Author Archives: David

Foundationless frames update

A few weeks ago I described foundationless frames built with vertical bamboo supports. In a related post on starter strips I explained that I was going to compare homemade (dipped) wax strips with simple wooden strips or laths, the latter made from tongue depressors.

Here’s an update on the progress the bees have made with these frames so far.


This trial wasn’t properly scientific, it was poorly controlled, it was conducted over several weeks in two apiaries with bees from a variety of sources. As a scientific study it was deeply, deeply flawed. I know a bit about these things. You have been warned. Caveat emptor.

Starter strips – KISS is better

Essentially I could see no difference in the acceptance rate (effectively the rate at which bees started comb) between the three types of starter strips tested. These were homemade wax strips or wood (tongue depressors) strips glued to the top bar with adhesive and either left bare or coated with molten wax.

Some of the frames I’ve been using even had one of each of these types of starter strips in each of the three ‘panels’ (see below) on the frames.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

Frames like these were used in hives with packages or shook swarms and were readily accepted by the bees and rapidly drawn out (either with a good flow of nectar from the OSR, or 1:1 syrup made up from leftover fondant). By the time I went to check all three ‘segments’ were started in the hives. I didn’t monitor which was the first to be used … I’d have needed to be inspecting hourly and I have a life (and job and family).

As far as I could tell there appeared to be no preference to the type of starter strip used.

Just starting out ...

Just starting out …

Of the 20-30 frames like this used so far this season, all have remained attached during inspections, whether started on wood or wax. I’m reasonably careful handling frames, but I reckon these could cope with all but the most cack-handed beekeeper. Colonies in the bee shed have been exposed to temperatures in the mid-high 30’s (°C for overseas readers) with no adverse effects, other than the expected softening of comb at high temperatures.

Conclusion – since the outcome was indistinguishable there seems no reason not to use simple unwaxed wooden strips as starter strips in foundationless frames. The KISS principle applies here.

There are two or three additional benefits from the observation that simple wooden laths are perfectly acceptable as starter strips; 1) there’s no need to go through the interminable and messy process of making your own wax starter strips, 2) there are no foundation costs involved, 3) the frames can be recycled through a steam wax extractor without damaging them.

Bamboo … zled

Foundationless frames built with vertical 4mm bamboo skewers are easy and inexpensive to construct. I’ve used about 50 of these already this season with almost no problems. The bees usually avoid the vertical skewers until the comb is nearly completely built. Often this is well after the queen has started laying in the upper section of the frame or the bees start to store honey in the upper cells.

Foundationless triptych ...

Foundationless triptych …

It’s not until the frames are well occupied with brood or nectar that the vertical gaps on either side of the bamboo skewers are usually filled in§. Until then the comb is only attached at the underside of the top bar. This is a potential weakness … until the comb is completed there is little lateral support or stability.

Handling the frames, particularly in hot weather, requires some care. I found myself going through the same frame handling methods I was taught several years ago – turn through 90°, rotate around the top bar, turn back through 90° etc. to inspect the other side of the (now inverted) frame.

Re-reading that it still doesn’t sound quite correct, but anyone who has attended a winter training course for new beekeepers will be familiar with what I’m talking about.

Nearly completed ...

Nearly completed …

Once the gaps are filled the comb is pretty robust and can be (mis)handled with the usual amount of care used for comb built on wired foundation. In addition, you can smile smugly to yourself as the woodwork was probably built from second quality frame partsΔ, there were no foundation costs involved and the wax is clean and untainted by residues.

Worker, drone, worker … worker, worker, drone

One of the striking features of hives containing a significant amount of foundationless frames is that the bees draw significantly more drone comb than is usually found. On standard foundation the bees squeeze drone comb into the corners of the frames, often making the comb uneven and misshapen. On foundationless frames they draw lots more, but the comb is generally not as misshapen.

If you use horizontally wired foundationless frames there will be large swathes of the comb dedicated to rearing drones. This may be intermixed with worker comb.

In contrast, frames built with vertical bamboo skewers tend to be drawn in thirds … with each third being ‘dedicated’ to either (or largely) worker or drone brood.

In the ‘Foundationless triptych …’ image above the left and central panel are largely worker comb, with the right being drone. In the image below the left and right panels start as worker but soon transition to all drone comb, the central panel is worker.


Drone-worker-drone …

I see this as a very significant advantage of this type of foundationless frame. Since the demarcation between drone and worker brood is pretty clear and since there are no wires to be cut, it will be a simple task to excise the unwanted segment (whether drone or worker) as required. We do this type of manipulation all the time when harvesting brood from our research colonies and the bees rapidly rebuild the damage if there is a nectar flow. It does not seem to result in weirdly shaped brace comb appearing throughout the hive.

Conclusion – bamboo skewers make good supports for foundationless brood frames. Before being completely drawn the frames need to be treated a little more gently than those with horizontal (wire or monofilament) supports which are more rapidly incorporated into comb. In my view the robustness and ease of construction using bamboo skewers outweighs this transitory lack of support.

Beautifully simple and simply beautiful

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Freshly drawn foundationless comb is really lovely stuff …

Beautiful newly drawn comb ...

Beautiful newly drawn comb …

† The KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid) dates back to the early 1960’s. It was originally a naval design term and was an expression meaning that most systems work better if they are kept simple rather than being made more complicated. Simplicity was therefore the design goal and unnecessary complexity was to be avoided.

‡ As a comparison, 1000 tongue depressors cost about £17 delivered. This is sufficient for well over 300 frames that are usable in perpetuity, or at least as long as the joints remain intact. In parallel to frames made with homemade foundation I have also used another 20-30 with commercial foundation. These worked as well, or badly, as any of the other starter strips used.

Foundationless frame ...

Foundationless frame …

§ It’s interesting (to me at least) that vertical 4mm supports are avoided whereas horizontal 1mm monofilament is readily incorporated – for example, compare the image on the right with those above. Is it the thickness or the orientation that makes them acceptable? How would the bees cope with very thin vertical supports? Alternatively, would they readily build comb ‘down’ through 4mm horizontal bamboo skewers? The latter is tricky to test as the longest skewers I’ve been able to find (35cm) are too short for a National frame. However, the ability to more willingly incorporate a thinner vertical supports can easily be tested and will be something I may well investigate next season. I suspect it’s the thickness of the ‘barrier’ rather than the orientation that’s important. Very thin wooden skewers would be flimsy (even if they were available), but there are a variety of other materials that could be tested.

Δ In my experience, other than a few poorly placed knots, second-quality frames are perfectly acceptable for building foundationless frames. One of their few failings, at least from some purchased from Thorne’s, is that the foundation channels in the side bars are sometimes off centre. Obviously, this is of no relevance when preparing foundationless frames.


Prime numbers and cast offs

This post was prompted by a recent search used to reach this website. The question posed was can a prime swarm be led by virgin queen if [the] old clipped queen dies trying to lead a swarm?”

Swarming is the natural way that honey bee colonies reproduce. The process is triggered by a number of factors – overcrowding and diminishing levels of queen pheromone being two of the most important.

A small swarm

A small swarm …

Both these are, directly or indirectly, measures of how strong the colony is. If the queen has nowhere to lay because the box is wall-to-wall brood or stuffed with nectar, the colony is effectively overcrowded. In contrast, if the colony has ample space but there are so many bees that the queen pheromone is ‘diluted’, the colony will sense this indirect measure of strength and make swarm preparations.

In addition, as queens age they naturally produce less queen pheromone; colonies headed by older queens are therefore more likely to swarm than those headed by first year queens.

Prime swarms

You’ll see two definitions of prime swarms. Some define it as the swarm headed by the mated, laying queen and others use it to mean the first swarm to issue from a hive.

They’re usually one and the same thing.

Developing queen cells in the hive are capped on the 9th day after the egg they contained was laid. If the weather conditions are suitable – typically early afternoon on a warm, sunny day – the mated queen leaves the hive with up to half the workers.

This swarm – headed by the mated queen and often containing perhaps 20 – 30,000 bees – is the prime swarm. It’s the first to leave the hive … but it might not be the last …

Captured swarm in 8 frame poly nuc

Captured swarm in 8 frame poly nuc …

Casts (or cast swarms)

Seven days after the queen cells were sealed the new, virgin queen emerges (or ecloses). For the continued viability of the original colony this queen needs to be mated and return to the colony. She does this on a warm, sunny day a few days after eclosion.

However, there are often several developing queen cells remaining in a hive after a prime swarm disappears over the fence to the howling wilderness.

This is where things get interesting.

All sorts of things can happen at this point. If the colony is strong enough it will throw off one or more casts. These are small swarms, headed by a virgin queen. Small is a relative term. They’re small in comparison to a prime swarm. Once started a colony can continue to throw off smaller and smaller casts. Some are these small in comparison to a mug of tea.

The continued loss of bees means the colony may effectively ‘swarm-out’, reducing in strength until perhaps only 10% of the original colony remains. If this happens any opportunity of a honey harvest is also lost and there’s a chance the colony will not recover sufficiently in time to overwinter successfully.

To complicate matters further, if multiple queens emerge casts can contain more than one queen. Sometimes you’ll open a hive at the same time as multiple queens are emerging. It can be bedlam trying to catch half-a-dozen virgins scuttling around a busy brood box.

Hiving casts

Large casts – perhaps football-sized – are worth catching and dumping into a nuc. Once the queen gets mated they can develop into a worthwhile colony. Ted Hooper describes ‘rescuing’ smaller casts by uniting them over a queen excluder on top of the supers on a strong hive. The bees unite and the queen is prevented from entering the hive by the excluder. I’ve not had to do this. I’ve lost one or two colonies that swarmed out but missed the ever-diminishing casts altogether.

A cast ...

A cast …

The cast swarm above was collected in a skep and allowed to settle for a few hours. When I lifted the skep from the sheet to dump the bees into a nuc there was a single bee corpse remaining … a dead queen. The cast obviously contained at least two queens. On checking the nuc a week later, after a week of almost continuous rain, I found a single skittish queen running around. Her behaviour suggested she hadn’t yet had an opportunity to get out and mate.

A cast in the skep ...

A cast in the skep …

And the answer is … ?

Consider again the original question … can a prime swarm be led by virgin queen if [the] old clipped queen dies trying to lead a swarm?”. The answer isn’t necessarily straightforward.

I think I’d argue that a swarm led by a virgin queen, despite being the first swarm to leave the hive, is not a prime swarm. It’s viability still depends absolutely on the virgin getting mated.

I would consider it as a cast.

Clipped queen ...

Clipped queen …

Clipped queens have one wing trimmed to restrict their flight. This is a well-established method of swarm control. If the colony swarms the queen drops to the ground and the swarm often clusters with her under the hive. Colonies with clipped queens usually swarm a bit later in the development cycle of the new queen(s) in the colony. However, they are only delayed by a day or two.

I’m therefore puzzled why – as suggested in the question – there was both a clipped queen and an emerged virgin in the colony simultaneously. Or perhaps there wasn’t, but the query was whether a subsequent emerging virgin would head the swarm …

I’m afraid the puzzle will remain. The question came from an internet search … unless the person who posed it reads this and responds all we can do is speculate.

Or perhaps to establish themselves in your neighbours soffits. The same neighbour who has always complained about your bees chasing their dog and stinging their children. Reason enough to try and not lose swarms.

‡ I know this was a cast headed by a virgin queen because it came from a vertical split in which the queenless half was left overly strong. The clipped and mated queen was ‘all present and correct’ in the queenright half of the split – I checked. I’m intending to write a bit more about how to prevent casts in the future … once I’m a little better at it than I’ve been this Spring  😥

Scouting for girls

A swarm of bees is a wonderful sight … if it’s arriving in your bait hive. It’s still dramatic, but perhaps slightly less wonderful, if it’s disappearing over the fence from your apiary 😉

Although some will disagree, I think beekeepers have a responsibility to both control swarming of their own stock, and capture – or attract – swarms lost by others. Although perhaps incomprehensible to us, some don’t share our passion for bees. Many are frightened and a large swarm is an intimidating sight for the melissophobic.

A small swarm ...

A small swarm …

Aside from frightening people, if they move into the church tower or an old hollow tree, they’re likely to develop high levels of Varroa and the pathogenic viruses the mite transmits. As a consequence, they can act as a source of disease to bees in local apiaries, until they’re killed off in the winter. Which they almost certainly will be.

I therefore always put out bait hives in late Spring, well ahead of the expected start of the swarming season (which often coincides with the oil seed rape finishing). I’ve described the basics of bait hives previously – a National-sized, bee-smelling box containing one frame of old, dark comb and half a dozen foundationless frames. I often use stacked supers from the, otherwise-awful, Paradise poly hives for this purpose.

Dyb dyb dyb

One of the greats sights of the swarming season is the appearance of the first scout bees at the bait hive. First one or two, then a dozen and, within hours or days, hundreds. They check out the entrance and the inside the bait hive. They fly all around the perimeter. They’re unaggressive and you can get up close to watch them at work. If you listen carefully you can hear them pinging into the sidewalls and floor of the bait hive as they move about inside.

They actually probably measure the volume by a combination of walking around the inner walls and determining the mean free path length – the average length of all straight lines from wall-to-wall in the hive – in short flights. For an interesting and easily readable discussion of the physics behind this I recommend the short paper by Nigel Franks and Anna Dornhaus (PDF) How might individual honeybees measure massive volumes?

In my view, this alone is a good reason to use foundationless frames in a bait hive.

Scouts often arrive early at the bait hive and leave late. Their numbers will fluctuate with weather and temperature – they’ll disappear altogether in the rain, but reappear in force once a shower has passed.

Scouting around

This short video was taken about 9am, two or three days before a large prime swarm occupied the bait hive. The first scout bees I’d seen had been almost two weeks previously. By midday there were hundreds of bees checking the hive.

However, if you look closely, their behaviour is distinctively different from a colony ‘in residence’. They’re much more hesitant in entering the hive and they tend to check the immediate environment much more closely. In contrast, foragers returning to a colony don’t bother doing a couple of laps of the hive … they approach directly and enter with minimal delay.

Seeley’s swarms

The definitive guide to how scout bees choose suitable locations and then ‘persuade’ the swarm to relocate is Honeybee Democracy by Tom Seeley. This is an outstanding book, beautifully written and illustrated.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

Swarming is a two-stage process. The queen and flying bees leave the hive and settle nearby – on a branch, a fence post or (irritatingly) the top of a nearby conifer – creating the classic ‘beard-shaped’ cluster of bees. If you’re lucky with your timing and their location you can knock these into a box and, voila, you have a new colony.

Tom Seeley describes his own studies (based on the equally elegant work of Martin Lindauer in the 1950’s) that determine how scout bees convince the swarm to move from this temporary staging post to a new nesting location – a tree cavity, the church tower or your bait hive. The scout bees use a variation of the classic waggle dance – on the surface of the swarm hanging in the tree – to ‘persuade’ other scouts to check out the location they’ve found. Through repeated cycles of recruitment and reinforcement a consensus is reached and the scouts then lead the swarm to their new home.

That’s the abridged version. Read the book. There are subtleties and anecdotes throughout Honeybee Democracy that mean it’s the sort of book you can go back to time and time again, learning something new each time.

Early scouts

I was puzzled by the swarm that arrived in my bait hive. The first scouts appeared early in the first week of May. I was abroad from the 7th to the 14th and confidently expected the swarm to be waiting for me when I got back. However, it wasn’t until at least another week had elapsed – during which scout bee interest continued unabated – that the swarm arrived.

Honeybee democracy

Honeybee democracy

I went back to Honeybee Democracy and re-read the second chapter (‘Life in a honeybee colony’) and learnt – or was reminded – that there are early scout bees that are able to judge both nest site quality and the state of the colony preparing to swarm. These scouts are at work before the colony swarms. Uniquely these bees are judging both the availability and suitability of new homes and the readiness of the colony to swarm.

They can also tell whether it’s a nice day. The coincidence of these factors – good weather, readiness of the colony to swarm (i.e. sealed queen cells) and potential nest sites – initiate a behavioural change in these scouts that leads to the colony swarming.

Are these scouts the earliest sign of swarm preparation?

What Seeley doesn’t say is just how early in the swarming cycle these scout bees start their initial explorations.

Queens take 16 days to develop from new-laid eggs to eclosion, and just nine days to the sealing of the queen cell. If we assume that the first scouts I saw were from the same hive that subsequently swarmed (and delivered itself to my bait hive) then these scouts were out and about well-before queen cells were even started.

Of course, I have no way of telling whether the first scouts I saw were from the same colony that finally swarmed and arrived. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting thought. Perhaps scout bee interest in a bait hive pre-dates the first definitive swarm preparation signs beekeepers can usually recognise – the appearance of charged queen cells?

Considering the density of beekeepers (by which I mean apiaries 😉 ) in the UK it’s not easy to see how this would be useful … unless you’re the only beekeeper on an isolated island.

However, if you see do scout bee activity at your bait hives it might be worth being more assiduous than usual when checking your own colonies in the neighbourhood.


Scouting for Boys

Scouting for Boys …

The title of this post is a play on ‘Scouting for Boys‘, the book on Boy Scout training, written and illustrated (originally) by Robert Baden-Powell and published in 1908. The book contains sections on scoutcraft, woodcraft, tracking, camp life, endurance, chivalry, life saving and patriotism. It was the inspiration for the scout movement and Baden-Powell was the founder and first Chief Scout of the Boy Scouts Association (and the founder of the Girl Guides). It is estimated that 4 million copies sold in the UK alone, with global sales in the 20th Century exceeding 100 million.

The book even contains reference to honey bees with the statement that bees form a ‘model community, for they respect their Queen and kill their unemployed’.

The Boy Scouts of America used to offer merit badges in Beefarming (1915-1955) and Beekeeping (from 1955). The Beekeeping merit badge was discontinued in 1995.

Scouting for Girls is an English pop rock band. They have recently announced their 10th Anniversary Tour (Oct/Nov 2017) which means they’re much too new for me to know any of their music 😉

Dyb dyb dyb is an abbreviation for ‘do your best‘. This was part of a cub (not scout) ceremony and was followed by Dob dob dob (‘do our best‘). It was abandoned in the late sixties, but lives on in tricky questions on Qi.

Splits and stock improvement

Beekeeping is always more enjoyable if the bees you are handling are good quality. I’ve briefly discussed judging the quality and temperament of your bees when writing about record keeping. With experience, and in particular with comparisons between colonies, it’s possible to identify traits which make working with your bees more enjoyable.

Bad behaviour

Although I keep general records on colony build up, disease resistance and the like, the three behavioural traits I try and accurately score my bees on all relate to how pleasant they are to handle. These are temper, running on the comb and following. I score these on a scale of 1 to 5 (low to high) and any colony consistently at 3 or less will eventually require attention. Bees with poor temper or that run on the comb are unpleasant to inspect, making what should be an interesting activity a chore. Bees that ‘follow’ – dive bombing you dozens of metres away from the hives after an inspection – are a real pain. Aside from making your own post-inspection de-suiting risky they are a potential menace to others going near your apiary and so should not be tolerated.

It’s all in the genes … nearly

If you’re really unfortunate you can find bees showing all three traits simultaneously – stroppy, running, followers – but they’re more usually found individually. With all of these characteristics, assuming they’re not environmental (poor weather, no flow, queenless colonies etc.), requeening is the usual solution. Genetics and environment determine behaviour, and if the environment is OK, then the genetics need changing. You can do this by purchasing a new queen, by rearing your own by grafting, or – as described below – by splitting the colony and providing suitable young larvae for the queenless portion to rear the new queen from. I usually graft and rear queens from my best stock but resources – time largely, due to overseas work commitments – mean that all my queen rearing and replacement is being done by splits this season.

The mechanics of a split

I’ve described the mechanics of a conventional vertical split for swarm control and making increase previously. The colony is divided using a split or division board into two. The queenright ‘half’ gets the flying bees, the queenless ‘half’ starts to make new queen cells from very young larvae. ‘Half’ because this is an imprecise science in terms of bee numbers … top and bottom half of the colony might be a better description, though colony orientation is not proscribed. After one week the colony is manipulated to bleed off flying bees from the queenless half, both strengthening the queenright half and reducing the likelihood of swarming. Three weeks later there should be a new, mated laying queen present.

Like mother, like daughter

Like father, like son is more conventional, but clearly inappropriate for a colony of bees 😉 . As outlined above, the queenless half of the split rears a new queen from larvae already present in the colony. If this is a colony with undesirable characteristics then there’s a distinct possibility you’ll be getting ‘more of the same’. These larvae came from eggs laid by the queen that headed the colony with the very-same undesirable characteristics you’re trying to replace. With open mated queens it’s a lottery, but the deck is already stacked against you – if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors. So … stack the deck in your favour by providing eggs and young larvae from a colony with desirable characteristics.

Splits and stock improvement

Split the colony as previously described. In this case I’d argue that the queenless half should be on the top of the stack of boxes as you’ll be inspecting it a couple of times. Make sure the queenright half has sufficient stores should conditions deteriorate as they’ll be short of foragers for the next week or so. Make sure that the queenless half has the majority of brood – sealed and unsealed – as you’ll need young bees over an extended period to rear new queens.

Upstairs, downstairs?

Upstairs, downstairs?

At the end of this initial manipulation the queenright half will use an entrance at the bottom of the stack, orientated in the opposite direction to the original hive entrance. The split board will have an entrance open at the original front of the hive. This is illustrated in the ‘reversed’ orientation on the right hand side of diagram (right). For a more comprehensive discussion of the orientation of the queenright and queenless portions see the recent post entitled Upstairs, downstairs?

Seek and destroy

One week later you need to carefully inspect the upper (queenless) box. Any and all queen cells must be found and destroyed. You will need to shake the bees off every frame to do this. These potential new queens were all reared from eggs and larvae laid by the original queen. Since 7 days have elapsed there will no longer be any suitable young larvae for the colony to rear a new queen. The maths are straightforward; a newly laid egg hatches after 3 days and larvae must be less than 3 days old to rear queens from.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

When returning the frames to the brood box leave a gap in the middle. Into this gap add a frame containing eggs and young larvae from a colony with desirable genetics i.e. good tempered, steady on the comb and none of those dreadful followers. Mark the frame so you can identify it again if needed. If you have a choice of frames to transfer use one with fresh new comb as the bees find this easier to manipulate when drawing out queen cells.

Eggs in new comb ...

Eggs in new comb …

Normal service is resumed

With the new frame of eggs/larvae added you’re now back on track to complete the vertical split. I’d suggest reversing the hive at the same time as you add the frame of ‘desirable’ larvae. There should be plenty of young bees in the upper half of the split and it’s these that will rear the new queen. The flying bees will strengthen the queenright half of the hive, helping gather nectar if there is a flow on. Make sure the queenright half of the hive has sufficient supers – you don’t want to be disturbing the colony too much, particularly in about 2-3 weeks which is when the new virgin queen will be going on her mating flight(s).

One week after adding the frame of new eggs and larvae there should be queen cells clearly present on the marked frame. If there aren’t it’s likely you missed a queen cell when shaking through the colony and there might be a newly emerged virgin running about in the hive.

Queen cells ...

Queen cells …

In which case, let’s hope she doesn’t rear bees that behave like those from her mother 😉

The 25p crownboard

Considering their primary function is so simple, that of separating the bees from the roof, crownboards can vary from cheap and cheerful to complex and multifunctional. At one end of the spectrum is a simple sheet of thick plastic, at the other are the multiply-perforated offerings that Abelo supply with their poly hives.

Abelo poly National crownboard ...

Abelo poly National crownboard …

Cheaper than chips

Thick, clear polythene sheeting can be purchased from eBay by the metre. 1000 gauge sheet (250 microns) is probably about right. Unsurprisingly, the more you buy the cheaper per square metre it gets, and you’ll find lots of uses for it other than crownboards. Some of it is sold as damp proof membrane, or DPM. A 4m x 6m sheet costs less than £1 a square metre from which you’ll get four 50cm x 50c m ‘crownboards’. The clear poly sheeting is actually somewhat opaque, but is still preferable to the dark DPM which is so effective at deterring woodpeckers.

And if you really can’t stretch to 25p then a fertiliser or compost sack, suitably washed, can substitute.

Polythene crownboard

Polythene crownboard …

Cheapskate 😉

I use these polythene crownboards on most of my bait hives, on Kieler mini-nucs for queen mating and on any hives when I exhaust other options. They work well. You can see well enough through them to see the strength of the colony, they are easy to peel back as wax and propolis doesn’t stick much to them and – once they get too manky – you can discard them. Alternatively, freeze them overnight and then simply ‘crack’ off the propolis and wax before reuse.

Blowin’ in the wind

These lightweight crownboards tend to disappear over the apiary fence if there’s much of a breeze. Tuck them under the edge of the removed and upturned roof during inspections, or under the bee bag if you’re using lightweight Correx roofs that also have a tendency to blow away.

My advice is not to cut them too much oversize. The poly is quite thick and tends to bunch up at the corners when the roof is on. This results in it sometimes lifting when the roof is lifted. On polyhives I pin it in place with a drawing pin at the corners.

One of the benefits of being so light weight is that the poly sheet doesn’t crush bees when laid across the top of the hive. They can usually wriggle back down between the top bars of the frames reasonably easily even once the roof is on.

Jack of all trades

These poly sheets have lots of other uses. Over the last few months I’ve used them:

  • underneath supers when transporting them in the car to the apiary (I’d already run out of Correx roofs which are better still)
  • below stacked supers to stop acetic acid staining the underlying flagstones (see below) when treating stored supers for wax moth and Nosema.
  • in stacks of supers and broods to prevent wasps – or for that matter scout bees – getting access … as the season progresses and more splits and new hives need establishing the stacked ‘spares’ tend to get a bit exposed as standard roofs, crownboards and split boards are used up.
  • with a big hole cut through the middle under a 12.5kg block of fondant added in the autumn. This stops the fondant sticking to the tops of all the frames.
Acetic acid

Acetic acid

And I’m sure there are a lot more I’ve either forgotten already or yet to discover …

Manky means 1) inferior or worthless, or 2) dirty and unpleasant. Clearly, in the context I’ve used it, the second meaning that applies. However, when I used Google to look up the meaning it returned a strikingly topical definition:


Manky …

 On cedar boxes you can pin it to outer sidewall of the brood box or super, folding it over the top of the box. On windy days it tends to flap about so this isn’t always an ideal solution, but at least it doesn’t blow away.

Pick a weight, any weight

Little and large

Little and large

I sell the majority of my honey in 8 or 12 oz (227 or 340 g) square glass jars. They are easier to fill than hex jars and look distinctive on the shelf. These, together with 16 oz (454 g) jars, are the ‘conventional’ weights in which honey is usually sold.

Honey tubs

However, the regulations allow the sale of honey in any weight. The polypropylene, airtight “Lock and Lock“-type containers have a silicone seal and are ideal for packaging and selling larger quantities of honey. The 1.4 litre container (above left) takes almost four pounds of honey when filled – perfect for those that like lots of honey on their porridge, or for storing the ‘seed’ for preparing the next batch of soft set honey.

Four pounds of honey is, conveniently, about the upper limit for making a gallon of mead; if you regularly sell honey to mead makers a tub like this is both easier to empty (with less waste) than jars and reusable.

These containers are sometimes available in Poundland. It’s worth shopping around as the increased packaging costs will otherwise have to be taken into account in the sale price.


Split boards

Since moving to Scotland my DIY activities have been restricted – by lack of time, by lack of space and by lack of any major shortages in the equipment I use. However, a couple of spare sheets of Correx became available after some non-bee projects and I decided to use them to knock up a few split boards for swarm control and requeening this season.

As an aside … I love Correx. It makes great roofs, temporary floors and landing boards.

Split boards are simple square boards with beespace both sides and – usually – a single entrance. With an entrance door (rather than a simple gap) closed they can double up as crownboards or can be used to stack supers late in the season.

They can also be built with mesh panels to allow the warmth and smell of the lower colony to spread through the hive. However, in this instance these were to be about as simple as possible so I omitted the mesh.

Opposing entrances

For additional flexibility you can provide two opposing entrances with doors. With these the split board is starting to look dangerously like a cut down Snelgrove board. The vertical split method I use involves turning the hive 180° on the seventh day. With opposing entrances on the split board (and a corresponding double-entrance floor) it’s possible to avoid any heavy lifting – simply close the front door and open the rear door on the split board and vice versa on the floor.

Split board ...

Split board …

Assembly instructions

Really? How simple could it be?

I don’t have a table saw (or space to hide store it) so asked the nice people at Haldane’s in Glenrothes to generate some 20mm x 9mm strip wood. They did this from oak (!) offcuts for about a tenth the price one of the DIY chain stores would charge for equivalent softwood. The latter would have been preferable, not least because I got some wicked splinters from the oak, but it was what they had to hand and would have otherwise gone to the wood burner.

The Correx I had was 4mm thick. I’d have preferred 6mm, but as this was ‘spare’ from another project, I had to make do. I was originally going to use two sheets arranged at 90° to each other to provide rigidity. However, the first single-sheet prototype I built was plenty rigid enough so I stuck with that design.

Corner detail ...

Corner detail …

I cut the oak strips to 44cm in length, arranged them around the periphery of the 46 x 46cm Correx sheet and nailed all but two – on opposing sides of the top face – in place. ‘Overlap’ the corners (see image right) to provide additional strength. It’s worth noting here that my nail gun was only just strong enough to penetrate ~20mm of oak. The few nails that protruded were driven home with a hammer, brute force and a lot of ignorance. With care, frame nails (gimp pins) can easily be used instead.


In preparing the wood for the last two sides I made two slanting cuts to create the ‘doors’, nailed everything down and added a simple hinge from a gimp pin. It’s worth noting that it’s much easier to place the door ‘hinge’ (pivot?) centrally, rather than at one end of the door. Firstly, there’s less chance the end of the door will foul the adjacent wood. Secondly, to open the door you just need to push one end inwards with the hive tool; there’s no need to add a handle (a screw or nail that protrudes) to open the door outwards. This means there’s nothing to protrude and catch on clothing, on adjacent stacked boxes or on the lower lip of the roof when you’re using it as a crownboard. Finally, the bees won’t care.

Doors closed ...

Doors closed …

I gave the wood a couple of coats of (ironically) One Coat Ronseal Fence Life which should protect it from the elements.

Cheapy, cheapy

The Correx was about a tenner a sheet – delivered 5+ sheets at a time – from which I could cut sufficient for 10 split boards, with useful offcuts to build nuc crownboards or landing boards from. The hardwood strip wood was about £2 per board. Therefore, aside from a few nails, the finished boards cost about £3 each. This compares very favourably with the £28-36 charged by most suppliers for a Snelgrove board. Of course, I appreciate that the latter are more complicated and offer additional confusion functionality, but these are perfectly serviceable for a vertical split and there’s a lot of pleasure to be gained by using something you’ve bodged lovingly crafted yourself 😉

By the time this appears these boards might even be in use …

There’s a good explanation of split board construction in a post by Calluna4u on the SBAi discussion forum (“the thinking beekeepers web forum”). Calluna4u has a wealth of experience as a commercial beekeeper and prepares these boards in industrial quantities. His design differs slightly as it’s for use with hives arranged four to a palette. His post contains links to suppliers for 6mm pre-cut Correx in Dundee which might be useful to Scottish-based beekeepers.

Hive tools

Man is a tool-using animal, Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881)

The Scottish philosopher wasn’t talking about beekeepers, but he might as well have been. The quotation goes on something like “Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all”. Which pretty neatly sums up the beekeeper who has lost his hive tool in the long grass.

Hive tools ...

Hive tools …

Conducting a full inspection without a hive tool is a a thankless task. You can’t crack the crownboard off (unless it’s a sheet of heavy-duty plastic), propolis acquires the adhesive properties of SuperGlue and your fingers become clumsy, fat, bee-squashing sausages as you try and prise the frames apart.

A personal choice

There’s a huge choice of hive tools available. At the recent Welsh BKA Convention I saw about a dozen different designs on the Abelo stand alone, several not in their catalogue or on the website. Thorne’s list about 17 different hive tools. We’re spoilt for choice. Over the last few years I’ve bought, borrowed or otherwise acquired about eight different styles … some of those that haven’t been lost, given away or discarded in disgust are pictured here.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

From left to right …

  1. Thorne’s traditional hive tool. Perfectly adequate. Nicely weighted and pretty good quality stainless steel.
  2. Cheap knock-off variant of Thorne’s Claw Hive Tool. £2 each from a long-forgotten stand at a beekeeping convention. Light and relatively short (8″). My favourite by a long way. I bought half a dozen of them and wish I’d bought more.
  3. An American hive tool originally sold by Modern Beekeeping but now available from Thorne’s who call it their Frontier Hive Tool. Great quality, excellent scraper blade but too heavy and long for me.
  4. El cheapo hive tool bought from eBay. Strong, long, heavy and coarse. Horrible in my view. This one lurks in the bottom of my bee bag and is only brought out in a dire emergency.

Care and maintenance of hive tools

There’s really only two things that you need to do with hive tools in terms of care and maintenance. You need to keep them clean and try and avoid losing them.

Washing soda

Washing soda

I specifically said ‘try and avoid’ as losing hive tools is one of the inevitabilities of beekeeping. Like getting stung, running out of supers, not having enough frames, missing queen cells and ‘rediscovering’ a lost hive tool with the lawnmower. I lost three in one apiary a few years ago, finding all of them in the winter as the herbage died back. You can reduce losses by painting them bright colours. Blue works well. I’ve got a nice quality bright blue hive tool given out by Mann Lake when they first started up in the UK … somewhere.

Hive tools soaking

Hive tools soaking

Hive tools need to be kept clean. I keep a bucket containing a strong washing soda solution in each apiary. Between inspections the hive tools are immersed in the bucket. This guarantees three things; there will be a hive tool available for your inspections, the hive tool will be clean and the paint will have probably peeled off. The Frontier-type American hive tool (second from right, above) was originally bright yellow. This bucket is also a great place to keep a small serrated utility knife which is useful for all sorts of tasks during the season.

I know some people who keep a separate hive tool for every hive in an apiary as part of their ‘good hive hygiene’ practice. This seems like overkill to me and ignores the level of bees drifting between colonies. It’s easy enough to dip the tool in the washing soda between inspections if needed … and saves investing in loads of hive tools 😉

Lost and found ...

Lost and found …

 Thomas Carlyle had a famously unhappy marriage to Jane Welsh. The novelist Samuel Butler said It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”

Small cell foundation

In a recent monthly newsletter Thorne’s announced they were now supplying small cell foundation. This foundation has a cell diameter of 4.9mm, rather than the standard 5.2-5.4mm. Under the ambiguous heading 4.9 mm foundation for varroa control” they have the following text:

Wired foundation

Wired foundation

“It is claimed varroa mites struggle to reproduce in the slightly smaller cell size. 4.9 mm being close to what bees produce in comb width in nature. Many beekeepers in the USA who have experimented with small cell have reported encouraging results. Moving over to small cell however can be difficult and must be done at the correct time of year. It cannot be done either by simply putting 10 frames of small cell foundation in the hive. The bees must first be subject to regression over a period of several months.”

Do mites struggle to reproduce?

No. There’s compelling scientific evidence that Varroa levels in hives on small cell foundation may actually have higher mite levels than those on standard foundation. These are from properly conducted and controlled studies involving dozens of hives.

It certainly is claimed that mites struggle to reproduce in small cell foundation. The evidence actually directly contradicts these claims. Undoubtedly beekeepers in the USA have reported encouraging results, but scientists doing side-by-side comparisons clearly demonstrate that mite levels are at best not changed or at worst appreciably higher on small cell foundation.

Actually, it’s not the mites but our bees that struggle to reproduce in small cells. This explains the phrase “subject to regression over a period” above. You have to select smaller bees that can reproduce well in small cell foundation. Once this is done, the bee size is measurably smaller and the density of brood cells in the hive is greater.

Is this is a one-off study – where is the independent verification?

No. They were repeated at least three times by labs at the University of Georgia. Similar studies were conducted by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer services. In addition, the Ruakura Research Centre in Hamilton, New Zealand, conducted their own study – using a different experimental format – but achieving the same conclusions. Small cell foundation increased mite levels when compared with conventional or standard diameter foundation. There are now several additional independent studies which essentially reach the same conclusion – small cell foundation does not restrict Varroa replication and may actually increase it.

Has this new research been published?



After all, perhaps Thorne’s aren’t completely up-to-date about these studies? If the work is really new then perhaps they can be excused for trying to flog something for which there’s no compelling evidence of benefit.

Well, it was published … in some cases seven to nine years ago:

  1. Taylor, M.A., Goodwin, R.M., McBrydie, H.M., Cox, H.M. (2008) The effect of honeybee worker brood cell size on Varroa destructor infestation and reproduction. Journal of Apiculture Research 47, 239–242 … summary, a higher proportion of cells from small foundation were mite infested.
  2. Ellis, A.M., Hayes, G.W., Ellis, J.D. (2009) The efficacy of small cell foundation as a Varroa mite (Varroa destructor) control. Experimental and Applied Acarology 47, 311–316 … summary, no difference in mite levels between small cell and conventional foundation.
  3. Berry, J.A., Owens, W.B., Delaplane, K.S. (2010) Small-cell comb foundation does not impede Varroa mite population growth in honey bee colonies. Apidologie 41, 40–44 … summary, small cell colonies had ~40% higher mite infestation levels when compared with conventional foundation.
  4. Seeley, T.D., Griffin, S.R. (2011) Small-cell comb does not control Varroa mites in colonies of honeybees of European origin. Apidologie 42, 526-532 … summary, no difference in mite infestation levels between small cell and conventional foundation.

If you want an accessible and readable account of small cell foundation studies Jennifer Berry has written one for Bee Culture which includes experimental details of the work in references 1-3 above.

In denial

A recent thread on Beesource discussed the reported benefits of small cell foundation and the scientific evidence that contradicts these claims. It’s notable that supporters of small cell foundation generally criticise the ‘agenda’ they claim scientists have, rather than providing scientific evidence that supports the ‘benefits’. I’ve not been able to find a single peer-reviewed and properly controlled study that supports the beneficial claims for small cell foundation.

Hives on small cell foundation may have manageable levels of Varroa. If they do it’s in spite of the use of small cell foundation, not because of it. I am very willing to accept that there are some very competent beekeepers using splits, rational miticide treatment or other strategies and small cell foundation, who have low or manageable Varroa levels. However, it’s their beekeeping skill and experience not the choice of foundation size that is important here.

Indeed, you could argue that the detrimental enhancement to mite reproduction of small cell foundation, means that they must have truly exceptional beekeeping talents.

Or an agenda perhaps 😉

Ambiguous and misleading titles

In the opening paragraph I stated that the title 4.9 mm foundation for varroa control” was ambiguous. The scientific evidence presented above is that small cell foundation does control Varroa. Assuming you use the word ‘control’ when defined as the power to influence or direct the course of events. Small cell foundation does exert control … but almost certainly in the opposite direction to the way implied in the title.

What turns an ambiguous into a misleading title is this implication that small cell foundation reduces Varroa levels. The text that accompanies makes this implication without providing any sort of balanced view based upon the published evidence to the contrary.

Beekeepers, particularly beginners, looking for effective ways to reduce their mite levels are not being provided with the facts and are likely to be misled.

But wait … were all these scientific studies flawed?

Thorne’s partly justify the sale of small cell foundation in their newsletter by citing a UK research project that involves its use:

“The University of Reading has just started an exciting new research project examining the highly problematic issue of varroa mites and whether the use of small cell foundation (4.9 mm) can help. This is being carried out with volunteer beekeepers in the local area as well as in an apiary at the University. The study will evaluate the use of small cell foundation alongside regular-sized (5.4mm) foundation and compare the varroa loads during next spring and summer.

This is an interesting topic to research as beekeepers around the world have had success with the use of small cell foundation whereas many others have not. Some previous studies have also found that varroa counts increase in the short term when small cell foundation is first used. The new study will evaluate what happens once the bees have fully adjusted to small cell foundation and if there is a significant impact on varroa loads.”

The implication here is that the previous studies (above) are flawed because they failed to use bees that were properly adapted to small cell foundation. Thorne’s do clearly state that the bees have to be properly adapted – subjected to regression – for several months before benefits are seen (or claimed to be seen). To their credit also, they acknowledge that some studies show increases in mite levels. This text is from the newsletter and unfortunately does not appear on the webpage of their catalogue that describes the foundation.

Call me sceptical …

If it looks like a duck ...

If it looks like a duck …

As you can tell from the tone of this post, I remain sceptical.

If it looks like a duck, if it swims like a duck and if it quacks like a duck … it is a duck. As a scientist I’m influenced by controlled studies, not hearsay or beliefs.

The Berry study (ref 3 above) did use bees reared on small cell foundation for their comparative studies, the other studies did not as far as I can tell. However, remember the original hypothesis about why small cell foundation is beneficial. The mites do not develop properly within the cell as they are ‘crowded’ by the abdomen of the developing honey bee pupa i.e. there’s too little space for the mite.

What does regression lead to? Smaller bees. In the Berry et al., study the weights of adult bees reared on small cell and conventional foundation was 129 and 141 mg respectively. This seems to be contradictory … if properly regressed bees on small cell foundation are significantly smaller than those on conventional foundation how is the space for the mite development restricted? I acknowledge that the cell size is proportionately smaller than the reduction in adult bee weight. Conversely, if small cell foundation is supposed to restrict mite development, why are levels apparently higher when ‘normal’ sized bees are first forced to use smaller cells? Surely there should be a greater reduction in mite reproduction before the bees have regressed?

I hope the study being conducted by the University of Reading is thorough and properly controlled. These are difficult studies to conduct, particularly at the scale needed to be statistically convincing and when not under the direct control of a single beekeeper in a single apiary. I wish them every success with the experiments and look forward to reading about it once it is peer-reviewed and published.

Until then I suggest you save your £11.60 for ten sheets of small cell wired brood foundation … you’d be far better off preparing foundationless frames and controlling Varroa by rational and judicious use of hive manipulations and approved miticides.

Additional reading (far from exhaustive):

The late and still unbeatable Dave Cushman has an article by Philip Denwood reproduced from the 2003 BIBBA magazine on cell size. Recommended for a historical perspective.

A 2013 article from the New Hampsha’ Bees blog Small cell doesn’t work (but please don’t tell my bees describing typical evidence that small cell foundation does work … anecdotal and not controlled, but nevertheless enthusiastic and – unusually – acknowledging the evidence against.

Michael Bush on small cell bees and foundation.

Dee Lusby – one of the originators of the ‘small cell’ movement – in an early article from ABJ reproduced on the Beesource forums. Be warned … there’s some misleading nonsense in this article. For example “it is a known fact that both honey bees and mites have been on this Earth many millions of years together and survived quite nicely”. I don’t disagree that both mites and bees have been around for millennia. However, they have only been together for a century or so. I think I’ll have to write something about natural beekeeping in the future …

It’s notable that top Google ‘hits’ for small cell foundation provide no scientific support for the claims that are made … caveat emptor.




Completely floored

It’s still too cold to undertake a full hive inspection (it might not be with you as I discussed last week) but one task that should take place in early Spring – whatever the weather – is cleaning the hive floor.

Knee-deep in corpses

Bees knees anyway.

During the winter the colony is much less active. Low temperatures mean there are few opportunities for workers to drag out and dispose of the corpses of their half-sisters. Consequently, depending upon the attrition rate (which in turn is at least partly dependent on the level of virulent strains of DWV in the colony), a layer of dead and increasingly foosty bees can build up on the hive floor.

Winter debris ...

Winter debris …

On open mesh floors this usually isn’t a major problem. On solid floors, particularly when there’s a bit of damp as well, it can get pretty unsanitary. Whatever the floor type, in due course the bees will clear the floor once the season has warmed sufficiently. However, cleaning and replacing the floor is a 30 second task that causes very little disruption and gives the colony a hygienic start to the season.

(Almost) smokefree zones

Place a cleaned floor adjacent to the colony. Gently insert the flat of the hive tool between the floor and the bottom of the brood box and make sure they’re separate. Often this joint isn’t heavily propolised (in comparison to the crownboard) and is easy to split. Lift the brood box and gently place it onto the adjacent clean floor, remove the old floor and slide the colony back into the original position. The entire process takes longer to read than to complete.

You can replace the floor without smoking the colony, particularly on a cool day with little hive activity. However, a very gentle waft of smoke across the entrance will push the bees up and out of the way. If you’re quick, gentle and use a tiny puff of smoke it’s possible to swap the old floor out without a single bee coming out to investigate things.

A clean start

The removed floor needs to be cleaned. Scrape away the corpses with the hive tool. Assuming the floor is wooden, with or without mesh, it can then be scorched with a blowtorch before being pressed back into service. If the floor is poly the blowtorch is not advisable 😉 After scraping off the lumpy debris it needs to be scrubbed thoroughly with a strong washing soda solution.

Scorching ...

Scorching …

In a busy apiary it’s possible to spend a happy hour or so removing, scraping, scorching and replacing in a cycle, meaning that you only need one additional floor than the number of hives.