The queen will have reduced her laying rate and colonies are no longer expanding. With no nectar coming in they should have sufficient space in the brood nest. There’s little chance they will swarm.

If you don’t need to inspect, then don’t. The ability to judge this comes with experience.

If you do have to inspect (to find, mark and clip a late-season mated queen for example 6 do not leave the colony open for longer than necessary. Any supers that are temporarily removed should be secured so bees and wasps cannot access them.

Wet supers

If you’re returning wet supers after extraction, do it with the minimum disruption late in the evening. These supers absolutely reek of honey and attract robbers from far and wide. Keep the supers covered – top and bottom – gently lift the crownboard, give them a tiny puff of smoke, place the supers on top, replace the roof and leave them be.

Returning wet supers

Returning wet supers …

In my experience wet supers are the most likely thing to trigger a robbing frenzy. I usually reduce the entrance at the same time I put the wet supers back and try to add wet supers to all the colonies in the apiary on the same evening 7.

I generally don’t inspect colonies until the supers are cleaned out and ready for storage.


 

Thieving b(ee)’stards

HMP Bee Shed

HMP Bee Shed

There’s something both vaguely amusing and deeply repellent about hive and bee thefts.

Vaguely amusing in terms of the way the press cover it and possibly in the way it’s perceived by the general public. The latter have visions of beesuited ‘rustlers’ rounding up ‘herds’ of bees and making off with them in the dead of night. The press do little to alter this perception, generally stressing the large number of individual bees stolen in articles littered with beekeeping gaffes.

The deeply repellent aspect of honey bee thefts is that most must be carried out by beekeepers.

Handling bees in large numbers is a daunting prospect for most of the general public. Even the most light-fingered ne’er-do-well is likely to think twice about making off with a 40 litre box packed with stinging insects.

It requires specialist knowledge and equipment … or, in their absence, tener cojones as the Spanish say.

Bee and hive theft is not like a ned1 stealing a smartphone and flogging it at a car boot sale … it’s more like a surgeon being involved in organ trafficking.

Whether to make up for their own beekeeping inadequacies or simply to make a quick profit, this type of ‘inside job’ is an unsavoury reminder that some – hopefully a very few – ‘beekeepers’ have criminal tendencies and cannot be trusted.

Prepare to be amused

“Rustler steals 40,000 bees in Britain’s biggest hive heist in years” is a recent headline in The Guardian. The article describes the theft of a single hive (presumably gold-plated as it’s valued at £400, though perhaps this price reflects the fact that it’s the ‘biggest’ hive) from a ‘ditch’ in Anglesey, blaming the recent increase in bee thefts on the spiralling cost of ‘nukes’ (sic).

The Daily Mail announces that bee hives are stolen and sold for up to £8,000 a time, and helpfully illustrate the article with a picture of a bumble bee (almost certainly a male) and the caption “Some queen bees are worth £180 …”.

Actually ... some breeder queens cost €450

Actually … some breeder queens cost €450

I can’t help but think that the emphasis on the ‘value’ encourages some of the thefts. After all, what else valued at £400 (or £8000 for that matter) do you know about that’s left unattended and unlocked for days at a time in a remote corner of a farmer’s field.

As an aside, The Daily Mail obviously don’t realise that some breeder queens sell for a lot more than £180 …  😯

Scaling up

It’s not really clear from the Daily Mail article (above) whether it was one or many hives that were stolen. However, since many apiaries will contain multiple hives, it’s not unusual to have the entire lot vanish.

Another poorly punned headline from The Telegraph announces “Britain’s biggest bee sting: One million insects stolen from Oxfordshire hives”, choosing to emphasise the total number of insects, rather than the 40 hives that went missing.

Pedantically, the hives and  the bees were stolen … they didn’t just take the bees, though that happens as well as will soon become clear.

But, as with so many other things, you need to go across the Atlantic to experience the biggest bee and hive thefts. The scale of commercial beekeeping operations in the USA means that there’s added incentive and opportunity. Two ‘beekeepers’ were charged in 2017 with the theft of 2,500 hives (no need to count the bees this time, hive numbers alone were sufficiently impressive) worth almost $1M.

Hives were stolen from apiaries at night, spirited away on a flatbed trailer and moved to an isolated location where they were repainted. “It looked like a chop shop for bee hives,” Fresno detectives said.

Not hiding hives

The Oxfordshire bee heist was of overwintering hives in a field that “couldn’t be seen from the road”. As I’ve previously discussed, obscurity does not guarantee security.

High resolution satellite imagery is increasingly available and it’s easy to find apiaries. While preparing this post I looked at Google and Bing maps of an apiary I know well. It is effectively invisible from public roads or the adjacent football pitch.

The satellite images are taken at different times 2, so aren’t identical. The first two images are at about the same scale. The three white rectangles in the Bing maps image are poly tunnels, each about 5-6 metres long. The regularly-spaced hives are pretty obvious.

The image on the right is the current enhanced Google maps view, in this individual hives can clearly be counted. You can even discriminate between paving slabs with hives on stands and those that are unoccupied.

A beekeeper thief could spend a few winter evening scanning these sorts of satellite images and easily identify likely apiaries, whether they can be seen from the road or not.

Security

I’m going to write more extensively in the future about deterring thieves as there’s a more important topic to cover here.

You can place hidden cameras near the apiary (to catch a thief … or obvious ones to deter). There are now ways of installing GPS-trackers in hives. These trigger a remote alarm if moved. You can ‘label’ equipment and make it uniquely traceable using SmartWater-like solutions.

Alternatively you can consider physical deterrents, like simply screwing the hive floor to the stand (from inside the hive). It’s unlikely the thief will have spare floors. I’ve heard of people plugging a hole through the hive floor with a bung, the latter firmly attached to the hive stand. The thief places the hive in the back of the estate car and … you can imagine the rest 🙂

Apiary gate

Apiary gate

Or just use an enormous fence and a big padlock.

Gamekeeper turned poacher

For reasons outlined in the opening paragraph I suspect the majority of these thefts are by beekeepers or – as Martin Smith of the BBKA puts it – “beekeepers or at least those with a rudimentary knowledge of the craft”.3

A recent theft announced on the Sottish Beekeepers Association interactive forum (SBAi) clearly emphasises the involvement of beekeepers. Here are the relevant bits of the post:

… Came across a set of plainly disturbed hives near Dundee today whilst doing heather prep[arations]. These were double deep hives with brood in 12 to 15 bars, plenty food and pollen, but were being robbed. Almost no bees, no queen, no q.cells, brood in all stages inc eggs, combs not back in correct order …

Large hives, full of brood but empty of bees. Odd. The poster (a hugely experienced commercial beekeeper) concludes:

Shook swarms plainly been removed from them.

Conducting shook swarms on large double brood colonies is unlikely to be the work of someone with just a rudimentary knowledge of the art. Done properly, it involves first finding and caging the queen, then shaking all the bees off all the frames. It’s hard work and to someone unused to working with lots of bees it would be a daunting undertaking.

Pssst … wanna buy a nuc?

The SBAi post author suggests that the likely fate for those bees is to be split into nucs and sold on to unsuspecting beekeepers. It’s really a bit late in the season … remember that you should ideally only buy nucs with at least 2-3 frames of brood in all stages from the queen in the box 4.

However, beginners desperate for bees who don’t purchase from a known and trusted source are unlikely to be worrying about the quality of the bees they buy.

I never knew there was so much in it …

But those beginners purchasing nucs are possibly getting more than they bargained for, as is clear from the rest of the post on the SBAi:

The bad news for the thief is that this apiary has had EFB [European foulbrood] earlier in the summer and is still under a standstill order, and one of the hives shaken was the one next to the (removed and destroyed earlier) EFB case. This must be considered a super high risk bit of theft ………… so if you are offered bees by an unknown source in the area be very very careful.

It’s not really bad news for the thief … but it is for the purchaser, or potentially for anyone in the area (or outside the area) who keeps bees and may now get a potentially EFB-infected colony5 in the garden next door 🙁

Ironically, great advances have been made recently in molecular fingerprinting of foulbroods to determine transmission pathways. This is similar to the DNA fingerprinting that can unambiguously link a person to the scene of a crime. It should soon be possible to definitively demonstrate the EFB in that dodgy nuc you bought from the bloke in The Crooks Arms public house was from bees stolen from an apiary ‘near Dundee’.

Nuc behind bars

Nuc behind bars

Caveat emptor

That’s a doubly sour note to end on. One or more beekeepers must have been involved and it could result in the further spread of EFB.

It’s been a great summer for bees. Many experienced beekeepers will likely have an excess of bees at this time of the season. The usual high demand for nucs in early Spring has probably all been met. However, there will still be people wanting to start beekeeping.

It is this group of novices that might end up buying a poorly balanced nuc of stolen bees with a side order of EFB.

What Not a bargain.

If you do want to buy bees6 then:

  • Buy local bees.
  • Buy from a known or trusted source. Ask around. The beekeeping community is pretty small. Most beekeepers and beekeeping associations are very approachable.
  • Inspect the nuc before purchase. If there’s little or no brood, frames with undrawn foundation or an obvious mix of bees then do not buy it.

Finally, if you don’t know whether the bees are local, whether the source is trusted or whether the nuc is high quality … stop.

Get some training, get a mentor and get some help with the purchase.


Colophon

The title of this post is an obvious bee-flavoured concatenation of a well known insult that strikes hard at one’s personal integrity and social standing, both, in an economy of words”.

The simpler concatenation to B’Stard was used by the late Rik Mayall as the surname of his character (Sir Alan Beresford B’Stard) in The New Statesman, a late-80’s sitcom satirising the then Conservative Party government. B’Stard would stop at nothing to fulfil his megalomaniac ambition. He was “selfish, greedy, dishonest, devious, lecherous, sadistic, self-serving”. 

It strikes me that most of these terms could also be applied to bee rustlers.

In perpetuity

Yet more frames ...

Yet more frames …

As I write this we’re approaching midsummer of one of the best years beekeeping I’ve had in a decade. In Fife we’ve had excellent weather, and consequently excellent nectar flows, for weeks. Queen mating has been very dependable. I’ve run out of supers twice and have been building frames like a man possessed.

I’m not complaining 😉 1

In a few short weeks it will be all over. The season won’t have ended, but this non-stop cycle of inspections, adding supers, building frames, splitting colonies, making up nucs, taking off laden supers, extracting and more inspections will be largely finished.

We’re in clover

Busy bees ...

Busy bees …

Literally, as it’s been yielding really well recently.

I’ve written previously about The Goldilocks principlenot too much, not too little – and bees. As an individuals’ competence improves over successive seasons, colony numbers can quickly change from too few to too many.

A single production 2 colony in a good year should probably also be able to generate a nuc for overwintering and possibly a new queen for re-queening without significantly compromising honey production.

That’s certainly been the case this year. I’ve got a few colonies that produced nucs in May, were requeened (through vertical splits) in late June or early July and that have produced several supers of honey, either from spring or summer flows.

Or in a few cases, from both. And it’s not quite over yet 🙂

But, there’s always a but …

I said in the opening paragraph it’s an exceptional year. The ability to produce a surfeit of both bees and honey requires some skill, some luck and some good timing.

In a bad year, just getting one of the three – a new nuc, a new queen or a honey surplus – from a colony should be regarded as a major success.

How do you cope with problems encountered in these bad years?

Self-sufficiency

I’m a strong supporter of self-sufficiency in beekeeping. Although I’m not fundamentally opposed to purchasing queens or nucs, I do have concerns about importation of new virus strains and other ‘exotics’ that do or will threaten our beekeeping. However, buying in high quality bees for stock improvement is understandable, expensive at times and the foundation of at least some commercial (and amateur, but commercially viable) beekeeping.

I See You Baby

I See You Baby

What I’m far less keen on is purchasing bees – a significant proportion of which are imported – to compensate for lazy, slapdash or negligent beekeeping.

And there’s too much of that about … anyone who has been keeping bees successfully will have heard these types of comments:

  • Surely I can get away with less frequent inspections? I always have six weeks sailing in May and June … but I do want to make my own honey and mead
  • They all died from starvation sometime last year but I’ll buy some more in March from that online supplier of cheap bees (Bob’s Craptastic Nucs … Bees for the Truly Impatient)
  • Varroa treatment? Nope, not in the last couple of years mate. I’ve never seen one of them Verona, er, Verruca thingies so I don’t think my bees are infected with them anyway
  • I knocked off all the queen cells to stop them swarming in June and July. They just might be queenless. I know it’s early October but do you have a mated queen spare?

I’ve heard variants of all the above in the last few months.

In perpetuity

This stop-start beekeeping is not really beekeeping. I’ve discussed this in Principles and Practice extensively. I’ve called them beehadders before but perhaps the term ‘serial ex-beekeeper’ might be more accurate.

The reality is that, with a little skill, a little luck and just reasonable timing you can have bees in perpetuity … the real topic of this post.

In perpetuity meaning you are self-sufficient for stock and for spares.

You’re able to exploit the good years and survive the bad. You only need to buy in bees for stock improvement or to increase genetic diversity (which may be the same thing).

Once you’ve got bees, you’ve always got bees.

It’s a good position to be in. It gives you security to survive accidents, self-inflicted snafu’s and even the odd fubar 3. You are no longer dependent upon the importer, the supplier or your mate in the local association to bail you out. It gives you confidence to try new things. It means you can cope with vagaries in the weather, forage availability or simple bad luck.

How is this nirvana-like state of beekeeping self-sufficiency achieved?

I think it can be distilled to just two things – one is easy, the other slightly more challenging.

Firstly, you need to maintain a minimum of two hives. Secondly, you need to develop an appreciation of how the colony develops and understand when interventions and manipulations are most likely to be successful.

One is not enough

I’ve discussed the importance of a second hive previously. With one hive, beekeeping errors (or just plain bad luck) that result in a queenless, broodless and eggless colony might well be a catastrophe.

With two hives, you can simply take a frame of eggs from the second colony and voila, they’ll raise a new queen and your imminent categorisation as an ex-beekeeper is postponed.

Two are better than one …

The benefits of two colonies far outweigh the expense of the additional equipment and time taken to manage them. In a good year you’ll get twice as much honey to impress your friends and neighbours at Christmas, or to sell in the village fete. In a bad year, the ability to unite a weak colony headed by a failing queen in late September, might mean the difference between being a beekeeper and being an ex-beekeeper the following Spring.

Maintaining two colonies in the same apiary significantly increases your chances of having bees in perpetuity.

The art of the probable 4

Beekeeping isn’t really very difficult. You provide the colony with somewhere to live. You give them sufficient extra space to dissuade them from swarming (swarm prevention), or intervene in a timely manner to stop them swarming (swarm control). If you harvest some or all of the honey you provide them with more than they need of an alternative source of sugar(s) at the right time. Finally, you monitor and control the pathogens that afflict them and apply appropriate treatments, at the right time, to minimise their impact.

As you can see, timing is important. Do things at the right time and they work … at the wrong time they don’t.

Timing is also important in terms of the frequency of inspections (which I’ve briefly discussed before, so won’t repeat here), and in the manipulations of the colony.

These colony manipulations include – but aren’t restricted to – providing them space to expand, spreading the brood nest, making nucs, rearing queens or at least getting queens mated, adding supers, uniting weak colonies and feeding them up for the winter.

Again, if you do the manipulations at the right time they will probably work. Hence the ‘art of the probable’.

The time is right

For many of these manipulations, the ‘right time’ essentially depends upon the development of the colony and weather. And, of course, colony development is itself very much influenced by the weather.

Consider queen mating. Of the various manipulations listed above, this is one upon which the future viability of the colony is absolutely dependent.

Queen mating usually occurs mid-afternoon during dry, preferably sunny weather, on days with relatively light winds and temperatures of at least 18°C. Therefore if there’s a mature virgin queen in your hive 5, the weather is suitable and there are drones flying, she’ll probably get mated.

Good laying pattern ...

Good laying pattern …

Days like this occur pretty dependably in late May and June. It’s no coincidence that this is the peak swarming season.

Conversely, if through carelessness or neglect your colony goes queenless in late September, the probability of getting a warm, dry, calm afternoon are much less. It’s therefore less probable (and potentially highly improbable) that the new queen will get mated.

That’s not to say it won’t happen … it might, but it is less probable 6.

Beekeeping nirvana

In re-reading this post I feel as though I’ve skirted around the core of the issue, without satisfactorily tackling it.

Having bees in perpetuity is readily achievable if you have a backup hive and you understand how colony development and the weather determines what you can and cannot do to the colony during the season 7.

Having two hives but inadvertently damaging both queens in March during heavy-handed inspections will not provide bees in perpetuity.

Conversely, irrespective of your best efforts, a single terminally broodless and queenless colony at the peak of the swarming season cannot magically create a new queen … meaning you’re about to become an ex-beekeeper.

Another one for the extractor ...

Another one for the extractor …

I’ve used queen mating as an example because it’s a binary event … she’s mated successfully or she’s not, and colony survival absolutely depends upon it.

However, the timing of many of the other manipulations can also influence the strength, health and robustness of the colony. Providing too much space in cold weather delays expansion as there are too few bees to keep the brood warm. Trying to feed syrup very late in the season may mean it’s too cold for them to access the feeder, leading to starvation. Finally, using the wrong miticide at the wrong time is a guaranteed way to ensure more mites survive to damage the colony in the future.

Learn to do the right thing at the right time … to both your colonies. The recipe to having bees in perpetuity.


Colophon

In (for or to) perpetuity means “for all time, for ever; for an unlimited or indefinitely long period” and  has origins in Latin and French with English usage dating back to the early 15th Century.

‘Unlimited or indefinitely long’ could also refer to the length of this post or the delay to my flight last Sunday. You can thank EasyJet for providing me with more than ample time to write this magnum opus.

Or write and complain for the very same reason 😉

Sphere of influence

How far do honey bees fly? An easy enough question, but one that is not straightforward to answer.

The flight range of the honeybee ...

The flight range of the honeybee …

Does the question mean any honey bee i.e. workers, drones or the queen? As individuals, or as a swarm?

Is the question how far can they fly? Or how far do they usually fly?

Why does any of this matter anyway?

Ladies first …

Workers

The first definitive experiments were done by John Eckert in the 1930’s. He located apiaries in the Wyoming badlands at increasing distances from natural or artificial forage 1. Essentially the bees were forced to fly over a moonscape of rocks, sand, sagebrush and cacti to reach an irrigated area with good forage. He then recorded weight gain or loss of the hives located at various distances from the forage.

Wyoming badlands

Wyoming badlands …

The original paper can be found online here (PDF). The experiments are thorough, explained well and make entertaining reading. They involved multiple colonies and were conducted in three successive years.

Surprisingly, Eckert showed that bees would forage up to 8.5 miles from the colony. This means they’d be making a round trip of at least 17 miles – and probably significantly more – to collect pollen and nectar.

However, although colonies situated within 2 miles of the nectar source gained weight, those situated more than 5 miles away lost weight during the experiments.

Gain or loss in hive weight ...

Gain or loss in hive weight …

Therefore, bees can forage over surprisingly long distances, but in doing so they use more resources than they gain.

John Eckert was the co-author (with Harry Laidlaw) of one of the classic books on queen rearing 2. His studies were probably the first thorough analysis of the abilities of worker bees to forage over long distances. Much more recently, Beekman and Ratnieks interpreted the waggle dance (PDF) of bees to calculate foraging distances to heather. In these studies, only 10% of the bees foraged ~6 miles from the hive, although over 50% travelled over 3.5 miles.

Queens

Queens don’t get to do a lot of flying. They go on one or two matings flights, perhaps preceded by shorter orientation flights, and they might swarm.

Heading for a DCA near you ...

Heading for a DCA near you …

I’ll deal with swarms separately. I’ll also assume that the orientation flights are no greater than those of workers (I don’t think there’s any data on queen orientation flight distance or duration) at no more than ~300 metres 3.

On mating flights the queen flies to a drone congregation area (DCA), mates with multiple drones and returns to the colony. DCA’s justify a complete post of their own, but are geographically-defined features, often used year after year.

There are a number of studies on queen mating range using genetically-distinguishable virgin queens and drones in isolated or semi-isolated locations. They ‘do what they say on the tin’, drone congregate there and wait for a virgin queen

In the 1930’s Klatt conducted studies using colonies on an isolated peninsula and observed successful mating at distances up to 6.3 miles

Studies in the 1950’s by Peer demonstrated that matings could occur between queens and drones originally separated by 10.1 miles 4. These studies showed an inverse relationship between distance and successful mating.

More recently, Jensen et al., produced data that was in agreement with this, with drone and queen colonies separated by 9.3 miles still successfully mating 5.

However, this more recent study also demonstrated that more than 50% of matings occurred within 1.5 miles and 90% occurring within 4.6 miles.

Just because they can, doesn’t mean they do 🙂

Drones … it takes 17 to tango …

Seventeen of course, because that’s one queen and an average of 16 drones 😉

There’s a problem with the queen mating flight distances listed above. Did the queen fly 9 miles and the drone fly just a short distance to the DCA?

Or vice versa?

10 miles ... you must be joking!

10 miles … you must be joking!

Or do they meet in the middle?

Do queens choose 6 to fly shorter distances because it minimises the risk of predation and because they are less muscle-bound and presumably less strong flyers than drones?

Alternatively, perhaps drones have evolved to visit local DCAs to maximise the time they have aloft without exhausting themselves flying miles first?

Or getting eaten.

It turns out that – at least in these long-distance liaisons – it’s the queen that probably flies further. Drones do prefer local DCAs 7 and most DCAs are located less than 3 miles from the ‘drone’ apiary 8.

Swarms

I’ve discussed the relocation of swarms recently. Perhaps surprisingly (at least in terms of forage competition), swarms prefer to relocate relatively near the originating hive. Metres rather than miles.

The sphere of influence

Effective foraging – in terms of honey production (or, for that matter, brood rearing) – occurs within 2-3 miles of the hive. This distance is also the furthest that drones usually fly to occupy DCAs for mating.

Queens can fly further, but it’s the law of diminishing returns. Literally. The vast majority of matings occur within 5 miles of the hive.

In fact, other than under exceptional circumstances, a radius of 5 miles from a colony probably represents its ‘sphere of influence’ … either things that can influence the colony, or that the colony can influence.

Why does this matter?

Worker flight distances are relevant if you want to know the nectar sources your bees are able to exploit, or the pollination services they can provide. In both cases, closer is better. It used to also be relevant in trying to track down the source of pesticide kills, though fortunately these are very much rarer these days.

Closer is better ...

Closer is better …

Workers not only fly to forage on plants and trees. They also fly to rob other colonies. I don’t think there are any studies on the distances over which robbing can occur, but I’ve followed bees the best part of a mile across fields from my apiary to find the source of the robbing 9.

All of these movements can also transport diseases about, either in the form of phoretic Varroa mites piggybacking and carrying a toxic viral payload, or as spores from the foulbroods.

Drone and queen flight distances are important if you’re interested in establishing isolated mating sites to maintain particular strains of bees. My friends in the Scottish Native Honey Bee Society have recently described their efforts to establish an isolated queen mating site in the Ochil Hills.

And I’m interested as I now have access to a site over 6 miles from the nearest honey bees in an area largely free of Varroa.

It’s not the Wyoming badlands, but it’s very remote 🙂


 

Taking stock

It’s the middle of the season 1. Hopefully, the timely application of swarm control measures such as a vertical split or Pagden’s artificial swarm, have maintained strong colonies and created additional colonies headed by new queens.

July is the month I review my stocks with the goal of:

  • replacing ageing queens that are unproductive
  • removing bad tempered colonies (though most have already been dealt with)
  • preparing strong colonies to exploit late season nectar flows
  • making up nucleus colonies for overwintering, either as backups or for sale

Of course, this type of taking stock should be a continuous process through the season, but it’s easier to start it now for the winter, rather than leaving it to the shorter days, more variable weather and less dependable nectar flows of late summer.

Two into one does go

A small hole ...

A small hole …

Often the intention is to simply replace an old queen with a new queen. In a vertical split this is simplicity itself. Remove the queen that is unwanted and the split board, replacing the latter with a sheet of newspaper. Make one or two very small holes in the newspaper with the point of a hive tool and leave the colony to it.

Over the course of the next few days the workers will chew through the newspaper, unite amicably and set about building up the stores for winter.

A week or so after uniting I rearrange the frames, usually making space for the queen to lay in the top box with the brood below. If the colonies being united are smaller it’s sometimes possible to remove one box altogether.

There’s discussion online about quick ways to unite colonies by spraying both with air freshener. The smell – which is usually pretty awful 2 – masks the colony scent and so the colony does not fight. I’ve not done this so can’t recommend it (or, for that matter, criticise it).

Since I’ll be returning a week later to check the boxes and rearrange frames I’m happy to stick with newspaper uniting which rarely fails. Air freshener is also one less thing to carry in the bee bag.

Nucs for pleasure and profit

Five frame nucleus (nuc) colonies overwinter well if prepared properly 3. They are really useful in the early spring to make up for any winter losses, to replace colonies with failing queens 4 or to sell.

Everynuc

Everynuc …

Overwintered nucs are often appreciably more expensive than those imported later in the season, or in the glut of bees that follows the swarming season.

The queen has proved herself and the nuc is available when demand is highest … at the very beginning of the season.

Whilst I would – and have – argued that it might be better to start beekeeping later in the season working alongside your mentor, there are strong economic imperatives to overwinter nucs for sale.

Splits and nucs

With a successful split (or Pagden) you now have two queens, one strong colony and one building up fast. The latter – with the new queen – can be used to prepare a nuc for overwintering, with the remaining bees and brood strengthening the original colony for the late season nectar flow 5.

It’s easy to prepare a nuc colony to take away to a distant apiary – the new queen, a frame of stores, one or two of emerging brood and a mixed frame of eggs and brood, all with the adhering bees, together with a couple more frames of bees shaken in over the top. Make up to five frames with foundation, seal them up and ship ’em off to your out apiary.

If you don’t have access to an out apiary you should ensure that the majority of the older workers are omitted when preparing the nuc, and you should add in additional young bees to help the new queen get established.

It’s also worth stuffing the nuc entrance with dead grass for a few days to enforce the ‘new environment’ on the bees.

Stuffed

Stuffed …

You exclude the old foragers by giving each frame placed in the nuc a gentle shake before putting it into the box. The old bees fly off, the young ones cling on. Do the same with the ~3-4 additional frames of bees added on top before re-siting the the nuc in the apiary.

Nucs may need feeding, particularly if there’s a dearth of nectar or bad weather. Keep an eye on them. By excluding the old foragers you can feed them without the risk of robbing. However, it’s wise not to feed them for the best part of a week after making up the nuc to allow any carried-over stragglers to return. This is why it’s important to include a full frame of stores from the outset.

Variations

There’s still ample time in the season to rear new queens, so all sorts of other combinations of requeening/uniting and/or splits are still possible. For example, I’ve recently used a particular queen to requeen a colony and will split the box she came from into 2-3 nucs, all of which should build up well for overwintering.

By splitting the box after the new queen cells are raised I ensure they were produced by a well-balanced population of bees, with ample stores under ideal conditions. I think this is better than divvying up the frames from the recently queenless box and hoping to achieve the strong and balanced population in all the nucs. Inevitably some are stronger than others … or, more significantly in terms of queen cell production, weaker.

And in between all of this amateur dabbling I’ve been working with our friends and collaborators in Aberdeen on methods of Varroa control to minimise the levels of deformed wing virus (DWV) as well as starting our studies on chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV) …

Hot day, hard work ...

Hot day, hard work …

… oh yes, and moving into a new house 😉 6


 

 

Keeping your cool

Beekeepers sweat, men perspire and women glow, or something pretty close to that, was an adage that originated in a Victorian etiquette guide 1.

And, in the weather we’ve been enjoying recently, it’s not far from the truth.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen ... and beekeepers

Only mad dogs and Englishmen … and beekeepers

Beekeeping in hot weather

Even here on the East coast of Scotland we’ve had some long, hot and sunny days 2. It’s been perfect picnic weather, it’s made for a great Spring honey crop and it’s been purgatory doing colony inspections.

The first one or two are fine, but I soon warm up. After half a dozen hives, particularly when shifting nectar-laden supers off and on, or setting up double-boxed splits, it starts to get uncomfortable. An hour or so later and it’s really grim 3.

And it’s worse in the bee shed. The shelter and warmth that are so valuable on days with rubbish weather or at the extremes of the season, work against you in the heat of the summer. The temperature inside the shed regularly exceeds 30°C and, with no air movement, it can be stifling.

What’s the best way to cope with the heat?

Beesuits

BBwear Ultra suit

BBwear Ultra suit

Most of the major manufacturers make lightweight beesuits. I’ve got one from BBwear made from some sort of Teflon coated material. It’s certainly lightweight – about half the weight of my standard poly/cotton suit – but is saved for use when working in Varroa and disease-free areas. The relatively rare hot days we have don’t really justifying buying (yet) another full suit.

BBwear have recently introduced their Ultra suit made from a high tec fully ventilated 3D fabric’. At £359 (eke! 4) I’m unlikely to ever get to wear one 5, but I’d be very interested to hear of anyone who has experience of it.

For quick inspections a jacket is cooler than a full suit … but during quick inspections you’re unlikely to work up much of a lather.

The clothing you wear under the beesuit also has a big influence – shorts and a T-shirt are much better than jeans and a fleece.

And if you need to wear a fleece under your beesuit to provide protection against stings it’s time to requeen the colony.

Timing is everything

Late evening in the apiary

Late evening in the apiary

Inspecting colonies under the heat of the midday sun can be hard work. If time permits you could always inspect earlier or later in the day, or time your visit to the apiary so that the hives are in dappled shade rather than full sun.

Work commitments mean I often have to conduct inspections late in the afternoon. On hot days it is usually cooler by 5pm, but by the time I’ve got round most of the colonies it can be getting quite late 6.

Of course, as the day cools the hive fills with bees, making the important observation of the comb more difficult. This is compounded by fading light levels.

Given the choice – and I’m usually not – I’d probably prefer to inspect in mid-morning, once the bees are up and out, but without having to worry about running out of daylight or time.

The “You cannot be serious” 7 option

John McEnroe c.1979

John McEnroe c.1979

A headband is a very effective way to stop the sweat getting in your eyes, dripping off the end of your nose and splashing onto the inside of the veil. You might associate headbands (sweatbands) with tennis players or Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits, but they are just as much use to overheating beekeepers. Just remember to retrieve it from the pocket of your beesuit at the end of the afternoon, rather than leave it festering in there until the inspections the following week … a damp and slightly fetid headband not only doesn’t look good, it also doesn’t smell good.

But it’s still very effective.

If you want to get ahead, get a hat 8

The near-ubiquitous baseball cap provides almost as much perspiration-protection as the headband and probably has a little more sartorial elegance (not difficult). They have the added advantage that, on windy days, the peak prevents the veil blowing against your face at precisely the same time the one aggressive bee in the colony decides to make a kamikaze attack.

Baseball caps work well under the ‘fencing veil’ hoods, but I cannot comment on their suitability for the wire-framed ‘retro’ hoods as these fit more closely to the crown (and I’ve never used one).

G’day, cobber 9

G'day Cobber

G’day Cobber

Cobber Enterprises make a neck scarf filled with water-absorbing gel granules. You soak it in water for ~15-25 minutes and wear it loosely tied around your neck (no surprises there). It works by evaporative cooling of the carotid arteries. I’ve had a couple of these for years 10 and have used them when walking in Southern Spain or Mallorca … and beekeeping. They need to be next to your skin and should be rotated periodically to find another cool patch.

They are extremely effective.

When writing this post I looked up the current pricing and availability of a Cobber. I was horrified to see they’re now over £20. However, you can dry them out and reuse them time and again. Mine appear to work as well now as they did when I got them about 15 years ago 11.

In Australia they’re about £7 🙁 12

Drinking on the job

The beekeeping veil provides protection to keep any bad tempered bees from your sensitive lips, tongue and eyes. However, it doesn’t prevent you rehydrating as required … you can simply guzzle water from a bottle directly through the veil. This works very well and is very refreshing on a long hot afternoon in the apiary.

However, stick to water only and avoid sticky, sugary drinks for obvious reasons. Drinking hot tea through the veil is possible, but not really recommended … not least because its ability to cool you be inducing sweating is probably negated by the fact you’re at least ‘glowing’ already.

And finally, once the inspections are all finished and the beesuit is hanging up (or destined for the washing machine), it’s time for a cuppa … or a ‘purely medicinal’ ice-cold beer 😉


Colophon

Of course, writing an article on good weather and beekeeping will more or less guarantee the rest of the summer is a wash-out. Sorry.

I should add that “other beesuit suppliers are available”. I list BBwear as they’re the only suits I’m familiar with … I’ve bought about a dozen over the last decade for home or work and never seen the need to change.

Spring honey harvest

With good Spring weather the first honey extraction of the year is usually timed for early June.

Oil seed rape (OSR) ...

Oil seed rape (OSR) …

We’ve had wonderful weather in the east of Scotland this Spring. Unusually, colony build-up was in time to exploit the Spring nectar and several colonies ended up with at least three supers.

One of my two main apiaries is close to oil seed rape (OSR) fields and this was more or less finished by late May. OSR nectar has a high glucose content and readily crystallises. It’s therefore important to get the honey off before it sets rock solid in the frames 1.

Is the honey ready yet?

However, it’s also important not to remove the supers before the bees have capped off the comb, or at least reduced the water content below ~20% or there is a real risk that the honey will ferment in storage.

Capped honey super frame ...

Capped honey super frame …

When adding new supers I always put them directly above the brood box. Therefore, in a stacked hive, the top super will be the oldest and the most likely to be capped and ready to remove. Lower down the frames may be partially capped. Usually you’ll find the frames in the middle of the box capped before the outliers.

(Very) partially capped honey super frame ...

(Very) partially capped honey super frame …

During weekly inspections in late May I check the supers. If a frame is capped it’s ready. If it’s not and the nectar is dripping out when you turn the frame over then it’s definitely not ready.

You can test if uncapped frames are ready by giving them a sharp shake directly over the open super. If nectar drops are shaken out the water content is still too high. Sometimes you’ll find the majority of the frame capped with watery nectar at the very edges.

You don’t need to check every frame, or even every super. With widely spaced frames you can often clearly see they’re all capped. If you can’t you probably just need to check a central frame and one or two on the periphery.

Clearer boards

Fully capped supers usually contain relatively few bees when compared to partially or uncapped frames. Therefore, if the super is fully capped it’s usually easy enough to shake the bees off each frames, transferring the frames to a spare super for transport.

However, supers like the one pictured above, are often covered in bees. The easiest way to clear these is to use a clearer board. These provide a ‘no-moving-parts-one-way-valve’ means of emptying the super of bees. The design I use has a thick lower rim, providing ample space for the bees that move down in the hive. If I’m clearing a tall stack of supers I’ll often add an empty super below the clearer rather than completely overcrowding the brood box.

Removed and inverted clearer board ...

Removed and inverted clearer board …

Add the clearer board 2 and return the following day to remove the super(s) that are now nearly empty of bees. There are almost always a few stragglers 3.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed this year that there are more stragglers if the colony is queenless. I suspect that this might influence the movement of bees in the hive. This isn’t a scientifically controlled observation … just an “I’ve noticed” 😉

Keeping the supers warm

A defining feature of a good year in beekeeping is that you run out of equipment … frames, supers, split boards, roofs etc. With the exception of roofs (because I knock them up from Correx sheets for a couple of quid each) I’ve run out of all of these this year.

And clearers 🙁

Stacked warming supers ...

Stacked warming supers …

I therefore clear a few hives at a time. However, I like to do all my honey extracting in a single day (or weekend if it’s been a good year). This is mainly because I loathe the cleaning up afterwards 🙂

I therefore keep the supers warm until I’m ready to extract. My honey warming cabinet was designed to take 2 x 15kg buckets of honey (inside) or to allow two stacks of supers to be built on top of the open box.

By ensuring no gaps and adding some insulation (bubble wrap or an old blanket) on top I can set the element at ~40°C and the honey in the stacked supers is kept nice and warm 4.

This offers two very significant advantages. OSR honey takes longer to crystallise and the honey, being warm, is much easier to extract.

If the stack of supers is 6+ high I usually rotate them top to bottom, bottom to top every few days, and try and extract from the warmest supers first. This year I cleared supers over a 7-9 day period and extracted them all together.

Mind your back

A brief word of caution … full supers are heavy. Take care lifting them.

Out of interest I weighed some full cedar and poly supers and they each weighed 17-21kg (about 37-43lb). The weight difference isn’t just the weight of the box as the supers contained different numbers of frames, so I’m not comparing like with like.

Full super ready for extraction

Full super ready for extraction …

Beekeeping is hard work. If you extract just 10 supers, handling the boxes just five times each during the process (hive to car, car to house, house to warming cabinet to extractor and then back again) you’ll have moved about a metric tonne. You will move them more than this.

Beekeepers back is a very real problem.

And that’s before you handle individual frames during uncapping and loading the extractor. After a hundred full frames I get very sore hands doing this bit, let alone shifting all the full boxes.

Extraction

Honey extraction ...

Honey extraction …

Extracting honey is a bit of a chore.

It’s not even much fun writing about it … 😉

The first bucket or two is enjoyable 5, but the novelty wears off really fast. It’s noisy, repetitive, hot, hard work. Did I say it was repetitive?

I’ve reviewed my extractor previously. It works well and I try and look after it carefully. There’s lots of preparation and even more cleaning up afterwards.

I always run the extractor with the gate open, filtering honey directly through coarse and fine filters into 15kg buckets 6. Once a bucket is full I measure the water content with a refractometer and label the lid with the year/month, source apiary 7, the honey weight and the %age water.

Buckets get stored in a cool, stone-floored room. The honey sets and will keep more or less indefinitely until it’s needed for bottling. Where possible I use the buckets with the highest water content first.

Beer

And once I’ve completed all the cleaning up I treat myself to a well-deserved beer … 🙂


Colophon

Spring follows winter and precedes summer. However, the timing is variable and depends upon the hemisphere and whether you use meteorological or astronomical reckoning. In the US and UK it’s March, April and May using meteorological reckoning. However, there’s not much nectar collected here in the East of Scotland in March. Alternatively, using astronomical/solar reckoning Spring starts on the vernal equinox (~20th March) and ends on the summer solstice (which, conveniently, was yesterday … 😉 ).

Beekeepers might be better using a phenological or ecological estimation for the start of Spring, for example defined by the flowering of a particular range of plants.

Alternatively – and a whole lot easier to measure but much more difficult to predict – define Spring like Swedish meteorologists … “the first occasion on which the average daytime temperature exceeds zero degrees Celsius for seven consecutive days”. This means Spring will vary  with both latitude and elevation. Perfectly sensible and at the same time confusing 🙂

Queen cells … don’t panic!

You’ve inspected your colony and discovered queen cells on one or more frames.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

Do you want the good news or the bad news?

The good news is that your colony is building up well and with a little careful management and luck you’ll be able to requeen them in about a month. A new, well-mated queen should ensure a strong colony going into the winter.

Result!

Alternatively, you could increase your colony numbers as – without exception – two is better than one.

The bad news is that your colony is rapidly outgrowing the space it has, it’s going to need some careful management and an appreciation of the development cycle of the queen. Unless you’re very lucky the colony will swarm and you’ll be left with one, significantly weakened, queenless colony.

Result … but probably not one you want.

Swarming isn’t a catastrophe. Things can usually be rescued, albeit with an interruption to colony development and honey production. However, it should be avoided if at all possible, not least because the lost swarm might cause problems for other people.

Play cups, charged queen cells and sealed queen cells

New queens are reared in specially shaped cells that are oriented vertically on the frame. They can be anywhere on the frame, but are often located on the edge of the comb, either at the sides or along the bottom.

Play cups ...

Play cups …

Beekeepers make the distinction between cells of different sizes, different stages of development and – sometimes, though probably less reliably 1 – the type of cell (emergency, supercedure etc.) based upon their location.

Play cups are small cup-shaped cells that might subsequently be developed into queen cells. They’re regularly present in colonies that have no intention of swarming.

~3 day old queen cell ...

~3 day old queen cell …

After an egg is laid and hatches in one of these cup shaped cells the workers start feeding the developing larvae. At the same time the cell is extended, usually becoming broader and longer. Cells at this stage of development get a large amount of attention from workers in the hive and usually end up containing a thick bed of Royal Jelly in which the developing larvae floats. These are charged queen cells.

Charged queen cell ...

Charged queen cell …

Finally the cell is sealed and the larvae pupates before emerging as a virgin queen. During this period, particularly just before and after being sealed, the workers often sculpt the outer surface of the cell. Shortly before eclosion a thinner, darker brown ring can appear around the tip of the sealed cell.

Sealed queen cell ...

Sealed queen cell …

Timing is everything

Queen development takes 16 days from egg laying to eclosed (emerged) adult virgin queen bee. The egg is laid in a cup and hatches on the 3rd day. The larva is fed copious amounts of Royal Jelly until day 8 when the cell is sealed or capped. About 16 days after the egg was laid the new queen emerges.

Queen development

Queen development …

There’s a little bit of variation in these timings – hours, not days – and several diagrams show the queen cell sealed on the 9th day. In my previous description of queen rearing in a queenright colony (using the Ben Harden method) I’ve stated that the cell is capped on day 9. That’s a convenient number to remember as she’ll emerge a week later.

We’re off !

Under normal circumstances the colony will swarm once the new queen cells are capped. The old queen and about 75% of the workers leave the hive for pastures new.

Poor weather can delay things, but it’s relatively rare to find sealed queen cells and the old queen still in residence … unless she’s clipped which delays things by a few days. However, clipping the queen does not stop swarming, it just buys you time and restricts the distance the swarm can go.

Clipped queen ...

Clipped queen …

If the colony does swarm they often end up underneath the original hive. The queen crashes ignominiously to the ground as she leaves the hive. She then crawls up the leg of the hive stand and is joined by the flying bees beneath the floor. It’s a bit of a palaver, but you can then brush/encourage them into a skep and rehive them.

Weekly inspections

An understanding of the development cycle of the queen and the swarming behaviour of colonies explains why inspections on a seven day cycle make sense. If there are no queen cells on the first inspection there is little or no chance the colony will have swarmed on a sealed queen cell within the following seven days.

Since colonies headed by clipped queens tend to delay a bit before swarming it’s usually reckoned you can inspect on a 10 day cycle. Although most of my queens are clipped 2 I inspect on a 7 day cycle as it fits better with work commitments.

What to do if you find queen cells

Don't panic

Don’t panic …

Don’t panic.

Correctly determining the state of the colony now will ensure you take the correct course of action.

It’s not unusual for an inexperienced beekeeper to find one or more sealed queen cells in the colony and to immediately remove them all 3.

However, if this novice beekeeper subsequently finds there’s no queen in the colony (unsurprising as she’s swarmed), no eggs in the colony (because she swarmed >3 days ago) and no young larvae in the colony (because they actually swarmed nearly a week ago) then the colony has no chance of raising a new queen without further intervention by the beekeeper e.g. by providing a ‘frame of eggs’ from another colony from which a new queen can be reared.

What I do depends upon what I find …

Play cups

I check to see if any have eggs in and then pinch them flat … mainly so I can tell if more have been made since the last inspection.

Charged queen cells

The first time I discover these I usually knock them all down and leave the colony another week.

This is not risk-free 4.

Firstly … I check that the colony is queenright and that the queen is OK i.e. still laying at a reasonable rate, not being hassled by the workers and looking healthy. If I have any concerns about the queen I’ll start some form of swarm control (see below).

Secondly … It’s imperative to destroy all the charged queen cells. I therefore shake the bees off each frame and check the comb carefully … the sides, the bottom, the various nooks and crannies.

Everywhere.

Miss one charged cell and they’ll likely swarm within the next 7 days. Anything that looks like a queen cell gets squidged 5.

Finally … if this is the second consecutive weekly inspection with charged queen cells I’ll start some form of swarm control (see below).

Don’t repeatedly rely upon knocking off every charged queen cell week after week after week.

You will miss one … I guarantee it. They will swarm.

Destroying charged queen cells is not swarm control

This should be engraved on every hive tool sold to new beekeepers 😉

I speak from experience 🙁

Play cup or queen cell?

Play cup or are they planning their escape …?

Sealed queen cells

Oops  🙄

They’ve probably swarmed. It’s therefore too late for swarm control.

However, I check for eggs and the queen. I might be lucky … poor weather may have prevented swarming 6. Alternatively, the presence of eggs tells me they went in the last 3 days so I have an idea of the age of the sealed cell (so can calculate when the new queen will emerge).

Ideally I like to leave a colony with a single cell I know contains a developing pupae. Although you can open and reseal queen cells (Ted Hooper describes doing this in Introduction to Bees and Honey) to check they’re occupied, I’ve never bothered.

Instead, if there are large charged queen cells present I select one, mark the frame and then destroy all the sealed cells and unwanted charged unsealed cells. I can estimate to a day or so when the queen will emerge and so know when there’s likely to be a new mated queen in the hive.

If there are eggs and young larvae but no other charged cells (rare), I’ll knock back the sealed cells and let them rear more, finally leaving them with one known charged cell after the next inspection.

Swarm control

This post is already too long … there are dozens of ways of doing this. Two already described in detail are vertical splits and the ‘classic’ artificial swarm. Both are pretty much foolproof if you can find the queen. Both are conservative and non-destructive … you can reunite colonies if either fails.

Vertical splits use less equipment and need less space, but involve some heavy lifting.

Pagdens’ artificial swarm requires a duplicate hive and more space but is gentler on your back.

Or make up a nuc with the old queen as a backup and leave the colony to rear a new queen. I’ll describe this approach in the future.


 

If Carlsberg did apiaries …

How about this for an apiary in a truly stunning location?

If Carlsberg did apiaries ...

If Carlsberg did apiaries …

I discovered this apiary while out walking in the Andalucian hills in Southern Spain in mid-May. It was at the end of a forest track, miles from anywhere, with breathtaking views over the cork oak woods South towards the Strait of Gibraltar. It was a bit hazy that afternoon, but on a good day you can clearly see across the Strait to the Rif mountains in Morocco (~100 miles distant), with the faintest trace of the Middle Atlas beyond them.

Not just a pretty view

The photo doesn’t really do justice to the location of the apiary. Yes, the view was great, but what was at least as impressive was the amount of wildflowers around. It’s not an arable area. Most of the farmland was olive trees or lemons, with large areas of wildflower meadow and mixed deciduous woodland. Much of this was cork oak, but it was interspersed with Corsican pines and a variety of other things I couldn’t name.

Wildflower meadow Andalucia

Wildflower meadow Andalucia

I’d be surprised if any of it ever sees a spray of any kind, and the only grazing is by horses, a few feral goats and the elusive wild boar 1. The scene on the right is typical and the road verges were the same, with acres and acres of these beautiful “weeds” everywhere.

Unsurprisingly, the other thing missing from these pictures is the noise.

Everywhere I walked – even on days when I barely left the fringes of the village – I was accompanied by the incessant drone of insects. There were bees everywhere and – again unsurprisingly – the local mixed floral honey was fantastic.

From a beekeeping point of view it really did seem idyllic. Perhaps the only issue would be the temperature. In Spring the midday temperatures were in the mid-20’s (°C) and – going by my experience of working colonies in the bee shed – that can get pretty hot and tiring in a bee suit.

Hives

There were about 20 hives in the apiary, lined up on pallets all in full sun. Unlike other apiaries in the area there was no registration number displayed, so it might have been a temporary site from which the hives would be moved in high summer.

Andalucian apiary

Andalucian apiary

To a beekeeper familiar with the stackable boxes of a National or Langstroth, the hives were unusual. The majority were single boxes, with hinged lids and one or two entrances low down at the front.

Layens hive

Layens hive

These are Layens hives, a single large, deep box containing 15 or more frames. Each frame is about the same width as a British National brood frame, but is almost twice as deep. Georges de Layens, who invented the hive in the 19th Century, designed it for minimal management beekeeping.

No weekly inspections, no overt swarm control, simply give the bees sufficient room in a well-insulated hive and return to harvest the honey at the end of the season.

Can it really be that simple?

Well, it certainly could be that simple.

However, Layens developed the hive long before Varroa appeared on the scene, and monitoring and managing disease in a hive with no removable or open mesh floor – particularly with only a couple of inspections a season – seems an unlikely recipe for success to me 2.

It’s reported that there are still more than a million Layens hives in use in Spain and the hive design has some strong supporters in the US 3. The hive design also lends itself to migratory beekeeping as there are no teetering stacks to be strapped together for transport.

Spanish readers of this site represent less than 0.5% of the annual visitors … if you are one of them please add a comment on the practicalities of beekeeping using the Layens hive.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses

Derelict Spanish apiary

Derelict Spanish apiary

I’ve visited this area of Andalucia for several years. Near the village is an apiary that has – year by year – slowly been falling into disrepair. There were originally ~20 hives in lightly shaded woodland surrounded by wildflower meadows. It was a lovely spot, just off a little-used track, protected from the midday sun, secure yet accessible … though the view wasn’t a patch on the one at the top of the page.

Five years ago most hives – all Layens again – were busy with bees and I remember being surprised by the number of hornets hawking around. The apiary carried a registration number and the hives were scruffy, but functional.

Year by year the number of hives on their side, open, damaged or otherwise clearly defunct has gradually increased. Corners of the apiary filled with broken and discarded frames or other rubbish.

By this Spring it was all over. There were still about 20 hives in the apiary, but none of them were upright and functional. The few that were upright were non-functional and the only one containing bees was badly damaged and on its side, with the bees gaining access from a split in the corner.

It appeared as though the apiary had been abandoned by just about everything other than the Jabalí … and they’d had a field day ransacking the hives.

Ransacked Layens hive ...

Ransacked Layens hive …

Abandoned hives, robbing and mites

Of course, I don’t know the back story … an ageing beekeeper unable to cope any longer, hives inherited by someone without sufficient interest or beekeeping skills, or simply an unproductive apiary that was forgotten.

Bees entering an abandoned Layens hive

Bees entering an abandoned Layens hive

The hives were largely stripped out, but at one point must have posed a disease risk for neighbouring colonies. Unless mite levels were controlled the colonies would eventually succumb to Varroa-transmitted viruses. As the colony weakens it is likely to get robbed-out by strong colonies from nearby apiaries.

The robbers returning to their colonies carry honey and hitchhiking phoretic mites. This is what the Americans call a “mite bomb”.

There’s good evidence that this route of mite transmission peaks late in the season during a dearth of nectar. This is one of the reasons that justifies coordinated mite treatments at the correct time of the year to protect the winter bees.


Colophon

I have no imagination … I’ve used the “If Carlsberg did …” prefix a couple of times already, when discussing smokers and vaporisers. I’ll try and think of something a little more original for the future. In my defence I have spent 50% of the last four weeks abroad, successfully controlled swarming (by vertical splits or Pagdens’) in over half of the ~25 colonies I’m currently managing, run out of supers, brood boxes and frames (D’oh!) and been involved in some exciting new plans for going Varroa-free in the future. Watch this space.